On The State of Knowledge-Seeking in the Muslim World

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قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ ۗ إِنَّمَا يَتَذَكَّرُ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

Say, ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ Only those who possess intellect take admonition. (39:9)

It has been long deemed by neo-Atheists by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennette and Christopher Hitchens that Islam, as a religion, supposedly renders technological, scientific and progressive advancements. The argument goes, since Islam originates from the Middle East–a region on earth replete with human rights abuses, ferocious cultural practices and stagnation in various compartments of knowledge–this attitude of extreme retrogression to 19th-century values and ideals, must be an inherent property of Islam. As repugnant, unsubstantiated and fallacious (fallacy of division), these views are, by reason of how commonly held they are, it is imperative to refute them. This article will be dealing with two matters. The first being the responsibility placed on the shoulders of all Muslims, by Islam, to seek and acquire knowledge. The second being a hypothesis of mine on why the Middle East has become infamous as the pioneer of barbarism and illiteracy in the modern age.

اطلبوا العلم من المهد إلى اللحد

Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave [1]

Although narrations encouraging seeking knowledge are plenty, this wise saying alone itself suffices. This tradition eliminates any time limit put on pursuing knowledge. Unlike many obligatory Islamic practices that have a time limit, like fasting being obligatory during a specific month and prayer during explicit times of the day, the act of seeking knowledge has no time limit.

طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ

Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim. [2]

Many traditional men may propose that the first hadith (tradition) is concerning men exclusively and that women should not embark on a journey for enlightenment. Acquiring knowledge has been made obligatory on men and women, alike, based on the tradition above – that is accepted by both Shi’iahs and Sunnis. Note: The hadith below is inclusive of human beings of all subclasses, not being gender or class specific.

اُطلبوا العلم وَلو بخوض اللُّجَج

Seek knowledge even as far as going to the depths of seas. [3]

This final hadith removes all spatial limits on seeking knowledge. Similar to the aforementioned hadith, although certain obligatory Islamic practices are place-limited, like Hajj (that is to be done in Mecca), this hadith removes geographical limitations. These three narrations alone provide enough evidence on Islam’s unconditional support and call for Muslims to seek knowledge. That is why, after coming across these narrations, a German orientalist who was visiting Sayyid Hibat al-Ddin Shahrestani (ra) exclaimed his confusion for why modern-day Muslims are so “backward in knowledge and the rate of illiterate people among them is very high.” [4]

Nowhere in authentic, valid, and accepted Islamic sources could you find a notion opposing the virtuous act of seeking knowledge. For the same holy Qur’an that illiterate Muslims ironically parade says the following:

اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنْكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْعِلْمَ دَرَجَاتٍ ۚ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌ

Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees. And Allah is Acquainted with what you do. (58:11)

Had following the instructions of the Holy Prophet and the Qur’an been of higher priority to Muslims, they would not have been shamed Islam with their disgraceful reputation of being illiterate and backward. Especially given the Islamic Golden Age, during of which some of the greatest inventions and scholarly work in all fields was done, it makes one perplexed on how the majority of contemporary Muslims are uneducated and uncivilized. Besides, attributing the faults of the Middle East to Islam’s intrinsic message falls victim to the fallacy of division.

Islam, with its original pure intentioned leaders, started off as a principled religion challenged social and spiritual idols, be they logical (ideological) or physical, that served one ultimate purpose of legitimating the status quo. It put an end to Arab societies built upon class divisions – noble or not, master and slave, abased and enslaving, ruler and ruled, captive and free. Islam abrogated the system built by the elites that allowed them to prosper through privileges. However, once this noble religion became bereft of conscientious leaders, its social system collapsed. The same corrupt leaders now hid behind the façade of monotheism, yet still remained consistent with their methods of tyranny. On what basis do these corrupt governments prosper? Illiteracy of the masses. Such dictatorships are preserved on the basis of suppressing Islam’s intrinsic revolutionary notion. The awakening of the people, liberating them from the shackles of delusionary contentment, necessitates for them seeking knowledge and becoming literate. However, so for as there’s a monopoly on knowledge, such an occurrence will not occur. Such an occurrence becomes further elongated when external forces provide support for these tyrannical dictators due to their own selfish, materialistic, and vain desires.

For these very reasons, via colonial ideological expansion, the majority of Muslims living in so-called “Islamic” dictatorships in the Middle East have been mentally enslaved to the carnal interests of corrupt caliphs. For this very reason, it would make sense why many of these states have censored channels of knowledge that pose a potential danger of bringing about an awakening. Unfortunately, this close-mindedness seen in Muslim communities, globally, may be attributed to them only being exposed to state sponsored and controlled mediums of news. Unfortunately so, such dictators have taken the position of Islamic leaders, yet their hypocrisy and ill-intentions are as transparent as ever.

“There will come a time for my people when there will remain nothing of the Qur’an except its outward from and nothing of Islam except its name and they will call themselves by this name even though they are the people furthest from it. Their mosques will be full of people but they will be empty of right guidance. The religious leaders (furqaha) of that day will be the most evil religious leaders under the heavens; sedition and dissension will go out from them and to them will it return.” [5]

[1] Nahj al-Fasāhah, Tradition 2327 [2] Sunan Ibn Majah, Tradition 224 [3] بحارالانوار 71/ 277 [4] Mashrutiyyat, Sayyid Mohammad Farzan [5] Ibn Babuya, Thaqab al-Amal, quoted in Majlisi, Bihar al-Anwar (old ed.), Vol. 13. p. 152


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Amir Ghafarian

Amir M. Ghafarian, born in Iran, has an unconditional affinity towards shawarma and kabob. He reads too, sometimes, and occasionally writes.

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