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Does Islam inhibit our intellectual growth?

Mohammad Jamal Ahmed, a freelance writer talks about one of the most intrusive topics in Islam and that is if our religion hinders our spiritual and intellectual journey. He further talks about the misconception people have about Islam and how Pakistan faces a grave crisis of illiteracy, in the name of religion, especially young girls.

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Does religion have the ability to spur intellectual growth or is it a wall that acts as an impediment against it? Rather than igniting the spark of reason and intellect, time and again it has been criticized for dulling the mind and killing our natural inquisitiveness.

Throughout history, religion has been used as a tool to induce conformity in the masses to not challenge or question the authority. Being emotional beings, with often blind faith as our foundation, we seldom engage with this topic on an intellectual level. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte once said that religion is excellent stuff to keep common people quiet and Seneca remarked that the rulers think of religion merely as a useful tool.

Read more: More than 2,000 people in Dubai have converted to Islam in 2021

Knowledge and education in Islam

Islam was revealed in a series of revelations over 23 years which has since then changed the geopolitical nature of the world. Here, it is essential to analyze the very first verse revealed as these are the initial words God chose to introduce Himself to the prophet, and hence, humankind. By assessing them we can get a hint of the underlying essence of the message.

It is important to note that the very first word to be revealed was not “obey”, “believe”, “worship”, “submit”, or “surrender”, but rather – “Iqra” or read. “Read in the name of your Lord who created” is the very first verse revealed to the prophet (s). Here the word “Iqra” does not only mean to read, but to gather, and to seek knowledge. So the very first commandment that was given to humankind was to read or gain knowledge.

Now it might be hard to digest for a lot of people, even Muslims that the Quran strongly recommends to think, ponder, and contemplate the signs of God – the natural world, rather than blindly following our presuppositions. The Quran in chapter 34, verse 46 says,” Say: I only advise you of one [thing] – that you stand for Allah in pairs or individually, and then give thought…” In chapter 6, verse 176, it says,”… so relate the stories that perhaps they may reflect” And in the 8th verse of Surah Rum, the Quran says,” Have they not pondered upon themselves?” These are just a few of the numerous occasions where God asks humans to delve into the process of reasoning themselves to arrive at the truth.

Read more: Is our Education System Responsive to our needs?

On the flipside

The people who do not use their critical reasoning to analyze the world around them are criticized. In the 22nd verse of chapter 8, The Quran says,” Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason.”

Here, of course, Quran is not talking about the physically impaired but the people who rigidly hold onto their prejudices and preconceived notions rather than engaging in intellectual discourse. Islam does not ask us to reject contradictory information blindly, but rather to undertake a journey of knowledge to seek out the truth.

Holy Prophet (s) is reported to have said, ”Talab ul ilmu farizatan ala kuli Muslim” – “acquiring knowledge is an obligation on all Muslims.” He does not say only male Muslims or a specific community, but all Muslims. And it is an obligation, it is mandatory to struggle in the path of knowledge rather than mindlessly sticking to our biases. The very essence and the foundational structure of Islam are built upon the notion of gaining knowledge, researching, questioning and seeking answers.

However, we have deviated from this noble path onto one of ignorance and heedlessness. We have stopped looking for evidence, questioning the validity of the material, or critically evaluating the information at hand before accepting it. We have started to blindly follow our so-called religious leaders who carry out heinous injustices in society under the guise of religion – all because we have put aside our ability to reason. One of the main factors for this is lack of education.

Read more: How to reform Pakistan’s education system? An unpopular opinion

The mere ability to read and write opens up countless avenues for an individual, physically and more importantly psychologically. And its importance can be assessed by the fact that during the prophet’s time, the condition of release for several of the prisoners of war was not ransom or slavery but that they had to teach a certain number of Muslims to read and write. Unfortunately, in our Islamic Republic of Pakistan, we have strayed far away from the Islamic essence.

Illiteracy in Pakistan: a grave matter of concern

The literacy rate of Pakistan in 2020 was just 58% percent. That means out of every 100 people, 42 of them cannot read or write. This means they must rely on what they are being told. And it may further deteriorate as approximately 23 million children remain out of school. That is an abysmal stat given what our religion says.

Moreover, 53% of women are illiterate, and the discouragement of women education is often justified under the guise of Islam – but it has nothing to do with religion. It is due to the overarching patriarchal structure of our society, socio-cultural restraints, and a disintegrated educational framework.

The lack of education has led people to be swayed by enthusiastic religious leaders with extremist views, asserting their interpretations by cherry-picking verses and ahadith in an imperious manner, and then resorting to violence when met with criticism. This has inevitably suffused us with narrow-mindedness and intolerance; fueling sectarianism, as a result.

The solution to this problem was given by Hazrat Ali more than 1400 years ago. He said,” Learn your religion, don’t inherit it” When we create a culture that does not stimulate our intellectual curiosity but rather the teachings are based on only strict instructions and guidance which cannot be questioned, then the subject does not enter into the very fabric of our being.

Read more: The quality gap in Pakistan’s education system

We only follow it with mechanical exactness and remain alien to its true essence. The religion is then reduced to mere rituals and traditions devoid of all of its wisdom. Hence, it is imperative that we make Islam a priority of our intellectual curiosity, that we research, and read to seek answers as it is only then will we realize that Islam does not inhibit intellectual growth but rather, it is its biggest adherent.

The author is a graduate of the University of London. He is a freelance writer and can be reached at jamal17_m@hotmail.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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