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Pitfalls in the Quest for Knowledge

Written by: by Salman b. Fahd al-Oadah :: (View All Articles by: Salman b. Fahd al-Oadah)


Praise be to Allah; we praise Him, seek His forgiveness, and turn to Him in repentance.

We seek refuge with Him from the evils of our souls and the evils of our deeds. Whomever

Allah guides, none can misguide, and whomever Allah leads astray, none can guide. I

bear witness that there is no god but Allah alone without partner, and I bear witness that

Muhammad is His servant and Messenger.

One of the most exciting aspects of the present Islamic Awakening is that a large number

of our young people are going forward to seek Islamic knowledge. By doing so, they

ensure that this awakening is firmly grounded in a correct understanding of Islam and that

it will continue to be distinguished by right guidance.

It is the duty of the scholars to embrace these students, teach them, guide them, and honor

them. The students of today will be the scholars and leaders of tomorrow.

One of the first things that a student of religious knowledge needs to know is how to go

about the task of seeking knowledge. He needs to be shown clearly the proper way to

attain Islamic knowledge and how to avoid the pitfalls that lie in his path.

Being heedless of these pitfalls can lead to unfortunate circumstances that can be very

hard to remedy. They can send the student right off the path of knowledge into all forms

of deviance.

The quest for knowledge is a passion that can lead to hastiness. There is a tendency

among students to pluck fruit, so to speak, before it is ripe.

This is why I see it as my duty towards the next generation of promising students to point

out to them the different mistakes and forms of deviation that new students are prone to. I

speak from my personal experience in my own quest for knowledge and from the

experiences of my peers and colleagues. I will cite real examples from the world we live

in today.

It cannot go unnoticed that times change. Each generation has its own problems and

circumstances. Therefore, we need to address topics like these over and over again in

order to provide fresh insights. This may be the reason why scholars of every era have

written on this topic, from the time of Ibn `Abd al-Barr and al-Khatîb al-Baghdâdî until

today. Each of these scholars had to wrestle with the problems of his time. He has to face

a unique set of obstacles and hindrances and determine how to overcome them.


I hope that this brief treatise will help to guide the student on his way. I ask Allah to

guide us and put our affairs right. I pray that He lets us recognize the truth for what it is

and helps us to follow it, and that he lets us see falsehood for what it is and helps us to

avoid it. And may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our Prophet Muhammad and

upon his family and Companions.


Seeking Knowledge for the Sake of Knowledge

Sometimes a student will say: "I am seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge",

implying that he is not after a diploma or a degree or something else of that sort.

However, what he is doing is also wrong.

One of the pitfalls that a student can fall into is to seek knowledge for its own sake.

Knowledge is a desire like any other human desire. It can be sought for the pure pleasure

of acquiring it and not for the sake of Allah. People love to discover new things. It is a

natural human inclination. When a person strives long and hard to find something out,

then comes upon the answer, it can be quite exhilarating. This encourages him to study


Islam, however, does not call upon us to seek Islamic knowledge for its own sake, but to

put it to use. The scholars of old used to say: "Knowledge calls out to us with actions. It

is either answered by actions or it goes away."

Allah describes the people of knowledge in the following way: "Those who were given

knowledge beforehand, when it is recited to them, fall on their faces in prostration. And

they say: ‘Glory be to our Lord. Truly the promise of our Lord is fulfilled. They fall on

their faces crying and it increases them in humility." [Sûrah al-Isrâ’: 107-109]

Here we see how knowledge gives them humility and makes them fall in prostration to


Allah says: "Only those who have knowledge truly fear Allah." [Sûrah Fâtir: 28] Using

this verse as their evidence, some people of knowledge have opined that the scholars are

the "best of Creation" referred to in Allah’s words: "Those who have faith and do

righteous deeds, they are the best of Creation. There reward is with Allah; gardens

beneath which rivers flow. They will dwell therein forever. Allah will be well pleased

with them and they with Him. This is for those who fear their Lord." [Sûrah al-Bayyinah:


They argue that since the "best of Creation" are "those who fear their Lord" and since the

only people who truly fear their Lord are the scholars, it follows then that the scholars are

the best of Creation.


How could it be otherwise when Sunnah declares the scholars to be the inheritors of the

Prophets? This means that scholars are the best people after the Prophets, if they are true

scholars. People today have become confused about the meaning of the word "scholar" in

this context. Some assume it refers to any person with specialized knowledge in any field,

like medicine, engineering, or chemistry. The true scholar in the context of our discussion

is a person who has knowledge about Allah, His religion, and His Law. Knowledge, in an

abstract, theoretical sense, is not enough. It must also affect the heart.

Our pious predecessors did not recognize anyone as a scholar merely because had

amassed a lot of knowledge. His knowledge had to show in his behavior. He had to be

humble, ascetic, and reserved. Some of the pious predecessors had said: "The scholar is

the one who fears Allah so much that it affects his character, his conduct – and his



Dealings with Other People

Dealings with Parents

Sometimes you find a student of religious knowledge spending considerable time in the

company of scholars, listening to them respectfully and attentively. However, if you were

to see how he conducts himself at home with his parents, you would get a shock. He is

harsh and uncouth. When his parents ask him to do something for them, he bangs his fist

into the wall and shouts at them about how busy he is. Busy with what? Busy reading

Islamic books, seeking knowledge, sitting with scholars, and engaging in good works!

This is all well and good, but should he not also be busy looking after his parents? Has

not Allah commanded us to be good to our parents – even pagan parents? He has

commanded us to be good to our parents even if they call us to abandon our religion and

engage in idolatry. Allah says: "If they strive to make you worship others along with Me

of whom you have no knowledge, then do not obey them. Yet offer them your good

company in this life". [Sûrah Luqmân: 15]

So how much more deserving are they of your respect if they happen to be Muslims, even

very sinful Muslims? How can a child claim to be seeking Islamic knowledge and be

counted among the pious if he disobeys his parents, treats them harshly, or abandons

them with tears in their eyes and goes on his merry way?

It is startling to see a student who gets happy every time he hears a scholarly verdict that

diminishes the rights of the parents. If he hears, for instance, that due to dire

circumstances, going for jihad in a certain country has become an obligation on everyone

and it is no longer necessary to solicit the permission of one’s parents, he gets happy. He

might even go to participate in that jihad, leaving his parents behind crying. Why?

Because some scholar ruled that his parents’ permission is not necessary. If he hears from


another scholar that obeying his parents is obligatory and their permission is mandatory,

he ignores that ruling and heaps a bunch of accusations against the integrity of that

scholar. Why? Because he finds it difficult to obey his parents. On the other hand, he

likes the idea of traveling and going to and fro.

When he is away from home and away from his parents he is gentle and good-natured.

He is cheerful and serves his Muslim brothers and fellow students. His personality

changes abruptly when he returns home. He becomes harsh and domineering and expects

everyone else in the house to listen to him and accept his opinions.

When we look for the positive role that this young man plays at home, we do not find it.

He can neither disseminate knowledge to the members of his household nor warn them

against the corruptive influences that pervade the home. He cannot even venture to

provide them with books, cassettes, and magazines that might benefit them. He cannot be

of benefit to them because of the bad treatment that he metes out. They will not listen to

him, because he has destroyed the relationship that he had with them.

Sometimes, a student of this type tries to justify his behavior by citing the example of

some Companions who were forced to go against their parents for the sake of their

religion. He will mention that `Ubaydah b, al-Jarrâh killed his father. Of course, he fails

to mention the fact that those people had parents who were not only unbelievers, but were

violently attacking the Muslims at that time.

This same student probably has Muslim parents. Maybe they are sinful Muslims. They

might even be good Muslims, but because of the young man’s personality, bad

upbringing, or youthful zeal, he does not treat them well. They, therefore, take a negative

stance with him which only makes him think worse of them. This is a grave pitfall


Dealings with Classmates and Colleagues

Sometimes a student of knowledge fails in his duty to benefit his classmates and

neighbors. He has no effect on them whatsoever, neither at school if he is a student nor at

work if he is an employee. He is equally ineffective in the neighborhood in which he

lives. However, when he is among his fellow students of religious knowledge and other

religious young people, he becomes very active. He fails to make calling others to Islam

his primary purpose. He also fails to realize that this should be his purpose at all times,

whether he is at home, at work, or in the marketplace. By behaving this way, he is not

conducting himself in the manner that a scholar or student of religious knowledge is

supposed to conduct himself. He should be calling people to Allah, enjoining what is

right, and forbidding what is wrong.

`Umar b. Abî Salamah said: "I was a young boy in the home of Allah’s Messenger (peace

be upon him). My hand used to go all around the plate when I ate, so Allah’s Messenger


(peace be upon him) said to me: ‘O young boy! Mention the name of Allah, eat with your

right hand, and eat from what is in front of you.’"1

We can see from this incident how the Prophet (peace be upon him) was concerned with

guidance and upbringing, even at the dinner table.

His Companions were the same, as were the scholars who came after them and followed

their example. They took advantage of every opportunity to teach people something good

and invite them to the way of Allah. They would capture the people’s hearts with their

good conduct and their respectful dealings. Then they would provide guidance for the


A poet once said:

Be good to the people and you will enslave their hearts.

How often does goodness a person enslave!

We do not want to enslave the people’s hearts. Their hearts should be enslaved to Allah

alone. What we want, however, is for Islamic workers and students of knowledge to

know how to touch the people’s hearts with kindness and impeccable manners, so they

can spread righteousness among the people and impart the knowledge that they possess.

Religious knowledge has a duty levied upon it that the possessor of knowledge must pay.

If he fails to pay it, then his knowledge will be bereft of blessings.

Dealings with One’s Spouse

The closest person to you after your parents is your husband or wife. In spite of this, we

find that all too frequently the wife of a student of knowledge complains that her husband

does not benefit her with his knowledge. He never teaches her. Sometimes she is ignorant

about her religion. She may even be engaged in deviant behavior like dressing indecently,

unveiling, and listening to music.

Some students have no other way of dealing with their wives other then asserting their

authority over them. They order them around, telling them what they can and cannot do,

rebuke them and spurn them. They might even abuse their wives and think that this is the

way to put them right!

Does this student of religious knowledge ever read with his wife or inform her of what

Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) say. Does he try to soften her heart by

reminding her of Allah and by beautiful preachings? Does he teach her what is lawful and

prohibited in Islam? Does he treat her well? We have to sadly admit that many students

fail to do these things.

1 Sahîh al-Bukhârî (4957). Sahîh Muslim (3767).


The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Many women have come to my household

complaining of their husbands. Those men are not the best among you."2 How could they

be the best of men when the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "The best of you is the

one who is the best to his family, and I am the best of you to his family."3

How, then, can a student of religious knowledge be so good when he is among his friends

and peers but so harsh and bitter when he is with his parents, siblings, and his wife? This

is a form of inconsistency that is neither tenable nor tolerable.


Studying Particulars before Principles

Some students concern themselves with subsidiary matters before becoming grounded in

the requisite principles. They focus on the most minor of issues while ignoring the major

ones. Many students do this out of their love for debate and their desire to participate

with others in the exchange of ideas. There are always a group of topics that students of

knowledge discuss with each other for hours on end. Though these never number more

than ten or twenty topics, rarely do students discuss with each other anything else.

A Few Examples:

- After rising from the bowing position in prayer, should you fold your hands over

your chest or should you let them hang at your side?

- In prayer, should you remain seated for a moment after rising from the second

prostration and before rising to the standing position?

- Should you move your finger while reciting the tashahhud, and how should it be

moved? How should the hand be positioned? Likewise, should you move your

finger while seated between the two prostrations?

These are from a limited number of questions that students tend to spend endless hours

debating. At the same time, you find that they ignore fundamental matters of belief and

sweeping principles of law. They do not bother to read up on these more important

matters nor review them, because their fellow students are not discussing such matters.

Therefore, such topics will not afford the student the opportunity to debate with his peers

and show of his talents.

We are not among those who say that these secondary matters are trivial and that they

should be ignored. Such a stance is undoubtedly wrong, since nothing about our religion

is trivial. However, some matters need to be dealt with before others. General principles

come before minor details. This is the proper approach to seeking knowledge. A student

should also be cognizant of the fact that scholars are often in disagreement about

secondary matters.

2 Sunan Abî Dâwûd (2146). Sunan al-Dârimî (2122).

3 Sunan al -Tirmidhî (3790). Sunan Ibn Mâjah (1967).


If you were to ask some students of religious knowledge about matters of belief, you

would find their knowledge to be confused or deficient. If you were to ask him about the

general precepts of Islamic Law, you would find him disdainful of them. He would be no

better off when it comes to general ethics and matters of jurisprudence. However, you

will find him well acquainted with a number of secondary questions that he focuses on to

the exclusion of everything else.

This shows a student devoid of wisdom, since wisdom mandates putting everything in its

proper place. It is blatantly unwise to fail to establish a basic article of belief because of

being too busy establishing a sunnah act. It is equally foolish to get into arguments with

people about some minor issue while neglecting the fundamentals of belief. We should

not spend all of our time teaching people a single sunnah and neglect the widespread

moral degradation that is afflicting our societies in this day and age.

We can all see that Muslim societies are the target of a vicious war that does not seek to

remove only secondary matters and sunnah acts. This war targets the very foundations of

our belief. Many of our societies are under the sway of men with deviant ideas:

communists, socialists, secularists, and others. They attack Islam at its very roots, seeking

to make the people doubt their faith.

Our societies are equally plagued by irreligious, licentious men who seek to turn our

societies into dens of sin. Both of these groups have achieved their goals to a great extent.

It is unwise for students of religious knowledge to ignore these developments and focus

all of his energies on some minor points of law.

Each issue should be accorded the attention that it warrants. No single issue should be

made into the topic of all discourse and debate.

We should not be neglectful of any sunnah. We should teach the people the guidance of

the Prophet (peace be upon him) in all of its detail. At the same time, we must recognize

that people are different. A person who is upright and virtuous and prays regularly needs

to be taught all the sunnah acts of prayer. It is not enough for such a person to know only

the basic, obligatory acts. We should teach him how to perfect his prayer.

At the same time, this should not get in the way of our calling to Islam those who are

astray or sinful. We must call such people to the fundamentals of Islam and strive to

bring them from their state of deviance and sin to the illumination of knowledge and


We must not neglect these people. They must be our first priority. A person who has faith

and is performing his prayers will, by Allah’s grace, be in no grave danger if he dies

without ever learning about a particular sunnah act. As for the other person who is

engrossed in sin or misled by false beliefs, he is in grave danger. Therefore, saving him

from peril is far more important than teaching the pious Muslim about a particular

sunnah. Of course, it is our duty to do both if we can.



Approaching the Sacred Texts in a Superficial Manner

Approaching the Qur’ân and Sunnah requires intellect, probity, experience, and a deep

understanding of the intents and purposes of Islamic Law. It requires broad knowledge of

the Arabic language and its idioms. Some students, however, possess none of these

faculties. Moreover, some of them have no aptitude for Islamic Law. They cannot cope

with uncertainties and multiple possibilities and have not the insight to derive rulings

from their proper sources. Such people have a tendency to take a single text and derive

from it all the legal rulings that come immediately to mind, and then adhere doggedly to

these rulings, hurling at anyone who disagrees with them a number of unsavory epithets.

There are two closely associated problems here. One is that of taking an overly literal

approach to the texts. The other is that of being hasty in drawing conclusions from them.

Let us look at a few examples of each:

Taking an Overly Literal Approach to the Texts

First Example:

Take an issue related to Islamic beliefs. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "If

anyone possesses four qualities, then he is a hypocrite, and whoever possesses one of

these qualities has within him an aspect of hypocrisy until he gives it up. They are as

follows: If he is entrusted with something, he betrays his trust. If he speaks, he lies. If he

makes a covenant, he breaks it. If he gets into a dispute, he acts sinfully."4

Some people take this hadîth on its face value and ignore all the other texts dealing with

hypocrisy. In this way, they fall into error. On one occasion, someone went so far as to

say that the hypocrisy mentioned in the hadîth refers to absolute unbelief, so that anyone

who breaks a promise, lies, breaches a covenant, or acts sinfully in an argument is an

unbeliever and is no longer a Muslim!

This person, by making this declaration, has disregarded hundreds of passages from the

Qur’ân and Sunnah that indicate that a sinner does not become an unbeliever on account

of his sins. This is a principle of faith in Islam. Al-Tahâwî says in his classic treatise on

Islamic beliefs: "The followers of Muhammad (peace be upon him) who commit major

sins and die without repentance will not remain in the Fire forever as long as they die on

monotheism, knowing Allah." This is a point of consensus among all orthodox Muslims.

This shows us the danger of taking a cursory reading of one text and ignoring all the


4 Sahîh al-Bukhârî (33, 2279). Sahîh Muslim (88).


Second Example:

The prophet (peace be upon him) said: "No ablutions need to be made unless you hear the

sound of flatulence or feel the passage of gas."5

If we were to take this hadîth on face value, no one would ever have to make ablution

except for the stated causes. This is the literal meaning of the hadîth. But is it the

intended meaning? The answer to this question is: certainly not! A person who wishes to

pray must make ablutions after going to the bathroom, after waking up from sleep, and

for other reasons. However, if a person was going to base his understanding solely on the

literal meaning of the text cited above, he would have to come to that false conclusion.

This is why the people of knowledge have always emphasized the need to compile all the

relevant texts on a matter before drawing any conclusions. Ahmad said: "If we did not

receive a single hadîth in seventy different ways, we would never have understood it." He

was referring here not only to different chains of transmission for a single hadîth, but also

to numerous hadîth on a single topic.

Third Example:

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "No one should urinate in still water and then

bathe in it."6 Some literalist scholars of the past have opined that if a person were to

urinate in a cup then pour the contents of the cup into the water, there would be no

objection to bathing in it, since the only thing that the hadîth prohibits is direct urination!7

This is a good example of severely dogmatic literalism. The intent of the Prophet (peace

be upon him) in this hadîth is perfectly clear.

Hastiness in Drawing Conclusions from the Texts

We will now turn our attention to the problem of being hasty when attempting to derive

rulings from the texts. The examples that we will be citing below are in fact matters of

disagreement between scholars. Our point here is not to support a given legal position,

but to illustrate the importance of being methodical and deliberate when dealing with the

sacred texts.

First Example:

There are numerous hadîth in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "There is no

prayer for one who has not made ablution, and there is no ablution for one who has not

5 Musnad Ahmad (9712). Sunan al-Tirmidhî (69). Sunan Ibn Mâjah (508).

6 Sahîh al-Bukhârî (232). Sahîh Muslim (424).

7 You can read about this opinion and the refutation of it in Ibn Hazm, al-Muhallâ (1/166) and al-Nawawî,

al-Majmû` (1/118).


invoked the name of Allah upon performing it."8 Numerous scholars have attested to the

authenticity of this hadîth. Some scholars have understood from it that ablutions are only

valid if the name of Allah is invoked before performing them. This was the opinion of

Ishâq b. Râhawayh, one opinion of Ahmad, and the view of a number of hadîth scholars.

Now, I do not intend to discuss the merits or demerits of this opinion, but I would like to

point out the other opinion and the evidence used to support it.

The majority of scholars, including Abû Hanîfah, Mâlik, and al-Shâfi`î, consider

mentioning Allah’s name before performing ablutions as a preferential sunnah act and do

not see it as obligatory. This is also one of the opinions related from Ahmad and the view

of many later scholars including Ibn Taymiyah, as well as the opinion of most

contemporary jurists.

Should we assume that all of these eminent scholars took the hadîth mentioned above and

threw it against the wall, like some rash students today have insinuated?

In actuality, a few classical scholars did not deem that hadîth to be authentic. Many of

them, however, did consider it authentic but had a different understanding of the words

"there is no ablution for one who has not invoked the name of Allah upon performing it".

They did not take the hadîth to mean that ablutions without mentioning Allah’s name are

invalid, but simply that such ablutions are not performed in the best manner. There is a

decent amount of evidence to support their interpretation.

First of all, there is a hadîth with a good chain of transmission in Sunan Abî Dawûd

wherein a man comes to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and asks him how purification

is to be carried out. So the Prophet (peace be upon him) calls for water and gives him a

demonstration. He washes his hands three times, washes his face once, wipes over his

head, traces his wet fingers and thumbs around his ears, and washes his feet three times.

Then he says: "This is how ablutions are to be made. Whoever adds anything to this or

leaves anything out has done wrong."9

The man asking the question was a desert Arab who had no idea how to perform

ablutions. Therefore, since the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not teach him to invoke

the name of Allah, we can safely assume that it is not necessary to do so.

A second piece of evidence comes from the fact that at least twenty-two Companions

have described how the Prophet (peace be upon him) made ablutions and not one of them

mentioned that he invoked Allah’s name.

Another argument offered by the scholars is that a full ritual bath can be done in lieu of

performing ablutions, and nowhere is it mentioned that Allah’s name must be invoked

before taking such a bath. Scholars actually assume that mentioning Allah’s name is

8 Musnad Ahmad (9050, 16054, 22152, 25894, 25896). Sunan Abî Dâwûd (92). Sunan Ibn Mâjah (392,

393, 394).

9 Sunan Abî Dawûd (116).


recommended before performing a ritual bath on the strength of the fact that the regular

ablutions are performed as part of the bath.

A fourth piece of evidence is that mentioning the name of Allah is not given in the verse

of the Qur’ân that spells out to us how ablutions are to be made. Allah says: "O you who

believe! When you prepare for prayer, wash your faces and your arms up to the elbows.

Wipe your head with water and wash your feet to the ankles." [Sûrah al-Mâ’idah: 6]

These arguments show us that the opinion of the majority of the scholars is not due to

their pointedly ignoring the hadîth, as some hasty students today are wont to believe. It is,

in fact, based on sound juristic principles as well as a deeper insight into the meaning of

the text that takes into account other textual evidence.

Second Example

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "When any one of you wakes up from his sleep,

he should not place his hands in a bowl of water until after he washes them three times,

because he does not know what his hands might have touched while he was asleep."10

Some scholars of the past understood from this hadîth that it is obligatory to wash your

hands after sleeping before you can place them in a bowl of water and that it is forbidden

to do otherwise. This was one of Ahmad’s opinions on the matter. Some contemporary

scholars have held this view as well.

On the other hand, according to most scholars, including Abû Hanîfah, Mâlik, al-Shâfi`î,

and Ahmad in another one of his opinions, doing so is merely recommended. Should we

assume that these eminent scholars simply tossed this hadîth behind their backs or that

they just did not care very much about the command of the Prophet (peace be upon him)?

Some brash young students today are actually saying such things about them.

These scholars are as far removed as you can get from such accusations. They merely

took into account a number of factors which demonstrate that the command given in the

hadîth is indicative of preference, not obligation. Let us consider the following:

First of all, there is the reason cited by the Prophet (peace be upon him) for the order that

he gave. He said: "…because he does not know what his hands might have touched while

he was asleep." Now, the ruling about impurity in Islamic Law is that unless you are

certain that there is some impurity upon something, you are not obligated to wash it.

Suspicions are not enough to make a washing obligatory. Therefore, it would not be

obligatory on a person to wash his hands after waking from sleep for the reason that the

Prophet (peace be upon him) gave. This leads us to believe that the command to wash the

hands is meant merely to encourage a preferable act.

10 Sahîh al -Bukhârî. Sahîh Muslim (416).


Another indicator that we are not dealing here with an obligation is that the Prophet

(peace be upon him) said we should wash our hands three times. In Islamic Law, if

impurities are removed after only one washing, then one washing is sufficient.

A third indicative factor is that there is another authentic hadîth that goes: "When one of

you wakes up, he should rinse his nose out with water three times, because Satan spends

the night in his nasal passages."11 In this case, consensus has been established among all

scholars save Ibn Hazm that rinsing the nose is not obligatory.

All of these factors support the idea that the hadîth encourages washing the hands after

waking from sleep and does not obligate it.

I would like to repeat here that I am not saying all this to support one opinion over

another. You are free to agree with these opinions or disagree with them. Someone might

say that it is obligatory to mention Allah’s name before making ablutions or feel that it is

obligatory to wash one’s hands upon waking. There is nothing wrong with this. My only

purpose in bringing up these issues is to show how dealing with texts requires

understanding and knowledge of how to deal with numerous pieces of evidence and

diverse indicative factors. I also wished to highlight the necessity of referring back to the

discussions of people of knowledge when investigating any issue. This allows the student

to choose the opinion that convinces him on the basis of knowledge and probity, not

merely on a cursory reading of a single text. Then, whatever position you choose in these

matters is acceptable, because you have a precedent for your choice among the earlier


A Look at the Zâhirî (Literalist) School of Law

It is appropriate at this point to discuss the great Zâhirî scholar Ibn Hazm. No doubt, he

was a great jurist with a number of great works to his credit. The most important of these

is his legal encyclopedia entitled al-Muhallâ, a substantial work of law containing

numerous insights. However, it also contains its share of errors and mistakes. All works

of such scope do.

The problem is that some students read al-Muhallâ and become totally enamored of Ibn

Hazm. Ibn Hazm has a very assertive style of writing, especially when it comes to

refuting his opponents’ use of analogous reasoning. His specialty is showing how his

opponents contradict themselves. Some students become enthralled by this style and end

up judging by his decisions in all matters, whether or not his opinion agrees with that of

the majority of the scholars. They accept from him even his strangest rulings.

This behavior is incorrect. For this reason, I feel that a beginning student should not read

al-Muhallâ, but should start with other books that are more comparative, more balanced

in their treatment of the issues, and less confrontational. In this way, the student will

develop a broad perspective and learn the proper way in which matters should be

discussed. I recommend the works of scholars like Ibn `Abd al-Barr, Ibn al-Mundhir, Ibn

11 Sahîh al -Bukhârî (3052).


Qudâmah, and Ibn Taymiyah. Afterwards, the student will be more prepared to read

whatever reputable books he chooses.


Craving Novelty

Novelty sometimes enlivens a person. When a person hears something mundane, he

rarely takes notice of it. However, when he hears something new and strange, he gives it

his undivided attention. A person walking down a busy street will see countless vehicles

go by and will scarcely be bothered with them. If a strange car passes by or some unusual

event happens, he will stop along with many other gawkers to take a look at it.

The same goes for academic pursuits. Many students seem to know nothing but the

strangest of opinions and deal only with matters that are prone to confusion. We have

already discussed how some students make themselves very proficient in discussing some

matters of scholarly debate and how they can quote the opinions of this scholar and that.

These same students, however, often fail to have knowledge of the matters in which the

scholars have all agreed with one another.

In the same way we find that some students have an insatiable appetite for what is novel

or strange. If such a student happens to stumble upon an opinion that is out of the

ordinary, he takes to it and may even come to its defense. He does this to satisfy his

hidden desire for all things strange as well as his desire to stand apart from others.

For this reason, it is necessary to emphasize the fact that the opinion of the majority of

scholars is usually – but not always – the most correct. The reason for this is that when

the scholars are generally agreed about a matter and only one or two hold a differing

view, there is usually some reason for their agreement. The majority is not always right,

but we should exercise a bit of caution before adopting a strange or unusual position.

A good example of a strange opinion is the view of some scholars that it is forbidden for

women to wear gold rings. Then there is the opinion that a pilgrim must only perform his

pilgrimage in the manner known as tamattu`. When we look for how many people held

these views from the early days of Islam up to today, we find that they can be counted on

the fingers of one hand. Often we can not be certain that those to whom the opinion is

attributed actually held that opinion.

Why then, do we find so many young students take to opinions like these? One reason

might be that they are convinced by the arguments for that opinion without having yet

developed the aptitude to analyze the evidence. Sometimes it is just because of the appeal

of the unusual or strange. Therefore, we must be extra cautious when we are about to go

against the vast majority of the scholars. We should only do so when we have clear and

unequivocal evidence to support us.



Bias for a Certain Scholar’s Views

This bias is usually to be found in a student with respect to the sheikh under whom he is

studying. If the sheikh happens to be a hadîth specialist, the student will be biased

towards his sheikh’s judgments about particular hadîth. If the sheikh is a jurist, then the

student will be biased towards his legal rulings. The student will go out of his way to

defend the sheikh’s opinions and popularize them.

Such bias is an old illness. It preys on ignorance. True scholars decry bias and warn

others against it. When a person is well grounded in knowledge, he does not let bias

overtake him. He sees it as a disservice to his sheikh that he agrees with and promotes his

views when the evidence indicates something to the contrary.

A true student of knowledge never limits himself to a single sheikh, thinking that he is all

the world. This is the root of bias. It is good to be conversant with the views of many.

Each sheikh has his methods and his strong points. Students should get all the good they

can from their sheikhs and not restrict themselves to just one.

What is most peculiar is to see a student who is severely biased to a living scholar but

gets vexed when he hears about someone having a bias for a scholar of the past. He

ridicules someone else for being a "biased Hanbalî" or a "bigoted Hanafî" while he is

totally enamored of some living personality.

The truth is, if you must have a bias towards someone, it is better to be biased towards

one of the scholars of old. Those scholars are people whose knowledge has been attested

to. There is unanimous agreement that they were erudite and exceptional people of

knowledge. Their opinions were generally sound and reliable. As for those who are

living, they are still prone to temptation.

In any event, bias is something that we do not approve of. Blind following is also wrong,

whether it be of the living or of the dead. A person should strive to follow the Qur’ân and

Sunnah. He should take his knowledge from scholars who act upon those two sources.

When he takes from them their legal rulings, he must also take from them the evidence

for those rulings.


Flawed Approaches to Dealing with Preferable Acts

There are a number of ways that people fall into error when trying to put into practice

acts deemed by Islamic Law to be preferable.


1. Practicing a supposedly preferable act before confirming its validity

Some students, when they hear about a preferable act that is supposedly established in the

Sunnah, they hasten to put it into practice before making sure that it is authentic.

Once, I saw a young man walking about with a turban wrapped around his head. In our

country, Saudi Arabia, such a turban is very peculiar, so his dress was quite conspicuous

and strange. I approached him and asked: "Why are you wearing this turban in stark

contrast to the customs of your country?"

He replied: "Because the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to wear it." He then went on

to mention some fabricated hadîth about the virtues of the turban, one of which states that

it is the dress of the angels. The truth of the matter is that there is not a single authentic

hadîth that extols the virtues of the turban.

Another example of applying a supposedly sunnah act is shaving the moustache. Some

students are in the habit of doing this because of certain hadîth that they read without

referring to what the scholars have had to say on the matter.

A slightly different case is the tendency some young men have to condemn the practice

of standing to greet someone who comes into the room. They do so on the basis of hadîth

that allegedly prohibit this practice.

Now, I am not going to say that there is no room for disagreement on this issue, but the

prohibition of people standing in reverence to their kings has little to do with a person

standing to shake his brother’s hand.

Sheikh `Abd al-`Azîz b. Bâz gave a very good answer to a questioner who asked about

this matter. He said: "This is a sign of good manners. As long as standing to greet

someone and shake his hand is the custom in your country, then it is simply part of good

manners and is not prohibited. And Allah knows best."

Therefore, before a person practices something he believes to be part of the Sunnah, he

should make sure that it actually is.

2. Going overboard in putting into practice an act established by the Sunnah

Once it is established that a given act is part of the Sunnah, it should be put into practice

in a balanced and reasonable manner. This is especially true if putting it into practice

involves other people.

Take the matter of straightening the ranks of worshippers before performing the

congregational prayer. I have noticed that some young people seem to think that

straightening the ranks means that everyone should press his heels against the heels of

those standing on either side of him. This is clearly going overboard in the matter and

causes discomfort for the other worshippers. It also causes the person doing it to take his


mind off his prayer. Is this behavior really established by the Sunnah? Let us look at the


The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "You should straighten your ranks or Allah will

bring divisions between you."

Al-Nu`mân b. Bashîr, the narrator of the hadîth, then observed: "I have seen that one of

us would press his heel against his companion’s heel and his shoulder against his


When we consider this hadîth closely, it becomes apparent that the case being made with

it is unacceptable.

First of all, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not command us to touch our heels. He

only commanded us to straighten our ranks in prayer. This just means that everyone

should be in line with each other; no person should not be more forward or more to the


Also, al-Nu`mân said: "I have seen that one of us would press his heel against his

companion’s heel." What comes to mind is that the person being spoken about did this at

the beginning of his prayer to make sure that he was in line with the people next to him,

since the heel is a good way to determine this. Therefore, as long as a person is sure that

he is in line with everyone else, then he does not have to keep contact between his heel

and the heel of his companion.

A third point is that it is almost impossible to literally place your heel against the heel of

the person standing next to you. You actually have to extend your foot outward. The

same goes for the shoulder. You often have to lean into the other person. If you lean into

the person on the right, you end up widening the gap between you and the person on the


This shows us that the hadîth, on the face of it, is not telling us to go out of our way to

press our heels together. It is only telling us to avoid gaps in our ranks and that we should

all stand in a straight line when we pray. Some people go overboard in putting this into

practice and cause a lot of discomfort and consternation for their fellow worshippers.

Another example is an imam who, wishing to apply the Sunnah in prayer, prolongs the

congregational prayer inordinately. You might find him reading the chapters al-A`râf and

al-Tûr during the sunset prayer, justifying himself with some hadîth that show it was a

practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him). By doing this, he places hardship on the

congregation and causes some of them to avoid coming to prayer.

It is strange that he justifies himself with what the Prophet (peace be upon him) did on

occasion, but neglects the Prophet’s command when he said: "If one of you leads the

12 Sahîh al -Bukhârî (676). Sahîh Muslim (659, 660).


people in prayer, then make it short, because among the people there will be children,

elderly individuals, and those who are sick." In one narration, he also said: "…and those

who have a need to fulfill."13

We say to such people: Is this what you do in the name of the Sunnah of the Prophet

(peace be upon him)? Taking the condition of the people into consideration is also part of

the Sunnah. Lengthening the prayer is not all that the Sunnah entails. We must be

moderate in doing so and consider the needs of the believers.

3. Failure to weight the merits and demerits of doing something

An old saying goes that a man builds his castle while tearing another castle down. A

person may perform some preferred act established by the Sunnah, but in the process of

doing so, neglect another act which is obligatory. Similarly, a person may avoid

something that is disliked in Islamic Law, but in doing so falls into something that is

prohibited. This is clearly wrong.

Islam does not encourage divisions. Fostering rancor and hatred are not among its

objectives. A person might stress applying a preferred act so much that he causes the

people to turn away from him. He might foster hatred between them as well. This is why

the people of knowledge have said: "Reconciling the hearts of the people is required,

even if it means leaving off an act that is recommended by the Sunnah."

Let us look at a few examples:

First Example:

If someone comes to a group of people who are in the habit of saying "Bismillâh al-

Rahmân ar-Rahîm" out loud when performing their audible prayers, then he should do so

as well if he leads them in prayer. Not doing so could cause them to disdain him or bring

about differences among them. It could lead to an argument breaking out in the mosque.

The scholars have determined that it is alright to recite these words out loud if it will

foster unity among the people in the mosque. Likewise, if he comes across people who do

not say "âmîn" audibly during their prayers, he should do the same, even if he is of the

opinion that it should be said audibly.

Second Example:

Sometimes, disputes erupt with respect to the number of units of prayer that should be

performed for the Tarâwîh prayer in Ramadân. It often leads to heated arguments,

lengthy debates, and divisions within the community. The matter however, is only

whether performing a certain number of prayer units is preferable or merely permitted.

13 Sahîh al -Bukhârî (88, 662). Sahîh Muslim (714, 715, 716).


Third Example:

Some people take the issue of shortening the clothes to extremes. Some young people

only allow their garments to fall below their knees to the length of four fingers. Some

allow their garments to fall halfway own their shins. I do not say that what they are doing

is wrong. What I do say however is that if a young man wears a garment of reasonable

length that neither falls below the ankles nor attracts undue attention, then this is more

likely to be acceptable to the people and have a positive effect on them.

This type of exaggeration that we see in the matter of shortening one’s clothing may be

due to a certain way of understanding the Sunnah. It may also be due to a hidden desire to

show off. If a person wishes to test his heart in such a matter, he should look towards the

preferable acts in the Sunnah that he performs that are not seen by others, acts that

require some effort. This would include keeping up the remembrance of Allah and

praying voluntary prayers at home. In matters like these, one really feels the effects of

practicing recommended acts.

4. Condemning others for not engaging in recommended acts

Some people treat recommended acts as if they are obligatory. If they see someone

neglecting one of these recommended acts, they condemn him, though it may be that the

matter at hand is one wherein people differ. A good example of this is the practice of

sitting for a moment after making prostration before rising to perform the next unit of

prayer. Another example is the practice of praying two units of prayer upon entering the

mosque at times when formal prayers are forbidden by Islamic Law. Sometimes, those

who perform these acts have a tendency to condemn those who do not.

This is wrong. These are not Islamic duties. There is room for leeway here. We should

focus our attentions on matters of primary importance before attending to these matters

where the evidence points almost equally well to more than one opinion. A person who

prefers one opinion on these matters should not try to compel others to agree with him.

We must research such matters in a wise and insightful manner, without trying to impose

our view on others and without becoming severe.


Some Ways to Protect Ourselves from these Pitfalls

There are many ways that a young student can protect himself from these errors. Among

them are the following:

1. A student of religious knowledge should read works written on the etiquettes of

seeking knowledge. Many scholars have written on this issue. A few of the more

important of these works are as follows:


· Ibn `Abd al-Barr – Jâmi` Bayân al-`Ilm wa Fadluhu (A Compilation Expounding

Knowledge and its Virtues)

· Al-Khatîb al-Baghdâdî – al-Jâmi` fî Âdâb al-Râwî wa Akhlâq al-Sâmî (A

Collection of Etiquettes for the Narrator and the Listener)

· Ibn al-Jawzî – Sayd al-Khâtir (The Pursuits of the Mind)

· Al-Sam`ânî – Adab al-Imlâ’ wa al-Istimlâ’ (Etiquettes of Writing and Dictating)

· Al-Nawawî – the Prologue of his work entitled al-Majmû` (The Collected)

· Al-Ghazâlî – the Prologue of his work entitled Ihyâ’ `Ulûm al-Dîn (The Revival

of the Sciences of the Faith)

· Ibn Jamâ`ah – Tadhkirah al-Sâmi` wa al-Mutakallam (A Reminder for the

Speaker and the Listener)

· Al-Dhahabî – Bayân Zaghal al-`Ilm (An Exposition on False Knowledge)

· Al-Shawkânî – Muntahâ al-Arab fî Adab al-Talab (Reaching the Goal: Etiquettes

of Seeking Knowledge)

· Sheikh Bakr Abû Zayd – Hilyah Tâlib al-`Ilm (Adornments of the Seeker of


2. A student should be ever vigilant in monitoring himself. Whenever he does something,

he should consider his state of mind and ask himself what prompted him to do what he

did. He should not be unmindful of his own affairs. He should not rush headlong into

things recklessly. He should think and ponder his moves, making sure he is not indulging

his personal desires in the name of the Prophetic Sunnah.

3. A student of religious knowledge should take his knowledge from trustworthy

scholars. He should sit before them in humility and show them courtesy and deference so

he can learn from them both knowledge and proper conduct.

4. A student should keep the company of other students. He should give them advice and

accept advice from them. These students need to act as mirrors for each other and point

out each other’s faults and errors.

5. A student needs to have a sound approach to acquiring knowledge. His desire for

knowledge should not let him get carried away collecting information haphazardly. This

may afford him some measure of "culture", but it does not lead to any real knowledge.

6. A student of religious knowledge must avoid major and minor sins. He should be as

Ibn al-Mubârak says in verse:

Disdain the sins great and small, for this is piety.

Like a man treading on thorns, be wary of what you see.

Belittle not the smallest sins, for mountains of pebbles be.



We ask Allah to assist us in living by the Qur’ân and Sunnah. We pray that He lets us

recognize the truth for what it is and helps us to follow it, and that he lets us see

falsehood for what it is and helps us to avoid it.

May Allah be praised; and may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon His Messenger

Muhammad and upon his family and Companions.

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