Education in Islam*

In Islam, no path is too difficult, so long as it leads to knowledge. The Muslim is told to travel even as far as China in this quest. Thus, throughout history Muslim scholars have left their own homes and countries to travel the world in search of learning. Knowledge is, to paraphrase the Prophet, like a personal possession one has lost; upon finding it, one picks it up and takes it with him.

Translations in other Languages

Prof. Dr. M. Es’ad Cosan
(May Allah have mercy on him)

Throughout history, older generations have passed on to the newer the riches they have accumulated, the goods they have acquired, the properties they have developed, and the tools they have invented over the course of their lives. But these material things are not the only or the most valuable inheritance that has been passed down through the ages. Our true inheritance lies in the wisdom, experience, knowledge, language, literature, customs, traditions, and laws they have bequeathed to us. It is this treasure that transforms us from an aimless and disconnected mass into a well-rooted and disciplined nation, and which inspires us and propels us onward to new achievements. Thus, it is that the progress and strengthening of a society is contingent upon its commitment to incorporating the true inheritance of its predecessors; for it is only by learning from their experience, accomplishments, and mistakes that people become truly educated, and only by becoming so that they may truly prepare themselves for the future.

We live today in a world which is constantly changing and evolving. Whether at the level of the individual or that of society, our knowledge and our notions of how we ought to comport ourselves are broadening with each passing day. As the horizons of our knowledge increase, we become aware of new fields of possibility and come to see old ones in a new light, and there emerge new methods and techniques by which we may better harvest their fruits. We cannot ignore these developments and changes, for to do so would be tantamount to willing ourselves backward. 

In a valuable study evaluating the necessary steps for a nation’s development, one of our university professors details the amount of money allocated to education in the budgets of various countries. He shows that they spend as much on education as they do on national defense, and also devote a similarly large sum to research. He draws attention to the fact that these are profitable investments, noting that in a 25-year period in the United States, every 100 dollars spent in research has been returned 25- or 50-fold.

Thus, if we are to progress as individuals and as a society, it is incumbent upon us to devote ourselves to education. But what is the nature of this education to be?

Education itself comes in two main forms. There is what one might call book-learning, which is based on providing information to the people or groups of people who need it. This addresses the mind and memory alone. There is also what one might call edification, which constitutes a more advanced level than mere book-learning. Its purpose is to encourage the student not only to learn the information one teaches, but to process, digest, and ultimately to identify with that knowledge. It lays the foundation for a person’s judgment and behaviour—directing itself not only at the conscious mind, but also the sub-consciousness, heart, and soul of the student—and aims to instill a general competence and maturity in him or her.

These two forms of education are intertwined with and complement one another. Education of the first variety conveys important information to people, teaching them about the world in which they live and their broader universe, broadening their level of culture, and making them aware of advanced techniques and methods in every subject. But it is education of the second sort that it brings out and develops a person’s innate abilities and skills, steering them away from passivity and dangerous habits. It is only through edification that people, physically and spiritually, are brought to realize their full potential, and to be of service to themselves, those around them, and their broader societies.

Edification can take many forms. It may be physical or spiritual, family- or school-oriented, ethical or religious, morale-raising or character-building, professional or artistic, or political or social. When a person or a people fail to receive these various forms of education, they remain backward and primitive. It is for this reason that, in the words of one Western philosopher, “Man can only become man by education.”1 Again drawing attention to the import and impact of education, another once stated, “I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”2

In Antiquity, a famous physicist said, “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”3 To quote another Western philosopher, “He who controls education controls the world; if you leave education to me I’ll change Europe in a century.”4

All of this is a testament to the power of education and its place in the life of a nation. Thus, it is that throughout history some form of education has come to be developed and applied in virtually all societies across the globe.

Turning more closely to an examination of the history of culture and education, one sees that truly Muslim societies have always been extremely advanced in this regard. The religion of Islam greatly values education and elevates it to the level of a sacrament. The concrete evidence of this is the brilliance of Islamic culture and civilization and the rapid development of a great number of sciences during the first Islamic periods.

Now, let us examine a few examples of the importance of education in Islam.

Before the arrival of Islam, the culture of the Arabs was extremely backward. Even in city like Mecca in which trade, religion, and social contacts were relatively well-developed, the number of people who could read and write did not amount to more than fifteen and twenty. A revealing episode which took place in the sixth year after the hijra shows just how low the level of literacy was. In that year, the Prophet Muhammad sent a letter to the people of Juwasa in western Arabia to invite them to enter the fold of believers and to embrace Islam. When the letter arrived in Juwasa, not a single person could be found who could read it, and the letter thus sat unread for a long period. In the same years in Yemen, an ancient center of culture, the well-known poet al-Namir b. Tawlab was elected leader by his tribe. Despite his important status, he was illiterate, and when presented with an edict from the Prophet Muhammad was forced to have it read for him by someone in the Medina bazaar.

This was the cultural environment into which Islam was born, and it is important to keep this in mind when evaluating the great developments that were later to take place.

The Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—himself was not able to read or write. The Holy Qur’an itself testifies to his illiteracy, stating that had he been a literate or a cultured man, this might perhaps have given certain people cause to doubt that he was a mere messenger, and that Allah Himself was in fact the source of the great and glorious Qur’an.5 In other words, the Prophet Muhammad’s true greatness is revealed in the unparalleled extent of his accomplishments in spite of the fact he could neither read nor write.

The revelation to the illiterate prophet began in the Hira cave with the command “Recite!”6, and ever thereafter continued to emphasize the importance of knowledge, the pen, and the page. With this command began the revelation of the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, and as that revelation unfolded there arose the need to record it in writing. Thus, began the first cultural movement of Islam, which would swiftly lead to the promotion of literacy, learning, and education more broadly among the early community of believers.

Due to the great oppression and opposition the early Muslims faced in their home city of Mecca, they were forced to flee elsewhere. The inhabitants of Medina welcomed them with open arms, and it was there where they founded the first institution of learning. After the Muslim emigration to Medina, they built a house of prayer called the Masjid al-Nabawi. Within its walls, they taught the Qur’an, hadith, law, and the tenets of the faith in what came to form a sort of school. The school was always crowded, with up to 400 people studying there during the day, and some 70 or 80 even at night. This community was called ahl al-suffa or ashab al-suffa, meaning “people of the bench,” for the area of the mosque where they would often congregate. They were of all ages, and hailed from across the land. In this remarkable school, a certain ‘Amr b. al-As, who is known to have written several works and to have been employed as a scribe before the coming of Islam, offered instruction in writing. The well-known ‘Ubada b. al-Samit also worked as an honorary teacher of writing and the Qur’an. A number of sources list additional teachers, including Abdallah b. Mas‘ud, Mu‘adh b. Jabal, and Ubay b. Ka’b.

It is said that over time the number of masjids in Medina reached around eight or nine, and that homes of several residents of the city, such as Abdallah b. Mas‘ud and Mahrama b. Nawfal, came to be used as schools for the recitation of the Qur’an called Dar al-Qurra’.

It is reported in a hadith that the Prophet once said, “Those who come to my mosque do so only to learn and to teach what is good, not for anything else. People of such good intention are as those who engage in jihad on God’s path.”7 As a result of these and similar words of the Prophet, the Masjid al-Nabawi soon became a veritable cradle of learning for students and teachers alike.

Our beloved Prophet loved and cared for the ahl al-suffa, and would frequently sit with them to talk and contribute to their education. He would often invite them to his own table, for many of them were poor. He would also call on those of them whose circumstances were better to aid those of their fellows of lesser means, and he held the education of all of them higher than anything else. On this topic, the following anecdote is particularly worthy of attention.

One day the Prophet was approached by his daughter Fatima and his son-in-law ‘Ali, who complained about all of the work they had to do and the various difficulties associated with it. They asked that a servant or an aid be given to them from a recent group of prisoners that had been brought to Medina. In exemplary fashion, our Prophet said, “I will not be able to provide you a servant, for there are people who live here in my mosque who are poor and in need, and who have devoted themselves entirely to learning. I have not yet found for them a source of sustenance. I plan to sell these slaves and to use the proceeds to do just that.”8

There are other examples of the use of prisoners for the purposes of education. After the Battle of Badr in the second year after the hijra, several of the enemy were taken prisoner. Those who were wealthy were ransomed off for between two and four thousand dirham, while those who were poor were released. An additional condition was imposed on those of the prisoners who were literate. These had to teach ten children from among the Prophet’s followers in Medina to read and write before they could be released. Sources record that it was at this time that Zayd b. Thabit, who would later go on to participate in the effort to compile the Holy Qur’an, learned how to read and write.

In the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad is instructed to pray, “O my Lord, increase me in knowledge”9 and is told that God does not hold as equal those who know and those who know not. The Qur’an also explains that educated Muslims are better able to serve God and that Allah will raise up those who have been given knowledge, thus stressing the importance of learning. In a number of places the Qur’an enjoins Muslims to guide those around them:

Let there be one nation of you, calling to good, and bidding to honour, and forbidding dishonour; those are the prosperers.10

You are the best nation ever brought forth to men, bidding to honour, and forbidding dishonour, and believing in God.11

It is for this reason that the Muslim community has always been required to educate religious leaders to guide the people, and thus the Prophet Muhammad’s emphasis on education and encouragement of learning.

In another revealing anecdote, one day the Prophet stopped by a masjid while on a stroll. There, he saw two separate groups of people. One group was praying, and the other engaged in study. He sat down not with the first group, but rather with the second, and said, “As a prophet, I, too, am a teacher.”12

Examining the hadith of the Prophet as a whole, one sees that he used the word faridah to describe the act of learning, meaning that it is a religious obligation incumbent upon all Muslims, male or female. Thus, learning is just as much of a religious duty in Islam as the religion’s other requirements of prayer, fasting, alms, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. The reason for this is simple. Without knowledge, believers cannot understand their own religion. And without understanding their religion, they cannot effectively practice it.

The Prophet Muhammad’s educational policies targeted women every bit as much as they targeted men. He himself devoted one day a week solely for teaching women. At his encouragement and with his full permission, his wife Hafsah learned to write from a woman named Shifah bt. Abd Allah. His young wife Aisha herself came to be regarded as one of the most knowledgeable of the Prophet’s companions. In the words of ‘Urwah b. Zubayr, “I have never known anyone more knowledgeable than Aisha in science, law, history, poetry, literature, or medicine.”13 Among the early Muslims, Aisha was one of those who transmitted the most hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. Many of the companions of the Prophet would go to her for advice. Once, a man named Masruq was asked, “Did Aisha know the rules of inheritance?” He responded, “I swear that I have even seen Muhammad (pbuh) and the eldest and greatest of his companions go to her for counsel in matters of inheritance.”14

Looking at the situation of women in other societies during that time period, one sees just how advanced this position regarding the education of women in Islam was for its age. Western scholars, too, agree that Islam granted women rights and freedoms that were far in advance of the age, including the right to engage in trade, to sign contracts, and to own, inherit, and administer their own property.

hadith, “He who would seek prosperity in this world, let him embrace the path of learning. He who would seek prosperity in the next world, let him too embrace the path of learning. The rewards of the next world may only be earned by this road.”

According to Islamic law, the study of certain subjects that are necessary for the wellbeing or development of society or that protect or provide for it is a fard al-kifaya, or a duty incumbent upon the Muslim community as a whole. This means that if a community of Muslims is bereft of, say, anyone knowledgeable about medicine or mathematics, then the entire community is deemed morally responsible for this lack and is therefore considered to have sinned. In other words, it is a religious obligation for Muslims to pursue knowledge in all of its various forms and fields, and to coordinate among themselves to ensure that nothing is ignored or neglected.

It is for this reason that the second caliph Omar, in an order he sent to his provincial governors, offered the following advice: “Teach your children swimming, horsemanship, archery, rhetoric, and poetry.”15 It is also known that the fourth caliph Ali instructed that children were to be educated not according to the time of their fathers, but instead according to the needs of the future.

In Islam, no path is too difficult, so long as it leads to knowledge. The Muslim is told to travel even as far as China in this quest. Thus, throughout history Muslim scholars have left their own homes and countries to travel the world in search of learning. Knowledge is, to paraphrase the Prophet, like a personal possession one has lost; upon finding it, one picks it up and takes it with him.

On the subject of knowledge and education, Islam places the utmost importance on the faultless and proper understanding of Allah. This is followed by its emphasis on the disciplining of the self as the basis of ethical conduct. The Qur’an states in no uncertain terms that Allah may forgive all sins except for one, namely placing anything else on an equal level with Him.16 This is because humankind is tasked in this world above all else with finding and coming to know God. The Prophet, when asked what act was viewed as most worthy and endearing in the eyes of God, replied “To know great and glorious God!” When asked to clarify what he meant by this, he said, “To know almighty God.” Not satisfied with this response, his interlocutor asked, “Oh messenger of God, we ask you what we must do and what actions we must take, and you respond by saying ‘to know’!” To this, the Prophet responded, “Even a small act performed conscientiously by one who knows God will have great rewards, but even a great act performed in ignorance by one who does not know God will be of no benefit at all.”17

A person who has come to understand this auspicious and valuable lesson is described, in religious and Sufi terminology, as an arif. Actually, many of the hadith lauding learned people are actually speaking of arifs, and it is important to keep this nuanced distinction in mind in order to properly understand the words of the Qur’an and the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. Several examples could be given in this regard:

“Scholars are the true heirs of the prophets.”18

“A scholar outshines those around him like the full moon outshines all other stars in the sky.”19

“Even a scholar’s sleep is of more value than the prayers of the ignorant.”20

“On the day of judgment, the ink of the scholars will be weighed against the blood of the martyrs, and will be found the greater.”21

The disciplining of the self, too, is one of Islam’s chief goals. It is to this that a person’s happiness in this world and the next is bound. The Qur’an states that those who purify their souls will find prosperity, and that those who corrupt them will find only failure.22 Those who struggle against the inclinations of their baser selves are more worthy than those who wage war against an enemy. The Prophet emphasized this point in a speech he gave to a group of soldiers returning from a battle, saying “Welcome! You have returned from the lesser jihad, and now embark upon the greater [namely the task of overcoming one’s baser self]!”23

Ethics is one of the central focuses of religion, and the foundation of ethics and the chief source of moral conduct lies in the edification of one’s conscience. This is indicated in the Prophet’s words, “I was sent to perfect good character.”24

I have attempted in the lines above to show that Islam, as expressed in the Qur’an and hadith, encourages and instructs people in the strongest terms to pursue knowledge in all its forms, to learn and to educate themselves broadly, and to develop their consciences and to live ethically. The results of this emphasis speak for themselves in terms of the miraculous history of Muslim peoples and the civilizations they have founded. It now falls to us to take up this banner and to once again bring the unparalleled strength of our belief to bear on the issues confronting us today. As a people and as individuals, and with love and belief in our hearts, we must take new steps in the fields of knowledge, learning, and education.

I wish you success and happiness on this road!

* Başmakaleler 4: İdeal Yol, Istanbul: Server İletişim, 2010, p. 74-83.

1. Immanuel Kant, On Education, trans. Annete Churton, USA Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., Publishers, 1900, p. 6.

2. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education and of the Conduct of the Understanding. ed. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1996, p. 10.

3. Archimedes, “Doric Speech of Syracuse”, John Tzetzes, Book of Histories (Chiliades), trans. Francis R. Walton, v. II, p. 129-130.

4. The source of the statement belonging to Leibniz is unknown.

5. Sura al-Ankabut 29/48.

6. Sura al-Alaq 96/1.

7. Ibn Majah, “Iftitah”, 17, hadith no: 227; Ahmad b. Hanbal, II, 418, hadith no: 9409; Abu Yaʿla, XI, 359, hadith no: 6472; al-Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Kabeer, VI, 175, hadith no: 5911.

8. Bukhari, “Fardh al-Khumus”, 6; “Nafakat”, 6; “Daavat”, 11; Muslim, “Zikr”, 80; Abu Dawud, “Harac”, 20, hadith no: 2988; “Adab”, 100, hadith no: 5062; Tirmidhi, “Daavat”, 24, hadith no: 3408, 3409; Nasai, “Niqah”, 81, hadith no: 3382; Ibn Majah, “Zuhd”, 11, hadith no: 4152; Ahmad b. Hanbal, I, 80, 95-96, 106–107, 123, hadith no: 604; 740, 838, 996; Darimi, “Isti’zan”, 52, hadith no: 2688.

9. Sura Ta Ha 20/114.

10. Sura Al ‘Imran 3/104.

11. Sura Al ‘Imran 3/110.

12. Ibn Majah, “Mukaddima”, 17, hadith no: 229; al-Tayalisi, p. 298, hadith no: 2251; Darimi, “Mukaddima”, 32, hadith no: 349; Bazzar, VI, 428, hadith no: 2458.

13. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Kabeer, XXIII, 182, hadith no: 294.

14. Ibn Abi Shayba, VI, 239, hadith no: 31037; Darimi, “Faraiz”, 1, hadith no: 2859; Said b. Mansur, I, 96, hadith no: 287; al-Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Kabeer, XXIII, 181, hadith no: 291; Hakim, IV, 12, hadith no: 6736; Al-Haysami, Macmau'z-Zavaid, X, 388.

15. For the hadith transmitted by Abu Rafi, may Allah be pleased with him, see Abu Nu’aym, Hilyat al-awliya, I, 184; Al-Bayhaqi, Shu'ab al-Iman, VI, 401, hadith no: 8665; Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Sunan al-Kubra, X, 15.

16. Sura al-Nisa 4/48, 116.

17. For the hadith transmitted by Anas may Allah be pleased with him, see Hakim et-Tirmidhi, Nawadir al usul, 267; al-Suyuti, Jami’ al-Saghir, hadith no: 1240; al-Munavi, Fayz al-Kadir, II, 27.

18. This hadith is within a long hadith transmitted by Abu’d-Darda, may Allah be pleased with him. See Bukhari, “Ilim”, 10; Abu Dawud, “Ilim”, 1, hadith no: 3641; Tirmidhi, “Ilim”, 19, hadith no: 2682; Ibn Majah, “Iftitah”, 17, hadith no: 223; Ahmad b. Hanbal, V, 196, hadith no: 21763; Darimi, “Mukaddima”, 32, hadith no: 342; Ibn Hibban, I, 289, hadith no: 88.

19. Tirmidhi, “Ilim”, 19, hadith no: 2682; Abu Dawud, “Ilim”, 1, hadith no: 3641; Ibn Majah, “Iftitah”, 17, hadith no: 223.

20. See Abu Nuaym, Hilyat al-awliya, IV, 385; Daylami, IV, 247, hadith no: 6732; al-Suyuti, Jami’ al-Saghir hadith no: 9294; al-Munavi, Fayz al-Kadir, VI, 291. Ajluni, Kashfu'l Hafa, II, 1837.

21. See for the transmission of the hadith by Nu’man b. Bishr: Al-Jurjani, Tarikh Jurjan, p. 91, hadith no: 52; p. 222, hadith no: 355.

22. Sura al-Shams 91/9, 10.

23. See Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad, XIII, 523. Ali al-Muttaqi reports this hadith on the authority of Daylami. See Kanz al-Ummal, IV, 930, hadith no: 11779.

24. For the hadith transmitted by Abu Hurairah, may Allah be pleased with him, see Malik, “Husn al-Khuluq”, 8; Ahmad b. Hanbal, II, 381, hadith no: 8939; Bukhari al-Adab al-mufrad, p. 104, hadith no: 273; Hakim, II, 670, hadith no: 4221; Kudai/Qudai, Musnedu’sh-shihab, II, 192, hadith no: 1165; Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Sunan al-Kubra, X, 191.

Article “” Translations in other Languages