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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 Alchemist)  
740 * Al-Asma'i * Zoology, Botany, Animal Husbandry 
780 * Al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm) * Mathematics (Algebra, Calculus), Astronomy 
776-868 *  Amr ibn Bahr al-Jajiz * Zoology 
787 * Al Balkhi, Ja'far Ibn Muhammas (Albumasar) * Astronomy  
796 (died) * Al-Fazari,Ibrahim Ibn Habib * Astronomy  
800 * Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi - (Alkindus) * Medicine, Philosophy, Physics, Optics  
815 * Al-Dinawari, Abu-Hanifa Ahmed Ibn Dawood * Mathematics, Linguistics 
816 * Al Balkhi * Geography (World Map) 
836 * Thabit Ibn Qurrah (Thebit) * Astronomy, Mechanics, Geometry, Anatomy 
838-870 * Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari * Medicine, Mathematics 
852 * Al Battani Abu Abdillah * Mathematics, Astronomy, Engineering 
857 * Ibn Masawaih You'hanna * Medicine  
858-929 * Abu Abdullah Al-Battani (Albategnius) * Astronomy, Mathematics 
860 * Al-Farghani, Abu al-Abbas (Al-Fraganus) * Astronomy, Civil Engineering 
864-930 * Al-Razi (Rhazes) * Medicine, Ophthalmology, Chemistry 
873 (died) * Al-Kindi * Physics, Optics, Metallurgy, Oceanography, Philosophy 
888 (died) * Abbas ibn Firnas * Mechanics, Planetarium, Artificial Crystals 
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) * Alchemy  
923 (died) * Al-Nirizi, AlFadl Ibn Ahmed (Altibrizi) * Mathematics, Astronomy 
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, Medicine 
940-997 * Abu Wafa Muhammad Al-Buzjani * Mathematics, Astronomy, Geometry  
943 * Ibn Hawqal * Geography (World Map) 
950 * Al Majrett'ti Abu-al Qasim * Astronomy, Alchemy, Mathematics  
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, Mathematics 
973-1048 * Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni * Astronomy, Mathematics, History, Linguistics 
976 * Ibn Abil Ashath * Medicine  
980-1037 * Ibn Sina (Avicenna) * Medicine, Philosophy, Mathematics, Astronomy 
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 Astrolabe)  
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, Medicine 
1097 * Ibn Al-Baitar Diauddin (Bitar) * Botany, Medicine, Pharmacology 
1099 * Al-Idrisi (Dreses) * Geography, Zoology, World Map (First Globe)  
1110-1185 * Ibn Tufayl, Abubacer Al-Qaysi * Philosophy, Medicine  
1120 (died) * Al-Tuhra-ee, Al-Husain Ibn Ali * Alchemy, Poem  
1128 * Ibn Rushd (Averroe's) * Philosophy, Medicine, Astronomy  
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, Geography  
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, Stones  
1201-1274 * Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi * Astronomy, Non-Euclidean Geometry  
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, Mathematics  
1262 (died) * Al-Hassan Al-Murarakishi * Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography 
1270 * Abu al-Fath Abd al-Rahman al-Khazini * Physics, Astronomy 
1273-1331 * Al-Fida (Abdulfeda) * Astronomy, Geography  
1306 * Ibn Al-Shater Al Dimashqi * Astronomy, Mathematics  
1320 (died) * Al Farisi Kamalud-deen Abul-Hassan * Astronomy, Physics 
1341 (died) * Al-Jildaki, Muhammad Ibn Aidamer * Alchemy  
1351 * Ibn Al-Majdi, Abu Abbas Ibn Tanbugha * Mathematics, Astronomy 
1359 * Ibn Al-Magdi, Shihab-Udden Ibn Tanbugha * Mathematic, Astronomy 
1375 (died) * Ibn Shatir * Astronomy 
1393-1449 * Ulugh Beg * Astronomy. 
1424 * Ghiyath al-Din al Kashani * Numerical Analysis, Computation

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 reasons:

(1) Knowledge is the legacy of the prophets. Wealth is the inheritance of the Pharaohs. Therefore, knowledge is better than wealth. 
(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 be stolen. 
(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 community/social obligations.

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 al-Khudri (RA)]

"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 (RA)]

"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 Hurayrah (RA)]

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 family.

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 skills appositely.

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 patronizing. 

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 Heritage Center,  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.


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