The Big Picture
Let me start by giving you an overview based on the Quran.
Islam’s goal is to create and enable a peaceful learning community (Quran 96:1-8, 30: 20-27, 51:20-21, 39:18, 8:22, 17:36, 16:69, 30:8, 2:164, 22:46, 13:4, 16:12, 10:100, etc)
A peaceful learning community is one that empowers the learning all its members and continually transforms itself and expand its capacity to create its own future. The journey will never and can never end because by definition a true learning community never stops growing as there is no end to knowledge. The Quran puts it eloquently at 31:27, “And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea [were] ink, with seven [morel seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for, verily, God is almighty, wise.”. As such a learning community will continuously add value to its members and make the world better and better in every aspects of human development as we progress and unlock more and more about His treasures (Quran 75:16-19)
At Quran 65:12, it was specified that the entire purpose or goal of creation is for man to gain knowledge of the entire universe. The story of Adam as representing the first man is about how he was taught by the first teacher, God (Quran 2:31). One of our first bond with God is one of a teacher-student relationship. In this account, the Quran singled out knowledge as man’s clear advantage and privilege over all beings as even the angels cannot learn on their own and exercise continuous learning. Only we humans can!
Man, and only man has the ability to name or define all of God’s creation and have the capacity to think conceptually and create our own reality, our own destiny (Quran 2:32-33). It is because Adam’s capacity to seek knowledge that God directed the angels to prostrate to Adam (Quran 2:34, 7:11, 38:71-72).
The Quran declares that while at birth we know nothing, we are provided the capacity to seek knowledge and that is one of the reasons to be grateful (Quran 16:78). Throughout human history, messengers and apostles were sent to guide mankind towards knowledge (Quran 2:51) and the Quran declared that only those who has knowledge can comprehend God’s creation of the universe and understand society in its diversity and inclusiveness (Quran 30:22).
The more knowledge we acquire the closer we get to God (Quran 58:11) and we are to call upon Him to increase our knowledge (Quran 20:114). With knowledge we have insight and with insight we will take God’s word with the needed seriousness (Quran 38:39).
The First Revelation – The Call to READ
The first message of the Quran, in fact the first word of the Quranic revelation according to traditions is to, “READ”. The word ‘READ’ was repeated twice within the first five verses delivered to the Prophet.
Here are the five verses: -
READ in the name of thy Sustainer, who has-
created man out of a germ-cell,
Read - for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One,
who has taught [man] the use of the pen –
taught man what he did not know!
One may want to ponder, why read? Why did He not choose the stress on prayer, fasting, dressing, pilgrimage or the usual rituals in His first revelation to The Prophet? Why specifically about seeking knowledge?
Let us unpack the power of reading and seeking knowledge and its impact on humanity the last 1400 years since the advent of the Quran.
Reading is not natural. You must learn the skill. You must make a CHOICE to read.
While language is native to our species where a child can learn to talk without instructions, reading and writing are unnatural acts. They are not innate talents in humans. Reading and writing are made possible only through the deliberate shaping of the mind. Reading and writing require practice. Reading and writing require schooling. Reading and writing requires a conscious act to change. Reading and writing necessitate transformation of an individual and its extension, the society.
Reading is a choice. We must choose to read. When we make a choice, we use man’s unique position in creation using our free volition that was not given to any other creation. Not even the angels (Quran 2:30-34). It is our ability to seek knowledge that made us the cream of all creation outstripping even the angels because we excel in knowledge.
To read, our minds need to be taught and trained how to translate symbolic characters into the language we can understand. That is why neurological studies have shown that the brains of a literate differ from the brain of the illiterate in many ways. The way they reason. The way they form memories. The way they process signals and how they interpret the world around them. In short, the way we experience reality.
Learning to read and write, rewire our brain in an immense way. Verse 96:1-5 was the first call to rewire the brain of the modern man. To slowly and surely prepare us towards the ability to absorb the gamut of information that flow through our senses today.
Basically, the Quran moved and transformed the Arabs and later those who were part and subjects of the Muslim empire from a society that was based on oral culture to a literary one. This change marked the start of one of the most far-reaching revolutions of human behavior and thoughts.
Knowledge is exchanged more and more through writing instead of speaking. While oral culture is limited by the capacity of the human memory, literary culture freed them. Knowledge, human thoughts and information can be stored, shared and retrieved from books and libraries (and today hard drives and in the clouds).
Furthermore, while oral culture limits the method of learning to only face to face interaction, literary culture freed us to learn on our own through books. Knowledge became more accessible, independent and democratic. While the oral culture needs a physical teacher to disseminate knowledge, literary culture allows us to seek knowledge from books as the Quran puts it, “who has taught [man] the use of the pen –
taught man what he did not know! "
The development of science, technology, economics, philosophy, cultural work and even history cannot have advanced without this change. A cursory audit of the extent of fields of knowledge like philosophy, medicine, alchemy, engineering, architecture, physics, mathematics, astrology, geography, cartography, zoology, astronomy, mathematics, literature, optics, etc. found at the House of Wisdom (public academy, library and intellectual center) of Baghdad within just a few centuries after The Prophet attest to this. An amazing human revolution.
For the first time in history the collection of knowledge and books from all the known world like India, Persia, Greece and China centered at one place. The House of Wisdom contained so many books that the Tigris River turned black from the ink when a big portion of the collection were destroyed by the Mongols when Baghdad was sieged. This is not counting the number that was burnt and the 400 000 manuscripts that was saved.
The Quran made the Arabs and early Muslims the first mass producers, collectors and users of books in history.
From an animal like brain to one that can focus.
How did reading set this motion going? Why and how did the illiterate Arabs and those who came under their wings became avid readers and seekers? How did the Quran or Reading (the Quran calls itself The Reading) changed our brains?
The natural state of the human brain is one of distractedness or non-linear as our senses are naturally attuned to change – fast paced shifting to reflex. This is important for survival and reduce the odds of being eaten up by predators or simply overlooking a source for dinner. To read a book demands an unbroken sustained attention to one single static object – an unnatural process of thinking for humans for the most part of history.
When we read, the brain has to practice ignoring everything else going on around it. To resist the natural sensory cues – the non-linear as our senses are naturally attuned to change – fast paced shifting to reflex as explained earlier. Meaning, we began to be able to focus on a single task over a long period of time. This is one of the biggest changes in the history of human psychological development. Likely the biggest impact to modern man’s brain.
What happen when we can ignore distractions and be focus?
In the silence of deep reading, humans take trips in their own minds, draw ideas, inferences, analogies, play around with possibilities, visualize and dream – in short, we journey where the usual mind never has been before. Of mathematical formulas, economic models, scientific possibilities, astronomical expedition, fictional journeys and artistic beauty. We became a species that can focus with excellence and as such are able to deal with extremely complex problems and opportunities unleashing innovations, creativity, modern processes and systems and create the world that we live in today.
Reading is also meditative. It calms the distracted mind. But while meditation seek to empty the mind, reading filled it up. Replenishing it with new ideas, new energy, new spirit. Deep reading becomes a form of prayer that connects one to himself, to his world and to his Creator.
Reading created the modern man.
Reading, knowledge, books and World Power
Allow me to simplify history. There are a lot more that had happened that cannot be explained in an article as this. For example, reading as a human activity could not have spread like wild fire within the Muslim empire if the Arab Muslims did not learn how to make paper from the Chinese in 751 AD. No paper, no books. No books, no reading - as the other alternatives like papyrus and animal skin is simply ineffective, too costly and inefficient. The Chinese have one of the best kept secret for 700 years.
Paper was invented by Tsai Lun in the first century AD. And the West never knew the art of paper making until the 12 century AD when they learnt the art from the Arabs. In the fourteenth hundred Johann Gutenberg of Germany innovated the modern printing machine which led to a complete process of mass production of books and printed materials. Soon after, the west outpaced the Muslims in the production and practice of making full use of reading books. They began to accumulate knowledge through books at a far greater speed and efficiency as compared to the rest of the world. History suggests the Islamic Golden Age traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century. Western Europe domination of the world started right after Gutenberg’s printing technology in the fifteenth century. The rest is history.*
Can you see the connection?
Conclusion: Reading created the modern man.
Reading made us who we are today. Reading is the catalyst of modern history. You and I, we are here today with all that is around us because of the human capacity to read. We are here because God chose to send us a clear message to Read and Write as his first call to his last Prophet. And thank God, the earlier Muslims took heed.
But today, reading is no longer central to Muslims. A quick survey today on Muslim practice and what we pay attention to will show the sad truth that reading is not top of mind. Ask the majority of Muslims to list the top ten of what is most central as a Muslim, we will be lucky if reading is ever even listed. The Quran followed the first five verses with a caution.
“Nay, verily, man becomes grossly overweening –
whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient:
for, behold, unto thy Sustainer all must return.”
Perhaps the Muslim scholars today, can make a bold move and call for an international Fatwa and make reading one of the central pillars in Islam. Would they?
Or we ordinary Muslims rise up and relaunch ourselves and make reading central to our lives. Can we? Will we?
“So lose not heart, nor fall into despair:
For ye must gain mastery, if ye are true in Faith.”
* Additional note : When I wrote this, I wondered why the Muslims did not just copy Gutenberg's printing processes or buy the machines.
A recent video by Hassan Nisar shocked me when I found out there was a short-sighted Fatwa by a Muslim Cleric and uphold by others that bans the printing press for 250 years at the center of Muslim civilization - Turkey. Muslim fell behind. How sad!!!
Here's the interview - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1_uQQkYRkw