23 March, 2010

Nai Subh - Knowledge and Islam

In its march towards a dawn of dignity for the ummah, this introspective series is currently coping with realities we must reckon with. This issue invites recognition of the importance of learning, specially of science.

The material for this column is largely derived from the author’s Urdu audio presentation, KHITAB, available from SPRAT.
In the previous column we discussed how significant role knowledge plays in advancing human communities. Continuing this assessment let us discuss the role of clergy in spreading this knowledge

Knowledge and Clergy

We must recognize that most of those that pass for ulema [masters] lack secular knowledge woefully. We have previously cited a SPRAT survey that revealed a dismal picture of the secular information of our clergy. Contrast their knowledge with that of the Christian priest. Typically he is teaching science, mathematics or English at high school or college and also leads prayers at the Church. In secular education our clergy compares with Christians’ one to ten.
The Pope’s council for the sciences is a globally respected body with several Nobel laureates as its members. Most Bishops are pretty articulate on temporal matters and can match qualified professionals. Ditto for the saints of ISKCON, Art of Living, Swaminarayan etc. We must ask how Christians nurtured a scientific attitude for much of their 2000 years and we destroyed in just 700.

If the teacher of physics or mathematics should know much about physics and mathematics and a little about Quran and Hadith, then, conversely should our Imam not know much about Islam and a little about Physics and mathematics? Indeed our “ulema” should know the basic principles of economics, finance, management, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and engineering, to qualify to lead us.
The role of the Aalim is to lead by his knowledge. Gifted with khitabat [public speaking] the Muslim imams can be true dispensers of both, knowledge and inspiration. They can be change agents, if, alas! if they change. As of now, personally I see bleak future unless this front is revolutionized, led, perhaps by an Indian Ataturk.

Knowledge and Learning

Knowledge, however, does not translate to wisdom always. Or else we wouldn’t have so many knowledgeable fools and wise illiterates – or scientists guilty of superstition. While knowledge is a collection of facts its assimilation and influence on behaviour may be called wisdom.

We must also recognize that knowledge in one discipline doesn’t ipso facto authorize a person in another discipline. An English speaker need not necessarily be an expert on history. [Consider how often we sanctify sheer non-sense merely because it is uttered in English!].

Modes of Learning

As the tools and technologies of communication and teaching evolve so must our modes of learning. The teacher-pupil eye-contact, paper-pencil, spoken word et al are yielding place to remote, PC-based, internet or TV supported self-driven learning. These audio-visual media have made learning highly time and cost efficient. If we, therefore, remain stuck to old-fashioned modes of learning our pace that is already slow will impact even less.

Zakawt of Knowledge

Maldar ke mal per zakat farz - aalim ke ilm per nahin? How one wishes our knowledgeable regarded the wealth of their knowledge as taxable like Zakawt and taught the less informed as of an obligation! Imagine the impact of each of our matriculates teaching basic literacy to one illiterate Muslim – or each professional sponsoring the schooling of a poor student. Let us begin by recognizing that our knowledge raises a debt for us to repay.

Scope of Learning

Utlubul ilma lau kaana bisseen [learn even in China] deserves a thousand repetitions. Nothing, virtually nothing is beyond the realm of learning. Unfortunately our emphasis often is on what not to learn rather than what and how to.
For instance, should we study other faiths? [And our clergy is woefully ignorant on this count.] Incidentally, my respect for the core of Islam actually increased when I learnt other religions. I used to be apologetic of our treatment of women until I learnt of Sati and Manu’s Smriti or that the Swaminarayan sect gurus regard women unholy enough to shelter from their shadow. An argument for sadbhavna makes greater sense to Hindus when supported with a sloka or a quote from Swami Vivekananada rather than a hadith.

Learning of Science

There is a popular apprehension that science takes as away from Islam. Even if this were true, it begets the question “can we abjure science?” Can we imagine our life – much less, one of dignity and comfort – without science, and its off-shoot, technology?

This column has earlier presented the advances Muslims once made in sciences and contrasted it with its contemporary neglect by us. Unfortunately this harsh truth is not sinking down enough on our leadership that without significant advances in varied sciences Muslims have little future in 21st century. We must recognize, too, that science positively influences our outlook and behaviour.

If the West made a costly mistake of bracketing terrorism with Islam, Muslims made the fatal mistake of bracketing science with the West. Science and technology are not Western monopolies. Japan, Korea, China and India, for instance, have made tremendous advances in robotics, biology, automobile engineering and space and are billed to become pioneers of tomorrow’s sciences.

Gratitude to Scientists

Does it occur to Muslims that until the 18th century, throughout his 3-million history, modern man did not have electricity in his control, and that Allah chose non-Muslims like the Englishman Michael Faraday and the American Thomas Alva Edison to give us our daily noor, the electric lamp? Or that our life will become simply unlivable without the painstaking, magnificent contribution of these scientists and technologists? Or that the mike in the mosque is a “Western product”? Let us assess, in Table-A, how much we owe to whom for the blessings we now take for granted.


Who Invented / Perfected Them



Wright Brothers


Ball Pen

John Loud



Karl Drais von Sauerbronn,



Nicholas & Jean Lumiere


Diesel Engine

Rudolf Diesel


Electric Lamp

Thomas Alva Edison



Alexander Graham Bell



Charles Babbage etc


Petrol Car

Carl Benz


Steam Engine

James Watt



Raene Laennec



Joseph Nic?phore



James Harrison + Alexander Catlin



Alexander Graham Bell



P T Farnsworth



Christopher Sholes


If health is wealth, the creators of this wealth are people we need to salute. They sacrificed much, often risking their very lives to give us treatment for dreadful diseases. Before them entire populations used to be destroyed with epidemics. Table-B introduces some of the pioneers whom we owe vital cures.


For What



Cholera Bacilli

Robert Koch


Heart Transplantation

Christian Bernard



Samuel Hahnemann


Insulin for Diabetics

Benting and Best


Malaria treatment

Joseph Pelletier & Caventou.


Open Heart Surgery

Walton Lillehel



Alaxendar Fleming


Polio vaccine

Jonas E Salk


Typhoid Bacilli

Almroth Edward Wright


A pertinent question: Do we – that routinely celebrate dozens of urs or anniversaries of holy men – ever bother to remember, much less salute and honour, these great men and women who enriched our lives? The Quraan quizzes meaningfully: Hal jaza-il-ehsanu illal ehsan? [Do good deeds deserve anything but good?]. One wonders why Muslims do not invoke Allah’s blessings on those He chose to bestow blessings upon us? Allama Edison Rahmatullahi Alaih would earn an instant excommunication!

Our ingratitude born of our resistance to science leads us to miss the beauty, magic and grandeur of today’s scientific advances. And while the world marches past us we seem to revert in time.

Basic Facts
We have simply not educated our clergy. Most of our Imams – that lead our prayers - and Maulvis – that teach in our madarsas – are blissfully unaware of basic facts of life. Here is a sample we tested.

· Motion picture is made of a series of stills

· Bats [chamgadar] see without eyes

· Several animals – and machines created by man – can hear and see a lot better than humans, and often very differently.

· The sky as we see is not a physical entity, but a mere illusion, relative to us, created by speed of light. Several stars we see there have long since ceased to exist. Nor does it appear blue to all creatures even on earth.

· Our continents are moving a few inches every year, often triggering earthquakes.

· With Infra-red devices we can see in pitch dark. US soldiers exploited them in Iraq

· We can type a letter and even take a print without moving a finger. Indeed we can run basic machines thousands of miles away merely by “thinking”

· On earth there are regions where sunset or sunrise occurs once in 6-months – or the time between Fajr and Maghrib can be that long.

· Kaaba, lies in mashriq [east] for those on its west.

· Yes, we may be “hanging upside down” on earth, thanks to gravity, like an ant on the football.

· A 6-Kg heavy rehal weighs just a kilo on moon [2 kilos on Mars]

· On moon earth looks much bigger and receives a lot more light “zameen-ni[?]” [earthshine]

· Eclipses and Comets are ordinary astronomical occurrences and objects and can be predicted precisely years ahead.

Visiting a science museum can revolutionize our thinking. I wonder if we have taken our local imams to such museums. SPRAT wishes to take Ahmedabad Imams if a small grant were available.



? Who are the most celebrated donors or charity givers of our times? How do Muslims fare?

£ Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Jond Rockfeller, Dame Roddick, etc globally and in India Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji are known to give more. Yusuf Islam [aka Cat Stevens] gives Muslim institutions generously.

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