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Religious Knowledge vs. Pretentious Knowledge

The scholars of Islam revered religious knowledge above all else.

This is all the more true for the great imams, like Abu Hanifah, Malik, al-Shafi`i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

At the same time, their reverence was born of the value they knew that religious knowledge had for people’s faith and practice, and this made them disdain questions of no practical value that were used merely to show off erudition or to engage in public debate.

A good example of this was Imam Malik. He was extremely humble in the pursuit of knowledge, and would accept it from any reliable source.

He did not regard any person as too insignificant to teach him something. He was willing to learn from his own students and sometimes changed his mind on issues because of what they taught him. It was his way to concede the truth without hesitation whenever it reached him.

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This was the way of all truly great scholars. They never hesitated to increase their knowledge through the knowledge of others. They did not doubt the veracity of something simply because someone else came to know about it before they did.

Despite his passion for knowledge, Malik did not like to entertain questions about difficult and superfluous matters that had no relevance to people’s religious or worldly lives.

One famous example of this is where a man approached his study circle and recited the verse: {The Beneficent mounted the throne.} (20:5) Then he asked: “How did He mount it?”

Malik tapped his knuckles on his head and he broke out into a sweat like he had a fever. Then he said:

“The ‘mounting’ is not unknown, but the ‘how’ is something that cannot be reasoned. It is obligatory to believe in it, but a heretical innovation to ask about it. I see you as being nothing but a heretical innovator.” Then he ordered the man to be taken from his presence.

It is possible that this man’s reputation preceded him, and Malik knew something bad about his ways, and that is why Malik treated him the way he did. He would never have been so harsh with a person who was confused and sincerely wanted to learn, regardless of what the question was.

Useful religious knowledge brings us closer to Allah. It can make us more devoted, humble, sincere, and guide us to act in ways that please our Lord.

Likewise, useful worldly knowledge enables us to conduct our lives and fulfill our material needs. In this regard, Malik used to give the following words of advice: “Look to what benefits you in your day and night and busy yourself with that.” Al-Waqidi described Malik’s study circle as follows:

It was a venerable, composed assembly. Malik was a dignified and illustrious man. There was never any ostentatious speech or rambunctiousness at his study circle. People did not raise their voices. A stranger to the circle would come and ask about a hadith, and he would not answer except about the hadith itself.

We find the exact same pattern with Malik’s student Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi`i. He was devoted to religious knowledge above all else. At the same time, he had little regard for trivial questions and debate for its own sake. As for his general attitude towards knowledge, he used to say: “After fulfilling the essential religious obligations, there is nothing better than the pursuit of knowledge.”

This prompted someone to ask him: “Even striving in Allah’s path? He replied: “Yes, even striving in Allah’s path.” Ibn `Uyaynah quotes al-Shafi`i as saying:

“No one on Earth has ever been granted something greater than prophethood. The greatest thing anyone else can be given is religious knowledge and understanding.”

A-Shafi`i said this because the pursuit of religious knowledge brings us to an understanding of what the Prophets came with, and this is the closest that we can get to possessing their prophecy.

Though knowledge is the greatest honor and has the highest value, it is not to be used to pursue fame and recognition.

Al-Rabi` ibn Sulayman al-Muradi – al-Shafi`i’s main student – quotes his teacher as saying: “Showing off with one’s knowledge hardens the heart and makes a person petty and spiteful.”

Al-Shafi`i hated people to show off their knowledge, just as he hated the incessant public debates that students often engage in, where each student’s main concern is to prevail over the opponent.

Contentious and tricky questions were often the point of discussion in many study circles. The pointlessness of most of those questions upset al-Shafi`i, prompting him to say:

“It belittles knowledge to debate everyone who comes to you with an argument. Do not spar words with everyone who comes to spar with you.”

There are a lot of questions that a student should simply avoid. They are not worth the time and effort.

Abu Thawr once suggested to al-Shafi`i that he should write a book about irja’, the deviant theological view that when people have faith, their sins bring them no harm in the Hereafter. Al-Shafi`i said:

“You should just leave this alone.” Al-Shafi`i disliked scholastic theology. He felt that delving into it did nothing to bring one’s heart closer to Allah. Inexperienced students like to pose hypothetical questions, but there are few true legal scholars who venture to address those questions, despite – or because of – their far greater knowledge and understanding.

Indeed, al-Shafi`i had more than enough knowledge to pursue all of those questions. He simply chose not to do so. He said:

“If I wanted to, I could write a book-length rebuttal to every opposing view. However, scholastic theology is not my concern, and I do not want to be associated with any part of it.”

The scholar has a lofty position which has no room to accommodate quarreling and disputation. If al-Shafi`i had busied himself with such things, he would never have been able to write such landmark works as al-Risalah and al-Umm.

Al-Shafi`i was willing to debate issues when the circumstances demanded it. He would, at such times, limit himself to saying what is necessary to clarify the matter at hand.

Source: Islam Today web site –