بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
We praise Allah, recognizing we only know Him by Him. May the best benedictions and peace be upon the best of creation, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), to whom Allah revealed the nature of all things. To proceed:
In 1795, in his “Age of Reason II”, Thomas Paine wrote, while speaking about happiness in old age, “The man of pleasure is miserable in old age, and the mere drudge in business is but little better; whereas natural philosophy, mathematical, be mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure…. Those who knew Benjamin Franklin will recollect that his mind was ever young; his temper ever serene. Science, that never grows Grey, was always his mistress. He was never without an object; for when we cease to have an object, we become like an invalid in an hospital waiting for death.”
These are words of wisdom that are both timeless and timely. In our day and age, even knowledge has become superficial and little more than a bridge used to reach something we deem as loftier, be it our pleasures or the drudgery of business. Seldom is it that we see knowledge and wisdom as the invaluable treasure that it is, in and of itself. In Islam we have many great traditions calling us to seek knowledge, such as the saying of Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), “The quest for knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim (male and female).” What is more, we have many great examples of this, both in the Qur’an itself, such as Musa’s seeking out Khidr (may peace be upon them both), as well as our scholarly tradition which holds such sayings as, “the ink-pot, from the cradle to the grave.” What is greater than all of this is Allah’s calling out to mankind,
مَّا تَرَىٰ فِي خَلْقِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ مِن تَفَاوُتٍ
فَارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ هَلْ تَرَىٰ مِن فُطُورٍ
“You will not find any faults in the creation of the All-Merciful;
So go and turn your sights, Do you see any flaws?!”
But, we find in the works of Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy upon him), “Dear beloved son, what result have you had from studying the science of scholastic theology, rhetoric, medicine, collections of poetry, astronomy, metrics, grammar, and inflections, other than wasting your life in opposition to the Lord of Majesty?” Indeed, quotes such as this have been used to somehow blame Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy upon him) of being a sort of catalyst for the decline of the study of the sciences in the Muslim world. Such an abuse is due to a misunderstanding of who Imam Ghazali was and what he was truly saying. We understand his words correctly when we place them in their context as well as within his greater context. Indeed, we can understand his true position, and that of Islam as a whole, when we read his words, “”Dear beloved son, the essence of knowledge is to know what obedience and worship are.” That is, it is not the sciences themselves that are vanity but that seeking after knowledge divorced from its essence.
Allah has informed us in the Qur’an,
سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ
حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ
“We will indeed show them our signs,
In the outer most horizons and within themselves,
Until they come to realize that indeed I am The Real”
Understanding all of this well, we come to an understanding that the aim of our study of the sciences, be it mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, or the like, is but to come to recognize the signs of our Lord; to understand His laws and what it means to obey Him. Our study of the conventional sciences should inspire awe within us, humbling us to a state of submission to our Lord. It is through the study of the creation that we come to know the Creator, through study of the design we know the Designer, through the study of its laws that we come to know the Lawmaker…and this should have an effect upon us. It is when these sciences are divorced from this essence that they become lifeless and, perhaps, even blameworthy.
Our Islamic heritage is one immersed in the conventional sciences. We have chains of transmission of sciences such as grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine connecting scholarship from the time of Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy upon him) [5th century hijri/11th century Gregorian] in the Middle East to the Sokoto Empire [12th century hijri/19th century Gregorian] in the heart of Africa…and even to this day. Muslims traditionally attained a foundation in their religion before moving on to specialize in whatever field they pursued, and the Muslim Scholar would learn the sacred sciences alongside the conventional sciences in a harmony that allowed them to understand them both as being from the same Author; understanding both as indications pointing back to Him.
As an aside, the plateau and eventual decline of the mainstream promotion of the sciences in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Islamic world was not caused by the words of a Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy upon him) or any other scholars, or even a compilation of their words. These scholars knew the sciences themselves! No, instead the sciences began to decline due to conflicts such as the Crusades and the Mongol invasion which penetrated even to the heart of the Islamic world, the capitol of the Abbasid empire, Baghdad. Along with the invasions into the Muslim world in this period, there were also internal struggles for political authority. The consequences of these political and military upheavals was the redirection of wealth and support so that the state patronage of the sciences were diverted and so, the study of these sciences fell into decline due to the climate of the age.
Despite this, it has always been the understanding of the great scholars of Islam that anyone believing in Allah and the last day should occupy themselves in the pursuit of knowledge. Not just the sacred religious sciences, rather, all knowledge, which if imbued with its essence is living, and all life is sacred.
What does all of this mean for us? Returning to the words of a Thomas Paine, he said, “To be happy in old age, it is necessary that we accustom ourselves to objects that can accompany the mind all the way through life…”. Here, “objects” does not mean artifacts of this worldly life but rather fields of study, thoughts and philosophies upon which we can reflect and ponder. It is not chasing after our desires that lead to happiness, not engulfing ourselves in our work. Instead happiness is to be found in growing ourselves internally through a life spent learning and contemplating that which we have learned. It is by enriching our minds every day with some beneficial knowledge, knowledge which allows us to come to know our Lord, to have awe of Him, and ultimately affects the change in our own states so that we become amongst those who hear, obey and submit themselves to the guidance of their Lord; worshipping Him with love and gratitude. That is the essence of knowledge and the intention for seeking after it. That is the very purpose of our creation and it is through fulfilling that purpose that true happiness in old age, and throughout our lives, will be found.
And with Allah alone is every success.