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Lost Heritage

Gerbrt d'Aurillac, the first French and 139th pope of the Catholic Church, was anointed Pope Sylvester II in 999 and remained so until his death in 1003. A prolific scholar and a teacher, he introduced and promoted Arabic numerals, arithmetic, mathematics and astronomy to Christian Europe. He disseminated to Europe the Islamic knowledge and learning he had gained by attending Islamic centres of higher learning in Spain and at al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco.

Born to a wealthy businessman, Muhammad Abd Allah al-Fihri al-Qayrawani, in the Tunisian town of Qayrawan, young Fatima al-Fihri had moved to Fez with her family when her father sought to expand his business in Morocco. After his death, Fatima, in her father's honour, founded Jami' al-Qarawiyyin in 859 as a centre of learning and education. Al-Qarawiyyin is now the world's oldest existing, continuously operating university; it is recognised as such by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the same reason. The next oldest, still operating university is University of Bologna in Italy, which was founded in 1088, more than 200 years after al-Qarawiyyin.

What is missing from their analysis as the main cause of Islamic civilisation's eclipse is perhaps lack of education and higher learning. The pertinent question to ask, then, is why al-Qarawiyyin and other Islamic institutions of higher learning of the time did not develop into a modern-day Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, University of Bologna or even a University of Mississippi? After all, it was the universities of Europe and America that produced minds that revolutionised our world: from mathematics to medicine to literature to business.

It was the centres of higher learning in the West, apparently the idea of which was very familiar to early Muslims, that helped eradicate poverty and many diseases from Europe and America, brought them tranquillity and prosperity, explored space at the macro-level and quantum physics at the micro-level, and which are now tackling the amorphous and elusive consciousness. In the course of human history, many prophets have surfaced and have meditated on the meaning of life, on human suffering and on love.

There was only one prophet, however, Muhammad of Islam, who is said to have uttered perhaps the wisest, most sensible, and erudite statement of all the prophets: "The ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr." If one were to contemplate the significance of that statement, one would realise how different Islamic civilisation would have been today had it followed that brilliant utterance of its prophet, just like Fatima did in 859 and Malala is in 2013.

It can be argued that, ironically, Islamic civilisation never heeded its revered prophet's exhortation to place a premium on education and higher learning. Liberal education broadens a mind, provides ability to think critically, modifies social behaviour for the betterment of society, equips the pupil with the skills to compete economically and become a productive member of the community, and brings peace and prosperity to a nation. The visionary prophet was cognisant of all that, as his terse and subtle statement reflects. Although, or perhaps because of it, lacking education himself, the prophet was deeply aware of its value and benefits it could bestow on his followers. In the same vein, he is also quoted to have urged his followers: "In search of education and learning, travel to China if you must."

The gulf between a synthetic Islamic civilisation and the real civilization, that is, the gap between what it could have been and what it is -- as distressing that gap is -- can doubtless be measured in terms of education and higher learning.
It is sad that, with the passage of time, Islamic civilisation diverged from the most valuable advice its farsighted prophet left for his followers some 1,400 years ago. Today, one can witness the perilous consequences of Islamic civilisation's divergence from that wisdom.
It is imperative that we, the Ummah, eschew searching for the external causes that may have contributed to eclipsing of the civilisation to which we belong, and not only appreciate what our prophet had advised us but act upon it so we can catch up to the other, non-Islamic civilisations and devise new, innovative ideas that Gerbert found so appealing at Islamic centres of higher learning over a millennium ago.

To follow: Why Islamic civilisation diverged from early educational excellence.

Ashir Karim