Knowledge is Power; Muslims Powerless?
By Agha Shabbir Abbas
Nearly 400 years ago, the English philosopher Francis Bacon proclaimed ‘Knowledge is Power’ (scientia potentia est); the veracity of this maxim is unquestionable as the nations wielding the most power today too are home to the best of universities, the foci of global learning. It is more than evident that the power and might of a people is directly related to their attachment to education. So, in a time when Muslims and Muslim-majority nations seem powerless, the question to be asked is does Islam forgo the importance of knowledge and education?
The truth is to the contrary, the Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) a millenium prior to Francis Bacon not only exhorted to the merits of education but also that striving for it is an obligation.
طلب العلم فريضة على كلّ مسلم
“It is the duty of all Muslims to seek knowledge”
(Kitāb al-Shihāb, 1.138)
Like the other compulsory rituals (ṣalah, ṣawm, etc) imposed by the religion, seeking knowledge too is incumbent for all Muslims, and when the Prophet declares all he includes both genders. So either Muslims are absconding from their duties or they are terribly mistaken as to what knowledge is. Without having to delve into an investigation, the simple fact is Muslims feel powerless today because as a community they are far from education, far from learning.
There are many valid reasons as to why this is so, colonialism and imperialism definitely factor in this, and so does political tyranny and corruption, but at the end of the day ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ No political force in the history of man has ever succeeded in stopping the strokes of the pen, many have tried and all have failed. Why, because the Almighty in the Qur’an has attributed writing, the spread of scholarship, as one of His own doings, “It is He [Allah], who taught by the pen” (ٱلَّذِى عَلَّمَ بِٱلۡقَلَمِ), and truly there is no power nor might except for Allah.
So in response to oppression the Muslim must double-down on their faith and respond by writing and studying to even greater extents, and the result of this would be that the Almighty Himself would guide them through their pens onto salvation. This is not a personal interpretation or a rhetorical statement, it is instead affirmed by the teachings of our beloved Prophet:
إن الفتنة تجيئ فتنسف العباد نسفا وينجو العالم منها بعلمه
“Seditions appear and crush believers – your only salvation is your learning.”
(Kitāb al-Shihāb, 7:56)
This post-colonial era, when confusion is rampant, can only be described as a time of sedition (fitnah) and according to the words of Ḥabīb al-Muṣţafa (ṣ) nothing, not even ʾīmān (correct belief) can save the Muslim. He informs his followers that the only lifeline from sedition is the route of knowledge and learning, so what should be the course of action for Muslim communities? The answer is threefold, Muslim communities must utilize their resources, especially wealth, to empower scholars, to invest in students, and to build schools.
1. Righteous scholars, those who wield true knowledge, must be empowered by their communities. Quite simply, as the shipmaster cannot steer if his hands are tied, a scholar cannot guide the community if disempowered.
2. In this day and age when college tuition is near astronomical, communities must financially support students, especially those in need and those who show promise. Wealthy community members need to establish scholarships and endowments towards this aim.
3. Last and most important, Muslims need to disrupt the status quo of knowledge by establishing their own schools and universities. Seizing the means of education more than guarantees a position within the circles of power.
These goals are not unattainable, for Muslims have accomplished much more in the past. Historians unanimously declare the 8th to 14th AD centuries as the Golden Age of Islam; that Islamic civilization at that point was by far the strongest and most influential group on this planet. They were the strongest and most influential then not because the Abbasid dynasty [or others] were specially enlightened, instead it was because the average Muslim realized the worth of knowledge. Hence, it was at this moment in time that the Muslims erected the very first universities, Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad, Dar al-’Ilm in Cairo, and the Jāmiʻat al-Qarawiyyin in North Africa; all putting the likes of Oxford and Princeton to shame in historical comparison.
Muslims need to reawaken this heritage of academic excellence, for heritage should be lived and not just written about on the pages of history. Therefore, the only way forward for the Muslim community is investing in education and proactively seeking knowledge. Until this course of action is adopted, the feelings of powerlessness will remain.
(This piece was originally written for the Masjid-e-Ali Newsletter)