Prophet Muhammad was concerned about the moral and spiritual conditions of the people of Mecca. He “habitually retreated from the humdrum of life to meditate on the higher truths that he felt were lacking in the worship of idols as it was practiced by the majority of the people of Arabia.” (Jiwa)
After fifteen years of meditative practice, during one of his retreats, he received his first message through Angel Gabriel, on what subsequently came to be known as Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power), during the month of Ramadan.
“Read! Your Lord is full of generosity, instructing by the Pen, educating humanity about that which they do not know.” (Quran 96: 1-5).
For the first three years, the Prophet summoned his immediate family members to Islam. During the time of profound spiritual transformation, his wife Khadija and his cousin and subsequent son-in-law Ali b. Abi Talib were among his staunch supporters. Subsequently he began to deliver the message publicly, reciting the verses to the people, many of whom responded with apprehension when the Prophet preached submission to One God, forsaking their traditions of polytheism.
The Prophet “also urged the people to use their reason to reflect on signs in the universe that they might understand that in addition to achieving material goals, human life also had a higher moral and spiritual purpose.” (Nanji). The Prophet received revelations over a period of twenty-two years through Angel Gabriel.
As the Prophet received the revelations, he recited them aloud, encouraging others to recite them as an expression of piety. Recitation was a means of preserving the revelations and of educating the community about their significance. The word qur’an means to recite.
When the Prophet died in 632 CE, the Qur’an as it is known today, did not exist. The verses were scattered fragments of the writings of Prophet Muhammad’s scribes, preserved on privately collected pieces of parchment, stone, palm leaf, and leather, in addition to words preserved in human memory.” It was compiled into a text during the time of the third Caliph ‘Uthman b ‘Affan (r. 644-656 CE).
The earliest revelation to Prophet Muhammad was about learning and knowledge. The value placed on knowledge in the Qur’an became the foundation for the development of education among Muslims. The incentive to read and learn the Qur’an provided the early Muslim community with its initial educational settings, in which instruction of the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet, and knowledge of the Arabic language, its grammar structures and forms took place.
The need to study and make the works of the previous civilisations 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 emphasised 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.
The pursuit of knowledge, instructed to the Prophet, continues to be enforced and expanded by Mawlana Hazar Imam through the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network that he founded:
- Aga Khan Education Services
- Network of Aga Khan Academies
- 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 Early Childhood Development
- 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.
“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.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Foundation Ceremony, Aga Khan Academy, Kampala, Uganda
August 22, 2007
Dr Shainool Jiwa, Approaches to the Qur’an, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (acccessed June 2017)
Azim A. Nanji, Learning and Education, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed June 2017)
Azim Nanji, “The Prophet, the Revelation and the Founding of Islam,” The Muslim Almanac Ed, Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1996
Compiled by Nimira Dewji
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