Lessons from the knowledge seekers
Aside from the entertaining aspect of the stories, there are many valuable lessons we can glean from Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah’s 400 page book, The Patience of the Pious Predecessors, which he divided into 8 chapters.
When I re-read the lengthy (50 page!) conclusion of the book I couldn’t help thinking that it is the cream of the cream of his book.
Knowledge rests on giants of the past
The first and second generation of scholars carried the knowledge, whose fruits we are enjoying to this day. Throughout the book, we saw the numerous obstacles they faced and the fascinating journeys they undertook, all of which hold much wisdom and are a source of inspiration. We saw how they dedicated their lives for the sake of knowledge.
The purpose of their struggles
We read about their suffering, without having to go to the same lengths and pains that they went to pass it on. They endured this as a service to the Prophet (peace be on him) and the book captured how much they sacrificed to gain knowledge of him and our deen; how much they travelled. We don’t worship knowledge but we take it seriously because it helps us serve Allah. All this knowledge orbits the Quran and the Sunnah.
Unparalleled collation of knowledge
No other ummah went to the lengths our scholars did to collate knowledge. Did their scholars travel hundreds and thousands of miles for the sake of a single hadith? These scholars let nothing stop them. If they had no vehicle, they walked. If they had no money, they fasted.
Sweetness in bitterness
Despite all their struggles they were filled with satisfaction because they knew what their purpose was and what their direction was. With all their bitterness, they still experienced sweetness. Dunya was not their concern. They did not care how they looked, or about luxury, or a car or an outfit they had seen… However, they would have sleepless nights if they could not get hold of a book they were seeking. They travelled long distances to be the student of a particular shaykh.
The diversity of the knowledge-seekers
Through their biographies we see there is no discrimination between races. We see the white, the black, the Arab the non-Arab, the Syrian, the Iraqi, eastern and western scholars all in the same pursuit. Islam unified them. They did not say, ‘I will not take knowledge from him – he is black’. Racism was not in the ummah of Muhammad (peace be on him). To the contrary, they fought to get access to Atta ibn Abi Rabah, one of the great scholars and tabi’een who was an African scholar. There might be the odd person who has prejudices but this totally against the teachings of Islam.
Covering the breadth of knowledge
The sciences were not divided as much as they are today. Whether it is the Arabic language which is the language of the Quran, or hadith which is the interpretation of the Quran or other sciences relevant to hadith or fiqh or linguistics, they are all interconnected. And the scholars sought as much of them as possible, so they would have many sciences under their belt. Scholars were experts in many fields, even the normal sciences, like astronomy, physics and algebra and then they specialised in certain branches.
Ironically, scholars did not accept defeat, rather the prospect of defeat made them even more determined. Whether it was poverty or hunger, it made the stronger. Their sincerity made them overcome difficulties.
It was not easy but there is a deep lesson that with persistence and determination we can do whatever we want and survive any calamity.
As we saw in the story of Baqi bin Makhald who walked from Cordoba to Baghdad to be a student of Imam Ahmed. They never felt their knowledge was enough. Some of them had 1200 scholars whom they sought, even if it was for half an hour to learn from them and write down what they learned. Shaykh Fatah said:
We witnessed in these pages that the sciences of Islam were not written on the riverbeds or seashores or under the trees of orchards. It was written by sweat and blood and sleepless nights and in dimly lit rooms, which led to some of them losing their eyesight.
Some even sacrificed their lives, as they drowned in the sea with their manuscripts. Some of them salvaged it, others became ill or homesick, having left their families and children behind. All of this did not affect their pursuit of knowledge.
They were honest in what they were receiving and delivering. The moment they felt they could not do their job, they withdrew themselves from knowledge circles.
One scholar who lost his brother, to whom he was deeply attached, lost some of his memory, he was a teacher of Imam Malik. Scholars who received knowledge from him, drew a line between the knowledge he imparted before this event and after it.
The most honourable scholars came from humble backgrounds. They were not from noble families or princes or rulers. They were blacksmiths and farmers and handymen. We see from this that knowledge is not in the hands of the elite, as it is here with Eton and the public school system. Anyone who was sincere and motivated could reach the highest level.
Scholarships, bursaries and grants
Throughout our history, we have supported our knowledge seekers for instance through grants, bursaries and waquf (trusts). One example is that of Abu Hanifa, who used to spend on his students as well as the shuyukh in his area. Allah bestowed great wealth on him. He and his father had a textile and silk business, so every year he would reinvest some money in the business and distribute the rest of the profit on his students. Distributing money to them to spend on themselves and their families and he told them not to thank him, because this was from Allah Almighty.
Motivation for knowledge seekers
The scholars always had faith in Allah that He would facilitate the way for them. No matter how difficult their situation was. When you trust Allah deeply in return Allah opens the way for you. I can tell you this from many episodes.
The divorce between scholars and the government
In the biography of the great scholars we see they never accepted money from their rulers. They kept their distance from the government. They remained independent and stayed clear of them. They did not want any toxic bribes. In different stories we saw how scholars were offered positions of office, but they refused.
For instance, Abu Hanifa refused and was lashed by ibn Hubayra and he fainted many times, because they wanted him to rubber stamp their policies ruler. When he refused to be used, they imprisoned him for his honesty.
Had the ruler been honest and trustworthy, like Omar Abdul Aziz they would not have refused. But when they were corrupt, they suffered, knowing that it is better to suffer in dunya, than in akhirah.
Whoever refrains from doubtful money, Allah Almighty replaces it with something much better.
Knowledge keeps you alive
Knowledge keeps you alive after your death, which is amazing. Even with the poverty and suffering they endured, we are still talking about them and they are still getting the reward in their akhirah account, 100s of years later. Allah does not waste even the smallest action. They understood this.
Scholars were not attached to wealth. To the contrary, they would pay anything to receive knowledge, even if they had to sell their homes. We could not imagine selling our house to buy a book. Anyone would say that is crazy. Yet, nothing was more valuable than knowledge in their eyes.
Nothing rivalled the pleasure and satisfaction they gained from knowledge, to the extent that wouldn’t even know whether they had eaten or not. To the extent that they would forget their hunger because of their knowledge, which sounds like a riddle.
Among these scholars we see a bunch of them who did not marry because they could not juggle both. The books were their children. They loved them so much. This is why it was so difficult for them to sell their books.
The true scholar is the one who is humble even if he is knowledgeable. If he lacks humility, knowledge is against you, not for you.
Their main concern was not to criticise others but to improve themselves and become better people. They were not in academia for one-up-manship. This was not the case. They might have had some issues with some colleagues, as they were not angels, but it was not common.
Lands of knowledge
Muslim land from the east to the west and the south to the north was a land of knowledge. Each city was filled with scholars. Unlike today where our scholars are scattered and the land in between is barren. This is sad. At that time, knowledge was everywhere. Indeed, there were no borders. You could travel without a visa or passport. You just needed your camel and off you went. This was the core of our civilisation. The very first command of revelation was ‘Iqra’ to read and therefore to gain knowledge and they excelled in spreading knowledge. They even taught us the etiquettes of seeking knowledge and wrote many books on that and practiced it in their circles. Abu Hanifa was the first to write the etiquettes (Adab al Alim) of the knowledge seekers. There were many books on this after that.
Where are the brains now?
We saw genius and brilliance in these scholars, but where are these geniuses these days?
I asked my shaykh this question, and he replied that they are studying medicine and engineering not shariah. Shariah does not bring bread and butter to your house, so people directed their attention to other sciences instead.
Different skills and talent is spread across the world, not confined to one place. Talent is not the preserve of one particular race or class or set of people. We all have different strengths and skills. Some people are talented in how they write, or how they explain concepts or in how they comment on knowledge. Let’s see what talents Allah has given us and use them to serve Him. Instead of just admiring others and their talent.
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim as part f 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 poverty of the knowledge seekers – part 2
The pursuit of knowledge – part 1
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