Honouring knowledge from learning to legacy
The etiquette of seeking knowledge
In Islam, it is not just knowledge which we are interested in, but how we seek knowledge is also important. Our attitude towards learning, and our teachers and fellow students. There is a huge body of literature and learning on the etiquette of learning itself, which has been passed down from the circles of the Prophet (peace be on him).
These show us the correct etiquette between scholars, as well as between students and teachers, and even the process of learning – how to receive, write down, compare, and deliver knowledge. Sometimes the etiquette of learning can be more important than the knowledge itself.
For instance, if your knowledge is good but your delivery is bad, it makes the knowledge dull. However you might, by contrast, if your knowledge is limited, but your delivery is good, the teachings shine and make a lasting impression on students.
The circles of the Prophet (peace be on him)
The description of the circles of the Prophet (peace be on him) show that his companions used to sit as if a bird was perched on their heads, which they did not want to fly away. They were so riveted and so respectful that they sat absolutely still out of respect for the sacred knowledge they were receiving.
The more we respect and apply the correct etiquette of acquiring knowledge, the more Allah Almighty gives us deeper knowledge.
The etiquettes of the companions onwards are our role models. Anyone who reads the examples of real scholars can see that their way of behaving, from even their walking, talking and sleeping is exemplary. You benefit from their company, even if you are not in class, but at a picnic or in the park with them. Having their presence is good for you.
Scholars are like the rain
Scholars have been described in poems as the rain. Wherever rain falls, it brings benefit – it causes the fruit flowers and flowers to grow, it quenches thirst and washes away dirt. Hence the poem says of scholars:
Wherever you reside, you are like the rain
and the earth you touch brings forth fruit.
Circles of honey
I still remember my first Quran teacher, Shaykh Wasif al Khatib Rahimullah, who was a very blessed person from ahl al bayt (descended from the Prophet, peace be on him). He was a hafidh who loved the Quran. He was so attached to it that it filled his life. After we prayed Fajr, we would sit with him and recite the Quran to him. Then we used to stay til the sun had risen, when he would pray Duha (the prayer before noon) and then we would go our ways – he to his business and us for breakfast and then school. Sometimes, at the weekend, when we did not have to go to school afterwards, some of the older students would take us to the sea shore, which was five minutes away in their car. And we would be blessed that our Shaykh would come with us. All the way there we would make us take turns reciting the Quran to him, even when we reached, he would continue reciting and on the way back, we would do this again. He would always ask us what we had memorised that week. And whenever he met someone new, he would ask them what they had memorised. Such a person is continuously benefitting others.
Such gatherings are like circles of honey, as you can never have enough of them, and they are so good for your body, your brain and your heart.
The distribution of Allah’s favours
Without doubt the favours of Allah are distributed varyingly among people – one scholar might be a great khatib (those who deliver khutbahs), who can even make the walls listen. Another scholar might be a great writer, whose work is effortlessly brilliant. Another scholar might have a razor-sharp memory and can recall knowledge with ease.
Some of my teachers were talented in certain areas but not others. One of them wrote about 100 titles – of differing volumes, but being a khatib wasn’t his forte. If he ever delivered a khutbah, we would struggle to follow it. This didn’t diminish his status in any way, nor would it, if someone was a great khatib but couldn’t write a page.
Rarely, there is someone who is gifted in every field, but every now and then you find someone who is talented at everything – in sports, academia, and in the Islamic sciences. These are Allah’s gifts. Allah Almighty has distributed varying talents among people, but only a minority have all these qualities combined.
These are not myths, they are real
It is hard to imagine that these scholars were real people when we read their stories, which are like fairy tales. In fact these are true stories about real people, who experienced poverty, hunger, fatigue and fear. Without them we would not have the millions of books which we gained from their efforts.
Throughout Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah’s book, The Patience of the Pious Predecessors, we see the journeys of scholars who left behind their homelands to seek knowledge and overcame every obstacle and challenge they faced along the way. Sometimes they endured hardship just to verify whether a word should take a dammah or kasrah or sukoon, such were the pains to authenticate knowledge.
Strive hard, but remember your talents are god-given
Never think that your efforts are the result of your muscles or brains. Mullah Ali al Qari (1605/1606), whose book of hadith I was fortunate to work on, once told the story of a shaykh who spent 30 years writing a book. Once he had completed it, his student spent 3 years writing a book based on it, which he boasted was better than that of his shaykh. It was pointed out to him, that while it only took him 3 years, his book would not exist without the 30 year’s efforts of his shaykh before him, who provided the skeleton and substance in the first place. Therefore his book was actually the culmination of 33 years, not 3. Sometimes we forget this in our pride and self-satisfaction.
Credit where it is due
It is always important to give credit to those who deserve it and scholars are usually the first to acknowledge those from who they benefited. Their books are densely packed with references and footnotes recognising their debt to other scholars. They are quick to disassociate themselves from praise, and pass it on to the others. They often say, ‘This is what I learned from the book of…’
Be grateful for what you receive and honest in the knowledge you deliver. Credit the one who passed it on to you.
Why do we seek knowledge
The efforts of our predecessors encourage us to follow in their footsteps. We can do what they did, if we put our mind and soul to it. The main reason for pursuing Islamic knowledge, is to preserve and protect the book of Allah and the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be on him) whether it is by learning Arabic or the science of hadith or any other branch. It is a service for the Book of Allah.
What became of the scholars
The success of our efforts is in Allah’s hands. He is the One who bestowed acceptance on the work of certain scholars over others. For instance, Bukhari and Nawawi. Everyone has heard of them. Their work has been spread far and wide and lasted over time. There were many other scholars whose work could have been chosen for this honour.
Yet, there were scholars whose work has been lost and perished. The scholars whose work was lost will have received their reward from Allah. Their loss was destined and it was in Allah’s plan, which we cannot comprehend.
Throughout history, we have lost many books; so many were burned, in Andalucía particularly. And others were lost at sea, or thrown in the river. Despite all these losses, we still have millions of books by eminent scholars. We have to give them credit and make dua for them.
The prolific output of our scholars
Al-Fayrouz, Abad wrote Al Qamoos, the renowned dictionary which received widespread acceptance by the whole ummah. The name Qamoos has become synonymous with dictionary, which is technically, mu’jam, as Kleenex and Hoovers are to tissues and vacuum cleaners. Qamoos has become a ‘brand’. In it are many commentaries.
Tajal Arus is a 4 volume commentary on Qamoos, which itself if is 10 huge volumes and extends across the bookshelf. These 10 volumes were reprinted by the Ministry of Al Awqaf in Kuwait. It took them more than 20 years to print it and then one day someone photocopied the whole lot and stole it.
When we see such a massive book it makes us wonder how it was written. The effort to bring it to print required a special committee with more than 50 people to proof read it before it could be printed. And each section is so hard to understand that you need to have proficiency in mutliple specialities to understand it. And yet it was the work of a single scholar who wrote many other books alongside it! We see from this that Allah Almighty puts barakah in people’s time and efforts.
Lisan al Arab is the biggest dictionary in the Arabic language. It is 25-30 volumes it is a huge book. Again it took years to bring it to print, and that was due to the time it took them to proof-read it, not compose it.
Such tomes as Zabili pointed out when he commented on Taj al Arus are a reflection of the dedication of scholars who suffered much to produce them. Remember that they wrote them at a time where they did not have electricity, so they did not have electric light, or taps, or fridges and microwaves, which we take for granted. Paper itself was an expensive commodity. Imam Shafi was writing on bones, because he could not afford it. While we have cars, and planes and virtual meetings, they had to mount their camel and ride for a month.
What is the point
Why did they expend so much effort? Why did they go to such lengths? And why were they willing to give up everything they had to produce those books? Real knowledge seekers are those who apply what they learn. They benefiting from what they receive. And they benefit others from it. Otherwise it is a waste of time.
If scholars had dedicated their time and efforts to explore other sciences, we would have excelled even more. We had scholars in medicine and astronomy and algebra, but then our ummah lost the passion and drive to learn. And others took knowledge to new heights as we fell behind.
Can we achieve what scholars achieved in the past?
Allah Almighty is the one who provides, His provision never cease. But where are the knowledge seekers? Just as He provided the opportunity and means for the great scholars of the past to leave their legacies, He can provide us with the same. One of my shuyukh, Shaykh Nur din al ‘Itr, may Allah preserve him and reward him, who was a professor of tafseer and hadith, was a great fan of Imam Nawawi. He loved him and he kept referring to him. One day I asked him one why he kept comparing us to Shaykh Nawawi when there was no possible comparison between them and such a noble scholar. Shaykh al ‘Itr was so angry. I was taken by surprise by his reaction. He went on to explain that the one who provided for Imam Nawawi is still providing. He never stopped providing. His provision doesn’t stop. But it us who need ikhlas and determination. If we have this, Allah can give us more than He gave Nawawi. These words always stayed with me.
This concludes my reflections on this wonderful book which was printed on 16th Dhul Qadah 1398 (1978) in London. This was one of his travel. And when he reprinted the book the second time was in Vancouver in 1409. I gave you a flavour of it. But you can get the book and read it in more detail.
The etiquettes of learning have been written about in many books, Adab al Alim wal Mutalim, by Ibn Jamaah. We delivered a course on this several times. He divided the etiquettes of learning into categories, you and Allah, you and your shaykh, you and your books, you and other knowledge seekers. How to divide your time, and maximise it, and how to attend circles.
The core of the matter is that the more you respect sacred knowledge, the more Allah makes it benefit you and more you will benefit others from it. When you honour His knowledge, Allah Almighty gives you fattah and tawfiq (openings and opportunities).
I witnessed this firsthand. Those who are not sincere and respectful towards knowledge, Allah will take it away from them, even if they have a good memory and Allah will not benefit people by them.
The first thing is intention. If you have that right intention you can build on it. You have to keep renewing and polishing your intention.
To receive knowledge, you need to appreciate that this is sacred knowledge, unlike other knowledge. You can’t treat it as any other knowledge – it really annoys me when I see people put put their books on floor. These are not books of maths or chemistry. Do not put them in disrespectful places. Even how you sit matters. It is not respectful to sit with your legs crossed or for your shoes to face your shaykh. These are little etiquettes which we are not taught at school but they make a huge difference.
Once Shaykh Al Farah who was a top linguistic scholar in 200AH was appointed by the Caliph al Mamun to teach his children. One day he heard that his two sons were competing with each other to carry the shoes of their shaykh and finally opted to carry one pair each. Al Mamun called Al Farah to asked him who the most respected person in his land was, and Al Farah replied it was the Caliph himself, as he was the Emir al Mumin (Leader of the believers). Al Mamun said rather it was one whose shoes were being carried by two potential Emirs. Al Farah said he had not stopped them from doing this because this is how we honour knowledge. And Mamoun rewarded his children for this, and he rewarded Al Farah for teaching them the etiquette. Though it may seem strange to us to carry someone’s shoes, it is how we honours our elders and grandfathers, and our shuyukh are our elders. This simple action shows respect and humility. The ego is very wily. When the ego takes over your knowledge becomes a way of showing off. When you control it, you will excel in ikhlas.
Shaykh Abdul 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.
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 Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah.
The Full Series
Lessons from knowledge seekers – part 9
Folding time and space – part 8
The poverty of the knowledge seekers – part 2
The pursuit of knowledge – part 1
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