The first verse of the Quran revealed to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, sallalahu alaihi wasalaam, appears in Surah Al Alaq:
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,
‘Read! In the name of your Lord Who has created,
He has created man from a clot,
Read! and your Lord is Most Generous,
Who has taught by the pen,
He has taught man which he knew not.
These verses began with Iqra – Read – and when pondering the revelation it becomes apparent that reading can be beneficial for the soul.
Many people read for leisure, or read for their jobs and careers, but we as Muslims also read for the sake of our souls. Today, Islam is second to Christianity as the largest religion in the world with 1.6 billion Muslims according to recent reports, and it is inspiring to know that each and every Muslim around the world is encouraged to read. We read or recite the Al Fatihah and other surahs daily in our prayers, we read the entire Quran at least once a year during the month of Ramadan, and we read the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, sallalahu alaihi wasalaam, to become familiar with the sunnah.
The rich tradition of learning and pursuing knowledge is one of the treasures of Islam that I have come to cherish, and there is a saying of the Prophet, sallalahu alaihi wasalaam, in Sunan Ibn Majah, Chapter 1, hadith number 226 which reads:
Narrated: Zirr bin Hubaish
I went to Safwan bin Assal Al-Muradi and he said: ‘What brought you here?’ I said: ‘I am seeking knowledge.’ He said: ‘I heard the Messenger of Allah, sallalahu alaihi wasalaam, say: “There is no one who goes out of his house in order to seek knowledge, but the angels lower their wings in approval of his action.’”
According to this saying, seeking knowledge earns approval from the angels of Allah, subhana wa’ta’aala.
In emphasis, during recent history, reading and writing was acknowledged as such an important aspect of human growth and fulfillment that African slaves were prohibited by law within the United States from the 16th to 19th century from learning these skills as a means of keeping the slaves oppressed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
A person’s memory may only last a lifetime, but the collective human memory has endured for ages and many of the stories of those who came before us are told to us through their books, through art and through written languages. Books and literature also add depth to society by providing a myriad of voices that exemplify the challenges and triumphs of human existence.
Sunan Ibn Majah states in chapter 1, hadith number 243:
Narrated: Abu Hurairah that the Prophet, sallalahu alaihi wasalaam, said: “The best charity is when a Muslim man gains knowledge, then he teaches it to his Muslim brother.”
Learning and teaching go hand-in-hand. We know that our Prophet, sallalahu alaihi wasalaam, was in fact was unlettered, meaning that he did not know how to read or write, but by the grace and decree of Allah, subhana wa’ta’aala, he learned and taught his entire community. The first verses of Surah Alaq did not order us to pray, or to fast or to pay Zakat, which are among the pillars of Islam, but did in fact command our Rasool to ‘Read.’
The first duty in Islam to be revealed was to read and thus to acquire knowledge. We read to gain knowledge so that we can acquire an understanding and if we were not to read, then how would we learn and teach?
So . . . got books?