When Allāh Most High informed the angels of his intent to grant the human being authority over the earth, they struggled to understand why He Most High would place such a creation on the earth who would spread corruption therein and shed blood. The angels had engaged in inductive reasoning, which is the foundation of the scientific method. They had observed the jinns who inhabited the earth prior and had used their free will to spread corruption; the angels hypothesised that human beings would use their free will to do the same. However, Allāh Most High informed them of a flaw in their methodology. He told them they knew not what He knew. And this is the primary flaw of induction, and consequently the scientific method. That a theory is held as true as long as new data does not emerge which refutes it. Fast forward to today, and science is framed as competition to religion, and yet, arguably, the first lesson taught to man was the inherent weakness of the scientific method compared to Allāh’s complete knowledge. While scientific fact may at anytime become falsehood, the spring of revelation will forever remain a true source of knowledge.

“Acquiring knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim”

Sunan Ibn Mājah, 224

The story continues that Allāh Most High established the superiority of man over the angels by imparting to him knowledge of the names of all things. This also established one of the wisdoms in the creation of man which had evaded the angels, man’s pursuit of knowledge. It was this knowledge that made him worthy of prostration and honour[1]. Thus, humankinds’ interaction with knowledge goes back to our earliest father, it pacified the angels, and true to Allāh’s wisdom, its pursuit continues unabated.

One such pursuit which boggles the mind is that of the Andalusian scholar Baqiyy bin Makhlad (D.201-276 AH). At the mere age of 20, he travelled from Muslim Spain to Baghdad on foot for the sole purpose of learning from the imām of his time, Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal. A quick google search shows that he would have likely travelled nearly 7000 km, in the process passing through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Greater Syria before reaching Baghdad. According to a google maps estimate, that would equate to 1400 hours of walking, or close to half a year travelling assuming he walked for eight hours per day.

Upon nearing Baghdad, news reached Baqiyy of the trial[2] of Imām Aḥmad which had resulted in his house arrest and a ban from teaching. Undeterred, Baqiyy continued to Baghdad. He sought the whereabouts of the great imām and was directed to his residence. Baqiyy knocked on the door of Imām Aḥmad and informed him of the long journey he had undertaken to seek ḥadīth from him. To circumvent the house arrest and teaching ban, Baqiyy offered to come daily to the door of the imām dressed up as a beggar. He would then start begging aloud. The imām could come to the door on this pretext and narrate even one ḥadīth which Baqiyy could write down using the pen and paper hidden in his sleeve. The imām agreed on the condition that Baqiyy would not attend the gatherings of other scholars, lest he be recognised, and his disguise be exposed. This method of teaching and learning continued for some months until the ruler of the time met his demise and Imām Aḥmad was freed from imprisonment. The fame of Imām Aḥmad grew, and the imām would inform people of the story of Baqiyy.[3]

While the story of Baqiyy may seem like an anomaly, our history is replete with incidents of scholars who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. This should be of no surprise when the Qur’ān commands us to supplicate for an increase in knowledge[4]. And yet, not all knowledge is equal. There is no knowledge greater than that of Allāh, His messenger, and His religion, or in other words, knowledge of the Qur’ān and Sunnah. This is because knowledge is only as good as its source. While a major problem of our time is ‘fake news’, knowledge of the Qur’ān as understood by the God-fearing Ꜥūlamā is our guide in navigating and sifting between truth and falsehood. And knowledge of the Sunnah is our path to the love of Allāh Most High. It is the developing of a prophetic mindset. A compass directing us to that which pleases Allāh when at any crossroad.

“Beware of the insight of the believer, for he sees with the light of Allāh”

Jāmi al-Tirmidhī, 3127

A Muslim who sees the world around him through the lens of divine knowledge is safe from the vicissitudes of his time. As the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau famously remarked, “Read not the Times, Read the Eternities”[5]. The Qur’ān tells the story of these eternities as told by the One who transcends time. Consequently, when one learns and internalises this knowledge, he learns how to be graceful in difficulty and grateful in ease. He learns how to look at one’s own shortcomings when in the darkness of the sea as Yūnus عليه السلام did, and how to forgive when in a position of power as Yūsuf عليه السلام did. He learns not to be surprised when believers are oppressed because he knows the ultimate victory is for the god-fearing. And this is the true state of a believer, in regard to whom the Prophet said, “Beware of the insight of the believer, for he sees with the light of Allāh”[6].

The building of Islām is a building of knowledge developed over fifteen centuries. Its foundation is that necessary knowledge that every Muslim must acquire. That which he requires to live his daily life according to the sharīꜤah. It is regarding this knowledge the Prophet remarked, “Acquiring knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim”[7]. Examples include the method of praying ṣalāt for every adult and sharꜤī rules of trade for businessmen. Upon this is built knowledge which at least some in the community must acquire. This includes knowledge of how to bury the dead or the intricate workings of the principles of jurisprudence. The Ꜥulamā’ are those who ascend this building, so they are able to assess its foundations, see its pillars, appreciate its architecture, and marvel at its beauty. As Allāh Most High proclaims, “Allāh will elevate those of you who believe and raise those gifted with knowledge in rank. And Allāh is All-Aware of what you do.”[8] And once atop, they continue to build on what their predecessors built.

An age-old adage among the scholarly classes is that the pursuit of knowledge is from the cradle to the grave. And since the ẓakāt of knowledge is sharing it, one can easily find the inheritors of the prophet sharing their inheritance. It is upon us as seekers to gather as much as possible of this wealth, because “can those who know and those who do not know be equal?”[9]

[1] See Madārik al-Tanzīl of Al-Nasafī, verses 30-34 of Sūrat al-Baqarah

[2] This is the famous miḥnah of Imām Aḥmad in which he was imprisoned and even flogged for refusing to support the MuꜤtazilī caliph-backed view of the createdness of the Qur’ān.

[3] For the full story, see Tārikh al-Islām of Al-Dhahabī, 6/521

[4] Qur’ān 20:114

[5] In his book, Life Without Principle

[6] Jāmi al-Tirmidhī, 3127

[7] Sunan Ibn Mājah, 224

[8] Qur’ān 58:11

[9] Qur’ān 39:9