Islam’s Straw Man can only haunt the World, Part VII: Islam, Knowledge and Education
There are hundreds of verses from the Quran and widely accepted sayings of the prophet Mohammad that reference knowledge and education, with the word knowledge in its many forms represented about 900 times in the Quran. In fact the first verse of the Quran encourages reading and later verses references encourage writing, speaking and communicating, all of which set humans above God’s other creatures. Throughout his life, the prophet Mohammad emphasized the importance of knowledge. He famously said to seek knowledge even if you have to go to China and from anyone who has knowledge. He advised that the pursuit of knowledge — in all its categories — was a duty of Muslims from cradle to grave. He attached such importance to education and learning that he once set the condition of releasing prisoners on the condition that they teach children how to read and write. This is even more remarkable that it was a position taken by a person, the prophet Mohammad, who could not read and write himself.
In Islam, it is said that knowledge and education enables a person to reason. The ability to reason, in turn, is essential to truly understand and comprehend anything — such as religion, science and society. In the absence of knowledge and reasoning, belief in anything is vacuous. It would not be an exaggeration to label Islam the religion of knowledge. Islam established schools and early universities of learning. In its early history, Islam made foundational contributions to almost every field of knowledge, including mathematics, algebra and geometry, astronomy, physics and chemistry, architecture and engineering, medicine and philosophy, literature, arts and social sciences. Muslim contributions were breathtaking and too many to detail here. But the achievements of two Muslims are well-known the world over and should be mentioned here.
Ibn Sina, or Avicenna as he is known in the West, was a giant of a thinker who contributed to many fields of knowledge and he influenced European Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas. He is perhaps best known as the father of modern medicine, a once in century philosopher and a mathematician, whose books (the Canon in medicine and Cure in philosophy) were taught in the West until the pre-modern era. Another giant was Ibn Khaldun who has been called the father of social science (by many, including Paul Krugman) with major contributions to modern economics, sociology and demography.
Why did Islamic contributions peter out? This issue has been and will continue to be a topic of much research and scholarship, but let us say a few words about what we conjecture regarding recent times, over the last 100 years. One word, freedom. Freedom to think, to question and to debate within a supporting environment. Today nearly all Muslim countries are oppressive. Most rulers are illegitimate and, as we have said before, and use (abuse) the hostility of non-Muslims (Islamophobia), especially that in the West, to portray themselves as defenders of Islam. While they frighten their subjects for their support as defenders of Islam, they ironically rely on the backing of the same foreign masters (in whose lands Islamophobia is everywhere to be seen) to oppress to hold onto power. In such a hostile and oppressive environment, original thinking is impeded. Our evidence is the blossoming of Muslim thinkers, scientists, inventors, physicians and entrepreneurs after they leave their Muslim homeland for countries that embrace democratic values and freedom. Their success is to be seen everywhere. It is not Muslims who are deficient, it is the landscape of Muslim countries that limit individual development.
In sum, to be educated and to continually increase one’s knowledge is a duty in Islam. This is a pursuit that leads human beings to a better life on this earth and in the hereafter. Islam urges Muslims to seek knowledge and to become scholars as this is a path to discover God and appreciate his wondrous gifts to humanity. During the life of the prophet Mohammad and for a few years thereafter, Muslims made great strides as evidenced by history but all that is in the past. But nostalgia about the past and filling heads with its glories do little for Muslims today. Today in every corner of the earth where thriving communities are found, education and knowledge are seen as the path to building thriving communities and a better life. It is time for Muslims to think less in the past and more in the present — working towards changes that will provide a better environment for world-class education and contribution to knowledge, resulting in thriving and peaceful communities.
Islamicity Indices confirm the fact that the countries of Northern Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Australia better reflect Islamic institutions and values than do Muslim countries. In these non-Muslim countries, Muslims have generally thrived and have made important contributions to their communities. It is not Islam that is deficient but its practice in countries that profess Islam.