Science and the Muslim Ummah

Group of Sciences and their Scope

Besides, we think that the group of sciences belonging to the cate­gory of wajib kifa'i is much more larger than what Al‑Ghazzali would have us believe. Moreover, we think that the parsimony he shows regarding those sciences which may be included in this category, does not harmonize with the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet's sunnah.13 Our reasons for not accepting such restrictions on learning are as follows:

  1. In most of the Qur’anic verses and traditions, the concept ofilm (knowledge) appears in its absolutely general sense, as can be seen from examples given below:

قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike? (39:9)

عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ

(God) taught man what he knew not. (96:5)

وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَـٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

And He taught Adam all the names; then showed them to the angels, saying: “Tell me the names of these, if you are right.”(2:31)

من سلك طريقاً يطلب فيهِ علماً سهَّلَّ الله له طريقاً الى الجنة

Anyone who pursues a course of acquisition of knowledge, God will ease his eventual access to paradise.14

Similarly other Qur’anic verses and traditions confirm that knowledge does not mean only learning of the principles and laws of the Shari'ah. We may note some further examples:

وَوَرِثَ سُلَيْمَانُ دَاوُودَ  وَقَالَ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ عُلِّمْنَا مَنطِقَ الطَّيْرِ وَأُوتِينَا مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ إِنَّ هَـٰذَا لَهُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْمُبِينُ ﴿١٦﴾

And certainly We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and both (the apostles) said: All praise is God's who made us to excel many of His believing servants. And Solomon succeeded David and he said: O people! We have been taught the language of the birds, and we have been granted (plenty) of everything; surely, this is manifest grace (of God)'. (27:15)

We see that these two prophets consider the knowledge of the language of birds to be a Divine blessing.

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّـهَ أَنزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً فَأَخْرَجْنَا بِهِ ثَمَرَاتٍ مُّخْتَلِفًا أَلْوَانُهَا وَمِنَ الْجِبَالِ جُدَدٌ بِيضٌ وَحُمْرٌ مُّخْتَلِفٌ أَلْوَانُهَا وَغَرَابِيبُ سُودٌ  وَمِنَ النَّاسِ وَالدَّوَابِّ وَالْأَنْعَامِ مُخْتَلِفٌ أَلْوَانُهُ كَذَٰلِكَ إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّـهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ عَزِيزٌ غَفُورٌ

Do you not see that God sends down water from the sky, then We bring forth with it fruits of various colours, and in the mountains are streaks, white and red and of various colours and others intensely black? And of

men and beasts and cattle are of various colours likewise; only those of His servants endowed with knowledge fear God; surely, God is Almighty and Forgiving. (35:27 28)

Clearly, the word ibadihi al‑ulama' (His servants endowed with knowledge) occurring in the above verse refers to those who are aware of the laws and mysteries of nature and creation, and who acknowledge in all humility the greatness and majesty of God. The following traditions of the Prophet (S) also point in the direction of the most general sense of the word “knowledge”.

اطلبوا العلم و لو بالصين

Seek knowledge by even going to China.15

اعلم الناس من جمع علم الناس الى علمه

The most learned of men is one who collects bits of knowledge from others and thus enhances his own knowledge.16

من اراد الدنيا فعليه بالعلم و من اراد الآخره فعليه بالعلم و من ارادهما معاً فعليه بالعلم

Anyone who desires the good of present life should seek knowledge. Any­one who desires the life of Hereafter should seek knowledge. And anyone who wants to do well in this life and in the next world should seek knowledge.17

و خذ الحكمة و لا يضرك من ايِّ وعاء خرجت

Accept whatever adds to your wisdom, irrespective of the nature of the source.18

From these sayings of the great Prophet of Islam and similar traditions which have been narrated from the Ahl al‑Bayt19 (the spiritual successors of the Prophet) the truth emerges that such recommenda­tions for acquisition of knowledge are not confined to the knowledge of the principles and laws of the Shariah; because, as is obvious, China was not a centre of theological studies in those days but was famous for its crafts and industry. Moreover, it is clear that the laws of Shari ah and Islamic doctrines cannot be learnt from polytheists and infidels.

  1. Another reason for not considering “desirable” knowledge to be limited to the religious and theological studies is the precious heritage left by the Muslim scholars of the first several centuries of Islamic civili­zation and that has come down to our own time. As is also confirmed by modern historians, Muslim scholars were at the vanguard of the scientific tradition for centuries and their books were used as text‑books in Europe for several hundred years.

In fact the major reason why Muslim scholars rejected the intellec­tual traditions of other countries was that they did not see any separa­tion between the goal of religion and the ends of knowledge and were convinced that both religion and knowledge were aimed at illuminating the unity of nature and as a result the oneness of the Creator. Accord­ingly, it was on the basis of this conviction of intrinsic fusion of religion and knowledge that religious coaching and rational training were consi­dered as aspects of a single discipline in religious schools and mosques.

  1. To set aside a group of sciences on the pretext that they do not have as much value as the religious studies is not correct. Because, whatever field of knowledge is conductive to preservation of the strength and vitality of an Islamic society, its knowledge is wajib kifa’i in the same fashion as scholarship in religious sciences has been pointed out as a wajib kifa'i for the Islamic society in the following verse of the Qur’an:

وَمَا كَانَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لِيَنفِرُ‌وا كَافَّةً فَلَوْلَا نَفَرَ‌ مِن كُلِّ فِرْ‌قَةٍ مِّنْهُمْ طَائِفَةٌ لِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنذِرُ‌وا قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَ‌جَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُ‌ونَ

It is not for the believers to go forth totally (to acquire scholarship in religion); but why should not a party of every section of them go forth, to become learned in religion, and to warn their people when they return to them, that haply they may beware? (9:122)

So we have discovered that the word 'Urn as it occurs in the Book and sunnah appears in its more general sense than what may apply exclusively to the religious studies. Nevertheless, it may be said that Islam has only dissuaded Muslims from preoccupying themselves with. any pursuit of such branches of knowledge whose harm is greater than their benefit (like magic and sorcery and games of chance used for gambling). The relevant sayings of the Prophet (S) may be noted:

نعوذ بالله من علم لا ينفع

We seek God's refuge from knowledge that does not benefit.20

اللهم انفعني بما علَّمتني و علِّمني ما ينفعني و زدني علماً

O God! Benefit me through knowledge that You have bestowed on me, teach me whatever would benefit me, and increase me in knowledge.21

Ali (A) is related as having said:

لا خير في علم لا ينفع

There is no good in knowledge which does not benefit.22

العلم اكثر من ان يحاط به، فخذوا من كل علم أحسنه

Knowledge is too immense in scope for anyone to be able to contain it. So learn from each science its useful parts.23