The incredible determination of the knowledge seekers

the incredible determination of the knowledge seekers

The importance of purity of reflection is a powerful combination with high himma, which is the quality of tenacious determination.

Khatib al Baghdadi was one of the great scholars of hadith and such a prolific writer that he contributed a book to every branch of Islamic knowledge, so that everyone who came after him, could not help but refer to his work. Such was his vast legacy.  Born in 392, in Baghdad, as suggested by his name, he died in 463 AH. Among the hundreds of books which he wrote, is the very unique book, al-Rihlah fi Talab al-Hadith.

Jabir bin Abdillah

In the full book you can read many fascinating stories. They are so incredible they are hard to believe because we compare them to our lives and our capability. For instance, Jabir bin Abdillah (may Allah be pleased with him), who travelled a whole month to seek a single hadith, which he had been told Abdullah bin Unays had a heard. He had never heard this hadith from the Prophet (peace be on him) himself, so he was keen to hear it and know it before he passed away.

Risk life, spend wealth, travel and devote time

We see his yearning for knowledge through his willingness to undertake the journey entailed in making contact with Unays. And once he reached and heard it, he turned around straight away to make the month’s return journey back home.

Although he would have tried his best to follow the best route for his journey, it was still a long journey to make for a single hadith. But he was prepared to put in the effort and the sweat for that one hadith. And in those days it mean risking your life as you did not know what you might encounter on your way – mishaps, highway robbers and other threats. This indicates how much he wanted to hear it.

What kind of energy and himma he had to seek his hadith. Look at us, we have thousands of hadith online, offline, books, cds, yet we are a still bit lazy. We don’t possess this level of himma.

Yet Jabbir was willing to spend money to make a journey that was a month long – which means it was not cheap. For it, he bought a new camel, which alone would have been very costly, and in addition would have needed the food and provisions. He would have need to stop at places to sleep along the way. He was willing to spend half of his wealth when our knowledge is a click away at our fingertips and yet we often hesitate before joining a session.

Respect and glorify knowledge

The difference between us and such scholars was that they appreciated knowledge. They glorified it and respected. This is what led to the burgeoning and flourishing of the Islamic civilization. It was precisely because of this high himma.

Nasr bin Hammad and Imam Shu’bah

In another story, Nasr bin Hammad al Warah was sitting in front of the door of Imam Shu’bah, the great muhaddith who could hear him outside. He was talking about knowledge and narrating the chain of transmitters from whom he had received a hadith. However, as he named them, Shu’bah  not pleased, came out and punched Nasr bin Hammad. Nasr was so upset, he started crying. His friends and shyukh were stunned. After a while Shu’bah came out again and found Nasr still crying. So he asked why he was crying, and the people said, ‘Don’t you remember you hit him?!’ He said he had punched him because he had quoted the wrong sanad (chain of transmitters) for the hadith.

Ensuring the authenticity and integrity of knowledge

Nasr travelled to the five cities – Makkah, Madinah, Kuffa, Basra and Egypt because of the error in the chain of transmitters. And he exhausted himself till he rectified the mistake in it. This was the high himma which Nasr possessed and his desire to ensure the authenticity of the sanad. Why? Because the sanad is the connection of the hadith all the way back to the Prophet (peace be on him).

If the connection is faulty, it risks the integrity and reliability of the hadith. It weakens the deen. These scholars wanted the deen to be protected and preserved and connected to the Prophet (peace be on him). The determination they had is beyond our comprehension. However they saw it as part of worship. No one was paying them to do it. They paid from their own pockets. And though they were poor, they would sell their house to do it. This was their love for the deen.

When you spare nothing to pursue knowledge, you reach a different height

In fact, we see this in the story of Hisham, the great Qur’a (reciter), and one of the ten great reciters from Sham, (which is Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon). When he reached the age of 20, his father sold one of his two houses and spent that money to send his son to Imam Malik to learn hadith from him. They would spare nothing for the sake of knowledge. This is why we reached the level of leading a new civilisation. It was not the government who funded it, it was self-funded. He went through each city till he had the authenticity which was around 5 people.

Tracking and tracing the knowledge through blood, sweat and tears

It wasn’t as simple back then to call or message someone and say, ‘Are you home? I’m coming’. You would depart not knowing if the person you were seeking would be there when you arrived. You would arrive in the city not knowing where they lived and start by searching for them in the mosque and the markets and follow the directions people gave you, and that person might have left for another city or gone for hajj. Sometimes the knowledge seekers would go to hajj solely to find the person they were after, to find him and to confirm a particular sanad (chain of transmission). All the troubles they went to because their deen was more valuable than anything else. The authenticity, soundness and purity of the chain of transmitters is the protection, preservation and security of the deen. What was in it for them?

Allah protected the Quran and the Prophet (peace be on him) made a special dua for those who protect the sunnah. Zayd ibn Thabit reported the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him, said:

May Allah brighten the face of a person who hears a tradition from us and he memorises it until he can convey it to others. Perhaps he will convey it to one who understands better than him, and perhaps one who conveys knowledge does not understand it himself. (Abi Dawood)

The deen came down to us from the Prophet (peace be on him) to his companions, and their followers and so forth.

Imam Shubah therefore took on all these troubles to ensure the sanad was right, and tracked down all the narrators of the hadith, (which were about 5 at his time) in different countries, coming back full circle to Iraq. This is just one example may Allah have mercy on them all.

The science of preservation of the deen

There is a whole science dedicated to the preservation of the sunnah developed by scholars of hadith. They authenticated the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet (peace be on him) which are composed of his words known as the matn and the accompanying train of transmitters for that piece of knowledge, which is the sanad.

For instance, the hadith:

Omar bin Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace be on him) said: ‘Actions are by intention’

‘Actions are but by intention’ is the matn. The sanad is who transmitted it, i.e Omar bin Khattab

We have many hadith in the sunnah, hundreds of thousands of hadith and each sanad.

You might have  a good, connected, authentic sanad  but the matn has a word that has been added or missed, so scholars would investigate to get to the bottom of that. It is a heavy task.

Imam Bukhari posted 5,000 hadith in Sahih Muslim, Imam Ahmed recorded 30,000 in his Musnad. You realise how much it took to preserve the deen. The fiqh is based on the sunnah. All our knowledge rests on the Quran and sunnah. This why our scholars fought their battles to bring the deen to us.

The sweetness in the bitterness

These scholars gave themselves to this task because they felt the sweetness of the bitterness of that journey.

Imam Ahmed and ibn Ma’in

Another story captures the time Imam Ahmed accompanied a friend to visit Ibn Ma’in who was a great and renowned scholar of hadith. The friend of Imam Ahmed wanted to test him to see if he had really memorised everything he was narrating. Testing people was a common practice, but not with the top level scholars. Imam Ahmed told him not to do it, but he still wanted to. When they arrived, he came out and welcomed them and sat with them. Imam Ahmed’s friend asked if he could narrate Ibn Ma’in’s hadith to him, but after every ten correct hadith, he narrated an incorrect hadith. The first time, Ibn Ma’in rejected the hadith, then he reached the second mistake and Ibn Ma’in told him to cancel it. When he reached the third mistake after 30 hadith, Ibn Ma’in turned red and said Imam Ahmed is too pious to do this, but kicked his friend for trying to trap him and catch him out. The friend was delighted, he said, ‘Walahi, this kick is sweeter than anything I ever received because now I know everything he narrates is authentic’.

What gave them this himma?

What made such scholars travel 15 years to seek knowledge, when are not willing to spend even 15 days, let alone 15 years to acquire a hadith. They would have sleepless nights searching for one word, sometimes searching to find out if a word should have a fatah or dammah. One of the great muhaddith who was a narrator of Bukhari said he spent 40 years asking about one particular word of a hadith, whether it takes a fatah or dammah or either.

Seeking knowledge is ibadah

Even though they had memorised so many hadith, the reverence and precision with which they treated every single word in that hadith and in its sanad is what elevated them. This is the way they dealt with knowledge – whether it was hadith, or aqeedah, or fiqh or Arabic or literature because they had the conviction that this would bring them closer to Allah. This is how they carried the knowledge – as worship. This is how they became giants.

Every breath taken in the seeking of knowledge is rewarded

Every breath they took seeking knowledge, with all the effort and money they spent has been recorded for them in akhirah. They disseminated this knowledge with this himma and this is why their legacy has lasted and is so vast. It was their sincerity and purpose.

Be ambitious

Aim to master any science which is beneficial – whether it is the Quran or hadith or Arabic. This is a way to worship Allah.

We need to value knowledge and feel that this knowledge is truly a way of worshiping Allah. The person doing experiments in his lab, with the right intention, will be rewarded, especially at the time of the coronavirus, as well as the front liners working in hospitals and any front lines.

Travel miles

Is it possible to reach that level? Yes! With ikhlas you can go miles. Do it with ikhlas and purpose. Do it for Allah’s sake and He will open the doors and gates of knowledge for you and you will excel. Ikhlas is so important.

Allah opens the gates of knowledge for the sincere

Shaykh Mullah Abdil ‘Alim Zenki in Damascus was one of my shuyukh who was Kurdish. When I met him he was around 80 and I was in my 20s, and he was like my grandfather. Very sweet and full of knowledge and spirituality. There was a book close to his heart, called Al-Fawaid Al-Diyaiyyah by Mullah Jami which was a very complicated book on Arabic grammar, but my shaykh loved this book because Imam Jāmī was a special scholar and Mulla Abdul ‘Alim loved him. The book is filled with encryptions, you can’t figure out what it says, it is covered in notes, like a map.

One day Shaykh Abdul Alim told us a story of a sheikh who was delivering a circle in the mosque, but couldn’t figure out the meaning of a sentence in that book, so he said, ‘Let’s go and pray and then we’ll come back and look at it again’.

It turned out that the author himself, Mullah Jāmī was in the mosque and he overheard them, while they were gone, he came and annotated the explanation of that sentence in  the book. Then the Shaykh made dua for Allah to facilitate the knowledge of the sentence and came back to find it written in his book! If you have Ikhlas, Allah will give you the understanding.

In English you say the sky is the limit, but I say the sky is the start, because it is where the revelation descended from. Abu Hanifa used to say to his student Abu Yusuf you were not that bright but consistency and application brought you to a high level of understanding.

Some scholars if there was a book he could not understand he would read it again and again, until he did, even if it took 40 times.

How do we prioritise knowledge

The difference between the obligatory and optional knowlege. Fard ayn (obligatory knowledge) is a priority for everyone. Every single Muslim. They must know the rulings of the five pillars, and transactions. Optional knowledge has to be known by someone in the community. For instance, it is not necessary for everyone to know fiqh of medicine, but it is a must for everyone to know how to pray.

How do you reconcile determination and maintain balance in your life

It depends where you are. Some shuyukh would do much more before they were married. When they were single they could do much. This is why some scholars remained single, like Imam Nawawi because they couldn’t combine marriage with their devotion to knowledge. The sunnah is to marry and to have balance.

May Allah reward these scholars who brought us the deen. Ameen.

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.