Read! in the Name of your Lord Who has created [all that exists]. He has created man from a clot [a piece of thick coagulated blood]. Read! And your Lord is the Most Bountiful, Who has taught [writing] by the pen. He has taught man that which he knew not. (Al-`Alaq 96:1-5).
This verse represents the first spark ever to dispel the darkness of ignorance in which the world had been immersed. It awakened in man the faculty of thinking and urged him to worship the true God. It is through knowledge that we can understand Allah better and serve Him better. The Prophet, peace be upon him, states in a tradition that Allah does not like to be worshipped out of ignorance. The early generation of Muslims became in a matter of a few years a nation knowledgeable in religious as well as in worldly matters, after having groped in the darkness of ignorance for centuries. Allah reminds the Muslims of His immeasurable bounties when He:
…raised among the unlettered people a Messenger from among themselves, reciting unto them His Verses, purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom. And verily they had been before in manifest error. (Al-Jumu`ah 62:2)
Knowledge is of two types: religious, which has to do with the understanding of the religious duties one is required to carry out, and temporal, which has to do with the matters of this world. A Muslim is required to acquire both types of knowledge. Religious knowledge is must because without it one will not be able to discharge the enjoined duties in the prescribed manner. The Prophet (PBUH) says:
“Allah will grant the knowledge of Islam to whoever He wants good for him.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Islam encourages the acquisition of knowledge and makes clear its great reward. The Prophet, peace be upon him, says:
“Allah makes the way to Paradise easy for him who treads the path in search of knowledge.” (Muslim)
“He who goes forth in search of knowledge will be in Allah’s way until he returns.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
“He who follows a path in quest of knowledge, Allah will make the path to Paradise easy for him. The angels lower their wings for the seeker of knowledge, being pleased with what he does. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth and even the fish in the depth of the oceans seek forgiveness for him. The superiority of the learned person over the devout worshipper is like that of the moon over rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets; the Prophets bequeath neither dinar nor dirham but only knowledge, and he who acquires it has, in fact, acquired an abundant portion.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
Beneficial temporal knowledge is also a must and Muslims are encouraged to acquire it in order to benefit themselves and their fellowmen. When the early Muslims understood this fact, they excelled all other nations and carried the torch of knowledge for many centuries. As T.W. Wallbank and A. Schrier put it:
“In medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and physics, Muslims’ achievements were particularly noteworthy. Well-equipped hospitals, usually associated with medical schools, were located in the principal cities. At a time when superstition still hampered the practice of medicine in western countries, Muslim physicians were diagnosing diseases, prescribing cures and performing advanced surgery… probably the greatest of all physicians was the 9th-century figure Al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes. He was the author of scores of scientific work, including a comprehensive medical encyclopedia and a pioneering handbook on smallpox and measles. A 10th-century physician, Avicenna, compiled a huge Cannon of Medicine which was considered the standard guide in European medical circles until the late 17th century…Important advances were made in algebra, analytical geometry, and plane spherical trigonometry.”
In Islam, anything that is considered to be beneficial in one’s spiritual or worldly advancement is encouraged and advocated.
After all, the acquisition of knowledge is, as the Prophet of Islam made it clear, “an obligation upon every Muslim man and Woman.“(Ibn Majah)
Allah commands the Prophet to invoke Him to advance him in knowledge:
Say: ‘O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge. (Ta Ha 20:114)
It is a fact that Faith makes all people equal before Allah, but there is leadership and rank and degree, joined with greater or lesser responsibility, and that depends on true knowledge and insight, namely the knowledge of religion:
Allah will exalt in degree those of you who believe and those who have been granted knowledge. (Al-Mujadilah 58:11)
 Living World History, Scott Forseman and Company, 1990, pp. 191-2.
Al-Arabi Abu Hamzah is the author of the book: A Glimpse at the Beauty of Islam.