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Imam Malik’s Childhood & Education

Malik began pursuing Islamic knowledge as a child barely ten years of age.

He was qualified to issue legal verdicts before he turned eighteen.

He began teaching publicly at the age of twenty-one, and many narrators related hadith from him from this time.

He drew crowds of people from all over the Muslim world from this early time up to the end of his life.

This tells us about the environment in which Malik grew up and the values people had in the era of our Pious Predecessors.

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Firstly, it indicates to us the high value the people of Madinah placed on seeking religious knowledge. A child growing up there would see the respect and defense that the scholars enjoyed. They were held in the highest esteem since they were the ones who preserved the Prophet’s guidance and the knowledge of the righteous.

Al-Shafi’i said about his teacher:

“I saw in Malik the reverence and respect that he had for knowledge. This had a big impression on me, so much so that while attending his class if I wanted to pick up a sheet of paper I would do so as gently as possible not to make a noise, out of the awe and respect that I had for him.”

This speaks volumes about the commanding presence that Malik had as well as the politeness and good manners of Al-Shafi`i.

An Environment of Knowledge

The second thing we can discern about Madinah in Malik’s day is that the situation there was conducive to learning. There were not many obstacles to the pursuit of knowledge and distractions were few.

If a student wanted to seek knowledge, the doors to the mosque were always open and study circles were always readily available. If the student headed off to the market, there would be lively discussions of Islamic legal matters to be had there as well. Even at home, there would be nothing but encouragement from parents and family. It was as if society itself was speaking out with its wholehearted support for Islamic learning.

There is a famous story about Malik and his mother, which Malik originally told to his nephew:

I asked my mother: “Should I go out and start writing lessons?”

She replied: “Come here and put on a scholar’s clothes. Then go out and write.”

She took me and dressed me in an elaborate outfit, and she put a long piece of cloth on my head and wound a turban around it. Then she said: “Now you go out and write.”

She would always dress me with a turban and say: “Go to Rabi’ah and learn from him his good manners even more than his knowledge.”

Ibn Al-Qasim said:

“Malik pursued his studies until the roof of his house caved in. So he sold the wood. Thereafter the wealth of the world always came easily to him.”

Ibn Bukayr said: “Malik was born in Dhil-Marwah. His brother Al-Nadr was a cloth merchant, and Malik used to help him in his trade. Then Malik turned to study. People used to refer to Malik as ‘Al-Nadr’s brother’. It wasn’t very long before people started referring to Al-Nadr as ‘Malik’s brother’.”

Dignity and Composure

Malik would grow up to be a tall, handsome, solidly built man. He had large eyes and a very fair complexion. He took meticulous care with his clothing and was always well dressed in public. He used the most expensive musk.

Bishr ibn Al-Harith said:

“I visited Malik once and saw him wearing a fine robe that must have cost 500. Its collars came to eye level, and it had the appearance of what a king might wear.”

He wore his turban so that part of it would drape under his chin and its two ends would rest upon his shoulders.

When someone asked him about wearing heavy, rough wool, he said: “It is good for nothing except when travelling. This is how the Prophet used to use it. Otherwise, it is a form of ostentatious dress, a way of publicizing one’s asceticism. It is very distasteful for a man’s religiosity to be known by the way he dresses!”

He wore the most expensive clothing imported from Aden. He did not shave his moustache off and found the idea of doing so distasteful.

When he prepared to give a lesson on the Prophet’s Hadith, he would first perform ritual ablutions, as if for prayer. Then he would put on his best clothes and hat and comb his beard. If anyone criticized him for this behavior, he would say: “The dignity of the Prophet’s Hadith demands it.”

Maintaining a good appearance did not conflict with the demands of religious piety, scholarship, or mental acuity. Quite the contrary, it was something required from a man in Malik’s position. He was living in the Prophet’s city at a time when the world had become wide open to the people. They needed someone like Malik to show them the permissible and balanced way to approach the finer things in life.

Moreover, it suited Malik’s own temperament and station. He was a descendant of kings and had the dignity to go with it. In fact, kings and princes like Harun Al-Rashid paid him visits at his home and consulted with him. People saw in this the value and honor of Islamic knowledge, and the dignity of those who possess that knowledge without being conceited or arrogant.

We can also see a mother’s lasting influence. She is the one who got him into the habit of dressing up for his studies when he was a child. She impressed upon him that this was the way to show respect for his teachers and for the knowledge he was acquiring.

A Voracious Appetite for Learning

Childhood education was not compulsory in Malik’s time like it is today. Only those children who had a special aptitude – and the opportunity – attended classes. They were as Allah said:

{And the believers should not all go forth together. Of every group of them, a party should remain behind to acquire sound knowledge in religion, that they may admonish their folk when they return, so perchance they may take heed.} (9:122)

Malik started studying when he was very young. He spent the first seven or eight years of his education devoted to a single teacher, Ibn Hurmuz. Even at his young age, Malik treasured the time he had with his teacher. Many years later, he recalled how he managed to keep his teacher to himself: “I used to keep some dates hidden up my sleeve. I would give them to my teacher’s children and tell them that if anyone pays him a call, they should say that their father is busy.”

Malik was so devoted to his teacher, that he would wait at his door for a long time. He had a straw-filled cushion that he would sit on while he waited, quiet as a stone.

Sooner or later, Ibn Hurmuz would realize that someone was at his door, maybe because of a movement that Malik made. He would ask his servant girl who was at the door. She would look outside, come back and say: “It’s only that really white person.”

Ibn Hurmuz would then tell her: “Let him in. His is the scholar of the people.” In this way, Malik would come for his lessons early in the morning and not depart until nightfall.

Malik would later say: “It used to be that one man would study with another for thirty years to learn what he had.” People assumed that Malik was referring to Ibn Hurmuz when he said this, since Ibn Hurmuz had made Malik swear not to credit anything to his name.

We can see Malik’s devotion to knowledge in his conduct with another of his teachers, Nafi`, who had been the ward of the famous Companion `Abd Allah ibn `Umar. In his old age, Nafi` had weak eyesight, and Malik used to guide from his home to the mosque. All the while, Malik would ask him questions and Nafi` would answer.

Nafi` lived near Madinah’s graveyard, and Malik would look for any excuse to have a “chance” meeting with him. Sometimes this meant that Malik would have to stand out in the sun for a long time. Then, when Nafi` came outside, Malik would follow him until he found a suitable opportunity to go up and ask him something. Malik would later recall:

At about mid-morning, I would go out to Nafi`’s part of town. There was not even a tree to provide me with shade from the sun. I would wait for him to come out of his house. When he did come out, I would let him be for a while, so as not to make it seem like I had been intending to meet him. Then I would go up and greet him, but let him be until he came to the central courtyard. Then I would ask him:

“What was Ibn `Umar’s opinion on such-and-such?”

He would answer me, and then I would let him be, since he was of a temperamental nature.

Knowledge Even in Eid

Malik never took a day off. He would study even on the days of `Eid. Indeed, he would wait for the `Id because he knew that no one else would be competing with him on that day for the attention of one of Madinah’s scholars, particularly Ibn Shihab Al-Zuhri. Malik would later recall one of these `Id day lessons as follows:

I attended the `Eid prayer. Afterwards, I said to myself: “Ibn Shihab will be free today.” So I immediately went from the prayer area to sit by his door.

I heard him ask his servant girl: “Look to see who is at the door.”

She told him: “It is that white-skinned associate of yours, Malik.”

He said: “Let him in.” So I came inside, and then he said to me: “It doesn’t seem like you even had a chance to go to your house before coming here.” I told him that he was right. He asked: “Have you eaten.”

I said “No.”

He said: “Then eat something.”

I said: “That is not what I need.”

“Then what is it that you want?”, he asked.

“I want you to relate knowledge to me.”

“Come here then.”

I took out my copy boards and he related forty hadith to me. I asked him to relate more, but he said: “Forty is enough for you to relate, for you to commit to memory.”

I said: “Indeed, I have already related them.”

He then took the copy boards from my hand and said: “Relate them, then.”

I related them all to him. Then he returned the copy boards to me and said: “Come with me, for you are one of the vessels of knowledge.”

Malik used to spend all his time following the lessons of Madinah’s jurists and Hadith scholars. He was aided in this by his keen intelligence, the availability of scholars in the city, and their openness to students, even on the days of `Id.

The scholars of Madinah were special. Their personalities were influenced by the fact that they lived in the Prophet’s city, and they were the direct successors of his own exquisite manners.

This was the legacy they inherited.

(From Discovering Islam archive)


About Salman al-Ouda
Muslim scholar. Al-Ouda is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and on its Board of Trustees. He is a director of the Arabic edition of the website Islam Today and appears on a number of TV shows and authors newspaper articles.