Quranic imperatives on acquisition of knowledge

Published: July 5, 2010
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Dr Riffat Hassan is professor emerita of the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

Dr Riffat Hassan is professor emerita of the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

The Holy Quran puts the highest emphasis on the importance of acquiring knowledge. That knowledge has been at the core of the Islamic world from the very beginning as attested by Surah 96:1-5, which Muslims believe to be the first revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It says: “Read — for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen — taught insan what he did not know!”

The Quran describes the Prophet (pbuh) as an imparter of knowledge to others (Surah 2:151). His famous prayer was: “Allah grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things”.

In Surah 39:9, the Quran rhetorically asks: “Can they who know and they who do not know be deemed equal?” and exhorts believers to pray for advancement in knowledge. Further, the Quran exhorts believers not to pursue that of which they have no knowledge since God will hold them accountable for actions which reflect a lack of knowledge.

About those who have knowledge, the Quran says: “God will exalt by (many) degrees those of you who have attained to faith…” (Surah 58: 11).

According to Quranic perspective, knowledge is a prerequisite for the creation of a just world in which authentic peace can prevail. The Quran emphasises the importance of the pursuit of learning even at the time, and in the midst, of war. It says: “With all this, it is not desirable that all of the believers take the field (in time of war).  From within every group in their midst, some shall refrain from going to war, and shall devote themselves (instead) to acquiring a deeper knowledge of the Faith, and (thus be able to) teach their home-coming brethren, so that these (too) might guard themselves against evil” (Quran 9: 122, which states).

Embodying the spirit of the Quran are some well-known ahadith: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim” (Baihaqi, Mishkat); “Searching for knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim male and Muslim female (Ibn Majah). The attitude of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) towards acquiring knowledge can be inferred from the fact that after the Battle of Badr (624 AD), he employed several captives from the Quraish tribe to teach Muslim boys reading and writing — this service counted as their ransom. As Semaan pointed out: “… Muhammad (pbuh) instituted learning as an incumbent duty upon his people and this established a definite educational policy for Islam”. That the obligation to acquire knowledge was “a concept that possessed religious urgency and was ready to play a prominent role in a new religious movement” is testified by Rosenthal. Gulick expressed the belief that the knowledge-affirming ahadith which “have been widely accepted as authentic and…have exerted a wide and salutary influence…must assuredly have stimulated and encouraged the great thinkers of the golden age of Islamic civilisation.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Jul 5, 2010 - 11:38PM

    So true! Though the emphasis on acquiring knowledge has been conveniently ignored to cater to our own biases. As a misogynist society, we undervalue the importance of educating women. As a country mired in poverty, the opportunity cost of education is very high. Rather than spending years in school parents would rather push their children into income generation. However, most importantly, education is no more than a tool for indoctrination and control. Religious scholars interpret the “quest for knowledge” as solely the pursuit of religious education. Though perhaps its our own ignorance, that in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan we ignore important Islamic values, i.e. education in favour of a more martial, fatalistic view of the nation as a bastion of Islam, surrounded by enemies. Recommend

  • H Saqib
    Jul 6, 2010 - 11:45AM

    The knowledge here does not mean only Dars-e-Nizami as Mullahs want us to believe. The knowledge means science and technology. Those who are ignorant of science and technology can not understand how the universe works and can not even understand Qura’an.Recommend

  • Sharif Lone
    Jul 6, 2010 - 12:22PM

    I agree with most of what Dr. Hussain is saying, but we must move forward to make our decisions based on science and reason and not always what quran says. Some of the verses are valid today as in those days, but some others need reinterpretation. I says in quran that women are like fields and use them whenever you want, does not show any rights for women who can be watered without consultation. Denying such verses does not impress anybody; we need to interpret them differently or say that such attitudes do not fit into 21st century. All the other religions have reformed themselves and have in fact become more popular.Recommend

  • Aftab Siddiqui
    Jul 6, 2010 - 12:46PM

    Cant disagree at all but the problem is those who should read this aren’t reading it at all and not even concerned.Recommend

  • Fareed Ali
    Jul 6, 2010 - 2:44PM

    True. Even if our so-called government isn’t doing enough, we should initiate teaching on our own.Recommend

  • samina
    Jul 6, 2010 - 3:56PM

    women are like fields. it does not mean that they are commodities and can be used like one, but it means that they have potiential and their potiential should be utilized in proper manner.we interpret Quran according to our likes and dislikesRecommend

  • Sharif Lone
    Jul 6, 2010 - 6:08PM

    samina; 98% of Muslims interpret the way I said. Ask any Mullah and he will tell you the same. So fields are like knowledge and men can water them? And that women have half the rights to inherit property? I say we should reform and ask Mullahs to start preaching equal rights for women. They should be allowed to walk freely and choose their partners and should not be put behind walls of their homes. After all they are human.Recommend

  • samina
    Jul 7, 2010 - 11:17AM

    it does not matter what the mullas say What Quran says is important.you know little knowledge is also very harmful.Recommend

  • Angelos
    Jul 7, 2010 - 11:35AM

    @Sharif Lone
    Allah and his Prophet knows better, if there is something mentioned in Quran, we as a Muslim cannot go against it. Any modification according to times that you are suggesting is done on the basis of Hadith and Quranic verses. And since it is written in Quran that women has half rights of property compared to men, so be it, we cannot change that ruling. For choosing partners, it is clearly said that both man and women should be consulted before marriage. There is nothing as such in Islam that says women to marry men against their will. And can you please mention which religion have reformed according to time and became popular? Currenlty, there are 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world (Stats published last year) out of around 7 Billion population in the world.Recommend

  • samina
    Jul 7, 2010 - 5:13PM

    actually we don’t want equal rights if islam is practiced according to the rules of The Quran, we do not want more than what Islam gives us because we get a share from our husband, our father, our son. and women importance is such than Our Prophet PBUH compared our share with the propotion of 3:1 the rutba for mother is 3:1.Recommend

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