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5 December 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

Islam and knowledge

The intellectual influence of Islam and fears for Muslim scholarship today and in the future

By Asim Siddiqui

Islam means peace. It came to elevate humankind onto a higher plain of being, with respect for diversity and the establishment of justice in all human relationships and a move away from power-based exploitation.

Islam created the first truly global civilisation with its advances in the sciences and arts. It was also responsible for lifting Europe out of its dark ages.

The 800 years of Muslim rule in Spain between the 8th to 15th century not only gathered and preserved the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, it also built upon and expanded that knowledge in so many new fields of science, mathematics, astronomy, law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology and music.

Despite what the Pope says about Europe’s Christian past, Europe was rescued from its dark ages by European Muslim scholarship. Today’s Europe is indebted to Islam. Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) created covivencia – the golden age for Jews, Christian and Muslims living, thriving and prospering together. Al-Andalus was the true precursor to the European Union. It taught Europeans to not only tolerate but respect people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. An understanding of covivencia is needed as today’s Europe grapples with it‘s multiple identities.

The first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammed was iqra (or read/recite), such was the emphasis Islam places on learning and scholarship. A famous saying of the Prophet states that “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.

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Muslim scholarship over the last few centuries has been in rapid decline due to the arrogance that comes with power and refusal to learn from others. The problems that plague the Muslim world today can almost all be traced back to this decline in intellectual excellence in all spheres of knowledge.

Islam was revealed through the Prophet. The compiled words of God revealed to the Prophet form the Qur’an. The Qur’an is thus divine, but its interpretation is human – and no human interpretation can be deified. The Qur’an is timeless guidance for mankind; it is not a rule book. Each successive Muslim generation needs to approach the sacred text afresh in order to apply new insights to vastly changing historical experiences. A failure to do so leads to intellectual stagnation, dogma and irrelevance.

There is no clergy in Islam, individuals are empowered by God with a sense of purpose to promote good and prevent injustice. All individual and collective actions in Islam must conform to the following four principles: justice (adl), benevolence (ihsan), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah). These are also the attributes of God.

Islam is not about the next world, it is about this world – and how to make it a peaceful and just place for all. The Prophet is reported to have said that to love one’s country is part of faith (iman) and to serve the people is to serve God.