The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

What Were Abu Hurayrah’s Two Vessels of Knowledge?

dreamstimefree_147987Al-Bukhari records in his Sahih, no.120, that Abu Hurayrah stated: ‘I preserved from the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, two vessels of knowledge. The first I have disseminated among people. If I were to circulate the other, my throat would be slit.

Some contend the vessel of knowledge Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him, felt unable to disseminate, from fear of his gullet being cut, was esoteric, spiritual knowledge of the faith. This interpretation, however, runs counter to other reports from him that contextualise the above words.

The following elaborations from Abu Hurayrah himself will, I hope, clarify that rather than being some ‘special’ spiritual knowledge that had to be kept from the uninitiated, Abu Hurayrah was referring to knowledge of certain political dissensions (fitan, sing. fitnah) which were soon to be unleashed on the ummah. Abu Hurayrah held back from narrating certain hadiths concerning Yazid b. Mu‘awiyah and the Ummayads, and the upheavals that were about to take place after the year 60H, fearing for his life.

Abu Hurayrah relates that God’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘Seek refuge in God from the turn of [the year] seventy and from the rule of young boys.’1

Abu Hurayrah himself said: ‘Woe to the Arabs for a calamity that is fast approaching: the rule of young boys! If you obey them they shall cause you to enter the Fire, but if you disobey them they shall smite your necks with swords.’2

‘Umayr b. Hani narrated: ‘Abu Hurayrah would say: Hold on to the two temples of Mu‘awiyah. O God, let me not reach the year sixty!’3

When the Ka‘bah had been burnt and destroyed by the army of Husayn b. Numayr [in the year 63H], ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amr stood before it tearful, and declared: ‘People! By God, if Abu Hurayrah had informed you that you would fight the grandson of your Prophet or burn the House of your Lord, you would have said that there is no greater liar than Abu Hurayrah! But now you know! So expect divine retribution [in the form of] being split into factions and tasting the torment some of you will mete out against others.’4

Abu Hurayrah advised: ‘O son of my brother, be kind to your sheep, wipe their mucus from them, improve their pastures and pray in their vicinity; for they are among the animals of Paradise. By the One in whose hand is my life! There will soon come a time upon people when a small flock of sheep will be dearer to its owner than the house of Marwan.’5

During the reign of Yazid, three heinous incidents occurred: the Prophet’s grandson, al-Husayn b. ‘Ali, was killed; Madinah was ransacked for three days, resulting in the deaths of many Companions; and the Ka‘bah was attacked and burnt, at which time Yazid perished. Abu Hurayrah died just before all this occurred, in 59H. May God be pleased with him.

Let us conclude by citing the explanation of Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani to the initial words of Abu Hurayrah. He writes in his magisterial commentary to Sahih al-Bukhari:

‘Scholars have taken the “vessel” which he did not disseminate, to mean those hadiths where the names, conditions and times of these wicked leaders were spelled out. Abu Hurayrah would, however, hint to some of it, without being explicit, for fear of his life; like when he relates: ‘Seek refuge in God from the turn of the year sixty and the rule of young boys’ – referring to the caliphate of Yazid b. Mu‘awiyah whose rule commenced in 60H. God answered Abu Hurayrah’s prayers, since he died the year before it … Ibn Munayyir said: The Bataniyyah use these hadiths to justify their falsehood of believing the shari‘ah to have an outer, exoteric (zahir) and inner, esoteric (batin) meaning: even if the result of this esoterism is the disintegration of the religion!’6

1. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, no.37235. It is hasan, as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.3191.

2. Ibn Abi Shaybah, no.37236.

3. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, al-Isabah fi Tamyiz al-Sahabah (Cairo: 2008), 13:57.

4. Al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1982), 3:94.

5. Malik, al-Muwatta, Book 49; hadith no.31.

6. Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 1:288-9.

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8 thoughts on “What Were Abu Hurayrah’s Two Vessels of Knowledge?

  1. Muhammad Saleem Anwar on said:

    ‘Drinking Deep’ does help demystify some of the issues. Commendable work!

    It is also very nice to see references from some earlier, less well-known texts like Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 297 AH), and Muwatta Maalik (d.197 AH).

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  2. “Demystification Through Drinking Deeply.” Could be the title of a book, or of a series of blog posts.

    On a more serious note, it is important that we take recourse to the great commentaries on hadiths works to better understand and contextualise the prophetics utterances. Serious damage to our Tradition is done when this does not happen. May Allah grant us humility and tawfiq.

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  3. Hassaan on said:

    Thank you for this shaykh, your explanation of this hadith was very helpful!

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  4. abu haidar on said:

    Jazak Allah khair akhi for this as I have pondered over this for a while. Wonderful insights and cross-referencing of hadith. Also, it is important to acknowledge the wickedness of Yazid in order to learn from our past and prevent the same things happening again. I look forward to more of your posts. wasalam

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    • History is indeed a great teacher. May Allah grant us the grace to draw valuable lessons from it – as Ibn Mas‘ud, radiallahu ‘anhu, said: ‘The fortune one is he who learns a lesson from the affairs of others.’

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  5. It was a little disheartening to read this, to be honest. I liked the idea of there being two types of knowledge given to Abu Hurayrah, one exoteric and one esoteric. But if this is the truth, then it’s the truth.

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    • Subhanallah! Although it’s been a few decades since I first learnt of this explanation, I remember feeling the same way too! But you hit the nail on the head when you said: if this is the truth, then it’s the truth.

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