Ink and blood

Ink and blood

Gerbert d’Aurillac (946 – 1003), also known as Pope Sylvester II, introduced and promoted Arabic numerals, arithmetic, mathematics, and astronomy to Europe.

Born to a wealthy family in the Tunisian town of Qayrawan, Fatima al-Fihri, who had moved to Fez with her family at a young age, founded Jami’ al-Qarawiyyin in 859 as a center of education and learning.

Al-Qarawiyyin is recognized by UNESCO as the world’s oldest existing, continuously operating university. Perhaps it is no surprise that the world, including many Muslims, would be surprised to learn that the world’s oldest center of learning was founded by not only a woman but a Muslim one at that.

In 2013, 1,154 years after the founding of al-Qarawiyyin, one wonders: What went wrong? Why has Islamic civilization, despite the early jump in higher learning over other civilizations, not been a pioneer in science, technology, medicine and business? Why has it not been a vanguard of art and literature? And why is it that Muslims have not developed curious minds, an intellectual curiosity, that is the hallmark and at the root of Western civilization’s success? Many Islamic scholars, Muslims or not, have struggled to answer that question. What stands out in their reasoning is “a lack of freedom,” “a lack of prosperity” or simply, “colonization.” What is missing from their analysis as the main cause of Islamic civilization’s eclipse is perhaps lack of education and higher learning.

The question to ask is why al-Qarawiyyin and other Islamic institutes of higher learning of the time did not develop into a modern-day Cambridge or Harvard? After all, it was the universities of Europe and America that produced minds that revolutionized our world. It was the centers of higher learning in the West, apparently the idea of which was very familiar to early Muslims, that helped eradicate poverty and many diseases from Europe and America, and brought them tranquility and prosperity.

Among many prophets who surfaced in the course of history, only one, Muhammad of Islam, is said to have uttered perhaps the wisest statement of all: “The ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.” If one were to contemplate the significance of that statement, one would realize how different Islamic civilization would have been today had it followed that brilliant utterance of its Prophet, just like Fatima did in 859 and Malala is doing in 2013.

It can be argued persuasively that, ironically, Islamic civilization never heeded its revered Prophet’s exhortation and placed a premium on education and higher learning. Liberal education broadens a mind, provides ability to think critically, modifies social behavior for the betterment of society, equips the pupil with the skills to compete economically and become a productive member of community, and brings peace and prosperity to a nation. The visionary Prophet was cognizant of all that as his terse and subtle statement clearly reflects. Although – or perhaps because of it – lacking education himself, the Prophet was deeply aware of its value and the benefits it could bestow on his followers. In the same vein, he is also quoted to have urged his followers: “in search of education and learning, travel to China if you must.”

It is sad that, with the passage of time, Islamic civilization diverged wholly from the most valuable advice its Prophet left for his followers some 1,400 years ago. Today one can witness the perilous consequences of Islamic civilization’s divergence from the Prophet’s wisdom.

It is imperative that we, the Ummah, act upon what our Prophet had advised us so we can catch up to the other, non-Islamic civilization, and devise new, innovative ideas for the betterment of our planet, the ideas that the future leader of Christendom found so appealing at the Islamic centers of higher learning over a millennium ago.

*Ashir Karim is head of information technology and assistant professor of accounting at the Institute of Business Management in Karachi, Pakistan.