Iqra: How Muslims Addressed this Call
“IQRA” is the first word of the first revelation of Islam to Prophet Mohammad, an Arabic word which literally means: “Read”. Muslims since then have tried to do justice to this call for knowledge and learning by setting up an elaborate system of education and learning all through the Islamic world and all through the Islamic history. The importance and high value that Islam accords to education became evident since the very beginning as the very first prisoners of war captured by Muslims in the battle of Badr, the first battle of Islam with the non-believers, who were unable to pay the prize that they were required to pay in order to earn their freedom were asked to teach the art of reading and writing to the illiterate Muslims in exchange of that prize. It is obvious that the pagan prisoners were not supposed to impart the religious knowledge, hence highlighting the fact that it was the idea of literacy itself that Islam bestowed so much value upon!
Islam, thus, has a long and strong tradition of introducing its followers to the art of learning by establishing a network of elementary schools called “madrasahs” (maktab, or kuttab) where pupils learned to read and write, which were developed into centres for instruction in elementary Islamic subjects. Students were expected to memorize the Qur’an as perfectly as possible. Some schools also included in their curriculum the study of poetry, elementary arithmetic, physical sciences, penmanship, ethics (manners), and elementary grammar. Maktabs were quite common in almost every town or village in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Sicily, and Spain, existing since as early as the 9th century. However, the most famous one was founded in 1057 by vizier Nizam-ul-Mulk in Baghdad. The Nizamiyah, devoted to Sunnite learning, served as a model for the establishment of an extensive network of such institutions throughout the eastern Islamic world, especially in Cairo which had 75 madrasahs, in Damascus which had 51, and in Aleppo where the number of madrasahs rose from six to 44 between 1155 and 1260. Important institutions also developed in the Spanish cities of Cordoba, Seville, Toledo, Granada, Murcia, Almeria, Valencia, and Cadiz, under the Umayyads.
Al-Azhar University at Cairo, Egypt, has been the chief centre of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world, founded by the Fatimids in 970 C.E. with a large public library and several colleges. The basic program of studies was, and still is, Islamic law, theology, and the Arabic language. Gradually these subjects got eliminated after having reached climax resulting in consequent decline. In the 19th century philosophy was reinstated. The modernization has resulted in the addition of social sciences at its new supplementary campus. Presently a number of Islamic universities have been established in the Muslim countries where apart from theology, the other sciences are also taught, but they are few in numbers. There are, however, thousands of traditional madrasah and Dar-ul-ulooms in countries with Muslim populations where only Islamic theology and religious sciences are taught, producing millions of ‘ulema’ (religious scholars) with almost no knowledge of social and physical sciences or other branches of knowledge.
Early Muslim Education:
Early Muslim education emphasized practical studies such as the application of technological expertise to the development of irrigation systems, architectural innovations, textiles, iron and steel products, earthenware, and leather products; the manufacture of paper and gunpowder ; the advancement of commerce; and the maintenance of a merchant marine. After the 11th century, however, denominational interests dominated higher learning, and the Islamic sciences achieved preeminence. Greek knowledge was studied in private, if at all, and the literary arts diminished in significance as educational policies encouraging academic freedom and new learning were replaced by a closed system characterized by intolerance toward scientific innovations, secular subjects, and creative scholarship. This denominational system spread throughout eastern Islam between around 1050 and 1250 C.E.
Pursuit of Scientific Knowledge & Libraries:
Thus during first half of millennia of its history, Islamic civilization has been keen to gain knowledge, be it physics, chemistry (alchemi), algebra, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, social sciences, philosophy or any other field. The high degree of learning and scholarship in Islam, particularly during the ’Abbasid’ period in the East and the later during Umayyads in the West (Spain) encouraged the development of bookshops, copyists, and book dealers in big and important Islamic cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, and Cordoba. Scholars and students spent many hours in these bookshop schools browsing, examining, and studying available books or purchasing favourite selections for their private libraries. Book dealers travelled to famous bookstores in search of rare manuscripts for their purchase and resold them to collectors and scholars, thus contributing to the spread of learning. Many such manuscripts found their way to private libraries of famous Muslim scholars such as Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi, who in turn made their homes the centres of scholarly pursuits for their students.
Role of Islam in Renaissance & Enlightenment:
Europe owes its awakening from the dark ages to the Renaissance and Enlightenment by the transfer of knowledge including lost Greek heritage through the Muslim scholars and centres of learning at Spain and their contact with the Muslim world through Crusades. As long as Muslims continued the pursuit of all branches of useful worldly knowledge of physical sciences and technology along with the religious sciences, the Islamic Civilization was at its zenith.
Stages of Evolution of Learning Process:
The progress and development of educational system among Muslims may be divided into various stages. The renaissance of Islamic culture and scholarship developed largely under the ‘Abbasid administration in Eastern side and later under the Umayyads in the West, mainly in Spain, between 800 and 1000 C.E. This latter stage, the golden age of Islamic scholarship, was largely a period of translation and interpretation of classical thoughts and their adaptations to Islamic theology and philosophy. The period also witnessed the introduction and assimilation of Hellenistic, Persian, and Indian knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, algebra, trigonometry, and medicine into Muslim culture. Whereas the 8th and 9th centuries (mainly between 750 and 900 C.E.) were characterized by the introduction of classical learning and its refinement and adaptation to Islamic culture, the 10th and 11th were the centuries of interpretation, criticism, and further adaptation. There followed a stage of modification and significant additions to classical culture through Muslim scholarship. During the 12th and 13th centuries, most of the works of classical learning and the creative Muslim additions were translated from Arabic into Hebrew and Latin. The creative scholarship in Islam from the 10th to the 12th century included works by such scholars as Omar Khayyam, al-Biruni, Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), at-Tabari, Avempace (Ibn Bajjah), and Averroes (Ibn Rushd).
Muslim Contributions in the field of Medicine, Science & Technology:
The contributions in the advancement of knowledge by the traditional Islamic institutions of learning (Madrasahs, Maktab, Halqa & Dar-ul-Uloom) are enormous, which have been summed up in Encyclopedia Britannica: “The madrasahs generally offered instruction in both the religious sciences and other branches of knowledge. The contribution of these institutions to the advancement of knowledge was vast.
Muslim scholars calculated the angle of the ecliptic; measured the size of the Earth; calculated the precession of the equinoxes; explained, in the field of optics and physics, such phenomenon as refraction of light, gravity, capillary attraction, and twilight; and developed observatories for the empirical study of heavenly bodies. They made advances in the uses of drugs, herbs, and foods for medication; established hospitals with a system of interns and externs; discovered causes of certain diseases and developed correct diagnoses of them; proposed new concepts of hygiene; made use of anesthetics in surgery with newly innovated surgical tools; and introduced the science of dissection in anatomy.
Muslims furthered the scientific breeding of horses and cattle; found new ways of grafting to produce new types of flowers and fruits; introduced new concepts of irrigation, fertilization, and soil cultivation; and improved upon the science of navigation. In the area of chemistry, Muslim scholarship led to the discovery of such substances as potash, alcohol, nitrate of silver, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and mercury chloride.
Muslim scientists also developed to a high degree of perfection the arts of textiles, ceramics, and metallurgy.”
According to a US study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in its journal on 21 February 2007, “Designs on surface tiles in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages revealed their maker’s understanding of mathematical concepts not grasped in the West until 500 years later. Many Medieval Islamic buildings walls have ornate geometric star or polygon or ‘girih’, patterns, which are often overlaid with a swirling network of lines – This girih tile method was more efficient and precise than the previous approach, allowing for an important breakthrough in Islamic mathematics and design.”
Muslims Scholars of Theology and Science:
According to the famous scientist Albert Einstein; “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Francis Bacon, the famous philosopher, has rightly said that a little knowledge of science makes you a believer in God. A critical analysis reveals that most of Muslim scientists and scholars of medieval period were also eminent scholars of Islam and theology. The earlier Muslim scientific investigations were based on the inherent link between the physical and spiritual spheres, but they were informed by a process of careful observation and reflection that investigated the physical universe.
Influence of Qur’an on Muslim Scientists:
The worldview of the Muslim scientists was inspired by the Qur’an as they knew that: “Surely, in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alteration of the night and the day, in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, with which He revives the earth after its death and spreads in it all kinds of animals, in the change of the winds and the clouds between the sky and the earth that are made subservient, there are signs for rational people.” (Qur’an 2:164). Their scientific enquiry was inspired by Qur’anic verses like “Indeed in the alteration of the night and the day and what Allah has created in the heavens and the earth, there are signs for those who are God fearing.” (Qur’an 10:6). They were aware that there was much more to be discovered. They did not have the precise details of the solar and lunar orbits but they knew that there was something extremely meaningful behind the alteration of the day and the night and in the precise movements of the sun and the moon as mentioned in the Qur’an. One can still verify that those who designed the dome and the minaret knew how to transform space and silence in to a chanting remembrance that renews the nexus between God and those who respond to His urgent invitation.