The Seven Rules to Seeking Sacred Knowledge
The duties instated by faith are a necessary measure in order to regulate human affairs, guide man, prevent him from straying, as well as dissuade him from self-harm or harming others. By recognising that the Sacred Law (sharī‘ah) exists to guide and protect us, we can attain to a reasonable equilibrium in this world and joy in the next.
Vital to this is knowledge, for without it we would not know how to live out God’s will in our lives. As such, a core body of sacred knowledge has been made obligatory upon each Muslims to acquire and learn – which is what is meant by this celebrated hadith: ‘The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.’1
In our quest to gain and to grow in knowledge (‘ilm), the following seven considerations should be kept at the forefront of our mind:
1. God loves and honours the learned and the seekers of knowledge: God will raise to high ranks those who believe and those among you who have knowledge. [58:11] It is stated in a hadith: ‘Whoever traverses a path in order to seek knowledge, God will facilitate for him, due to it, a path to Paradise.’2 Another states: ‘The world and whatever is in it is cursed, except for the remembrance of God and whatever is attached to Him, and a scholar and a learner.’3 Knowing how beloved to Allah sacred knowledge is should help spur us on to learning sacred knowledge and valuing its acquisition.
2. Knowledge is a means to the goal, it is not the goal in itself. That goal is worship and action. ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge,’ states the following prophetic caution, ‘in order to compete with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to turn peoples’ faces towards him, let him takes his seat in the Fire.’4 Similar sentiments echo in the following hadith: ‘Whoever learns knowledge by which is sought the Face of God, but he does so only to achieve some worldly gain, shall not smell [even] the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection.’5 Abu Qilabah, one of Islam’s early pietists, advised: ‘If God gives to you knowledge, give to Him worship; and don’t let your concern be to merely narrate to the people.’6 Knowing that knowledge is a means should help focus our sincerity on singling-out Allah for His pleasure and acceptance in seeking sacred knowledge.
3. Learning knowledge must be prioritised. At the base of the pyramid is learning the fard al-‘ayn – what is a “personal obligation” on each individual (in contrast to a fard kifayah, or communal obligation). Ibn Rajab said: ‘So it is obligatory on each Muslim to learn what is mandated by religion in terms of ritual purification, prayer or fasting. It is obligatory on those who possess wealth to know what is due from it in terms of giving zakah, financial maintenance [of one’s dependants], performing pilgrimage and aiding jihad. Likewise, it is obligatory on those in trade and commerce to learn what transactions are valid and invalid … Realise, too, that knowledge of the lawful and prohibited must also be learnt.’7
The golden rule in this regard is as follows: afḍal al-‘ilm ‘ilm al-hāl wa afḍal al-‘aml hifẓ al-hāl – ‘The best knowledge is knowledge of one’s [current] state, while the best action is guarding one’s [current] state.’8 That is to say, one must acquire as much knowledge as one requires so as to fulfil the obligation of the moment (be it a duty one owes to God or to others), or to refrain from the prohibition of the moment. Knowing that knowledge must be prioritised, as well as what to prioritise, will save us from the aimless confusion most people fall into concerning this matter.
4. As important as it is, one must never acquire secular or worldly learning while being ignorant of one’s fard al-‘ayn – knowledge of one’s “personal religious obligations.” Thus, whilst censuring those who adopt such a negligent attitude, the Qur’an says: They know the outward appearances of the life of this world, but are heedless of the Hereafter. [30:7] In light of this verse, al-Hasan al-Basri once protested: ‘By God! One of them knows about this world to the extent he can pick up a coin and tell you its weight and worth. Yet he doesn’t know how to pray properly!’9 Yet how many still choose to skate on thin ice, even today? For how many Muslims are there who are versed in the finer details of politics, football, fashion, celebrity culture, or just the latest social media gossip, yet are woefully ignorant about their fard al-‘ayn duties; content with leaving their religious knowledge at a precarious or infantile level.
5. The ideal way to learn is to study with qualified teachers who have been granted license (‘ijazah) to teach by recognised scholars. This next axiom is key: inna hādha’l-‘ilma dīnun fa yanẓuru ‘amman ta’khudhūna dīnakum – ‘Indeed, this knowledge is religion; so look from whom you take your religion’. In the absence of such teachers, form a study group, basing it on humility and the ability to say, “I do not know” when needed. Think, reflect, ponder, question – but never invent your own rulings or fatwas. Instead, cling tenaciously to the divine order: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [21:7] Knowing this will help save us from the pitfalls many have stumbled into, by taking as teachers charlatans, DIY-da‘is and other pretenders unfit and unqualified for teaching sacred knowledge.
6. We must know our own level and harbour no pretensions about how little we really do know. Simple ignorance (jahl baṣīt) may not always be blameworthy. For the act of asking and being answered is usually cure enough for such lack of knowledge. But compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab) – ignorance of actually being ignorant! – is a different kettle of fish. One often finds those who paddle in such a pitiful state to be highly argumentative, hostile, bigoted and an enemy to the righteous. To this end, al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad once said: ‘There are four types of men:  One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him!  One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him!  One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him!  One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’10
7. Lastly, it’s vital that knowledge be internalised and rooted in the heart, in order to beget reverent awe before God and humility before Man. Sound intention is key. Mālik b. Dīnār said: ‘Whoever learns knowledge so as to act by it, his knowledge humbles him. Whoever seeks it for other than that, only increases in pride by it.’11 Imam al-Dhahabi advised: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge in order to act by it, his knowledge humbles him and causes him to weep at himself. But one who learns knowledge just to teach, to give fatwas, or to brag and show-off, becomes foolish, arrogant, argumentative, perishes in his vanity and is despised by others: He is indeed successful who purifies it [his soul], and is a failure who corrupts it. [91:9-10].’12
We end with the words of the celebrated pietist, Yusuf b. al-Husain: ‘With courtesy (adab) you understand knowledge. With knowledge, your actions are rectified. With actions, you are endowed with wisdom. With wisdom, you understand worldly renunciation (zuhd) and are given to achieve it. With renunciation, you cast aside the world. By casting aside the world, you long for the Afterlife. With longing for the Afterlife comes the pleasure and acceptance of God.’13
1. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.224, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Manawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:267.
2. Muslim, no.2699.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2323, who said the hadith is hasan.
4. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2654.
5. Abu Dawud, no.3664. Al-Nawawi declared its chain to be sahih, in Riyad al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1399.
6. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1977), no.38.
7. Ibn Rajab, ‘Warathat al-Anbiya’, Majmu‘ Rasa’il Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2002), 1:22-23.
8. Al-Zarnuji, Ta‘lim al-Muta‘allim (Karachi, Dar al-Bushra, 2010), 7.
9. Cited in Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 3:437.
10. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538; al-Ghazali, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Riyadh: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:220.
11. Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml, no.31.
12. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 18:192.
13. Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml, no.27.