It's the year 1244; a group of children go to see their friend to ask him to join them in playing games. This young boy, at the tender of age of ten, turns them down. They continue to probe him, and even attempt to force him to play, but this boy refusesand returns to what he was doing before they interrupted him: reciting the Qur'an.
This young boy was Yahya ibn Sharraf, otherwise known as imām an-Nawawi (rahimahullah).
Fast forward hundreds of years later to 2010. Knowledge is readily available and easily accessible. A quick search on the internet will easily produce more knowledge for us than was available to imām Nawawi (rahimahullah), yet we do not have the likes of imām Nawawi walking amongst us. Rather, what we see now is a methodology of seeking knowledge that is strange and backwards.
In this day and age, our young generation of students are proficient in the most minute details of Fiqh and Aqeedah, yet they are unable to recite Surah Fatiha with the same level of proficiency. These same youth have the opinions of various scholars memorized, yet they have not memorized more than a few chapters of the Speech of Allāh. Even more so, they can debate in great detail why a certain group has incorrect Aqeedah, but they do not understand Arabic and when they stand to pray before their Lord, they do not understand His Words.
Strange, isn't it?
Imām ibn AbdulBarr (rahimahullah) said,
“Seeking knowledge is in consecutive levels and ranks, it does not befit that they should be bypassed. Whoever bypasses them at once, then he has bypassed the path of the salaf. Whoever bypasses them intentionally will go astray and whoever bypasses them with sincere effort will fall into error.”
Just as becoming a doctor involves stages and methods, knowledge should also be sought through a process with stages. Today, these stages are mixed together and reversed like a person with no formal education entering medical school.
Analyzing the Problem
What is it that differentiates the students of the past from the students of today? There are a few major issues, but the most critical mistake, we as students commit, is making knowledge the goal and not the means to the goal. Historically, knowledge was not a goal that was completed after a few years of study, rather the Salaf viewed it as the means to reaching Jannah. When the students of the past began their search for knowledge, they made it a lifelong pursuit because their goal could only be reached in the hereafter. Abdullah ibn Mubaarak (rahimahullah) was asked, “How long will you seek knowledge?” His response was, “Until I die, for probably I have not yet learned the things that will benefit me most.” We must realize that knowledge of the religion is a lifelong quest; it does not end after a weekend, or a few years or even twenty years.
The scholars and students of the past sought knowledge as a means to Jannah because beneficial knowledge leads to righteous actions. Sufyan Ath-Thawri (rahimahullah) said: “The excellence of knowledge is due only to the fact that it causes a person to fear and obey Allāh, otherwise it is just like anything else.” Our predecessors did not seek knowledge for the sake of seeking knowledge, rather it was so they could act upon what they learned. It should be clear in our hearts and minds that knowledge is action; and without action, knowledge will not benefit us in the least.
The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) narrated to us that, “The two feet of the servant will not cease (from standing before Allāh) on the Day of Judgment until he is asked about four things: about his life and how he spent it; about his knowledge and what he did with it; about his wealth and where he earned it and how he spent it; and about his body and in what way he utilized it.” [Saheeh, reported by At-Tirmidhi] Shaykh Husayn Al-Awaa'ishah said in regards to this hadeeth, “Check yourself before you try to seek increase through reading and listening to lectures and convert the knowledge that you already have into actions that accompany you as you live.” imām ibnul Jawzi (rahimahullah) stated, “And the miskeen (poor person), the true miskeen is the one who wasted his life learning what he does not practice, thus he loses the pleasures of the dunya and the goods of the aakhirah. (In addition to) coming forth bankrupt (on the Day of Judgment) with strong evidences against himself.”
The second mistake we fall into is in focusing on the knowledge but not on how it is sought. We must realize that ilmis of levels; if it is not sought with the right steps, it will bring you down. The Messenger of Allāh (alayhi salaatu wa salaam) gave us the description of the Khawaarij; they recited the Qur'an throughout the night and day, but it did not go past their throats. The scholars state that even though their worship seemed to be superior to the worship of the Companions, the Khawaarij did not have knowledge of the sunnah so they were deprived of proper understanding and reward for their deeds.
One of the direct results of not seeking knowledge in the proper steps is the lack of basic adab amongst students. This is also connected to the problem of seeking knowledge without acting upon it, because it is impossible for a student to truly learn the Qur'an and Sunnah and continue to have manners that contradict that knowledge. The scholars and students of the past emphasized manners so much so that manners were considered half or a third of knowledge. Knowledge is a tool that needs adab along with it. The ayaat and ahadeeth regarding manners are numerous, but one narration of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) sums up why every Muslim should strive to perfect their manners, he (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said: “Nothing will be heavier on the Day of Resurrection in the scale of the believer than good manners.” [Saheeh, Narrated in At-Tirmidhi]
What we also see today is the 'talibul ilm superstar syndrome'. 'Student of Knowledge' has become a trendy title, turning this sacred knowledge of the Deen into a mere adornment and degrading it to something that is superficial and fake. By treating this knowledge as a commodity, we have reduced its value and stripped it of its rightful honor. This lack of honor is one of the reasons why we don't have barakah in our ilm today. Habeeb ibn Ubayd ar-Rahbi (rahimahullah) said,
“Acquire knowledge, comprehend it and use it. And do not acquire it in order to adorn yourselves with it, for indeed, it is imminent – should your life-spans be prolonged for you – that knowledge will be used as a means for adorning oneself, just as a man adorns himself with his garment.”
We may think that seeking a title is harmless, but this wrong intention can deprive one of Jannah. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Whoever acquires knowledge not learning it except to achieve some worldly gain will not perceive the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Judgment.” [Saheeh, Narrated in Ahmad] The proper intention for seeking knowledge (and any good deed in Islam) is so important because having an incorrect intention can take one to Hell-Fire. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) told us the example of a scholar who will be amongst the first thrown into Hell-Fire because he sought and taught knowledge to be known as a learned person. Imām Ahmad (rahimahullah) said, “There is nothing equal (to the reward) of knowledge, for the one who rectifies his intention.” The success of a student of knowledge, in this life and the next, lies in their intention.
The Neglected Book and Language
Know that we will never be true students of knowledge without the Book of Allāh, and we will never taste any sweetness from it without the Arabic language.
When we as students seek knowledge today, we do not begin with the Qur'an or Arabic. This is not only contrary to the sunnah of the past predecessors, it is contrary to the sunnah of Allāh (azza wa jal). A'ishah (radi Allahu anha) said,
“If the first āyah revealed in the Qur'an was telling people do not drink, they would have rejected that order. If the first verse revealed was telling people not to commit fornication, they would have rejected that order. But the first verses revealed were about Paradise and Hell-Fire until the hearts became attached to Allāh then the orders of haram and halal were given.”
The best way of teaching is the way of Allāh (azza wa jal), so it is more befitting for us to begin our studies with the Qur'an. In doing so, we will attach our hearts to Allāh and empower our remembrance of Him.
There is a serious state of emergency in our ummah with regards to the Qur'an. We are a part of a destructive cycle that has been repeating, generation after generation; we have no bridge towards the Qur'an so we are not motivated to learn it, we are not motivated to learn it because we do not understand it, and we do not understand it because we do not know the language.
The scholars of the past emphasized this point of beginning with the Qur'an when seeking knowledge. Imām Al-Baghdadi (rahimahullah) said, “It is fitting for a student that he begins with memorization of the Book of Allāh – since it is the greatest of the branches of knowledge and that which should be placed first and given precedence.”
We must realize that memorizing the Book of Allāh is a great virtue, but acting upon it is obligatory. Contrary to this, in this day and age, we have made its memorization obligatory and have made acting upon it a virtue. Knowledge of the Qur'an is not enough, rather this knowledge needs to be beautified with deeds.
It is important for us to memorize the Qur'an, learn the language of the Qur'an, the tafseer of Qur'an, the sciences of Qur'an, the grammar of Qur'an, tajweed of Qur'an—but the most important of all of these is reflecting upon the guidance of the Qur'an. The first purpose of the Qur'an is not to educate, rather it is to remind. Even more so, the reminder is not the main goal of this Book, but the main goal is guidance. Tying these two together, the means to this guidance is in the reminder itself. Allāh (azza wa jal) says,
And remind by the Qur'an, him who fears My Threat. (50:45)
Allāh ta'ala speaks of people who were very knowledgeable yet in the same passage, He tells us that they rejected the Messenger and changed their books after they understood them. They did not change the book because they did not understand, but Allāh says:
They altered it even after they understood it (2:75)
They were not missing knowledge, but they were missing the guidance of the Book.
Our intention when learning the Qur'an and Arabic should be to remember Allāh (azza wa jal) by means of His Words. We need to look at the Qur'an and Arabic as a means to increase us and empower us in the remembrance of Allāh.
The first step in gaining this relationship with the Qur'an is learning the Arabic language. Just as Allāh ta'ala chose Muḥammad ibn Abdillah as our Messenger (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), He chose Arabic as the language of His revelation. Allāh states eleven times that He chose Arabic for the Qur'an for our own benefit:
“We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an, in order that you may gain understanding.” (12:2)
It is a sad contradiction that one claims to be a student of knowledge, yet he or she does not understand the Qur'an nor affords the Qur'an its due right. Rather, one may seek to gain knowledge of secondary sciences, and give these sciences a primary role. The scholars of the past have warned against this mindset. Malik ibn Dinar (rahimahullah) said, “Whoever does not find delight in the speech of Allāh and instead finds it in the speech of people, then surely his knowledge has taken a plunge, his heart has become blind and his life has become wasted.”
We see in the Qur'an that Allāh azza wa jal connects having emaan with having a Qur'anic relationship:
Those to whom We have given the Book recite it as it should be recited, they are the ones who believe therein. (2:121)
Abdullah ibn Mas'ood (radi Allahu anhu) swore by Allāh and said that, haqqa tilaawatihi, the proper reciting, is to treat permissible as what it states is permissible, to treat as impermissible what it states to be impermissible, to recite it in the way Allāh revealed it, not to distort a word from its proper meaning, and not to interpret it in a way it is not to be interpreted.
Realize that knowledge can go both ways —it can either be something beautiful that brings one closer to Allāh or it can be something harmful that can ruin one's hereafter. It is upon us to reform ourselves and seek the help of Allāh to gain that knowledge that will guide us to success in this life and the next.
Inshā'Allāh in Part two, we will cover the “how”; how can we as modern students follow the classical method of seeking knowledge? How can we return to the Qur'an and its language? We will share resources and answer those excuses we come across as well as share the example of a western scholar who did not study overseas but gained his knowledge in North America.
It is time for the students of the West to return to the sunnah of our past predecessors and raise this knowledge back to its honorable position.[Stay tuned this week for more advice to students and community workers. ibnabeeomar will share is advice tomorrow inshā'Allāh on getting back into the swing, and Siraaj will give his analysis on how to beat inaction on Wednesday inshā'Allāh.]