Study of Torah — not just the Five Books of Moses, but the entire body of writings it has spawned — stands as a central pillar of Judaism. When a prospective convert asked Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot, the sage famously answered, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. The rest is all commentary. Now go and learn it.”* Maimonides summed it up this way: “Of all the commandments, none is equal to the importance of study of the Torah. Indeed, the study of Torah is equal to all of them, for study leads to practice.”* The bond between study and practice — practice of ritual and ethics — remains crucial. Consider the training of children to become a bar or bat mitzvah (literally, a son or daughter of commandment). It includes Jewish study as well as projects devoted to tikkun olam, mending the world.
Over the millennia Judaism placed great value on study well beyond Torah. As the Talmud suggests, much could be learned about God’s wisdom from the study of nature. “If the Torah had not been given we could have learnt modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the cock who first coaxes and then mates.” Thus, many of Judaism’s most influential scholars of religious subjects were experts in other fields. Maimonides (1135-1204) and Nachmanides (1194-1270) were famed physicians. Levi ben Gerson (1288-1344), and Judah Lowe ben Bezalel (1525- 1609), the Maharal of Prague, were mathematicians and astronomers. In modern times, Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the great Modern Orthodox teacher and scholar, received a doctorate in philosophy from Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University before he immigrated to the United States. Adin Steinsaltz (1937- ), editor of a groundbreaking new edition of the Talmud, studied physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University.
Still, the confrontation with modernity has posed more than a few challenges to Jewish learning. Modernity opened the way for large numbers of Jews to obtain a secular education, but it also ushered in a steep decline in the study of traditional Jewish texts. The reaction in Eastern Europe was to expand the world of traditional learning, to create schools, yeshivot, that would exclude secular education completely. Such schools are flourishing in ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States, Israel and elsewhere. An Orthodox scholar pointed to the philosophy behind this position, “Let goyim [a term for non-Jews that actually means “nations”] be physicians; for a Jew there is nothing else but the study of Torah.” A life devoted to full-time study had long been a possibility for only a few of a community’s most talented students. Today, in Israel, it has become the norm among ultra-Orthodox men, only about 30 percent of whom work. Opponents of this cite the Mishnah, Judaism’s first law code:
The study of Torah together with an occupation is an excellent thing, for the pursuit of both of these [together] keeps sinful thoughts from arising, while any study of Torah without some kind of work must fail in the end and is conducive to sin.*
In certain circles, the wisdom of the Mishnah has apparently been superseded.
Christians differ significantly in understanding what constitutes knowledge and how important learning is to religious leadership. A debate early in our nation’s history illustrates one dimension of the issues at stake. During the First Great Awakening (1730-1760) the question arose as to what qualified a person to be a minister. On one side were those who argued that experience of God represented the prime criterion: “If they [ministers] have not Experience, they will be but blind Guides, they will be in Great Danger to entertain false Notions concerning the Work of Conversion.”* On the other side of the debate was the claim that “the plain Truth is, an Enlightened Mind and not raised Affections, ought always to be the Guide.”* The famous divine Jonathan Edwards offered a moderating perspective: “Holy affections are not heat without light; but … arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.* Tensions exist not only about the role of intellectual knowledge, but also about how much emphasis is placed on critical reason in relation to religious authority. Modernity remains a challenge. This is evident in those traditions of Christianity that resist evolutionary theory because it conflicts with biblical accounts of creation. It surfaces as well in Roman Catholicism when thinkers perceived as moving beyond the boundaries of traditional formulations of doctrine are sanctioned. In other traditions, greater acceptance of modernity has also meant a diminishment of a distinctive religious identity.
Fundamentalist Christianity has a distinctive theory of knowledge grounded in Scottish common-sense realism, which is based on the assumptions that God’s truth is revealed in a single, unified order and that all persons of common sense are capable of knowing the truth. Although fundamentalism is a multi-faceted phenomenon, it is grounded in the conviction of unchanging truth that is knowable by true science and common sense—and in a militant opposition to those whose understanding of truth seems too abstract or ambiguous.* Whatever differences exist among Christian traditions, all hold that self-knowledge is extremely important. Practices that encourage introspection and reflection are part of the rich heritage of Christianity, such as lectio divina, contemplative prayer, and modes of discerning God’s will (e.g., the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola).
The Qur’an uses the word ‘ilm (pl. `ulum) that is translated as knowledge, but has much wider meaning. ‘Ilm is all-embracing and refers to all aspects of education, both religious and secular. “There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, or of Muslim religious, social, economic and political life that remains untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward knowledge as something of supreme value in Islam,” says Sayyid Wahid Akhtar. ‘Ilm and its derivatives and associated words like al Qalm (the pen) and some supports to knowledge such as Iqra (read) and al Kitab (the book) are found in more than 700 places in the Qur’an.*
The Prophet and early Muslims took knowledge seriously as a unit and developed the concept of Tawhidi paradigm, meaning that God is the source of all knowledge and everything emanates from Him and returns to Him. Considering the development of knowledge as a sacred duty from God, the early Muslims endeavored in all its fields, from astronomy to earth sciences and from biology to other physical sciences, to gather knowledge about God and his creation. The early Muslim institutions did not differentiate between religious and scientific knowledge and produced scientists such as Razi, physicians such as Ibn Sina, philosophers such as Ibn Rushd and jurists such as Abu Hanifa. Muslims are proud of these scholars as well as many others.
In the 10th century medieval period, Muslims became divided over knowledge, separating it into Wahy or Naqli (revealed or religious) and `Aqli (rational or non-religious). By the start of the modern era, Muslim power had declined and colonization had begun. The colonial masters spared no time imposing a secular education system, while the Muslim system of education (known as the Madrassah system)* deteriorated. The secular educational system was well-established by the time of independence in the first half of the 20th century and the old Madrassah system became restricted mostly to religious education.
Some Muslim scholars such as Isma`il R. al Faruqi argue that this theory of bifurcation of knowledge was the result of Western influence, causing Muslim political and intellectual deterioration.* Since then there has been tension in Muslim society about who really possesses religious authority in interpreting the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition. Muslim religious institutions including the Madrassah system are even more divided than Jewish and Christian traditions over the role of reason in religious education. However, the Madrassah system as a whole remains inflexible, following a centuries-old curriculum as compared to Western religious institutions.
The Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition hold great respect and authority among Muslims across the world. In fact all Muslim practices are derived from these two sources of Islam. But ignorance prevails and many Muslims read the Qur’an and memorize all or parts of it for blessing without knowing its meaning and application. This ignorance has given tremendous power especially to the Madrassah (religious seminaries) graduates to control and play with religious beliefs and emotions.
Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.