Islam strongly encourages the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge both through the verses of the Holy Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet (s.a.w) and his Holy Household.
Additionally, Islam teaches Muslims to explore the natural world, push the boundaries of their imagination and seek knowledge and understanding. The Qur’an and the narrations of theIinfallible Prophet (s.a.w) and Imams (a.s) encourage Muslims to ponder their existence, question the natural world and its mechanics and most importantly pursue a higher reality and awareness through knowledge.
The Qur’an is replete with verses such as:
“Have they not considered the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and what things Allah has created?”
“Will they not regard the camels, how they are created? And the heaven, how it is raised? And the hills, how they are set up? And the earth, how it is spread?”
“Allah will exalt those who believe among you, and those who have knowledge, to high ranks.”
These and other verses are constant reminders about the importance of learning and knowledge from an Islamic perspective, as it is only through knowledge of our surroundings and exploration of our intellectual abilities that we can recognise Gods's true splendour and majesty.
Muslim Scholarship in the Humanities
Armed with a new faith that elevates the ranks of those who pursue knowledge, Muslims began organising and categorising their new understandings in accordance with their needs at the time.
Among the first branches of knowledge to flourish was the Arabic language. Given that the Prophet (s.a.w) was an Arab, the Qur’an is in Arabic and the majority of early Muslims were from the Arabian Peninsula, Arabic became one of the most important tools in understanding the religion of Islam. Scholars went to work organising and working on the grammatical sciences such as Syntax, Morphology and Rhetoric.
Language and Grammar
Abu Aswad al-Duali:
One of the earliest and most influential grammarians was AbuAswad al-Duali (d. 69AH/688AD) who was known to be a companion of Imam Ali (a.s), fighting alongside him in the battle of Siffin. Upon the instruction of Imam Ali (a.s), Abu Aswad al-Du’ali instated dots on Arabic letters in order to eradicate any mistakes with Arabic letters of a similar appearance.
Further, he is credited with outlining the grammatical rules of the Arabic language.
Before his time, rules used to vary from one Arabian region to another and eventually his rules were standardised for later scholars. The Sunni historian al-Dhahabi mentions in his voluminous book ‘Tarikh al-Islam’ that al-Du’ali was taught the foundational elements of grammar (that speech is divided into noun, verb and preposition (ism, fi‘l, harf) by Imam Ali (a.s) who ordered him to expand and articulate upon this.
Ibn al-Sikkit Ya‘qub b. Ishaq (d.244AH/858AD) was known for his allegiance to the Ahlulbayt, which unfortunately was a factor which led to his death.
Ibn al-Sikkit was hired as a tutor for the sons of the Abbasid ruler al-Mutawakkil, whom upon discovering his Shi‘a tendencies asked: “whom do you prefer? My sons or Hasan (a.s) and Husayn (a.s) (the grandsons of the Prophet (s.a.w) and the second and third Shi‘a Imams respectively).
”Ibn al-Sikkit replied “Qanbar, a well-known servant of Imam Ali (a.s) is better than you and your sons,” for which he was sent to his death. A highly regarded expert in lexicography, grammar and Arabic poetry, Ibn al-Sikkit left about twenty works, the most important of which are the Kitab Islah al-Mantik, the Kitab al-Alfaz, the Kitab al-Kalbwa 'l-ibdal and the Kitab al-Addad.
He methodically arranged old Arabic poetry and commented on them, which was important in the development of the Arabic language.
In addition to great scholarship in the fields of language and grammar, Muslims also excelled in the historical sciences, contrary to accusations by orientalists that Muslims did not write anything down until the second or third century.
Their argument is based on the fact that most historical literature was compiled by Sunni authors and reflected the state sponsored account of Muslim historical events. However, if you consider alternate, non-mainstream authors there is a wealth of early historical material starting from the very early formative period of Islam.
The earliest such existing work is "KitabSulaim bin Qais al-Hilali," written by Sulaīm b. Qais al-Hilali al-Amiri al-Kufi (d. 76AH/695AD) a known companion of Imams Ali (a.s), al-Hasan (a.s), al-Husayn (a.s) and Ali b. al-Husayn (a.s). He was also reported to have met Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s).
The book describes the events that took place after the death of the Prophet (s.a.w) through Sulaim’s first hand encounters with eyewitnesses such as Imam Ali (a.s) and Salman al-Farisi. The events covered in the book include the meeting of Saqifah through which Abu Bakr became Caliph and certain events which took place during the reign of the first three Caliphs and the ‘The Battle of Camel.’
One of the earliest genres to develop was that of ‘Siyar’ (biographies) and ‘Maghazi’ (military campaigns). Among the earliest authors in these fields were ‘UbaydAllah b. AbiRafi who was a close companion of Imam Ali (a.s) and his personal scribe. Scholars mention that his books include ‘QadayaAmir al-Mu’minin’ which discusses events that took place during the reign of Imam Ali and Tasmiyat Man Shahad ma‘ Amir al-Mu’minin al-Jamal wa Siffīnwa’lNahrawan min al-Sahabah’ in which he names the companions of the prophet who took part in the battles during Imam Ali’s (a.s) reign.
Another author who wrote a comprehensive history of formative Islamic history was Aban b. Uthman al-Ahmar (d. 140AH/circa 575AD) who was companion of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (a.s).
Many volumes were dedicated by early Muslim authors to geography, however, these books were tied to other sciences such as genealogy due to the tribal context in which they were written and the fact that each geographical location was known for a certain tribe or people who resided in that location.
One of the earliest scholars in both sciences was a companion of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (a.s) named Hisham b. Muhammad b. al-Sa’ib al-Kalbi (d. 204 AH or 206AH/ 819AD or 821AD). Hisham is noted to have said that he forgot all that he knew (possibly due to an ailment or memory loss) and went to Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (a.s) who fed him knowledge in a cup. His statement can be interpreted in many possible ways; however, it is clear that he indicates that his knowledge was obtained through the Imam. Hisham wrote one hundred and fifty books on topics spanning from geography to genealogy, history and other disciplines.
The advent of Islam not only brought Monotheism to regions and people predominated by polytheistic ideas and beliefs, but also brought about a surge of knowledge and learning by igniting a curiosity and quest for discovery. It is clear from the simple accounts of the scholars above, who were pioneers in their respected fields, that the Imams of Ahlulbayt (a.s) were indeed the most knowledgeable people of their time. They accordingly had an active role in contributing to, encouraging and guiding the outstanding feats of learning and innovation that the scholars mentioned were able to achieve.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Qur’an (7:185).
- Qur’an (88:17-20).
- Qur’an (58:11).
- Al-Thahabi, Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Uthman, Tarikh al-Islam, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, Beirut, Vol. 5, p. 279.
- Ibn Khallikan, Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ibrahīm, Wafayat al-A‘yanwa Anba’Abna’ al-Zaman, Dar al-Thaqafah, Beirut, 1968-1972, Vol. 6, pp. 400-401.
- Al-Sadr, Hasan, al-Shi‘a wa Funun al-Islum, Mu’asassat al-Sibtain al-Alamiyyah, Qum, 1427AH/2006AD, p.355.
- Al-Sadr, Hasan, al-Shi‘a wa Funun al-Islum, Mu’asassat al-Sibtain al-Alamiyyah, Qum, 1427AH/2006AD pp.359-360.
- Al-NajashI, Abu’l‘Abbas Ahmad, Rijal al-Najashi, Mu’asassat al-Nashr al-Islami al-Tabi‘ah li-Jama‘at al-Muddarisin fi Qum, Qum, 1416, p. 434.