The Art of Asking Questions – part 2

The Art of Asking Questions - part 2

Ask people of knowledge – ignorance can kill

The Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged questions in the right context and would sometimes start his circle by posing a question. Do you know who this is? Do you know the meaning of this? it’s not true that in the religious context you are not allowed to ask questions. No it’s not true, the Quran teaches us how to ask because Allah says:

‘Ask the people of knowledge.’ [16:43]

In an incident which happened during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him), some companions were travelling and one of them he had a deep head injury on his head. He woke up in the morning and he needed to do his wudu/ghusl but it was very cold and with the head injury, it was difficult. If he poured water on it it would become infected. So he asked his companion, ‘Do I have an alternative? Can I do tayammun? Can I not use water and pray?’ They insisted that he had to take a bath. That poor companion (may Allah be pleased with him), listened to them and took a bath with cold water but the wound become infected and he died.

When the companions came back to the Prophet (peace be upon him) he was so angry with them, he said, ‘They have killed him! Why did they not ask when they didn’t know?’ i.e. their ignorance resulted in them giving the wrong advice which led to his death. They could have bandaged the injury and he could have done tayamum )(dry ablution) and prayed – it would have been permissible for him.

Had they asked they would have learned this and he would not have died.

Ask useful, beneficial and relevant questions

In another narration the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘The previous nations before you perished because of their disagreements with their prophets and because of their excessive questions’; that is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not like too many questions when they were not useful, or could lead to extra rulings, as Allah Almighty had warned them:

‘Oh you who believe do not ask about things if disclosed to you would trouble you’ [5:101].

This does not mean one should not ask for clarification, but that He did not want them to repeat the pattern of previous nations by evoking new rulings. For us, the revelation is already here so we can ask any question if it is useful and relevant. Otherwise it’s a waste of time.

Sometimes asking questions is a necessity, such as when it concerns our transactions, our earnings, our ibadah, our salary, fasting and our relationship with Allah Almighty, and people around us. Such questions are compulsory as we need to know the answers and have clarity.

Questions that waste time

Yet there are some people who don’t ask about anything. There are two types of people – two extremes: the very fussy people who ask about everything even when it is hypothetical and irrelevant, like ‘Shaykh is there a possibility that we might find people on Mars and other planets?’ The Shaykh said, ‘My son, why are you asking this question?’ He said, ‘because we want to do dawah, so we should go and do dawah for them’. The Shaykh said, ‘My son, have you finished doing dawah to every single person on earth, so you’re ready to go to Mars and do dawah there?’ What a ridiculous question.

Imam Ahmad for instance, one of the 4 imams was once asked if the two pans of the scales on the Day of Judgement were made of silver or gold? Imam Ahmad  said, ‘You don’t need to know. When you get there, you will see it with your eyes, so don’t waste my time. Knowing the answer will not change anything in your life.’

Another pointless question a scholar was asked was: ‘Shaykh, who did the nikah of iblis and his wife?’ The shaykh answered: ‘That’s a wedding I did not attend, so I can’t tell you, I don’t know.’ He choose to give a silly answer to show that the question had no bearing on anything. It was a time-waster.

Questions that benefit you are about your iman, your actions, your character, your family, your transactions, and your earnings etc. Not questions about imaginary situations.

In a hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘Allah has made certain things obligatory on you so do not waste them and He made some prohibitions so do not violate them and He made certain boundaries and limits, so do not overstep them and He was silent on certain things out of mercy, not out of forgetfulness’. He did not forget to mention it for you but out of His mercy Allah was silent about certain issues, certain things. He didn’t say any ruling on it, which we call in Sharia ‘that the text is silent on this’ there’s no text that prohibits or encourages. This is an area on the principles of fiqh.

Mercy not forgetfulness

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said,

‘He was silent out of mercy not out of forgetfulness on certain things,’ therefore do not ask for answers which will make your life difficult. For your own sake. This is why the ayah says, ‘do not ask about things when you get the answer it makes it difficult for you and hard for you.

This doesn’t mean you cannot ask Allah Almighty about things that are in the Sharia, as we need to know what is permissible and what is not.

Minding the business of others

In Arabic sowal means to ask, so you might ask a question or you might ask for money. If you say, ‘x is asking’, it can mean he is asking a question or for money. Don’t ask for money if you are not in need or you are not in poverty. In addition to not asking questions which complicate matters, do not ask about people’s private matters. It’s none of your business; don’t delve into people’s private business.

Yet, this is a common disease, which we have in society. People love to gossip and delve into other people’s business. This is sinful as it does not concern others and maybe to expose their mistakes and sins etc.

Sometimes people ask about private things, like how much they earn. Do not embarrass them or yourself. However some people do not know the boundaries. They ask about whatever pops in their mind.

A good question is half of knowledge

As mentioned previously, a good question is half of the knowledge as scholars divided knowledge into two halves – the question and the answer.

Like terminals, knowledge has two sides – positive and negative. The negative side is the question, and the positive is the answer. It is good to move into a position where you can be the one who answers the questions, rather than remaining in the position of the one who is always asking. So it is good to gain knowledge and help others discover the answers to their question.

What you should ask about:

  1. What concerns you, your deen, your akhirah, your family, your character etc. – these are obligatory.
  2. How to improve yourself, how to be better – these are recommended questions.

Worst sin

The Prophet (peace be upon him) was asked by Ibn Mas’ud what the worst sin was. We can see from his question that he wanted to know what to avoid.  Hudhayfah Ibn al-Yaman (may Allah be pleased with him) said, ‘People used to ask the Prophet (peace be upon him) about good things and I used to ask him about the bad things, because I want to avoid them’.

So he was the compendium of all the signs of the Day of Judgement and he collected many of the narrations about this, because he was concerned about what would happen and what to avoid.

In answer to Abdullah bin Mas’ud’s question, the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied that the worse thing was ‘to take partners with Allah. He is your Creator who created you.’

Imam Dhahabi (may Allah have mercy on him) wrote a book on major sins, and mentioned over 70 major sins (kabair). It has been translated into English. You can also read the book of Imam Ghazali about the major sins and Ibn Hajar Haithami wrote an encyclopaedia on great sins, mentioning about 468 great sins. It’s another topic to delve in later.

Top three sins

The top of the list of major sins is shirk which is to associate partners with Allah. Ibn Mas’ud asked what is next, and the Prophet (peace be upon him) said ‘to kill your child because of fear of poverty’. Killing is one of the great sins. And then he asked, ‘and then what?’ To which he received the reply, ‘to commit zina (illegal intercourse) with your neighbour’s wife.’

Follow the footsteps of the companions

Thus we can see the companions used to ask the Prophet (peace be upon him) about what really matters. What affects their life, their relationship with Allah, with people around them –parents, spouses, siblings, children etc. So this shows us their priorities.

So we need to follow their footsteps, otherwise we’ll be just wasting our time and wasting our life thus asking the wrong questions or not asking in the first place. Sometimes they are confused about certain things, an ayah they didn’t understand properly, a narration he mentioned they did not get it right, they will come and ask the Prophet (peace be upon him) about it and then he will explain it to them.

If you don’t know, ask!

Allah Almighty revealed in the Quran ‘those who believe and did not contaminate their imam with dhulm will be safe and those are the guided ones’. When this verse was revealed the companions were confused because they understood dhulm as transgression or oppression, so they began crying and asked the Prophet (peace be upon him), ‘Who amongst us did not contaminate his imaan with some bad deeds, some oppression, some stepping over the limits etc?’ i.e. their understanding of  dhulm. However, the Prophet (peace be upon him) answered that question by explaining that they had not understood. He quoted another ayah from the Quran, ‘Shirk is the great dhulm’ [6:82] and then they took some comfort and rest because knew what dhulm referred to.

Therefore if you have something confusing, or you don’t understand something, go and ask. During the days of Dhul Hijjah which are filled with reward particularly if one fasts, someone quoted a hadith from Bukhari out of context discouraging people to fast and it went viral. If it’s not your specialty ask, otherwise you will put people into difficulty as happened with that companion who took a bath on a cold night and passed away because of the ignorance of those who were with him.

So sometimes we do that with ourselves. The Prophet (peace be upon him) says, ‘Why didn’t they ask if they do not know’. The remedy for ignorance is to ask. This is the rule we should follow. If we don’t know, then don’t pretend you know. It may be that there is a bigger picture you are not seeing.

Watch your tongue

Sufyan bin Abdullah Thaqafi (may Allah be pleased with him) said, ‘Ya Rasool Allah (peace be upon him) tell me about something I should cling to’. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘say Allah is my Lord and then be upright’ i.e. follow the path.

Then he said, ‘Ya Rasool Allah (peace be upon him) what is the thing that you most fear for me?’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘this’ he touched his tongue with his fingers. This shows that they were concerned about how to navigate their way to Allah Almighty safely. How to reach their final destination  and this is why asked questions and this should be our concern as well.

Focus on beneficial things

Some questions are silly questions but may be important because they are troubling somebody and finding the answer puts their mind at ease. But rather than asking whether the pans on the Day of Judgement are gold or silver, it is better to focus on things that are useful and not to waste your time.

Asking a question to show that you are better than others is not allowed; this is arrogance. On the other hand, you might ask a question to shed light on a topic for others, as Angel Jibril did when he came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the shape of a man, sat down with his knees against the Prophet’s (peace be on him) knees and asked what Islam is, Imaan and Ihsan in the well-known hadith.

When the man left the Prophet (peace be upon him) he realised that he was Jibril (peace be upon him), so he asked his companions, ‘Do you know who that person was?’ They said, ‘No’. He answered, ‘This was Jibril (peace be upon him). He came to teach you the matter of your religion’. Accordingly, Jibril said, ‘yes, you are telling the truth’.  And the companions were surprised. If you know the answer why are you asking them? So this is why he said towards the end, the Prophet (peace be upon him), ‘This is Jibril (peace be upon him) he came to teach you the matters of your religion’.

Asking to teach others

When I was a student, I witnessed the kindness of some of the advanced students who could understand what the shaykh said, but did not explain to the new students, so they would ask a question, ‘Shaykh what about this and the shaykh would remember and say, ‘I need to simplify for the new students’. They knew the answer but out of concern for the new students they heard the answer again.

A person came to Imam Shabbir, the great imam. And he said, ‘I have prepared some questions for you and collected them, then Imam Shabbir said, ‘then you have prepared these questions for iblis. When you meet him ask him these questions’, because he know these were from a troublemaker and wanted to stop him. So there are some troublemakers sometimes and sometimes these answers will stop them.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim –  Al Manaar New Muslim Group

Transcribed by Rose Roslan

Related posts

The art of questions

The request that surprised the Prophet (peace be upon him)

Do I need a shaykh?

Finding the right teacher

The Etiquettes of Seeking Knowledge – eastern and western mentality

Suggested Books:

Ibn Jama’ah – Etitquettes of Seeking Knowledge

Ibn Abdil Barr – Jami’ Bayan Al Ilm

Al Khateeb Al Baghdadi – Al Jami’ li Akhlaq Al Rawi


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.