Seeking Knowledge: Then vs. Now

By Shaykh Omar Baig (Mississauga, Ontario)

Around 1300 years ago, a man would decide to travel from the blessed city of Madinah all the way to Egypt just to learn a single ḥadīth. Upon learning this ḥadīth, he would immediately pack his bags and begin his journey back home. This man was Khālid bin Zaid, also known as Abū Ayūb al-Ansārī (may Allah be pleased with him).1  This wasn’t anything unusual at the time, however, as people who wanted to gain ‘ilm were generally required to travel far distances due to the lack of resources in one area.

Nowadays, we have hundreds of thousands of aḥādīth at our fingertips, thousands of books at our disposal, and tons of applications which can sift and search through all of these books with the click of a button. Yet, when we look around, we see ignorance is more prevalent than ever! Nowhere in sight is the next Nawawi or Ibn Ḥajr, let alone the likes of Bukhārī and Muslim. Why is it that we know less, despite having access to more resources than ever before? If we take a good look, the answer is quite simple—our method of learning and studying is completely flawed.

‘Ilm Must Be Sought!

We live in era in which technology is advancing like never before. Somewhere between the inspirational tweets on Twitter and the quick tutorials on YouTube, concepts of sacrifice and hard work have disappeared and become almost foreign to us. We have mistaken following scholars on Twitter or liking their Facebook pages as a modern form of sitting with a shaykh.

While we are no longer required to travel long distances like the scholars in the past, there are still sacrifices which must be made for ‘ilm. That sacrifice could be adjusting our schedules, taking out time to find a local scholar, and might even require giving up on Halo or Call of Duty for a couple hours of weeks (I never said it was going to be easy!). The ‘ulamā of the past were very particular in making sure they took the proper steps in acquiring knowledge, as doing so would help them appreciate the value of ‘ilm.

Ibn ‘Abbas, a prominent companion and relative of the Prophet ﷺ would say,

“I would sometimes hear that another companion had knowledge of a certain ḥadīth (which I did not know). If I had wished, I could have called him, and he would have taught me the ḥadīth here. But I, myself, would go to his door and learn the ḥadīth there.” [Sunan al-Dārami]

Yes, this is Ibn ‘Abbas, the greatest commentator of the Qur’ān. He understood the only way to gain true ‘ilm was through giving it its due respect and sacrifice.

Avoiding the Milk-Shaykhs

Another phenomenon which has become widespread today is studying without actual ‘ulamā; some choose the path of “self-studying” (with help from Shaykh Google of course), while others decide to study with unqualified teachers who might have good speaking skills (also known as “milk-shaykhs”). We would never adopt these methods to learn medicine, law, or anything else, so how can we be comfortable studying the commandments of Allah and his Messenger ﷺ this way? It is worth noting the Messenger ﷺ, when prophesizing the widespread and rampant ignorance to come before the Final Day, never said it would be due to a lack of resources. Rather, he mentioned two reasons: the absence of ‘ulamā and giving unqualified people positions they shouldn’t have.

Alḥamdulilāh, many ‘ulamā are still around and can be easily found in our localities. The onus is on us to make sure they aren’t absent from our lives, thus opening the door for the unqualified to fill in the void.

The Need for Humility

While humility is already an essential trait for every Muslim, it is even more vital on the path to acquiring knowledge. A person can only truly learn if they are willing to recognize their lack of knowledge to begin with. Nowadays, every other person feels qualified to hold an opinion and criticize anyone who dares to disagree. People who haven’t even fully read the Qur’an or a full book of ḥadīth are ready to question the great scholars of the past. All of a sudden, rulings and opinions which were unanimously accepted for over a thousand years are rejected, and accepting isolated ideas has become the trend. We always trust experts regarding everything else in life, why can’t we trust our ‘ulamā? Imām Mujāhid said,

“Two people can never learn; the one who is shy and the one who is arrogant.” [Bukhāri]

It is about time that we get back to acquiring ‘ilm the correct way; the way of effort, zeal, and humility. The way of the salaf.

O Allah! Make us from amongst the true seekers of ‘ilm and increase us in knowledge! Ameen.

Musnad Aḥmad

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