A Motto From Our Masters – “I Do Not Know”

Cautioning the Student in Issuing Legal Rulings

Masters And Millennials (Twelve) by Shaykh Abdurragmaan Khan

This is the twelfth part of a series of articles that are based on al-Fawa’id al-Mukhtarah, one of the seminal works of the great scholar al-Habib Zayn bin Sumayt. The book focuses on a range of topics relevant to daily life and modern challenges for Muslims living in the West. In particular, this series is useful for anyone on the path of knowledge or seeking scholarship. The article emphasizes the care & caution required in issuing legal rulings. This can be applied to other facets of our lives by simply adopting the phrase I don’t know if we are unsure, for not knowing something does not lower one’s status.

In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate

Iftaa – the issuing of legal verdicts – is generally left for senior scholars who have attained a level of knowledge that enables them to give correct guidance on what is halal and haram, and therefore they are able to answer questions from the laity. However, many young students of knowledge hasten to answer such questions. This often stems from a problem in the lower self, which causes the person to desire to be known for what he has learned.

Habib Zayn refers to the salaf of the sadah al Ba‘Alawi. He says they shied away from three things, namely qada (delivering judgments), fatwa (issuing legal verdicts), and imamah (being an imam of a masjid or community). They only wanted to please Allah and were not concerned about whether people perceived them as persons of knowledge or leadership. They were focused solely on their relationship with Allah.

Habib Zain mentions a narration, which is insightful although it is not very reliable: The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “The bravest among you to issue a fatwa without fulfilling the requirements for doing so will be the bravest of you to enter the fire”.

Sayyidina ‘Ali came across a judge and asked him if he knew the nasikh (the abrogating text) and the mansookh (the text that is abrogated) in the narrations of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). He said he did not know. So Sayyidina ‘Ali said, “You are destroyed, and you are destroying others”.

Many scholars say that if one is asked a question and three days have elapsed since one has read the answer to the question, one should not issue a fatwa without checking the answer. Whoever has taught a class and has given the students incorrect knowledge should hasten to correct it.

Imam Malik said, “I did not issue a fatwa until seventy people who have reached the status of issuing fatwas testified that I am a person who is capable of issuing fatwas.”

We should note the wariness of the scholars of the past to issue fatwas and compare this to the eagerness of the young contemporary scholars to give answers and argue with muftis.

A man once came to ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas to ask him a question, but ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas was praying. So he asked one of the students of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas: “Something exited from my private parts; do I have to perform a ghusl?” The student replied that a ghusl is compulsory. When Ibn ‘Abbas finished praying, he said, “Catch up with the man and tell him Ibn ‘Abbas asks whether the substance exited with or without enjoyment.” The man answered that it came out without enjoyment. So Ibn ‘Abbas said a ghusl is not compulsory. Then he took the student to task and reprimanded him severely. He said, “Everything has a pillar, and the pillar of this religion is fiqh. One jurist has a more intense effect on shaytan than a thousand worshipers”.

When Sayyidina Abu Bakr narrated from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), he became nervous and shaky. He began to sweat because he was afraid that he would narrate incorrectly. So he ended by saying, “Or something like this”.

As students of knowledge, we must develop such thoroughness. We must not show off. We must realize that our knowledge is but a drop in the ocean compared to the knowledge of the great scholars in the world and our teachers.

We must learn to say, “I don’t know”. ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas said a man should utter that which he has learned, and a man who has not studied must say, “Allahu a’lam” (Allah knows best). When Sayyidina Ja’far al-Sadiq was asked a question to which he did not know the answer, he said, “la adri” (I do not know).

If you say you know people will continue asking you until you do not know, and if you say you do not know, people will continue teaching you until you know. The key to learning is to acknowledge that you do not know. You should enter a class as an empty cup waiting to be filled.

Imam al-Nawawi said it was the belief of the scholars that when a scholar says he does not know it does not lower his status in any way. Instead, it is proof that he has a high status, taqwa and perfection in knowledge. To say one does not know something indicates that one is a person of knowledge because one who does not have knowledge does not know that he does not know something.

Imam Shafi narrates that a delegation came to Madinah with forty-eight difficult questions and presented them to Imam Malik. He answered sixteen of them and said of the other thirty-two that he did not know the answers to them. So one of his students said, “O Imam, these people have come from afar to ask the Imam of Madinah. How can I tell them you say you do not know?” So Imam Malik repeated, “Tell them Malik does not know”, and he saw no fault in doing so.

It has been reported that Ibn Mas‘ud and Ibn ‘Abbas have said: “If a person issues a fatwa and answers every question as if he knows everything, this is a sign that he is mad.”


We should heed three important points that emanate from these narrations. Firstly, the station of issuing fatwas is not for everyone. Only a person who has attained a certain level of knowledge and has received permission from his teachers to answer questions from the public should present himself as able to answer such questions. Secondly, one who errs in his teachings should hasten to correct himself publicly. Thirdly, the great scholars of the past were able to say, “I do not know”. Likewise, we should learn to say we do not know.

May Allah grant us these qualities, Ameen.

Author’s Biography


Al-Habib Zayn bin Sumayt is a member of the Prophet’s family. His lineage goes through many pious forebears, such as al-Faqih al-Muqqadam and al-Imam Ahmad bin ʻIsa al-Muhajir, through Sayyidina Husayn to the Prophet Muhammad. He is an authority on Shafi’i fiqh and tasawwuf. From a young age, he sat in the company of the pious and studied with various scholars and institutes. His most senior teacher was Habib ‘Alawi bin ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Aydarus bin Shihab. He was also taught by Habib Ja‘far bin Ahmad al-‘Aydarus and Habib Muhammad bin Salim bin Hafiz. Habib Zayn taught the Islamic sciences in Bayda’ for thirty years. Thereafter he moved to Madinah and opened a ribat that attracted many students before it was forced to close. He was very attached to his wife, as our beloved Prophet was to Sayyidah Khadijah (Allah be pleased with her), and was saddened when she passed away a few years ago.