(2) The Correct Method for Seeking Religious Knowledge

IN THE WORLD we now live in, there are an overwhelming number of schools, teachers, and books from which to learn. It may seem, then, an irony that unequipped with proper knowledge and insight, the learner finds him- or herself confused when it comes to choosing among them. What school? What teacher? Which books?

Every group and teacher claim to have hold of the right method for seeking and acquiring knowledge. In reality, there is but one broad methodology by which you can navigate faithfully and safely through the seas of knowledge, and by which you can reach the shore of salvation.

I list below eight guidelines of this method — three of them in Part 2 and five in Part 3). They derive from how the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ sought out knowledge, and the practices of the great generations that followed upon their traces. The objective is to learn sacred knowledge and not to be misled in the process of one’s acquisition of it. The guidelines are there to get you to the path of knowledge and to keep you upon the Straight Way to which you have committed yourself. For in our search for knowledge and for truth, divergence that channels one unknowingly off the path is the paramount danger. As with all things, guidance is with Allah. So it is with the intention of pleasing and drawing near to Him, and by His permission, that we must begin.

Guideline No. 1: Be Sure that Your Motive for Learning Is Solely to Please Allah

Seeking knowledge is an act of worship; and any act of worship has two criteria: (1) Love of, and sincere submission to, Allah must form its basis. (2) It must be done in accordance with the way of the Prophet ﷺ (i.e., according to the Sunnah, the Prophet’s normative practice). Hence, your search for knowledge should be solely for the pleasure of Allah. The Prophet ﷺ said:

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He who seeks knowledge —which ought to be sought for the pleasure of Allah, the Lord of Honor and Glory— [but who does so] only to attain a worldly gain that he covets, he will not so much as smell the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Judgment. (Abû Dâwûd)

On cannot overstate the importance of this guideline of sincerity because the rewards of one’s actions depend on it. You should constantly check the intention behind your actions and, more specifically, behind your quest for knowledge.

Another aspect of sincerity is to make sure that your primary goal for studying is to teach yourself first. Many people, though sincere in their quest for knowledge, look forward to teaching people before teaching themselves. This attitude, coupled with Satan’s deception, may lead one to depart from his good intention and end up seeking people’s pleasure and recognition.

One of the signs of this evil intention is that one finds oneself inclined to teach and preach while he himself avoids the arduous task of truly seeking knowledge. May Allah grant us all sincerity in our deeds.

Guideline No. 2: Prioritize the Things You Learn

Already established is that the knowledge that is obligatory for every Muslim to learn is al-ʿilm al-sharʿî, Religious or Sacred Knowledge, that is, the knowledge pertaining to Islam as faith, to acts of worship, and to necessary transactions and to the daily dealings of a Muslim.

Consequently, this should be the first type of knowledge you seek, and it ought to establish the sequence in which you seek it. Start by learning fiqh al-Imân, the Edicts of Faith, that is, by understanding all the basic matters pertaining to your belief. Learn about Allah, His attributes, His rights upon you, how to thank Him, glorify Him, and please Him. Then learn about your Prophet ﷺ: How to love and obey him, and what rights he has upon you. Then proceed to other matters of your faith: The angels, the revealed Books, Allah’s prophets, the Day of Judgment, and Allah’s Predetermined Decree (Al-Qadar).

The first thing you must learn from fiqh al-a ḥkâm, Islam’s legal rulings, is how to perform your Ṣalâh: How to purify yourself; the type of water you can use for your bath and ablution; the kind of clothes you can wear to cover your body; the conditions and pillars of both ablution and Ṣalâh; how you can rectify mistakes such as involuntary omissions or additions in Ṣalâh, etc.

After you have understood the basics of your faith and your duties toward Allah and His Prophet ﷺ, and when you are performing Ṣalâh as the Prophet ﷺ practiced it, you can move on to study other obligatory acts of worship, and then the rules that govern your life transactions, including your financial and economic dealings.

Once you comprehend these essential teachings, you can proceed to educate yourself in matters that concern you, your family, and your community. Learn how to build a family life according to the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ; how to help solve the problems and concerns of your community; how to give (and receive) daʿwah to Muslims, and how to present the call of faith to non-Muslims.

If you have attained to this stage of learning and feel the desire to seek more knowledge, you need to acquire the tools that are necessary for further study. The most important of these is the Arabic language. Though mastering Arabic does not necessarily make one knowledgeable in Dîn, it is undoubtedly the first prerequisite for approaching any optional Islamic knowledge (al-ʿilm al-sharʿî al-kifâ’î).

This includes tafsîr (Quran exegesis), the science of Hadith, and other areas, say, Sîrah, Islam’s conception of historiography, economics, rules of finance, and so on. Whether you limit yourself to obligatory knowledge or seek the details of specialized religious knowledge, it is extremely important to understand and observe the rules for seeking knowledge and the ethics that accompany them.

Guideline No. 3: Know Your Sources of Knowledge

Your basic sources of knowledge are but two: The Quran and the Sunnah. Both of these two sources are from Allah and both are a source of guidance and legislation for us. The Prophet ﷺ said:

Verily, I have been given the Quran, and along with it, something similar to it. [i.e., Sunnah]. (A ḥmad)

Allah has made clear in His Book what He has determined to be good, or conducive to good, in the affairs of humankind — both for this world and for the world to come. Allah said:

We have neglected nothing in the Book, and then unto their Lord they [all] shall be gathered. [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:38)

Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ has conveyed to us all that we need to know to achieve success, both in this life and in the life hereafter. He said:

I have left nothing with which Allah has commanded you to do, save that I have commanded you to do it, nor anything that Allah has forbidden [you from doing], save that I have forbidden you from doing it.  (Al-Bayhaqi).

Thus, one should give no opinion precedent over Allah’s command or trumping that of His Prophet ﷺ. Any opinion that is against Allah’s decision or that of His Prophet ﷺ, or cannot be traced back to the Quran or the authentic Sunnah, is to be rejected. Dreams, the “inspirations” of people [even highly devout servants], the discursive thought of the philosophers—none of these are legitimate sources of knowledge. Nor are the forged sayings of deviant sects —which are falsely attributed to the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions— to be taken as legitimate sources of knowledge.

As an example, let us take the question of the rational thought of the philosophers. Islam does not condemn reasoning, that is, rational thought when exercised within the guidelines of the Quran and the Sunnah. However, one should distinguish between using the mind (the source of reasoning) as a thinking mechanism to reflect, compare, memorize, and so forth, on the one hand, from, on the other, taking these rational processes as a source of true knowledge having legislative authority.

Even ijmâʿ (the consensus of Muslim scholars, especially that of the Prophet’s Companions) which is binding on all Muslims, is not legislative in and of itself; but rather it has legislative force because it draws on the Quran and the Sunnah —that is, it has its basis therein— and on account of the fact that the Prophet ﷺ authorized this, saying:

My Ummah [as a whole] will never agree on a wrong thing (i.e., misguidance). (Abû Dâwûd)

Thus, the source of ijmâʿ as a principle source of Law is actually the Sunnah, not reason per se.

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 3

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