The Command from the cave of Hira — "Read!"

It was from the cave of Hira that the first lines of the Qur’an were revealed to Prophet Muhammad. They were composed in simple and clear language with a singular message and objective for all of humanity — that of transforming the life of this world with its many dimensions into a life of peace, harmony and tranquility. This was the most incisive, comprehensive and practical message ever received for teaching the total human being, mind, body and soul.

"Iqra (read): in the name of your Rabb (Sustainer), who created human beings from a clotted germ-cell! Read — for your Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught human beings the use of the pen — taught human beings what they did not know.” (Qur’an 96 1:5)

These words were given at a time when the moral health of the world was at its lowest ebb. Arabian society was gripped in the darkness of jahiliyya (ignorance); it was a period of great violence and brutality, fear, and social ills. Female infanticide, slavery, usury, gambling, adultery and superstition were all entrenched in the fabric of society.

Thus, the Qur’an was described as “… a book which we have revealed to you (Muhammad) from on high in order that you may lead the people … out of the depths of darkness into the light, onto the path (Sabil) that leads to the Almighty…” (Qur’an 14:1)

It was meant that the light and knowledge of the Creator’s universal message should shine everywhere to eliminate all the evils of darkness, barbarism, ignorance, fetishism and dogmatism. The prevalence of wickedness, violence and oppression was to be replaced with rules of self-discipline, self-respect, human integrity, moral and ethical behavior, and service to humanity — all of which had to be re-established and recreated.

This guidance began with an emphasis on developing the intellectual and spiritual capacities of created beings (we humans) to comprehend the entire message of the Qur’an, which commands: "Read — In the name of thy Lord — Read and your Rabb is Most Bounteous."

However, the word "Rabb" itself is of far-reaching significance. It conveys not only the idea of fostering, bringing up, or nourishing, but also that of regulating, completing and accomplishing; that is, the evolution of things from their basic state — without the knowledge of the self and Allah — to that of the highest perfection. Qur’anic teachings affirm the potential for self- development through knowledge, through self- and God-consciousness, and through changes in behavior and thinking.

In some quarters, there was the long-held impression that Qur’anic knowledge meant only religious or spiritual learning and that the acquisition of any other kinds of learning was frowned upon. But that is not what the Qur’an actually says. We are taught that "you will be questioned about the use of your ears, eyes and heart." From this ayah (verse) it follows that the knowledge enjoined by the Qur’an does not mean only religious knowledge.

Muslim scholars played a pivotal role in the development of nearly all branches of knowledge and founded various universities which led the world in learning and research. German scholar Prof. Joseph Hell, in his book "Arab Civilization," has remarked: "Even at the universities religion retained its primacy and it is to the credit of Islam that it neither slighted nor ignored other branches of learning: nay, it offered the very same home to them as it did to theology — a place in the mosque. Until the fifth century [11th century AD] of the Hijrah, the mosque was the University of Islam."

During the heyday of Islamic civilization in Europe, in Cordova, Granada and Seville, students flocked from various corners of the world to quench their thirst for knowledge. They were much impressed by the Muslims’ new research and discoveries and their disciplined observations of nature.

At one time this message created a unique Qur’anic generation for whom the only source of knowledge and guidance was the Qur’an. This generation did not approach the Qur’an to increase their knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself, or for the purpose of acquiring only scientific and spiritual knowledge. They turned to the Qur’an to find out what way of life the Qur’an had prescribed for each individual and his or her community. They approached the Qur’an to know what must be done so they could act on it immediately. This understanding, that the instructions of the Qur’an are meant to be acted upon, opened the door to spiritual and intellectual self growth and scientific knowledge. If they had read the Qur’an for discussions, information, learning, and spiritual satisfaction only, these doors would not have opened.

For the Qur’anic generation actions became easy, the weight of responsibilities became light, and the Qur’an became a part of their personalities, integrating with their lives and character; they became living examples of belief — a belief not hidden in the intellect, rhetoric, or in books, but expressing itself in a dynamic force which transformed the personality and changed existing social and political conditions for the better. They understood that every action was under the continuous guidance and direction of the Almighty Allah.

The Book of this message, the Qur’an, which God has taken the responsibility for preserving on Himself, is still in our possession and the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad in practical affairs is also in our possession, just like the early Muslim communities. Yet there are hardly any Muslim rulers, leaders, scholars or ordinary people who are of this caliber. This raises the question as to why the same message no longer enters our heart, why our minds or actions are not illuminated by Qur’anic concepts and why no group has yet arisen among today’s Muslims who are of the same caliber as the earlier generations.

One can only conclude that the main reason for the difference between early Muslims and later Muslims — especially the current generation and their leaders — is that earlier methods of learning were based solely on the first source, the Qur’an. They turned to the Qur’an to learn what the Almighty Creator had prescribed for them as individuals, as communities, and as a society.

For Muslims the best-case scenario for shaping a better future is to turn first to guidance from the Qur’an and learn from it the kind of morals and values people are expected to uphold and then strive to be that way themselves. The Qur’an opens its knowledge to those who accept it with the intention of acting upon it. It was revealed in order to show us a practical way of life, and in this sense it is a guiding light for our actions and behavior — toward ourselves, others, and our Creator Allah.