Seeking Knowledge an Imperative
By: Dr. Habib Siddiqui
[Dr. Habib Siddiqui lives in suburban Philadelphia, PA, and is
the author of the book Islamic Wisdom. He can be reached at
Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was a great scientist, physicist,
astronomer, sociologist, linguist, historian and mathematician whose
true worth may never be known. He is considered the father of
unified field theory by Nobel Laureate - late Professor Abdus Salam.
He lived nearly a thousand years ago and was a contemporary of Ibn
Sina (Avicenna) and Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni.
When he was on his deathbed, Biruni was visited by a jurisprudent
neighbor of his. Abu Rayhan was still conscious, and on seeing the
jurisprudent, he asked him a question on inheritance law or some
other related issue. The jurisprudent was quite amazed that a dying
man should show interest in such matters. Abu Rayhan said, "I
should like to ask you: which is better, to die with knowledge or to
die without it?" The man said, "Of course, it is better to
know and then die." Abu Rayhan said, "That is why I asked my
first question." Shortly after the jurisprudent had reached his
home, the cries of lamentation told him that Abu Rayhan had died. (Murtaza
Motahari: Spiritual Discourses)
That was then, nearly a millennium ago, when Muslims were the
torchbearers of knowledge in a very dark world. They created an
Islamic civilization, driven by inquiry and invention, which was the
envy of the rest of the world for many centuries.
In the words of Carli Fiorina, the former highly talented and
visionary, CEO of Hewlett Packard, "Its architects designed
buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the
algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers,
and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body,
and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the
heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and
exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories; stories of
courage, romance and magic. When other nations were afraid of ideas,
this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors
threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this
civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others.
While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the
civilization I'm talking about was the Islamic world from the year
800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of
Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman
the Magnificent. Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness
to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our
heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the
contributions of Arab mathematicians."
Truly, there is hardly a field that is not indebted to these
pioneering children of Islam. Here below is a short list, by no
means a comprehensive one, of Muslim scientists from the 8th to the
14th century CE: 1
701 (died) C.E. * Khalid Ibn Yazeed * Alchemy
721-803 * Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber) * Alchemy (Great Muslim
740 * Al-Asma'i * Zoology, Botany, Animal Husbandry
780 * Al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm) * Mathematics (Algebra,
776-868 * Amr ibn Bahr al-Jajiz * Zoology
787 * Al Balkhi, Ja'far Ibn Muhammas (Albumasar) *
796 (died) * Al-Fazari,Ibrahim Ibn Habib * Astronomy
800 * Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi - (Alkindus) * Medicine, Philosophy,
815 * Al-Dinawari, Abu-Hanifa Ahmed Ibn Dawood * Mathematics,
816 * Al Balkhi * Geography (World Map)
836 * Thabit Ibn Qurrah (Thebit) * Astronomy, Mechanics,
838-870 * Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari * Medicine, Mathematics
852 * Al Battani Abu Abdillah * Mathematics, Astronomy,
857 * Ibn Masawaih You'hanna * Medicine
858-929 * Abu Abdullah Al-Battani (Albategnius) * Astronomy,
860 * Al-Farghani, Abu al-Abbas (Al-Fraganus) * Astronomy,
864-930 * Al-Razi (Rhazes) * Medicine, Ophthalmology,
873 (died) * Al-Kindi * Physics, Optics, Metallurgy,
888 (died) * Abbas ibn Firnas * Mechanics, Planetarium,
900 (died) * Abu Hamed Al-ustrulabi * Astronomy
903-986 * Al-Sufi (Azophi) * Astronomy
908 * Thabit Ibn Qurrah * Medicine, Engineering
912 (died) * Al-Tamimi Muhammad Ibn Amyal (Attmimi) *
923 (died) * Al-Nirizi, AlFadl Ibn Ahmed (Altibrizi) *
930 * Ibn Miskawayh, Ahmed Abu-Ali * Medicine, Alchemy
932 * Ahmed Al-Tabari * Medicine
934 * al Istakhr II * Geography (World Map)
936-1013 * Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahravi (Albucasis) * Surgery,
940-997 * Abu Wafa Muhammad Al-Buzjani * Mathematics,
943 * Ibn Hawqal * Geography (World Map)
950 * Al Majrett'ti Abu-al Qasim * Astronomy, Alchemy,
958 (died) * Abul Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi * Geography, History
960 (died) * Ibn Wahshiyh, Abu Baker * Alchemy, Botany
965-1040 * Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen) * Physics, Optics,
973-1048 * Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni * Astronomy, Mathematics,
976 * Ibn Abil Ashath * Medicine
980-1037 * Ibn Sina (Avicenna) * Medicine, Philosophy,
983 * Ikhwan A-Safa (Assafa) * (Group of Muslim Scientists)
1001 * Ibn Wardi * Geography (World Map)
1008 (died) * Ibn Yunus * Astronomy, Mathematics.
1019 * Al-Hasib Alkarji * Mathematics
1029-1087 * Al-Zarqali (Arzachel) * Astronomy (Invented
1044 * Omar Al-Khayyam * Mathematics, Astronomy, Poetry
1060 (died) * Ali Ibn Ridwan Abu'Hassan Ali * Medicine
1077 * Ibn Abi-Sadia Abul Qasim * Medicine
1090-1161 * Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) * Surgery, Medicine
1095 * Ibn Bajah, Mohammed Ibn Yahya (Avenpace) * Astronomy,
1097 * Ibn Al-Baitar Diauddin (Bitar) * Botany, Medicine,
1099 * Al-Idrisi (Dreses) * Geography, Zoology, World Map
1110-1185 * Ibn Tufayl, Abubacer Al-Qaysi * Philosophy,
1120 (died) * Al-Tuhra-ee, Al-Husain Ibn Ali * Alchemy,
1128 * Ibn Rushd (Averroe's) * Philosophy, Medicine,
1135 * Ibn Maymun, Musa (Maimonides) * Medicine, Philosophy
1140 * Al-Badee Al-Ustralabi * Astronomy, Mathematics
1155 (died) * Abdel-al Rahman Al Khazin * Astronomy
1162 * Al Baghdadi, Abdel-Lateef Muwaffaq * Medicine,
1165 * Ibn A-Rumiyyah Abul'Abbas (Annabati) * Botany
1173 * Rasheed Al-Deen Al-Suri * Botany
1180 * Al-Samawal * Algebra
1184 * Al-Tifashi, Shihabud-Deen (Attifashi) * Metallurgy,
1201-1274 * Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi * Astronomy, Non-Euclidean
1203 * Ibn Abi-Usaibi'ah, Muwaffaq Al-Din * Medicine
1204 (died) * Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius) * Astronomy
1213-1288 * Ibn Al-Nafis Damishqui * Anatomy
1236 * Kutb Aldeen Al-Shirazi * Astronomy, Geography
1248 (died) * Ibn Al-Baitar * Pharmacy, Botany
1258 * Ibn Al-Banna (Al Murrakishi), Azdi * Medicine,
1262 (died) * Al-Hassan Al-Murarakishi * Mathematics,
1270 * Abu al-Fath Abd al-Rahman al-Khazini * Physics,
1273-1331 * Al-Fida (Abdulfeda) * Astronomy, Geography
1306 * Ibn Al-Shater Al Dimashqi * Astronomy, Mathematics
1320 (died) * Al Farisi Kamalud-deen Abul-Hassan * Astronomy,
1341 (died) * Al-Jildaki, Muhammad Ibn Aidamer * Alchemy
1351 * Ibn Al-Majdi, Abu Abbas Ibn Tanbugha * Mathematics,
1359 * Ibn Al-Magdi, Shihab-Udden Ibn Tanbugha * Mathematic,
1375 (died) * Ibn Shatir * Astronomy
1393-1449 * Ulugh Beg * Astronomy.
1424 * Ghiyath al-Din al Kashani * Numerical Analysis,
With such a train of Muslim scholars, it is not difficult to
understand why George Sarton said, "The main task of mankind was
accomplished by Muslims. The greatest philosopher, Al-Farabi was a
Muslim; the greatest mathematicians Abul Kamil and Ibrahim Ibn Sinan
were Muslims; the greatest geographer and encyclopaedist Al-Masudi
was a Muslim; the greatest historian, Al-Tabari was still a Muslim."
History before Islam was a jumble of conjectures, myths and
rumors. It was left to the Muslim historians who introduced for the
first time the method of matn and sanad tracing the authenticity and
integrity of the transmitted reports back to eyewitness accounts.
According to the historian Buckla "this practice was not adopted
in Europe before 1597 AD." Another method: that of historical
research and criticism - originated with the celebrated historian
Ibn Khaldun. The author of Kashfuz Zunun gives a list of 1300
history books written in Arabic during the first few centuries of
Islam. That is no small contribution!
Now look at today's Muslim world. When was the last time you
heard of a Muslim winning the Nobel Prize in science or medicine?
How about scientific publications? Unfortunately, you won't find too
many Muslim names in scientific and engineering journals either. Why
such a paucity? What excuses do we have?
A recently published UN report on Arab development noted that the
Arab world comprising of 22 countries translated about 330 books
annually. That is a pitiful number, only a fifth of the number of
the books that (tiny) Greece (alone) translates in a year! (Spain
translates an average of 100,000 books annually.) Why such an
allergy or aversion from those whose forefathers did not mind
translating older works successfully to regain the heritage of
antiquity, analyzing, collating, correcting and supplementing
substantially the material that was beneficial to mankind?
Why is the literacy rate low among Muslims when the first
revealed message in the Qur'an is 'Iqra (meaning: Read)? Are they
oblivious of the celebrated hadith of their Prophet : "The search
of knowledge is an obligation laid on every Muslim"?
How about the following Prophetic hadith?
"A learned person is superior to a worshipper as the full moon
is superior to all the stars. The scholars are heirs of the prophets
and the prophets do not leave any inheritance in the shape of
dirhams and dinars, but they do leave knowledge as their legacy. As
such a person who acquires knowledge acquires his full share."
[Abu Dawud and Tirmizi]
Muslims today seek wealth more than they know how to even spend
it. Such a mentality is silly, if not risky.
Knowledge is superior to wealth for ten reasons
Ali (RA) was once asked what was better: wealth or
knowledge. He said, Knowledge is superior to wealth for ten
(1) Knowledge is the legacy of the prophets. Wealth is the
inheritance of the Pharaohs. Therefore, knowledge is better than
(2) You have to guard your wealth but knowledge guards you. So
knowledge is better.
(3) A man of wealth has many enemies while a man of knowledge has
many friends. Hence knowledge is better.
(4) Knowledge is better because it increases with distribution,
while wealth decreases by that act.
(5) Knowledge is better because a learned man is apt to be generous
while a wealthy person is apt to be miserly.
(6) Knowledge is better because it cannot be stolen while wealth can
(7) Knowledge is better because time cannot harm knowledge, but
wealth rusts in course of time and wears away.
(8) Knowledge is better because it is boundless while wealth is
limited and you can keep account of it.
(9) Knowledge is better because it illuminates the mind while wealth
is apt to blacken it.
(10) Knowledge is better because knowledge induced the humanity in
our Prophet to say to Allah, "We worship Thee as we are Your
servant," while wealth engendered in Pharaoh and Nimrod the
vanity which made them claim Godhead.
What wisdom! Yet today our people are dispassionate about seeking
knowledge. Why? Do they know what Imam Ibn Hazm (RA) -
the great Spanish Muslim theologian, jurist and poet - said? "If
knowledge had no other merit than to make the ignorant fear and
respect you, and scholars love and honor you, this would be good
enough reason to seek after it... If ignorance had no other fault
than to make the ignorant man jealous of knowledgeable men and
jubilant at seeing more people like himself, this by itself would be
reason enough to oblige us to feel it... If knowledge and the action
of devoting oneself to it had no purpose except to free the man who
seeks it from the exhausting anxieties and many worries which
afflict the mind, that alone would certainly be enough to drive us
to seek knowledge." I only wish that his remarks would wake our
people to seeking and mastering knowledge.
Solutions to our present-day predicament:
While there are many solutions that I can point out to get us out
of our current predicament, I choose to discuss three major ones
below, of which the first two relates to personal and
1. Seeking knowledge:
The main reason behind the success of early Muslims rested in
their seeking knowledge where it was evident and also from places
where it was hidden. As true sons of Islam, they understood the
meaning of the Prophetic Traditions:
"A Muslim is never satiated in his quest for good (knowledge)
till it ends in paradise." [Tirmizi: narrated by Abu Sa'eed
"A person who goes (out of his house) in search of knowledge,
he is on Allah's way and he remains so till he returns."
[Tirmizi: Anas (RA)]
"One who treads a path in search of knowledge has his path to
Paradise made easy by Allah thereby." [Muslim: Abu Hurayrah
"To seek knowledge for one hour at night is better than
keeping it (night) awake." [Darimi: Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA)]
They did not shy away from translating and learning from others
in the best of the Prophetic Traditions:
"The word of wisdom is [like] the lost property of a wise man.
So wherever he finds it, he is entitled to it." [Tirmizi: Abu
When others were hesitant to do experiments to check their
hypotheses, they courageously filled the vacuum. In that they were
true to the Prophetic dictate:
"Knowledge is a treasure house whose keys are queries."
[Mishkat and Abu Na'im: Ali (RA)]
Muslims should also ponder over the statement made by Mu'adh ibn
Jabal (RA): "Acquire knowledge for the pleasure of
Allah, for learning engenders piety, reverence for one's Lord and
fear of wrongdoing. Seeking knowledge for Allah's pleasure is an act
of worship, studying it is a celebration of God's glory (lit.
Zikr),, searching for it is a rewarding struggle (lit. Jihad),
teaching it to someone who realizes its worth is a charity (lit.
Sadaqa),, and applying it in one's home strengthens family unity and
kinship. ... Knowledge is a comforting friend in times of
loneliness. It is the best companion to a traveler. It is the
innermost friend who speaks to you in your privacy. Knowledge is
your most effective sword against your foe, and finally, it is your
most dignifying raiment in the company of your close comrades."
[Hilyat'ul Awliya Wa Tabaqat'ul Asfiya]
Similarly, Sharafuddin Maneri (RA) said, "Knowledge
is the fountainhead of all happiness, just as ignorance is the
starting point of all wretchedness. Salvation comes from knowledge,
destruction from ignorance." [Maktubat-i Sadi]
2. Quality of leadership and Government patronage:
In the early days of Islam, Muslim rulers were not only the great
patrons of learning they were great scholars themselves. They
surrounded themselves with learned men: philosophers, legal experts,
traditionalists, theologians, lexicographers, annalists, poets,
mathematicians, scientists, engineers, architects and doctors.
Scholars held high ranks in their courts. They built libraries,
academies, universities, research centers, observatories and
astrolabes. They invited scholars of all races and religions to
flock to their capitals. Thus the cities they built became
intellectual metropolises in every sense of the term. Like today's
MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, their universities were
then the most sought after academies.
And what do we have today? Most of the rulers in Muslim countries
are half-educated individuals, who are surrounded (with very few
exceptions) by cronies whose most important qualification is not
competence or education but "connections" with the ruler or his/her
Our rulers (with very few exceptions) are utterly corrupt and
self-serving. Not surprisingly, they are surrounded by equally
corrupt people who have been put into positions of authority to
fatten the coffer of their patrons and peers. Thus, while the number
of palaces and mansions increase exponentially, not a single
university has been built by most of these rulers. Only a token
fraction of the state budget is spent today on education and
research. So, it is all too natural to witness the dismal record of
invention from Muslim countries. Not a single university in the
Muslim world ranks within the top 100 universities of the world. The
brightest minds naturally are draining out of their respective
countries, only to settle (with very few exceptions) in more
prosperous western countries, where they can apply their talents and
Our society remains so much entrenched in a system of patronage
and clientage that government contracts are almost always doled out
on the basis of personal and professional relationships rather than
what is good for our people. So a new breed of half-literate
billionaires has emerged who sees no value in education or its
Why this behavior, when Islam teaches that anyone who is seeking
after virtue should keep company with the virtuous and should take
no companion with him on his way except the noblest friend - one of
those people who is learned, sympathetic, charitable, truthful,
sociable, patient, trustworthy, magnanimous, pure in conscience and
a true friend?
So if Muslim countries want to regain their lost heritage in
knowledge, they must retrace their path that once made them
successful and discard the current aberrant methodology that only
leads to doom and gloom.
Let me again quote here from Carli Fiorina, who said, "Leaders
like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic
leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It
was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was
leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse
population-that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish
traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership - leadership that
nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage - led to 800
years of invention and prosperity."
Would our leaders take heed and amend their actions?
3. Going beyond the expected:
As I hinted above, Muslims are far behind in every field of
learning. Simply going with the flow or doing just the bare minimum
is simply not sufficient to close this widening gap. Our strategy
ought to be - going beyond the normal call of duty, doing extra
things. To elucidate this point, let me here close with a story from
our Prophet's time.
Talha bin 'Ubaidullah narrated that a man from Najd with unkempt
hair came to Allah's Apostle and we heard his loud voice but could
not understand what he was saying, till he came near and then we
came to know that he was asking about Islam. Allah's Apostle said,
"You have to offer prayers perfectly five times in a day and
night (24 hours)." The man asked, "Is there any more
(praying)?" Allah's Apostle replied, "No, but if you want to
offer the Nawafil prayers (you can)." Allah's Apostle further
said to him: "You have to observe fasts during the month of Ramad,
an." The man asked, "Is there any more fasting?" Allah's
Apostle replied, "No, but if you want to observe the Nawafil
fasts (you can.)" Then Allah's Apostle further said to him,
"You have to pay the Zakat (obligatory charity)." The man asked,
"Is there any thing other than the Zakat for me to pay?"
Allah's Apostle replied, "No, unless you want to give alms of
your own." And then that man retreated saying, "By Allah! I
will neither do less nor more than this." Allah's Apostle said,
"If what he said is true, then he will be successful (i.e. he
will be granted Paradise)."
Here in this hadith lies the formula for rejuvenating the Muslim
nation. May we be guided to reclaim our lost heritage!
1. Hamed Abdel-Reheem Ead, Professor of Chemistry at Faculty
of Science-University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and director of Science
http://www.frcu.eun.eg See also the books: 100
Muslim Scientists by Abdur Rahman Sharif, Al-Khoui Pub., N.Y; Muslim
Contribution to Science by Muhammad R. Mirza and Muhammad Iqbal
Siddiqi, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1986.