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

The boy who sold his father's mule for a book

Never a wasted moment

Imam Abu al-Wafa Ali Ibn Aqil ibn Ahmad al-Baghdadi (431-513AH/ 1040–1119AD)

He is a top scholar in the Hanbali school and of his time. The summary of his long biography, he used to say:

It is not permitted for me to waste any second of my life. It is a gift from Allah and I am not allowed to waste it. When my tongue is not busy in reading, or discussing things or teaching, my sight is busy in reading; when my sight is not reading, I am resting lying down, my mind is working and I am thinking and reflecting and until I come up with a few lines I will write down in my book.

I am now in my 80s and more keen in seeking knowledge than when I was in my 20s.

Thus he was always engaged in seeking knowledge to the extent that he only ate a certain bread which was easier and faster to chew, though it was not as nice as the other ones, as it saved time to swallow it. He would eat crumbs instead of slices as it was quicker to eat and sip some water and that was it.

I do not want to waste my time. I will use this time to write down something useful or listen to something useful or teach something useful. We have many things to do and time is limited.

Ibn al Jawzi (may Allah be pleased with him) was a student of his student, said Ibn Aqil was always busy and his passion was solving difficult matters. He would collect special cases and odd cases because they would be needed sometime. So that he could offer it when it would be needed.

Ibn Rajab al Hanbali (may Allah be pleased with him) wrote the biography of ibn Aqil, he has a book called Kitab al-dhayl ʻalá Ṭabaqat al-Ḥanabilah

Every madhab (school of Islamic Jurisprudence) has its own Tabaqat, which is the science of the scholars of their school. They are the scholars up to the time of the author who writes it, or the scholars belonging to a particular period in history, for instance the 5th century of Hanbali scholars or 11th century.

Ibn Hanbali contributed a book to complete the Tabaqaat. He was hugely prolific, and wrote more than 50 titles, of which his biggest oeuvre was the Kitab al Funoon (Book of Sciences). Unfortunately we only have 2 volumes of it, but it originally consisted of a wide range of topics,  mawaid (what softens the heart), tafseer (explanation of the Quran), fiqh (Islamic law), usul (principles of Islamic law), aqeedah (principles of belief), grammar, poetry, history, as well as his daily memoirs and anything else he learned which he would write down as well.

Imam al Dhahabi said there is no other book like it. He said someone saw the book and said it was around 400 volumes, of varying lengthy. Some might be thin, but they were bound. Someone else said this was only half the book, and the whole book was 800 volumes. This show how much time and effort these scholars dedicated to write down their knowledge they were given by Allah Almighty – sacrificing their rest.

Total obsession

You see from this that Ibn Aqil was breathing, eating, talking, walking and dreaming about knowledge. This was his life. He was not just learning or teaching. He never switched off. Even when he was eating, he was rushing his meal so he could continue writing.

Sometimes the servants of the scholars fed them so they would not waste time eating. It may seem over the top, but this is how they left such a huge legacy and became who they are.

When we read these stories we are stunned at how these scholars gathered their knowledge. They had an intense passion for knowledge accompanied by ikhlas (sincerity) and dedication. It may not be how we would choose to live our life, but they were ready to do anything to acquire knowledge.

Some of them like Ibh Habban (may Allah be pleased with him) would travel to 40 countries and track down up to 1000 and in some cases 2000 shuyukh so they could hear from them the hadith they knew, and write down what they learned, classify it, review it, rearrange it, and amend it.

Sanad bin Ali

Abu al-Tayyib Sanad ibn Ali al-Yahudi (died c. 864 C.E)

There is an amusing story about Sanad bin Ali in the 9th century, who lived in Baghdad, and was a teenager, keen on being an astronomer and discover more about the universe, planets and stars, but the books on these topics were very expensive and his father, a Jewish astrologer was not very well off.

After reading a book by Oklidis (Euclid), he was  desperate to buy Al Mijasti (Almageste) by Batlumyus (Ptolemy) was 20 dirhams, which was extremely expensive, and neither he nor his family had the means to buy it, so he asked his father to help him get it. His father was already struggling to make ends meet, so he said when God provided the money, we would buy it.

In those days, you did not just pick up a book from the bookshop. Though there were bookshops, if they had the book you wanted, depending on its size, they would make a copy of it for you. Bin Ali ordered the book, which they told him would be ready in a few weeks because it had many drawings.

One day, Bin Ali was with his father who had been riding his mule, his father was busy, so he left Bin Ali to take the mule home. Instead, Bin Ali took it to the market and sold it for 30 dirhams. This was would be the equivalent of selling his father’s car in our day. Then he went straight to the bookshop with the money and bought the book.

When he reached home, he confessed to his mother what he had done and gave her the 10 dirham change. He shut himself in his room and said he would remain there as a punishment and live off a bit of bread every day. His mother was angry, but he begged her to calm his father when he returned. However his brother told on him, and ran to the market and told his father.

His father’s face turned red with rage when he discovered what had happened, and that his mule was sold. At the time he was with a customer who wondered what had upset him so much, as he began to tell him the sage, the customer started laughing and said he would give him the spare mule which he owned, (which was better than the father’s original mule) and not to tell the son. He remarked that it was good his son was keen on learning.

The son locked himself up for 3 years in his room where he pored over his complex and difficult books, including Ptolemy’s Almageste until he mastered it. By now he was in his 20s. He then sought to enter the illustrious circle of scholars, including Abbas ibn Sa’id al Jawhari who would meet in his home to discuss the latest scientific developments.

However as he was only 20 years old they were reluctant to let him join, until he proved his knowledge of Almageste. Impressed by him, they enquired who had taught him all this, and he explained that he had taught himself.

Though it was wrong for him to sell his father’s car, his thirst for knowledge and his sincere pursuit of it, opened doors for him. Jawhari was a companion of the caliph, al Maʾmun to whom he made a recommendation.

His quest for knowledge opened the gates of goodness for him. He became Muslim and went on to write four mathematical texts on algebra, Indian arithmetic and mental calculation.

At that time the Caliph had turned Baghdad into the centre of science and trade and established the House of Wisdom.

One of the people who travelled there from Persia was al Khawarizmi, who is known as the Father of Algebra. He and Sanad bin Ali became friends and they together with other scientists calculated the circumference of the Earth by observing the Sun.

Al Khawarizimi‘s systematic approach led to his developing a method for solving equations which created the discipline of algebra and algorithms.

Selling your home to buy a book

Some books were very expensive. Shaykh Fattah Abu Ghuddah told many stories about other scholars who sold their houses in order to buy a book – which might have been many volumes. They were so keen to learn, they would not rest until they had that book in their hands.

ShaykhAbu Ghuddah said his late Shaykh Muhammad Zahid bin Hasan al-Kawthari (1296AH – 1371AH/1879–1952AD), a great scholar and the last Shaykh al Islam for the Ottoman Empire, said ‘Be keen to have this book, if you find it’. The book was called Fathu babil inayah sharh an-Nuqayah on Hanafi fiqh by Mullah Ali al Qari (d. 1605/1606).

The shaykh had never heard of this book, which had been printed in India. Every time he visited a library he would ask for this book. When he went to Makkah, Madinah and Aleppo he asked for it, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. Until one day he went for Hajj and in Makkah, you find many Indians and Asians and they bring books with them to sell. He went to every bookshop he could find, but no one had heard of it. Then he chanced upon a small shop where he enquired and the bookseller said he had the book but he had just sold it to a Shaykh.

He then began his search for the Shaykh who had bought the book. He began asking people where he might find him, and eventually went to make dua around the Ka’bah asking Allah to help him find the Shaykh and the book. His search led him to a shop where there was a Syrian bookseller, and this time when he asked for the Shaykh and the book, the bookseller pointed to a man in the corner and said he was a relative of the Shaykh who had the book. He then made contact with the Shaykh and offered him anything he wanted for the book. He was over the moon to find the book.

Inspired by this story, Shaykh started printing copies of the book, one of its ten chapters – Kitab at Tahara, and did not publish the rest. So when I went for Hajj in the 1990s, I went to the bookshop and bought 2 copies from different printers, so they had some further additions in them.  And with some manuscripts from Turkey we asked the Shaykh for permission to print the whole book with his commentary. Ten shuyukh worked on this book for 3 years and since 1993 Shaykh Khalil al Mays adopted it to teach fiqh to the students in Al Azhar in Lebanon.

This was the journey of bringing this book to the public which is still being taught in al Azhar in Lebanon. It took years and many sleepless nights to find it – in a quest that resembles an addiction and the indescribable sweetness to finally publish it.

Reading biographies is a great pastime

When you are bored sometimes instead of watching something on Netflix, read stories about the Pious Predecessors, their quest for knowledge. It is light and entertaining and in the process you learn a lot and you see their incredible stories of how they acquired the knowledge they gained, whom they met along the way, and whom the learned from.

For instance, you can read about Khatib al Baghdadi (392 A.H/May 10, 1002) who was known as the Hafiz of the East (in Iraq). Or the Hafiz of the West, who was ibn Abdul Barr (in Morocco) and they both passed away in the same year.

Some of these scholars had two thousand shuyukh including hundreds of females scholars who were faqiha, (specialists in Islamic law), linguistics and muhadditha (scholars of hadith). They were proud that they had on their list different shuyukh from different countries. They were not satisfied with one book or one shaykh, they would travel for years and some never came back to their home-town.

The more you learn the closer you are to Allah and the more you should practice what you know.

The scholars are the ones who fear Allah the most.

If you want to be among those who are closest to Allah, don’t just study for exams and don’t take knowledge lightly. These illustrious scholars were keen to learn, teach and spread the knowledge. All the branches are interlinked. You need Arabic as it is linked to Quran and you need tafseer to understand and fiqh. So they would learn and invent new ways to deliver the knowledge to help it reach a wider audience and make it accessible, as not everyone can understand quickly. They glorified it, respected it, carried and conveyed it.

The original celebrity Shuyuykh

People would queue up to learn from these scholars, they were like today’s celebrities. Especially if they knew they had returned from a long journey, they would flood to receive them to hear what they had to say and what they had learned. They would sit in their circle and write down their knowledge and take ijaza from them. The reputation of Bukhari was not like anyone else at that time.

Some of the students of Shaykh al Shahrawi, who was gifted and deep had a student who loved him and served him was close to him. He built a mosque in a remote rural place in Egypt. He was worried that no one would come there, so Shaykh al Shahrawi said he would come to visit it. They held an opening for it, and were expecting that 1000 people would come when they heard he would be there, but in fact, 20,000 people turned up!

Such was the appeal of these shuyukh, that if a city received an authentic visiting scholar they would be so delighted they would come up with clever ploys to make them stay, such as finding them the best girl in the city to entice them to marry and stay and spread knowledge.

Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim as part of the series of the Knowledge Seekers, based on the book, Safahat min sabr al-’Ulamaa (The Patience of the Pious Predecessors) by one of his late shuyukh, Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah (rahimahullahu Ta’ala).

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


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.