The German Orientalist & the Prophetic Hadith

I recently came across a book in Urdu called ‘Islāmi Dāstānein’ which is a translation of the Farsi original written by Ali Redha Murtadhawi Karuni and translated by the late Muhammad Fadhl Haq. The book attempts to gather all the different moral anecdotes and stories that have been mentioned by the late Ayatullah Shaheed Mutahhari throughout his various books. The following is a translation of one of them which was originally written by Shaheed Mutahhari in the book Dah Goftar (A Selection of 10 Articles by Shaheed Motahhari)[1] and the original Farsi can be read here.

Our noble friend, the respected Syed Muhammad Farzān, used to say that during the initial period of the Mashrūta movement (Constitutional Revolution of Iran), the respected Syed Hibbatu-Deen Shahristāni, used to publish a magazine from Iraq called al-Ilm. This magazine was continuously published for about 2-3 years (I personally have not yet seen this magazine). At the back of the magazine, the word ‘al-Ilm’ was written in Nasta’līq script [one of the main calligraphic styles used in writing the Persian and Urdu alphabet, and traditionally the predominant style in Persian calligraphy] at the center of the page and each of the 4 corners of the page was decorated by a Hadith.

Once in that very journal, the following story was mentioned. One day a German orientalist came to the office of the magazine or some other place (He had told me, but I don’t remember) to meet Syed Shahristāni. When he saw what was written on the back cover of the magazine, he enquired what this was. He was told that these are 4 narrations by our Holy Prophet (SAW) about knowledge. These narrations were then translated for him, and he was told that the Holy Prophet (SAW) said:

  1. Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every man and woman
  2. Seek knowledge from the cradle to grave
  3. Seek knowledge even if you must travel as far as China for it
  4. Knowledge and wisdom are the lost property of the believer. He takes it wherever he finds it and it is not important for him from whose hands he gets it from.

The orientalist pondered for a while and then said: Oh! You have such sayings that your Prophet (SAW) has made seeking knowledge obligatory and has not placed any restriction based on gender, time, place and teacher and yet your people have so much ignorance and you have so many uneducated people amongst you!

[In the original text, Shaheed Mutahhari after quoting this incident comments:]

This is really a puzzle as to why this public duty was abandoned and the duty was not recognized, why these orders were not carried out. Of course, I don’t want to say that these orders were never carried out because Islam created a huge, unique scientific and cultural movement in the world, and for centuries it was the flagship of science, culture, and human civilization, and it was indebted to the decree that Islam issued on science. How is it possible that a religion whose first verse is revealed to its prophet begins with reading, writing, science, and teaching? “Read in the Name of your Lord who created; created man from a clinging mass. Read, and your Lord is the most generous, who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know.” [Qur’ān 96:1-5] A religion whose first principle is monotheism, which does not allow imitation and blind worship in any way and considers research and investigation necessary, such religion did not create civilization, culture and scientific movement?!

[1] Dah Goftar, Ayatullah Murtadha Mutahhari, Page 163-164