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Seeking Knowledge an Imperative

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 mankind?

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 risky.

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 miserly.

(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 Godhead.

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 Traditions:

“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]

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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 academies.

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

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

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