In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
Iqra1 in the name of your Lord
Who created humanity from a clot
Iqra for your Lord is Most Generous
Who taught humanity by the pen
What it did not know.

Qur’an (96:1-5)

This selection is the first revelation of the Qur’an; a declaration of the Prophet’s (PBUH) mission and a declaration of it’s intent. Iqra. God has taught us much, much that we did not know. God has taught us by the pen, but that act of teaching is not yet complete, the Qur’an also says (31:27):

Even if all the trees of the world were pens
And all the oceans ink
With many more oceans to fill them
Even then the kalim2 of God could not be written
For God is all-knowing and all-wise.

Learning for humanity is an on-going process, and it is impossible for a human to comprehend the kalim of God, let alone be able to give a definitive meaning to what Islam is. The Prophet (PBUH) had many hadith on the subject of learning and education, one of which is the tag-line of this blog: “The ink of the scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr.” He also said “Seek knowledge as far as China3,” and “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.” He remains the exemplar for all Muslims in terms of what it means to be a good Muslim. There are discussions as to how literal his acts should be taken, but no Muslim challenges the moral message of Muhammad (PBUH). To him, learning and education are moral imperatives and one of the tenets of faith. His cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Ali, and for the Shi’ah his successor, said “all containers are reduced in capacity by what is put into them, except the container of knowledge.”

Throughout Muslim history, this edict to learn has been one of the motivators for empire and a marker of the success of empire. As empires come and go, so do people’s self-understandings. After the Ummayyad Dynasty, the Muslim community had matured enough, and stabilized enough, to go after learning and to actively seek knowledge across the world. The Abbassids were involved in translating works of Greek philosophy into Arabic, and then extending those philosophical arguments. Baghdad became a major center of art and learning. The Fatimids in Egypt are responsible for many of the mathematical systems we take for granted today – Algebra and Calculus for example. The science of optics was also developed under their patronage. Al-Azhar in Cairo is credited with being the first university in the world. Al-Andalus was another center of learning, and the medical textbooks written there were used for over 500 years in Europe. The first cataract surgeries were performed there, and the beginning of Kabbalah took form. Maimonides was nurtured in the same environment as Ibn Rushd. There were arguments and fights, but of the intellectual variety.

Today we think of learning as an almost passive process; you sit at a desk and take notes from a lecturer; you sit with a book and copy out ideas. I can imagine being in Fatimid Cairo at the dâr al-Ilm (House of Knowledge, essentially a public library) with head bent over a book, dipping my quill into an inkpot to copy out a passage from a book, but knowing once that task was done, there was a group of people waiting outside, in the courtyard, to talk to, to argue with. With one ear I hear the shuffle of papers, the scratching of the quill, the tapping of feet, and with the other ear I hear voices, raised in excited utterances and exploring new avenues of thought. The dâr al-Ilm was funded for books, paper, ink, quills, etc.. Today, even in the best universities – or especially in the best universities – you have to pay for copies on top of tuition.

After the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, you have new centers of learning in what are now Iran, India, and Turkey. Major institutions are built for developing young minds, and this process continued through the 19th century. There was a sense of trying to understand God through His creations; that the Infinite could not be contained in the finite, but that the finite was a reflection of the Infinite. Learning was an ethic of the faith and basis of the faith.

Unfortunately, the tradition has begun to whither. Ideologues are replacing teachers, and most Muslims don’t understand the difference. Islam is no longer about Muslims trying to understand God, but about God trying to understand “Muslims.” Ignorance and fear have become the order of the day, not intelligence and awe. Thankfully, the tradition is not dead. Malcolm X once called for a resurrection of the community, not a physical one, but a mental one. The American Muslim community has the ability to revivify the intellectual tradition that is necessary for Islam to continue to survive and flourish. Part of that endeavor is to strike out against the encroaching darkness of taqlid, blind imitation and willful ignorance, with the flame of intellect, reflecting God’s light.

“God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” (24:35)

1 The Arabic imperative iqra has the simultaneous meanings of read and recite. Since the Prophet (PBUH) was considered to have been illiterate, making the Qur’an the miracle of prophethood, recite is used. However, since there is mention of a pen, read also seems appropriate. Since the word and context are ambiguous, I’ve opted to retain the Arabic. Persian (xwândân) and Urdu, amongst other South Asian languages, (paRh) also have a dual-purpose verb for read/recite.

2 This is another word that does have an exact equivalence in English. Roughly it means “words,” but is more abstract than that.

3 China is emblematic of the “ends of the earth,” not of the geographic location.

3 thoughts on “Edumacation

  1. This is a great post. What I find especially interesting is the implication that in Islam revelation is not “closed,” but still open to further learning. I like that idea.
    One of our biggest issues in Christian thought is the question of whether revelation is “open” and ongoing, or “closed”, fixed, and therefore static. Some like to say it is “closed,” while other say it is still “open.” The latter seem to be in the minority (aka, ‘heretics’).

  2. I like this post… and that is one of my favorite piece of the Quran. It seems like a lot of people who struggle to find faith in God have so many questions that can’t be answered so they don’t follow a faith. This piece says it best, there simply isn’t enough words or ink to encapsulate Allah. And it does suggest that the Quran is eternal.

  3. Nice article, though I prefer the “recite” translation. This would place the Quran as a oral tradition not fixed, but fluid. “Read” seems to bind it in space and time.

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