The earliest revelation to Prophet Muhammad was about knowledge and learning. The Quranic injunction and Prophetic tradition to seek knowledge led to the founding of many institutions of learning. Scientific research was considered a response of the faithful to the persistent call of the Quran to ponder the universe in order to understand God’s creation. Knowledge, according to Islamic ethics, is be used in the service of others, to improve the quality of life of the marginalised. Research was recognised as a way of intellectual growth, ‘an ethical duty since the human intellect is a divine gift to be cherished.’1
Early Muslim thinkers debated about philosophy, revelation, the place of reason, intellect, and creation in a person’s relationship with the Creator. With the expansion of Muslim rule into the eastern Mediterranean regions and western Asia, the diverse pre-Islamic traditions of learning were incorporated by the Muslim rulers into their cultures, fostering an intellectually fertile environment.
A vast movement of translation and development took place in the eighth to tenth centuries where scientists and scholars from various backgrounds worked together and achieved significant advances in science and philosophy, which were later transmitted to Europe and Asia, forming an important link in modern intellectual development. Knoweldge was valued and resources were allocated for its advancement.
Endowed institutions were established such as the Bayt al-Hikma by the Abbasids, Dar al-Hikma and Al-Azhar by the Fatimid Ismaili dynasty, among others, as well as libraries, hospitals, observatories, which flourished even after the disintegration of the major empires and the establishment of local dynasties.
The contribution of classical and medieval Islamic science to contemporary mathematics survives in our continuing usage of the terms “Arabic numerals,” “algorithm,” and “algebra” which came to be established as an independent mathematical subject. Mathematicians of Islamic civilisations were also engaged in geometry, trigonometry, as well as the solution of equations.
In the physical sciences, Muslim scientists were engaged in problems of natural philosophy, optics, and astronomy which required innovation in measuring instruments. Muslim astronomers revised instruments, designing new ones, and sometimes building extremely large instruments to increase accuracy.
During the thirteenth century, Arabic manuscripts of important philosophical, medical, astronomical, and pharmaceutical works were copied and and later translated into Latin in Toledo, Spain and Palermo, Sicily. For example, the Persian scholar Ibn Sina (d.1037) wrote a five-volume encyclopedia Qanun fi’l-tibb (Canon of Medicine) advancing the knowledge of the ancient civilisations. It was translated into Latin in Toledo, Spain in the thirteenth century. The Canon became the most influential medical encyclopedia and was taught in European universities well into the eighteenth century.
Ibn Butlan (d.1066) wrote about good health and hygiene based on moderate lifestyles in Taqwim al-Sihhah bi’l-Asbab (Maintenance of Health Through Six Methods), which was translated into Latin in Sicily in 1266 under the title Tacuinum Sanitatis, subsequently becoming a popular text in Europe.
The pen and pen boxes became associated with the learned as well as people of high ranks. Elaborately decorated pen boxes and inkwells are among the finest objects associated with writing in the medieval Islamic world. Pen boxes were both practical and symbolic: they served as the scribes’ tools, but they also represented the power of the state.
In the Shia interpretation, the message from God contained inner meanings that could not be understood through human reason alone and therefore, a religious authoritative guide, or Imam, was needed. The Prophet’s successor was responsible for interpreting and teaching the message of Islam. A person with such qualifications could only belong to the Prophet’s family (ahl al-bayt), which came to be defined to include Hazrat Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and certain members of their progeny.
The institution of Imamat is the central doctrine of Shi’ism based on the belief in the permanent need for mankind for a divinely guided leader in spiritual and temporal matters. In keeping with the Qur’anic ethos, Imams valued learning and gave knowledge a prominent and central role. In the Shia tradition, the role of the intellect is an integral part of faith, hence the inkwell symbolises Islam’s emphasis on knowledge in the service of humanity and the Imam’s guidance for understanding Allah’s revelation.
“Ours is an intellectual tradition which premiates the pursuit of knowledge that is to be used for the good of larger society. Live your faith through acquiring knowledge with which to help others.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
July 11, 2017
AKDN Press Release
1Aga Khan Development Network: An Ethical Framework Prepared by The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed July 2017)
Hasan Al-Khoee, Ethics in Action: The Role of Waqf in Early Muslim Society, The Institute of Ismaii Studies (accessed July 2017)
Alnoor Dhanani, Muslim Philosophy and the Sciences, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed July 2017)
Pattern and Light, Aga Khan Museum, Skira Rizzoli Publication
Compiled by Nimira Dewji