June 14, 2012 By K.C. Saleem

Towards A Knowledge Society

kcsaleem_0The portals of the University of Granada bear the following inscription: “The world is supported by four things only: the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valour of the brave.”
It is significant to note that in this inscription, learning comes first. “Read in the name of thy Lord” was the first Qur’anic verse revealed to Muhammad and Qur’an is the only Scripture in the world that started with a word related to knowledge. Education and knowledge are two of the most vital components of Islam that have led to a long and rich intellectual tradition.
The intellectual tradition of Islam does not encourage dissidence among its members because it advocates the unity and togetherness of people from different classes and creeds. We all share the same earth, the same sky, the same rivers and mountains, the same water and air. We share the roads, bridges, means of transport and communication. We also share history, inventions, discoveries and scientific and intellectual advancements. Hence we are what we now are. Knowledge and education has always been a common property of the humankind.
The Qur’an had aimed at the formation of a knowledge society, long before Daniel Bell, American sociologist, talked about the “information society” in 1973. Being the People of the Book, Muslim scholars carefully formed, gathered, translated, preserved and refined knowledge from many sources during the great cultural awakening after the rise of Islam in the seventh century. At that time, Europe was largely intolerant of pagan traditions.  Islamic scholars have incorporated inspirations in creative ways for the good of humanity.
The Qur’an revolutionized the predominantly illiterate Arabian society in the seventh century. The Arab society had enjoyed a rich oral tradition and an organic interaction came about when people read and recited the verses of the Holy Text. It can be said that education in Islam has always had a symbiotic relationship with the Divine Scripture.
In an illiterate society, there needs to be a system in which its members are given the opportunity to seek knowledge. It was this necessity that motivated the formation of the unique waqf system in Islam. The system goes back to the time of the Prophet, when  the institution maintained public service that ranged from education and health care to water supply and highway facilities on a voluntary basis and in the non-profit sector. It was considered as a religious and charitable system. Followers who are financially sound earmarked a portion of their wealth for the common good of the society that was used for education, health and other public needs. It was on the basis of this system that several institutions of education were established in the Muslim lands throughout history.
In mosques, there was a formal procedure for learning: circles of students would gather around a teacher sitting against a pillar or a wall and he would explain a subject through reading and interpreting upon a book. By the eleventh century, there grew up a kind of institution which later came to be known as madrasa, a school often attached to a mosque, the origin of which historians ascribe to the wazir of the first Saljuq ruler of Baghdad, Nizam al Mulk (1018-92). Mostly, Madrasas included residential facilities for students. In several places, special quarters were attached to the mosques for the residence of teachers, students and travellers. Children’s education began at home and continued in these madrasas.
Pious and learned Muslims (mu’allim or mudarris), imparted the teachings of the Qur’an to the community in what came to be known as the kuttāb. The kuttāb could be located in a variety of venues: mosques, private homes, shops, tents, or even out in the open. With the widespread desire of the faithful to acquire and disseminate knowledge, such centers could be found in virtually every part of the Muslim land by the middle of the eighth century. These institutions were the only vehicle for formal public instruction for the youth.
They were established by an individual donor as awaqaf which became an endowment and ensured its permanence. As per the waqf system, the income from a property so endowed was devoted to a pious or charitable purpose and therefore, it cannot be alienated. The endowment was used for maintaining the building, paying the salaries of teachers, distributing food and sometimes stipends to students. Such awaqaf were established in several parts of Muslim lands, often by rulers and high officials as well as by persons of wealth. These kinds of institutions were established “in Iraq and Iran under the Saljuqs, in Syria and Egypt under the Ayyubids and Mamluks and in the Maghrib under the Marinids and Hafsids,” writes Albert Hourani (A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber and Faber, London, 1991, Page 163).
Historians note that Muslims predated Western educational practices in many respects by over a millennium. They were the first to structure higher education as we know it, and there is a clear influence on Western scholarship by Islamic institutions. Muslim educationists have declared that teaching required special preparation and training programmes.  In the 10th century-Baghdad, hundreds of students took examinations each year before they could work in hospitals.  Many Europeans who studied in Islamic universities carried their experiences back to their home countries.  Though there were times, as during the Crusades, when groups from one faith would discourage interactions with those from other faiths, particularly Christians against Muslims, educational institutions in Spain were among the important centres through which European scholars studied the East and its culture.
Muslims improved the education sector by passing on the concept of specialization in universities in various subjects, endowed chairs and introduced scholarships for the aspirants. In order to ensure public financial support for education, they established endowments – awqaf – as stated above. Long before western Europeans championed the concept of educational opportunities for everyone, Muslims had implemented this philosophy in a variety of ways. The rise of many great scholars Al-Ghazali, Al-Beruni, Al-Razi and Al-Farabi from the lowest strata of society can be attributed to the Islamic system of education, which was free.
Largely because of the all-encompassing influence of the Qur’an, Islamic education is uniquely different from other educational systems. It aims at the comprehensive growth of both the individual and society and the Qur’an serves as the primary source of knowledge. In Islam, education is regarded as a process that focuses on the complete person, including his rational, spiritual, and social faculties. Renowned Muslim scholar Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas noted that the comprehensive and integrated approach to education in Islam is directed toward the “balanced growth of the total personality…through training Man’s spirit, intellect, rational self, feelings and bodily senses” (Syed Muhammad Naquib al Attas, Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Hodder and Stoughton. p. 158, quoted in Education Encyclopaedia).
In the Islamic educational theory, knowledge is gained in order to actualize and perfect all dimensions of the human being – to become an insan-e-kamil, as Iqbal put it, a perfect human being. Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote in 1984 that while education prepares humankind for happiness in this life, “its ultimate goal is the abode of permanence and all education points to the permanent world of eternity” (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “The Islamic Philosophers’ Views on Education.” Muslim Education Quarterly, quoted in Education Encyclopaedia). In Islam, spiritual and temporal realities are two sides of the same sphere and so, ascertaining truth by reason alone will not be right. Many Muslim educationists argue that favouring reason at the expense of spirituality, and vice versa, will cost balanced growth. They are of the opinion that mere training of the intellect would be inadequate in developing and refining elements of love, kindness, compassion, and selflessness, qualities that require spiritual training. Islam gives equal importance to both, as education in Islam is meant for stimulating a more advanced moral and spiritual consciousness.
The importance given to knowledge by Islam had a profound impact on its followers that led to the growth of intense educational activity throughout the length and breadth of the Islamic domain. “Science and literature possessed no votaries” wrote Ameer Ali, “but the words of the Prophet gave a new impulse to the awakened energies of the race. Even within his lifetime was formed the nucleus of an educational institution, which in after years grew into universities at Baghdad and Salerno, at Cairo and Cordova.”
The Darul Hikma (House of Wisdom) founded by Caliph al Mamun in Baghdad was the first institution of higher learning in the Islamic world. Even though it lacked modern scientific laboratories, it produced eminent scientists. It was a combination library, academy and translation bureau which was considered in many respects as the most important educational institution after the foundation of the Alexandrian Museum in the first half of the third century BC. Similarly, several Muslim rulers established centers of education in various parts of the Muslim land. Nizamiyah University in Neshapur was one such institution where renowned scholars including al Ghazali were appointed as principal. Sultan Salahuddin, better known as Saladin in the west, was also a great patron of learning and education who founded educational institutions in Alexandria, Cairo, Jerusalum and Damascus. In the present day world, Zaituna University, International Islamic University of Malaysia, Aligarh Muslim University and Al Azhar University are some of the renowned modern centres of excellence in education. There is a Federation of the Universities of the Islamic World (FUIW http://www.fuiw.org) now with more than 200 universities across the world. It is an organization working within the framework of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) to support universities and higher education institutions in the Islamic world.
The foundations of what are now called universities were laid in Spain that wrote one of the brightest chapters in the intellectual history of medieval Europe. The prominent universities in Spain were the ones in Cordova, Seville, Malaga and Granada which taught almost all sciences and arts. Scholars from all over Europe flocked to these universities for study.
In Muslim regions in Spain, religious knowledge were imparted to children at young ages.  In several Muslim lands, primary education was based on writing and reading from the Qur’an and Arabic grammar while higher education was based largely on Qur’anic exegesis as well as theology, philosophy, Arabic grammar, poetry, history, geography and lexicography. As a result of the encouragement given to the promotion of education, universities were established in several cities of Spain, the chief among them was Cordova, Seville, Malaga and Granada. The University of Cordova had departments of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, theology and law while at the University of Granada the curriculum comprised theology, jurisprudence, medicine, chemistry, philosophy and astronomy.
Side by side with this, libraries also flourished in Muslim lands. One of the main characteristics of the Muslim society in Spain was that several persons, including women, had private collection of books. While Greece and Rome felt proud of its political assemblies and theatres, the Muslim societies found in the books the sole means of acquiring knowledge. The accumulation of books was made possible with the local manufacture of writing paper which is considered to be one of the most beneficial contributions of Muslims to Europe. It was from Morocco the manufacture of paper was introduced to Spain from the East in the middle of the twelfth century. The word ‘ream’ is derived through Old French rayme from Spanish resma which is a loan word from Arabic rizmah, means bundle. It was through the Muslim influence that the art of paper-making spread to several parts of Europe including Italy and France.

While Muslims used every opportunity to spread knowledge and culture and preserve ancient knowledge, there were unfortunate incidents of Christian armies burning several thousands of books when they conquered Muslim lands. When Muslims lost Spain, the triumphant Christian armies burnt several thousands of books. After the destruction of Muslim power in Spain, less than two thousand volumes survived, and were collected by Philip II (1556-1598) and his successors from the various Arab libraries and these formed the nucleus of the Escurial library in Madrid.
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Proponents of book-burning are still active. The website www.landoverbaptist.org is a case in point. The site says that thousands of American Christians had showed up for the largest book-burning on Satan’s birthday, October 31st and that they had burnt over 3.4 million books at a function.  These might be a small fraction of the Christian community and it would be unfair to generalize an evil and attribute it to the community as a whole. One can’t ignore the contributions of the Christian community in education sector either.

Reading history may force one to be nostalgic for a time when all resources were spent for the formation and propagation of a knowledge society.

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