Humility in knowledge

The Spirit Of Islam

Khalid Baig

IMAM Malik bin Anas (RA) was one of the greatest Islamic scholars of all times. Among his 1300 disciples were people from all walks of life; rulers, judges, historians, Sufis, poets, and scholars of Quran, Hadees and Fiqah. The Khalifah attended his class as an ordinary student along with others. Imam Malik considered his knowledge as a trust. When he knew something to be right or wrong, no intimidation could stop him from declaring so. It was his fatwa that divorce given under compulsion is invalid that earned him the wrath of the ruler (as it implied that pledge of allegiance given under compulsion was also invalid). He was punished with lashes and at every strike he said, “I am Malik bin Anas and I declare that divorce given under compulsion is invalid.” Yet it was the same Imam Malik who was more likely to say “la adree” (I don’t know) or “la ahsin” (I don’t know it very well) in response to the constant flow of queries directed toward him. Once a person approached him and told him that he had come from Morocco — after a six-month journey — only to ask a question. “My people back home are waiting for your answer,” he said. After hearing the question Imam Malik replied, “Please tell your people that I do not know the answer to your question.” In one case he was asked forty-eight questions and in response to thirty-two of them he said, “I don’t know.” It was commonly said that if somebody wrote down Imam Malik’s answers to questions, he could easily fill pages with “I don’t know” before writing a real answer.
The reason for this extraordinary care was nothing but a deep sense of accountability before Allah. It was the caution of a person who was standing between Hell and Heaven, fearful that one wrong step could lead him to the former. “Before you answer a question about religious law, visualise that you are standing at the gates of Hell and Heaven,” he used to advise others. Of course, he was not alone. Ibn Jareej used to attend the majlis (sitting) of Abdullah ibn Umar (RA). “In answer to more than half the questions he used to say I don’t know.” Ibn Abi Layla saw 120 Sahaba (companions). “Whenever one of them was asked a question he wished that someone else would answer it.” Nor was this caution restricted to Fiqah (Islamic Law). In interpreting the Quran or the Hadees, they exercised same care. Imam Muslim whose Sahih Muslim is unanimously considered second of the two most authentic collections of Hadees, had set for himself only the task of Hadees collection leaving the job of interpreting them to others. He was so concerned about this that he did not even divide the book into chapters for such classification would amount to interpretation. They were the authoritative source on Islamic teachings, having devoted their lives to learning and practicing them. They knew very well the tremendous burden inherent in a statement that begins “Allah says”, or “The Prophet (PBUH), says”. For here stating something that is not so means that a person is attributing something to Allah or the Prophet (PBUH) that is not true. What can be a greater sin than that! They always remembered that it is Haram to give fatwa without knowledge. They always remembered the Hadees, “Whoever interprets the Quran without knowledge should make his abode in Hell.”
Fast-forward to today and you are in a totally different world. Across the Muslim world today there are innumerable “experts” who are willing to interpret the Quran and Hadees, give fatwas, even do Ijtihad — all without the benefit of even the minimum religious education and training. If such a person is a good writer or speaker that is qualification enough. For the audiences today readily confuse eloquence with scholarship. If the “expert” also carries the magic title “Dr.” that certainly fills any gaps in his authority. It does not matter whether his educational achievement maybe in gynaecology or business administration, journalism or nuclear science, physics or animal husbandry. The results have been disastrous. The vast confusion and ignorance of even elementary subjects in religious teachings among the seemingly “educated” classes today is unprecedented. Today one can find all sorts of un-Islamic ideas and practices, conjectures, whims, and desires finding approval in the “Ijtihaddom” that has been concocted.
What is more we also make a virtue out of this catastrophe by bragging that we have broken the “shackles of blind following” and opened direct access to the original sources of Islamic teachings. But no amount of bragging can hide the fact that this is the equivalent of allowing unlicensed and untrained people to practice medicine. Although in this case the resulting death and injury is not physical and is therefore less visible. The reasons for this malaise are complex but two stand out. First, the schooling of our “educated” people included very little or none of Islamic education. Plainly, we do not know and we do not know that we do not know. Second, many of us harbour great mistrust of those who have received formal Islamic education. In turn this is also based on ignorance of what constitutes such education. It is not to say that the decline of Muslim political power and the general decline of Muslim civilisation has had no effect on this area of activity or our darul-iftas are running problem free. But can anyone in all honesty declare that an alternative that misses each and everyone of these features is better? There is a famous saying in Urdu. “A pseudo doctor is danger to life. A pseudo religious scholar is danger to faith.” Do we know the danger?

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