Prophet Muhammad was concerned about the moral and spiritual conditions of the people of Mecca, and frequently sought moments of reflection by retreating to a cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca. After fifteen years of this meditative practice, during one of his annual retreats, he received his first call of revelation on what subsequently came to be called Laylat al-qadr (Night of Power). The first revelation to the Prophet was about knowledge and learning:
“Read! Your Lord is full of generosity, instructing by the Pen, educating humanity about that which they do not know.” (Qur’an 96: 1-5).
The value placed on knowledge in the Qur’an became the foundation for the development of education among Muslims. This spirit was further reinforced by the need to remember and preserve the traditions of the Prophet, who encouraged education. Memorizing, recording, and transmitting the revelations gave rise to many “sciences.”*
The acquisition of knowledge came to be perceived as a way of improving understanding of the faith and its practices; faith and learning were seen to be interactive and not in conflict with each other.
Motivated by the central message of the Qur’an to pursue knowledge, and Prophetic Tradition, ‘Seek knowledge, even though it comes from China,’ the rulers incorporated some of this material into their own way of looking at the world.
The need to make the works of the previous civilizations more widely available led the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) to establish a translation centre in Baghdad, Iraq – the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. The centre translated the works of the Greeks as well as knowledge from the Byzantium, Persia, India, and China. This began the period of translation and compilation, ushering in the era of knowledge exchange whose effects are felt today.
The pursuit of knowledge was emphasized by Hazrat Ali, the first Imam of the Shia Muslims and by his descendants, including the Fatimid Caliphs, who founded and endowed institutions of learning such as the Al-Azhar and the Dar al-Ilm.
Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III continued the long tradition of learning by establishing over 300 schools during the first half of the twentieth century in Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India, and Pakistan. He also supported the development of institutions of higher education. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and their ancestors, Mawlana Hazar Imam has established numerous institutions of learning:
- Aga Khan Education Services
- Network of Aga Khan Academies “dedicated to expanding access to education of an international standard of excellence” *
- Aga Khan University
- University of Central Asia, the world’s first internationally chartered university
- The Institute of Ismaili Studies
- Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations –
- Aga Khan Foundation – A major goal of the Foundation is to improve the quality of basic education by a programme of grants to governments and NGOs.
Aga Khan Foundation’s Madrasa Early Childhood Programme operates in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Beginning as a pilot project at the request of the Muslim community in Mombasa, Kenya, it has helped to establish over 200 community pre-schools that have taught over 67,000 children.
At the Foundation Ceremony of the Aga Khan Academy in Kampala, Mawlana Hazar Imam reflected upon the commitment to education:
“A strong commitment to learning has been at the very root of Ismaili and Islamic culture, going back to the first Imam of the Shia Muslims, the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his emphasis on knowledge. The tradition was renewed over many centuries in many places by the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Safavids – the Mughals, the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. During his Imamat, my late Grandfather started some 300 schools in this region.”
[Remarks by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony of
the Aga Khan Academy (Kampala, Uganda), August 22, 2007. Speech at AKDN]
The pursuit of knowledge, instructed to the Prophet, continues to be supported and enforced by Mawlana Hazar Imam.
Aga Khan Development Network
*Azim Nanji, “The Prophet, the Revelation and the Founding of Islam.” The Muslim Almanac Edited by Azim A. Nanji. Detroit. Gale Research Inc. 1996
Mahmoud Ayoub. “The Quran in Muslim Life and Practice.” The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Compiled by Nimira Dewji