The field of education, covering ethics, religion, skills and general knowledge, is a very broad and very vital one. The importance of learning in enabling the individual to put his potential to optimal use is self-evident. Without education, the training of the human mind is incomplete. No individual is a human being in the proper sense until he has been educated.
Education makes man a right thinker and a correct decision-maker. It achieves this by bringing him knowledge from the external world, teaching him to reason, and acquainting him with past history, so that he may be a better judge of the present. Without education, man, as it were, is shut up in a windowless room. With education, he finds himself in a room with all its windows open to the outside world.
This is why Islam attaches such great importance to knowledge and education. The Qur’an, it should be noted repeatedly asks us to observe the earth and heavens. This instills in man the desire to learn natural science. When the Qur’an began to be revealed, the first word of its first verse was ‘Iqra!’ that is, ‘Read.’ Education is thus the starting point of every successful human activity.
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All the books of hadith have a chapter on knowledge (ilm). In Sahih Bukhari, there is a chapter entitled, “The virtue of one who acquires ilm (learning) and imparts it to others.” In the hadith, the scholar is accorded great respect. According to one tradition, the ink of a scholar’s pen is more precious than the blood of a martyr, the reason being that while a martyr is engaged in the task of defence, an alim (scholar) builds individuals and nations along positive lines. In this way, he bestows upon the world a real life treasure.
The very great importance attached to learning in Islam is illustrated by an event in the life of the Prophet. At the battle of Badr, in which the Prophet was victorious, seventy of his enemies were taken prisoner. Now these captives were all literate people. So, in order to benefit from their erudition, the Prophet declared that if each prisoner taught ten Madinan children how to read and write, that would serve as his ransom and he would be set free. This was the first school in the history of Islam, established by the Prophet himself. It was of no matter to him that all its teachers were non-Muslims, all were prisoners of war, and all were likely to create problems again for Islam and Muslims once they were released. This Sunnah of the Prophet showed that whatever the risk involved, education was paramount.
Islam not only stresses the importance of learning, but demonstrates how all the factors necessary to progress in learning have been provided by God. An especially vital factor is the freedom to conduct research. Such freedom was encouraged right from the beginning, as is illustrated by an incident which took place after the Prophet had migrated from Makkah to Madinah. There he saw some people atop the date palms pollinating them. Since dates were not grown in Makkah the Prophet had to ask what these people were doing to the trees. He thereupon forbade them to do this, and the following year date crop was very poor as compared to previous year. When the Prophet asked the reason, he was told that the yield depended on pollination. He then told the date-growers to resume this practice, admitting that they knew more about “worldly matters” than he did.
In this way, the Prophet separated practical matters from religion, thus paving the way for the free conduct of research throughout the world of nature and the adoption of conclusions based thereon. This great emphasis placed on exact knowledge resulted in the awakening of a great desire for learning among the Muslims of the first phase. This process began in Makkah, then reached Madinah and Damascus, later centering on Baghdad. Ultimately it entered Spain. Spain flourished, with extraordinary progress made in various academic and scientific disciplines. This flood of scientific progress then entered Europe, ultimately ushering in the modern, scientific age.