Modern Criticism of Religion
Does it hold back advance of Knowledge?
by Maulana Muhammad Ali
The Light & Islamic Review (US), July/August 1993 Issue (Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 6–8)
Religion as Promoter of Science and Knowledge:
An argument advanced against religion is that it produces a superstitious mentality because of belief in a Higher Power beyond the reach of our senses. A superstitious outlook is a direct negation of a spirit of inquiry and research, therefore religion closes the door of knowledge. A discussion of this problem resolves itself into three questions:
- Are the cardinal principles of religion such that they keep a man dwarfed in his mental outlook?
- What are the teachings of religion directly concerning the acquisition of knowledge?
- If there was a time when people adhered conscientiously to the true spirit of religion, did they remain stunted as regards the cultivation of their mental faculties or did they promote science and learning?
It is true that the first and foremost principle of religion is a belief in the One, Unseen Divine Being. Let us see what a belief in Divine Unity means in its essence. It only means that man is superior to every other creature. The whole Creation has been made to serve man. This conception of Divine Unity gives man such a supreme place in the scale of creation that no other idea could possibly give. Man is the master of all, subservient only to One Great Power. What a grand lift to his position! Is not such an idea an unparalleled stimulus for man? This kind of spirit underlying this principle of Divine Unity is not of our own interpretation. The Quran has revealed the same idea in no uncertain terms in diverse ways.
Quranic Teachings give Impetus to Learning:
وَ لَقَدۡ کَرَّمۡنَا بَنِیۡۤ اٰدَمَ وَ حَمَلۡنٰہُمۡ فِی الۡبَرِّ وَ الۡبَحۡرِ وَ رَزَقۡنٰہُمۡ مِّنَ الطَّیِّبٰتِ وَ فَضَّلۡنٰہُمۡ عَلٰی کَثِیۡرٍ مِّمَّنۡ خَلَقۡنَا تَفۡضِیۡلًا ﴿٪۷۰﴾
“And surely We have dignified the children of Adam and We carry them in the land and the sea and We have given them of good things and We have made them to excel by a high degree most of those whom We have created.” (The Holy Quran, 17:70)
It has been mentioned frequently in the pages of the Holy Book that everything celestial and terrestrial has been created for man’s benefit. In fact, there is not one thing from the mightiest heavenly body to the lowliest blade of grass that has not been spoken of in the Quran as working day and night for man’s service. I quote a few occasions:
وَ سَخَّرَ لَکُمۡ مَّا فِی السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ مَا فِی الۡاَرۡضِ جَمِیۡعًا مِّنۡہُ ؕ اِنَّ فِیۡ ذٰلِکَ لَاٰیٰتٍ لِّقَوۡمٍ یَّتَفَکَّرُوۡنَ ﴿۱۳﴾
“And He has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the heavens and in the earth; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (The Holy Quran, 45:13)
اَللّٰہُ الَّذِیۡ خَلَقَ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضَ وَ اَنۡزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَآءِ مَآءً فَاَخۡرَجَ بِہٖ مِنَ الثَّمَرٰتِ رِزۡقًا لَّکُمۡ ۚ وَ سَخَّرَ لَکُمُ الۡفُلۡکَ لِتَجۡرِیَ فِی الۡبَحۡرِ بِاَمۡرِہٖ ۚ وَ سَخَّرَ لَکُمُ الۡاَنۡہٰرَ ﴿ۚ۳۲﴾ وَ سَخَّرَ لَکُمُ الشَّمۡسَ وَ الۡقَمَرَ دَآئِبَیۡنِ ۚ وَ سَخَّرَ لَکُمُ الَّیۡلَ وَ النَّہَارَ ﴿ۚ۳۳﴾ وَ اٰتٰىکُمۡ مِّنۡ کُلِّ مَا سَاَلۡتُمُوۡہُ ؕ وَ اِنۡ تَعُدُّوۡا نِعۡمَتَ اللّٰہِ لَا تُحۡصُوۡہَا ؕ اِنَّ الۡاِنۡسَانَ لَظَلُوۡمٌ کَفَّارٌ ﴿٪۳۴﴾
“Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth and sent down water from the clouds then brought forth with it fruits as a sustenance for you, and He has made the ships subservient to you that they might run their course by His command and He has made the rivers subservient to you and He has made subservient to you the sun and the moon pursuing their courses. And He has made subservient to you the night and day. And He gives you of all that you ask Him and if you count Allah’s favours you will not be able to number them; most surely man is very unjust, very ungrateful.” (The Holy Quran, 14:32–34)
Also, it states:
اِنَّ فِیۡ خَلۡقِ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ وَ اخۡتِلَافِ الَّیۡلِ وَ النَّہَارِ لَاٰیٰتٍ لِّاُولِی الۡاَلۡبَابِ ﴿۱۹۰﴾ۚۙ الَّذِیۡنَ یَذۡکُرُوۡنَ اللّٰہَ قِیٰمًا وَّ قُعُوۡدًا وَّ عَلٰی جُنُوۡبِہِمۡ وَ یَتَفَکَّرُوۡنَ فِیۡ خَلۡقِ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ ۚ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقۡتَ ہٰذَا بَاطِلًا ۚ سُبۡحٰنَکَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ ﴿۱۹۱﴾
“Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and day there are signs for men of understanding; Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect in the creation of heavens and the earth. Our Lord, Thou hast not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee. Save us then from the chastisement of fire.” (The Holy Quran, 3:190–191)
There are many other verses to similar effect but space limits their mention. Note how the Quran combines the mention of service of all creation to man and man’s duty to reflect and ponder. Is there any other book which has so vigorously aroused the instincts of reason and intelligence in man? Man has obviously benefited by reflecting over nature but he has never gained anything by pondering over the Divine Being because the former can be comprehended through our senses whereas the latter cannot be understood through such means. It is on this account that religion has diverted man’s attention from useless waste of time. It has asked man to exercise his intelligence where it can reach. Is this an inducement to superstition or is it the diversion of man’s activities to fruitful channels? It would certainly have been unbeneficial a task to ask man to devote his energies in the pursuit of things far beyond the reach of his intelligence and comprehension. It is in fact a blessing that religion has bestowed on man by diverting his activities from sterile pursuits of knowing the nature of ultimate reality to healthy directions.
Teaching of Religion about acquiring Knowledge:
In the very beginning of the book mention is made of the creation of Adam and of his capacity to know everything:
وَ عَلَّمَ اٰدَمَ الۡاَسۡمَآءَ کُلَّہَا
“And He gave Adam knowledge of all the things.” (The Holy Quran, 2:31)
The very first revelation to our Prophet speaks of man being taught the use of pen:
اِقۡرَاۡ بِاسۡمِ رَبِّکَ الَّذِیۡ خَلَقَ ۚ﴿۱﴾ خَلَقَ الۡاِنۡسَانَ مِنۡ عَلَقٍ ۚ﴿۲﴾ اِقۡرَاۡ وَ رَبُّکَ الۡاَکۡرَمُ ۙ﴿۳﴾ الَّذِیۡ عَلَّمَ بِالۡقَلَمِ ۙ﴿۴﴾ عَلَّمَ الۡاِنۡسَانَ مَا لَمۡ یَعۡلَمۡ ؕ﴿۵﴾
“Read in the name of thy Lord Who created. He created man from a clot. Read and thy Lord is Most Honourable, Who taught to write with the pen, taught man what he knew not.” (The Holy Quran, 96:1–5)
وَ قُلۡ رَّبِّ زِدۡنِیۡ عِلۡمًا ﴿۱۱۴﴾
“And say: My Lord, increase my knowledge.” (The Holy Quran, 20:114)
What an unquenchable thirst for knowledge is revealed through this phrase! It is a remarkable fact that the Holy Prophet Muhammad, himself an illiterate, and born and bred among the most uncultured nation, receives revelations about reading and writing. Mark the evidence that is sought from learning in support of the truthfulness of the Holy Prophet’s mission when it says:
نٓ وَ الۡقَلَمِ وَ مَا یَسۡطُرُوۡنَ ۙ﴿۱﴾ مَاۤ اَنۡتَ بِنِعۡمَۃِ رَبِّکَ بِمَجۡنُوۡنٍ ۚ﴿۲﴾
“The inkstand and the pen and what they write (are witness). By the grace of your Lord thou art not mad.” (The Holy Quran, 68:1–2)
The Quran has dealt with the subject of knowledge, and how to acquire it, very thoroughly. It has always appealed to the intelligent and reflective instincts of human nature. Why do you not ponder, why do you not reflect, why do you not understand, are phrases that every reader comes across frequently in the Quran. It asks man to ponder over the creation of heavens and the earth. Ever and anon it mentions
“there are signs in it for men of understanding”,
for a people who exercise their reason. Then from nature outside man it has appealed to the nature within him.
“And within your own souls — why do you not see?”
Past experiences of man have been mentioned in the shape of previous histories of nations. Observation on a large scale, or journeying, has been advised for acquiring knowledge:
فَسِیۡرُوۡا فِی الۡاَرۡضِ فَانۡظُرُوۡا کَیۡفَ کَانَ عَاقِبَۃُ الۡمُکَذِّبِیۡنَ ﴿۱۳۷﴾
“Then journey in the land and see what has been the end of those who rejected” (The Holy Quran, 3:137).
European Science Born in Muslim Universities:
Lastly, we have to consider the question: Whether men who were imbued with the true spirit of religion did or did not contribute towards scientific learning, or did they remain stunted in their intellect? The early history of Islam tells us that Muslims conquered great empires with wonderful rapidity. If they did not know how to govern them, they could not obviously have retained those countries for so many centuries. To conquer is not so difficult a task as it is to govern and to retain a country. It is a fact of history that Umar the great established a very stable and efficient form of government. He spread education and learning. The foundations laid down by him were extended afterwards. Muslims, wherever they went, illumined the torch of light and learning. The Moors were the torchbearers of science in Spain. It was the University of Cordova which lit the lamp of enlightenment and learning in days of Europe’s darkness. Is it not a fact that the period known as Renaissance, or revival of learning in European history, followed the period when scholars from all over the continent crowded in Moorish Universities? The foundations of modern science were thus laid down by the Muslims in days when they were true to the spirit of their faith.
It is true that the Muslims of today are sunk in darkness. Therefore, a man who judges religion from the state of its followers would certainly be misled. If the critic is fair, he has only to remember that if today Muslims are the most backward, once they were leaders in learning and science. Having realized this he has to decide which state of theirs corresponds to the teachings of their religion. If they are today acting up to the behests of their faith, certainly the latter is responsible for decay and degeneration. But if on the contrary they are today utterly ignoring the true teachings of their faith while they were adhering to them when they were great and glorious then it would hardly be just to accuse religion. An impartial and a true observer must probe things deeply. The Muslims must, however, realise that it is their own condition that is responsible for the misrepresentation of their faith. If only a section of Muslims devote themselves to the scientific study of their faith in the light of modern requirements, much would be achieved in tearing the veils of darkness.