Chapter 12: What is Islam by Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry



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What is Islam

By Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry



I- Importance of Education

II- Education in the Early Islamic State


III- Need for worldly education along with religious education


The importance of education in the life of the individuals and nations can hardly be over-emphasised. Education is religiously as well as temporally very essential as it equips the individuals with the capacity to work and trains them in the art of citizenship. The democratic system of government makes the people sovereign and ultimate masters of their destiny. An uneducated individual can neither understand politics nor can he become vigilant and aware about his as well as national interests. Education is, therefore, imperative to enable the citizens to exercise their political rights intelligently and perform their civic duties satisfactorily.

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I- Importance of Education

Islam grants paramount importance to education and learning. Let us see what the revealed book of Islam, the Qur’an, and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) say about education.

What the Qur’an says

1. AL-Qur’an, the religious scripture of Islam, gives so much importance to education that the very first verses of this holy book which were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) instructed the Prophet to ‘read’. The Qur’an says:

“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth, Createth man from a clot. Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teacheth by the pen, Teacheth man that which he knew not”.     (96:Al-‘Alaq:1-5)

Thus, the Holy Qur’an, if its revelation is put in chronological order, starts with the commandment ‘to read’. In these verses, the Qur’an uses three words ‘read’, ‘teach’ and ‘pen’ which shows the priority given to reading, teaching and pen (being the instrument of writing).

2. The importance of the writing and the pen (symbol of writing) is so much that at one place in the Qur’an (68:1-2), the Almighty Allah swears by the pen and at another place He commands the believers to reduce their contracts, agreements and their business deals into writing. The relevant verse of the Qur’an reads:

O ye who believe! When ye contract a debt for a fixed term, record it in writing. Let a scribe record it in writing between you in (terms of) equity. No scribe should refuse to write as Allah hath taught him, so let him write, and let him who incurreth the debt dictate, and let him observe his duty to Allah his lord, and diminish naught thereof….  (2:282)

3. The prayer of the Prophets and the righteous people have been mentioned in the Qur’an. The prayer of the prophet of Islam given in the Qur’an is about the increase in knowledge. Allah commanded his messenger to pray to Him in these words: “…..My Lord! Increase me in knowledge” (Al-Qur’an 20:114). This has been the most popular prayer of the followers of Muhammad (may Allah’s peace be upon him) through centuries and even the children in the Muslim homes start chanting this prayer from the day they enter a school.

4. The Qur’an tells us that it is on account of the learning and knowledge that man’s superiority was established over the Angels. Allah taught Adam all the names, and then showed them to the Angels asking them to inform Him about them which they could not, but Adam did. (Al-Qur’an 2:31-33). So Allah commanded the Angels to prostrate before Adam.

5. Allah blessed the Prophets with wisdom and knowledge and raised them in different communities in different ages with the mission to guide the people and teach them knowledge and books of Allah (Al-Qur’an  4:54, 4:113, 12:22, 21:74, 27:15, 62:2). It reflects on the paramount position of honour which has been attached to wisdom and knowledge. According to Prophet Muhammad, learning is the heritage of the Prophets and the Prophets left for heritage no silver or gold coins, but they left learning.

6. The Qur’an instructs the believers that all of them should not go out for fighting, rather they should leave some of them behind who should acquire sound knowledge of religion and should teach the others when they return from fighting (9:122). Jihad is obligatory on every adult male Muslim in case the security of Islamic state is in danger. But even in such a state of emergency and critical position, the importance of learning is not being ignored. The believers are being commanded that all of them should not go forth together for participation in Jihad. It would be better if they leave some contingent behind who should devote themselves to studies in religion and should acquire the capability to teach others.

7. Wisdom and knowledge is a great treasure, and everlasting wealth and enormous blessing. In many of its verses, the great book of Allah, the Qur’an, mentions virtues, good characteristics, points of distinction and merits of the men of learning. The wise and the learned persons are not only admired for their educational achievements but are also the recipients of great rewards and blessings from Allah in this world and in the Hereafter. Some of these verses of the Qur’an are:

  • He giveth wisdom unto whom He will, and he unto whom wisdom is given, he truly hath received abundant good. But none remember except men of understanding.  (2:Al-Baqarah:269)

  • Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Are those who know equal with those who know not? But only men of understanding will pay heed.  (39:Az-Zumar:9)

  • And when it is said, Come up higher! Go up higher; Allah will exalt those who believe among you, and those who have knowledge, to high ranks. Allah is informed of what ye do.  (58:Al-Mujadilah:11)

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What the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said

  1. Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah said: Search for knowledge is compulsory upon every Muslim male and Muslim female.  (Ibn Majah)

  2. Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah said: Whoso goes out in search of knowledge, he is in the path of Allah till he returns.   (Tirmizi)

  3. Sakhbarah al Azdi reported that the Messenger of Allah said: Whoever searches after knowledge, it will be expiation for his past sins.  (Tirmizi)

  4. Ayesha reported: Superiority in education is better than superiority in divine service. And the root of religion is abstinence. (Baihaqi)

  5. Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah said: Search knowledge though it be in China. (Baihaqi)

  6. Ibn Mas’ud reported that the Messenger of Allah said: There is no envy except for two: a man whom Allah has given wealth and whom He gave power for spending it for cause of truth and a man whom Allah has given wisdom and who acts up to it and teaches it (to others).  (Bukhari and Muslim)

  7. Kasir-b-Qais reported: Certainly the superiority of a learned man over the pious worshipper is like the superiority of the full moon at full moon-lit night over the rest of the stars; and verily the learned are the heritage of the prophets, and the prophets left for heritage no silver or gold coins, but they left learning. So whoso acquires it, acquires a sufficient fortune.  (Ahmad, Tirmizi, Abu Daud)

  8. Abu Omamah al Baheli reported: Two persons were mentioned to the Messenger of Allah, one of the two was a pious worshipper and the other a learned man. Then the Messenger of Allah said: “The superiority of the learned man over the pious worshipper is like my superiority over the meanest of you. Then the Holy Prophet said: Verily Allah, His angels and the dwellers of the heavens and the earth and even an ant in its hole and even a fish certainly send blessings upon a preacher of good to the people.”  (Tirmizi)

  9. Ibn Abbas reported that the Messenger of Allah said: To the devil, a learned theologian is stronger than a thousand pious worshippers.  (Tirmizi, Ibn Majah)

  10. Anas-b-Malek reported that the messenger of Allah said: Do you know who is best in generosity? They replied: Allah and His Apostle know best. He said: Allah is best in generosity, then I am the most generous of the children of Adam, and the most generous man among them after me will be a man who will acquire learning and broadcast it. He will come on the Resurrection Day as a ruler alone (or he said: as one people).  (Baihaqi)

  11. He to whom death comes while he is in search of knowledge to revive Islam thereby, between him and the Prophets there shall be but one degree (of excellence) in the Garden.  (Ad-Darimi)

  12. Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: When a man dies, his works also stop except three: Acts of charity which are continued; knowledge by which all take benefit, and a righteous issue who prays for him. (Muslim, Abu Daud, Tirmizi)

  13. Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: verily what reaches the believer of his works and of his actions after his death is the knowledge which he acquired and spread abroad……or a book which he has given to inherit.  (Baihaqi)

  14. No present or a gift given by the parents to a child is superior to good education. (Tirmizi)

  15. Jabir-bin-Samurah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: That a man gives good education to his child is better for him than that he gives a large measure of corn in alms. (Tirmizi)

  16. “All the things of the earth and the heavens pray for the deliverance of the learned.” (Abu Daud, Tirmizi)[1]

  17. “Muslim theologians are the successors of Prophets.”  (Abu Daud, Tirmizi)

  18. “Faith is naked, its dress is piety, its adornment is modesty and its fruit is knowledge.” (Hakim)

  19. “The death of a tribe is easier in comparison to the death of a learned”.  (Bukhari and Muslim)

  20. “Nearer to Prophethood are the learned and the crusaders - the learned, because they conveyed the message which the prophets brought and the crusaders, because they fought with their swords for the sake of religious law of the prophets.” (Abu Naeem)

  21. “On the Day of Resurrection, the ink of the learned will be weighed with the blood of martyr.” (Ibn Abdulbar)

  22. Abu Hurairah reported: And he who so walks in the path seeking knowledge therein, God will make easy to him the  path of Paradise.  (Muslim, Ibn Majah)

  23. “Allah revealed Ibrahim (peace be upon him) that He is Omniscient and loves every learned one.”  (Ibn Abdulbar)

  24. “Intercession of three persons will be accepted on the Day of Resurrection — The Prophets, the learned ones and the martyrs.”  (Ibn Majah)

  25. “The preference of Muslim learned over the Muslim devotee is seventy times more.”  (Ibn Aadi)

  26. “There is a difference of 100 degrees in the learned one and the devotee. The distance of one degree is such that a swift horse can cover it in seventy years.”

  27. “The person who obtains knowledge to teach others, he will be rewarded virtues equal to seventy ever-truthful persons.”  (Welmi Masnadal Firdaus)

  28. “Knowledge is treasure, its keys are questions. Continue to ask about knowledge because by asking one question four persons are rewarded — petitioner, learned, listener and who loves them.” (Abu Naeem)

  29. “Attendance in the assembly of a learned is better than praying thousand Rakats, visiting of thousand patients, and participating thousand funeral processions. The Companions of the Holy Prophet asked the Prophet if it was better than recitation of Holy Qur’an. He replied. Was the Holy Qur’an beneficial without knowledge.”  (Ibnul Jozi)

  30. “It is better to learn any chapter of knowledge than to pray 100 Rakats of prayer.”  (Ibn Abdulbar, Ibn Majah)

  31. “On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will order worshippers and crusaders to enter into Paradise. The learned persons will request that they have worshipped and endeavoured through the knowledge. God will tell them that you are like angels for me. You intercess. Your intercession will be accepted. Then, they will intercess and will enter into Heaven.”   (Abu Abbas Zahbi)

  32. “It is narrated by Abdullah bin Umar that one day the Prophet (peace be upon him) came out and saw two gatherings. In one gathering, people were invoking blessings and were attentive towards it. In the other gathering, people were teaching. The Prophet said that these people were praying. If He willed He might give and if He did not will He might not give. And these people were teaching and God sent him (the prophet) also as a teacher. Then, he turned towards them and sat with them.” – (Ibn Majah)

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II- Education in the Early Islamic State

Since the human beings, male as well as females, are responsible and accountable for their actions and deeds on the Day of Judgement, they are required to acquire the knowledge of the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah particularly the basic knowledge of the fundamentals of Islam like Belief, Prayer, Zakat, Fasting, Hajj, etc. Beside that, they are also obliged to know the Attributes of Allah, knowledge of lawful and unlawful, right and wrong, their religious obligations, laws promulgated by the Qur’an regarding marriage, dower, divorce, inheritance, will adultery, murder, theft etc. A woman is also required to acquire such education and learning which is fundamental to her basic area of activity, i.e. management of home, education, training and bringing up of children.

The Prophet of Islam himself took keen interest in the training and education of the Muslim community. He made suitable arrangements for the education of Muslim men as well as women. He was so much concerned even for the education of the women that whenever he felt that the women could not hear him because they were seated behind the men in the mosque, he would get closer to them and repeated his instructions. It is reported in Sahih Bukhari from Abu Said Khudri that some women came to the Prophet and complained: “Men are always gathered in your presence, and we cannot benefit. Therefore, appoint one day for us”. So the Prophet fixed one day for them, during which he would go to them, listened to their problems, told solutions and gave them instructions regarding their religious, social and family obligations. Sometimes, he would depute some learned companion to educate the women on various issues. It is reported by Umme Atiyyah: When the Prophet came to Madinah, he sent Umar to educate the women of Ansars. Ayesha, wife of the Prophet, also used to teach the women as well as men.

The Prophet of Islam released some of the prisoners who had been captured in the Battle of Badr, without ransom on the condition that each of them should teach at least ten Muslim children how to read and write. This shows how the Prophet viewed the need of education and literacy for the Muslim children.

It is useful to mention here that reading and writing was introduced in Makkah a little before the emergence of Islam. According to Baladhuri, there were about seventeen literate persons at the beginning of Islam. Writing was a new art with the Arabs of Makkah and had not yet made much advancement. A basic reform in the script by way of dotting letters was introduced in the period of the Prophet (PBUH). Soon after his migration to Madinah in the year 622 A.D., the Prophet of Islam ordered reservation of a part of his mosque (known as Mosque of the Prophet) for educational purposes. The place was called al-Suffah which means platform or dais. Education imparted in al-Suffah was of an elementary nature comprising the teaching of al-Qur’an and also teaching the students how to read and write. Al-Suffah functioned as a school by day and a hostel by night for students who had no other place to live in. Dr. Hamidullah calls it the first residential university of Islam. According to him, residential facilities were subsidized by the state as well as private citizens. The number of students fluctuated but the number was considerable as we learn that eighty resident scholars of this institute were once invited to a dinner by Saad bin Ubadah. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself as well as his learned companions taught the students and gave lectures on various aspects of Islam. Besides the school of al-Suffah, other mosques in Madinah (which according to a report of Baladhuri were nine in number during the prophetic period) were also used as a school for educational purposes. According to Tabari, one of the duties of Mu’adh bin Jabal, appointed as governor of Yemen by the Prophet, was to provide suitable educational facilities to the people in his Jurisdiction.

The system of education established by the Prophet (PBUH) continued under the right – guided caliphs in the Islamic state which had expanded to cover three continents on account of conquests of many countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Iran, etc. Though some changes did take place according to the needs of the time, yet the mosque continued to be the centre while the Qur’an and Sunnah continued to be the primary syllabus of education in the early Islamic period.

“In pursuance of the injunctions of the Holy Qur’an and Hadith on education and reflection on natural phenomena, the Muslims of early ages spread throughout the world for acquisition of knowledge and made a tremendous progress in every branch of learning. They were the first who founded regular institutions in the form of schools; colleges and universities for the advancement of learning and established big libraries. Commentators of the Qur’an, traditionists, theologians, faqis, scientists, astronomers, biographers, historians and medical men flourished in great numbers, and left indelible marks on the pages of history. Their voluminous books and interesting treatises now form the chief treasures of modern civilization. The jurists like Imam Abu Hanifa, Shafi, Malik, Ahmad and Abu Yusuf, the traditionists like Imam Bukhari, Muslim and others, thinkers like Imam Ghazzali, the philosophers and scientists like Avicenna, Averoes, Albeiruni and others, the historians like Sayuti, Ibn Masudi, Ibn Batuta, and others, the Sufi poets like Sa’di, Hafiz, Rumi and others, the artistic poets like Mutanabbi and Umar Khayyam are a small fraction of the galaxy of talented men that appeared under the guidance of the Qur’an and Hadith; Abul Hasan invented the telescope, Ibn Unus of Cairo invented pendulum and measurements of time; Abu Musa Jaber invented Algebra; Al Kohi wrote on the movement of planets; Ibn-an-Nabdi on optics and Abdul Wafa on Trigonometry. In short, the Muslims founded a civilization on the basis of the Qur’an and Hadith which is the marvel of the modern world and left behind legacies of learning which are invaluable to us, established fountains of knowledge and wisdom from which we now drink with relish and gave us varied spiritual and intellectual food which now forms our daily menu of research and taste”.[2]

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III- Need for Worldly Education Along With Religious Education

No doubt, revelation is the real source of all knowledge and, therefore, religious education comprising the teaching of the Qur’an and Sunnah should have priority in an Islamic state, but to deny the need of worldly education comprising natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts and literature is not at all justified. Islam aims at the welfare of its followers in this world as well as in the next world. Al-Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam, teaches its followers the famous prayer which reads “….. Our Lord! Give unto us in the world that which is good and in the Hereafter that which is good and guard us from the doom of Fire”. (2:201). This prayer enables the believers to seek earnestly from Allah what is good in this world and what is good in the Hereafter. In other words it implies the acquisition of knowledge of this material world as well as the acquisition of knowledge of the spiritual world for achieving success in both the worlds. In another verse (22:77), the Qur’an enjoins: “But seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah hath given thee and neglect not thy portion of (this) world…..”.

Since the man has been taught by Islam to seek (and also to make efforts to achieve) welfare and success in both the worlds, he obviously needs such an education which helps him in this objective. Hence is the need for Naqliya and Aqliya knowledge i.e. religious knowledge as well as knowledge of science and technology with other Aqliya disciplines. This need makes it imperative to formulate an integrated system of education comprising religious education and temporal education. It was perhaps this integrated system of education which enabled the Muslims of middle ages to acquire mastery over sciences along with a profound knowledge of the Qur’an and Hadith.

[1] Traditions from No. 16 onward have been taken from “Islamic Education” written by Dr. Muhammad Sharif Khan.

[2] Fazlul Karim: Al-Hadis.

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