Ilm is the term used for knowledge in Arabic. In Islam, knowledge comes before action, and Allah, the Exalted, warns every Muslim against speaking without knowledge in the Quran: “Do not follow what you have no knowledge of.” (Al-Isra 17:36) The first revelation of the Quran started with the word Iqra which means read or recite. The fourth verse of the first revelation highlights the following trait of Allah: “Who taught by the pen.” (Al-Alaq 96:4)
Allah is the absolute teacher and guide for humanity as He calls Himself Al-Aleem (The All-Knowing). According to an authentic hadith, He created qalam (pen) before anything else and commanded it to write the future (destiny). Allah taught names to Adam (AS) right after his creation and asked the angels to prostrate to him thereafter, thus indicating his superiority:
He taught Adam the names of all things, then He presented them to the angels and said, “Tell Me the names of these, if what you say is true?” They replied, “Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. You are truly the All-Knowing, All-Wise.” (Al-Baqarah 2:31-32)
The Quran mentions accounts of many prophets who were granted special ilm by Allah such as Ibrahim (AS) who overcame Nimrod in argument due to his vast knowledge; Yusuf (AS), who could interpret dreams; Dawud (AS) who was granted the knowledge of making armors; Musa (AS), who undertook a great journey to learn and acquire wisdom from Khadir, and so on.
Most importantly, perhaps, the very mission of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent to guide people and instruct them in knowledge, as the Quran says: “He is the One Who raised for the illiterate (people) a messenger from among themselves – reciting to them His revelations, purifying them, and teaching them the Book and wisdom, for indeed they had previously been clearly astray.” (Al-Jumu’ah 62:2).
In the Quran, the words aalim (scholar) and ilm (knowledge) occur frequently. Scholars occupy a noble status in Islam, which is higher than the position of others in this world and in the hereafter. Allah says in the Quran, “Allah will elevate those of you who are faithful, and (raise) those gifted with knowledge in rank.” (Al-Mujadila 58:11) Further, our Prophet ﷺ said that the scholars are the heirs of the prophets and that the prophets did not leave behind dinars and dirhams; rather, their inheritance was knowledge, so whoever acquires it has gained a great share.
There are many Quranic verses which highlight the significance of ilm and hundreds of traditions which accentuate the need to acquire all kinds of knowledge. Allah advised the Prophet ﷺ to pray for abundance of knowledge: “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” (Taha 20:114) The Prophet ﷺ incentivized seeking knowledge in the following words: “Whoever follows a path in the pursuit of knowledge, Allah will make a path to Paradise easy for him.” (Bukhari) In addition to learning, teaching and imparting knowledge is equally important.
The Prophet ﷺ made seeking knowledge an obligation upon every Muslim and explained that the superiority of the one who has knowledge (i.e. aalim) over the one who merely worships (i.e. aabid) is like the superiority of the moon over every other heavenly body. He further declared, “The superiority of the learned over the devout worshipper is like my superiority over the most inferior amongst you [in good deeds].” (Tirmidhi)
After the revelation of the Quran, the trend of receiving education set in. The early converts to Islam learned the Quran from the Prophet ﷺ and taught it to others. This way, the homes of the earliest converts of Islam such as Al-Arqam, Fatimah bint Khattab, and Abu Bakr turned into centers of learning.
During the first and second pledges of Aqaba, the Prophet ﷺ appointed 12 learned men to teach Quran to the new converts. After the Battle of Badr, the enemy men taken prisoners were given the option to secure their freedom by imparting literacy to ten Muslim children. The Prophet ﷺ also wrote letters to different rulers around in and around Arabia, inviting them to Islam and thus demonstrating the power of the pen.
The Quran is filled with many inspirational verses that invite people to reflect on the signs and creation of Allah. For instance, the creation of the heavens and the earth, the alternation of the night and the day, human growth and reproduction, different kinds of laws pertaining to food, inheritance, trading, morality, etc. – they all relate to different aspects and fields of study.
Islam divides knowledge into two categories. The first is about basic Islamic concepts such as tauheed, the pillars of Islam, understanding the Quran, knowledge of the Shariah, etc. The second type of knowledge is the worldly knowledge required to earn a livelihood and to strengthen the community. This includes medicine, engineering, economics, architecture, etc. Hence, the emphasis of learning and teaching in Islam is not confined to religious knowledge.
History has produced many great Muslim scientists, chemists, doctors, mathematicians, architects, astronomers, and explorers. A few of them are as follows:
- Al-Kindi, who wrote 200 works on subjects such as mathematics and geometry.
- Banu Musa brothers (Muhammad, Ahmad, and Al-Hasan), who were at the helm of scientific innovation in the 9th century and who accurately estimated the circumference of the earth at a time when most people thought the earth was flat.
- Ibn Sina, considered the father of early modern medicine, who was one of the greatest doctors, physicists, and astronomers of the 11th century, some of whose books remained influential for centuries afterwards.
- Ibn Nafees, who was the first person to describe blood circulation back in the 13th century and 400 years before William Harvey.
- Al Ghazali, who was a very influential jurist, philosopher, and logician.
- Ibn Khaldun, who was among the best-known economists, sociologists, and historians of the 14th century, writing about concepts such as division of labor.
Women were equally encouraged to seek knowledge at the time of Prophet ﷺ and in centuries afterwards. They not only played an active role in society but also helped reform it. Some even excelled far beyond their male contemporaries. For instance, Aisha, the beloved wife of the Prophet ﷺ, was consulted by his companions on finer points of religion due to her sound knowledge and expertise. She taught many other scholars and gave legal verdicts in the years after the Prophet’s ﷺ demise. She was also an established interpreter of the Quran and other branches of religion such as Fiqh.
To sum up, the Prophet ﷺ said, “When a person dies, all his deeds come to an end except for three – an ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge or a righteous child who prays for him.” (Muslim) This shows how significant is useful knowledge when shared with others – that people continue to receive reward for it even after they pass on from this world!