Sunday, September 5, 2010


A learned person is superior to a worshipper as the full moon is superior to all the stars.
--from the Hadith (narrative commentary) Sunan Abu Dawud, a sacred text of Sunni Islam

This afternoon I saw Hubble 3D, a documentary about the famous space telescope. It stunned me to learn that over 10,000 scientists and engineers collaborated for four years to create the Hubble. As I watched astronaut Megan McArthur maneuver the telescope into the shuttle bay for repairs, I realized how many thousands more helped make the safe spaceflight behind the Hubble possible. I sat in awe of what Philomathy (fill-OH-muh-thee) can deliver. 

“Philomathy” refers to the love of learning. As far as I am aware, it does not feature per se in any culture’s traditional list of virtues, but as the quotation above shows, many religious traditions recognize the value of learning (though whether they prize it more than piety, as the hadith above would have it, I leave for you to ponder on your own--at least for today). Modern scholars Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in their 2004 book Character Strengths and Virtues describe Love-of-Learning, as well as Curiosity and Creativity, as emanations of the root virtue Wisdom (of which we will speak later in this blog).

Today, September 5, happens to be the birthday of one of the greatest pillars of Philomathy who ever lived, the 11th century Islamic scientist Abu Rayhan Biruni (sometimes known by the name Alberonius). Few Westerners have heard of al-Biruni, whose intellectual sparring partner Avicenna gained greater renown in the West. Yet the accomplishments of al-Biruni are truly staggering. Consider this entry from Wikipedia:

Biruni was a polymath with an interest in various practical and scholarly fields that relate to what nowadays is described as physics, anthropology, comparative sociology, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, history, geography, mathematics, medicine, psychology, philosophy, and theology. He was the first Muslim scholar to study India and the Brahminical tradition... He was one of the first exponents of an experimental method of investigation, introducing this method into mechanics and what is nowadays called mineralogy, psychology, and astronomy.

In other words, al-Biruni used the scientific method hundreds of years before the Western Enlightenment, and applied it in all directions. Al-Biruni is one of the Islamic cultural giants who kept the flame of learning lit while Europe walked its night of Dark Ages. His variety of interests remind me of a more familiar historical figure who also demonstrated great Philomathy, the scientist, politician, and bon vivant Benjamin Franklin, whom he preceded by over 700 years. (I’m also a Franklin fan for his study of virtues, which we will explore at a future date here on Ten Thousand Virtues...)

Al-Biruni had an insatiable love of learning. In his book Spiritual Discourses, the mid-20th century teacher Ayatollah Murtaza Motahari told the following tale:

When he was on his deathbed, Biruni was visited by a jurisprudent neighbor of his. Abu Rayhan was still conscious, and on seeing the jurisprudent, he asked him a question on inheritance law or some other related issue. The jurisprudent was quite amazed that a dying man should show interest in such matters. Abu Rayhan said, "I should like to ask you: which is better, to die with knowledge or to die without it?" The man said, "Of course, it is better to know and then die." Abu Rayhan said, "That is why I asked my first question." Shortly after the jurisprudent had reached his home, the cries of lamentation told him that Abu Rayhan had died.

On a daily basis, we are surrounded by a dizzying array of amazing technology and information, sometimes to the point that we take these wonders for granted. (As Paul Simon sings in “The Boy in the Bubble” on his 1986 album Graceland, “These are the days of lasers in the jungle/..This is the long distance call.”) (Here's a great clip of Simon performing the song in Zimbabwe:)

So, right now, let’s all take a moment to feel gratitude for the human achievements made possible by study and learning. Consider the miracles and wonders created by the efforts of scientists, researchers, and scholars over the centuries. Think about all that you, personally, have accomplished through your education, and how much delight it has brought you.

May we see the gates of Philomathy and perhaps (like al-Biruni did) make a home there. 
Addendum: I have just learned that the "Dove World Outreach Center" in Gainesville, Florida, plans to burn Qurans this coming weekend as some sort of perverse memorial to the anniversary of 9/11. As a person who embraces many spiritual traditions, I find any act to desecrate a group of people's sincerely held religious beliefs to be horrible. I've written a letter to the editor of the Gainesville Sun, urging the people of that city to wage a counter-protest. You may wish to do the same. If so, you can find the letter entry page here

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