By Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz
That Muslims were once leaders in many fields of knowledge is a fact that is readily acknowledged even by many non-Muslim scholars. The early Muslims’ contributions to various sciences were truly impressive. This being the case, it is often asked why this process came to a halt several centuries ago. How was it that a people that were in the forefront of the pursuit of science and learning are now among the least educated communities across the world? How does one explain what seems to be this very puzzling paradox?
There is a simple yet convincing explanation for this. And it is this: the decline of Muslims, including in the field of science and learning, happened because Muslims increasingly began to move away from the Quran and its teachings.
Now, how did this effect Muslims’ attitude towards knowledge and learning?
The answer is that as Muslims began to move away from the Quran, their understanding of knowledge and learning also began to change.
The understanding of knowledge (ilm) in the Quran is a holistic one. Numerous verses of the Quran exhort people to reflect on various phenomenon of nature. For instance, the Quran (3:190) says: ‘There are signs in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day for people of understanding’. Verses such as this one encourage us to develop knowledge of God’s creation. This knowledge is a means to grow in our understanding of God. Inspired by this Quranic understanding of knowledge, many early Muslims made impressive contributions in various fields of knowledge, including what are called the ‘Sciences’ today.
In later centuries, however, as Muslims began to depart from the teachings of the Quran, this holistic understanding of knowledge was soon eclipsed. Knowledge came to be artificially and arbitrarily divided into two distinct categories ‘religious’ (dini) and ‘worldly’ (duniyavi). There is no such distinction made in the Quran, though. Whereas God had given human beings the capacity to gain knowledge in all fields, some Muslims declared that only the former sort of knowledge was to be pursued while they forbade or frowned upon the latter. That is how the Muslims fell from their position of torchbearers of knowledge in various sciences.
(The author has written extensively on issues related to Islam and Science. He can be contacted on [email protected])