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Seeking Knowledge an Imperative



6/25/2007 - Education Social Religious - Article Ref:


By: Dr. Habib Siddiqui

IslamiCity* -


Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was a great scientist, physicist, astronomer, sociologist, linguist, historian and mathematician whose true worth may never be known. He is considered the father of unified field theory by Nobel Laureate - late Professor Abdus Salam. He lived

nearly a thousand years ago and was a contemporary of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni.


When he was on his deathbed, Biruni was visited by a

jurisprudent neighbor of his. Abu Rayhan was still

conscious, and on seeing the jurisprudent, he asked

him a question on inheritance law or some other

related issue. The jurisprudent was quite amazed that

a dying man should show interest in such matters. Abu

Rayhan said, "I should like to ask you: which is

better, to die with knowledge or to die without it?"

The man said, "Of course, it is better to know and

then die." Abu Rayhan said, "That is why I asked my

first question." Shortly after the jurisprudent had

reached his home, the cries of lamentation told him

that Abu Rayhan had died. (Murtaza Motahari: Spiritual



That was then, nearly a millennium ago, when Muslims

were the torchbearers of knowledge in a very dark

world. They created an Islamic civilization, driven by

inquiry and invention, which was the envy of the rest

of the world for many centuries.


In the words of Carli Fiorina, the former highly

talented and visionary, CEO of Hewlett Packard, "Its

architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its

mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that

would enable the building of computers, and the

creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human

body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers

looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved

the way for space travel and exploration. Its writers

created thousands of stories; stories of courage,

romance and magic. When other nations were afraid of

ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept

them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out

knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization

kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others.

While modern Western civilization shares many of these

traits, the civilization I'm talking about was the

Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which

included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad,

Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like

Suleiman the Magnificent. Although we are often

unaware of our indebtedness to this other

civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our

heritage. The technology industry would not exist

without the contributions of Arab mathematicians."


Truly, there is hardly a field that is not indebted to

these pioneering children of Islam. Here below is a

short list, by no means a comprehensive one, of Muslim

scientists from the 8th to the 14th century CE: 1


701 (died) C.E. * Khalid Ibn Yazeed * Alchemy

721-803 * Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber) * Alchemy (Great

Muslim Alchemist)

740 * Al-Asma'i * Zoology, Botany, Animal Husbandry

780 * Al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm) * Mathematics (Algebra,

Calculus), Astronomy

776-868 * Amr ibn Bahr al-Jajiz * Zoology

787 * Al Balkhi, Ja'far Ibn Muhammas (Albumasar) *


796 (died) * Al-Fazari,Ibrahim Ibn Habib * Astronomy

800 * Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi - (Alkindus) * Medicine,

Philosophy, Physics, Optics

815 * Al-Dinawari, Abu-Hanifa Ahmed Ibn Dawood *

Mathematics, Linguistics

816 * Al Balkhi * Geography (World Map)

836 * Thabit Ibn Qurrah (Thebit) * Astronomy, Mechanics, Geometry, Anatomy

838-870 * Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari * Medicine, Mathematics

852 * Al Battani Abu Abdillah * Mathematics, Astronomy, Engineering

857 * Ibn Masawaih You'hanna * Medicine

858-929 * Abu Abdullah Al-Battani (Albategnius) * Astronomy, Mathematics

860 * Al-Farghani, Abu al-Abbas (Al-Fraganus) * Astronomy, Civil Engineering

864-930 * Al-Razi (Rhazes) * Medicine, Ophthalmology, Chemistry

873 (died) * Al-Kindi * Physics, Optics, Metallurgy, Oceanography, Philosophy

888 (died) * Abbas ibn Firnas * Mechanics, Planetarium, Artificial Crystals

900 (died) * Abu Hamed Al-ustrulabi * Astronomy

903-986 * Al-Sufi (Azophi) * Astronomy

908 * Thabit Ibn Qurrah * Medicine, Engineering

912 (died) * Al-Tamimi Muhammad Ibn Amyal (Attmimi) * Alchemy

923 (died) * Al-Nirizi, AlFadl Ibn Ahmed (Altibrizi) * Mathematics, Astronomy

930 * Ibn Miskawayh, Ahmed Abu-Ali * Medicine, Alchemy


932 * Ahmed Al-Tabari * Medicine

934 * al Istakhr II * Geography (World Map)

936-1013 * Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahravi (Albucasis) * Surgery, Medicine

940-997 * Abu Wafa Muhammad Al-Buzjani * Mathematics, Astronomy, Geometry

943 * Ibn Hawqal * Geography (World Map)

950 * Al Majrett'ti Abu-al Qasim * Astronomy, Alchemy, Mathematics

958 (died) * Abul Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi * Geography, History

960 (died) * Ibn Wahshiyh, Abu Baker * Alchemy, Botany

965-1040 * Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen) * Physics, Optics, Mathematics

973-1048 * Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni * Astronomy, Mathematics, History, Linguistics

976 * Ibn Abil Ashath * Medicine

980-1037 * Ibn Sina (Avicenna) * Medicine, Philosophy, Mathematics, Astronomy

983 * Ikhwan A-Safa (Assafa) * (Group of Muslim Scientists)

1001 * Ibn Wardi * Geography (World Map)

1008 (died) * Ibn Yunus * Astronomy, Mathematics.

1019 * Al-Hasib Alkarji * Mathematics

1029-1087 * Al-Zarqali (Arzachel) * Astronomy (Invented Astrolabe)

1044 * Omar Al-Khayyam * Mathematics, Astronomy, Poetry

1060 (died) * Ali Ibn Ridwan Abu'Hassan Ali * Medicine


1077 * Ibn Abi-Sadia Abul Qasim * Medicine

1090-1161 * Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) * Surgery, Medicine

1095 * Ibn Bajah, Mohammed Ibn Yahya (Avenpace) * Astronomy, Medicine

1097 * Ibn Al-Baitar Diauddin (Bitar) * Botany, Medicine, Pharmacology

1099 * Al-Idrisi (Dreses) * Geography, Zoology, World Map (First Globe)

1110-1185 * Ibn Tufayl, Abubacer Al-Qaysi * Philosophy, Medicine

1120 (died) * Al-Tuhra-ee, Al-Husain Ibn Ali * Alchemy, Poem

1128 * Ibn Rushd (Averroe's) * Philosophy, Medicine, Astronomy

1135 * Ibn Maymun, Musa (Maimonides) * Medicine, Philosophy

1140 * Al-Badee Al-Ustralabi * Astronomy, Mathematics

1155 (died) * Abdel-al Rahman Al Khazin * Astronomy

1162 * Al Baghdadi, Abdel-Lateef Muwaffaq * Medicine, Geography

1165 * Ibn A-Rumiyyah Abul'Abbas (Annabati) * Botany

1173 * Rasheed Al-Deen Al-Suri * Botany

1180 * Al-Samawal * Algebra

1184 * Al-Tifashi, Shihabud-Deen (Attifashi) * Metallurgy, Stones

1201-1274 * Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi * Astronomy, Non-Euclidean Geometry

1203 * Ibn Abi-Usaibi'ah, Muwaffaq Al-Din * Medicine

1204 (died) * Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius) * Astronomy

1213-1288 * Ibn Al-Nafis Damishqui * Anatomy

1236 * Kutb Aldeen Al-Shirazi * Astronomy, Geography

1248 (died) * Ibn Al-Baitar * Pharmacy, Botany

1258 * Ibn Al-Banna (Al Murrakishi), Azdi * Medicine, Mathematics

1262 (died) * Al-Hassan Al-Murarakishi * Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography

1270 * Abu al-Fath Abd al-Rahman al-Khazini * Physics, Astronomy

1273-1331 * Al-Fida (Abdulfeda) * Astronomy, Geography


1306 * Ibn Al-Shater Al Dimashqi * Astronomy, Mathematics

1320 (died) * Al Farisi Kamalud-deen Abul-Hassan * Astronomy, Physics

1341 (died) * Al-Jildaki, Muhammad Ibn Aidamer * Alchemy

1351 * Ibn Al-Majdi, Abu Abbas Ibn Tanbugha * Mathematics, Astronomy

1359 * Ibn Al-Magdi, Shihab-Udden Ibn Tanbugha * Mathematic, Astronomy

1375 (died) * Ibn Shatir * Astronomy

1393-1449 * Ulugh Beg * Astronomy.

1424 * Ghiyath al-Din al Kashani * Numerical Analysis, Computation


With such a train of Muslim scholars, it is not

difficult to understand why George Sarton said, "The

main task of mankind was accomplished by Muslims. The

greatest philosopher, Al-Farabi was a Muslim; the

greatest mathematicians Abul Kamil and Ibrahim Ibn

Sinan were Muslims; the greatest geographer and

encyclopaedist Al-Masudi was a Muslim; the greatest

historian, Al-Tabari was still a Muslim."


History before Islam was a jumble of conjectures,

myths and rumors. It was left to the Muslim historians

who introduced for the first time the method of matn

and sanad tracing the authenticity and integrity of

the transmitted reports back to eyewitness accounts.

According to the historian Buckla "this practice was

not adopted in Europe before 1597 AD." Another method:

that of historical research and criticism - originated

with the celebrated historian Ibn Khaldun. The author

of Kashfuz Zunun gives a list of 1300 history books

written in Arabic during the first few centuries of

Islam. That is no small contribution!


Now look at today's Muslim world. When was the last

time you heard of a Muslim winning the Nobel Prize in

science or medicine? How about scientific

publications? Unfortunately, you won't find too many

Muslim names in scientific and engineering journals

either. Why such a paucity? What excuses do we have?


A recently published UN report on Arab development

noted that the Arab world comprising of 22 countries

translated about 330 books annually. That is a pitiful

number, only a fifth of the number of the books that

(tiny) Greece (alone) translates in a year! (Spain

translates an average of 100,000 books annually.) Why

such an allergy or aversion from those whose

forefathers did not mind translating older works

successfully to regain the heritage of antiquity,

analyzing, collating, correcting and supplementing

substantially the material that was beneficial to



Why is the literacy rate low among Muslims when the

first revealed message in the Qur'an is 'Iqra

(meaning: Read)? Are they oblivious of the celebrated

hadith of their Prophet : "The search of knowledge is

an obligation laid on every Muslim"?


How about the following Prophetic hadith?


"A learned person is superior to a worshipper as the

full moon is superior to all the stars. The scholars

are heirs of the prophets and the prophets do not

leave any inheritance in the shape of dirhams and

dinars, but they do leave knowledge as their legacy.

As such a person who acquires knowledge acquires his

full share." [Abu Dawud and Tirmizi]


Muslims today seek wealth more than they know how to

even spend it. Such a mentality is silly, if not



Knowledge is superior to wealth for ten reasons


Ali (RA) was once asked what was better: wealth or

knowledge. He said, Knowledge is superior to wealth

for ten reasons:


(1) Knowledge is the legacy of the prophets. Wealth is

the inheritance of the Pharaohs. Therefore, knowledge

is better than wealth.


(2) You have to guard your wealth but knowledge guards

you. So knowledge is better.


(3) A man of wealth has many enemies while a man of

knowledge has many friends. Hence knowledge is better.


(4) Knowledge is better because it increases with

distribution, while wealth decreases by that act.


(5) Knowledge is better because a learned man is apt

to be generous while a wealthy person is apt to be



(6) Knowledge is better because it cannot be stolen

while wealth can be stolen.


(7) Knowledge is better because time cannot harm

knowledge, but wealth rusts in course of time and

wears away.


(8) Knowledge is better because it is boundless while

wealth is limited and you can keep account of it.


(9) Knowledge is better because it illuminates the

mind while wealth is apt to blacken it.


(10) Knowledge is better because knowledge induced the

humanity in our Prophet to say to Allah, "We worship

Thee as we are Your servant," while wealth engendered

in Pharaoh and Nimrod the vanity which made them claim



What wisdom! Yet today our people are dispassionate

about seeking knowledge. Why? Do they know what Imam

Ibn Hazm (RA) - the great Spanish Muslim theologian,

jurist and poet - said? "If knowledge had no other

merit than to make the ignorant fear and respect you,

and scholars love and honor you, this would be good

enough reason to seek after it... If ignorance had no

other fault than to make the ignorant man jealous of

knowledgeable men and jubilant at seeing more people

like himself, this by itself would be reason enough to

oblige us to feel it... If knowledge and the action of

devoting oneself to it had no purpose except to free

the man who seeks it from the exhausting anxieties and

many worries which afflict the mind, that alone would

certainly be enough to drive us to seek knowledge." I

only wish that his remarks would wake our people to

seeking and mastering knowledge.


Solutions to our present-day predicament:


While there are many solutions that I can point out to

get us out of our current predicament, I choose to

discuss three major ones below, of which the first two

relates to personal and community/social obligations.


1. Seeking knowledge:


The main reason behind the success of early Muslims

rested in their seeking knowledge where it was evident

and also from places where it was hidden. As true sons

of Islam, they understood the meaning of the Prophetic



"A Muslim is never satiated in his quest for good

(knowledge) till it ends in paradise." [Tirmizi:

narrated by Abu Sa'eed al-Khudri (RA)]


"A person who goes (out of his house) in search of

knowledge, he is on Allah's way and he remains so till

he returns." [Tirmizi: Anas (RA)]


"One who treads a path in search of knowledge has his

path to Paradise made easy by Allah thereby." [Muslim:

Abu Hurayrah (RA)]


"To seek knowledge for one hour at night is better

than keeping it (night) awake." [Darimi: Abdullah ibn

Abbas (RA)]


They did not shy away from translating and learning

from others in the best of the Prophetic Traditions:


"The word of wisdom is [like] the lost property of a

wise man. So wherever he finds it, he is entitled to

it." [Tirmizi: Abu Hurayrah (RA)]


When others were hesitant to do experiments to check

their hypotheses, they courageously filled the vacuum.

In that they were true to the Prophetic dictate:


"Knowledge is a treasure house whose keys are

queries." [Mishkat and Abu Na'im: Ali (RA)]


Muslims should also ponder over the statement made by

Mu'adh ibn Jabal (RA): "Acquire knowledge for the

pleasure of Allah, for learning engenders piety,

reverence for one's Lord and fear of wrongdoing.

Seeking knowledge for Allah's pleasure is an act of

worship, studying it is a celebration of God's glory

(lit. Zikr),, searching for it is a rewarding struggle

(lit. Jihad), teaching it to someone who realizes its

worth is a charity (lit. Sadaqa),, and applying it in

one's home strengthens family unity and kinship. ...

Knowledge is a comforting friend in times of

loneliness. It is the best companion to a traveler. It

is the innermost friend who speaks to you in your

privacy. Knowledge is your most effective sword

against your foe, and finally, it is your most

dignifying raiment in the company of your close

comrades." [Hilyat'ul Awliya Wa Tabaqat'ul Asfiya]


Similarly, Sharafuddin Maneri (RA) said, "Knowledge is

the fountainhead of all happiness, just as ignorance

is the starting point of all wretchedness. Salvation

comes from knowledge, destruction from ignorance."

[Maktubat-i Sadi]


2. Quality of leadership and Government patronage:


In the early days of Islam, Muslim rulers were not

only the great patrons of learning they were great

scholars themselves. They surrounded themselves with

learned men: philosophers, legal experts,

traditionalists, theologians, lexicographers,

annalists, poets, mathematicians, scientists,

engineers, architects and doctors. Scholars held high

ranks in their courts. They built libraries,

academies, universities, research centers,

observatories and astrolabes. They invited scholars of

all races and religions to flock to their capitals.

Thus the cities they built became intellectual

metropolises in every sense of the term. Like today's

MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, their

universities were then the most sought after



And what do we have today? Most of the rulers in

Muslim countries are half-educated individuals, who

are surrounded (with very few exceptions) by cronies

whose most important qualification is not competence

or education but "connections" with the ruler or

his/her family.


Our rulers (with very few exceptions) are utterly

corrupt and self-serving. Not surprisingly, they are

surrounded by equally corrupt people who have been put

into positions of authority to fatten the coffer of

their patrons and peers. Thus, while the number of

palaces and mansions increase exponentially, not a

single university has been built by most of these

rulers. Only a token fraction of the state budget is

spent today on education and research. So, it is all

too natural to witness the dismal record of invention

from Muslim countries. Not a single university in the

Muslim world ranks within the top 100 universities of

the world. The brightest minds naturally are draining

out of their respective countries, only to settle

(with very few exceptions) in more prosperous western

countries, where they can apply their talents and

skills appositely.


Our society remains so much entrenched in a system of

patronage and clientage that government contracts are

almost always doled out on the basis of personal and

professional relationships rather than what is good

for our people. So a new breed of half-literate

billionaires has emerged who sees no value in

education or its patronizing.


Why this behavior, when Islam teaches that anyone who

is seeking after virtue should keep company with the

virtuous and should take no companion with him on his

way except the noblest friend - one of those people

who is learned, sympathetic, charitable, truthful,

sociable, patient, trustworthy, magnanimous, pure in

conscience and a true friend?


So if Muslim countries want to regain their lost heritage in knowledge, they must retrace their path that once made them successful and discard the current aberrant methodology that only leads to doom and gloom.


Let me again quote here from Carli Fiorina, who said, "Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population-that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership - leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage led to 800 years of invention and prosperity."


Would our leaders take heed and amend their actions?


3. Going beyond the expected:


As I hinted above, Muslims are far behind in every field of learning. Simply going with the flow or doing just the bare minimum is simply not sufficient to close this widening gap. Our strategy ought to be - going beyond the normal call of duty, doing extra things. To elucidate this point, let me here close with a story from our Prophet's time.


Talha bin 'Ubaidullah narrated that a man from Najd with unkempt hair came to Allah's Apostle and we heard his loud voice but could not understand what he was saying, till he came near and then we came to know that he was asking about Islam. Allah's Apostle said,

"You have to offer prayers perfectly five times in a day and night (24 hours)." The man asked, "Is there any more (praying)?" Allah's Apostle replied, "No, but if you want to offer the Nawafil prayers (you can)."

Allah's Apostle further said to him: "You have to observe fasts during the month of Ramad, an." The man asked, "Is there any more fasting?" Allah's Apostle replied, "No, but if you want to observe the Nawafil fasts (you can.)" Then Allah's Apostle further said to him, "You have to pay the Zakat (obligatory charity)."

The man asked, "Is there any thing other than the Zakat for me to pay?" Allah's Apostle replied, "No, unless you want to give alms of your own." And then that man retreated saying, "By Allah! I will neither do less nor more than this." Allah's Apostle said, "If

what he said is true, then he will be successful (i.e.he will be granted Paradise)."


Here in this hadith lies the formula for rejuvenating the Muslim nation. May we be guided to reclaim our lost heritage!




1. Hamed Abdel-Reheem Ead, Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center, See also the books: 100 Muslim Scientists by Abdur Rahman Sharif, Al-Khoui Pub., N.Y;

Muslim Contribution to Science by Muhammad R. Mirza and Muhammad Iqbal Siddiqi, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1986.


Dr. Habib Siddiqui lives in suburban Philadelphia, PA, and is the author of the book Islamic Wisdom. He can be reached at

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