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The art of questions – part 1. Insight into the minds of the companions through their questions

The art of questions - part 1. Insight into the minds of the companions through their questions

The art of questioning

To ask a question is actually an art. To answer the question requires experience, understanding and knowledge. Not everybody can answer the right question, not everybody can ask the right question. This is why we have the etiquette (adab) of questioning (suwal) known as adab suwal in Arabic, which are the etiquettes of what to ask, what not ask, how to ask, when to ask and so on. Alhamdullilah this is a very unique topic, and one of my favourites.

the art of asking questions

Do we have any recommendations, guidance in the Sharia? We certainly do!  In addition to the many rhetorical questions posed by Allah Almighty Himself, we have the questions of the companions which He chose to highlight and respond to in the Quran itself. Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) the well-known companion and cousin of the Prophet (peace be upon him) said in a very beautiful statement about their questions, ‘I have never seen anyone better than the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him).’

13 Questions of the Sahabahs

The companions asked 13 questions, which Allah Almighty listed in the Quran. These are prefaced by the word yasalunaka meaning ‘they ask you [Oh Messenger]’. Yasalunaka is the verb form of the word suwal, which meansquestion. Accordingly have 13 questions of the companions and Allah’s answers in the Quran, as mentioned by Ibn Abbas.

Other Questions in the Quran

In addition, we have some of the questions the angels posed to Allah Almighty in the Quran as well, such as about the reason for the creation of Adam (peace be upon him). There are many other questions also, such as the questions of the disbelievers to their prophets and messengers, the questions of the troublemakers in the community.

Questioning is half of knowledge

The Prophet (peace be upon him) gave us guidance in all matters and taught us the guidelines for what to ask and what not to ask. He encouraged asking because as the scholars say, ‘to have etiquette in your question is half of knowledge’ as Ibn Abdul Barr, the great scholar in the Maliki school, great muhadith, and great faqhi, mentioned in his beautiful book, ‘The Companion of the Virtues of Knowledge’, which I recommend to everyone.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (may Allah have mercy on him) said having a good question and the right etiquettes in your question is half of fiqh, which is understanding.

So again we see that the scholars did understand that the Quran encourages questions, the Prophet (peace be upon him), encourages questions but where to draw the line?

Questions which are no use

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘Allah hates for you idle chatter, many questions’. Thus Allah hates people who ask too many questions, meaning the kind of useless questions which posed by previous nations, such as Bani Israil who repeatedly ignored God’s commands conveyed to them by Musa (peace be upon him) in the story of the cow by posing silly questions.

A murder had been committed and the perpetrator would be revealed when they slaughtered a cow. However they used delaying tactics by asking, ‘Which kind of cow? What colour, size, weight? As each of their questions was answered, they dug themselves deeper into a hole, as they restricted the possible types of cow they could have slaughtered and were left with a very expensive cow at the end.  This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) says that Allah hates it when people asks many, useless questions. They bring no benefit; instead they are a  waste of time and a show of arrogance.

The people of Musa should have followed his instruction – any cow would have done, but they were nit-picking, and Allah does not like fussiness.

And (remember) when, Musa (Moses) said to his people: “Allah commands that you sacrifice a calf.” They said: “Are you going to make a laughing-stock of us?” He said: “I seek refuge from Allah that I am among the ignorant (people)!”

They said: “Pray to your Lord on our behalf to explain to us what (calf) it is!” He said: “He says: The calf should be neither too old, nor too young, but of middling age: Now do what you are commanded!”

They said: “Pray to your Lord on our behalf to explain to us her colour.” He said: “He says: A fawn-coloured calf (heifer, also name of this Sura), pure and rich in shade, admired by (its) seers!”

They said: “Pray to your Lord on our behalf to explain to us what it is: To us all calves (heifers) are alike: We truly want guidance, if Allah wills.”

He said: “He says: A calf not trained to till the soil or water the fields; Healthy and without defects. They said: Now you have brought the truth.” Then they offered it (the calf) in sacrifice, but not in good will. [2:67-71]

Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace be  upon him) said:

عن أبي هريرة رضي الله عنه مرفوعاً: «دَعُونيِ ما تركتكم، إنما أهلك من كان قبلكم كثرة سُؤَالهم واختلافهم على أنبيائهم، فإذا نَهَيتُكم

“Do not ask me unnecessarily about what I did not mention to you. Verily, what destroyed those who were before you was their asking too many questions and their disagreement with their Prophets. So, if I forbid you from something, then avoid it; and if I command you to do something, then do as much of it as you can.” 

Thus we see that people were perished because they had too many questions and disputed with their prophet. However, asking beneficial questions was encouraged by the Prophet (peace be on him). Jabir reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:

عَنْ جَابِرٍ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّمَا شِفَاءُ الْعِيِّ السُّؤَالُ

 “Verily, the only cure for ignorance is to ask questions.” [Abu Dawood]

Thus we see that people were perished because they had too many questions and disputed with their prophet. However, asking beneficial questions was encouraged by the Prophet (peace be on him).

Questions of the Bedouin

In the Sunnah we also see the practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him) when receiving questions. He was a master at giving the best reply. Once a Bedouin came to the Prophet (peace be upon him), grabbed his clothes and said, ‘I will ask you hard questions so don’t have any hard feelings towards me’. His introductory remarks were that he would put hard questions to him and he should not hold that against him. It was not the best etiquette to behave like that, but due to the harsh environment he lived in, he was a rough, uncouth man, and this was reflected in his style of speaking to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Yet the Prophet (peace be on him) showed the utmost patience, listened to his questions and answered them.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) delivery style

The Prophet’s style of delivery (peace be upon him) itself encouraged questions, as he posed them to his audience, for instance he would say: ‘Do you know what this is?’ or ‘Do you know which tree’s leaves never fall all year round?’ They would think and think and people would make suggestions, and name some trees; another time he would ask, ‘Do you know who’s bankrupt among you?’ or ‘Do you know who is the strong person among you?’ and ‘Do you know which day it is today?’ or ‘Do you know which month we are in today?’ All these made his companions and audience reflect.

Moreover every question is a reflection of the thoughts of the questioner. That is why I am fascinated by the questions of the companions  in the Quran and in the hadith. As we examine them, we will gain insight into their minds and savour their sweetness.  

When you have a sleepless night; something is troubling you, you will ask a question about it. The question reflects what is concerning you. It may be issues related to this life – dunya issues, or it maybe after the Hereafter – akhirah issues, or sometimes your questions might be about petty issues, or even pointless issues. What you ask depends on what’s in your mind and what’s in your heart.

The answers to the questions are equally fascinating. Again it is an art, we need to learn this and be able to unfold a question and see what’s behind it. Where is it coming from, and why is it being asked?

In the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) there are plenty of questions but when they came from the Prophet (peace be upon him) they were shaping people’s thought and directing them what to ask. It is also important draw the line and the Sharia always welcome questions that are beneficial and useful; not the questions asked to show that you know better than the teacher or to expose somebody’s lack of knowledge. Such questions in a normal context are not allowed.

Books on etiquettes of questioning

Imam Nawawi and others wrote books on the etiquettes of asking and the etiquettes of answering the questions in theology (aqeedah) and fiqh etc. There are many other books with the same title or on the same subject.

Too many questions can lead to hardship

Allah Almighty says in the Quran,

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا تَسْـَٔلُوا۟ عَنْ أَشْيَآءَ إِن تُبْدَ لَكُمْ تَسُؤْكُمْ وَإِن تَسْـَٔلُوا۟ عَنْهَا حِينَ يُنَزَّلُ ٱلْقُرْءَانُ تُبْدَ لَكُمْ عَفَا ٱللَّهُ عَنْهَا ۗ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌ حَلِيمٌ

O believers! Do not ask about any matter which, if made clear to you, may disturb you. But if you inquire about what is being revealed in the Quran, it will be made clear to you. Allah has forgiven what was done ˹in the past˺.1 And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Forbearing. [5:101]

We see from this that Allah Almighty Himself is saying, don’t ask too many questions. The answers to these questions may cause you hardship, so it is best if you do not ask.

The face of the Prophet (peace be upon him) would change when someone would come and ask too many questions, because he was afraid that if they were to ask these too many questions and he gave the answers, then Allah would make something that was not compulsory, compulsory. Out of his mercy, he did not want to make their lives difficult, as Bani Israil had brought so many extra rules upon themselves. Therefore, he would discourage them from going to far down that route, especially when the questions became hypothetical, and irrelevant questioning for the sake of questioning. This is what caused concern to the Prophet (peace be upon him), when people asked questions.

Learning through questions

The companions understood this from the Prophet (peace be upon him) so they refrained from asking too many questions and were delighted when simple Bedouins would come unaware of this, and throw lots of questions to the Prophet (peace be upon him), so they could hear his answers.

The 13 Questions of the Companions mentioned in the Quran

There are many different types of questions in the Quran and in the sunnah. The questions of the Companions in the Quran, which Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) mentioned are 13. Of these, in Surat al Baqarah alone, there are 6 question of them, as it was revealed in Madinah which was where the majority of Islamic rulings were pronounced.

1. The phases of the moon

The first question asked by the companions in the Quran is:

۞ يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلْأَهِلَّةِ ۖ قُلْ هِىَ مَوَٰقِيتُ لِلنَّاسِ وَٱلْحَجِّ ۗ وَلَيْسَ ٱلْبِرُّ بِأَن تَأْتُوا۟ ٱلْبُيُوتَ مِن ظُهُورِهَا وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱلْبِرَّ مَنِ ٱتَّقَىٰ ۗ وَأْتُوا۟ ٱلْبُيُوتَ مِنْ

أَبْوَٰبِهَا ۚ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about the phases of the moon. Say, “They are a means for people to determine time and pilgrimage.” Righteousness is not in entering your houses from the back doors. Rather, righteousness is to be mindful ˹of Allah˺. So enter your homes through their ˹proper˺ doors, and be mindful of Allah so you may be successful. (2:189)

Through the crescents of the moon, people could compute time and know when it was the time for Hajj or Ramadan or Eid etc.

2. Charity

The second question clarified how we should spend charity and we are told this should be spent on parents, the relatives, the orphans, the poor etc.

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ ۖ قُلْ مَآ أَنفَقْتُم مِّنْ خَيْرٍ فَلِلْوَٰلِدَيْنِ وَٱلْأَقْرَبِينَ وَٱلْيَتَـٰمَىٰ وَٱلْمَسَـٰكِينِ وَٱبْنِ ٱلسَّبِيلِ ۗ وَمَا تَفْعَلُوا۟ مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ بِهِۦ عَلِيمٌ

They ask you ˹O Prophet in˺ what ˹way˺ they should donate. Say, “Whatever donations you give are for parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, and ˹needy˺ travellers. Whatever good you do is certainly well known to Allah.” [2:215]

3. Fighting during prohibited months

The third question is about fighting during prohibited months:

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلشَّهْرِ ٱلْحَرَامِ قِتَالٍ فِيهِ ۖ قُلْ قِتَالٌ فِيهِ كَبِيرٌ ۖ وَصَدٌّ عَن سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ وَكُفْرٌۢ بِهِۦ وَٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْحَرَامِ وَإِخْرَاجُ أَهْلِهِۦ مِنْهُ أَكْبَرُ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ۚ وَٱلْفِتْنَةُ أَكْبَرُ مِنَ ٱلْقَتْلِ ۗ وَلَا يَزَالُونَ يُقَـٰتِلُونَكُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَرُدُّوكُمْ عَن دِينِكُمْ إِنِ ٱسْتَطَـٰعُوا۟ ۚ وَمَن يَرْتَدِدْ مِنكُمْ عَن دِينِهِۦ فَيَمُتْ وَهُوَ كَافِرٌ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ حَبِطَتْ أَعْمَـٰلُهُمْ فِى ٱلدُّنْيَا وَٱلْـَٔاخِرَةِ ۖ وَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ أَصْحَـٰبُ ٱلنَّارِ ۖ هُمْ فِيهَا خَـٰلِدُونَ

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about fighting in the sacred months. Say, “Fighting during these months is a great sin. But hindering ˹others˺ from the Path of Allah, rejecting Him, and expelling the worshippers from the Sacred Mosque is ˹a˺ greater ˹sin˺ in the sight of Allah. For persecution is far worse than killing. And they will not stop fighting you until they turn you away from your faith—if they can. And whoever among you renounces their own faith and dies a disbeliever, their deeds will become void in this life and in the Hereafter. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.” [2:217]

4. Alcohol and gambling

The fourth question is regarding alcohol and gambling which reflects the issues they were facing in society and their reality:  

۞ يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا ۗ وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ

يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمُ الْآيَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَفَكَّرُونَ

They ask you about intoxicants and gambling. Say, “There is gross sin in them, and some benefits for people, but their sinfulness outweighs their benefit.” And they ask you about what they should give: say, “The surplus.” Thus God explains the revelations to you, so that you may think. (2;219)

The Quran would answer the questions which addressed their reality and give solutions – the prohibition of alcohol and gambling was to rid the community of these two enormous problems.

5. Orphans

The next question was regarding how to treat orphans and manage their financial matters. This is answered at length in a special chapter in fiqh.

ۗ وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلْيَتَـٰمَىٰ ۖ قُلْ إِصْلَاحٌ لَّهُمْ خَيْرٌ ۖ وَإِن تُخَالِطُوهُمْ فَإِخْوَٰنُكُمْ ۚ وَٱللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ ٱلْمُفْسِدَ مِنَ ٱلْمُصْلِحِ ۚ وَلَوْ شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ لَأَعْنَتَكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ

And they ask you ˹O Prophet˺ concerning orphans. Say, “Improving their condition is best. And if you partner with them, they are bonded with you ˹in faith˺. And Allah knows who intends harm and who intends good. Had Allah willed, He could have made it difficult for you. Surely Allah is Almighty, All-Wise.” [2:220]

Thus we see that every question is a reflection of what’s going on in their community, in their homes and what was pressing on their minds.

6. Menstruation

One of the questions was about menstruation, thus we see the Quran discussing taboo subjects, and providing guidance on whether women pray or have intimate relations with her husband. The Quran did not shun away from embarrassing questions, or concerns and problems. Allah has given us the answers.

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلْمَحِيضِ ۖ قُلْ هُوَ أَذًى فَٱعْتَزِلُوا۟ ٱلنِّسَآءَ فِى ٱلْمَحِيضِ ۖ وَلَا تَقْرَبُوهُنَّ حَتَّىٰ يَطْهُرْنَ ۖ فَإِذَا تَطَهَّرْنَ فَأْتُوهُنَّ مِنْ حَيْثُ أَمَرَكُمُ ٱللَّهُ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلتَّوَّٰبِينَ وَيُحِبُّ ٱلْمُتَطَهِّرِينَ

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about menstruation. Say, “Beware of its harm! So keep away, and do not have intercourse with your wives during their monthly cycles until they are purified. When they purify themselves, then you may approach them in the manner specified by Allah. Surely Allah loves those who always turn to Him in repentance and those who purify themselves.” [2:222]

7. Halal food

In Surah Maidah the companions asked what is halal to eat – we still have the same questions.  

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ مَاذَآ أُحِلَّ لَهُمْ ۖ قُلْ أُحِلَّ لَكُمُ ٱلطَّيِّبَـٰتُ ۙ وَمَا عَلَّمْتُم مِّنَ ٱلْجَوَارِحِ مُكَلِّبِينَ تُعَلِّمُونَهُنَّ مِمَّا عَلَّمَكُمُ ٱللَّهُ ۖ فَكُلُوا۟ مِمَّآ أَمْسَكْنَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَٱذْكُرُوا۟ ٱسْمَ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ ۖ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَرِيعُ ٱلْحِسَابِ

8. When is the Day of Judgement?

In Surat al Araf, they asked about the Day of Judgement, however Allah did not elaborate on the answer. He said the knowledge was His and deliberately did not specify when it would be.

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلسَّاعَةِ أَيَّانَ مُرْسَىٰهَا ۖ قُلْ إِنَّمَا عِلْمُهَا عِندَ رَبِّى ۖ لَا يُجَلِّيهَا لِوَقْتِهَآ إِلَّا هُوَ ۚ ثَقُلَتْ فِى ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ ۚ لَا تَأْتِيكُمْ إِلَّا بَغْتَةً ۗ يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ كَأَنَّكَ حَفِىٌّ عَنْهَا ۖ قُلْ إِنَّمَا عِلْمُهَا عِندَ ٱللَّهِ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ ٱلنَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ regarding the Hour, “When will it be?” Say, “That knowledge is only with my Lord. He alone will reveal it when the time comes. It is too tremendous for the heavens and the earth and will only take you by surprise.” They ask you as if you had full knowledge of it. Say, “That knowledge is only with Allah, but most people do not know.” [7:187]

Loaded questions

From the last question we see that not every question has an answer. Though Allah Almighty replied He did not tell them when it would be. These teaches us an important lesson. And indeed we have a special category of questions which we call ‘loaded questions’.

A loaded question is one to which whatever you reply will always be wrong.  There are those in the media who specialise in crafting such traps for their interviewees and those who are naïve or lack experience, will come out looking very foolish when they find themselves wrong-footed by such questions. Those who are better prepared know how to dismantle a question which is phrased in a way that couches assumptions inside it.

We need to be able to identify these and immediately spot a red flag when you are asked such a question. You need special lenses to spot them otherwise you will be dragged into a quagmire.

Do not feel you have to answer every question you are asked, particularly if whatever you answer will be wrong. Therefore take your time and do not jump to answer any question unless you understand the intent behind hit. Is it a safe question or a loaded question? If it’s a loaded question, don’t touch it.

Politicians are masters at dodging loaded questions. However they also specialise in giving answers which conceal, obfuscate and distort the truth.

9. War booty

Surat al Anfal opens with a question concerning the spoils of war:

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلْأَنفَالِ ۖ قُلِ ٱلْأَنفَالُ لِلَّهِ وَٱلرَّسُولِ ۖ فَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَأَصْلِحُوا۟ ذَاتَ بَيْنِكُمْ ۖ وَأَطِيعُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۥٓ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ regarding the spoils of war. Say, “Their distribution is decided by Allah and His Messenger. So be mindful of Allah, settle your affairs, and obey Allah and His Messenger if you are ˹true˺ believers.” [8:1]

The companions wondered what do with the spoils. Previous nations were not allowed to take it, they used to gather them and burn them. However Islamic law permitted the Prophet (peace be upon him) to take it and distribute it, according to a special formula which we have in more detail in the Sunnah.

10. The soul

In Surat al Isra, the companions asked about the soul – the ruh:

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلرُّوحِ ۖ قُلِ ٱلرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّى وَمَآ أُوتِيتُم مِّنَ ٱلْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about the spirit. Say, “Its nature is known only to my Lord, and you ˹O humanity˺ have been given but little knowledge.” [17:85]

Allah Almighty replied that the knowledge of this is with Him. We know very little. The knowledge is high-level and what we have been told is all we need to know; beyond this we can’t comprehend it.

This shows again us that we should not answer every questions particularly when we are not equipped to answer it. Never invent the answer or give your opinion without knowledge. This can be very dangerous and detrimental.

11. Dhul Qarnayn

By contrast to the last question, in Surat al Kahf, Allah Almighty gave a lengthy reply, so we can learn from it about the qualities of the best leaders:

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَن ذِى ٱلْقَرْنَيْنِ ۖ قُلْ سَأَتْلُوا۟ عَلَيْكُم مِّنْهُ ذِكْرًا

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, “I will relate to you something of his narrative.” [18:83]’

Allah Almighty told us that Dhul-Qarnayn was a righteous leader in the last pages of the surah and dedicated a complete page talks to him.

12. The end of the mountains

In Surat Taha, Allah Almighty tells us about His creation, the mountains and how He will crumble them on the Day of Judgement:

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلْجِبَالِ فَقُلْ يَنسِفُهَا رَبِّى نَسْفًا

And ˹if˺ they ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about the mountains, ˹then˺ say, “My Lord will wipe them out completely [20:105]

The mountains will be like dust on the Day of Judgement. Here the answer is not detailed.

13. When is the Day of Judgement?

The last question is in Surat an Naziat:

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلسَّاعَةِ أَيَّانَ مُرْسَىٰهَا

They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ regarding the Hour, “When will it be?” [79:42]’

Allah does not tell us:

فِيمَ أَنتَ مِن ذِكْرَىٰهَآ

But it is not for you to tell its time. [79:43]

These are the 13 questions, which Allah mentioned in the Quran.

Allah’s question and answer in the Quran

One of the most beautiful verses, which appears among the verses regarding fasting in Surat al Baqarah, is a question which Allah poses hypothetically, saying if we were to ask it, and then He gives the reply Himself reply directly, rather than through the intermediary of the Prophet (peace be on him) whom He usually instructs to pass on His answer. He says:

‘If my servants ask you regarding Me, indeed I am near’. [2:186]

Here Allah asks the question on our behalf and then answers it.

Different answers to different people

The same questions is not always answered in the same way. It depends who is asking and how much you want to say. For instance when you listen to the question and you might give a detailed answer, or you might give some details, or you might only give an overview. The same question asked by two people may receive two different answers. For instance, just to give you a very easy question. Somebody asked how many rakahs do I pray? The answer is obvious – 4 rakahs, but if he is a traveller he only prays 2 rakahs. So if somebody came to you and asked how many rakahs should I pray? Instead of saying ‘Don’t you know!’ You might find the reason he is asking is because he is a traveller. Therefore it is not a silly question. Somebody else who’s a resident, might be a new Muslim, who wants to be sure how many rakahs he should pray.

Thus you see the same question from different people requires different answers. This is just an example the reality is much more complex.

A questions from the sunnah to verify the message

Now in the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) we have more questions from the companions. Here are some to you a flavour of the sweetness of the questions and the answers.

Anas (may Allah be pleased with him), the companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) narrated that whilst they were with the Prophet (peace be upon him) sitting in the mosque, a man came on the camel. He was riding on the camel and he just came into the mosque and he put his camel outside and he went inside the mosque and he said, ‘Who is Muhammad?’

The Prophet (peace be upon him) was leaning. They said, ‘this very white man who’s leaning there.’ And then the man came to the Prophet (peace be upon him), he said, ‘O the son of Abdul Muttalib’ (Abu Muttalib, actually is his grandfather but this is a common thing in the Arab world, they can call you either by the name of your Dad or the grandfather).

The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied, ‘At your service, what do you want?’ So the man said roughly, ‘I will ask you and I will be tough on you, but please don’t have any hard feelings against me’.

Of course the companions were listening and wanted to jump on him, but the Prophet (peace be upon him) was there, so they restrained themselves. The Prophet (peace be on him) told him to go ahead, ‘Ask anything, anything you want.’

Then he said, ‘I ask you by your Lord, Lord of those who were before you; did Allah send you to all people?’

Look at his question, – this man had come to the Prophet (peace be upon him) from many miles away. He heard about the Prophet (peace be upon him), about Islam and the message. Probably one of his people had received the message from the Prophet (peace be upon him) and returned to his people and conveyed it. This man was probably the leader of his community and knew that carried a huge responsibility, so he wanted to double check what he had heard, because only one person had said it and as a leader he needed to be sure of what his people might follow.

So he rode his camel and came to the Prophet (peace be upon him), demonstrating his resilience and he sense of responsibility as a leader to verify and understand from the main source, the Prophet (peace be upon him). Hence his questions.

He started with the most important. What is the priority? To find out if it was true that the Prophet (peace be on him) had indeed been sent to all mankind? It may appear from the question that he is questioning the authority of the Prophet (peace be upon him). But we see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) didn’t feel offended by that. He understood that this Bedouin wanted to be sure about the message and whether he was truly a messenger of Allah. He would not want to tell his people ‘I asked all the questions but I forgot to ask him if he is the messenger of Allah or not’.

Thus this rustic person may have been a simple Bedouin but he was a deep thinker as well as a trusted person. So he asked, ‘By your Lord and the Lord of those who were before you have you been sent to all mankind?’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) confirmed to him, ‘Yes, by Allah, I have been sent to all mankind’.

And then he asked, ‘I ask you by Allah the Almighty, has Allah commanded you to tell us to pray 5 times a day?’ He’s verifying what he received. And then the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied in the affirmative again ‘By Allah, yes’.

Then he verifies that fasting is an obligation, saying, ‘So I ask you by Allah the Almighty, has Allah commanded you to fast a month (Ramadan) every year?’ And the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied, ‘Yes, by Allah’. And then he completes his questions saying, ‘So I ask you by Allah the Almighty, has Allah commanded you to take this zakat from us, from our rich people and distribute it among the poor amongst us?’ and the Prophet (peace be on him) said ‘Yes, by Allah’.

Upon on this, the man immediately accepted it, saying, ‘I believe in everything you have said, I believe in everything you have received. And I am the messenger of my people who sent me to you’. He had come to verify this message so he could take it back and disseminate it in his community. Finally he introduces himself, which he should have done in the beginning, however he was to eager to discover the truth and know that he had come to the right person. So ends by saying, ‘My name is Imam Isalaba’

The fact Imam Isalaba came himself to put the questions, shows that he was concerned, probably he had sleepless nights and certainly he travelled a long distance to gain this knowledge. It is one of the very beautiful examples, which shows us the mind and the dimensions of a question.

The same question with different answers

You could write volumes on the questions and the different topics that were broached by the companions, which we glimpse in the Quran and which are extensive questions outside the Quran.

One of the questions which was repeated by different companions was, ‘What is the most beloved deed to Allah, ya Rasool Allah?’ The question shows immediately that the questioner wants to be loved by Allah and wants to know out of all the deeds, which one will definitely lead him to Allah.

He does not want to waste his time or his life and arrive on the Day of Judgement with piles of deeds which have no value and are like dust. Rather he wants to be sure that he is engaged in the most beloved deed to Allah and that’s it. This is his priority – Allah Almighty. So the question reflects the priority in his mind, and in his heart. ‘How can I please Allah?’

The Sunah is filled with different answers to this very question, depending on who was asking. Each answer suited the questioner. If he was a very young person the answer would be different than if he was a very old person. If he was a warrior, his answer would be different from somebody who could not go to war. So on one occasion the Prophet (peace be upon him) answered that the most beloved deed to Allah for instance is prayer on time, on another it was maintain good family relations, another time the Prophet (peace be on him) said being consistent in ones deeds, even if they were small, to another he said speaking the truth to an unjust ruler. Etc.

Question on jannah and hellfire

On another occasion Mu’ad bin Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that he asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, tell me about a deed that admits me to jannah.’ It is a straightforward question. And the Prophet (peace be upon him) would be pleased with these questions, so he was filled with happiness and he said to Mu’ad, ‘You have asked about something which is so great and it is indeed so easy for those who are with Allah, Allah will make it easy for them’.

Then he said, the Prophet (peace be upon him), ‘The answer for this question is you worship Allah and don’t associate anybody with Him’, number one, monotheism. ‘Then you pray regularly, you pay your zakat, you fast and you do the Hajj’. Of course there are many other things one could do, but he gave him the priorities, the pillars.

And then what?

When Ibn Mas’ud asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) about the most beloved deed to Allah, the Prophet (peace be upon him) responded, ‘to pray on time’ was the most beloved deed to Allah. Then Ibn Mas’ud, one of the great scholars of the companions, asked for more deeds, as he had an inquisitive mind, so he kept asking questions. So the Prophet (peace be on him) told him how to excel in competing for Allah’s love, and to do the best to be in the forefront. So he told him, ‘Be good to your parents, this is the most beloved deed to Allah’ and then he said, ‘and then what?’ And then he said, ‘to fight for Allah’s cause, for the right cause, for the just cause’.

On another occasion, Ibn Umar reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ أَحَبُّ النَّاسِ إِلَى اللَّهِ أَنْفَعُهُمْ لِلنَّاسِ وَأَحَبُّ الأَعْمَالِ إِلَى اللَّهِ سُرُورٌ تُدْخِلُهُ عَلَى مُسْلِمٍ أَوْ تَكْشِفُ عَنْهُ كُرْبَةً أَوْ تَقْضِي عَنْهُ دِينًا أَوْ تَطْرُدُ عَنْهُ جُوعًا وَلَأَنْ أَمْشِيَ مَعَ أَخِيهِ فِي حَاجَةٍ أَحَبُّ إِلَيَّ مِنْ أَنْ أَعْتَكِفَ فِي هَذَا الْمَسْجِدِ يَعْنِي مَسْجِدَ الْمَدِينَةِ شَهْرًا وَمَنْ كَفَّ غَضَبَهُ سَتَرَ اللَّهُ عَوْرَتَهُ وَمَنْ كَظَمَ غَيْظَهُ وَلَوْ شَاءَ أَنْ يُمْضِيَهُ أَمْضَاهُ مَلأَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ قَلْبَهُ أَمْنًا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَمَنْ مَشَى مَعَ أَخِيهِ فِي حَاجَةٍ حَتَّى أَثْبَتَهَا لَهُ أَثْبَتَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ قَدَمَهُ عَلَى الصِّرَاطِ يَوْمَ تَزِلُّ فِيهِ الأَقْدَامُ

“The most beloved people to Allah are those who are most beneficial to people. The most beloved deed to Allah is to make a Muslim happy, or to remove one of his troubles, or to forgive his debt, or to feed his hunger. That I walk with a brother regarding a need is more beloved to me than that I seclude myself in this mosque in Medina for a month. Whoever swallows his anger, then Allah will conceal his faults. Whoever suppresses his rage, even though he could fulfill his anger if he wished, then Allah will secure his heart on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever walks with his brother regarding a need until he secures it for him, then Allah Almighty will make his footing firm across the bridge on the day when the footings are shaken.” (al-Muʻjam al-Awsat)

Best form of Islam

Abu Musa Al’Ash’ari (may Allah be pleased with him) witnessed someone ask ‘What is the best form of Islam?’ Why would someone ask this question?

Let’s delve together into his mind. The answer is that in Islam you have many obligations – salah, fasting, zakat, charity, being good to your parents, having good character so the questioner wanted to know which was the best. It shows he wants to be the best. This is praiseworthy. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave his answer. He said:

الْمُسْلِمُ مَنْ سَلِمَ النَّاسُ مِنْ لِسَانِهِ وَيَدِهِ وَالْمُؤْمِنُ مَنْ أَمِنَهُ النَّاسُ عَلَى دِمَائِهِمْ وَأَمْوَالِهِمْ ‏”‏ ‏.‏

“The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one from whom the people’s lives and wealth are safe.” [Nasai]

This means the Muslim doesn’t harm people with his tongue or by his actions. Therefore he causes no verbal or physical harm to anyone.

The answer is simple and concise, yet deep. That is why it’s fascinating and beautiful to ask about the things we can focus on to make us closer to Allah, to compete with people to be better in the eyes of Allah Almighty. Not to show off that we are better than everyone.

When Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) asked Ibn Abbas how he got such a high level of knowledge he replied it was because of a tongue which keeps asking question and a heart that understands. This means you need to ask to improve your knowledge and you need to be attentive to understand.

فعَنْ مُغِيرَةَ قَالَ: قِيلَ لِابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ كَيْفَ أَصَبْتَ هَذَا الْعِلْمَ؟ قَالَ: “بِلِسَانٍ سَؤُولٍ، وَقَلْبٍ عَقُولٍ”. (أخرجه الإمام أحمد في كتاب فضائل الصحابة 2/970).

If you could have one thing what would it be?

We gain inspiration from the Companions in their questions. Rabi’ah bin Ka‘b was made an offer by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to choose anything he wanted as a reward for his service. His reply surprised the Prophet (peace be upon him) by his deep thinking, and the magnitude of his ask:

عن رَبِيعَةَ بْن كَعْبٍ الْأَسْلَمِيّ قَالَ : كُنْتُ أَبِيتُ مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، فَأَتَيْتُهُ بِوَضُوئِهِ وَحَاجَتِهِ، فَقَالَ لِي : ” سَلْ “. فَقُلْتُ : أَسْأَلُكَ مُرَافَقَتَكَ فِي الْجَنَّةِ. قَالَ : ” أَوَغَيْرَ ذَلِكَ ؟ ” قُلْتُ : هُوَ ذَاكَ. قَالَ : ” فَأَعِنِّي عَلَى نَفْسِكَ بِكَثْرَةِ السُّجُودِ “. صحيح مسلم.

I was with God’s Messenger at night, and when I brought him his water for ablution and what he required, he told me to make a request. I said, “I ask to accompany you in paradise.” He asked if I had any other request to make, and when I replied that that was all, he said, “Then help me to accomplish this for you by devoting yourself often to prostration.” (Muslim)

This teaches us that one should aim for the best when making dua and that in addition to dua one needs to have actions that support it. Firstly, supplication is not enough to secure the salvation. Salvation requires effort and prayer. Dua has to be accompanied by action and prostrating brings ones close to Allah as Madan bin Talha discovered in the reply to his question:

I met Thauban the servant of God’s Messenger and asked him to tell me something I should do for which God would bring me into paradise. He gave no reply, so I asked him again, and when he still gave no reply I asked him a third time. He then said that he had asked God’s Messenger about that and received the reply, “Make frequent prostration before God, for you will not make one prostration without God raising you a degree because of it and removing a sin from you because of it.” Ma’dan said that he met Abud Darda’ later, and that when he asked him he received a reply similar to that given by Thauban. ( Muslim)

We ask Allah Almighty to make us the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Jannah.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – Al Manaar New Muslim Group

Transcribed by Rose Roslan and Zayna Sheikh

Related posts

The art of questioning (part 2)

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

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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.