Mar 16, 2012

To The Seeker Of Knowledge

By Melody


The seeking of knowledge is no doubt considered virtuous in Islam, and this can be highlighted with the fact that the first verse revealed in the Holy Qur’an was “Read!" [1]. Whether you’re seeking knowledge via education in schools, colleges or universities, or through your own private reading, the information in this article should serve as a guide to ensure that the greatest benefit and reward is attained from embarking on this journey. Since knowledge is also a responsibility, the seeker of knowledge must be equipped with both understanding the principles in seeking it and also in how to retain it. The duties of the student will be explained in this article, and in part 2 the retaining of knowledge will be further elaborated.

1. Purification
The first duty of the student is to purify oneself. Knowledge is a gift and can be described as the worship of the man’s heart, or the prayer of his innermost self. Thus, just as prayer requires one to perform ablution as a purification of the physical body prior to performing it, so should we purify our soul from diseases (lust, conceit, miserliness, anger, hypocrisy, envy, pride, greed) before pursuing the noble quest for knowledge. Furthermore, we are taught by the Prophet sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam that religion is built on cleanliness [2], and this can be interpreted in both the physical and spiritual sense.
Emphasis should be placed on the following two aspects of purification:

a) Purifying intentions so that you are seeking knowledge purely for His Sake. This is because our intentions make up the essence of our deeds. The Prophet sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam reports: "Actions are (judged) by motives (niyyah), so each man will have what he intended. [3]” It is absolutely essential that we ensure a completely pure intention, not only upon commencing our quest for knowledge, but also continuously throughout our journey.

b) Purifying the soul from impure traits and blameworthy characteristics.[4] In order for us to truly benefit from the knowledge gained, it is necessary that our heart is purified from diseases to ensure that it can be utilized for the good. The seeker of knowledge must note that there is a danger of pride, self-admiration and conceit with knowledge, which one must take heed with caution, for these traits can destroy the righteous. The details regarding the purification of the soul requires knowledge in itself and this will be discussed later. We have to be very critical of our thoughts and actions, constantly striving to purify our inner self and this is attained with sincere effort and continuous reflection.

Ghazali mentions a very interesting concept in his Book of Knowledge [i] on the nature of knowledge. He says: “[The] characteristic of true knowledge is that even a rudimentary grasp of it would show that sin is a fatal and destructive poison.”

In other words, a feature of true, pure and beneficial knowledge is that which will be of benefit in helping one to attain the Hereafter. It is almost as if any other knowledge acquired that does not help you with regards to your ultimate Abode, cannot really be classified as knowledge since the characteristic attribute and purpose of knowledge is for it to be of use to you. Ibn Mas’ud summarises this matter beautifully: “Knowledge is not the prolific retention of traditions but a light which floods the heart.” Indeed, this sheds a truly deep concept with reference to the purpose of knowledge and hence what it actually is. It is crucial for the seeker or knowledge to appreciate this concept.

2. Remove distractions
The second duty is to remove distractions around you to a minimum, for, in order to truly seek knowledge and to benefit from it, you must retain everything you learn, understand it, make links with other branches of knowledge and finally to implement it. The less distractions you have, the more you’re able to absorb and understand hence the more you will benefit from the knowledge gained. This could mean removing anything that may feed your mind with useless junk – television, for example – because the space in your brain should be filled with good and there is no room for that which will be of no benefit.

3. Respecting knowledge and the teacher
Beware of arrogance over your teacher, and take care not to scorn knowledge merely out of ignorance. Experience from teachers can reveal hidden treasures and wisdom that although may sound strange are actually of great use. You should respect the teacher, humble yourself before them, be grateful for the knowledge that is being delivered to you and absorb all their advice. Take heed and note every detail. One manifestation of pride over the teacher is accepting knowledge only from the well-known and popular teachers. This is illogical since knowledge is your means to salvation, thus it should not matter where you seek it, rather you should seize this gift wherever it can be sought.

Although asking questions was ordained by God (“So ask the people of the Scriptures if you do not know.[5]”), this is only confined to what the teacher allows. This is because the teacher knows whether you are ready to grasp the new concept, and if not will reveal them when they deem it appropriate. So one must be patient and appreciate the graduation in knowledge.

Ali provides wise advice to the way in which our teachers should be treated. He says: “Among the obligations which you owe the learned man are:

· Not to pester him with too many questions nor expect him to reply to all your enquiries;
· Not to be importunate when he seems lazy nor attempt to detain him when he starts to go away;
· Not to divulge his secrets nor to tell tales about other people in his presence.
· Furthermore do not seek to trap him; whenever he commits a mistake be ready to excuse him.
· In obedience to God it is your duty to respect and honour him as long as he himself continues to obey God.
· Remain standing in his presence and whenever he needs something be the first to wait on him.”

It is remarkable the degree of honour that is required of us to give to our teachers. But if you think about it, this is not surprising since they are nurturing us through their knowledge and thus giving us the means to our happiness and success, and this should not to be regarded lightly.

4. Dealing with differences in opinions
No doubt there are various opinions in specific matters of all branches of knowledge. The student should initially set aside the differences in opinions, and focus first on the opinion that the teacher deems as the most praiseworthy. Once understanding of this has been established, the student may then look into the other schools of thought and research the reasoning behind those. However, caution should be taken towards teachers who do not form their own independent thoughts but rather quote what other schools of thought believe since Ghazali explains that such influence of a teacher is more misleading than helpful.

5. Appreciating all praiseworthy knowledge
The seeker of knowledge should not allow for any beneficial knowledge to escape from them; they should utilize the resources available and ensure that the topics at hand are understood, and if time permits it, to further take on that knowledge in more detail. Most topics are linked together which allows for better understanding of the wider picture. Strive to make use of your abilities and exert your best effort in acquiring knowledge to a high level of understanding and excellence. If you seek it with the intention of reaching Him, you will be raised up in ranks in the Hereafter.

6. Importance of structure to the knowledge gained
Knowledge is extensive and it is all too easy to get lost and miss the point of the pursuit. The seeker of knowledge should appreciate that there must be some order in their pursuit for knowledge, starting with the core foundations then building up from there. One should strive to acquire knowledge from all branches – get the best of everything, focusing perhaps on the topics of most interest to you. God has instilled in each of us different interests and abilities, of which we can use as tools to seek Him and attain the Afterlife. The noblest of all knowledge is that which increases your understanding of God, and this is what we should strive to master (more on this later). This does not belittle the other branches of knowledge; on the contrary all will be rewarded if God is whom one seeks to please rather than aiming to fulfil one’s own desires (fame/status etc.).

7. Mastering each branch of knowledge
It is important not to progress to a branch of knowledge before mastering the branch which preceded it. As already mentioned, knowledge is built in progressive stages and one form of knowledge needs to be understood before progressing on to the next stage, otherwise much confusion will ensue.

8. Appreciating the different levels of knowledge
This is a significant concept. If we are to determine which knowledge will be of most importance to us, it needs to be that which will provide us with the best fate. Our life comprises of both the current one and an Afterlife, and both of these need to be considered when prioritising knowledge. However, this life is temporary and merely a means to attaining the Hereafter whilst the afterlife is eternal and our final destination. It is not rational, therefore, to focus on attaining this life and forget that there is another, greater, phase of your life that you must prepare for. Furthermore this life has been so designed that only upon aiming for the Hereafter – and more specifically, the meeting of God – will you be able to find bliss in both this life and the next.

Thus, the ranking of knowledge can be as follows:

a) That which is concerned with ensuring physical and social harmony. By physical this encompasses medicine and its branches, and by social this comprises Law, Politics, Sociology, Psychology etc. Since our body is merely a vehicle in which to fulfil our purpose in life (and that is to worship God), anything concerned with understanding human nature and ensuring its functioning and order is placed under this category.

b) The next level is the knowledge needed to purify the soul from diseases and flaws. We need this knowledge to learn how to face obstacles that, if not overcome, can deviate us in our path to God.

c) Finally, the most noble of all knowledge is the science of knowing God, and this comprises of His attributes (99 names), His Prophets, the Judgement day and the path which leads to these sciences. Only with knowledge of Him can you truly love Him, and when that love enters your heart it represents the ultimate fulfilment of your purpose to the highest degree; and with that brings the utmost level of happiness and inner peace. The mastering of this knowledge characterises the difference between those who accept faith and believe on authority – hence attaining protection and salvation in the Afterlife, to those who take their faith further and appreciate and love Him as their Creator, and upon doing so, are able to perceive an inward truth that is clearer and more real than seeing with the eye. By being close to God in this life, so they shall be close to Him in the afterlife, and this produces the greatest level of contentment and bliss.

The duties outlined above were taken from the Book of Knowledge by Al-Ghazali (translated by Nabih Amin Faris), the book of which provides an extensive account of the merits, value and branches of knowledge including many other important aspects. A highly recommended book to all seekers of knowledge:

[1] Surah Al-Alaq 96:1
[2] Sahih Haidths
[3] Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith
[4] Al-Ghazali, Book of Knowledge
[5] Surah Al-Nahl 16:43

I'd love to hear your views on this topic. Please post in the comments section below! :)


Salam, I find this very informative. However; I would like more descriptive help on the 1-7 above. I'm very interested and having each item explained in deeper discussion. This is very good for converts like me. I love this site. It's helping me immensly.
                                          Walaikum salam

masha'Allah this was a well-written article. I always enjoy learning the etiquette of seeking knowledge. May Allah Reward you for summarizing the points from the book of Al-Ghazali and May He grant us all the sincerity and the discipline to learn the Deen of Allah. Ameen 

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