Date: 19 Dhul-Qadah 1441   Thursday 09 July 2020

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Islam as a Source of Inspiration for Science and Knowledge ('Ilm)

16:12 12 March 2017 Author :  

1. The Rise of Islam and the Early Intellectual Fertilisation

The 7th century witnessed the intellectual and cultural transformation of the Arab people principally as a result of some unique events that occurred in Arabia. The preaching of Islam (da‘wah) by the Prophet Muhammad to his fellow tribesmen, and their reluctant but gradual conversion to the new faith through a process of persuasion and political struggle, influenced the behaviour and outlook of the Arabians, who became imbued with a new sense of purpose. For the first time they were exposed to a set of new ideas on the creation, the Supreme Creator, the purpose of life on Earth and in the Hereafter, the need for a code of ethics in private and public life, the obligation to worship the one and only Lord Almighty of the Universe (Allah), through ritual prayers on a regular basis and sessions of remembrance (dhikr, plural adhkar) or meditation, and to pay homage to a religious and political head as personified by the Prophet Muhammad and, to his Successors or Caliphs (Ar., Khalifah, pl. Khulafa') as leaders of the new community (ummah). All this was new to the Arabs. The whole package of Islamic teachings was propagated by the Prophet and accepted by his fellow Arabs within a generation (610-632 CE).

The Prophet Muhammad taught the peoples of Arabia a great deal. Before the advent of Muhammad, the Arabs had no books and no sacred scriptures. The Qur'an was the first Arabic book and the first scripture in the Arabic language. Its chapters and verse were unique in style and substance in purest Arabic. The Arabs who, from time immemorial, had memorised poems and proverbs, found it easy to learn a part or the whole of the Qur'an for ritual prayer. For the Arabs, the Qur'an, it would seem, was a substitute for old Arabic poetry. The difference was that poetry was recited at home and in the market, whereas the Qur'an was recited only after ablution and reverential devotion. Incidentally, the word "al-Qur'an" means ‘the recitation' or the reading. It is essentially a book of revelation from God, embodying Islamic law and ethical code.

Through an understanding of the Qur'an, the Arabs began to think and behave differently from their polytheistic ancestors (mushrikun), becoming more like Jews and Christians in their monotheism. Thus they had begun to reflect on the mysteries of the universe and the importance of being imbued with a sense of brotherhood. For the first time their lives were regulated by a book of revelation and were turned around by it. The Qur'an was to Muslims what the Bible was to the Christians and the Torah to the Jews; and they were more affected by the Qur'an than Christians and Jews were by their Scriptures.

When the Islamic education was introduced to his disciples by the Prophet through the process of da‘wah (‘call to Islam'), it was as though a whole people went to school to read, write and memorise their first primer, al-Qur'an. Among the celebrated teachers of the Qur'an in early Islam, were ‘Ubadah ibn al-Samit, Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr, Mu‘adh ibn Jabal, ‘Amr ibn Hazm [1], and Tamim al-Dari. These teachers were sent to various parts of Arabia and beyond. Islamic education begins with the lessons of the Qur'an. It is a religious duty and an obligation for every Muslim to preach and teach to his fellow Muslims and non-Muslim acquaintances what he knows of the Qur'an and the Traditions. Such a process of informal mass education and Islamisation began in the Arabian Peninsula during the Prophet's last years and the process was carried forward under his successors. These early Muslims also became familiar with the life style of the Prophet (Sunnah). Everything the Prophet said, did, approved of, condemned and encouraged others to do became the source of inspiration for Muslims and the Sunnah (custom, or Islamic way of life) for the Muslim community. The Qur'an describes Muhammad as the unlettered/illiterate Prophet (al-Nabi al-Ummi) [2], which was true at the time of his receiving the first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel (Jibril) at the age of 40, when he was ordered to ‘Read in the Name of God who creates, creates man from congealed clot; Read and your Lord is most gracious, Who teaches by the pen; (He) teaches what man(kind) does not know' [3]. To Archangel Gabriel's command, Muhammad replied that he was unable to read, a clear indication of his illiteracy, his knowledge of Jewish and Christian religions being based on what Gabriel communicated to him directly. However, according to an authority on Muhammad, after he received the divine order to ‘read' (Iqra'), ‘he could - and did - learn how to read and write, at least a bit' [4]. This explains how letters he dictated to his amanuenses were signed by him. Therefore, by the end of his life Muhammad was literate. The collection of Muhammad's words and thoughts and his tacit approval is known as hadith (plural ahadith). This hadith became one of the basic sources of Islam.

2. The Islamic Background to Intellectual Activity

The question that now arises is: ‘What is the relevance of the Qur'an and Hadith to Islamic science?' To begin with, everything Islamic is influenced by these two sources. The learning process of the Arabs began with the Qur'an and everything else followed accordingly. The Prophet told his disciples: "Wisdom (Hikmah) is the object for the believers"[5]. Thus Muhammad created an incentive to pursue all kinds of knowledge, including science and philosophy.

The questions that we should ask and to which we should find answers are: ‘does Islam encourage or stifle knowledge in a broad sense and secular sciences in particular? Is there any conflict between reason (‘aql) and revelation (wahy) in Islam?'

The Arabic term ‘ilm literally means science and knowledge in the broadest sense. It is derived from the Arabic verb ‘alima, to know, to learn. Therefore, ‘ilm implies learning in a general sense. The Prophet Muhammad, like all the Semitic Prophets before him, was an educator and spiritual mentor. He contended that the pursuit of knowledge (‘ilm) is a duty (fardh) for every Muslim [6]. This statement unmistakably attaches the highest priority to knowledge and encourages Muslims to be educated. Another statement praises religious knowledge even more highly, maintaining that it is a key to various benefits and blessings and that those who teach the Qur'an and Hadith have inherited the role of the ancient Prophets [7]. In a separate statement, Muhammad said that the scholars of religion (‘ulama') are the trustees of the Messengers (of God) (umana' al-Rusul[8]. In praise of knowledge, the Prophet also said that the pursuit of knowledge is superior to ritual prayer (Salah), fasting (during Ramadan), pilgrimage (Hajj) and the struggle for Islam (Jihad) in promoting the cause of God [9]. This last Tradition is often misinterpreted by some Muslims who think (quite mistakenly) that religious learning and the pursuit of science exempts them from prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and Jihad. This is not at all the intention of the statement. What it emphasizes is that religious education is no less important than the time and efforts devoted to Salah, Sawm, Hajj and Jihad. Thus learning gets priority over those usual duties of a believer.

The concept of science and knowledge was also widely diffused in the Prophet's Traditions and in Arabic belle’s lettres (adab). It only proves the point that Islam inspires its adherents to think of science or knowledge not only for its spiritual and utilitarian value, but also as an act of worship. Some of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad elevated the pursuit of knowledge as an act of worship. The discourse on knowledge in Arabic sources frequently use two terms, ‘ilm and ‘aql. The former applies to sacred knowledge as well as profane science, and ‘aql connotes intellect or intelligence. 

By: Dr. Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg 

Source: The Origins of Islamic Science




[1] ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-Khuza‘i, Takhrij al-Dalalah al-Sam'iyah, Cairo, 1401/1981, pp. 65-69.

[2] Al-Qur'an, Chapter al-A ‘raf, Verse 7.

[3] M. Hamidullah, in The Muslim World Book Review, vol. 1, No.3, Leicester, 1981, p. 15.

[4] Ibid, p. 15.

[5] Sayyid Ahmad al-Hashimi, Mukhtarat al-Ahadith al-Nabawiyah wa'l- Hikam al-Muhammadiyah, Cairo, n.d. (1950s), p. 69.

[6] Ibid, p.93; cf. also A.J. Wensinck, Concordance et Indices de La Tradition Musulmane, E.J. Brill, 1962, vol. 4, p. 10.

[7] Ibid., p. 93. Wensinck, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 321.

[8] Ibid., p. 100.

[9] M. A. J. Beg, Wisdom of Islamic Civilization, pp. 35-6.

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