Translation from Ibn Al-Jawzi’s Sayd Al-Khatir (Quarry of the Mind) | How to Prioritize Islamic Sciences Learning

IN MY EXPERIENCE, avidity in acquiring something tends to rob one of the benefit for which one so avidly sought to obtain it in the first place.

So, for example, we see that one who covetously gathers wealth and acquires it in abundance remains unsatisfied by it and seeks to accumulate even more of it. If truly such a one understood wealth, he would know that its purpose is not hoarding it but using it in one’s life. If one spends one’s life accumulating wealth, one loses the benefit of both one’s life and one’s wealth.

Many are the people who pile up wealth but never enjoy it. In fact, these people preserve their wealth for others while they themselves perish. So says the poet:

They are like the silkworm

What he builds for himself he destroys

while others gain the silk

Even so do we see among people of knowledge those who are intent on gathering to themselves books; that is, they spend their lives transcribing them [to have them]. Take for example the students of ^adîth who spend their whole lives copying ^adîth books and listening to all the narrations. These kind of acquisitive accumulators of ^adîth may differ from each other in certain ways, but the upshot is the same.

Some busy themselves with the science of ^adîth, grading the narrations and so forth. Yet they never come to understand the answers to the simplest questions.

Such a mu^addith may accumulate, even for a short, simple ^adîth, one hundred narrations. I have been told, for instance, that one such ^adîth scholar heard the a^adîth of Ibn ¢Arafah from a hundred shaykhs and gathered as many as seventy versions of this minor ^adîth collection.

There are others who accumulate ^adîth books by way of transcription, who hear firsthand the narrations they contain, who nonetheless do not distinguish what is authentic among these a^adîth from what is not. Nor do they understand the meanings of these a^adîth.

Thus you hear them say: “I have heard [by way of narration to me] such and such book [of ^adîth], and I have a manuscript of it. And I have heard [by way of narration to me] ‘this’ book and ‘that’ book.” Yet, this same student of knowledge has derived no benefit from the knowledge he has acquired because he cannot distinguish between what is authentic and what is weak. His business with memorizing all of these a^adîth has distracted him from what is important in this knowledge.

Likewise, you see among the ^adîth folk those who seek to perfect the art of narration without learning the other sciences. Thereafter, they stretch their hand to an occupation (that is to say, fiqh) of which they know but little. Thus, when they give fatâwa, religious rulings, they make mistakes. When they speak about the fundamentals of religion, they are confused. Were it not for the fact that I abhor mentioning people [in a negative light] by name, I could state herein accounts of major scholars who suffer from these very problems. I could detail for you the confusions that beset them and the tremendous mistakes they made because of this. Yet to the educated in the religious sciences, their errors are evident.

Knowledge Has Hierarchies

Now, one may say to me in defense of these avid accumulators of knowledge: “Is there not a ^adîth that states: ‘Two are ever hungry and never sated: The seeker of knowledge, and the seeker of the world.’?”

To this I say in speaking to the would-be scholar, I am not advising you to satisfy yourself with the knowledge you have. Rather, I am telling you to give knowledge that is more important a higher priority.

For, indeed, the rational one assesses the likely length of a life [meaning people on average may live with relative health, say, into their 60s, but thereafter, if there is a thereafter, they may well meet with various incapacitations]. Based on this, one will prioritize one’s acquisition of knowledge in accordance with one’s life expectancy. In this way, one begins each stage of life having prepared a plan for that stage, and should one pass away before reaching a stage, Allah will reward one for what one intended to do.

Thus, when the rational man realizes his life is short while knowledge is vast, it is unbecoming for the intelligent student to busy himself, for example, with hearing and writing a^adîth with the goal of being able to recite every single narration. Such a one will not be able to accomplish this task in fifty years of dedicated striving, especially if he is busy with the slight variations in the different narrations. Most probably, this student will never even memorize the entire Quran.

Another may seek to occupy himself with the Quranic sciences, learning nothing of ^adîth. Or one may learn the intricacies of fiqhî, legal, disagreements without ever coming to understand the transmissions of the ^adîth narrations out of which these disputes arose to begin with.

Were a student to ask me: “Make a plan for me for scholarship that you would choose for yourself.” I would say that the people of high resolve are apparent from their childhood. As Sufyân ibn ¢Uyaynah said: “My father said to me when I was fifteen: ‘The Sharî¢ah of childhood has expired for you. Therefore, follow goodness so that you may be among the good.’ I made this advice of my father a qiblah, a direction, that I always faced and from which I never turned away.’”

A Curriculum for Acquiring Knowledge

Before I answer you, student of ¢ilm, seeker of knowledge, as to the plan for scholarship you are looking for, let me say this: The notion of falling short in the endeavors one has the capacity to complete is repulsive to anyone with dignity.

For example, if one could attain to prophethood through sustained striving, it would be inappropriate for one to satisfy oneself with conventional leadership. Or if a one thought he could become the Caliph of this Ummah, it would be unacceptable to suffice oneself as a sultan, or ruler, of an emirate [that is, a nation-state not part of the Islamic caliphate]. Nor should a king content himself as a subject.

The point I am making is that one should strive to reach the highest level one can in knowledge and righteous deeds. Hence, when one knows that life is short and knowledge is extensive, one should begin by memorizing the Quran. Then one should read tafsîr, Quran commentary and explication, and study this in a moderate way, neither too deeply nor too briefly. By reading tafsîr, the student of knowledge achieves a modest understanding of all of the Quran’s verses; that is, as opposed to having an in-depth knowledge of only a portion of them, or going through them in only a cursory manner.

Then one should make sure that one has a correct recitation of the Quran in accordance with the seven qira’ât, the seven authentic recitations of the Quran.

Next, one ought to study the basics of grammar and read in the major books of linguistics.

Thereafter, let one study the important ^adîth books, including Bukhârî, Muslim, Musnad A^mad, and Abû Dâwûd. Along with this, the student must learn the fundamentals of ^adîth science, as to acquainting oneself with the weak narrators, and the like. Here, the student should understand that the scholars have organized this knowledge in a way that does not waste a student’s time.

In addition, the student should not neglect apprising himself of the historical aspects of these studies that he necessarily needs to know, specifically what pertains to the Sîrah. This would include learning the lineage of the Prophet œ, his genealogy, his household, and the milestones that mark his life and lifetime.

The student should next turn his attention to fiqh, or Law. In this field, he must acquaint himself with the madhâhib, the schools of Law. The would-be scholar ought to research the controversial issues of fiqh himself [to come to his own understanding as to whom he shall follow]. In the study of fiqh, he should occupy himself with mastering the fundamentals of fiqh, including the rulings of inheritance. Moreover, he has to understand that the science of fiqh rests upon the combination of the tafsîr and ^adîth.

As for theology, or kalâm, there is no need to delve into it. What is sufficient in this is that one understands the evidences for the existence of the Creator, knows that all attributes of perfection and praise belong to the Creator alone, and that anything other than this is unbefitting of the Creator.

Thereafter, one should learn the evidences that establish the authentic messengership of the messengers of Allah and understand that it is an obligation to take knowledge from them and obey them. When the student has learned this, then he has learned what is needed and beneficial as to theology.

Beyond This Measure

If one is granted more time after this lifetime of study, then let one expand his knowledge of fiqh, for it is the most used, or applied, of the religious sciences. Moreover, if one is granted enough time to compose, then let him do so, for in his composition he will leave behind him righteous progeny, that is, a progeny of knowledge. Yet, in one’s endeavor to leave behind one a progeny of knowledge, let it not prevent the student of knowledge from leaving behind a progeny of children.

Beyond this, let the student of knowledge realize that the world is nothing more than a terminal. Then let him turn his attention to how he shall manage his connection to Allah, Transcendent and Resplendent; for, indeed, such is the purpose of the knowledge he is gathering. When one strives to know Allah and make his connection with Allah good, if one does this with knowledge and sincerity, then Allah will cause such a one to reach the station of wilâyah, divine favor. And for whosoever Allah desires this, Allah will facilitate this for him.

Truly, Allah chooses people whom He raises Himself. He sends to them in their childhood rationality and understanding. He takes their training and acculturation upon Himself. And He facilitates for them ways to draw close to Him. And should someone or something come to cut them from their path, He protects them from this. And should fitna, trial or tribulation, come to them, He thrusts it away from them.

Therefore do we ask Allah to make us from among the likes of these, and we seek refuge in Him from forsaking us with a forsaking that shall never be removed by our mere efforts.

Written By

Omar Abdl-Haleem is a fourth generation Muslim in America. He has a BA from Al-Azhar University in Usul Al-Din, specializing in Hadith, and was about to finish his Master’s Degree from Al-Azhar in Hadith, when he had to leave Egypt for safety reasons in the fall of 2013. He has translated most of Ibn Al-Jawzi’s book: Sayd Al-Khatir into English, which he intends to complete (some episodes of Omar’s translation of this book have appeared in Aljumuah Website). He is also working on a Hadith book for English speakers that explains and teaches Mustalah Al-Hadith (Hadith Terminology) in common terms. His Arabic is native, having studied in Egypt since he was 14, and then full time after completion of High School in the US. He is invaluable for AlJumuah in accessing scholarly texts. He intends to complete his graduate studies in Hadith.

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1 Comment

  • Really nice article, it’s like an 80/20 for how to properly seek knowledge. Of particular benefit was also pointing out that “scholars” themselves are of varying grades as it relates to intelligence (or a lack of it).

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