The poverty of knowledge seekers
There is a split of opinion among scholars on the topic of poverty and wealth – whether it is better to be poor or well off.
The high status of the poor
Imam Bukahri wrote a chapter on the virtues of poverty in his Sahih, called Fadlu al faqr. So scholars commented that this showed he liked the virtues of poverty. Allah Almighty also mentioned the fuqara (destitute people) in the Quran many times. Among these were the ahlu Suffah, a group of companions, who were very poor. The Prophet (peace be on him) dedicated a special place in the mosque for them, so that if anyone wanted to help them they could find them and offer them aid. They had a dedicated place at the back of the mosque, called As Suffa. Abu Hurairah was one of these poor people, and would sit with ahl u suffah. And so when people came to donate money or food, he would be one of the recipients of their charity.
The preservation of wealth
We have some narrations which give a higher status to poor people over richer people. Among these narrations, the Prophet (peace be on him) once visited Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas when he was ill who was very wealthy, and asked him if he could donate all his wealth to charity. He said:
O Messenger of Allah. I have wealth and I only have one daughter to inherit from me. Shall I give two thirds of my wealth as Sadaqah?
‘No’ replied the Prophet (peace be on him).
‘Then, (shall I give) a half?’ asked Sa’ad and the Prophet again said, ‘No.’
‘Then, (shall I give) a third?’ asked Sa’ad.
‘Yes’, said the Prophet (peace be on him). ‘The third is much. Indeed to leave your heirs well-off is better than that you should leave them dependent on and to beg from people. If you spend anything seeking to gain thereby the pleasure of Allah.’ (Bukhari).
The core of the hadith is at the end of the hadith. The Prophet (peace be on him) did not just deter Sa’d from giving away all his money, but explained the reasoning, as he was the best educator. He said it would be better for him to leave his family well-off, rather than needy and having to beg others for sadaqa.
This highlights the concept of the preservation of wealth in Islam, which is one of the Maqasidu Shariah (the Aims of the Shariah). Imam Shatibi, the scholar who elaborated on this the most among the scholars, after which they added to his work, mentioned the five Maqasid (aims):
The preservation of religion (deen), life, wealth, lineage (nasab) and intellect (aql).
We see here that the third aim of the shariah is the preservation of wealth and scholars refer to the hadith of Sa’d as evidence of this. Later, scholars, made additions to these five and stretched the aims to around 20.
Patience in poverty
The Prophet (peace be on him) mentioned that the poor person who is patiently expecting reward from Allah Almighty, will be among people of Jannah. He is not complaining and moaning and always in a bad mood.
It was narrated from ‘Imran bin Husain that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:
“Allah loves His believing slave who is poor, does not beg and has many children.” (Ibn Majah).
In the Quran Allah Almighty has told us that He will test us with difficulties as well as good times, so poverty is one of the tests:
Every soul is certain to taste death: We test you all through the bad and the good, and to Us you will all return. (21:35)
And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient. (2:155)
How to cope with poverty and remain content is a test. For those who are poor, how to have rida (satisfaction) and qana’ah (internal peace, contentment) with what Allah has destined for them is a challenge.
Is it better to be poor or wealthy?
There are some narrations which highlight that being wealthy is better than being poor, if you are not deluded by your wealth, tempted by the dunya (this world) and distracted from the akhirah (hereafter).
In some narrations some companions came to the Prophet (peace be on him) and complained that wealthy people have all the reward, as they could give in charity, while the poor could not.
Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:
Some of the poor Emigrants came to Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and said to him, “The wealthy have obtained all high ranks and everlasting bliss.” He asked, “How is that?” They replied: “They offer Salat as we do, and observe Saum (fasting) as we do, but they give in Sadaqah (charity) and we do not, and they emancipate slaves and we cannot.” He (ﷺ) said, “Shall I not teach you something whereby you will catch up with those who have preceded you and will get ahead of those who follow you, and no one will surpass you unless he does the same as you do?” They said, “Surely, O Messenger of Allah.” He said, “Say: Subhan Allah, and Allahu Akbar, and praise Him (by saying Al-hamdu lillah) thirty-three times at the end of every Salat.” They returned to him and said: “Our brothers, the possessors of wealth, having heard what we are doing, have started doing the same.” Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “This is Grace of Allah which He gives to whom He wishes.”
[Al- Bukhari and Muslim].
Have sufficient (Kafaf)
The third level is those who are neither wealthy nor poor – they have sufficient for their needs.
This is what is known as kafaf.
Abu Hurairah reported Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) as saying:
O Allah, make for the family of Muhammad the provision which is a Kafaf sufficient. (Muslim)
This way you are not dependant on anyone and you do not suffer the bite of poverty. Scholars say this middle level between wealth and poverty is preferable.
This was the practice of the Prophet (peace be on him), who would receive much in booty, but he would distribute it overnight and leave what was sufficient to cover the needs of his family. Though he often used to forget his own self when distributing it, and when it had all been given away, Aisha (may Alah be pleased with her) would ask if he had kept anything for himself, and he would say, if she had reminded him earlier, he would have kept some, but he forgot.
Reliance (tawakkul) on Allah
Imam Ghazali elaborated on tawakkul by giving the example of Abu Bakr and Omar (may Allah be pleased with them) when they gave all their wealth and half their wealth to the Prophet (peace be on him) as a reflection of the depth of their tawakkul. If you do not have that level, you do not give away everything you have.
Knowledge seekers tend to be poor
Ibn Khaldun, the father of sociology, in his book Al-Muqaddimah (the introduction to his 8 volumes book of history) has a chapter dedicated to poverty. It says that judges, muftis, imams, khatibs (those who deliver the khutbah) and mu’adhins (those who give the adhan), do not have much wealth, as there is usually a divorce between knowledge and money. It’s not always the case, but as the majority of scholars spend all their time and effort to seek knowledge they usually have no means to support themselves. Unless they have a business, like Abu Hanifa (may Allah have mercy on him) who was a wealthy textile trader. And Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani and Ibn Hazm and many others.
However, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi and Imam Ahmed were extremely poor, but they had dignity so they wouldn’t ask. They were so committed to learning, writing editing and teaching that they didn’t have time for dunya. Some scholars tried their best to stay within the field of knowledge, so they learned calligraphy to earn some money from that. Mulla Ali al Qari used to have beautiful handwriting and he would write a mushaf ever year and it’s sale would suffice him for a year. He didn’t ask people for money, but used this to sustain himself.
Other scholars had manual skills, such as an Najjar, the carpenter, al Haddad, the black smith and al Jassas who worked with gypsum.
The pros and cons of wealth and poverty
Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah mentioned many quotes in his book (pages of patience):
No one can reach what he wants from this knowledge until faqr (poverty) harms him, and until he puts this knowledge before everything else. (Imam Malik)
If you want fiqh you have to collect your concerns to be focused. And if you want no distractions, take little from the dunya, do not be distracted from dunya and don’t take more than that. (Abu Hanifa)
Whoever seeks knowledge with poverty will get a strong understanding. (Ibrahim al Ajurri)
You won’t get the sweetness of knowledge until you are very hungry and you forget you are hungry. (Al-Nadhr bin Shumayl)
Not many will understand this, but sometimes your engagement with knowledge makes you forget that you are tired, hungry or in pain, because of the sweetness of understanding, ladhat ut tahsil. Nothing can match this!
By contrast, Imam Shafi said:
Don’t consult anyone who has no flour in his house.
If he has no flour, even if he is a scholar don’t ask him, because he will be so hungry, he won’t be able to think straight. This is very deep.
Ibn Hazm said a lot of wealth and a good life lahu can distract knowledge seekers from understanding, even though he himself was very wealthy. He was talking from his experiences in life. The word lahu means distractions, and wealth can be a big distraction. It can prevent you from the light which can enlighten your heart and only then can understand from Allah.
Scholars in the beginning of their journey need to be fully focused otherwise, their sincerity will be compromised and they will get locked in their own desires.
Imam Ahmed preferred to have less in dunya because it was less burden in the akhirah. The more you have the more accountable you are. Having less makes you lighter.
He used to say that there is a big difference between the one who has been given dunya to be tested by it and the one who never had it and so was not tested by it.
Imam Shafi mentioned many stories and poems about the bitterness of poverty and the suffering of scholars due to their poverty.
Imam Malik was so poor that one day when he had nothing to eat, he sold the wooden beams which held up the roof of his house to sustain himself and as a result his roof collapsed. This is an authentic story. He became a great imam and his legacy is lasting.
When you read these stories, you see that as the scholars were so severely tested by poverty, that when dunya came to them, they were not distracted by it, because they had been trained by their austerity before that.
The dark side and the bright side of poverty
Faqr has two sides – one is bitter and one is sweet. He called them the dark side and bright side of poverty. Biting poverty is hard to live with, it prevents you from being able to think, but the sweet one is when you don’t have too much, but you have enough; this is kafaf.
This is why we have the dua to prevent us from bitter poverty, which makes you miserable and unable to think:
O Allah! I seek refuge in You from poverty, insufficiency, humiliation and I seek refuge in You from oppressing anyone or being oppressed. (Abu Dawoud).
But if you don’t have very much and are satisfied with what Allah provided you that’s fine.
The poverty of Imam Shafi
We all know of his knowledge but not his poverty.
Imam Shafi, was very poor. He was an orphan with no money to go to madrasah to learn, so he has a special arrangement with his shaykh where he could attend classes as long he taught them to another class afterwards. In this way he earned his place in the class and consolidated his learning. As he also had no money to buy paper, so he used to go to the dawaween (like the home office, where they have the records of people), where they have many used paper and he would take the rejected paper that had been used. Then he would write on the other side of it. He collected these used papers in a big jar to keep it safe. And then he would collect shoulder bones to write on and add it to the jar. And he would also collect thin bricks to write on until his jar was full.
The poverty of Abu Yusuf
Abu Hanifa had around 40 scholars who attended his circle and he formed the first Fiqh Council and collective ijitihad (reasoning) in the ummah. The top scholars were his students, including Abu Yusuf Yaqub bin Ibrahim, the closes to him, and Muhammad ibn al Hasan al Shaybani who wrote Abu Hanifa’s madhab. Abu Hanifa did not write it down, it was al Shaybani. The main books were written by him. Abu Yusuf’s family was very poor and so his father sent him to work to earn money for them, but he was extremely bright and used to sneak away from his work to attend Abu Hanifa’s circle. His father came to find him one day and demand why he had run off, when they needed money, but Abu Hanifa asked him how much money he needed, and handed him a big bag of money. And told him to let him know when it ran out. However it never ran out because he kept sending them money until Abu Yusuf had grown up and become a big scholar. Dunya wasn’t in Abu Hanifa’s heart, it was in his hands and he could give it with ease.
The remarkable story of Shaykh Ibrahim al Hilali al-Halabi
A more recent story is of Shaykh Abul Fattah’s own shuykh, Shaykh Ibrahim went from Aleppo to al Azhar to seek knowledge but he ran out of money and had nothing to eat. He was passing by a house, and he smelt a delicious smell from an open kitchen door and he went inside and saw delicious food, which he wanted to eat, but as it did not belong to him, he left. Within a couple of hours, there was a knock on his door, and his shaykh came with a noble man who was seekikng a pious, knowledge seeker to marry his daughter. The shaykh said he could not think of anyone but Shaykh Ibrahim, and they retuned to that very house where he had his nikkah and got to eat the very food he wanted. You have to have patience and trust in Allah.
Sincerity and dedication
These stories show us the sincerity and dedication of these scholars, who were focused on knowledge and they would overcome any difficulty to achieve it to become closer to Allah. Their aim was to seek knowledge to get closer to Allah, not for fame or celebrity. They sought it to save themselves and then they became masters in their sciences and they delivered it to others. Knowledge is not about accumulating lectures and notes, without putting it in practice. knowledge can be for us and against us on the Day of Judgement.
Have less distractions in dunya. If you have wealth and it does not distract you, that is fine.
I had teachers who were poor but never asked for support, and Allah provided for them. I also had teachers who were very wealthy, but they were very humble and generous and they would support anyone who sought their help. Wealth does not make you a bad person. It depends how you use it.
Pious people can use wealth to do good. We ask Allah to protect us from the delusion, temptations and test and of the dunya and from poverty. 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 poverty of the knowledge seekers – part 2
The pursuit of knowledge – part 1
May 20, 2022