(2) The Correct Method for Seeking Religious Knowledge (continued)
Guideline No. 4: Be Gradual in Learning and Suppress Haste
IT MAY TAKE just a few weeks to learn the obligatory knowledge. Still, you should learn gradually and practice what you learn as you proceed. Take time to comprehend the matter you study. Give it the necessary time it deserves. More importantly, never jump to further study until you master its prerequisites. ʿAbdullah ibn Masʿûd and other notable Companions used to learn from the Prophet ﷺ 10 verses of the Quran and not proceed further until they understood and practiced them. It is reported that ʿAbdullah ibn ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb spent eight years studying (memorizing and implementing) Sûrat Al-Baqarah and Sûrat Âl-ʿImrân (the second and third chapters of the Quran). It is reported that his father spent 12 years memorizing and implementing Sûrat Al-Baqarah.
Guideline No. 5: Learn your Dîn the Way the Prophet’s Companions Did
One needs to understand that the Companions of the Messenger ﷺ were the best of all Muslim generations, and we cannot have a better understanding of the faith than they had or a practice of it better than theirs. Allah called the Companions those who are rightly guided and He followed this by saying of them, Allah increases them in guidance [Sûrat Mu ḥammad, 47:17].
They had more knowledge of the Quran and of the Sunnah than any other generation, for they witnessed the Quran’s revelation and had far more command of the Arabic language in its then current and pure sense, that is, at the time of the Quran’s Revelation. Moreover, they witnessed, accompanied, and were personally instructed in their religion and character by the Prophet ﷺ.
Thus, our understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah should be based on their understanding. You should give this guideline even greater priority when you are studying matters pertaining to the essentials of faith, such as the right of Allah to be worshipped alone, His Names and Attributes, and the matter of Allah’s Predetermined Decree (qadar). Here are three principles held to by the Companions regarding these three matters of study:
- They directed their every aspect and kind of worship to Allah alone. They acknowledged that it is Allah and only Allah who legislates the Laws of worship. Hence, they did not ask mortals for help nor did they introduce innovations into religion, such as the later originations of celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, erecting structures on graves, and the like.
- They understood the Attributes of Allah from the Quran and the Sunnah without likening Allah to any of His creatures. Therefore, they believed that Allah ‘is established,’ befittingly, ‘on His Throne,’ and that He ‘hears,’ ‘sees,’ and so forth.
- They believed that Allah had predetermined the nature of all things fifty thousand years before He created the heavens and earth (as narrated in the Hadith collections of Muslim); that good and evil existed by Allah’s decree, and that the former occurred only with Allah’s succor and that the latter occurred not against His will.
They did not believe —as many heretics did— that man has no power to act and is forced to do whatever he does (at the one extreme), nor that man creates and chooses his own deeds entirely of his own free will (at the other extreme). Rather, they believed that man was free to choose his deeds but only within and under the supervision of Allah’s will.
The human sources who transmitted to us the religious understanding of the Prophet’s Companions are pious and reliable, and these reports have been recorded, explained, and clarified by reputable scholars. Some of these narrators and scholars include Al-Bukhâri, Muslim, Al-Tirmidhi, and other narrators of a ḥadîth, as well as Imams Abû Ḥanîfah, Mâlik, Al-Shâfiʿi, and A ḥmad; and also, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Al-Qayyim, Ibn Kathîr, Al-Dhahabi, among many others.
Guideline No. 6: Take Knowledge from the Right Scholars and Teachers
It is crucial to take your Islamic knowledge from one or more teachers. In this regard, one should avoid relying only on books or self-tutoring. One should look for a teacher who adheres to the methodology of the Prophet’s Companions in belief and practice. Ibn Masʿûd used to say:
This knowledge is your Religion. So let everyone be aware about whom he learns his Religion from.
Therefore, your prospective teacher should be free from all deviancies, especially those pertaining to ʿaqîda (creed, and essentials of belief).
People who subscribe to deviant beliefs and practices do not use the Sunnah to substantiate their conclusions; and when they do, they use narrations that are either fabricated or weak. They issue rulings based on their mere opinions or even their dreams.
Genuine teachers (i.e., those who are free of deviancy and try, as much as humanly possible, to live by the Sunnah) may not be available in every community. As such, you may have to turn to books as a constraining alternative for learning. In this case, choose only those books whose authors subscribe to the methodology of the Prophet’s Companions. Better yet, you may consider traveling to a place where you may find the right teachers, at least for a period of time in which you can acquire the essential Islamic knowledge.
Guideline No. 7: Avoid Uncritical Emulation
One should always try to ascertain whether an opinion or ruling has evidence in the Quran and the Sunnah. Imâm A ḥmad ibn Ḥanbal said:
Do not imitate me, or Mâlik, or Al-Shâfiʿî, or Al-Awzâʿi or Al-Thawri. Rather, refer directly to the source on which they draw” (i.e., the Quran and the Sunnah).
Al-Shâfiʿî used to say:
If you find in my books a statement that contradicts the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ, then follow the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ and ignore what I have said.
However, the new learner —such as a new Muslim for example— may emulate a learned person whose knowledge and behavior he trusts until he gets to the stage in which he can understand and discern the differences between evidences presented by scholars. When he is able to do so, it becomes incumbent upon him or her to follow (not emulate) the scholars, asking them for the Textual evidence for their positions, and seeking the truth for oneself.
One should not, at this level, issue rulings, since this task is the purview of scholars who have achieved the status of ijtihâd. These are the mujtahids, independent legal practitioners, or jurists, who —by virtue of their mastering the instruments of ijtihâd, such as the sciences of the Quran and the Sunnah, the source methodology of fiqh, Arabic, and so on— can research and perform independent legal reasoning to make legal pronouncements on various issues.
Guideline No. 8: Avoid Gatherings of Heretical Innovators
The early Muslim generations who followed the guidance of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions used to avoid gatherings of innovators. Ibn Sîrîn (d. 110h), a distinguished Tâbiʿî (Successor, the title of the generation who followed that of the Companions and were taught by them) and a scholar of ḥadîth, said:
Do not sit with, debate, or listen to, the partisans of heretical innovations. (Al-Dârimî)
ʿAbdullâh ibn Al-Mubârak—another scholar of the Successor Generation (Tâbʿîn)—used to say:
Indeed, we can relate [in our teaching] the words of Jews and Christians as such, but we cannot relate [in our teaching] the words of the Jahmiyya.
The Jahmiyya were an early heretical Muslim sect founded by Jahm ibn Ṣafwân. He claimed that man had no free will and that all man’s actions were fully predetermined by Allah. Jahmis also believed that faith exclusively meant knowing Allah and that it had nothing to do with deeds (ʿamal); and also that Allah is not qualified by attributes such as hearing, seeing, speaking, etc.).
If this close scrutiny of, and strict adherence to, the Quran and Sunnah was the rule followed by the Salaf who had the knowledge and the insight to refute all innovations, how much more does this rule apply to our generation where ignorance is widespread and deviations run rampant?
In fact, even if one has sufficient knowledge and insight to differentiate between truth and falsehood, between Sunnah and bidʿa (innovation), still he should avoid circles of deviant sects lest he incline to their innovations or, at best, lose in his heart the reverence and love for the Sunnah.
The seeker of knowledge should remember the wise words of counsel from Ibn Sîrîn:
Do not sit with an innovator, lest he should dart into your heart something [heretical innovation] that you might fall for and thus be doomed, or lest you dispute with him and have your heart sickened [in the process].
May Allah ease our quest for genuine knowledge, and may He ease for us a path to Paradise.
To be continued, inshâAllah, in part 4