The sacrifices of the knowledge seekers
The determination of the scholars and how they tread the path of knowledge was accompanied by continual sacrifice on their part. Sacrifice of their sleep, the luxuries and the pleasures of life. They were not choosing between halal or haram when they gave them up, but were made knowledge their priority over enjoyment, relaxation and rest. To the extent that some did not marry, even though it is the Sunnah and it is recommended, because it would have interfered with their single-minded pursuit of knowledge. Their dedication was well beyond anyone’s expectations.
Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him)
One such inspirational figure, is Ibn Abbas who was born in the 3rd year before the migration of Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, when the Prophet (peace be on him) was under siege in the Shi’b between the mountains . Ibn Abbas was named Abdullah, and was the son of Al-Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet (peace be on him) and he died, a heavy weight scholar in 67AH.
He was also the nephew of related of Maymounah, the wife of the Prophet (peace be on him) so he had no issues of mahramship and was able to stay over with the Prophet (peace be on him). Al-Abbas, his father, sent him once to learn the tahajjud (night) salah from the Prophet (peace be on him) himself.
One night when the Prophet (peace be on him) woke up and made Wudu’ to pray, Ibn Abbas saw him and made wudu. The night prayer of the Prophet (peace be on him) used to be very lengthy, he will prolong his recitation and he would spend extra time in rukku and sujjud. This gave enough time to Ibn Abbas to finish his Wudu’, then he stood behind the Prophet (peace be on him), who became aware that Ibn Abbas was behind him. He wanted to teach him the etiquette of praying together as a pair, so he gently grabbed Ibn Abbas and pulled him beside himself.
When they finished praying he asked Ibn Abbas why he had stood behind him, and Ibn Abbas replied that he did not think it was fitting for him to stand side by side with the Prophet (peace be on him). The Prophet (peace be on him) commended his deep understanding and made dua for him ‘zadakallahu ilman wa fahman’:
May Allah increase you in knowledge and understanding. (Musnad Ahmad and Bayhaqi in Shu’ab al Iman)
The original story is in Bukhari and Muslim and many books of the Sunnah with different wordings.
On another occasion the Prophet (peace be on him) went to the relief himself and he didn’t take water with him, but when he came out he found a bucket of water. He asked who had placed it there and Ibn Abbas took credit for this. The Prophet (peace be on him) was so pleased with him that he put his hand on his head and made this dua for him:
اللَّهُمَّ فَقِّهْهُ فِي الدِّينِ وَعَلِّمْهُ التَّأْوِيلَ
O Allah, give him deep understanding in religion and teach him the interpretation of the Quran. (Musnad Ahmad)
It is a very nice story. How we envy Ibn Abbas for his closeness to the Prophet (peace be on him) and his proximity and above all the dua which he made for him.
The eagerness of Ibn Abbas to learn
This is why we say Ibn Abbas is Tarjuman al Quran, the Interpreter of the Quran, as he was blessed with the Du’a and we could spend the whole session on Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him).
Imam Al-Darimi in his Sunan and Al-Hakim in Al Mustadrak, and the great hafiz, Ibn Abd al-Barr in his book Jami’ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlih (The Merit of Science) and Ibn Kathir in his Al-Bidaya wal Nihaya wrote in his biography of Ibn Abbas, that when the Prophet (peace be on him) passed away, he was still young, only 13 years old; he had probably not yet reached puberty, or was just beginning. Yet he had the passion and the zeal to learn the deen.
He was so excited about it, that he said to his friend, ‘Let’s go to ask the companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) for his hadith and learn from them’. His friend looked at him and said ‘What’s wrong with you?! Do you think that people will learn from you when we have big companions among us?’
Ibn Abbas was undeterred. He did not name this friend with whom he had had this private conversation, as that would have been backbiting and against good etiquette, but he left him and went by himself. He was so eager to seek knowledge and follow the companions one by one, ask them, learn from them, and write down what they said.
Sometimes he would go to the companions and find that it was the time of their mid afternoon siesta, known as qayloola. They still do this as it’s too hot to go outside at that time. So ibn Abbas would place his garment as a pillow against their door, and lean on it in the scorching heat until they woke up. He could have knocked and asked them, because he was the cousin of the Prophet (peace be on him) so they would have opened the door. However, it was not the correct etiquette to use your title or position to disturb them to seek knowledge. And though the wind would blow sand into his face, he wouldn’t leave, but waited patiently so that he could listen to the hadith. When the companion awoke he would say, ‘O cousin of Rasul Allah, why are you here? Why didn’t you ask for me? I would have come.’ Out of honour to the family of the Prophet (peace be on him). But Ibn Abbas would say with complete humility, ‘No, I am the one who should come to you, because I have heard that you have a hadith from Rasul Allah and you narrate this hadith, so I want to hear this from you.’ And one by one all the companions like Abu Bakr and Umar and the others passed away (may Allah be pleased with them), and people around him asked him for the knowledge, as he became the authority of Madinah later.
His friend then observed that Ibn Abbas had been the cleverer than him, and had spent his time wisely. Ibn Abbas used to write down the knowledge he sought, memorised it and constantly reviewed it. Imam al-Hakim commented on this story by saying, ‘This hadith is one of the main principles in seeking hadith and honouring the muhaddith (the scholar of hadith).’
Utilise your time
There are many lessons in this story, but one is that Ibn Abbas took the opportunity while he was young, to learn. He did not waste his time or energy playing Fortnite, or PlayStation! Instead, he sought knowledge from these companions while they were still alive. His friend thought he is wasting his time, as the great companions were alive– Abu Bakr, Umar, Ibn Masoud (may Allah be pleased with them), so why would anyone take a boy seriously when he had no weight compared to these authorities.
However, Ibn Abbas looked to the future. He knew he was young, but later he become the authority. He was learning for the sake of learning and persevering the knowledge and carrying it to future generations. And indeed, all those who came afterwards have referred to him, not because he was the cousin of the Prophet (peace be on him) which was an honour, but because of his efforts and the energy he dedicated to preserving knowledge and his legacy.
Shaykh Khalil Al Mays
I was fortunate to study with Shaykh Khalil al Mays, who was born in a village in Lebanon where they had nothing but fields and cows so there was not much scope for education, so his father sent him to al Azhar in Lebanon, which is linked to Al Azhar in Egypt and has visiting teachers from Egypt, as well as Lebanese teachers. He used to return home during the holidays and described how he would be holding his book in one hand and the reins of his mule in the other. He was so dedicated. And he had a friend who left Lebanon and migrated to do business and he made a fortune. He was the wealthiest in the village, with a castle, big farm and swimming pool and one day he invited Shaykh Khalil who was the shaykh of the area, and had also become the Mufti of the county (biqa’).
The friend held a huge feast and he invited everyone in the village, with Shaykh Khalil as his honorary guest. At the end of the meal, he asked the Shaykh to say a few words. Shaykh Khalil was very eloquent. Whenever he spoke, he would take you to a different planet. Mashallah he was also so humble he would sit on the floor and feed you from his own hands, even though he is a mountain of knowledge. When he finished his speech, his friend got up and said that though he had made a fortune, he wished he could donate all his wealth to have a fraction of the knowledge the Shaykh had. This is a true story. Truly, Allah honours the people of knowledge when they are sincere.
Don’t waste any opportunity
As long as you have the opportunity and the right teachers, don’t waste it. Whether it is wealth or time or good health, invest it in the right channels and later you will see the fruits of your efforts. Be among these people. Don’t accept the level you have right now, especially in knowledge. Always aim for higher. No matter how many obstacles you have. As long has you have ikhlas, dedication and connection with Allah, you can overcome anything.
Ata’ ibn Abi Rabah
The next story is about the great faqih (jurist) and tabi’e (successor), Atta ibn Abi Rabah, who was from Yemen and Makkah. He was born in Yemen in 27AH and died in 115AH. He was the top successor. He was an authority in fiqh and hadith, but when you read his biography you will be surprised at the obstacles he had in his life. He was lame, he had one arm and in addition he paralysed on one side and then later even became blind and he was also black. Nothing stopped him. Not his colour or his disabilities, despite that he became the foremost authority. Whenever you quote him, you can have the final say on the matter.
I urge everyone to read the biography of Imam Bukhari. Like the others Imam Bukhari sacrificed his sleep for the sake of knowledge. His students observed that during the night, he would wake up at least 15 times because he remembered something in his sleep. He would get up, light a lamp, start his fire, and write it down, then put out the fire and go back to bed. All this so that he did not miss anything out. He knew that knowledge is so valuable.
In different stories about different scholars we see that they used to sleep very little. They divided the night into three parts, which is the prophetic way. They dedicated one third for salah, one third sleep and one third for knowledge. We dedicate all night and all day to sleep, and many of us are doing nothing beneficial in that time.
Sometimes scholars would work through the night all the way to Fajr, unaware of how much time they had spent. One scholar was immersed in his work, so when his servant came to let him know that dinner was ready, he said ‘I am still writing’, so she started feeding him with her hand and he kept writing and eating. After many hours when he finished working, he went to her and said, ‘I am ready now. Where is my dinner? She said, ‘I already fed you your dinner.’ And he replied ‘Wallahi I didn’t notice.’ How can this happen? It is because he was fully focused on his knowledge. Their pleasure was in seeking knowledge and understanding and trying to understand the difficult matters and then Allah gives Fath openings, and this is more pleasurable to them than any worldly pleasure.
Abdur Rahman ibn ul Qasim al Utaqi
He was a companion of Imam Malik, and was born in 132AH and passed away in Egypt in 191AH.
His dedication and love for knowledge was beyond imagination. This is how our scholars developed knowledge and how it spread across the continents.
Ibn ul Qasim al Utaqi used to come to Imam Malik during the night and then wait on his doorstep to ask him few questions and learn the answers from him. He sat on his doorstep, leaning on his pillow night after night for 17 years doing the same thing. Even though it was not a sociable time to call, but ibn ul Qasim found Imam Malik would answer him with an overflowing knowledge in this particular time. This is why he kept coming in this special time.
One day, a young man came to Madinah wearing a mask and asked, ‘Who is ibn ul Qasim?’ Ibn ul Qasim said, ‘it’s me’, at which point the young man hugged him and told him he was his son. He had left his wife in Egypt pregnant and gave her the choice to be divorced because he is so busy seeking knowledge and going to Madinah. But she refused to be divorced and gave birth to his son and he came to see his father. You may say this is excessive and its not right to neglect your family, which is true, but at the same time we marvel the dedication of his family.
Imam Ahmed used to stay up late on many nights, teaching or reviewing knowledge. He said that you cannot get knowledge if your body is resting. You need to put energy in to learn.
How did teachers feel towards their students?
Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani one of the great teachers used to support and fund his students, as they were sleeping rough, he would give them money and feed them and clothe them. this has been the case with many shuykh, and I experienced this from our teachers in Damascus, and we had left our families, and they would invite us to their homes, and prepare a feast for us, it was like Eid for us.
It’s never too late to learn
Imam Razi, the scientist and inventor started seeking knowledge at an old age – he was over 50. So there is no cut off for learning knowledge. Take small steps and Allah will increase it for you and open the doors for you. Don’t make age an obstacle to your learning. When they asked Imam Ahmed why even though he was a great imam he was carrying around an inkwell in his old age, he replied, with that we would be with the inkwell till we go to the grave. It is a proverb among scholars. Ma’al mahbarah ilal makbarah.
How did the scholars manage to function with so little sleep?
The scholars would take a power nap in the day. This is crucial to enable them to stay up in the night, whether it was 10/15 minutes or half an hour. I myself witnessed my shaykh who was in his 70s and would wake before Fajr, recite Quran, stay awake til the sun rose, then go to his shop and then he would lead the salah in the masjid. He would teach in the mosque after Fajr and you could see he was tired from his face, his eyes would close while he was listening to his students, and the students would feel pleased that they might get away with some mistakes while he was sleeping, but as soon as they made a mistake he would open his eyes and correct them. Allah put barakah in their money, sleep, time, health and family.
Don’t underestimate the sincerity of intention and put in the effort and Allah will grant you success.
May Allah enable us to follow the footsteps of the Prophet (peace be on him) and dedicate more time to seek knowledge. Ameen.
Delivered to the Thursday Knowledge Circle, part 4 in the series of the Knowledge Seekers, based on the book, Safahat min sabr al-’Ulamaa (The Patience of the Pious Predecessors) by one of my late shuyukh, Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah (rahimahullahu Ta’ala).
The Full Series
July 03, 2020
July 01, 2020