In pursuit of knowledge-Dr A Q Khan

In 1961, when I went to Germany to study at the world-famous Technical University of Berlin, I missed two things very much: 1) friends with whom I could speak Urdu and 2) English books and newspapers. After a few days I found out that I could buy The Sunday Observer at the railway station. This paper was voluminous enough to keep me busy for a few days, at the same time keeping me informed of events happening around the world. I also discovered the British Council, from where I could borrow very useful and informative books. The railway station and the British Council were both hardly a 15-minute walk through the beautiful park from the hostel where I lived.

During my studies (1953-1957) at D J Sindh Government Science College, Karachi, I was a regular visitor to the British Council located at Pakistan Chowk, which was hardly 200 yards from the College. They had a large stock of books and I greatly benefitted from what I read in them.

In Berlin, one of the most interesting books I read was Essays on Science and Philosophy by the famous British mathematician/philosopher, Prof Alfred North Whitehead. He was Lord Bertrand Russell’s teacher and later became his dear friend. Bertrand Russell himself was a great mathematician. They had written a book together entitled Principia Mathematica, considered to be the bible of mathematics. Prof Whitehead later moved to the USA and became more of a philosopher. Lord Bertrand Russell was a strong pacifist, against all kinds of weapons and wars and a great advocate of Indian independence. One of his most remarkable characteristics was the ability to express extremely complicated ideas in very simple language. His books Impact of Science on Society, ‘In Quest of Happiness’, ‘Why I am not a Christian,’ etc., are classic examples of his lucid writing. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. Having greatly appreciated his style of writing, I was struck by the bombastic language used in reports and publications here. I soon advised my colleagues to read Bertrand Russell’s books and eventually they became convinced that simple was better.

Coming back to Prof Alfred North Whitehead, I would like to quote his golden advice, as important and applicable today as it was when it was given.

‘In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute: the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves, tomorrow science will have moved over yet one more step and there will be no appeal from the judgement which will be pronounced on the uneducated.’

This statement/advice is about 100 years old. The emphasis on acquiring knowledge laid down in Islam is more than 1,400 year old and no other religion is known to have given education so much importance. Our Holy Prophet (PBUH) advised Muslims to even go as far as China which, at that time, was considered the furthest one could go from Arabia.

Utlubul Ilma wa low bissin

(Even if you have to go to China for acquiring knowledge, go there.)

Yet another saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is ‘The worth of the blood of a martyr will be equivalent to the value of the ink of the Aalim or a learned person’. Caliph Ali (KUW) once remarked that knowledge grows when it is spent, whereas wealth decreases; knowledge cannot be stolen whereas wealth can; people pray for the long life of a learned man whereas they pray for the death of the wealthy (to get their money).

In Sura-e-Tauba, ayat 122 of the Holy Quran, Almighty Allah ordains that a group from each tribe going for jihad should stay behind to teach and instruct their people in religion and knowledge and to admonish the returning tribes to acquire knowledge.

Lord Bertrand Russell was a very outspoken person. In one of his books he pointed out many illogical statements in the Bible and, accordingly, decided not to call himself a Christian. In one of his essays he pointed out the advanced level of education being imparted at universities in Muslim Spain and acknowledged that, while these universities had such a high level of knowledge, Europeans were literally wearing clothes made from hides. By the time the Greeks and Romans were studying philosophy and war techniques, the Muslims had already excelled in all fields of science and technology. For almost 350 years (AD 750 to AD 1100) Muslim scientists and technologists ruled the world. They had established excellent centres of learning at Makkah, Madina, Baghdad, Qurtuba, Gharnata, Bursa, Kufa, Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, Ghazni, Basra, Konia, Shiraz, Timbuktu, etc. Most people would be pleasantly surprised to know that almost 1,000 years ago, Timbuktu (Mali) had a university where about 25,000 students from all over the world were enrolled. I have had the pleasure of visiting Timbuktu a number of times, just to get the feel of its golden past. It has mosques that are more than 1,000 years old and an excellent library of Islamic scripts. Upon my request, Prince Karim Aga Khan has undertaken social and renovation projects there and the South African government has built a modern library for the preservation of the invaluable old manuscripts.

Some famous Muslim scholars are: Abu Raihan al Biruni (astronomy, geography, physics), Abul Wafa Muhammed Al Buzjani (mathematics, especially geometry and trigonometry), Abu Ali Hassan ibn Al Haitham (optics, mathematics, physics), Abul-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd (medicine, philosophy, logic, music, jurisprudence), Ibn Sina (medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy), Jabir ibn Hayyan (chemistry), Omar Khayyam (mathematics, astronomy, poetry), Yaqub ibn Ishaq Al Kindi (mathematics, physics, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, geography), Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al Razi (medicine, chemistry), Jalal Al Din Rumi (philosophy, poetry), Nasir Al Din Al Tusi (science, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, religion), Abu Al Qasim Al Zahrawi (medicine, surgery), etc. More information can be found from the Pakistan Academy of Sciences at

Almost 1,100 years ago Yaqub ibn Ishaq Al Kindi gave this advice: ‘It is fitting, then, for us not to be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us. For him who scales the truth, there is nothing of higher value than truth itself; it never cheapens nor abases him who seeks.’

As Muslims we are aware of the fact that Allah Almighty has frequently ordered us to study nature, to understand and learn from it. Sura-e-Yasin and Sura-e-Rahman are conspicuous examples of this. At the same time, our attention has again and again been drawn to the ultimate ignominious end to wrongdoers and for us to learn from their example. In Sura-e-Mulk, Ayat 3 and 4, the Almighty again and again orders us to observe and challenges us to find any imperfection in the creation of the world. We would be discomfited and our eyes dazed in not being able to find any.

In the Quran only about 250 verses deal with jurisprudence, while about 750 deal with the understanding and acquisition of knowledge, or Ilm. We are again and again ordered to search for the truth, think and learn. Only two of these verses are reproduced below for reflection:

‘Do they not look at the camels, how they are made; and at the heaven, how it is upraised; and the mountains, how they are rooted; and the earth, how it is spread out.’ (Sura Ghaashiya, Para 30)

‘Verily, in the creation of the Heavens and of the Earth and in the alternation of the Night and of the Day are there signs for men of understanding.’ (Sura Aal-e-Imraan, Para 3).

Our Holy Prophet (PBUH) emphasised that the ‘quest for knowledge (and science) is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman.’

One more important verse in which Almighty Allah demonstrated the superiority of a learned person over others, even a powerful Jin, is Ayat 40 of Sura Naml, wherein the Aalim (learned man) put the throne of Queen Saba at the feet of Prohpet Sulaiman (PBUH) in the blink of an eye whereas the Jin had offered to do so after Sulaiman (PBUH) could conclude his council.

This piece is meant for those who are not familiar with our glorious scientific past and the relevant Quranic injunctions. It is definitely not meant for those, and there are many, who are blessed with more knowledge than I have. In some of my future articles I will reflect on engineering education based on my education and past experience, hoping that this might be of some use to students, scientists and engineers.

Source: The News, 7th January, 2009


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