Attaining gifted knowledge – the story of Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him)

Abu Hurairah said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger (peace be on you). I hear many narrations from you but I forget them.’ He said, ‘Spread your cloak.’ I spread my cloak and he moved both his hands as if scooping something and emptied them in the cloak and said, ‘Wrap it.’ I wrapped it, and since then I have never forgotten. (Bukhari)

The practical examples we can learn from the biographies of the great

I am not telling you these stories for their entertainment value, although they are fascinating, but so that you can learn from these examples as they are practical examples, not theoretical.

Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him)

Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated an exceptional number of hadith from the Prophet (peace be on him), particularly as compared to Abu Bakr and Omar (may Allah be pleased with them) who were highly esteemed and close companions of the Prophet (peace be on him).

He narrated over 5000 hadith, more than any other companion. This made people question how this possible. And he replied to the accusations and the scepticism which still exists today.

The definition of hadith is something that the Prophet (peace be on him) said, or did, or approved. Or or a narration about one of his character traits or features.

Shadowing the Prophet (peace be on him)

Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) rebutted those who challenged his collection of hadith, by observing:

You people claim that Abu Hurairah narrates many narrations of Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him). (Anyhow) with Allah will be our appointment. I was a poor man, and used to stick to Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) contented with what will fill my stomach, and the Muhajirin (emigrants) used to be busy trading in the markets, and the Ansar used to be busy looking after their properties. But I (Abu Huraira) used to stick to Allah’s Messenger () contented with what will fill my stomach and I used to attend that which they used not to attend and I used to memorise that which they used not to memorise. (Bukhari).

We see from his comment, that because the migrants to Madinah from Makkah (the Muhajireen) were busy in their businesses, and the inhabitants of Madinah (the Ansar) were busy with their crops, they were unable to attend many circles of knowledge. Madinah was an agricultural society whereas Makkah was a business community, engaged in trade and importing and exporting goods, so everyone was busy earning their livelihoods.

By contrast, Abu Hurairah did not work, instead he stuck to the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him), contented to eat whatever he could get fill his stomach.

For this reason, while others were preoccupied, he closely shadowed the Prophet (peace be on him), unconcerned about worldly issues, and was able to attend circles they never attended. As a result, he was able to memorise what they never memorised.

Late on the scene

Abu Hurairah was the nickname of Abd Al-Rahman ibn Sakhr Al-Azdi from Yemen. He arrived late to Islam, in the 7th year after the migration of the Prophet (peace be on him) to Madinah.

This meant that he only spent 3-4 years with the Prophet (peace be on him) before he passed away. No one knew the Prophet (peace be on him) would pass away that soon, but within those few years, Abu Hurairah, who was keen on learning, was always with the Prophet (peace be on him), memorising and writing down everything he could.

Sacrificing his career

If you go deeper into this narration, you see it is not an easy decision or option to forego a career to pursue knowledge.

Abu Hurairah was single, though he got married later. When he joined the Prophet (peace be on him) he was in the prime of his life, aged between 28-30. Yet he chose to dedicate his time to seek knowledge, rather than seek employment or start a business which he could have done.

This mean that he was impoverished, and was one of the people of as-Suffah, the poor people who had a special place assigned to them in the mosque of the Prophet (peace be on him), where they received charity from others.

Eagerness to catch up

Abu Hurairah knew that if he was employed he would be busy, and it would slow down his acquisition of knowledge, as he would have to work during the day and his studying would be limited to the evenings.

As someone who was a new Muslim, he eagerly wanted to catch up – though it was not for the sake of competing, but to learn what others had gleaned over the years they had been in the company of the Prophet (peace be on him).

Catching up

Abu Hurairah certainly made up for coming late. He did not procrastinate. He chose to shadow the Prophet (peace be on him), going from circle to circle and place to place, serving the prophet peace be upon him instead of pursuing a career, and how we envy him! If we had the chance, we would dearly love to be in his shoes and do the same and serve him, peace be upon him.

Abu Hurairah attended the circles of the Prophet (peace be upon him), stuck close to his side, heard him first-hand, observed him and learned from him.

The volume of narrations

Ibn Hajar mentioned that Abu Hurairah stayed with the Prophet (peace be upon him) 4 years. As each lunar year is 354 days, if he memorised 5 hadith per day that would make a total of 7080 Hadith
Or going with 3 years (354x 5) that would make 5310. This means that the number of hadith which he narrated is not beyond possibility.

The benefit of learning in the company of the Prophet (peace be on him)

You can’t learn everything from words. Actually seeing something being practiced can sometimes teach you a hundred pages or a lifetime’s experience. This was the value of being in the presence of the Prophet (peace be on him) and those who carried the knowledge afterwards.

Therefore Abu Hurairah defended his legacy by saying that no one should accuse him of making up his collection of hadith, because while the other respected sahaba were busy, he had the privilege of shadowing the Prophet (peace be on him).

Meanwhile, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) who had far more knowledge and spent longer with the Prophet (peace be on him) did not leave as many narrations, because when the Prophet (peace be on him) passed away, he had to led the ummah and had no time to narrate his knowledge.

The next challenge – trying to carry too many melons

Having accepted poverty and begun his pursuit of knowledge, Abu Hurairah encountered his next hurdle, he felt his memory was letting him down.

Though he was a learned person, at a time when not everyone could read and write, he was busy accumulating what he heard and memorising it.

There are some differences of opinion whether he was literate or not. Abu Hurairah himself said:

There is none among the companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) who has narrated more hadiths than I except `Abdullah bin `Amr (bin Al-`As) who used to write them and I did not write.(Bukhari)

The more circles he attended, the more knowledge he garnered, and he began to realise that he could not retain it all.

In Arabic, we say, if you have too many melons in one hand, you will drop them. Abu Hurairah was trying to carry many melons.

As 20 hadith, became 200-300 hadith and continued growing, he was anxious that he would not be able to memorise them all, so he went to the Prophet (peace be on him) and complained about his memory.

When your memory is not sharp, in Arabic, they say eat za’tar (the herb, thyme). And that’s why they feed children much za’tar in the Middle East.

How Abu Hurairah’s memory was given a special boost

This is when the Prophet (peace be on him) told him to spread his garment, and he scooped something from the air with his hand from the unseen and placed it in Abu Hurairah’s garment, which he the told him to put back on his chest.

Thereafter Abu Hurairah said he never forget anything again. I have read widely on this episode and no one knew what it was that he (peace be upon him) grasped from the air.

Thus the other reason for his phenomenal acquisition of hadith was this special gift from the Prophet (peace be on him). He said:

One-day I heard Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) saying, ‘Who will spread his Rida’ (a garment covering the upper part of the body) till I finished my speech and then fold it, (i.e. wrap it over his body), in which case he will never forget anything he had heard from me.’ So I spread my garment which I was wearing; and by Him Who sent Muhammad with the Truth, ever since, I have never forgotten whatever I heard from him (peace be upon him). (Bukhari)

Why did the Prophet (peace be on him) give Abu Hurairah this gift?

The Prophet (peace be on him) rewarded Abu Hurairah for his dedication. It was evident that he was putting in a great deal of effort, asking questions, making notes, memorising and shadowing him and so the Prophet (peace be on him) gave his memory a boost. And so his effort and dedication were rewarded.

In the narration, Abu Hurairah also said that because of two verses in the Quran he is narrating the hadith, otherwise he will not narrate anything. He said:

People say that I have narrated many hadiths (narrations of the Prophet, peace be on him). Had it not been for two verses in the Qur’an, I would not have narrated a single Hadith, and the verses are:

Those who conceal the proofs and the guidance We have revealed, after We have clarified them to humanity in the Scripture—those—God curses them, and the cursers curse them. (2:159)

Except those who repent, and reform, and proclaim. Those—I will accept their repentance. I am the Acceptor of Repentance, the Merciful. (2:160)

And no doubt our Muhajir (emigrant) brothers used to be busy in the market with their business (bargains) and our Ansari brothers used to be busy with their property (agriculture). But I (Abu Hurairah) used to stick to Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) contented with what will fill my stomach and I used to attend that which they used not to attend and I used to memorise that which they used not to memorise. (Bukhari)

The special dua

Once the Prophet (peace be in him) came out of his house, Abu Hurairah and Zaid bin Thabit and a third person were making du’a.
When they saw him, they stopped.
He told them continue, so they continued and he said Ameen to their du’a.
However, Abu Hurairah had not yet made du’a so he said:

‘Ya Allah, I ask you what my friend asked from you and a knowledge that will be never forgotten.’

اللهم إني أسألك علماً لا يُنسى

The Prophet (peace be on him) said, ‘Ameen’.

Then Zaid and his friend said we want that too, but the Prophet (peace be on him) said the Dawsi (i e Abu Hurairah) has preceded you.

(Bayhaqi in Sunan al-Kubra and Al-Hakim in Al-Mustadrak)

Acquired knowledge can lead to gifted knowledge

Scholars say there are two types of knowledge. The kind you seek through your hardwork and efforts, which is called ilm kasbi (acquired knowledge), and ilm wahbi, which is gifted knowledge. It’s not in your hands.

Abu Hurairah worked hard on gaining the kasbi but was then rewarded by the wahbi.

Therefore, we see that if you work hard, Allah Almighty will provide you with gifted knowledge. These two are like two wings which you can fly with. If you only have on, then you are hobbling and limping.

This is why we see many professors at university and some Shuyukh are very dedicated, but lack a deeper purpose and vision. They are just doing their job. If your purpose is to pursue knowledge for Allah Almighty, He opens the way for you and He bestows gifts on you.

Musa and Al-Khidr (peace be on him)

In the story of Musa and al-Khidr (peace be on him), we see that Allah Almighty blessed him with special knowledge which is also known as Ilm ladunni.

And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge. (18:65)

Fath – special openings

This gift of special insights is known as fath (opening). This is why Ibn Hajar al Asqalani called his book Fath al Bari, (The Opening of the Creator) because he was being humble and making the point that his book could not be credited to his effort, but was the blessing of the Lord Almighty.

Rewarding humility, sincerity and dedication

Ladunni knowledge cannot be acquired, but can be received as a reward for your humility, dedication and sincerity.

Give knowledge the respect it deserves, glorify and dignify it and you will reap fruits and gifts inshallah.

Don’t let your ego become inflated

If you are pumped up by your success, Allah Almighty will take it away from you.

If you receive this knowledge and opening of wahbi knowledge, but you abuse it, and become arrogant, thinking that you have better knowledge than others, or that this knowledge is the result of your efforts and you deserved it, then Allah Almighty can strip you of it instantly.

Losing understanding

One of our teachers told us the story of Muhammad bin al-Hasan al-Shaybani, who was a dedicated student of Abu Hanifa. He is the one who wrote the books of the Hanafi school. The Madhab (school) is indebted to him, as it was not Abu Hanifa but Shaybani who wrote down his teachings.

Muhammad bin al-Hasan was the youngest of his top students. (The others were Abu Yusuf, Yaqoub bin Ibrahim, who wrote Kitab Al-Kharāj, but it was about financial transactions.) 99% was written by Muhammad bin al-Hasan.

At that time, Abu Hanifa created the first Fiqh council early in the day. He would ask a question about something and there were around 40 scholars from all branches from linguistics to haddith, including Abdullah bin Mubarak. They would put a case for discussion for few days, and then conclude and write it down.

One day Muhammad bin Hasan said something, and Abu Hanifa said the opposite, but after a couple of days, Abu Hanifa said he agreed with Muhammad bin Hasan, and that he had got it right. This created a feeling of pride in him, which filled him and though it was fath from Allah, he said that he was prevented from al fahm (understanding) for 40 days. Be very careful, this is a very sensitive area.

Abu Hurairah sacrificed his rest and his life, and didn’t buy a house or ‘a car’ or pursue any luxury. He lived til he was almost 80, spreading the knowledge he had collected, and never regretted it.

The responsibility of carrying knowledge

This is why many scholars dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of many other things, as they felt the burden of responsibility that they had to carry this and pass it on to others.

They were aware that:

The scholars are the heirs of the prophets. (Abu Dawoud)

And they felt this weight on their shoulders, so they did not let anything compete with this.

Foregoing family life

Imam Nawawi and al-Tabari, ibn Taymiyya, and Abbad bin Bishr were all great scholars who chose to remain single because they did not want their personal lives to conflict with their studies. Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah dedicated the 8th and final chapter of his book The Patience of the Pious Predecessors to five scholars who stayed single and then wrote a whole book about it.

No one disputes that marriage is a sunnah, but these scholars did not want to have a family and then be neglectful towards them. Their books were like their family. And I can understand this feeling, as my books are like my children; I spent a lot of time working on them.

They were single-minded and we are enjoying the fruits of their efforts and sacrifices.

Endowments for scholars

It was to free up the time of scholars from having to earn a living, that the concept of waqf (endowment) started early in the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be on him).

These endowment funds, scholarships and bursaries meant that scholars could dedicate their time to the advancement of knowledge without having to worry about their food and drink and accommodation. They reached an advanced level. Some top universities today do this, so academics can do their research.

I witnessed this concept in different places, as it exists in every single city in the Muslim world. And we see also that Allah Almighty bestowed knowledge and wealth on them, and they in turn used to support and look after their students, who were bright but poor.

The legacy of beneficial knowledge is ongoing charity

Establishing a waqf is sadaqah jariah (continuous charity). The Prophet (peace be on him) said after your death only three things live on.

Abu Hurairah narrated that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge, and righteous offspring who will pray for him. (Muslim)

Set aside time

Everyone is busy in life – whether at school, in the hospital or at work or with their family, but you need to put aside 4-6 hours a week, to memorise, ask questions, research and study.

Start small and Allah will increase it for you. You know it is valuable to learn your deen, so put in the effort and ask Allah to open the way for you and after some time, with sincerity, you will receive the gift of opening and things will change. You will start gain deeper insight.

The Prophet (peace be on him) said in his Last Sermon that we should pass on the knowledge even if it is one verse. Learn the basics and then build on it.

‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin Al-‘As (May Allah be pleased with them) reported that the Prophet (peace be on him) said:

Convey from me even an Ayah of the Qur’an. (Bukhari)

How to memorise

The best way to memorise is to practice. That’s why we say, ‘Knowledge grows between two.’ If you want to grow your knowledge you need someone to review it with, or to teach it to.

Allah has gifted the ability to memorise to some more than others. Unlike Abu Hurayrah, Imam Bukhari had a very sharp memory from the beginning, as He has given some people have which is a photographic memory. It takes a picture and goes to the hard drive and these are gifts from Allah Almighty. Some can use it for good and some for bad. Ask Allah to increase your hard-drive and give you a good, sharp memory, as Abu Hurairah did:

Oh Allah I ask you for a knowledge that can’t be forgotten.

اللهم إني أسألك علماً لا يُنسى

What if you feel your memory is weak

Don’t memorise too many pages. Assess your ability. If you have limited memory  – not everyone finds it easy to memorise – set a goal of memorising half a page, rather a full page. Recite it in all five of salah, every day till you have memorised it. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Then move on to the other half of the page. Repetition is the key.

Choose a good reciter and play the recitation of the same page in the background while you are at home. Listen to it as much as possible as that will help you retain it.

Recite it in the sunnah part of your salah, so you can read it from your Quran, and once you have mastered it, recite it in the fard salah.

Minimise sin

Imam Shafi’s teacher told him that if you want to improve your memory, you need to improve your spiritual state by ensuring that you minimise sin. When you sin less, it helps you retain the truth.

Repetition is vital to help you retain knowledge. Some people only need to repeat something twice to remember it, other people repeat it twenty times but it still doesn’t get embedded in their mind.

Having good company is very helpful to memorise knowledge

The hufadh had special memorisation sessions with their companions, and they would recite in turns until they finished memorising a chapter.

My first Quran teacher, Shaykh Wasif al Khatib (may Allah be pleased with him) used to wake up before Fajr every day, and go to his dear friend Shaykh Ibrahim’s home and they would recite two or three chapters every day til he passed away. This was their daily practice.

Knowledge is worship

Some scholars say that sitting in a circle of knowledge is better than performing a voluntary prayer.

May Allah enable us to understand the importance of this knowledge and act upon it and dedicate more time to learn it and disseminate it. Ameen.

Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim as part of his Series on the Knowledge Seekers, based on the book, The Patience of the Pious Predecessors by Shaykh Fattah Abu Ghuddah.

Shaykh Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah was born in Syria in 1917. One of the outstanding Muslim scholars of the 20th century, Shaykh Abu Ghuddah was a leading scholar in the field of Hadith and the Hanafi school of Fiqh. He studied in Syria and Egypt specialising in Arabic Language, Hadith, Shariah and Psychology. He had many prominent teachers, amongst them Shaykh Ragib al-Tabbakh, Shaykh Ahmed ibn Muhamad al-Zaraqa, Shaykh Isa al-Bayanuni, Shaykh Ahmad al-Kurdi and the renowned Ottoman Scholar Imam al-Kawthari.
He taught Usul al Fiqh, Hanafi Fiqh and Comaparative Fiqh at the University of Damascus. He also taught at the King Saud University and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. He was buried in al-Baqi Cemetry in Madinah in 1997.

The Full Series 

Lessons from knowledge seekers – part 9

Folding time and space – part 8

The boy who sold his father’s mule for a book – part 7

Attaining gifted knowledge and the story of Abu Hurayrah – part 6

The sacrifices of the knowledge seekers – part 5

The determination of the knowledge seekers – part 4

The Journeys of the knowledge seekers – part 3

The poverty of the knowledge seekers – part 2

The pursuit of knowledge – part 1

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Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001.His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College).He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.