This following piece by Imam Ibn al-Jawzi (d.597H/1200CE) – Hanbali jurist, famous preacher and prolific author – is from his book Sayd al-Khatir. Part autobiographical, part exhortational and part meditative, the book is a frank account of his life, works, experiences, achievements, burdens, disappointments, hopes and aspirations. Since it was written over a period of twenty years, it reflects the evolution of his thoughts and ideas as Ibn al-Jawzi the man, scholar and pietist. Here we find him reminiscing over how certain types of knowledge can, if the student is not careful, make the heart dry and hard; and how it is critical to keep spiritual company and bathe the soul in the stories of the righteous – if the heart is to be kept “moist”. One of Islam’s enduring wisdoms states: inda dhikri’l-salihin tanzilu’l-rahmah – “On mentioning the righteous, mercy descends.”
‘I see that occupying oneself with jurisprudence (fiqh) or learning hadiths is hardly sufficient to rectify the heart, unless one adds to this the reading of heart-melting traditions (raqa’iq) and the study of the lives of the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salihin). For they reached the objective of the texts and transcended the external form of the prescribed duties to taste their inner meanings and intent. I do not inform you of this save after personal exposure and experience. For I have found that most of the scholars and students of hadith are primarily concerned with attaining the shortest chain of transmission, or to increase the collections of hadiths narrated by a single narrator or dealing with a single theme or subject; while the majority of jurists busy themselves with dialectics or how to win debates. So how can hearts ever be softened by such things?
Previously, groups of the predecessors would visit a pious person only to observe his manners and conduct, not to learn knowledge from him. For the fruits of knowledge lie in comportment and conduct; so understand this. Hence combine the learning of fiqh and hadith with study of the lives of the predecessors and worldly renunciants (zuhhad) so that this may be a cause for your heart to soften.
To this end I have written biographies on each of the renowned, honourable persons, detailing their lives and character. I have written one on al-Hasan [al-Basri], Sufyan al-Thawri, Ibrahim b. Adham, Bishr al-Hafi, Ahmad b. Hanbal, Ma‘ruf [al-Karkhi], as well as other scholars and renunciants. And God grants the enabling grace to achieve the objective.
However, actions cannot be rectified with a paucity of knowledge. For their example is like that of a commander and a subordinate, with the soul stubbornly between the two. Only with the combined efforts of the commander and the subordinate can the goal be reached. And we seek refuge in God from apathy.’1
1. Sayd al-Khatir (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2004), 228-9.
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