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What is the secret behind the success of the great Muslim scholars before us? Abu Zayd Al-Balkhi to Abu Ali Ibn Sina are just two demonstrations of innovation in the Muslim world. Their upbringing and education in Islam made them encyclopedic scholars from whom we still learn today.
What was the nature of the kind of education these scholars received? How can we provide the tarbiyah (nurturing) that our children need to become innovators and achieve great things?
Dr. Rania Awaad, a nationally-recognized leader in Muslim mental health and award-winning researcher in both Islamic and medical sciences, recently shared the secrets behind the success of the great Muslim scholars of our past. She also discussed the most pressing Muslim health issues found in the Muslim American community during her appearance on the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast. You can listen to the episode below:
“For us as Muslims, our world view is a very holistic, integrated worldview. We don’t take these things apart. In fact… science is just another tool to know God… We don’t actually tear these apart from each other.”
Dr. Rania Awaad
The Religious Psychologist
To understand the psyche and foundation behind the success of the great Muslim scholars of our past, it is worth listening to the findings of a religious psychologist.
What exactly is a religious psychologist? According to the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science, the psychology of religion takes into consideration the behaviors and attitudes of a religion, and uses this information to describe and interpret the effects of human behavior. This means that a religious psychologist treats both a person’s psyche and religious beliefs as intertwined in their treatment. A person’s belief system is utilized in their treatment, as it is a part of their lives, and religious forms of treatment such as reliance on God and supplications are used as primary forms of treatment.
While psychologists today generally remove religiosity and spirituality from their scholarly pursuits, the polymaths and Renaissance men of our past were very much like religious psychologists. The brilliant scholars from the classical period of Islamic sciences achieved such great heights on account of their study of the Deen of Allah (SWT) and their foundational knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (S).
Dr. Awaad points out that science and religion were intertwined as studies, not torn apart from each other as it is in today’s world. These seemingly-separate fields were actually utilized together to achieve the common goal of attaining knowledge and generating innovation.The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s examination of religion and science in various religions both contemporarily and historically points out the multitude of innovations that came from the Muslim world between the eighth and fifteenth centuries.
Innovations done by Muslim scholars at the time far exceeded that of European cultures in range and quality. The contributions from the Muslim world during this time period ranged from mathematics (algebra, geometry, and trigonometry), to astronomy (heliocentrism), optics, medicine, cartography, and geography.
Indeed, these scholars were able to excel in their fields of work and stand out in comparison to all other scientists of the time due to the interdisciplinary worldview they held. In his book, “Renaissance of Sciences in Islamic Countries”, Mohammad Abdus Salam, a Pakistani theoretical physicist and a Nobel Prize laureate, explains that the reason Muslims dedicated their life to the sciences during the Muslim Golden Age from the eighth to eleventh century was due to the repeated injunctions in the Qur’an and Sunnah of our Prophet (S) to pursue knowledge.
Their pursuance of knowledge was not separate from their religion, it was rather rooted from the commands of Allah (SWT)! The two most important factors in the success of the great Muslim scholars of our past were:
- Islamic Education as a Foundation
Dr. Awaad explains that it was rather common for classical scholars to memorize the entire Qur’an and become authorities in different aspects of religious sciences. At the very least, they would have a strong understanding of the Qur’an and Islam. When examining the life of each of the encyclopedic scholars, it is found that each of them studied the Qur’an and nature hand in hand, with science understood in the context of the words of Allah (SWT).
There were many benefits to having such an education in Islam first. By building a foundation in Islamic studies, these scholars were prepared to pursue their later careers in science, medicine, engineering, as more grounded individuals. These scholars stayed away from dangerous science and, most of all, used science as a means to know God. As found in a paper on the contributions of Islamic scholars to the scientific enterprise, their love and desire to know Allah (SWT) better is what fueled their paths in gaining knowledge. They pursued knowledge as a means to “discover God and to use nature for the benefit of mankind”.
Your child can also build a strong foundation of education in Islam by enrolling in our Character Building Program, where kids can join weekly interactive, live storytelling classes and receive exciting new Noor Kids books every month!
2. The Renaissance Man
After building a strong foundation in Islamic studies, these scholars did not limit themselves to one field. No scholar was just a medical doctor or just a cartographer or geography. Similar to the idea of the Renaissance Man who became an expert in many fields, these scholars led innovation and made discoveries across disciplines.
Why is this important? Because Dr. Awaad tells us, in order for one to innovate, it is important that one has access to multiple modes of knowledge and analysis. Becoming an expert in one particular field can give one tunnel vision and make it difficult to assess anything from different perspectives and angles.
However, having a true holistic education and experience in various disciplines only helped these scholars to lead in innovation. In his article entitled “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, Benjamin Jones examines innovation both historically and contemporarily and finds that the bulk of historical innovation has been done by those we call Renaissance men. He adds that the emerging trend of specialization makes it harder for innovation to occur and decreases innovative capacity.
Who were some of the greatest Muslim innovators of our past?
- Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (d. 850): Introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics.
- ‘Abbas Ibn Firnas (d. 887): An inventor, astronomer, physician, chemist, engineer, Andalusi musician, and Arabic-language poet. He was the first to experiment with a form of flight.
- Ibn Sina (d. 1037): One of the most significant physician, astronomers, philosophers, and writers of the Muslim classical period and the father of early modern medicine.
- Ibn Zuhr (d. 1162): Arab physician and surgeon who performed the first experimental tracheotomy on a goat.
- Ibn Batuta (d. 1369): Muslim traveler, explorer, and scholar who traveled throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, and recording his encounters with many cultures in his Rihla, or travelogue. His book allowed Arabic-speaking people of the Islamic world to learn about each other as well as non-Muslim areas.
- Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406): Arab historiographer and historian who developed one of the earliest nonreligious philosophies of history. One of the pioneers of modern historiography, sociology and economics.
To learn more about the great Muslim scholars of the Muslim classical period, you can check out 1001 Inventions. This British-based not-for-profit science and cultural heritage organization, uncovers fascinating historical contributions of lesser-known pioneers from Arab, Asian, and other Eastern cultures.
How to Battle Anxiety and Depression in Islam
According to research done by Dr. Awaad and her team at the Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology lab at Stanford University, the most common Muslim mental health issues found among Muslim Americans are grounded in relationships. This is the first step to understanding the answer to depression in Islam.
When one is having trouble in their close relationships, be it with their spouse, parents, children, or even in laws, one can start to experience anxiety and stress-related problems, which may lead to depression. Secular coping mechanisms for such problems can help. For this reason, many seek—and very often resolve their issues through—therapy.
However, there is a proven, stronger way to battle anxiety related issues and depression in Islam. A study conducted by Dr. Awaad’s team on the coping mechanisms people used to battle mental health troubles during the pandemic found that those who used religious and spiritual coping mechanisms, such as having tawakkul (trust) in Allah (SWT) and reliance on prayer were better off than those who used secular coping mechanisms such as going for a walk and meeting family and friends.
Having a proper education in Islam and the spiritual coping mechanisms that Allah (SWT) has provided for us for each and every situation can only ensure we are better equipped to face troubling times like the pandemic.
Below are some resources of education in Islam for your child to build a strong foundation in Islamic studies:
How can a religious psychologist help?
Oftentimes, we gravitate towards more secular forms of therapy because they are available in the mainstream, known to be reliable, and evidence-based. However, a religious psychologist can help you use methods taught by Allah (SWT) and our Prophet Muhammad (S) to improve your mental wellbeing.
In an episode of the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast, Dr. Sarah Syed, a religious psychologist and the Clinical Training Director at the Khalil Center, shares techniques that one can use to manage their mental health, especially during the pandemic.
You can listen to this episode from season one below:
The relationship between psychology and religion is stronger than we expect, and not mutually exclusive as many believe. Our psychologies—the reasons we think, and act in the ways that we do—is largely based on who we are. Who we are, is always dependent on our belief systems and religion. Whereas religion is usually a part of our identity, Islam is a way of life that guides us to the best ways of living in all aspects in worship, daily life, and beyond.
A study conducted on the effect of Islamic-based interventions in depression and anxiety in Malaysia found that Islamic-based interventions significantly reduced anxiety levels in women and depression levels in men at a rate that was greater than that of a control group of typical secular treatment.
The Islamic-based interventions used for depression and anxiety in the above study include:
- Seeking Allah’s (SWT) mercy and forgiveness through repentance
- Moral confession and self consciousness
- Trust in Allah (SWT) and piety
- Remembrance of Allah, prayer, supplication, and learning
- Positive self-talk, modeling, reinforcement, practical application, dialogue, reflection, clarifying, and listening
The Foundation of Education in Islam
The greatest Muslim scholars of our past became innovators because of two main things: a) Their foundational education in Islam and Islamic studies; and b) Their holistic education. A groundwork in Islamic education ensures that one’s worldview is dependent upon our Deen and in service of Allah (SWT).
By starting our educational journeys in the study of Islam, our future endeavors will always be a means to knowing Allah (SWT) better. Having a holistic education contributes to innovation due to the different angles it provides in contrast with the tunnel vision of becoming an expert in one minute field.
Using Islam as one’s base for all life’s endeavors necessitates that one use the methods provided by Allah (SWT) when seeking therapy as well. With the help of religious psychologists and trained Muslim therapists, we can use the teachings of Allah (SWT) and the Prophet (S) to overcome the most difficult of mental illnesses.
In the podcast episode above, Dr. Awaad shares her journey from becoming an Islamic scholar in Syria to becoming a psychologist and discusses the importance of building a foundation of Islamic knowledge. To learn more about the secret behind raising Muslim innovators like the great Ibn Sina and the importance of therapy in overcoming mental health issues, listen to the Muslim Superdad & Wondermom podcast, now on Google, Apply, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts!
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