Knowledge: Obligation And Honor For A Muslim
The Muslim believes that exercising his mind and seeking knowledge and discovering the signs of Allah in the universe is an obligation, because of the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him):
“Seeking knowledge is a duty on every Muslim.” (Bukhari)
Therefore the Muslim must continue to pursue knowledge, as long as the breath of life remains in his body. The fact that Allah has raised the status of those who have knowledge, and described them alone as truly fearing Him, should be enough to encourage the Muslim to apply himself to seeking knowledge. For Allah said:
“…Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, who have knowledge…” (Qur’an 35: 28)
No one truly fears Allah except those whose minds are enlightened enough to see the greatness and power of Allah manifested in the creation of the universe and all living things, and these are the people of knowledge. So Allah has preferred them over those who have no knowledge:
“…Say Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know?’ It is those who are endued with understanding that receives admonition.” (Qur’an 39: 9)
Safwaan Ibn ‘Assal Al-Muradi came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the mosque and said, “O’ Messenger of Allah, I have come seeking knowledge.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) told him:
“Welcome, O seeker of knowledge! Truly the angels surround the seeker of knowledge with their wings, gathering around him in ranks one above the other, until they reach the first heaven, out of love for that which he seeks.”
The texts from the Qur’an and Hadith that extol the virtue of knowledge and exhort its pursuit are many, therefore the true Muslim is either a scholar or a seeker of knowledge, and cannot be anything else.
Continually seeking knowledge until death. True knowledge does not mean obtaining a degree or diploma that will let one earn an income and guarantee a good standard of living, after which one turns away from learning and does not explore the treasure of knowledge any further; true learning means that one continues to read and study, increasing one’s learning day by day, in accordance with the words of the Qur’an:
“…But say, ‘O my Lord! Advance me in knowledge.'” (Qur’an 20: 114)
Our righteous predecessors never stopped seeking to increase their knowledge, no matter how high a level of learning they had achieved, and they would continue their pursuit until the end of their lives. They believed that knowledge was a living thing that would thrive if it were actively pursued, but would wither and perish if it were ignored and abandoned. Many sayings are attributed to them that eloquently express their respect for learning and their keenness to acquire knowledge. Examples of their sayings are given below.
Imam Ibn Abdul-Barr reported that Ibn Abi Ghassan said: “So long as you are seeking the knowledge you are knowledgeable, but as soon as you abandon this pursuit you become ignorant.”
Imam Malik said: “No one who has knowledge should stop seeking knowledge.”
Imam Abdullah Bin Al-Mubarak was asked: “How long will you seek knowledge?” He said, “Until I die, for probably I have not yet learned the things that will benefit me most.”
Imam Abu ‘Amr Bin Al-‘Ala’ was asked: “For how long does it befit a man to seek knowledge?” He said, “For as long as he has life in him.”
Imam Sufyan Bin ‘Uyaynah gave an excellent answer when he was asked, “Who is most in need of seeking knowledge?” He said: “Those who have the most knowledge.” He was asked, “Why?” and he replied, “Because if they make a mistake, it is worse.”
Such was Imam Fakhr ad-Deen ar-Razi (d. 606 AH), the great mufassir (Qur’anic exegete), and prominent scholar in philosophy (‘llm al-kalam) and other disciplines, who authored many books. Allah gave him such fame in the knowledge that people would come from all over to see him whenever he visited a city.
When he came to the city of Merv (in Turkmenistan), flocks of scholars and students came to have the privilege of listening to and learning from him. Among the seekers of knowledge who attended his circle was a young man, less than 20-years-old, who was very well-versed in literature and genealogy. When Imam Razi realized that this student was an expert in genealogy, a field in which he knew very little, he asked this student to teach him.
He did not find it unacceptable to become the student of his student, and he even made him sit in the teacher’s place while he himself sat at his feet. Such an act was characteristic of Imam Fakhr ad-Deen ar-Razi, and it did not detract from his high status, as he was the Imam of his age.
This remarkable story was told by the literary historian Yaaqoot al-Hamwi in his book Mu’jam al-Udabaa’ (Dictionary of literary authors), where he gives a biography of ‘Aziz ad-Deen Isma’eel Bin Al-Hasan Al-Marwazi An-Nassabah Al-Husayni, whom Yaaqoot met and spent much time with, so was able to write a comprehensive biography of him. In this biography he says:
“Aziz ad-Deen told me: ‘Imam Fakhr Ad-Deen Ar-Razi went to Merv. He had such a great reputation and was held in such awe that nobody dared to argue with him; they would barely breathe in his presence. I went to meet him, and I often went to study with him.
One day he said to me: ‘I would like you to write me a book giving the genealogy of At-Talibiyeen (the descendants of Abu Taalib) so that I may study it, for I do not want to remain ignorant of it.’ I asked him: ‘Do you want it presented as a family tree, or written down as a narrative?’ He said, ‘A family tree cannot be learned by heart. I want something that I can memorize.’ So I went away and wrote the book, which I called Al-Fakhri. When I brought it to him, he took it, then got up from his mattress, sat on the mat, and told me to sit in the place he had just vacated.
I thought this was too much, and told him: ‘I am your servant.’ He reprimanded me severely, saying, ‘Sit where I tell you!’ Allah knows, I felt that I had no choice but to sit where he told me. Then he began to read the book to me, while he was sitting at my feet, asking me about anything he did not understand, until he finished the book. When he had finished, he said, ‘Now sit wherever you wish, for in this field of knowledge you are my teacher and I am your student, and it is not right for the student to sit anywhere but at the feet of his teacher.’ So I got up, and he sat in his rightful place, and I began to read to him, sitting where he had sat previously.”
After quoting this incident, Yaaqoot said, “Indeed this is good manners, especially for a man who enjoys such a high status.”
How great was the love and respect these scholars gave to knowledge! How highly they regarded it, and how great is the need for the later generation to learn from the attitude of their forbears!
What Muslims need to know
The first thing that the Muslim needs to know is how to read the Qur’an properly (with tajweed) and to understand its meaning. Then he should learn something of the sciences of Hadith, the Seerah of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the history of the Sahabah and Tabi ‘een, who are prominent figures in Islam.
He should acquire as much knowledge of Fiqh as he needs to ensure that his worship and daily dealings are correct, and he should ensure that he has a sound grasp of the basic principles of his religion. This is the duty of the Muslim who is not a specialist in the sciences of Shariah. If he is a specialist in a branch of Shariah, then he does what every true Muslim should do, which is to do his best to learn his specialty thoroughly and be successful in it. It goes without saying that every Muslim also needs to learn Arabic properly.
He should be proficient in his specialty
Besides this, the Muslim turns to his own specialty and gives it all of his energy, and pays a great deal of attention to it. He approaches it like a Muslim who believes that it is a religious obligation to work in his field of specialization, whether it is in Shariah or in another area of religious knowledge, or in another field such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, astronomy, medicine, industry, commerce, etc.
Therefore he should become proficient in whatever field he has specialized in and should spare no effort to read whatever has been written about it, both in his own language and in others if he is able to. He should keep abreast of developments in his field through continual reading and study of all its aspects.
This is because, in these times, the smart Muslim is the one who achieves great academic success, which will raise his status in the eyes of other people. This in turn will enhance his Da’wah, so long as he presents it sincerely and earnestly, and in accordance with the spirit of Islam and its teachings about knowledge.
Islam has made knowledge a duty, whereby the one who seeks it draws closer to Allah and adopts it as a means of earning His pleasure. So we see that the scholars of the early generation used to emphasize these sublime principles in their introductions to their books, because through the knowledge that they spent their lives spreading, they were seeking to earn the pleasure of Allah, and they presented the results of their study purely for His sake.
Information about other fields
The smart Muslim does not restrict himself to his own field but is open to learning about other areas too. So he reads books and academic, literary, and cultural journals about various useful branches of knowledge, especially those that are related to his own field. In this way, he gains knowledge about many things, which enriches his mind and broadens his horizons.
He is proficient in a foreign language
He does not forget to pay attention to foreign languages, because these days, learning a foreign language is one of the most important tasks required of the active Muslim who understands the demands of contemporary Islamic life.
His religion gives the attentive Muslim a great incentive to learn foreign languages. Fifteen centuries ago, the Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged the study of foreign languages so that the Muslims would always be able to communicate with various nations and races and convey to them the message of truth that Allah has entrusted to them to proclaim throughout the world. We see evidence of this in the Hadith narrated by Zayd Bin Thabit (may All be pleased with him), in which he says that the Prophet (peace be upon him) told him:
“O’ Zayd, learn the writing of the Jews, for by Allah I do not trust the Jews to write anything down for me.”
(Zayd) said: “So I learned it, and it only took me a month to become proficient in it. Then I used to take down whatever letters the Prophet (peace be upon him) wanted to send to them, and I would read for him the letters that they sent him.”
In another report, he said: “The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) asked me, ‘Do you know Syriac? I have received a letter in this language.’ I said, ‘No.’ He said:
‘Then learn it.’ So I learned it.”
Similarly, Ibn az-Zubayr (may Allah be pleased with him) was proficient in a number of languages, but learning them did not distract him from his religion or preparing for the Hereafter. He had a hundred (male) slaves, each of whom spoke a different language, and he used to speak to each slave in his own language. If you were to see this man when he was dealing with worldly affairs, you would think that he was a man who did not give a moment’s thought to the Hereafter, and if you saw him dealing with religious matters, you would think that he was a man who did not give a second’s thought to this world.
Nowadays, more than ever before, the Muslim needs to be proficient in foreign languages so that he may know what is going on around him, both positive and negative, and so that he may understand what has been written about his Ummah and its heritage in languages other than his own, and thus be able to defend his Ummah from evil and speak up for its well-being.
– Taken from the book ‘The Ideal Muslim’ by Mohammad Ali Al-Hashmi, published by International Islamic Publishing House, Riyadh.