The Inextricable Link between Knowledge and Tolerance: A Lesson for Us All

The Inextricable Link between Knowledge and Tolerance: A Lesson for Us All

by Dr. Amineh Ahmed Hoti

Bismillah ar Rahman ar Rahim (In the name of the Compassionate, the Most Merciful).

‘Compassion’ and ‘mercy’ are potentially powerful words if we delve deep and Endeavour to decipher their all-inclusive meanings. It is understood that people of faith would infallibly gravitate towards embodying these traits, that the faithful would practice compassion and mercy towards their fellow human beings. Having said that, it is only achievable for each of us if we within our personal capacities immerse into the sea of knowledge available to us. It seems implausible that in the present scenario, Muslim countries are recognized for just the opposite in present times. We represent some of the lowest literacy rates the world over, whereas most countries have managed to perpetuate a 90% or above literacy level: Afghanistan: 28%; Bangladesh: 53%; Pakistan: 49%; Burkina Faso: 28%; Niger 28%; Mali: 26%.

Likewise, it seems paradoxical for us to claim we come from a God whose communication with his Prophet began with the word Iqra (read), and yet harbour misgivings about acquiring education for ourselves. Our religion repeatedly encourages believers to think, to ponder, to traverse the vistas of knowledge. There was a time in history when education was so diffused in Muslim societies that “it was said to be difficult to find a Muslim who could not read or write” (Educationist E H Wilds, in 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World, 2006). The luminous beacon of Muslim erudition shone brightly once and it is now up to us to find our way back and reflect upon the teachings of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) that emphasize upon acquiring knowledge, not just passively but proactively and with great passion.

“Valueless is the Muslim who is not a teacher or a student” – This of course is not in the literal sense but it identifies knowledge as the central focus for a Muslim, whether receiving it or imparting it. From cradle to grave, our life’s journey is strewn with treasure troves of wisdom waiting to be collected. Acquiring knowledge becomes “obligatory for every Muslim, male and female” (Tabari). Yet more than 2000 schools were destroyed in Pakistan last year in a spree of madness by so-called ‘Muslims’.

Knowledge enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong; it lights the way to Heaven…and [is] an armour against enemies. [Therefore] the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of martyr… Acquire knowledge because he who acquires it in the way of the Lord performs an act of piety; who speaks of it, bestows alms; and who imparts it, performs an act of devotion to God (Al-Bukhari & Muslim).

The chapters of history in Andalusian Spain when the floodgates of knowledge were wide open under the flourishing reign of Muslims runs parallel to when the rest of the world, especially Europe, was in the “Dark Ages”, signifying an era of backward, unenlightened, and intolerant culture. For almost 800 years in Europe (711 — 1492) Muslims ruled Andalusia (present day Spain – north and south, Portugal, part of South of France, Andora). Knowledge was valued tremendously and resulted in a progressive interaction between Muslims and the ahl al kitaab (People of the Book). Moses/Musa and Jesus/Isa had books revealed to them by God, so Jews and Christians were regarded as” ahl al kitaab and accorded great respect – their food could be eaten, their women could be married and their books studied.

Despite their differences, they lived side by side and nourished a complex culture of acceptance that was enriching and productive. The result was a deep cultural tolerance and interfaith harmony that yielded a tremendous outpouring of creativity and mutual benefit. Córdoba, the capital of Andalusia, became one of the world’s leading centers of medicine and philosophical debate. It gained fame for its riches and its seven streams of wisdom – the 7 liberal arts – grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In The Abacus and the Cross (2012) Nancy Marie Brown writes, “Cordoba impressed everyone who heard of it”. There were libraries with 400,000 books under Al-Hakam II, the heir of Abd ar-Rehman, the largest of its kind in the Western world then. By contrast, The Bobbio Monastery in Italy housed 690 books.

Imagine my fellow residents of a country with excessive “load-shedding” and no clean water - paved streets were lit all night, running water from aqueducts supplied 9000 public baths! With proper food becoming a luxury today, goldfish then ate 12,000 loaves of bread per day, postal services used carrier pigeons, there were thousands of shops, including bookshops, 70 scribes produced Qurans exclusively and there were thousands of mosques which were used as inclusive (not exclusive) universities and centers of learning. The Caliph’s library in Cordoba alone, one of 70 libraries in a city that “adored books”, had four hundred thousand volumes, that put to shame the 400 manuscripts in Europe’s largest library at the time. How many public libraries do we have in Pakistan today? How valued are the books there? How much do we read? Can all of us read?

Simultaneously, the Abbasids (750-1258) who were rivals of the aforementioned Andalusian Umayyads painstakingly constructed a parallel centre for knowledge in Baghdad and called it ‘The House of Wisdom’ (Bait al hikma or Khizanat al kutub al-hikma). This served as an academy, library, translation centre, and in many ways, an early form of university. It hosted Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who sought to translate and gather the cumulative knowledge of human history. It was a major intellectual hub of the world, thriving and giving to our shared world its own gems of wisdom and knowledge. Baghdad became the world’s most important center for science, philosophy, medicine, and education. In ‘The House of Wisdom’ works by Euclid, Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy and numerous other classical thinkers from all over the world were found in bits and pieces and translated into Arabic. The Greek knowledge they amassed was not just translated blindly, but reformed, critiqued, and an alternative science emerged in the Islamic world. (Dr George Saliba, in 1001 Inventions, p. 188).

During the reign of al-Ma’mun, astronomical observatories were set up, and ‘The House of Wisdom’ became an unrivaled centre for the study of humanities and science, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology, and geography. Drawing on the ancient wisdom amassed by Greek, Indian, and Persian texts, the scholars accumulated an impressive collection of world knowledge, and propagated further discoveries. By mid 9th Century ‘The House of Wisdom’ was the largest repository of books in the world. Scholars of all creeds and cultures came here to understand and appreciate the value of knowledge and it was a time when erudition was valued greater than gold.

Think about this, dear people of thought (ahl-e-aql), Ptolemy’s Almagest, the most influential scientific texts of all time, was claimed as a condition for peace after a war between the Abbasids and the Byzantine Empire. From this book, the caliph’s scholars drew the first maps of the world.

In the 9th century Al-Khwarizmi regarded as the Chief of Mathematics, wrote the first book on Arabic numerals. Expanding upon Greek mathematical concepts, he developed Algebra in his book Kitab al muktasar fi hisb al jabr wal muqbalah, which has become the foundation for the principles of Modern Algebra. Even the word ‘algorithm’ without which no computer scientist can function, is derived from a corruption of Al-Khwarizmi’s name. Moreover, scholars calculated the earth’s circumference, made maps of the earth, used astrolabes to measure the sun’s altitude, deciphered the direction of Mecca, and learnt to tell time. Scholars of the likes of Al-Kindi revolutionized mathematics and synthesized Greek philosophy with Islamic thought. Al-Biruni and Abu Nasr Mansur among many others made important contributions to geometry and astronomy. Ibn al-Haytham contributed significantly to the field of optics, and was credited with developing the concept of the scientific method. These works provided fundamental foundational theoretical material as well as inspiration for many European scholars during the Enlightenment and Renaissance.

As a rival of Baghdad, Abd al Rehman III & Hasdai his wazir (second in command) had gained for Cordoba the title of “most civilized place on earth” (Rosa, 2002, p. 86). Muslim Spain has been described as a “first-rate” culture spearheading broad-mindedness and scientific inquiry, with the level of religious freedom prevalent at the time at par with a modern tolerant state today. From the earliest days, The Umayyads strove to be recognized as intellectual rivals to the Abbasids; and for Córdoba to have libraries and educational institutions to outshine Baghdad. Yet, despite the tangible contention between the two powers, there was freedom to travel among their lands, which helped spread new ideas and innovations over time. These models belong to mainstream Muslim societies and their leaders were seen widely as the protectors and representatives of the Muslim ummah. We have all these larger than life role models and we must ask ourselves - how close we are to our ideals?

As Pakistan painstakingly moves towards its Millennium Goals, we must keep in mind the UN Declaration of Human Rights Article 26 (A): “Education should be directed to the full development of the human personality and to strengthening respect for human rights…it shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups…(in order to maintain) peace”; and Article 27,  “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and share in the scientific advancements and its benefits”.

The scientific advancements and benefits that Andalusian Spain and Abbasid Baghdad gave our shared world remind me of a Quranic verse that fits here beautifully:

“Each community has its own direction in which it turns: then strive together (as in a race) towards all that is good” (Quran: 2:148).
Indeed, for educated Andalusians of all faiths, their world was that of civilization and light and their life a glorious journey to acquire knowledge and share it to benefit our world. At the end of the day, the Book (of God) inspired the desire to learn and shone the light of knowledge in a world of “darkness.” This led to inclusiveness and respect for the Other and brought forth the renaissance or rebirth. God is light/noor upon light/noor – as Pakistanis, it is well to remind ourselves of Iqbal’s famous line, “ilm kee shamma se ho mujhko mohabbat ya Rab”.


Dr Amineh Ahmed Hoti is Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogue and Action at FCC, Lahore and is a Fellow-Commoner of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. This theme is from her class at FCC on ‘Ahl-e-Aql and Ahl-e-Kitaab’. [1]

[1]  In 1955, the German nun Hrosvit described Cordoba as “The Brilliant Ornament of the World (that) Shone in the West”. Based on this poetic verse, the Director of the Humanities Centre at Yale University, Maria Rosa Menocal, in 2002 wrote a book, The Ornament of the World. This literary gem is a must-read for everyone interested in knowledge and Islam. 


Restoring the Andalusian-Arabic Tradition in Western Civilization: An Homage to Maria Rosa Menocal, David Shasha