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Seeking knowledge – an Islamic perspective.

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Amreen Pathan

‘With the inkpot to the grave’

The story attributed to this phrase is potent. Imam Ahmad (founder of the Hanbali School)[1] was once spotted carrying a wooden inkwell. The ‘spotter’ was surprised by this and expressed as such. ‘O Aba ‘Abdillah! You are the Imam of the Muslims[2]!’

The man’s astonishment was founded on the status of Imam Ahmad as a jurist, theologian and leader of the Muslims. According to him, the responsibility of carrying the inkwell should have been given to Imam Ahmad’s students. A second element, however, was the fact that the inkwell reflected the universal status of a student whose necessary tools comprise of a pen and an inkwell and Imam Ahmad, as a highly learned scholar and the teacher had of course surpassed this stage in life.

Imam Ahmad’s response was short but by no means lacking. He replied:

‘I will be with the inkpot all the way to the grave.’[3]

If we relayed nothing but this on the subject of Islam’s impetus for the human pursuit of knowledge, this would suffice. What Imam Ahmad meant by this was clear: the pursuit of knowledge will occupy me until I die.

Despite their closeness to Allah and their massive contributions to the Muslim domain, great scholars like Imam Ahmad poured their hearts and souls in the pursuit of knowledge.  This leaves us to question why. What could be the reasons for this?

  1. The royal treatment

Man by nature can be persuaded to do something by the mere perks of a job so the perks seem like a sensible place to start! Islam truly sets the bar for the virtues it promises for education.

Abu Darda reports that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “…Verily, the angels lower their wings for the seeker of knowledge. The inhabitants of the heavens and earth, even the fish in the depths of the water, seek forgiveness for the scholar.”[4]

Every time I arrange to visit my childhood home, my family ask me: ‘What time should we roll out the red carpet?’ This is a little joke we share; the red carpet being a token of special treatment, honour and royalty. In the modern world, the red carpet is quite literally deployed for members of royalty and celebrity. In the Islamic world, Allah reserves this position for the ‘seeker of knowledge’ in ways that surpass and transcend the imagination of the human mind.

A carpet of wings (belonging to Angels no less) enveloping the physical and spiritual state of the student of knowledge? Note that whilst there is virtue in physically leaving the home to gain knowledge, a person who seeks knowledge whilst in the comfort of their home also falls under the umbrella of a student. The status of a student then is one of honour and the subsequent reward as indicated by the presence of angels and the prayers of the world’s inhabitants reflects this. 

It would also be sensible to define knowledge in this context. Imam Al-Ghazali emphasises two types of knowledge: the useful knowledge, which Muslims must seek, and then the harmful knowledge, which is not beneficial to mankind.[5] Therefore, any positive reference to knowledge will be made in relation to useful knowledge. Useful knowledge can be divided into religious sciences and knowledge in non-religious fields both fundamentally important for reasons addressed below. This leads us to the question: why does Islam place so much emphasis on education?

  • A mark of civilisation

The creation of man is higher than all other creations and one distinctive feature is the capacity to reflect and develop beyond our natural predispositions. The very first word revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) was the word ‘Read’.[6] The implication of this is powerful. Just as one might do when prioritising a to-do list or issues to address in a meeting or concepts to teach in a class, Allah addressed the concept of learning first because of its importance. Reading is a crucial component for any medium of knowledge and therefore the directive to read is essentially a call to pursue knowledge.

For example, Allah states that He ‘taught Prophet Adam the names (of everything)’[7]. Here Allah Himself is referring to the intellectual advantage of man that distinguishes him from other creations.

Knowledge therefore is a distinguishing mark of civilisation without which man would not be worthy of the status designated for him by his Creator.   

  • Acts of worship

Fact: knowledge is a pre-requisite for worship. Without knowledge, how is one expected to worship their Creator? Performing ablution, offering daily prayers, fasting, abstaining from impermissible food –all the basics basically –will be neglected or not given their due diligence. If a lack of knowledge creates deficiencies within the basics, then what can be said about the deeper essence of worship pertaining to matters of the heart; patience, humility, sincerity? In fact, Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz wrote to the people of Medina, “Whoever worships without knowledge will cause more harm than good.”[8] Such worship would be detrimental to one’s faith and sadly, the worshipper would be better off without having performed it in the first place.

  • Serving mankind

The second type of useful knowledge is that which is non-religious. Non-religious knowledge should not be disregarded but utilised to best serve our communities and humanity.

“The most beloved people to Allah are those who are most beneficial to the people.”[9]

The issue of under-representation of ethnic minorities is rife especially in the UK. Notwithstanding unequal opportunities, part of the solution to this problem is education. Education will provide opportunity for growth and access to fields not easily accessible to ethnic minorities including Muslims.

Islam has always championed the cause of knowledge and evidence of this lies in the past contributions of Muslims to the sphere of knowledge. During the early Abbasid rule for example, the Muslims established the centre of science, philosophy, medicine and research. The world’s oldest university; al-Qarawiyyin, was established by a Muslim woman in 859 AD! Muslims introduced new technology to the world of farming, astronomy was advanced by al-Battani, al-Khawarizmi is considered to be the ‘Father of Algebra and so forth. The list is living proof of Muslims as patrons of learning. All of these renowned names embody the concept of benefitting humanity perfectly.

Need more be said about the importance of education in Islam? May Allah make us all patrons of knowledge.


[1] Of Islamic Jurisprudence

[2] https://durani.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/3-25/

[3] [“Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad”, 32-33]

[4] Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 3641

[5] http://ghazali.org/books/knowledge.pdf (p.22-23)

[6] Surah Al-Alaq – 96:1

[7] http://en.noblequran.org/quran/surah-al-baqarah/ayat-31/

[8] Source: Sunan al-Dārimī 308

[9] Source: Tabarani

2 Comments

  1. Amatullah
    March 17, 2021

    Thank you for another brilliantly written article. I especially liked the analogy between the carpet of wings and red carpet. May Allah grant us all beneficial knowledge, ameen. Looking forward to reading more inshallah

    Reply
    • Amreen
      March 22, 2021

      Ameen. JazakAllah Amatullah for taking the time to read. Islam truly embodies the idea of royalty!

      Reply

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