Adab 02: Seeking Sacred Knowledge – Ustadh Tabraze Azam
Ustadh Tabraze Azam delves into the necessary adab for the student seeking sacred knowledge based on Revelation, Hadith, and advice from Scholars and sages of Islam.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
“Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim,” said the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Namely, learning specifically that by which you can validate your religious obligations is a duty which none are exempt from. Beyond that, however, we enter the realm of those who want to learn and apply the Divine Address more fully. In doing so, there are duties and manners which need to be upheld in order to truly benefit from a share of the prophetic inheritance.
The famous sage and scholar, Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah al Iskandari, may Allah sanctify his secret, remarked in an aphorism: “If sacred knowledge is accompanied with reverential awe (khashya) [of the divine], it will be for you. Otherwise, it will count against you.” Knowledge, thus, brings about a weighty responsibility and essentially entails carrying something of the prophetic message. Naturally, the expectation for those who carry it and have been honored with it isn’t the same as that for others.
At the end of the day, this matter is about you and your Lord. It is not about test scores, refutations or knowing more than others. This realization should bring about in us a sense of reverence for what this is and what it is for, namely, worship. If sacred knowledge isn’t transforming us and altering our very being, it is time for some introspection.
A good start, then, is to remind ourselves of the adab, or proper duties and manners, to be upheld in studying and seeking. This is what we’ll be striving to remind ourselves of here, insha’Allah.
Intention and Sincerity
It cannot be lost on any of us that the point of learning what Allah Most High and His Messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, commanded is to actually do what they said. Accordingly, the primary intention in one’s seeking should be to please Allah Most High alone. A reminder of this point is the verse, “they were only commanded to worship Allah alone with sincere devotion to Him in all uprightness.” (Sura al Bayyina 98:5) Learning is worship when it is for Allah. But worship only truly takes place when there is knowledge.
The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “Actions are only by their intentions, and each person shall get whatever they intend.” He also said, Allah bless him and give him peace: “The intention of a believer is greater than his action.”
This gives us something to be hopeful for because even if our studies never fully kick off, we will be rewarded in accordance with our intention and not what actually happened. But take your first step with the right intention, and ask Allah to take care of the rest for you.
Priorities and Focus
Khatib al-Baghdadi relates from Qadi Abu Yusuf, the most senior companion of Imam Abu Hanifa, that he remarked that “Knowledge is something which will not give you even a part of itself until you give it all of yourself. And even if you give it all of yourself, it may not give you anything at all.”
What he is telling us here is that you will not attain unto this sacred knowledge until you give it all you’ve got of your time and energy. Essentially, it cannot be a mere hobby, but something taken very seriously.
Now, this is obviously with respect to somebody on the road to becoming a scholar, but the same can be applied to somebody merely seeking to learn something of their religion. If you are listening to recordings or attending live sessions, don’t browse the internet, update your social media, have a conversation, sleep (!) or do anything which indicates a lack of sincere concern and interest.
If you want to learn, you have to give what you’ve got. Anything worth having takes time and effort, and gaining sacred knowledge is no different.
Consulting is imperative for anybody seeking to traverse the path of the righteous scholars of the past. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, indicated this “trodden path” in the famous tradition (hadith) of seeking knowledge. It should be noted that consultation in this context would refer to a variety of matters, but what is of primary concern here, is to consult regarding from whom knowledge should be taken. Clearly, there is a difference between a caller (da‘i) and a scholar (‘alim/shaykh), and you should know well how to benefit from both.
Imam Shatibi demarcated what should be sought of in a teacher of sacred knowledge. If any of these matters are missing, you should be wary of taking from such a person. One: he acts in accordance with his knowledge. Two: his knowledge is taken from genuine scholars. Three: he follows the way of those he took from.
The point of consultation is to ask somebody knowledgable, righteous and trustworthy about the wisdom in undertaking whatever you are about to do. If you don’t know who to ask, you should read about the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, and the way he was, and ask the person that most resembles what you read.
As ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-San‘ani said: “Every type of knowledge which doesn’t enter the lavatory with you isn’t real knowledge.” This doesn’t mean you should take your library into the restroom! Rather, the sign of knowledge is mastery and memorization such that you don’t need your books to explain the point. Others have noted this as “students of the day” and “students of the night.” The former require light to look in their books, but the latter aren’t in need of them. Imam Ghazali reportedly learnt this the hard way when his books were stolen from him on a journey.
The early Muslims would learn prophetic traditions and the religion in general by taking something small and applying it in their lives until it became second nature to them. There are two lessons we can take away from this. Firstly, memorization needn’t be specifically rote, but anything by which you can learn the details would be considered memorization.
Secondly, you need to be gradual and practical in your learning. If you jump ahead to commentaries, glosses or specialized sciences, you will simply get lost in a sea of knowledge. Rather, the first step is to learn the most important rulings, and then to grow in knowledge by consulting with those who have already traversed the path. There is much that can be said here, but we’ll suffice with this, insha Allah.
Preparation and Review
This is an extension of the previous point. The only way to become a person of knowledge, namely, scholarly in the outward sense, is to take the means of mastery. What this practically entails is that you prepare for your classes by, at the very least, going over the material you’ll be covering. This process of preparation, when done right, is extremely beneficial. Similarly, reviewing the material after the lesson, or ideally, discussing it with your fellow classmates, if any, is very important as it helps to actually consolidate the material covered.
The idea is to ensure that you are always actively engaging with the material. Knowledge cannot simply be deposited into you. “Seeker” is an active participle. It entails that some effort and action is going into the matter. Any manner of fulfilling this which demonstrably works would be acceptable, but the key is to have something in place. Again, there are many specifics which have been left out here, but hopefully the idea is plain.
We ask Allah Most High to facilitate for us His Good Pleasure in this life before the next, and that He bless us with the tremendous gift of true knowledge and practice so that we may be with those He loves.
“And whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger will be in the company of those blessed by Allah: the prophets, the people of truth, the martyrs, and the righteous — what honorable company!” (Sura al Nisa 4:69)
And Allah alone gives success.
In this new series of articles and podcasts, Ustadh Tabraze Azam discusses the meaning of adab and what it means for a Muslim to do things in the right way.