The Importance of Thinking and Knowledge in Islam
by Ayesha Khan
‘Allah makes the way to paradise easy for him who treads the path in search of knowledge’ [Muslim]
As you have started a new school term and you will be spending your time exploring ideas, investigating theories, experimenting and memorising as part of your learning, I wanted to look at the whole idea of knowledge in Islam.
Many people think that religion is blind faith.
For Muslims faith is blind only the in the sense that we can’t see God – a little boy once said to me that even with a telescope we wouldn’t be able to see Him. That made me smile, because as a Muslim we believe that God is veiled and that we will not be able to see him in this lifetime not even with the strongest telescope, but at the same time, we believe that we don’t need a telescope to see God. A Bedouin once said:
‘Camel droppings point to existence of a camel. Footprints on the sand tell of a traveller. The heavens with all its (billions and trillions) of stars, the earth with its mountains and valleys and the seas with all its waves (and other diverse living creatures) – don’t they point to the Maker, all-Powering, Knowing, Wise and Caring’.
For Muslims we see God through HIS handiwork around us as at all times. Telescopes enhance our understanding, and add to our knowledge, but in fact we just need to use our eyes to see what is right under our noses.
It is the difference between glancing at something but not really seeing it and noticing something and being curious about it, scrutinising its detail, even cutting open and examining it.
Examining something leads to scientific discovery. Many people think that science and religion are incompatible. That they are separate entities that we keep apart, or even that science undermines and contradicts religion. However, in Islam science is not seen as something that negates religion, but necessary, as God in the Quran does not ask for BLIND Faith, He asks for REASONED Faith.
God, through the Quran, starts an interactive process with us – when you come to the Quran seeking answers, the Quran in turn asks YOU the questions that will lead you to figure out the answers. And the more you discover, the more realise there is to discover. Just as when we map the genome we realise there is so much more we need to find out about…
Muslims don’t depict God in paintings because we find a much more telling portrait of Him through studying what HE has created. In order to understand our creator we need to appreciate HIS creation. By discovering the complexity of the HIS design and craft, we gain knowledge of HIM.
When we see glimpses of the harmony, the interconnections between all living things, the internal order of every atom, as well as every planet in space, for a Muslim these reflect a Supreme Intelligence that designed and planned it – from the moment of its creation through each stage of its development. Just like a watch, everything fits neatly and fulfils a function to create something that is not just useful but incredibly beautiful.
And through gaining knowledge, we also come to appreciate the vastness of God’s knowledge. Because we believe that unlike Philip Pullman’s god, in the Northern Lights, who creates a universe then becomes old and decrepit, we believe in an eternal God that keeps account of every seed in the ground and every leaf that falls off a tree.
That’s why in Arabic, the word ‘ayah’ which means a verse of the Quran has another meaning which is a’ sign’ or a ‘proof’. As the verses of the Quran point us to other signs in universe and in nature, each one is like a road sign – because while a road sign tells us about something in the road, it is an object in its own right that was put there by its maker. Thus the ayahs in the Quran point to trees for example which in turn point to God while at the same time being vitally important for life on earth.
Our scientific advancements go on showing that no matter how far we extend our knowledge of the universe, or how deep we explore or how minutely we delve into particles and cells, we keep discovering that everything is connected to each other in delicate order and intelligent design. For Muslims – we see God’s signs are all around us. The more we discover the more we are in awe of God’s planning.
And while scientists get fraught when they find out their last theory needs to be tweaked or even thrown out, we can relax and take that in our stride, because we know that our knowledge is limited but that we can only keep trying.
Here are some examples of ayahs in the Quran:
Leaves: We are surrounded by hundreds of trees around this site, which means that we are surrounded by millions of leaves. We may not think twice about it, yet each individual leaf is a masterpiece in itself. It has a delicate skeleton of veins, it is carefully proportioned, it is positioned so that it does not cover another leaf, it is a set of lungs, living and breathing and it is gorgeous shade, whether it’s dark or light, or glossy, or prickly or velvety and it is transient. It buds, matures, and ultimately withers and dies.
The leaf also becomes a mirror for us. As we look at the leaf we are looking at ourselves, for just like the leaf we too part of God’s beautiful and complex creation, as He ‘who created you, fashioned you perfectly and gave you due proportion.’
So within each tiny leaf there is a lesson for us -not to take anything for granted, but instead to examine and ponder upon things as vast as the galaxy and as minute as an ant. And so far from being blind, we are commanded to LOOK and then to THINK.
Apple: This is exactly what Isaac Newton did – he observed an apple fall, thought about it and then recognised the principles that lay behind it, and was able to find coherence in the laws that exist on our planet.
WHY? Anyone has picked up a copy of the Quran will be struck by the number of times and the emphasis with which God says ‘Have you not thought…?’
The Quran is not like a book, that you can read cover to cover, because after every few verses, God commands us very emphatically to go and ponder.
The tone of the Quran can be very challenging ‘Do you not see??’
There are multiple different expressions used asking us to reflect, exercise our intellect, think, gain insight, and to reach conclusions.
Planets: One night the Prophet Muhammad* began to weep in his night prayer and when Bilal (may God be pleased with him), one of his companions, came to call him for the dawn prayer he found him still crying. When Bilal asked him why, he said,
‘O Bilal, how could I stop crying? Allah has revealed to this me last night these verses: “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding. … Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly”‘ [3:190-191] [Ibn Hibban]
And he went on to comment that no one should recite these verses without dwelling on them. You could spend a lifetime researching just this fact and even imagining how life would be if we had no day or night – what the impact would be on our sleep, on plant life, and on our planet.
Water: There is a tiny verse yet so powerful when God says ‘we made from water every living thing’ [21:30]. If we look at the Earth – vast expanses are covered by water, and if we look at ourselves we can see that the major component of the human body is water, and if we delve deeper we can say that water is a fundamental part of living cells. At any level, there is abundant research that can be done.
Bees and birds: Here are examples of the things we are asked to think about: how do bees make honey, how do cattle produce milk, how come man is able to dominate animals, why can ships can float in the sea, why are there shadows, how do birds fly, how does the emission of semen result in an embryo that feed off its mother like a leech?
Moon and mountains: What is the function of mountains, why doesn’t fresh water become salty when the rivers flow into the sea, the structure of the sky, what is the purpose of the moon and stars, why do planets stay in their orbits?
The world we live in and the expanding universe contain endless realms of exploration for mankind and we are urged to study nature, history, science, because it brings us closer to God.
All the prophets were people who spent hours in contemplation, whether it was Abraham gazing up at the stars and ask himself questions, or Muhammad* spending hours in solitude trying to understand and reflect, guidance came to them after they sought answers.
They challenged the knowledge that was being passed down to them in the same way that we question the assumptions of the scientists and writers who precede us.
So we are asked not to follow blindly the path of the people who came before us, but we need to make up our own minds based on rationality, logic and critical reasoning. Just as in science we keep revisiting theories and discovering that previous generations had limited understanding, we are taught to make up our own minds.
Examples of people who sought knowledge are those of people who were dedicated. There were people who travelled to the corners of the world either to search for answers or to find the teachers.
Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Batuta, renowned for their written accounts of their extensive explorations.
In 1166, Al-Idrisi, the well-known Muslim scholar who served the Sicilian court, produced very accurate maps, including a world map with all the continents and their mountains, rivers and famous cities. Al-Muqdishi was the first geographer to produce accurate maps in colour.
They compiled large amounts of geographical and climatic information from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
It was, moreover, with the help of Muslim navigators and their inventions that Magellan was able to traverse the Cape of Good Hope, and Da Gama and Columbus had Muslim navigators on board their ships.
Muslims were therefore eager to seek knowledge, both religious and secular, and within a few years of Muhammad’s mission, a great civilisation sprang up and flourished. Muslims were pushing the boundaries of knowledge in maths, astronomy, biology, chemistry the same way that scientists now are doing stem cell research or nuclear physics.
In maths, Muslims invented the symbol for zero, they organised the numbers into the decimal system, invented ‘x’ as a symbol to express an unknown quantity, algebra, trigonometry, algorithms.
Muslim scholars studied the ancient civilisations from Greece and Rome to China and India. They added their own creative ideas, discoveries and inventions, and finally transmitted this new knowledge to Europe, leading directly to the Rennaissance.
Every mosque would establish a school. Schools began springing up everywhere and education was generally free and accessible to all.
And following on, came the foundation and spread of Islamic universities; Al-Zaytunah in Tunis, and Al-Azhar in Cairo go back more than 1,000 years and are some of the oldest existing universities in the world. Indeed, they were the models for the first European universities, such as Bologna, Heidelberg, and the Sorbonne. Even the familiar academic cap and gown originated at Al-Azhar University.
The word for university in Arabic is jamiah which is the feminine form of the word which means mosque – it’s no coincidence that so the place of advanced learning are tied together.
Mosque universities had a rigorous selection system, were open to international students and instead of charging students fees, they gave them monetary allowances for food, and accommodation which included toilets! They offered law, medicine, pharmacology, engineering, astronomy as well as studying the Quran and general sciences. And had difficult exams and graduated with degrees.
Libraries also developed, with enormous collections of books and manuscripts.
Much attention was given to medicine and public health care. The first hospital was built in Baghdad in 706 AC. The Muslims also used camel caravans as mobile hospitals, which moved from place to place. Began to understand how the body functions, how to keep it clean and safe, how to prevent diseases from attacking it or cure those diseases. Every major city in the Islamic world had a number of excellent hospitals, some of them teaching hospitals, and many of them were specialised for particular diseases, including mental and emotional. The Ottomans were particularly noted for their building of hospitals and for the high level of hygiene practised there.
Prophet Muhammad* himself urged people to ‘take medicines for your diseases’ as people at that time were reluctant to do so. He also said, ‘God created no illness, but established for it a cure, except for old age. When the antidote is applied, the patient will recover with the permission of God. [Bukhari]
In Islam Muslims believe that we have been given an intellect and that we have to put that intellect to use.
We are taught to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave and we have been given guidance through the Quran (the words of God) and through the living example of Prophet Muhammad* as a human who implemented those teachings in his life.
Imagine that we are given a computer. And imagine if we never took it out of its box. Similarly our brains are no good unless we use them.
Once we gain knowledge, we have a duty to apply it to ourselves as well as to pass it on and share it.
‘All humans are dead except those who have knowledge;
and all those who have knowledge are asleep, except those who do good deeds,
and those who do good deeds are deceived, except those who are sincere;’ [Imam Shafi]
In the same way, the opening chapter of the Quran poses a question – we ask God for knowledge and the reply comes not only the answer through the rest of the Quran, but in God in turn asking us to go and think about something and then confirm if it makes sense?’ we are urged to explore and investigate.
The Philosopher Kant noted that our thought is restricted by the perspective of time and space.
We are also taught that we were created in different nations so that we can come to learn from one another.
We were given the faculty to think and free will – in order to make the right choices we need to understand what those choices are and what the consequences of our decisions are
In order to be good people we need to apply the knowledge we gain
In order to under the purpose of our creation we need to THINK otherwise we are just at the mercy of our desires
If we can understand the intelligent design behind things we can understand that nothing was created without purpose.
*peace be upon him
Written by Ayesha Khan in 2018