Intellectual search in Islam
The search for knowledge is encouraged in foundational Islamic sources, such as the Holy Qur’an and the hadiths (reports or sayings) of Prophet Muhammad.
The Qur’an repeatedly encourages believers to reflect on the signs (ayat) of God found in creation, such as signs found in nature. For example, one Qur’anic verse says: “And He has subjected to you what is in the heavens and what is in the earth, all together, from Him. Surely in that are signs for a people who reflect” (Q 45:13).
Another verse suggests to the believers that they should recite the following prayer: “O my Lord, increase me in knowledge” (Q 20:114).
Similarly, one hadith of the Prophet says, “The seeking of knowledge is a duty for every Muslim man and woman.”
These teachings led to an openness to new knowledge in Muslim societies throughout history. During different periods of history in various parts of the Muslim world, vibrant centres of learning were created to study both religious and secular subjects. These centres of learning were found in many major cities of the Muslim world, such as Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, Damascus, Istanbul, and Samarqand.
The Alid tradition
The Alid tradition refers to the spiritual traditions linked to Hazrat Ali (peace be upon him), the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. Hazrat Ali is widely revered by Muslims for his leadership, piety, courage, morality, and spiritual teachings.
He was the fourth caliph to rule over the early Muslim empire after the Prophet’s death. The Shia believe that he was publicly designated by the Prophet to be the first in a line of hereditary Imams or spiritual leaders. Most Sufi communities (tariqas) also regard Hazrat Ali as their first spiritual master after the Prophet.
The emphasis on intellectual search is particularly strong in the teachings of Hazrat Ali. For example, the following is a saying from the Nahj al-Balagha, a work containing sermons, sayings, and letters attributed to Hazrat Ali:
“Knowledge is better than material wealth, because it protects you while you have to protect your wealth. Wealth decreases if you keep on spending it, but the more you make use of knowledge, the more your knowledge increases. What you get from wealth disappears as soon as your wealth disappears, but what you achieve through knowledge will remain ever after you.”
As the caliph ruling the Muslim empire, Hazrat Ali wrote a letter giving guidance on leadership to one of his governors. In this letter, he wrote, “Study much with the scholars and hold much discourse with the sages, in order to consolidate that which brings well-being to your lands.”
Not only did Hazrat Ali encourage learning, but he is also regarded by many Muslims as an important spiritual teacher. There is a hadith of Prophet Muhammad which says, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate; whoever wants knowledge should come to the gate.”
Ismaili traditions of learning
Throughout history, the Imamat of the Shia Ismaili Muslims have emphasised the importance of learning, stemming from the tradition of Hazrat Ali.
For many centuries, the main institution of religious learning for Ismailis was the da‘wa, which was a network of scholars called da‘is who taught the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.
During the Fatimid period, when the Ismaili Imams ruled as caliphs over a large empire in Egypt and North Africa, a prominent centre of learning was established at Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. Public education sessions were held for all members of society.
Dar al-Ilm, or the Academy of Knowledge, was also established in Fatimid Cairo. It contained a large library that was open to all and was a place where scholars and members of the public could come to study a wide array of subjects.
In the 12th century, when the Ismaili Imams relocated to the fortress of Alamut in the mountains of Persia, they were also patrons of learning. Alamut had a significant library where scholars of various faiths studied.
During the modern period, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, emphasised the importance of education, especially for girls, built schools in Africa and Asia, and supported the development of Aligarh Muslim University in India.
The 49th Imam, Shah Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan, has built on this legacy. As part of the Aga Khan Development Network, he established early childhood development centres, primary and secondary schools, Aga Khan Academies, and three institutions of higher learning - the Aga Khan University, the University of Central Asia, and The Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS).
He has also continued to emphasise the importance of religious education for Ismailis. Under his leadership, the first global religious education curricula have been developed by the IIS at the pre-primary, primary, and secondary levels. The secondary curriculum is also taught by full-time teachers trained at the IIS.
This focus on education, past and present, was explained by the Aga Khan at the foundation ceremony of the Aga Khan Academy in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2008, where he said:
“World and faith are inseparable in Islam. Faith and learning are also profoundly interconnected. The Holy Qur’an sees the discovery of knowledge as a spiritual responsibility, enabling us to better understand and more ably serve God’s creation. Our traditional teachings remind us of our individual obligation to seek knowledge unto the ends of the earth - and of our social obligation to honour and nurture the full potential of every human life.”
- Secondary curriculum: Muslim Societies and Civilisations vol. 1 and 2
- Speech: Inaugural ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada, 2008
- Aga Khan Academies: His Highness the Aga Khan’s Vision
- Article: Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN): An Ethical Framework
- Article: Intellect and Religion, East and West, Reza Shah-Kazemi
- Book: The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, Heinz Halm, 1997.
- Muslim Societies and Civilisations, vol. 1 (Student Reader). London: Islamic Publications Limited for The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2013.
- Burge, Stephen R. "Al-Suyuti on the Merits of Imam 'Ali", The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2010.
- Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
- Halm, Heinz. The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning. London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.