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Traditionalists Format of Acquiring Authentic Islamic Knowledge: Dispelling Modernists Contentions

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem

It was stated

Even when trying to read a text of the past there is only that much that one can divorce from one’s ideas and notions of what a word (like ‘love’) means. We cannot fully understand it from the PoV of the authors. We will necessarily inject our notions into the meanings of the words. We are already limited to the extent to which we can read the mind of another person who is alive in front of us. Trying to place ouselves into the minds of those long dead and claiming to get their ‘true, unadulterated’ understanding is a laughable claim.

The reason why this was stated is because this modernist is judging the Islamic acquisition of knowledge BASED on the western format ALONG WITH the fact that his idea of knowledge is based on the western concept rather than the Islamic concept

Stated, Alaamah Bakr ibn Abdillah Abu Zayd al-Hanbali from his Hilyatu-Taalibu-‘Ilm

The basis of acquiring knowledge should be by way of dictation and acquisition from the teachers, and by being in the continuous company of the scholars and taking from the mouths of men, and not from the scrolls and the depths of books. The first type of student (i.e. the seeker of knowledge who takes from the teachers) falls under the taking from one’s relative when they talk. The second takes from a book which is inanimate; therefore how can the ties of lineage be possible? It also used to be said
“Whoever enters knowledge alone, will emerge alone” [al-Jawaahir wad-Duraar by Haafidh as-Sakhaawee]
i.e whoever becomes involved in seeking knowledge without a shaykh will emerge without knowledge because knowledge is a profession, and every profession has its experts, therefore it is necessary to have a proficient teacher in order to learn.There is almost an ijmaa from the scholars on this except for a very few who were isolated in their opinion [the opinions that it is not necessary to have a shaykh] such as Ali ibn Ridwaan al-Misree at-Tabeeb (453H) and he was refuted by the scholars of his day and age and those who came after them. adh-Dhahabee said in his biography ‘and he did not have a shaykh, rather he engaged himself in taking from the books, and he wrote a book about acquiring a skill by reading from the books, and that it is more prosperous for the learner and this is wrong” [Siyaar Alaam an-Nubalaa 18/105, refer to al-Ghunya o Qaadhi ‘Iyaadh pg 16-17]

And as-Safadee wrote an extensive refutation on what he said, which was mentioned by az-Zubaydee in his explanation of al-Ihyaa along with a number of other scholars, all putting forward a number of arguments, amongst them that Ibn Batlaan put forward in his refutation [in which he said] ‘The sixth point: there are things that exist in the book that divert from knowledge, and they are non-existent in the teacher, an it is due to distortion that occurs due to the resemblance of the letters, in addition to the non-existence of the pronunciation, an the mistakes that could occur due to-

  • 1. straying of the eyes,
  • 2. lack of experience in ‘iraab
  • 3. corruption of the existing book
  • 4. handwriting that cannot be read (In our times we would substitute this for misprinting)
  • 5. reading that which is not written
  • 6. not knowing he madhaab of the author
  • 7. poor quality of the scripts
  • 8. poor transcription
  • 9. lack of stopping at the correct punctuation
  • 10. mixing up terminology of different subjects and using the terminology of one subject in context of another
  • 11. and the existence of greek terminology that the writer did not take from the arabic language
All of the things mentioned obstruct knowledge, an the learner is relieved from them when he reads to a teacher. If the situation is such, then reading to the scholar is more advantageous and virtuous than personal study and this is what we wanted to explain…
as-Safadee said ‘For this reason the scholars said: ‘Do not take knowledge from a person who acquires it from the scripts and not take the Qur’an from a person who has recited the Qur’an from the Mushaf. MEANING, do not recite the Qur’an to a person who just read it from the mushaf (without reciting it to a shaykh), or hadeeth etc, from a person who acquired [hadeeth] by reading from scripts’[Sharh al-Ihyaa]As for the tangible proof that establishes the falseness of Ibn Ridwaan’s theory; then it is that you will read thousands of biographies written in different eras throughout history that are full of mentions of the teachers and their seekers. Some seekers have many mashaa’ikh, while others have few…..

Abu Hayaan al-Andaloosee (745H author of the tafseer Bahr al-Muheet) used to say when Ibn Maalik was mentioned to him: ‘Where are his teachers?’ and al-Waleed said: ‘al-Awzaa’ee used to say: This knowledge used to be noble, passed down [from men] to men, but when it entered the books, the wrong people became involved in it” [as-Siyaar 7/114] A similar account was narrated by Ibnul-Mubaarak from al-Awzaa’ee.

Without doubt, flaws occur when taking from the scripts even with an ijaazah. Especially in that time when there was no dotting (the diacritical markings of our letters) or vowelling, so that in turn the word could become distorted in a way that would change the meaning. Such flaws are non existent when taking from the mouths of men. Errors also occur when narrating from memory, as opposed to narrating from an edited script. Ibn Khaldoon researched this topic extensively in his Muqaadimah he says

‘It is said by some (in poetry)
And whosoever does not read the books to the scholars, then his certainty in difficult issues is conjecture

Abu Hayyan (al-Andaloosee) used to recite the following poetry
‘The gullible one [wrongly] assumes that books guide the one of understanding in attaining knowledge
And it escapes the ignorant one that in it are obscure issues that confused the mind of a person with understanding.
If you wish to attain knowledge without a teacher, you will stray from the straight path.
And the issues will become so confusing to you, that you will become more astray than Tuma the wise

[end quote]

again, I quote from him again elsewhere

“Since knowledge is not attained initially from books, rather it is necessary to take from a shaykh in order to perfect the keys of knowledge with him (so as to prevent yourself from tripping and slipping)….”

again he says

“So is it not time to call for the return to the traditional methods of seeking knowledge, by studying and memorizing concise reliable books, and not just relying upon understanding alone, or upon studying pre-prepared pamphlets? [It is these two things] that caused the seekers [of knowledge] to become lost and neither memorize nor understand [the knowledge].

In recent times, there is a particular heterodox ideologue by the name of Hamza Yusuf who superbly described the traditionalist methodology of learning knowledge. While we do not sanction the particular views, doctrine, and certain practices of this man, we have to admit where does truth lie in even if it be spoken by those we disagree with.  Of course our quotation of him is by no means an exoneration of the errors of this man in his entire doctrinal and methodological approach. he was asked

Someone remarked that “sitting before a teacher who passes you knowledge is like taking a photograph – in that by the light, the image of what is in front of you is implanted in your heart. This is education.” Please comment – why can’t we receive education from reading books?

So Hamza’s response was

PART OF IT IS THE IDEA OF TRANSMISSION. Anybody who has studied with a teacher will know the answers to that question and anybody who hasn’t won’t. It’s the difference between hearing about something and experiencing it. OUR TRADITION IS A TRADITION OF TRANSMISSION. OUR PROPHET (SAW) WAS TAUGHT BY AN ANGEL – THAT ANGEL WAS TAUGHT BY RABB-UL-IZZA – THE LORD OF POWER. And the Qur’an says, “Over everyone who possesses knowledge is someone who has more knowledge.” When Musa (as) was asked if there was anyone more knowledgeable on the earth than he was, he replied “No.” But Allah then sent him to study with Al-Khidr, who the majority of scholars say wasn’t even a prophet, so here’s a prophet being sent to a non-prophet and it was a reminder to Musa (as) that one can never assume that there is not someone that they can learn from. Part of the modern crisis in the Muslim Ummah is we have auto-didactic scholars – the damage that they have caused is, I think, extraordinary, and one of the signs of the end of time is a Hadith in which the Prophet (saw) said knowledge would be taken from a “Saghir” which means “a little one.” Ibn Abd ul-Barr, the great Andalusian commentator on Hadith, wrote that what this Hadith means is that the chain would be broken towards the end of time – PEOPLE WHO HAD NOT TAKEN THEIR KNOWLEDGE FROM THE PREVIOUS GENERATION WILL BEGIN TO TRANSMIT KNOWLEDGE, AND THAT KNOWLEDGE WILL BE THEIR OWN OPINION AND NOT TRANSMITTED KNOWLEDGE. And from the Muslim perspective, truth is not something that needs to be discovered – it’s something that needs to be learned. In the Western understanding, truth is something that needs to be discovered, truth has not been given to man – it’s something that man needs to discover for himself. In the 20th Century, although that meta-narrative is disappearing, i.e., the post-modern phenomenon is in a sense a capitulation to the idea that there is no truth – and if there is truth, it is not with a “T” but with a “t” – meaning, “your truth may not be my truth.” What the post-modernist thesis is to say that, really what we have is not some grand narrative of the search of truth, but rather meta-narratives or small narratives of the truth, that each one is as equally true as the other which is ultimately saying that nothing is true. Because once you say everything is true, what you’re really saying is nothing is true. If I say it’s wrong to kill and somebody says, well that statement has no meaning because what is “wrong”? – what’s your definition of wrong? And because wrong cannot be technically defined within the dominant discourse of the 20th Century, therefore it has no meaning. Whereas, if I say, “It is wrong,” and “wrong” is “that which Allah has made prohibited,” I am laughed out of the auditorium because what I’m saying is that “truth has been revealed by God” – that is no longer an accepted premise for the modern social discourse. So we can’t talk of morality – all we can talk of is legislation, and legislation is what the latest vogue is – should we have the death penalty or shouldn’t we ? … it becomes a debate, and there’s nothing in stone so to speak. Like “Thou shalt not kill” – it becomes “should we kill or shouldn’t we? Well, let’s take a vote.” Truth becomes a democratic process, and that is very alien to the Islamic tradition. So the idea that truth is something which is transmitted from generation to generation is no longer acceptable within the dominant social discourse. AND FOR THE MUSLIMS THAT HAS BEEN THE TRUTH BECAUSE THE PROPHET (SAW) SAID THAT THIS KNOWLEDGE – I.E. THE TRUTH/REVELATION WILL BE CARRIED IN EACH GENERATION BY UPRIGHT PEOPLE AND TRANSMITTED TO THE FOLLOWING GENERATION. SO MUSLIMS HAVE ALWAYS SEEN THAT KNOWLEDGE IS A TRANSMISSION, FROM THE BREASTS OF THOSE WHO KNOW TO THE HEARTS OF THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW.

Another important aspect he touched upon is the western concept of truth and how it greatly differs from the prophetic view of truth.

So the question arises, what is the difference between the Western way and the Islamic way of the acquisition of knowledge?

To answer this, we say that we consider the western format of studying and call it the ‘university” manhaj (style)

We consider the Islamic format of studying and call it the “salafi” manhaj (style) and when I say salafi, i mean the pure raw old fashion format, and not the theological positions of salafism. [because salaf literally means predecessors/ancestors]

The university style is I think very much understood by most of the western world and their audience which is why I don’t really need to elaborate on it. However that style is to ensure a “passing” accreditation. This style falls into the style of giving a passing grade of 60 percent and above in lower grades and in college level, you have to get at least an 80 percent depending on the specific format of various instructors and the subject.

Other things conclude the multiple choice method and other faulty formats

Within the “salafi” style
There is no passing accreditation. You have to “master” it. If there is a single mistake, you simply don’t get it and you are a failure UNTIL there is no mistake. Once there is no mistake, THEN you are considered as having passed it.
likewise there is no multiple choice formats. You have to articulate the correct position or you are wrong flat out.

Another benefit of the salafi style is that it does not suffer the modern phenomenon of political correctness. In other words, there are minor forms of punishments involved by students who merely
dose off in class
or other mishaps that a student may fall into.

It is these necessary forms of strictness and punishment that allows for a higher caliber student, so to speak, than the university manhaj.

A wonderful teacher told us that one of his teachers would have a light form of tear gas that caused immediate vomiting (I forgot the name of it). If a student dozed off or make a blunder unacceptable to the whole class, he would set it off on the whole class, and all of the students would have to endure it because of the mishap of a single student.
it was not out of oppression, but to teach to the students the quality of necessary engagement with peers to be on the same page, and other subtleties that the university manhaj is deprived of.