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,
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,
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) *
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,
958 (died) * Abul Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi * Geography,
960 (died) * Ibn Wahshiyh, Abu Baker * Alchemy, Botany
965-1040 * Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen) * Physics, Optics,
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
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,
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,
1135 * Ibn Maymun, Musa (Maimonides) * Medicine,
1140 * Al-Badee Al-Ustralabi * Astronomy, Mathematics 
1155 (died) * Abdel-al Rahman Al Khazin * Astronomy 
1162 * Al Baghdadi, Abdel-Lateef Muwaffaq * Medicine,
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,
1262 (died) * Al-Hassan Al-Murarakishi * Mathematics,
Astronomy, Geography
1270 * Abu al-Fath Abd al-Rahman al-Khazini * Physics,
1273-1331 * Al-Fida (Abdulfeda) * Astronomy, Geography

1306 * Ibn Al-Shater Al Dimashqi * Astronomy,
1320 (died) * Al Farisi Kamalud-deen Abul-Hassan *
Astronomy, Physics
1341 (died) * Al-Jildaki, Muhammad Ibn Aidamer *
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,

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

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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