by Enver Masud
[Speech given by Mr. Masud at the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association
of Washington, DC fund-raising dinner in Rockville, MD.]
When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed away in 632 A.D., he was the effective
leader of all of southern Arabia. By 711 A.D., Arabs had swept across North
Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. In less than 100 years, the Bedouin tribesmen,
inspired by the Word of God, had carved out an empire stretching from the
borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean - the largest empire that the world had
Muslims conquered lands as was the custom of the day, but Islam was not spread
by the sword. Indonesia is a prime example. Indonesia, with 6000 inhabited
islands, today has the largest Muslim population. No Muslim armies landed in
Muslims offered an appealing message: There is One God; mankind is one; goodness
is the only measure of a person's worth. Man was urged to care for the poor, the
infirm, the orphan, to respect all faiths, and to search for knowledge.
200 years later Muslims are divided; the path forward is less clear.
In the Baghdad of 813 A.D., Caliph al-Mamun struggling to build a nation, is
caught between the ideas of literalists and those of religious thinkers, and he
has a dream.
He sees a figure of light and gold standing before him.
"Who are you?" asks a frightened al-Mamun.
"I am Aristotle", the spirit says. "I have come to answer your question".
"And what is my question?" al-Mamun asks - he knows but wants the spirit to say
"Your question is, What is better for the affairs of man and the affairs of
society, reason or revelation?"
Al-Mamun nods, and asks, "And what is your answer to the riddle?"
"My son," says Aristotle, "they are not in opposition. But to find true
revelation, man must first choose reason, because reason is the doorway to
Of course, the dream is imaginary. Author Michael Hamilton Morgan describes it
in his book "Lost History" (p. 47).
So great was al-Mamun's love of knowledge that after defeating the Byzantine
emperor, he asks not for caskets of gold but a a copy of the Almagest -
Ptolemy's book on astronomy written around 150 A.D.
Al-Mamun goes on to establish the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Later al-Hakim
will build the House of Knowledge in Cairo.
Revelation won hearts and minds
Reason gave Muslims the superior strategy and technology that helped win
battles. Revelation taught Muslims the principles of just-war, and of mercy and
Muslims taught and practiced a degree of tolerance remarkable for their time.
The Quran reminded them: "For each we have appointed a divine law and traced out
the way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community." (5:48)
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was twice president of the Indian National
Congress, a renowned scholar, and India's first Education Minister (my father
was his private secretary), wrote:
"The unity of man is the primary aim of religion. The message which every
prophet delivered was that mankind were in reality one people and one community,
and that there was but one god for all of them, and on that account they should
serve Him together and live as members of one family."
By providing opportunities based on merit to all, Muslims won the hearts and
minds of the conquered people. Muslims worked side by side with Jews,
Christians, Hindus, and others to create the centers of learning and cultural
expansion in Iraq, Iran, Spain, Egypt, and India.
Knowledge lifted civilization
The Quran is replete with verses inviting man to use his intellect, to ponder,
to think and to know, for the goal of human life is to discover the Truth.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells us: "The first thing created by god was the
Intellect." And that: "One learned man is harder on the devil than a thousand
ignorant worshippers." His words exhort us to: "Go in quest of knowledge even
unto China." And to: "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave."
The love of knowledge helped create cities that drew scholars from across the
Will Durant in his Story of Civilization (vol. IV, p. 237) writes:
"When Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols it had thirty-six public libraries.
Private libraries were numberless. It was a fashion among the rich to have an
ample collection of books. A physician refused the invitation of the Sultan of
Bokhara to come and live at his court, on the ground that he would need 400
camels to transport his library. Al-Waqidi, dying, left 600 boxes of books, each
box so heavy that two men were needed to carry it. Princes like Sahab ibn Abbas
in the 10th century might own as many books as could be found in all the
libraries of Europe combined."
Muslims built a civilization that would lift Europe out of darkness.
HRH, The Prince of Wales, in his October 27, 1993 speech titled, "Islam And The
"Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of
ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it also interpreted and expanded upon that
civilization, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of
human endeavour -- in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic
word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture,
"Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the most civilized city of Europe. . . .
Many of the traits on which Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain.
Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of
anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came from
this great city of cities. Mediaeval Islam was a religion of remarkable
tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians to practice their inherited
beliefs, and setting an example which was not, unfortunately, copied for many
centuries in the West.
"[Islam] has contributed so much towards the civilization which we all too often
think of, wrongly, as entirely Western. Islam is part of our past and present,
in all fields of human endeavor. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is
part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart."
End of Empire, beginnings of Aligarh University
The Christian reconquest of Spain in 1492 under Ferdinand and Isabella was the
beginning of the end of the Muslim era. By 1858, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur
Shah Zafar, who ruled little more than the city of Delhi, was exiled by the
British to Burma.
In 1875, Sir Syed, seeking to improve literacy among Indian Muslims, founded the
Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. This college became Aligarh University. It
nurtured many leaders of India and Pakistan. You, the alumni of Aligarh
University, are continuing the tradition by funding scholarships for those less
fortunate than yourselves.
Today, as it was for Muslims in the early 7th century, the key to successfully
negotiating the path ahead, for yourselves and for generations to come, remains
reason and revelation.
MORE at http://www.twf.org/News/Y2007/0929-Aligsdc.html