Seek knowledge even if it is in China

We divide our discussion into three sections: Islam and science, Islam and society, and Islam, science and society.


I. Islam and Science


In the Holy Quran, the word ‘ilm’ (knowledge) and its derivatives are used more than 780 times. The Islamic tradition (Ahadith) too is full of references to ‘ilm’ and its significance. Thus, in the first part of this essay we pay attention to the Islamic conception of knowledge. Then, we elaborate on the sciences of nature in the Islamic outlook.


1. Islamic Conception of Knowledge


In a famous hadith (narration) from the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) we read:


Acquisition of knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim. [1]


What kind of knowledge is this hadith referring to? We believe that the spectrum of knowledge recommended by Islam is very wide. It includes both specifically religious teachings and those branches of knowledge that are beneficial to the welfare of individuals and human societies. To substantiate this claim, we notice that according to the Qur’anic verse:


[God] taught man what he knew not (96: 5),


the source of all knowledge is God. Furthermore, the Qur’an uses the word ‘ilm’ (knowledge) in a very general sense. For example, the Qur’an quotes the Prophet Solomon (SAWS) as saying that he had been taught the language of birds and that he considered this as a blessing from God:


O people! We have been taught the language of birds, and We have been given all things; surely this is manifest grace. (27: 16)


The Qur’an also mentions God’s teaching the knowledge of making coats of mail to the Prophet David (SAWS) in order to protect his people in wars:


And We taught him the making of coats of mail for you, that they might protect you in your wars; will you then be grateful? (21: 78-80)


In the Islamic tradition too we see references to the broadness of the spectrum of knowledge. Thus, e.g. we have from the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) that:


Seek knowledge even if it is in China [2]


and from Imam Ali (AS) we have:


Knowledge is the lost property of a believer. Thus, acquire it even if it is in the hands of the polytheists. [3]


There is, however, a constraint on the kind of knowledge one learns: it has to be a useful knowledge in the sense of promoting one’s welfare or taking care of the necessities of human societies. Thus, e.g., God rebukes in the Qur’an those who learn what is harmful to them, instead of the beneficial:


… and they learn what harms them and does not benefit them, and certainly they know that he who buys it should have no share of good in the Hereafter… (2:102)


Similarly, it is narrated from the Holy Prophet (SAWS) that:


Ask God for useful knowledge, and seek refuge in God from useless knowledge. [4]


The afore-mentioned Qur’anic verses and Islamic narrations indicate that, in Islam, the acquisition of knowledge is not confined to the learning of specifically religious sciences, because, e.g., China was not a proper place to learn Islamic teachings; rather, it was well-known for its industry.


Another argument for the broadness of the spectrum of praiseworthy sciences in the Islamic view is the interpretation that Muslim scholars of the glorious Islamic civilization era had about Islam’s view concerning the sciences of nature. Those scholars assimilated the scientific heritage of other nations and added to it. They considered various sciences as ways of understanding God’s signs in nature, and were inspired by the teachings of the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition to be active and to be pioneers in the scientific enterprise.


Next, we come to the question about the kind of knowledge that is to be given primacy. Here we can argue from the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition that useful knowledge has one or more of the following characteristics:


(i) Increases one’s knowledge about God.


(ii) Secures the physical welfare of the Islamic society, at both the individual and the societal level. The usefulness of knowledge for the society has received a strong emphasis in the Islamic tradition. Thus, e.g., we have from the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) that:


When a person dies, one’s deeds ceases, except three: A continuing charity, or a righteous offspring who prays for him (her), or knowledge from which people can benefit. [5]


(iii) Secures the integrity of Islamic communities and prepares the ground for the realization of the Qur’anic verse:


…and the word of God is the highest… (9: 40)


2. Islam and the Sciences of Nature


There are very many verses in the Qur’an that refer to various aspects of the natural world. These verses recommend human beings to study various phenomena of nature and to reflect on them. For example, we read:


Say, behold what is it that is in the heavens and the earth … (10: 101)


Say, travel in the earth and see how He originated the creation… (29:20)


Similarly, Muslims have been instructed to study the history of the earlier generations, in order to become aware of God’s patterns in societies:


Indeed there have been modes of life before you; therefore, travel in the earth and see what was the end of the rejecters [of the Messengers of God]. (3: 137)


Another reason for the promotion of the sciences of nature in Islam is that they play an important role in the Advancement of Islamic societies.


What are we supposed to learn from the so-called ‘scientific verses’ of the Qur’an, verses that refer to natural phenomena? In my view, the messages of the so-called ‘scientific verses’ is that one should look for the signs of God in nature and this would lead one to appreciate the glory of God. Furthermore, by recognizing the laws of nature, one can make use of them constructively for the welfare of human beings.


Furthermore, one can learn from the Qur’an some of the things that humanities and physical sciences cannot provide: a solid metaphysical base for all sciences. To clarify this point, we notice that all physical and human sciences have taken a secular character in the last two centuries, and this is due to the fact that a materialistic world-view and a positivistic attitude has been prevalent in the academic circles. Only matter is considered to have reality and only sense-data are taken to be meaningful and worthy of attention. Thus, all humanities and physical sciences have been under the spell of a materialistic-positivistic world-view, a world-view which is contrary to the Islamic world-view.


According to the Qur’an, our external senses are important for understanding nature:


And God brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers – you did not know anything – and He gave you the hearing and the sight and the heart… (16: 78)


But sense-data alone are not sufficient for getting knowledge about nature, because our senses give us only a series of isolated signs and symbols. It is our intellect that discovers their relationship. To substantiate this claim, we appeal to the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition:


(ii) It is frequently mentioned in the Qur’an that sensory experience has to be supplemented by an intellectual exercise. Otherwise, it would not lead to a concrete conclusion. Thus, There are people who have eyes, ears, etc., but these senses are of no real use for them as they do not reflect on their sensory experience:


They have hearts with which they do not understand and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear (7: 179)


(ii) It is mentioned in the Qur’an that we cannot perceive many realities of the world through external senses:


But nay! I swear by that which you see and that which you see not. (69:38-39)


Glory by to Him Who created pairs of all things, of what the earth grows, of their own kind, and of what they do not know. (36: 36)


And God’s is the unseen in the heavens and the earth … (11: 123)


In short, our observation and experimentation cannot be the source of any knowledge unless they are supplemented by intellect’s activity. Furthermore, not all of our information about the world is rooted in sense experience. Finally, then are many realities in the world that we cannot comprehend or do not have access to.


These facts provide us with a much broader world-view than what is presently ruling over secular scientists. This leads us to a ‘theistic science’, the kind of science which is framed within a theistic world-view and which provides a more comprehensive interpretation of natural phenomena and gives a proper orientation to the applications of science and technology. Thus, e.g., in Islam’s monotheistic world-view, material progress is not an end by itself. Rather, it should be at the service of spiritual goals and for the realization of Islamic ideals. To quote the Qur’an:


Surely We have made whatever is on the earth an embellishment for it, so that We may try them (as to) which of them is best in works. (18: 7)


II. Islam and Society


From the dawn of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad’s program was to build a monotheistic society in which God’s words rule and both individuals and the Muslim community can contribute to the realization of Islamic ideals at the individual and the societal level. To clarify Islam’s view of an ideal human society, we first elaborate on the Islamic conception of society and then we pay attention to the characteristics of such society.


1. Islamic Conception of Society


According to the Holy Qur’an, human beings are intrinsically social beings:


O mankind, We have created you from a male and female, and set you up as nations and tribes so you may recognize [and cooperate with] one another … (49: 13)


Now, in the Islamic view, both the individuals within a society and the society as a whole should interact constructively, leading to the betterment and perfection of both. To accomplish this, there is special emphasis on social programs in Islam. For example:


– Some of the devotional rituals in Islam involve a social dimension. For instance, the daily prayer is strongly recommended to be performed in congregational form. Similarly, the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) has a strong social dimension. All of these rituals are supposed to bring the faithful together and can help solving the problems of the Muslim community.


– In many verses of the Holy Qur’an, we notice that whenever the worship of God is mentioned, one’s responsibilities toward his community is also brought up – starting from the immediate family and reaching the rest of the society:


Virtue does not mean for you to turn your face towards the East and West, but virtue means one should believe in God, the Last Day, angels, the Book and Prophets; and no matter how he loves it, to give his wealth away to near relatives, orphans, the needy, the way farer and beggars, and towards freeing captives, and to keep prayer and pay the welfare tax … (2: 177)


Thus, an ideal Islamic society is one in which the Divine law is the arbiter in all matters of life and the felicity of both the individual and the society is secured. Such a society prepares the ground for the individuals to flourish their potentialities and perform their responsibilities. Of course, if a conflict arises between the interests of an individual and the society, preference is to be given to the society.


2. Characteristics of an Islamic Society


From the Holy Qur’an and the Islamic tradition, one can extract the characteristics of an Islamic society. Here, we mention some of the most important ones.


(i) Realization of Justice


According the Qur’an, the orientation of human societies towards the realization of justice, has been one of the main missions of the prophets:


We have sent our messengers with explanations, and sent the Book and the Balance down along with them, so that mankind may conduct themselves with fairness…. (57: 25)


Thus, Islamic society is supposed to be a classless society, i.e. free from special privileges for any individual or group.


The establishment of a just structure in a society is an essential factor for the prevention of violence in that society.


(ii) Provision of Social Security and Welfare


In the Islamic outlook, the community is responsible to provide the economic security and social welfare of the members of the community, especially one’s family, kinship and neighbours. Thus, e.g., the Holy Qur’an urges the rich to take care of the needs of the needy and the impoverished:


And in their wealth there is acknowledged right for needy and the destitute (51: 19)


An ideal Islamic society is one in which both the state and the society are guardians of all those in need. For example, young people are given assistance in marring early and parents are helped to rear their children properly.


(iii) Deep Sense of Social Responsibility


In the Islamic view, human beings are God’s trustees on earth, and as such they are responsible for both themselves and for other members of the society. In the Prophet’s words:


Verily, each one of you is a guardian (shepherd) and each guardian (shepherd) is responsible for his/her subjects (flock) [6]


(iv) Commitment to Moral Values


The Holy Qur’an considers the teaching of moral values as one of the main objectives of the prophetic mission:


He is the One Who has dispatched a messenger from the unlettered [people] among themselves, to recite His verses to them and to purify them and teach them the Book and wisdom, even though previously they were in obvious error (62: 2)


and in the words of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS):


Verily, I was sent out to complete high moral standards. [7]


Islam’s expectation from Muslims is total binding to the moral principles and this is considered to be a key factor in guaranteeing the security and welfare of the Muslim community.


(v) Observance of Moderation


In the Qur’anic outlook, the Muslim Ummah is considered to be a moderate nation:


Thus We have set you up as a moderate nation so you may act as a witness for mankind, and the Messenger is a witness over you … (2: 143)


This means that Muslims should follow a moderate path in their lives, avoiding all extremes and excesses, i.e., they should make a model nation that balances between faith and reason, religious and profane, and this world and the Hereafter.


(vi) Sense of Brotherhood


The concept of brotherhood among the members of an Islamic community is one of the basic ideas on which the Holy Qur’an has emphasis:


The believers are brothers; so reconcile your brothers and heed God so that you find mercy (49: 10)


The Qur’an refers to (an ideal) Muslim society as a united one:


Verily your community is a single nation, and I am your Lord. Therefore, serve Me. (21: 92)


and asks Muslims not to be divided among themselves:


And hold fast together by the Rope of Allah and not be divided [among yourselves] … (3: 103)


The Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) has illustrated the significance of unity among the faithful in the following way:


The example of believers in their mutual love, tenderness and compassion is like a body; when one part becomes sick the whole body gets weak through sleeplessness and fever. [8]


(vii) Enjoining Proper and Forbidding Improper


The Holy Qur’an repeatedly talks about societies which decayed due to the indifference of the people to the presence of evil and corruption among them. The Qur’anic remedy for this problem is to have knowledgeable people in the society who can engage in enjoining good and forbidding evil:


Let there arose out of you a group of people inviting [others] to [do] good, enjoining what is proper and forbidding what is improper; these will be the successful. (3: 104)


The sensitiveness with respect to good and evil in the society is one of the central subjects in Islam and proper reaction to it is necessary to make Muslims a good Ummah:


You are the best community evolved for mankind, enjoining what is proper and forbidding what is improper, and believing in God … (3: 110)


(viii) Respect for Human Rights


Islam has laid down some absolute fundamental rights for humanity as a whole. In the Islamic outlook, these rights have been granted by God and all Muslims are supposed to respect them. Thus, e. g., the life, dignity and property of all citizens of a Muslim society is to be respected:


… Any one who kills any person without another soul being involved or for causing mischief in the land, acts as if he has killed all mankind … (5: 32)


We have dignified the children of Adam … (17: 70)


Don’t devour one another’s wealth by false [and illegal] means (2: 188)


III. Islam, Science and Society


We saw that Islam has a lot of emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge in its general sense. The training of committed believers and the formation of healthy Islamic societies is one of its primary objectives. This means that knowledge in general, and the sciences of nature and their practical by-products (technology) in particular, should be developed in such a way that


(i) they satisfy the spiritual needs of the individuals and the society. (ii) they provide the basic needs of the individuals and the society. (iii) they do not disturb the characteristic elements of an Islamic society. (iv) They safeguard the society against the evil forces and foreign aggression.


This means that the sciences of nature and their practical by-products have to develop in such a way that lead to happy individuals and prosperous societies. Unfortunately the development of science and technology in the last two centuries has not led to the welfare of humanity. The most important consequences of the improper use of science and technology have been:


– Extravagant exploitation of natural resources – Widening of the gap between the rich and the poor – Pollution of Environment – Undermining of the spiritual dimension of humankind


All of these problems have arisen from the short-sighted secularistic world-view which has dominated almost all of the academic circles. To change the situation, there is an urgent need for a change in the general outlook to science and technology and their role in a human society. If the orientation of science is changed from a mere tool for the exploitation of nature and increase of power to an understanding of nature and the provision of proper human needs, then science and technology can be helpful in establishing virtuous – prosperous societies.


By Mehdi Golshani.




1. Kulayni, al-Usul min al-Kafi (Beirut: d_r Sab wa Dar al-Taaruf, 1401 H.), Vol 1, P. 30; Ibn Majah, Sunan (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr,?), Introduction, Sec. 17, No. 224.


2. al-Ghazzali, A. M., Ihya Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Marifah,?) Vol. 1, P. 14; Majlisi, M. B., Bihar al-Anwar (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, 1403 H.), Vol. 1, P. 180.


3. Ibn Abd al-Birr, Jami Bayan al-Ilm wa Fazleh (Beirut: Moassesah al-Kutub al-Theqafah, 1415 H.), Vol. 1, P. 122.


4. Ibn Majah, op.cit., Sec. 34, No. 3843.


5. Majlisi, op.cit., Vol. 2, P. 22.


6. Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, 1955), Vol. 3, # 1829, P. 1459.


7. al-Mutlaqi, Kanz al-Ummal (Beirut: Moassesah al-Risalah, 1985), Vol. 3 #

5217, P. 16.


8. Majlisi, M. B., op.cit., Vol. 61, P. 150.