September 29, 2007
The Wisdom Fund

Reason and Revelation

by Enver Masud

[Speech given by Mr. Masud at the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association of Washington, DC fund-raising dinner in Rockville, MD.]

When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed away in 632 A.D., he was the effective leader of all of southern Arabia. By 711 A.D., Arabs had swept across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. In less than 100 years, the Bedouin tribesmen, inspired by the Word of God, had carved out an empire stretching from the borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean - the largest empire that the world had yet seen.

Muslims conquered lands as was the custom of the day, but Islam was not spread by the sword. Indonesia is a prime example. Indonesia, with 6000 inhabited islands, today has the largest Muslim population. No Muslim armies landed in Indonesia.

Muslims offered an appealing message: There is One God; mankind is one; goodness is the only measure of a person's worth. Man was urged to care for the poor, the infirm, the orphan, to respect all faiths, and to search for knowledge.

200 years later Muslims are divided; the path forward is less clear.

In the Baghdad of 813 A.D., Caliph al-Mumun struggling to build a nation, is caught between the ideas of literalists and those of religious thinkers, and he has a dream.

He sees a figure of light and gold standing before him.

"Who are you?" asks a frightened al-Mamun.

"I am Aristotle", the spirit says. "I have come to answer your question".

"And what is my question?" al-Mamun asks - he knows but wants the spirit to say it.

"Your question is, What is better for the affairs of man and the affairs of society, reason or revelation?"

Al-Mamun nods, and asks, "And what is your answer to the riddle?"

"My son," says Aristotle, "they are not in opposition. But to find true revelation, man must first choose reason, because reason is the doorway to revelation."

Of course, the dream is imaginary. Author Michael Hamilton Morgan describes it in his book "Lost History" (p. 47).

So great was al-Mamun's love of knowledge that after defeating the Byzantine emperor, he asks not for caskets of gold but a a copy of the Almagest - Ptolemy's book on astronomy written around 150 A.D.

Al-Mamun goes on to establish the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Later al-Hakim will build the House of Knowledge in Cairo.

Revelation won hearts and minds

Reason gave Muslims the superior strategy and technology that helped win battles. Revelation taught Muslims the principles of just-war, and of mercy and compassion.

Muslims taught and practiced a degree of tolerance remarkable for their time. The Quran reminded them: "For each we have appointed a divine law and traced out the way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community." (5:48)

Islam, perhaps like no other religion, declares to Muslims the sanctity of all "nations and tribes." What may surprise Christians and Jews, and even many Muslims, is that the Quran refers to them all as "muslims."

Muhammad Asad, born Leopold Weiss in Poland in 1900, in his interpretation of the Quran wrote:

"When his contemporaries heard the words islam and muslim, they understood them as denoting man's 'self-surrender to God' and 'one who surrenders himself to God,' without limiting himself to any specific community or denomination—e.g., in 3:67, where Abraham is spoken of as having 'surrendered himself unto God' (kana musliman), or in 3:52 where the disciples of Jesus say, 'Bear thou witness that we have surrendered ourselves unto God (bianna musliman).' In Arabic, this original meaning has remained unimpaired, and no Arab scholar has ever become oblivious of the wide connotation of these terms."

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was twice president of the Indian National Congress, a renowned scholar, and India's first Education Minister (my father was his private secretary), wrote:

"The unity of man is the primary aim of religion. The message which every prophet delivered was that mankind were in reality one people and one community, and that there was but one god for all of them, and on that account they should serve Him together and live as members of one family."

By providing opportunities based on merit to all, Muslims won the hearts and minds of the conquered people. Muslims worked side by side with Jews, Christians, Hindus, and others to create the centers of learning and cultural expansion in Iraq, Iran, Spain, Egypt, and India.

Knowledge lifted civilization

The Quran is replete with verses inviting man to use his intellect, to ponder, to think and to know, for the goal of human life is to discover the Truth. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells us: "The first thing created by god was the Intellect." And that: "One learned man is harder on the devil than a thousand ignorant worshippers." His words exhort us to: "Go in quest of knowledge even unto China." And to: "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave."

The love of knowledge helped create cities that drew scholars from across the world.

Will Durant in his Story of Civilization (vol. IV, p. 237) writes:

"When Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols [1258] it had thirty-six public libraries. Private libraries were numberless. It was a fashion among the rich to have an ample collection of books. A physician refused the invitation of the Sultan of Bokhara to come and live at his court, on the ground that he would need 400 camels to transport his library. Al-Waqidi, dying, left 600 boxes of books, each box so heavy that two men were needed to carry it. Princes like Sahab ibn Abbas in the 10th century might own as many books as could be found in all the libraries of Europe combined."

Muslims built a civilzation that would lift Europe out of darkness.

HRH, The Prince of Wales, in his October 27, 1993 speech titled, "Islam And The West", said:

"Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it also interpreted and expanded upon that civilization, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of human endeavour -- in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music.

"Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the most civilized city of Europe. . . . Many of the traits on which Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came from this great city of cities. Mediaeval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians to practice their inherited beliefs, and setting an example which was not, unfortunately, copied for many centuries in the West.

"[Islam] has contributed so much towards the civilization which we all too often think of, wrongly, as entirely Western. Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavor. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart."

The best selling poet in America, it is reported, is Rumi - born September 30, 1207 in Afghanistan.

End of Empire, beginnings of Aligarh University

The Christian reconquest of Spain in 1492 under Ferdinand and Isabella was the beginning of the end of the Muslim era. By 1858, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zaffar, who ruled little more than the city of Delhi, was exiled by the British to Burma.

In 1875, Sir Syed, seeking to improve literacy among Indian Muslims, founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. This college became Aligarh University. It nurtured many leaders of India and Pakistan. You, the alumni of Aligarh University, are continuing the tradition by funding scholarships for those less fortunate than yourselves.

Today, as it was for Muslims in the early 7th century, the key to successfully negotiating the path ahead, for themselves and for generations to come, remains reason and revelation.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of Aligarh Muslim University

[The question is when and where Islam provided for division of territories to settle populations on the basis of belief and unbelief. Does this find any sanction in the Quran or the traditions of the Holy Prophet? Who among the scholars of Islam has divided the dominion of God on this basis? If we accept this division in principle, how shall we reconcile it with Islam as a universal system?--Translation by Arif Mohammed Khan, "Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: The Man Who Knew the Future," Matbooat Chattan (Lahore), April 1946 Interview]

Jacob Bender, "Lessons From the Three Wise Men," The Wisdom Fund, December 20, 2003

Paul Lewis, "Charting the Lost Innovations of Islam," Guardian, March 10, 2006

How did Indonesia become Muslim? Knowledgia, January 28, 2020

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