The correct etiquette of the teacher and the student
Why Etiquettes matter
Since the first and second century Hijri, there have been a plethora of books and works on the topic of Adaab-ul-‘Alim-ul-Muta’aalim ‘The Etiquettes of the Scholars and the Knowledge Seekers’. Knowledge of Allah is sacred and was sent to us through His Prophet (peace be upon him), so we deal with it as such.
There’s no way to compare sacred knowledge with non-sacred knowledge. This is why many who have studied in the west do not grasp the concept of the etiquettes of knowledge. Meanwhile those who have studied sacred knowledge in the east, are aware of these etiquettes, as this is a tradition in our circles, which we learn, emulate and teach and we are keen on keeping this tradition and these etiquettes alive.
Taqwa leads to knowledge
Allah Almighty says in the Qur’an “wattaqulla wa yu’alimukumullah” – ‘be mindful of Allah, and Allah will teach you’.
You will not find in western mentality that one of the sources of knowledge is taqwa (obedience to Allah). Western knowledge places our faculties, intellect, research, exams, and trial and error at the centre of academic advancement. Therefore it is important to understand that knowledge is sacred and that its source was wahi (revelation). After the Qur’an, we have the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and then we have the fiqh and the other sciences related to the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
The acquisition of knowledge requires humility (tawadah)
A very famous incident took place between Abu Hanifa and his student, Muhammad bil Hasan (may Allah be pleased with them). Muhammad bin Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) was the youngest student of the circle of Abu Hanifa, and he is the one who documented the Hanafi school of thought, we are indebted to him for the books on the Hanafi school of thought, as Abu Hanifa did not write down his fiqh – he was busy teaching. The one who wrote Abu Hanifa’s fiqh was his student mainly Muhammad bin Hasan, (who wrote more than 10 books) and Abu Yusuf who wrote a couple of books.
Abu Hanifa was probably the first scholar who started a circle of fiqh in the form of a council – he did not dictate his opinion to his students but discussed and debated with them for around three days, asking them ‘Is there any other opinion?’ and ‘Do you have any other evidence?’ before they would draw a conclusion. This was very advanced for his time, and even now this is not the typical style of delivery. One day Muhammad bin Hasan gave an opinion which was the opposite of Abu Hanifa’s opinion. After discussions and explanations back and forth, Abu Hanifah conceded to Muhammad’s opinion, and Muhammad narrated that he felt his ego stir inside him; he now felt he was great, and had a good and deep understanding. Abu Hanifa humbly accepted that he was right, regardless whether it was his student or where it came from. This is the etiquette of seeking knowledge and teaching knowledge. It doesn’t matter who said it – as long as it’s right, we accept it. The result was that Muhammad bin Hasan felt, as a result of this pride within him, he was prevented from insights, understanding and spiritual openings for 40 days. He had to polish his heart and seek forgiveness for thinking he was better than his teacher. This had ruined his intention, the blessings of the knowledge which he received. His experience cannot be measured physically, it was spiritual. Divine knowledge is about discipline, spirituality, connectivity with Allah Almighty, and preparation for the akhirah. Any knowledge we are studying – the knowledge of the Qur’an, the knowledge of hadith, the knowledge of fiqh are sciences which take us up the ladder and make us a closer to Allah Almighty’s pleasure.
Knowing that you are being observed by Allah (taqwa)
Ibn Jama’ah’s book is divided into four sections – the virtues of knowledge, the guidelines for the teacher; the etiquettes of student and the proper way to treat books. These topics are broken down further into subsections and go into great detail. For instance here, in the section on the etiquettes of the teacher, ibn Jama’ah (may Allah be pleased with him) says that the first etiquette of the teacher is that he has observation of Allah Almighty, which we call ihsan. This means he’s always mindful in his teaching that Allah Almighty is watching him, so he needs to purify his intention, and he has to have the right etiquette between him and Allah Almighty first and then with his students.
Authenticating and preserving knowledge
The second thing the teacher must be mindful of is the preservation of knowledge, meaning the knowledge which he is teaching has to be authentic. If he received it from the teachers and the Shuyukh, he should verify it. He should be certain about the knowledge which he is imparting and teaching. Otherwise this will be deceitful because it’s an amanah – a trust. He has to treat this trust with care, because anyone who is listening to him will take the knowledge and pass it on. If it wasn’t the right knowledge, then this is sinful.
This is why you have to double check, and I have repeated this many times in many forums, that one should not to share anything on the social media unless they are certain about it, especially if it’s related to the Qur’an, the Sunnah, or the Prophet (peace be upon him). If you are not certain, then let it stop in your inbox and don’t share it, because it’s a responsibility.
Some teachers might go on the mimbar and deliver something in their Friday khutbah which is not authentic. The congregation will pass it on to their children, friends, or wives. I always advise scholars who are delivering knowledge particularly on a public platform to verify it before you deliver it to the people. This is Amanah and we have to be very particular about guarding and preserving the purity of our knowledge.
The dissemination of knowledge has to be linked with zuhd (abstinence). In other words, while teaching should be remunerated, the dissemination of knowledge must not be commercialised. The teacher should be a person of zuhd, i.e. not clinging to the dunya. Knowledge has to be sacred and protected, but not used for self-promotion, worldly desire or gain.
Teachers must have reputable professions
The teacher of sacred knowledge should not have a profession which people despise. Many scholars had businesses, such as Abu Hanifa who used to sell textiles and was very rich. This was respectable and he had a good reputation. Teachers should have a good character and good temperament. It is hard to learn from a teacher who is hot-tempered or lacks patience. Learning is painful and also taints the students’ love for that subject. In Arabic they say ‘birds will go with their groups’, so you won’t find a pigeon among the ducks. Pigeons go with pigeons and ducks go with ducks, geese go with geese, and so on. Therefore soft natured people will go to teachers who are soft and tough people often require tougher teachers.
Look after their appearance
The one who teaches should not appear dirty and dishevelled. They represent their subject so they have to take care that they do not give a bad impression. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was careful to have a clean, tidy appearance. He was very handsome and very beautiful and wore perfume. When you see him from a distance he was radiant, so looking after one’s appearance is important.
Know the reality of what they are teaching
The teacher should prepare his lessons and understand what he is teaching. He needs aware of his reality, because learning something and implementing it in real life is something else. It’s a different skill. Someone might be able to teach a book from cover to cover. They may know it inside out, but they may not be able to implement this knowledge practically. They should therefore be connected to the world around them.
Look after students and help them
This is part and a parcel of being a teacher. The Prophet (peace be on him) used to look after his students and companions. He used to ask them questions to check they understood, or start the class with a question and wait for their replies.
The etiquette of the student
The student must have purity in their intention. Intention is crucial in everything you undertake, whether it’s salah or fasting or seeking knowledge or doing business. Whether you are walking in the park, or eating, or sleeping, your intention is key. The very first word of the very first ayah to be revealed which was about knowledge, ‘iqra’ – which means it’s an obligation to seek knowledge with purity of the heart.
The mistake hunter
Don’t attend knowledge circles to count how many mistakes the Shaykh makes. If this is your intention, Allah will prevent you from the fruits of knowledge. I know somebody, may Allah forige him, who used to attend circles just to write down mistakes, instead of writing down what was good and beneficial. One of the attendees of a circle of a great shuyukh, travelled over a hundred miles to attend his circle. When the Shaykh finished, he approached him and greeted him and handed him a paper. The Shaykh thought, because he always receives requests from people to make du’a for them or for help that this was the same. However when he asked what was on the piece of paper, the man replied “It’s two A4 sheets, full on both sides.” The Shaykh asked what it contained, and the man answered, “These are the mistakes you made in your lecture, so you may correct them.” He had travelled all that way just to pick out his mistakes and to score points against him. His students asked him what he did with that paper, and he said he put it in the shredder, because it didn’t come from a pure heart.
I came across a few students who used to attend circles not to learn from them but to practice their skills as a translator cheaply. In order to gain the fruits of knowledge the more purity and sincerity you have the more you will learn and thrive. Purity and sincerity are inseparable twins.
Don’t waste time. You need to look after the ni’mah (blessings) which Allah Almighty has given to you. Time is one of the creations of Allah Almighty. Time is not just money, it is life. Life is more valuable than money. You need to maximise your time. One of our teachers (may Allah be pleased with him) Shaykh Fattah Abu Ghuddah has a very beautiful book called ‘The Value of in which he describes the real examples of how scholars utilised their time. It is quite incredible how they did not waste a second.
What do you need contentment to gain knowledge? In order to dedicate more time to studies, you need to have less concerns about the material world, because if you are bogged down by worldly matters you will not have the time to devote to your studies and you will not excel. dunya because if you are giving very limited time to the knowledge, you will not excel. If you are giving more time to the dunyah and very little time to the knowledge, you will not excel.
This is why the great scholars focused on knowledge with their complete all their being. Either you want this to be your specialty, or you are a part-time knowledge seeker. If you are full-time knowledge seeker, structuring your day is important. Imam an-Nawawi used to deliver 12 circles every day. This is why he preferred not to marry, because he would not have time for his family.
He would take knowledge from teachers, and teach himself and consolidate his knowledge and compare his notes with his friends. How did he have time eat, sleep, go to his mosque, prepare his talks and have time for himself? Allah put barakah in his time. The word barakah cannot be found in the English dictionary. It means that Allah puts extra blessings in your time, so something which normally takes 2 hours, might be completed in one. This is how Allah puts barakah in your time when you have ikhlas (sincerity).
Avoid excessive eating
Why? Because is makes you sleepy, makes you heavy, and impairs your understanding. I’m not saying be hungry, but don’t be so full that you want to go to sleep. Scholars also mention the effects of certain foods according to their experience. If you are adversely effected by any food, and it reduces your function the cut it out.
Taqwa is very crucial. Whether you are seeking knowledge or seeking anything else which pleases Allah Almighty, taqwa is on the top of the list, so your intention rather than be the advisor of the ruler, or a grand mufti. Allah Almighty will not give you the knowledge.
Reduce your sleep
I’m not saying ‘don’t sleep’ or ‘sleep for a couple of hours’, but don’t sleep for 10 hours, for example. Do not go beyond eight hours. Six hours, seven hours is fine, unless you feel your body is very tired, then definitely you need to give it rest.
The right companionship
Choose the right companions for your journey, because they will help you to understand things you did not grasp. They will help you catch up things you didn’t attend, and correct what you noted down wrong. They will help you to find deeper meanings. They motivate you when you are tired, or lazy or hit a low. They carry you with them and you encourage one another. I can tell you from my own experience that we used to attend the circle in groups. There were four of us and at times when I was lazy, I would still go because they were going. Allah Almighty will give you the strength.
Knowledge is worship
Knowledge is not just opening up a book and reading it, it is an act of worship. When you treat knowledge like this, you deal with the one who is delivering the knowledge in a different way. If you don’t consider knowledge as worship, you do not give it the respect it deserves.
This is why we have etiquettes on how to treat your book and look after them, as well as how to select a teacher who has the right reputation, taqwa, knowledge, understanding, and so on. And you need to have respect towards the teacher.
Listen with your heart
The best example of this is the respect shown by the companions towards the Prophet (peace be upon him), as Imam at-Tirmidhi narrated in his Shamaa’il. When they sat in his presence, in his circles they were so still that it was as if they had a bird sitting on their head and they did not want it to fly away. They were very respectful, and they would not interrupt, make a noise or be distracted. They were so attentive they did not just listen with their ears, they listened with their hearts. This is how you truly benefit from knowledge.
Do not interrupt
One of the etiquettes, when you attend the circle of knowledge is that if the Shaykh is teaching, don’t interrupt, don’t say, “Asalamu alaykum Shaykh!” How are you?” Just sit down without saying salam. This is the etiquettes of seeking knowledge of the circle of knowledge. I used to study in a circle with our Shaykh Abdul-Razzaq al-Halabi (may Allah be pleased with him) with whom we were reading Hashiyat ibn ‘Abidin, the Hanafi commentary in fiqh in the Umayyad Mosque. The Umayyad Mosque is where Imam al-Ghazali (may Allah be pleased with him) wrote his book ‘Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din’ and we used to sit in the very room where he secluded himself, with the Shaykh. During this time, whilst the Shaykh was delivering the circle, a passer-by would say “Asalaamu alaykum Shaykh, how are you?” And the Shaykh would reply, but this is not from the etiquette. One should know that if the Shaykh is delivering a circle, it is impolite to interrupt.
We must show respect towards the teacher, because our scholars are the heirs of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as per the authentic hadith: ‘The scholars are the heirs of the prophets. The prophets did not leave money to be inherited, they left knowledge.’ And whoever inherited knowledge, has inherited a large fortune.
Also from the etiquettes, is to have patience. Patience when you listen and patience to stay in the circle, because sometimes you might attend the circle and find it’s above your level, or below your level, so you need patience. I’ve experienced both. The very first time I started, 85-90% of what the Shaykh was saying just going above my head. I understood maybe 5% or a bit more, but I said ‘Okay, I want to understand’. It would have been easy to say, “Forget this. It’s not my level, I will not attend’ and leave. But alhamdulillah, with perseverance, insha’Allah, Allah Almighty will give you deep understanding.
Showing respect increases your knowledge
The more you respect the teacher, the more Allah Almighty will open your heart to understand. Scholars talk about how to behave in the circle of knowledge, and how to ask the teacher – not to ask too many questions. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said Allah Almighty hates useless talks and too many questions, unless they are relevant. When there is a time for questions, you can ask questions, but you need to make them reasonable, i.e. allow others to ask questions. We used to have in our circle some very advanced students. Mashallah they would ask some questions which never occurred to us, and we learned a lot from those questions. But they were very considerate and they would open the floor for beginners like us to put our basic questions to the Shaykh.
Do not answer the Shaykh’s questions for him
One of the etiquettes of seeking knowledge is that if the Shaykh is answering, you should not jump in to answer it. I’ve seen this many times. Somebody asks a question, and a student will jump to give the answer. And the Shaykh in some circles will look at him and say, “Are you the Shaykh here?” And the student will laugh and say, “No sorry, sorry Shaykh, sorry, sorry”. It could be that the Shaykh wants to give a different answer relevant to the questioner. It depends how the Shaykh reads the question and the questioner. For instance ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) would give different answers to the same question. This perplexed those who witnessed it and when they asked him he replied that it was because of the questioner. This is something you learn through experience. So never answer on behalf of the Shaykh.
When accompanying the Shaykh again there are etiquettes. Don’t walk in front of the Shaykh, this is disrespectful, you should walk on his right side. If he wants something, help him. I remember how we used to compete to help our Shaykh – if he wanted something, we would rush to get it. Our teachers at that time were 80+, they were like our teacher, father, and grandfather at the same time. Even in the hadith, in Sahih Muslim and other books the Prophet (peace be on him) said ‘I am to you like your father, teaching you’. The scholar or the teacher is like a spiritual father. Even in our circles, our teachers used to call us ‘my son’. It is very common in Islamic circles for the teacher to call the student ‘my son’ or ‘my daughter’ (ya binti). These etiquettes are crucial and important because they allow us to keep the blessings of these circles and get the fruits of these circles.
- the purity of the intention is important
- acting upon the knowledge your learn is important
- being watchful of Allah Almighty all the time is important (Why am I doing this? Why am I seeking this knowledge?)
- make the best of your time
- be careful what to study; don’t study things which you will not benefit from
- be focused
- choose the right companions
- have good manners and good etiquettes with your teachers, with your books and with the circle which you are attending
- listen attentively
- understand and ask questions
- memorising and teach
In the hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘He is not of us who does not respect our elders and have mercy to our youth, and knows the rights of our scholars.’ (Tirmidhi).
Al-Rabi’ bin Sulaiman for instance, the student of Imam al-Shafi’i, said that ‘By Allah I was not so bold as to drink water when Al-Shafi’i was looking at me, out of respect.’
Imam Malik, who is one of the teachers of Imam al-Shafi’i by the way, he met Al-Shafi’i when he was very young, and the first time he met him, he said to him, ‘Indeed I see, Allah Almighty has given you a special light in your heart. So do not extinguish it with the darkness of disobedience or sin.’
The best advice you can get is from sincere teachers. They can change the course of your life with one piece of advice. If you are really sincere enough, Allah will give you the barakah of the knowledge.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – Al Manaar New Muslim Group
Transcribed by Zayna Sheikh
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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- Muharram, Hijrah and fight against tyranny
- Brotherhood in action
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