(3) Ethics for the Seeker of Knowledge
A SEEKER OF knowledge must know that there are many ethical principles that he or she is to observe so as to achieve the proper and blessed way of learning that Islam has directed for Muslims to follow. One should not regard the ethics of learning as an optional behavior that one may disregard. Some, if not all of, these ethical principles are obligatory duties for every Muslim, especially the seeker of knowledge. In fact, these ethics are an integral part of the correct methodology for seeking knowledge. Hence, there is no option but to live by these ethics. May Allah help us all to live up to these standards. What follows is an annotated list of nine of these ethical principles for the Muslim learner.
The First Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Act Upon What You Learn
O you who believe! Why do you say what you do not do? It is greatly abhorrent in the sight of Allah that you say what you do not do. [Sûrat Al-Ṣaff, 61:2-3]
The Prophet ﷺ said:
On the Day of Judgment, a man will be brought and thrown into Hellfire. As a result of this, his intestines will come out of his belly, and he will go circling around holding his intestines like a donkey running a mill. His fellow inmates of Hellfire will gather around him and say: “O so and so! What is going on? Didn’t you used to call people [in worldly life] to do good and avoid evil?” He will answer, saying: “That is correct. I told [people] to do good but didn’t do it myself, and I bade them to shun evil but I did it myself.” (Bukhâri and Muslim)
Imâm Al-Thawri said:
No word is accepted without action; and no word and action are correct without intention (niyya); and no word, action, or intention is correct unless they are in accordance with the Sunnah.
The Second Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Be Close to the Quran
The Quran should be your constant source of guidance. Make it a habit to recite a portion of it daily and exert efforts to understand the verses you recite through consulting books of Tafsîr (Quran exegesis, that is, explicative commentary). Reciting the Quran will provide you with the guidance, patience, and insight you need most in your quest for knowledge.
Indeed, this Quran guides to that which is most upright and gives glad tidings to the believers who do righteous deeds, that for them is a great reward [of everlasting delight in Paradise awaiting in the Hereafter]. [Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:9]
The Third Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Be Humble
Know that no matter how much knowledge you acquire, there will always be a person who knows more than you do.
Nor have you [human beings] been given of knowledge more than very little. [Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:85]
As a seeker of knowledge, therefore, you should humble yourself and be gentle with all people, especially those having less knowledge than you do.
Allah said to His Prophet ﷺ:
And lower your wing [of protective compassion] to the believers. [Sûrat Al-Ḥijr, 15:88]
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
Allah, the Most Exalted, has revealed to me that you should show courtesy to and be cordial with each other such that no one should consider himself superior to another nor harm him. (Muslim)
The Fourth Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Learn to Say: “I Don’t Know.”
Allah has made speaking without knowledge one of the cardinal sins.
Say [O Muhammad]: Indeed, my Lord has only prohibited: obscenities—whatever of it is manifest and whatever [of it] is hidden; and all sin; and [especially the offense of] oppression, without any right; and that you associate [as a god] with Allah that for which He has never sent down any authority; and that you say concerning Allah what you do not know. [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7:33]
ʿAbd Al-Ra ḥmân ibn Abî Layla said:
I met 120 Companions of the Prophet ﷺ, and whenever one of them was asked about any matter, he would rather have had one of his fellow Companions answer in his stead; and whenever one of them narrated a ḥadîth (or gave a speech), he would wish that a Companion other than himself was the deliverer of that speech.
Once Imâm Mâlik ibn Anas (d. 179h) was asked about a certain legal point and answered: “I do not know.” The questioner, who was taken aback by the Imâm’s answer, exclaimed: “O Abû ʿAbdullâh (Imâm Malik’s patronymic)! Do you mean you do not know?!” “Yes I do [mean that]! And please let other people know that I do not know,” Mâlik responded.
The Fifth Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Respect Your Teachers and Educators
Many who presumably seek knowledge neglect this ethical principle of knowledge. One should know that the student of knowledge will never acquire knowledge until he respects both knowledge and those who impart it.
Listen to the following word of counsel which Al-Ḥasan Al-Ba ṣri gave to his own son:
O son of mine! If you sit with the people of knowledge, be more concerned about listening than speaking. Learn to listen well as much as you speak well. Nor shall you interrupt anyone’s speech no matter how long it lasts until he finishes.
The Sixth Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Choose the Right Friends
Your friends have a tremendous effect on your behavior, your thinking, and, more specifically, on your knowledge. Select your friends from among the righteous.
And keep yourself [O Prophet] patient in the company of those [humble believers] who call upon their Lord [with devotion] in the morning and in the evening, desiring only His Face. Nor shall you turn your eyes from [the likes of] them, desiring the adornment of the life of this world. Nor shall you obey [the dictates of] anyone whose heart We have rendered heedless of Our remembrance, who thus follows his whims, and whose disposition is ever [reckless in] disregard [of the truth]. [Sûrat Al-Kahf, 18:28]
Moreover, among the righteous, work to develop more intimate relationships with those of them who are knowledgeable. By this, you shall gain two merits: First, you will be influenced positively by their righteousness. Second, you will benefit from their knowledge.
The Seventh Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Make Proper Use of Your Time
Life is short while knowledge is vast. Time wasted in trivial pursuits is knowledge missed. How many pages can you read in one hour? How many books can you read in one day? Those who are still young are even more accountable for their time and health.
Abû Dharr Al-Ghifâri quoted the Prophet ﷺ as saying:
A servant of Allah will remain standing on the Day of judgment till he is questioned about his age and how he spent it; about his knowledge and what he did with it; about his wealth and how he acquired it and in what way he spent it; and about his body and how he utilized it. (Tirmidhi)
As a seeker of knowledge, you need time more than anybody else. Your time is your capital. So do not let it go to waste.
The Eighth Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Avoid Idle Talk (Laghw)
Idle talk hardens the heart and wastes time.
The pious of the early generations used to say:
Any conversation or talk that does not lead to a (good) action is one part of idle talk.
Remember the saying of the Messenger of Allah:
Let him who believes in Allah and the Last Day either say something good or keep silent. (Bukhâri and Muslim)
The Ninth Ethic of the Student of Knowledge: Do Not Forget to Make Duʿa’
Duʿa’, supplication unto Allah, is what keeps you close to Allah. Moreover, it reminds you of your weakness and dependence on Him. It also keeps your heart alive and makes your soul conscious of Allah. If you do not comprehend a matter, ask Allah to grant you understanding of it. If you cannot memorize, ask Allah to cleanse your mind so that you can memorize. If you are confused, ask Allah to show you the truth and let you adhere to it, and ask Him to show you falsehood, and let you shun it.
And the Lord of all of you [O humankind] has said: Call upon Me [in prayer]; I shall answer you. [Sûrat Ghâfir, 40:60]
The Prophet ﷺ used to say the following duʿa’:
O Allah, Lord of Jibrîl (Gabriel) and Mikâ’îl (Michael) and Isrâfîl, Creator of the heavens and the earth, Knower of the Unseen and the seen! You decide among Your servants concerning their differences. Guide me with your permission in the divergent views [which people hold] about Truth; for it is You Who guides whom You will to the Straight Way. (Muslim)
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 5.