On the Methodology of Acquiring Knowledge

Praise be to Allah, the Mighty, the Exalted, and blessings and peace be upon His chosen messenger.
The Qur’anic and hadith texts on the virtues and excellences of knowledge are numerous, and need not be listed here, for they are not the subject of disagreement.  Those who so desire may peruse them in the appropriate references.  What is, however, sometimes overlooked, is that knowledge is taken first and foremost from the scholars; books alone are not sufficient to make a person a scholar.  The scholars say, “Knowledge may not be taken from a SuHufi (‘journalist – one who studied only from books) nor the Qur’an from a muSHafi (one who learned to recite the Qur’an on his own, without a teacher).”

1. Evidence from the Qur’an and Sunnah

Allah sent the Qur’an – a book – with a Messenger – a teacher, to explain its contents.
(“And We have sent down to you the Reminder in order that you might explain to people what has been sent down to them.”) [Qur’an]
The story of the Sahabi who misinterpreted the verse about the black and white threads of dawn is well known.  And, according to a narration in Sunan Ibn Majah, the Prophet criticized those Companions who, based on the outward meaning of the Qur’an, gave the fatal fatwa that tayammum is not permissible for one who has water, even if he fears the water will harm him.  It is reported that he said, “Could they not have asked, since they did not know? The only remedy for incompetence is asking.”

Also indicating that knowledge is obtained from the scholars, rather than merely from reading, is the hadith,
“Allah will not take way this knowledge by lifting it out of the hearts of people; but He will take away knowledge by taking away the scholars.” [RiyaD al-SaliHeen]  And, similarly, the hadith, “Whoever was asked about [some] knowledge, but concealed it, will be bridled, on the Day of Resurrection, with a bridle of fire.” [Ibn Majah]
Why should he be afflicted with this severe punishment if the questioner could just as easily go to a book and read?

2. Statements of the Mujtahid Imams

If we turn next to the statements of the Imams, we see the same attitude reflected:

Someone told Imam Abu Hanifah, “In the mosque there is a circle (Halaqah) in which the people are looking at fiqh.”  He asked, “Do they have a head (i.e. a teacher)?”  The man replied, “No.”  The Imam said, “These will never gain knowledge of fiqh.” [Reported by al-Khateeb al-Baghdadi, through his isnad, in “al-Faqeeh wal-Mutafaqqih”]

Imam al-Awza`i said, “This knowledge remained <`azeez> (rare, or distinguished) as long as it remained in the hearts of men.  Then, when it was transferred to books, unsuited people took it.” [Reported by al-Darimi in the introduction to his “Sunan,” and by al-Bayhaqi in “al-Madkhal.”]

Imam Malik was asked, “Can knowledge be taken from a man who has not [to his credit any] seeking [of knowledge] nor sitting [with scholars]?”  He said, “No.” [Reported by al-Suyuti in “Is`af al-Mubatta’]

Imam al-Shafi`i said, “Whoever takes knowledge from books loses the regulations.” (man akhadha al-`ilma min al-kutubi Dayya`a al-aHkaama). [Reported by al-Nawawi in the introduction to “al-Majmu`”]

`Abdullah, the son of Imam Ahmad, said, “My father said : ‘Knowledge is only that in which one says : So-and-so told us . . . . And, al-Mansur asked my father to discuss [something] with Ibn Abi Du’ad, but he turned his face away, saying, ‘How can I discuss with someone whom I have not seen at the door of a single scholar?!'” [Reported by Qadi `Iyad in “al-Ilma`”]

3. Statements of Latter Scholars

The scholars of later times reiterated this concept.

Ibn Rushd Sr. said, “In the early age, knowledge was in the hearts of men, and therafter, it was transcribed onto the skins of animals, but the keys to it remained in the hearts of men.” [Quoted by al-Shatibi in “al-Muwafaqat”]

Imam al-Shatibi discusses in his “al-Muwafaqat” the methodology of acquiring knowledge.  He mentions the two possible means : learning from scholars, and reading from books, and then comments that although the latter is theoretically a possibility, it turns out in practice that a teacher is indispensable.  He observes that among the benefits of a teacher are acquiring his good character traits, in addition to his academic expertise and guidance.  He cites the example of (<I omit here the name of a famous scholar>) who was criticized by scholars for his lack of etiquette and respect, which were a consequence of his not having stayed with any of his shaykhs for a prolonged period such as to benefit from his character.  He also mentions that reading books can be beneficial only if one is aware of the bases and terminologies of the science in question, (and this knowledge itself must be taken from the scholars orally).

Imam al-Juwayni said, in verse, (although some attributed it to al-Shafi`i himself),
“My brother, you will not attain knowledge except through six [things] . . . .”
The last two of these are : “the instruction of a teacher” (talqeeni ustaadhin) and “a long time” (Tooli zamaani).

Shaykh Hasan Hito, a contemporary scholar in Kuwait, says in his book, “al-Mutafayhiqoon” (which translates approximately to ‘the big-headed loud-mouths’), that a teacher is indispensable; to explain ambiguities, restrictions of absolute statements, and details of generalities.

A statement I once heard from Shaykh Houcine Chouat on this issue is, “Whoever has his book as his teacher, his mistakes are more than his rectitudes.”

4. Problems associated with relying only on books

Shaykh Hasan Hito mentions several examples of errors and problems arising from trying to take knowledge from books alone.  Among them:

  • someone who misread the hadith which says that a believer is clever and intelligent (kayyis faTin) as “kis quTn” (a bag of cotton)!
  • someone who read the hadith (I, Suheil, have also heard this story with reference to “Al-Umm” rather than a hadith) that one should approach salah with sedateness and tranquility (sakeenah wa waqaar), and misread it as <sikkeenah wa-far> (a knife and a rat), so that he put a knife and a rat in his pocket, and proceeded to the mosque!
  • his own experience, while at university.  He was reading a book of fiqh, and was perplexed by a statement which seemed to say, “It is prohibited to sell a Barambalool in exchange for a Barambalool.”  He had never heard of this word, “barambalool,” and had no clue what it might mean.  He checked the commentaries, annotations and explanations of the text he was reading, but none of them offered any guidance.  He began to think badly of the author, and that perhaps this was a mistake, until it struck him that the problem must be with himself, it not being conceivable that tens of commentators could have overlooked this point. He then consulted one of his shaykhs who told him, “Brother, this does not need dictionaries and thesauri; it needs only humility such as you have displayed by asking.  What the book is saying is, “burr mablool” (wet wheat).” !!!
  • one of Sh. Hito’s students, who was reading aloud before him, and read that it is appropriate for the Musalli, “sadd farjihee fi al-Saff” (meaning : to block his private parts in the Saff (row of praying people)).  The shaykh asked him, how should he block it?  The student said, “with something like cotton wool.”  “Why?” the shaykh asks?  “In order to be certain of purity; to prevent any urine from reaching his clothing.”  The other students around laughed.  The book actually says, “….sadd furjatin fi al-Saff” (…block/close up a gap in the row).!!

Shaykh Mustafa al-Siba`i, in his book “Al-Sunnah wa-makanatuha fi al-tashree`”, also mentions some examples:

  • someone who, for many years refrained from having a haircut on Friday morning, because he had read a hadith which he thought was saying that the Prophet forbade hair-cutting/shaving (Halq) before Jumu`ah. Eventually, he learned that the hadith was actually talking about <Hilaq> – circles/gatherings in the mosque, which are prohibited because their presence hinders people who are coming/gathering for Salat al-Jumu`ah.
  • some muhadditheen of earlier times (who had not studied fiqh), and came across a hadith saying that it is not appropriate for a man to use his water to irrigate his neighbor’s garden.  They said, “In the past, when we had excess water, we would give it to our neighbors for their gardens, but now, we seek forgiveness from Allah.”  The hadith is actually referring to committing adultery with one’s neighbor’s wife!

In addition to blatant examples such as the above, there are other dangers associated with attempting to learn only from books:

  • there may be typographical errors in the text
  • one may be confused by the terminology used
  • one may not have sufficient background to understand what the author is saying, and hence misinterpret it based on one’s shallow knowledge. e.g. according to some scholars, a makrooh act entails a sin, although according to the majority it does not.
  • the author of the book may have made a mistake, such as overlooking evidence, or misrepresenting the view of a madhhab other than his own. (This can occur even in renowned books)

More commonly, the author will present his arguments, and the naive reader may become convinced that this is the truth, and anything else must be wrong!
Yet, careful consideration clarifies that such reading is not sufficient in this regard because:
i) fairness demands that one hear both sides of an argument. Even though a scholar may mention the other side’s arguments and refute them, he is presenting the evidence as he sees it; he may be overlooking something, or there may be alternate interpretations.
ii) even if both sides are heard, a person must be qualified in the Islamic sciences in order to be able to competently judge between them.
It is worthwhile to note that reading a handful of books does not make one a mujtahid!  A Samarqandi scholar once remarked, “None shall attain this knowledge except he who abandons his shop, destroys his orchard, and abjures his brethren, and whose loved ones die without his witnessing their funerals!” [Quoted by Shaykh `Abdul-Fattah Abu Ghuddah in “SafaHaat min Sabr al-`Ulama'”]   Although this statement contains some exaggeration, it serves to get the point across.  Another example, mentioned by Shaykh Muhammad `Awwamah in one of his books, is that of the Prophet’s hajj – was it tamattu`, or qiran, or ifrad?  Before you rush to answer, realize that scholars differed about this, and Imam al-Tahawi wrote around 1000 pages discussing the issue!

May Allah save us from all the evils associated with knowledge.

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