The pursuit of knowledge
The Patience of Pious Predecessors in Seeking Knowledge
Among my books, one which is very dear to me, is Safahat min sabr al-’Ulamaa by one of my late shuyukh Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah[i] which took him more than 20 years to write. He did not set out to write it, but during the course of his life, from his young age til he passed away he was seeking knowledge and every time he found something beneficial, he wrote it down. One day in 1971, he collected all these pieces together and collated them in a book.
He organised his work into a chronological sequence and he called it the Patience of Pious Predecessors in Seeking Knowledge. He depicted the endless difficulties they endured as well as their resilience in the face of it.
This book, around 400 pages long, is therefore a collection of short stories from the various biographies of the giants of this ummah from a variety of Islamic sciences. Ranging from our scholars in linguistics, fiqh, hadith and Quran, it is filled with beautiful stories giving us insight into their lives, of which each vignette could be a dedicated biography as long as the book itself.
Biographies are part of the mammoth task of authentication in Islam
It is fascinating to read the biography of scholars, which forms a very rich section of our Islamic literature. We have millions of books on this, because they go hand in hand with the authentication of hadith and the narrators. The transmission of Islam in Islam has been a painstaking process in which verifying the soundness of any sayings of the Prophet (peace be on him) were rigorously checked and part of this has been recording the lives of those narrators, their work and their students.
Why write a compilation of biographies
From very early on, biography writing was a prolific field. Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah has narrated many stories, and many of them bring tears to your eyes. His main intention was to motivate everyone to seek knowledge but his books is a testament to the fact knowledge seeking is no walk in the park. Those who reached the top of their field, did not get there without effort. Hence it is a testament to their sabr, which is the title of his book. He could have written about the amusing incidents in their life, but the common thread which runs through them all is undoubtedly sabr.
Sabr is a quality that we refine in Ramadan, the month of sabr, in which we control not just our desires, but our emotions and faculties. This book shows us how to be the best version of our self and it is through Ramadan that we gain insight into our selves, our capability and our sabr. We see how strong we are and also how weak – which is part and parcel of being human.
Though I never met Shaykh Abu Ghuddah in person, I spoke to him and exchanged letters, and my learning was through his books. I admire his work and his unique approach. He was a master in choosing the best of what he read and writing the most motivational quotes, and I learned a lot from him. He inspired me to work on verifying, editing and publishing manuscripts in Beirut in 1991, which I had never imagined I would ever do.
Intention in reading
The book begins with a statement of Imam Ahmed, who said:
I have heard that you never read a book without benefitting from it, when you have the intention of benefitting from it.
By putting this quotation on his first page, Abu Ghuddah is being humble, by suggesting that his book is not a great work, but that if you have the intention of benefitting from it, you will benefit.
The knowledge seeker never dies but as a king
The next quotation he has put in his book is from Ibn Atta illah al-Iskandari, a huge scholar in the Maliki school and the Sufi field, who said:
Whoever does not have a burning start will not have a glittering end.
This is very apt for this book. For the one with the burning start, faces challenges and obstacles, suffers and sweats, expends blood and tears, but with the right intention and pursued in accordance with the shariah, it leads ultimately to a glittering end.
In fact, many of my shuyukh observed this fact. One of them said, ‘The knowledge seeker, no matter how many difficulties he faces in his life, never dies but as a king’. I heard this when I was very young, and it still echoes in my mind. I have seen the truth of this, as well as the fruits of it, in the lives of many of the knowledge seekers who dedicated their lives to it.
Learning from scholars
The third quotation is by Abdullah ibn Al-Mubarak, (I highly recommend you to read his biography). His name is the son of Mubarak, and he certainly lived up to his name and his book is full of sweet beautiful quotations and deep knowledge and is called Zuhd.
If you find a piece of advice on the wall, read and you will benefit from it.
When he was asked if you could benefit from any book, even fiqh. No you cannot you open a book of fiqh and learn it. You cannot learn it without listening to scholars, the right scholars. Fiqh is not acquired from books. You need a shaykh to teach you.
The Shaykh’s conclusion
After looking at the introduction, I always look at the index to see the topics. To give you an overview of the book I went to the conclusion. Usually conclusions are short, but the conclusion of this book is 30 pages long.
The book is divided into 8 sections.
The first section depicts the arduous journeys these knowledge seekers travelled to glean knowledge. If you didn’t know these were real, you would think they were made up, and we see the staggering distances they travelled, covering miles and miles, for days and months to verify a single hadith. You would think it was madness. And so the first chapter shows the fatigue they suffered.
Sacrificing sleep and comfort
The next section, covers how these scholars forwent sleep and pleasures in dunya to reach the higher ranks. Their tireless pursuit is the stuff of fairy tales.
Patience and dignity in poverty
The third section is about their patience in poverty. Many scholars, though not all, were poor, but because even the wealthier ones spent their money buying books and manuscripts, writing and verifying, and teaching they had very little.
Their lives were very humble and the rooms they stayed in. The great scholars Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Ahmed, and other well known scholars, and also the less well known ones, suffered because they had no money and they had the dignity not to ask. They would spend days and nights without food.
The fourth section is filled with stories showing the hunger and thirst of the scholars in the desert when they ran out of water.
Wealth running out
The fifth section covers how the scholars coped when their money ran out and when they were stranded abroad, while being penniless.
The sixth section talks about the pain of the scholars who would remain hungry rather than sell their books, but how they eventually when their suffering was so acute, they had to sell their books and clothes to survive. We can feel how their books were as beloved to them as children.
In the penultimate section, we see how some scholars chose not to marry so they could dedicate their time to study. Though it was not from the sunnah to do this, it was their choice. For example Imam Nawawi who felt that he would not be able to give the time to his family which they deserved, so he never married. He passed away very young.
Abu Ghuddah wrote another book, on this topic alone, the scholars who remained single.
The pursuit of knowledge
We see from all of this, the lengths our pious predecessors went to, to seek knowledge. Knowledge was very sacred and important to them. They spared nothing in its pursuit. Throughout the whole book the journey was a crucial part of learning knowledge. From the 1st century to the 10th century, and even today, the journey is part of seeking knowledge.
Many of the scholars had humble jobs to make ends meet – they were involved in manual work, as we see their professions reflected in their names, such as haddad (blacksmith), or Sabbagh (the ones who dyes fabric), Imam Khabaz was a baker and a scholar, al Lahham was a butcher and Sammak is the one who sells fish.
Narrated Abu Sulaiman and Malik bin Huwairith:
We came to the Prophet (peace be on him) and we were (a few) young men of approximately equal age and stayed with him for twenty nights. Then he thought that we were anxious for our families, and he asked us whom we had left behind to look after our families, and we told him. He was kind-hearted and merciful, so he said, “Return to your families and teach them (religious knowledge) and order them (to do good deeds) and offer your prayers in the way you saw me offering my prayers, and when the stated time for the prayer becomes due, then one of you should pronounce its call (i.e. the Adhan), and the eldest of you should lead you in prayer. (Bukhari and Muslim)
Once a delegation of youngsters came from a distance to the Prophet (peace be on him) to seek knowledge from him which Imam Bukhari has narrated in his Sahih. They came to him and spent twenty nights with him, to have the honour of being in his presence, hear him, learn from him and be under his wing, and get his barakah and dua, and hear his recitation.
This is unusual, as youngsters are not always keen on learning. They probably stayed in the mosque and were hosted by the companions hosted them. The narration says they were shababah (the plural of shab) which means young.
After twenty nights, the Prophet (peace be on him) thought they must be missing their families, so he asked them one by one, whom they had left behind. Some said left their parents and siblings and they each gave their different answers, which shows how kind-hearted the Prophet (peace be on him) was. He told them to go back and teach their families what they had learned from him to pray as they had seen him pray.
He taught them that when were about to pray, they should call the adhan and the eldest should lead the salah. This hadith alone has been repeated 9 times in Bukhari’s book, which is divided by topic because it has a wide range of relevancy.
Be pioneers of knowledge
One of the lessons from this hadith is that these youngsters came to the Prophet (peace be on him) with the intention to learn and disseminate knowledge to people and they were pioneers of knowledge in their families and communities. In order to deliver it, you need to be a pioneer in seeking it and you need sabr and sincerity.
Sabr in seeking knowledge
The Prophet (peace be on him) was an example of sabr, as it requires patience to teach particularly youngsters. We are experiencing this even more in lockdown, as many of us are having to home-school our children.
No matter how patient you are, there is always room to improve sabr. Find the gaps in your character and pick 2 or 3 traits which you hate, which your parents, family or friends keep telling you this, and try your best to work on it.
Work on the quality which needs improvement, for instance, you might be a temperamental person, or need to control your tongue more or your anger. Ask Allah in these blessed days to help you achieve it and become better.
What’s your aim?
The conclusion is that we need to improve our sincerity and sabr if we are to teach. Don’t make the task too big, make it something you can carry. Start by carrying pebbles. In this way, you are more likely to carry it further and for longer.
The right time to start is Ramadan as you will find plenty of support from Allah, and the big shayateen are locked up.
Don’t be deterred by people’s criticism. And do not let their praise corrupt your intention. Either way, remember your intention has to be for Allah’s sake.
The pursuit of knowledge may be difficult. But the fruits of it are well worth it.
Abu Hurairah reported the Prophet (peace be on him) as saying:
If anyone pursues a path in search of knowledge, Allah will then make easy for him a path to paradise. (Abu Dawood).
Delivered to the Online Halaqa by Shaykh Haytham Tamim on 30th May 2020.
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[i] 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.
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim as part of his Series on the Knowledge Seekers, based on the book, The Patience of the Pious Predecessors by Shaykh Fattah Abu Ghuddah.
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
January 22, 2021