The scholars of Islam revered religious knowledge above all else. This is all the more true for the great imams, like Abū Hanīfah, Mālik, al-Shāfi`ī, and Ahmad b. Hanbal. At the same time, their reverence was born of the value they knew that religious knowledge had for people’s faith and practice, and this made them disdain questions of no practical value that were used merely to show off erudition or to engage in public debate.
A good example of this was Imām Mālik. He was extremely humble in the pursuit of knowledge, and would accept it from any reliable source. He did not regard any person as too insignificant to teach him something. He was willing to learn from his own students and sometimes changed his mind on issues because of what they taught him. It was his way to concede the truth without hesitation whenever it reached him. This was the way of all truly great scholars. They never hesitated to increase their knowledge through the knowledge of others. They did not doubt the veracity of something simply because someone else came to know about it before they did.
Despite his passion for knowledge, Mālik did not like to entertain questions about difficult and superfluous matters that had no relevance to people’s religious or worldly lives. One famous example of this is where a man approached his study circle and recited the verse: “The Beneficent mounted the throne.” [Sūrah TāHā
: 5] Then he asked: “How did He mount it?”
Mālik tapped his knuckles on his head and he broke out into a sweat like he had a fever. Then he said: “The ‘mounting’ is not unknown, but the ‘how’ is something that cannot be reasoned. It is obligatory to believe in it, but a heretical innovation to ask about it. I see you as being nothing but a heretical innovator.” Then he ordered the man to be taken from his presence.
It is possible that this man’s reputation preceded him, and Mālik knew something bad about his ways, and that is why Mālik treated him the way he did. He would never have been so harsh with a person who was confused and sincerely wanted to learn, regardless of what the question was.
Useful religious knowledge brings us closer to Allah. It can make us more devoted, humble, and sincere, and guide us to act in ways that please our Lord. Likewise, useful worldly knowledge enables us to conduct our lives and fulfil our material needs. In this regard, Mālik used to give the following words of advice: “Look to what benefits you in your day and night and busy yourself with that.”
Al-Wāqidī described Mālik’s study circle as follows:
It was a venerable, composed assembly. Mālik was a dignified and illustrious man. There was never any ostentatious speech or rambunctiousness at his study circle. People did not raise their voices. A stranger to the circle would come and ask about a hadith, and he would not answer except about the hadith itself.
We find the exact same pattern with Mālik’s student Muhammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfi`ī. He was devoted to religious knowledge above all else. At the same time, he had little regard for trivial questions and debate for its own sake.
As for his general attitude towards knowledge, he used to say: “After fulfilling the essential religious obligations, there is nothing better than the pursuit of knowledge.”
This prompted someone to ask him: “Even striving in Allah’s path?
He replied: “Yes, even striving in Allah’s path.”
Ibn `Uyaynah quotes al-Shāfi`ī as saying: “No one on Earth has ever been granted something greater than prophethood. The greatest thing anyone else can be given is religious knowledge and understanding.”
A-Shāfi`ī said this because the pursuit of religious knowledge brings us to an understanding of what the Prophets came with, and this is the closest that we can get to possessing their prophecy.
Though knowledge is the greatest honour and has the highest value, it is not to be used to pursue fame and recognition. Al-Rabī` b. Sulaymān al-Murādī – al-Shāfi`ī’s main student – quotes his teacher as saying: “Showing off with one’s knowledge hardens the heart and makes a person petty and spiteful.”
Al-Shāfi`ī hated people to show off their knowledge, just as he hated the incessant public debates that students often engage in, where each student’s main concern is to prevail over the opponent.
Contentious and tricky questions were often the point of discussion in many study circles. The pointlessness of most of those questions upset al-Shāfi`ī, prompting him to say: “It belittles knowledge to debate everyone who comes to you with an argument. Do not spar words with everyone who comes to spar with you.”
There are a lot of questions that a student should simply avoid. They are not worth the time and effort.
Abū Thawr once suggested to al-Shāfi`ī that he should write a book about irjā’
, the deviant theological view that when people have faith, their sins bring them no harm in the Hereafter. Al-Shāfi`ī said: “You should just leave this alone.” Al-Shāfi`ī disliked scholastic theology. He felt that delving into it did nothing to bring one’s heart closer to Allah.
Inexperienced students like to pose hypothetical questions, but there are few true legal scholars who venture to address those questions, despite – or because of – their far greater knowledge and understanding.
Indeed, al-Shāfi`ī had more than enough knowledge to pursue all of those questions. He simply chose not to do so. He said: “If I wanted to, I could write a book-length rebuttal to every opposing view. However, scholastic theology is not my concern, and I do not want to be associated with any part of it.”
The scholar has a lofty position which has no room to accommodate quarreling and disputation. If al-Shāfi`ī had busied himself with such things, he would never have been able to write such landmark works as al-Risālah
Al-Shāfi`ī was willing to debate issues when the circumstances demanded it. He would, at such times, limit himself to saying what is necessary to clarify the matter at hand.