City of knowledge

Updated November 10, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IN the Islamic worldview, the pursuit of knowledge is one of the central tenets of faith. For example, the first words revealed to the Holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH) by the Almighty were “Read in the name of your Lord who created” (Surah Al-Alaq). In fact, in the same surah the Almighty describes Himself as the Supreme Teacher “who taught by the pen”.

This commandment in the Holy Quran is complemented by a famous hadith in which the Blessed Prophet has said that “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate”.

These two luminous examples from the Quran and hadith/Sunnah illustrate the central role knowledge plays in Islam. However far Muslims may have drifted from these noble tenets, the fact is that salvation for the world of Islam, as well as humanity at large, lies in the pursuit of knowledge.

But what exactly is knowledge? Is it just the ability to read, write, compute and arrive at logical conclusions? Of course literacy and numeracy skills are essential. But is there some deeper connection of knowledge with the soul? After all, the individuals who created weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical weapons etc, were exceptionally bright people. Yet far from being beneficial for mankind, their knowledge has helped spread immense misery in the world.

The fountainhead of divine knowledge is the personality of the Prophet (PBUH).

In the words of the Holy Prophet, whose blessed birth the world is celebrating on this day, “Knowledge is not (acquired) through extensive learning. Rather, it is the light that God sends in the heart of whomever He wishes to guide”. Thus, true knowledge illuminates the heart and takes one out of the darkness of ignorance and into the world of light.

Unfortunately, today most of the Muslim world is drowning in the depths of ignorance, far from the ‘light’ of salvation the Quran and hadith have laid so much emphasis on. Sanctimoniousness has replaced piety and reflection; clamour and rancour have taken the place of discussion and debate while the doctors of religion are far too preoccupied with petty sectarian squabbles to look at the ‘big’ picture that Islam stresses — bringing the light of knowledge and compassion to a world filled with ignorance and hatred.

And indeed the fountainhead of divine knowledge is the personality of the Blessed Prophet, who connects the ‘unseen’ world of revelation to the material realm. Whether it is knowledge concerning personal ethics and conduct, of how to pray and fast, or familiarity with the advanced sciences and the secrets of the physical universe, divine guidance is essential in all spheres.

The Quran in numerous instances observes: “do they not reflect?” Considering the fact that the Holy Book is a guide for all ages, perhaps the verses are asking us why Muslims today do not reflect on their pitiful condition. Far from seeking knowledge of the self and the universe, the ignorance and deprivation of the Muslim world can be reflected in the fact that millions of believers are affected by death, war, disease and malnutrition, yet their brothers and sisters in faith remain unmoved.

As followers of the Holy Prophet, who claim to love and emulate him, we need to study his compassion and foresightedness when confronting crises. To truly follow his example, the ummah needs to make greater efforts to wipe out ignorance, malice and hatred. Instead of wasting our energies and considerable resources on sectarian polemics and mutual hostility, it would be better for believers to “hasten to do good works”, as Surah Al-Baqarah instructs.

While it may not be possible for individuals to put right all that is wrong in the world, at least we can play our small parts. This can be done, for example, by keeping our surroundings clean, as we are told that cleanliness is half of faith; certainly our filthy cities can benefit much from following this maxim. Or in these times of galloping inflation, perhaps we who eat our fill can make sure none of our neighbours, friends or acquaintances go hungry.

The fact is that if hearts are attuned to and lit up by the nur of the Holy Prophet’s love and his knowledge, such hearts are filled with compassion, mercy and forbearance — traits this society, indeed the world, are in dire need of. Let us start with ourselves, then move on to our families, or neighbourhoods, communities etc as in such violent and depressive times, it is essential to carry out amr bil maroof (to enjoin what is good).

Can there be a better way than the one taught by the Blessed Prophet, about whom Shaikh Saadi has recited the immortal quatrain:

“Balaghal-ula be-Kamal-i-hi
(He attained exaltation by his perfection)

Kashafad-duja be-Jamaal-i-hi
(He dispelled darkness by his beauty)

Hasunat jamee’u Khisaal-i-hi
(Beauteous are all his qualities)

Sallu alae-hi wa Aal-i-hi
(Benediction be on him and on his family).”

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2019