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Milestones on the Road to Seeking Knowledge

by Sh. Abdul Aziz Al-Sadhan

Translation and Editing by: Al-Sirat Al-Mustaqeem team

Chapter 1: 10 Obstacles in the way of Seeking Knowledge

The first thing I choose to speak about are the barriers and obstacles that stand in the way of the students of knowledge … Barriers which prevent them from remaining steadfast upon that path.

While the barriers and obstacles that students of knowledge may face are many, they can be gathered into the following ten obstacles:

Obstacle 1: An Insincere Intention

The intention is the pillar of any deed and its foundation. Any deed would contain as much deficiency as is contained in the intention.

And our prophet [peace be upon him] said: The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended[1].

So if the intention is tainted by the stains of the love of fame, the love of leadership, and their likes; then that would be a huge barrier in the face of the seeker of knowledge.

However, for those who strive to clear their intention, Allah [All Mighty] has assured them in the Quran that: {As for those who strive hard in Us (Our Cause), We will surely guide them to Our Paths} [2].

And Sufyan Al-Thawri [May Allah have mercy on him] says:

The most difficult thing I had to treat was my intention [3].

So if that was Sufyan the great scholar, then what about us?

That is why we all have to make sure that our intention is clear and that we are seeking this knowledge solely for the sake of Allah. And if the intention gets stained through the deceptions of Iblees (i.e. Satan), that won’t be strange, but the strange thing is if the student of knowledge knows about these stains and accepts them. That is why it is critical for the seeker of knowledge to fight and struggle with his intention until he clears it from these stains, and to never get tired or lose hope.

Obstacle 2: Love of Fame, and Leadership

This obstacle would also fall under the intention; however, it is given its own section due to its importance.

Love of fame and leadership is a serious illness that only through Allah’s protection one can be safe from it.

Al-Shatibi [may Allah have mercy on him] said:

One of the last things to leave the hearts of the righteous is the: Love of leadership and authority [4].

So if the intention of the student is that his name becomes well-known, or that he becomes famous and respected wherever he goes, and these were his only concerns and hopes, then he has put himself in a very dangerous situation.

I think it is sufficient for us to know one prophetic tradition, where Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him] said:

The first of men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgment will be …

Then will be brought forward a man who acquired knowledge and imparted it (to others) and recited the Quran. He will be brought And Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Then will Allah ask: What did you do (to requite these blessings)?

He will say: I acquired knowledge and disseminated it and recited the Quran seeking Thy pleasure. Allah will say: You have told a lie. You acquired knowledge so that you might be called “a scholar”, and you recited the Quran so that it might be said: “He is a Qari” and such has been said. Then orders will be passed against him and he shall be dragged with his face downward and cast into the Fire …[5].

So this desire and love of fame is a tough test, except for those who Allah has protected their hearts.

The Salaf [may Allah shower them with mercy] were the furthest away from this love of fame, and from the examples that were narrated about them that demonstrates this are:

What was mentioned about Ayyub al Sakhtiyani [may Allah have mercy on him] that he said:

People have come to know me, while I hate to be remembered [6].

And Hamad said about him:

I used to walk with him (i.e. Ayyub), and he would take routes that I am amazed how he discovered them, escaping from the people so that they don’t say: There is Ayyub [7].

Imam Ahmad said to one of his students, when he heard people praising him:

Oh Abu Bakr, if a man knows himself then what benefit would the words of people bring [8].

And he said:

“… that Abdul Rahman ibn Abi Laila said: I met 120 of the Ansar, from the companions of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), whenever one of them is asked a question, he would hope that one of his brothers would answer instead” [9].

Obstacle 3: Neglecting attending lectures

The Salaf of this Ummah used to say: “Knowledge is sought-after, and does not seek”, however, today knowledge is seeking students but is not sought after, and that is with a very few exceptions.

These lectures of knowledge, if the only good that would come to you from it is that tranquility would descend upon you and that mercy would cover you, and that the angels would surround you, and on top of all this, Allah makes a mention of you in the presence of those near Him (as has been reported in the prophetic tradition), then that would be a sufficient enough reason for attending it. How then should your eagerness be when you would receive two great benefits: the knowledge that is gained in this life and the rewards awaiting you in the next life?

And In-Sha-Allah (god willing), a separate section would be used to discuss the manners and etiquette a student of knowledge must have when attending lectures.

Obstacle 4: Excusing yourself with being busy

This obstacle is a tough barrier in the face of many. How many people were encouraged to seek knowledge, but the devil enticed them to take a different direction.

You would find that those who have neglected seeking knowledge have made their work an excuse for not attending the lectures of knowledge, and constantly use being busy as an excuse, until it became an acceptable excuse in their sights.

However, those who Allah cleared their vision and managed to organize their times properly and benefited with that time will truly find great benefit.

And those who organized their time and benefited from this time organization would tell you (as mentioned by Al-San’ani in his poem about Hajj):

And who does not try would never realize its value **

So try and you shall find the truth in what we mentioned

ومن لم يجرب ليس يعرف قدره *** فجرب تجد تصديق ماقد ذكرناه

Obstacle 5: Neglecting seeking knowledge at a young age

We feel really proud when we see students who are much younger than us but have a bigger determination. You find them the first ones to lectures seeking knowledge. Truly, we feel proud when we see them. At the same time, we regret the times that passed from our lives and we did not spend it in seeking knowledge and memorization.

Al-Hasan said:

Seeking Knowledge at a young age is like carving on stone [10].

And ‘Umar [May Allah be pleased with him] said:

Learn before you become heads (or leaders) [11]

[i.e. heads of families, or states, etc. meaning learn at a young age before you get busy with responsibilities].

Imam Al-Bukhari commented on this and said: “And after you have become heads (or leaders), for many of the Prophet’s companions learned at a late age”.

So go ahead, and start seeking knowledge at a young age and do so even at a later age, and do not lose hope since all of life is a time for seeking knowledge. This is because seeking knowledge is a form of worship, and Allah said in the Quran: {And worship your Lord until there comes unto you the certainty (i.e. death)} [12].

Obstacle 6: Abstaining from seeking knowledge

Many refrain from seeking knowledge, by claiming that most of their time is spent following the news and following what is happening around the world.

People differ in this between the excessive, the negligent, and the moderate, and the first two are definitely mistaken.

Seeking knowledge encourages you to know the reality of the world around you; however, you would never be able to solve any problem that befalls you if you do not try to deal with it using the scale of the Sharee’ah (i.e. the Religion and Rulings of Allah) and returning to what the scholars have said, and instead you try to deal with it using your own views and rationale.

What is disappointing is that you find a Muslim who is upset and angry about the situation of the Muslim Ummah, and at the same time you find him ignorant about the basic teachings of Islam. You find him ignorant about the proper way to pray, while the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon him) said: Pray as you have seen me praying [13].

You find him ignorant about the morning Azkhar and other basic things that are known among even the young students of knowledge.

Ibn Taymiyah [14] [May Allah shower him with mercy] was one of the most knowledgeable people of his time and about the situations around him, yet this did not stop him from seeking knowledge.

Truly, if you seek knowledge, you will find that for every trial or calamity that this Ummah faces, there is always something in the book of Allah and the teachings of his Prophet that would fix it.

Obstacle 7: Praising yourself

This obstacle includes the love of praising yourself, attaching titles and names to yourself, and being proud when people praise you.

There is no doubt, however, that when people speak good about you, that this is glad tidings to you, as Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] said when he was asked: “What is your opinion about the person who has done good deeds and the people praise him? He said: It is glad tidings for a believer[15].

However, be very careful and be very watchful that someone praises you for something that is not in you, and you feel happy about that. Caution must be taken so that this doesn’t become one of my or your traits, and remember the words of Allah when he belittled those people who: {love to be praised for what they have not done} [16].

Remember that praising yourself is criticized in most cases, with a few exceptions that have been specified by the Sharee’ah.

Allah the Exalted says:

{So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He knows best him who fears Allah and keep his duty to Him} [17].

Allah also dispraised the people of the Book and said:

{Have you not seen those who claim sanctity for themselves. Nay – but Allah sanctifies whom He pleases, and they will not be dealt with injustice even equal to the extent of a Fatilâ (A scalish thread in the long slit of a date­stone)} [18].

And Prophet Muhammad –peace be upon him- said: "Don’t hold yourselves to be pious. It is God alone who knows the people of piety among you" [19].

Yes, in some cases –as was mentioned- it is permissible for someone to speak well of himself, as Yusuf [peace be upon him] said: {Set me over the storehouses of the land; I will indeed guard them with full knowledge}[20].

But in most cases this love of praise is a doorway the devil uses to get to the servants of Allah, so beware that you become among those who become happy and arrogant when praised, and be from among those who do not concern themselves with hearing such praise.

If you wanted to see the danger of this: Look at all your shortcomings when it comes to the acts of obedience, then look at he who has praised you, and ask yourself: If that person knows of all your shortcomings and all the deeds you have committed that do not please Allah the All Mighty, do you think he will still praise you?

The point here is: Be cautious of praising yourself, and be cautious of attributing to yourself titles and names that do not belong to you, because whoever rushes for something before its time has come is punished by being deprived from it.

Obstacle 8: Not acting upon the knowledge you gained

Not acting upon the knowledge you have gained is one of the reasons of losing the blessings of that knowledge, and Allah has defamed those who are of this type when He said: {Most hateful it is with Allah that you say that which you do not do} [21].

That is why the Salaf were very careful to act upon what they have learned. The noble companion Ibn Mas’oud [May Allah be well pleased with him] said:

“The person from among us, whenever he learns ten verses, would not exceed them until he knows their meanings and the action that comes with them” [22].

‘Ali [May Allah be well pleased with him] said:

“Knowledge will call upon Action, it (i.e. Action) will either answer it (i.e. Knowledge), or else it (i.e. Knowledge) will depart” [23].

Always remember that if knowledge existed without action, it will be a witness against its carrier.

Bishr Al-Hafi [may Allah have mercy on him] said:

“Give out the Zakaah of your knowledge: five hadith from every 200 hadith you learn” [24]-[25].

Acting upon knowledge would assist in engraving this knowledge [in his heart], and if you wanted an example then look at the morning and afternoon Azkhar, as well as the Azkhar of sleeping, entering and leaving the washroom and your home, etc.

If someone just memorizes them, then he could easily do it, but he will soon forget them, however, if he acts upon them for a long time, it will be as engraved in him because of the time he acted upon them.

Imam Al-Dhahabi [may Allah have mercy on him] said about the age he lived in:

“… and today: there only remains a small portion of the few sciences that we once had, in only a few people, and how little are those from among them who are acting upon this little [knowledge], so Sufficient for us is Allah, and [He is] the best Disposer of affairs.” [26].

So if these were the words of Al-Dhahabi in the 8th century of Hijra, then what about us today?! This is the reason why it is mandatory on us to struggle with ourselves, and Allah is the most Merciful with his servants.

So remember that the Zakah of knowledge is acting upon it, as Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abdulwahab [May Allah have mercy on him] said:

"Know –may Allah have mercy on you- that it is obligatory for every believing man and believing woman to learn four issues: The first is: Knowledge, The second: Acting upon it, The third: Calling to it, and The fourth: Being patient about the harm faced" [27].

And: {whosoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make a way for him to get out (from every difficulty)}[28].

Obstacle 9: Despair and loosing hope in yourself

O Student of Knowledge, me and you, and Shaykh Al-Islam ibn Taymiyah, and Al-Bukhari, and Ibn Hajar, and the rest of the scholars, are all included in what Allah says: {And Allah has brought you out from the wombs of your mothers while you know nothing. And He gave you hearing, sight, and hearts that you might give thanks (to Allah)}[29].

We are all that person, so do not belittle yourself, and at the same time, do not praise it. Losing hope and trusting in oneself is a major obstacle to gaining knowledge, so do not belittle yourself. If you find yourself weak in memorization, or weak in understanding, or slow in reading, or fast in forgetting … all these illnesses disappear if you clear your intention and take by the reasons.

Al-Imam Al-‘Askari said about himself:

"Memorization used to be difficult on me when I started seeking knowledge, until I got myself used to it and memorized Ru’bah’s poem in one night" [30].

And Ru’bahs poem is close to 200 verses, so no doubt that this came after a sincere and continuous effort.

So do not belittle yourself, rather: clear your intention, take by the means, and use your time wisely, after which you will find that you have gained goodness that would make you regret all the time that passed without any benefit.

Another thing that would also assist in improving your memory is staying away from sin. Al-Imam Al-Shafi’ee says something beautiful that is important to keep in our minds:

I complained to Wakee’ about my bad memory **

So he guided me to staying away from sin

شكوت إلى وكيع سوء حفظي *** فأرشدني إلى ترك المعاصي

And he said to me that: "Indeed this knowledge is light **

and the Light of Allah is not granted to a sinner”[31]

وقال: اعلم بأن العلم نور *** ونور الله لا يؤتاه عاصي

Obstacle 10: Procrastination

Procrastination (Tasweef) as some of the Salaf used to say is: “One of the soldiers of Iblees” [32].

Procrastination is someone’s hope to start accomplishing a task after some time and keeps delaying it, while forgetting that death might surprise him.

A poet once said:

And do not delay the deeds of today till tomorrow **

For tomorrow might come when you are gone

ولا ترج عمل اليوم إلى غد *** لعل غدا يأتي وأنت فقيــــــد

Abu Ishaq narrates that: A man from ‘Abd Al-Qays was asked: Advice us, so he said: "Beware of ‘I will [do so in the future]’" [33].

Some students of knowledge set for themselves times and say: I will start to memorize so-and-so on that day, and I will start reading that book after so-and-so.

So we say:

If he is currently busy in seeking knowledge, and reading, and researching, then he is in goodness, and will be going from goodness to goodness.

However, if he means that he is delaying starting until that day, then no doubt that this is from the deceptions of Iblees. That is why it is compulsory for everyone that wishes to seek knowledge and wishes to bear the attributes of the people of knowledge not to waste his or her time. And we sit in amazement whenever we read how the Salaf made use of their times!

[1] Agreed Upon

[2] Surah Al-’Ankabut 29:69

[3] Tazkirat al-saami’ wa al-mutakalim (p.68) – ibn jamaa’a. (The reminder to the listener and the speaker)

[4] Al-I’tisaam – al-Shatibi

[5] Narrated by Imam Muslim

[6] Seyar A’lam Al-Nubala’ (6/22) – Al-Zahabi. (The Life of the Nobles)

[7] Previous source (10/476)

[8] Previous source (11/211)

[9] I’laam al-muwaqi’een – ibn al-qayim (1/28)

[10] Jami’ Bayan Al-Ilm wa Fadlih p.99 (The comprehensive statements on knowledge and its virtue)

[11] Fath Al-Bari (1/991)

[12] Surah Al-Hijr 15:99

[13] Narrated by Al-Bukhari

[14] I mentioned him [May Allah shower him with mercy] since he was one of the most significant scholars in replying to all the deviant sects around, but there are many other scholars besides him [May Allah have mercy on them all].

[15] Imam Muslim in the book of Birr

[16] Surah Al-‘Imran 3:188

[17] Surah Al-Najm 53:32

[18] Surah Al-Nisa’ 4:49

[19] Narrated by Muslim

[20] Surah Yusuf 12:55

[21] Surah Al-Saaf 61:3

[22] Tafseer ibn Katheer 1/2

[23] Narrated by Ibn ‘Abd Al-Baar in "Al-Jami’" 2/11

[24] Adab Al-Imlaa’ wa Al-Istimlaa’ p. 110

[25] Know that this is only for the traditions that speak about virtue. As for those that speak about Ahkham, Halal, Haram, and obligations then, you have to act upon them all.

[26] Tazkirat Al-Hufaaz by Al-Zahabi 2/1031

[27] Al-Usool Al-Thalatha by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahab

[28] Surah Al-Talaq 65:2

[29] Surah An-Nahl 16:78

[30] Al-Hath ‘Ala Talab Al-‘Ilm wa Al-Ijtihad fee Tahseelih (Encouragement to seeking Knowledge, and putting an effort in gaining it) by Abi Al-Hilal Al-‘Askari p.71.

[31] Benefit: Some have raised doubt about the authentic attribution of these verses to Imam Al-Shafi’ee; and they said that Imam Al-Shafi’ee was not a student of Wakee’. This can be answered by the following: Imam Al-Shafi’ee has narrated from Wakee’ as can be seen in his book "Al-Um" in the book of Sadaqat, as for the verses they are quite famous from the way of Imam Al-Shafi’ee.

[32] "Iqtida’ Al-‘Ilm Al-‘Amal" by Al-Khateeb Al-Baghdadi p.114

[33] same as footnote # 32 p. 114