BESIDES the Quranic verses laying strong emphasis on acquiring knowledge, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said, “Acquire knowledge from cradle to grave”. In another hadith, he underlined the importance of knowledge by declaring it fard (obligatory) on every Muslim man and woman.
Hence, the first and foremost binding duty on every Muslim from infancy is seeking knowledge or education. In contrast, for other duties such as prayer, zakat, and Haj, Muslims are qualified only when they reach a certain age or meet certain conditions. To further stress the primacy of education over other duties, another hadith states: “Seeking knowledge is superior to salat, zakat, Haj and jihad near Allah.”
Such emphasis on education by Islam is fascinating and unparalleled. But contrary to what the religion teaches, it is also true that Muslim societies are apparently the most backward in terms of seeking knowledge, education and scholarship, while non-Muslims are putting education on top of their priority list. The question arises: why are Muslim countries not attuned to their fard regarding education?
It is unfortunate that after the birth of many philosophers, scientists and intellectuals in Muslim lands and after their pioneering work in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and other fields, these lands have ceased to produce such people. The progress in different fields in the developed countries would not have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Muslim thinkers and scientists from different walks of life. Alhazen’s work on optics, Al Khwarizmi’s work on algebra and Avicenna’s Al Qanoon fi tib are some of the examples of the glorious past.
We glorify our past without attempting to understand it.
Yet our present and future appear to be very bleak, as we have not been able to establish any link with the past, except that we glorify it without actually attempting to understand it. The environment in which those figures attempted to contribute, and the subsequent scholarship that developed, have been analysed by some intellectuals; however, these analyses have never been internalised.
Today, the names of such figures have been included in textbooks in the hope that perhaps learning about the scholars would help generate similar figures, without adopting their ways of free inquiry and scholarship and without giving education its due priority.
In fact, the work of these men of knowledge had long been rejected by none other than many Muslim ‘scholars’ of the 13th century, whereby certain branches of knowledge such as philosophy were jettisoned while mathematics, geometry and astronomy were declared less useful. Consequently, the intellectual and scientific thinking of Muslims was badly impeded. Afterwards, with the passage of time, a certain type of education was declared Islamic, while other knowledge was declared ‘un-Islamic’. These divisions turned Muslim societies, in most cases, against education and the spirit of true inquiry.
Furthermore, education was reduced to a tool to spread ungrounded ideologies. Thus there have been deliberate efforts — of varying degrees — to control the spirit of free inquiry. The worst form was seen recently in our region, in the attempt to totally uproot education from society. The bombing of schools in Pakistan and other countries can be seen as the direct result of terming certain forms of learning as ‘un-Islamic’. Thus acquiring knowledge became a secondary obligation for most Muslim societies. They even forgot that they are the followers of “the city and gate of knowledge”, ie the Holy Prophet and Hazrat Ali, respectively. How can the followers of “the city and gate of knowledge” be among those nations on the lowest rung of the education ladder?
On the contrary, education in the developed world has been viewed as a basis for economic growth and mitigation of conflict, as well as a solution to many issues. That is why they view investment in human capital as the best investment and have been constantly investing in quality education.
To be claimants of a faith that passionately stresses continuous engagement with learning, Muslim societies need to pay special attention to this fard that has remained neglected so far. They also need to assess their issues on the basis of scientific thinking.
However, scientific thinking may not be developed with existing policies and institutions as these are following a pattern that is devoid of the spirit of inquiry and independent thinking. Therefore, they are unable to create newer systems capable of steering societies towards progress.
In recent years, in Pakistan’s context, some increases in the educational budget have been seen, which is a good omen. However, increasing the budget alone may not serve the purpose. Instead, multipronged efforts need to be initiated. Among them is the need of quality policy formulation and implementation. Chiefly, an educational emergency must be declared so that education is brought to the top of national priorities. Only then can we dream of evolving into a prosperous Muslim society.
The writer is an educator.