Reflections of an American Muslim

Written by Dr. Shahid Athar   

The first order of God to mankind was "iqra" or recite. This command is given to Prophet Muhammad in the cave on Mt. Hira as the first revelation. This command was intended for all of humanity and not only for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). "Recite in the Name of your Lord who created the human being out of a mere clot. Recite and your Lord is most bountiful. He who taught by the pen taught the human being which he knew not" ( 96:1-5).

These verses emphasize three points: First of all, the source of all knowledge is God Almighty. Secondly, He taught us the use of the pen (therefore, the importance of writing); and thirdly, we were created by a mere clot and we did not know.

The first point is elaborated in another verse, "It is He who brought you forth from the wombs of your mother You did not know a thing, and He gave you hearing, sight, and mind in order that you may give thanks" (16:78). The second point is elaborated in a Tradition by the Prophet who said, "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr." The third point is restated in another verse of the Quran, "We have not given you the knowledge except a little" (17:85). The Quran again reasserts, "Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge equal? Only the men of understanding are mindful)" (39:9).

On this point, once the Prophet (PBUH) was asked to compare the teamed (alim) to the worshipper (abid). And he said the learned has superiority over the devotee in as much as I have over the average Muslim."


In addition to above sayings, the Prophet (PBUH) has been known to say the following (see Bukhari):

1. To seek knowledge is a duty for every Muslim male and female.

2. Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.

3. Seek knowledge even if you have to go to China.

4. To listen to the words of the learned and to instill into others the lesson of science is better than religious exercises.

5. Acquire knowledge. It enables the possessor to distinguish right from wrong. It lightens up the path to the heavens. It is our friend in desert, our company in solitude, companion when friendless. It guides us to happiness. It sustains us in misery. It is an ornament among friends, and an armor against enemies.

I am confident that words of God and His Messenger are enough to make us understand the value of enhancing an education. However, one western educationalist has correctly said, "Only the educated are free. The rest of us are slaves of those who have monopoly on knowledge."

Muslims of those days were not like Muslims of today who, after listening to the Word of God and His Messenger, returned to their homes and went back to their daily routines. Those Muslims took orders literally and were determined to acquire knowledge. They obtained knowledge from the Persian, Roman, Indian, and Greek cultures and assimilated into Islamic knowledge. They developed science, technology, and medicine. They fought wars only to get a few rare books. They awarded the translators with gold. They contributed to medicine, philosophy, algebra, alchemy, and astronomy. They were the torch-bearers in the Dark Ages. It was only when they lost this determination that their decline started.


Knowledge has no meaning unless it be translated into action. The Quran has correctly attached belief to the right action together in many ways. The Quran says, "It is a grievous matter in the sight of God that you say that you do not do" (61:3). And again, "Will you enjoin what is right on others and forget yourself" ( 2:4 1).

So it is obvious that acquiring knowledge or preaching it to others is not enough.The Prophet (PBUH) said, "Humanity will perish (in the here- after) except the learned. The learned will perish except those who act upon their knowledge. Those who act upon their knowledge will perish except those who are sincere, and even in the case of those who are sincere it is precarious." Thus our actions are a testimony to our own belief in the knowledge we have.

Let us give you some examples from day-to-day life. If one has passed the written exam for driving, but he doesn't apply it on the road test, will he get the license, and if he doesn't apply it in daily driving, is he not sure to have an accident? If a soldier learns how to use a machine gun, but never fires one, the difference between him and the instruction manual is the difference between a living and dead source of knowledge. To a physician, one gentleman comes with symptoms of bronchitis and is given a prescription for antibiotics. He takes the prescription, keeps it safe on the highest shelf, reads it five times a day, even memorizes it, even kisses it out of respect, but never goes to the drug store to get the drug and use it. Is it possible that he will ever get well?

The Quran is the prescription for our well-being and our illness, physical, mental, social and financial. On the Day of Judgment, we will not be tested of our knowledge. There will be no multiple choice quiz on our Islamic knowledge. We will be asked what we did with our knowledge. Iblis (Satan) was a very knowledgeable jinn. In fact, he was appointed to teach angels, but we know what happened to him when he did not apply his knowledge of God's Omnipotence and refused to bow as ordered. Finally, I want to say a few words about childrens' education. Some parents are more concerned about their children's Islamc education than their own. I feel children live in the shadow of their parents. We should be what we want our children to be, then they will be what we want them to be. We can't make your child Muslim by having him memorize a few words or verses from the Quran, or telling them how to perform the prescribed prayer. We have to perform the prescribed prayer with them, perform the prescribed fast with them, show them a good Muslim and keep them in the company of Muslim children.