The etiquettes of seeking knowledge- Islamic vs Western mentality

The etiquettes of seeking knowledge- Islamic vs Western mentality

Seeking knowledge is our main priority in life. This is why the very first divine word revealed to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was ‘read’. It is incumbent on every believer to seek knowledge, from day 1 verse 1 we are commanded to learn.

Anas ibn Malik May Allah be pleased with him reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:

طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ

Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim. (Ibn Majah)

Accordingly we see many verses in the Quran about seeking knowledge, asking questions, scholars and asking scholars, as well as the virtues and fruits of knowledge.

There is a great deal in the sunnah about the importance of teachers and the etiquettes of seeking knowledge and the blessings of seeking knowledge. From the first works on this topic is Abu Hanifa’s book, Adab al Alim wal Mutaalim ‘The Etiquettes of the Scholar and the Seekers of Knowledge’ in the first/second century. (Abu Hanifa passed away in 150AH). Many other scholars also devoted attention to this topic over the centuries  and we delivered many courses on this topic, including the well-known book by Ibn Jama’ah (d. 733AH) Tadhkirat as-Sami wa’l-Mutakallim fi Adab al-‘Alim wa’l-Muta’allim ‘The Etiquettes of Seeking Knowledge’. Among the long list of works on this topic is also Imam Zarnuji (d. 610AH) who wrote ‘Instruction of the Student. The Method of Learning’ and Imam Ghazali (d 510AH) who dedicated a chapter to this in his great work, Ihya Ulum ad-Din and summarise this also in his letter to his beloved son, Ayhul Walad.

From chest to chest

It is an important topic because knowledge is not about reading or writing, it is beyond that from an Islamic point of view, which is different from the Western approach to seeking knowledge. In Islam, knowledge is sacred. When Jibril came to the Prophet (peace be on him) in the shape of a man during the night in Ramadan in the cave of Hira on the top of the mountain, he embraced him. In this embrace we have the passing of knowledge literally from chest to chest, which is known as knowledge of the chest.

Islamic knowledge is chest to chest, not book to book, not internet connection or reading through digital media.

The unbroken chain

From day one sacred knowledge was transferred by the process known as talaqi and talqeen talaqi means to receive and talqeen means to disseminate it. Knowledge descended from God, to Jibiril, Jibril to the chest of Prophet (peace be on him) and from his breast to his companions, from his companions to his followers and their descendants. This forms the unbroken chain. We are proudly the only religion in which knowledge has been passed down through an unbroken chain which goes back to our Prophet (peace be on him).

This isnad (chain of transmitters) is unique to the Islamic world, the Ummah. Knowledge is not about getting a degree, or wearing a gown, it is about the implementation. Allah Almighty in the Quran described those who do not benefit from learning as donkeys:

The likeness of those who were entrusted with the (obligation of the) Taurat (Torah) (i.e. to obey its commandments and to practise its laws), but who subsequently failed in those (obligations), is as the likeness of a donkey which carries huge burdens of books (but understands nothing from them). How bad is the example of people who deny the Ayat (proofs, evidence, verses, signs, revelations) of Allah. And Allah guides not the people who are Dhalimun (polytheists, wrong-doers, disbelievers). (62:5)

“Are those who know equal to those who do not know? Only the people of reason take heed”. (39:9)

Those who know are in a better position than those who do not know. Those who do not know need to seek knowledge, that is why Allah Almighty says:

“Then ask those who possess the Message (ahl adh-dhikr) if you do not know.” (21:7 and 16:43)

The purpose of knowledge

We need to find the right teacher and have the right attitude towards knowledge and towards our teacher. We do not worship knowledge, we worship Allah, but it is a means to an end.

In Surat Taha, Allah said:

“And say: My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” (20:114)

The more knowledge we have the closer we should be to Allah. Knowledge is therefore not a reason to look down on others, but a means of saving us from hellfire, and provides us guidance on how to apply it in our lives and disseminate it.

Imam al Ghazali said there are two types of knowledge: inward and outward. Outward knowledge is knowledge pertaining to how to perform our worship – wudu, salah etc. Inward knowledge is related to our spiritual heart and character.

Knowledge is an amanah (trust)

There is a warning in the Quran against abusing any trust. One of the scariest narrations is that among the first people to be flung into hellfire are the scholars who did not apply the knowledge they learned or did not acquire knowledge for the right reasons, but instead sought fame or followers. It is not all roses, but we need to be careful throughout our journey that we keep mindful of our purpose in seeking knowledge. This is known as muraqaba, awareness that Allah is watching us and keep revisiting our purpose and remind ourselves why we are seeking knowledge.

Ka’b ibn Malik reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

مَنْ طَلَبَ الْعِلْمَ لِيُجَارِيَ بِهِ الْعُلَمَاءَ أَوْ لِيُمَارِيَ بِهِ السُّفَهَاءَ أَوْ يَصْرِفَ بِهِ وُجُوهَ النَّاسِ إِلَيْهِ أَدْخَلَهُ اللَّهُ النَّارَ

Whoever seeks knowledge to impress the scholars, to argue with the foolish, or to attract the attention of people, Allah will admit him into Hellfire. (Tirmidhi)

Being ranked according to knowledge

Allah has raised the ranks and status of those who have knowledge, and has praised them in many places in the Quran.

Allah says: “Allah raises of those who believe and those who have been given knowledge many levels.” (Quran 58:11)

This means that people are divided into ranks according to their knowledge, depending on their sincerity and purity of their intention, their perseverance. It is obvious that people of knowledge are higher than those who do not seek knowledge.

Uthman bin Affan May Allah be pleased with him reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

خَيْرُكُمْ مَنْ تَعَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ وَعَلَّمَهُ

The best of you are those who learn the Quran and teach it. (Bukhari)

The virtue of the scholar

Abu Umamah May Allah be pleased with him reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:

فَضْلُ الْعَالِمِ عَلَى الْعَابِدِ كَفَضْلِي عَلَى أَدْنَاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ وَأَهْلَ السَّمَوَاتِ وَالْأَرَضِينَ حَتَّى النَّمْلَةَ فِي جُحْرِهَا وَحَتَّى الْحُوتَ لَيُصَلُّونَ عَلَى مُعَلِّمِ النَّاسِ الْخَيْرَ

 “The virtue of the scholar over the worshiper is like my virtue over the least of you. Verily, Allah, His angels, the inhabitants of the heavens and earth, even the ant in his hole and the fish, send blessings upon the one who teaches people what is good.” (Tirmidhi)

The scholar as the father figure

Ghazali’s advice to his student in his letter (risalaat) My beloved son to his unnamed student, whom Ghazali refers to affectionately as his ‘dear son’, which is an expression that is not heard commonly in the West. However in the Islamic world, teachers call you ‘my son’ because they are like your spiritual fathers.

In Sahih Muslim, the Prophet (peace be on him) said ‘I am to you like your father, teaching you’.

Therefore the status of the scholar is like a father to his child. Imam Ghazali talks about the importance of having a shaykh in your life, whom you can refer to.

He says it is incumbent to have a shaykh in your life though this generates another discussion on who might that be and the Sufi definition of the perfect shaykh. However I would say that everyone needs a shaykh, because learning by yourself can not be a complete way of learning as there may be mistakes in books, or in your understanding of the books or their context. Just as you would not learn chemistry through a book, you have to have a teacher who explains it.

If the teacher is like your father, it means you are not equal to your teacher and accordingly you have to treat him with respect, which is different to the West and the style of addressing teachers by their first name. Islamically just as you do not call your father by his name, you have to show respect and honour to your teachers. Teachers must not abuse this position and have to have etiquettes as well, and those who do not will be punished.

Nurturing the student like a plant

The teacher will point out good manners and bad manners, this is why he is called murabbi, from the root word ‘rabb’ meaning the one who nurtures and guides you and looks after you. He supports you and mentors you. Therefore in our tradition the word tarbiyya and murabbi is used widely. Tarbiyya is one’s nurturing and upbringing, and the manners and way with which we comport ourselves. In the Islamic world, we have a Ministry for Tarbiyya, which is the ministry of education, and the Minister for Education is known as the Wazir At-tarbiyyah, who is responsible for education.

Just as a farmer cultivates the soil and nurtures his plants, weeds the land and feeds the land to promote the best growth, the murabbi nurtures his students and shows them the path to Allah.

The teacher is the shortcut

The shortcut is when you travel the path with experts. Part of my life (7-10 years) was spent editing manuscripts which is known as tahqiq, which is the very rigorous process of verifying every letter of every Ayah and hadith, checking its pronunciation, the commentaries on it and the linguistics. Sometimes I would spend weeks researching one word – we did not have the internet then and at times I would be completely stumped. However when I would visit my shaykh, he could instantly give me the meaning and the references and context of the word or hadith.

Training needs experts to show you how to progress from one level to the next. Just as the Prophet (peace be on him) took his companions along the spiritual path to Allah.

The scholars are the heirs of the Prophet (peace be on him)

Abu Darda (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) say:

‘Whoever treads a path due to which he seeks knowledge, Allah will make him tread one of the paths towards Paradise. And the angels lower their wings out of contentment for the seeker of knowledge. And verily all those in the heavens and in the earth, even the fish in the depths of the sea ask forgiveness for the scholar. And verily, the virtue of the scholar over the worshipper is like the virtue of the moon on the night of Al-Badr over all of the stars. Indeed, the scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, for the prophets do not leave behind a dinar or a dirham for inheritance, but rather, they leave behind knowledge. So whoever takes hold of it, has acquired a large share (i.e. of inheritance).’ (Abu Dawood and Tirmidhi).

Whoever travels upon the path, Allah eases their path to Jannah

It was part and parcel of seeking knowledge to find the scholars specialise in different subject and topics. This is known as arrihla. The history of Islamic knowledge from the companions to the successors involved travel to gain knowledge. Ghazali says that you might need to travel to find the right murabbi to help you become a better person in inward and outward – in your understanding and practice.

Students may have to travel to find the right teacher and that is part of the journey. However when you have the right intention then you have good news, the angels lower their wings for you, which means that metaphorically they facilitate it for you. I experienced this in my life. Out of the blue, Allah sends inspiration. For sure, if you have the right intention in seeking knowledge, then Allah eases for them the path to Jannah.

We are not learning about chemistry or physics but learning about Allah, His attributes, His Messenger (peace be on him) and his life and guidance which will save you in the afterlife. If you do business, you need to learn how to run your business Islamically and if you are buying or selling you need to learn what is haram and what is doubtful. The fruit of this science is like a medicine to the body, a cure for the heart and soul. If you seek this knowledge, it gives you serenity and everlasting bliss. As anything in life if you buy something you read the manual and to go through the manual you need the teachers to explain them.

Gifted knowledge and acquired knowledge

Allah bestowed on us the gift of knowledge. There are two types of knowledge – gifted knowledge is (ilm ladunni) which Allah granted the prophets and messengers and knowledge we acquire through attending circles and asking questions and do research. We need to do the second to gain the first. The harder we work, the more we will gain the gifted knowledge. Always make sure that you are not doing it to show off or put others down. This is haram that is why one of the etiquettes of seeking knowledge is humility (tawadu’).

Allah sent prophets and messengers and after them Allah bestowed scholars, the majority of whom we can trust. There are some scholars who do not have a good reputation, but apart from this, we can learn from many good scholars.

You have to search for teacher to learn from him. He is like your guide. What should you look for?

  • Knowledge – a scholar should have sound knowledge of his subject
  • Reputation – a scholar should have a good reputation
  • Experience – a scholar needs to be experienced both in his field as well in the modern world in which he lives, as this is the world in which his students live.

The Shaykh al Kamil – the perfect shaykh

Memorisation of knowledge is not enough, as we cannot apply it wily nily to every situation. We cannot throw overseas fatwas on other contexts as if they are one-size fits all. That is why we have to have both classical knowledge (fiqh, hadith and the sciences of the Quran) and knowledge of reality as well as spiritual knowledge (tarbiyya).

The best teacher is the one who has spiritual knowledge as well as the knowledge of the sciences. Ghazali in his time said it was rare to find such a shaykh, which was a thousand years ago. You may not find the perfect shaykh, but find a shaykh close to that. Ghazali warns against taking a shaykh who has spiritual knowledge without classical knowledge of Islamic sciences.

Knowledge is not restricted to divine knowledge

If you study any subject with the intention of benefitting others and serving the community, whether it is medicine or engineering or even fashion if it is to create modest fashion you will be rewarded for that, or finance to bring Islamic principles into this area, or to benefit others from your halal earning. As long as you have the right intention, you can use your knowledge to serve humanity and every second you are doing that you will be rewarded as if you are doing tasbih. Habits customs and work can be transformed into worship with the right intention. If you take a walk in the park every day, if your intention is to have a better body to worship Allah, be stronger and serve your family you will be rewarded for that, if you eat with the similar intention you will be rewarded for eating and drinking. This turns every moment of your life into an act of worship and makes it rewarded.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim 24th May 2022 New Muslim Group Al Manaar

Related posts

Do I need a shaykh?

Finding the right teacher

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.