It is one of the most difficult skills to master, but it is essential for those who wish to speak about religious matters.
You are confronted with a question. You are in a position where an answer is expected of you. It is something a person in your position should not be ignorant of. Your reputation is at stake. The matter pertains to Allah, the tenets of religion, or something affecting someone else’s rights. You do not want to look uninformed or be thought a fool.
What do you do?
The greatest minds of the past knew what to do. They would say: “I don’t know.”
Mālik is one of the greatest scholars in Muslim history. He was humble and God-fearing when it came to religious knowledge. He would only speak about what he knew. Haytham b. Jamīl said: “I once listened as Imam Mālik was asked forty-eight questions. He answered thirty-two of them by saying: ‘I do not know.’ He answered the other sixteen with what he knew.”
Mālik used to say: “The words ‘I do not know’ are the scholar’s shield. If he loses them, he will be lethally wounded.”
Ibn `Abd al-Barr, one of the greatest Mālikī jurists, relates that the Prophet’s Companion Abū al-Dardā’ used to say: “To say ‘I do not know’ is half of all knowledge.”
In this spirit, Mālik would often answer people with “I do not know.” The people he said this to might have travelled very far to ask him. They would complain: “What am I supposed to say to my people when I go back to my country?”
Mālik would reply: “Tell them that Mālik says he does not know.”
Khālid b. Khidāsh said: “I once travelled to Mālik to ask him forty questions. He only answered five of them.”
Ibn Wahb said to his people after returning from asking Mālik a number of questions: “If you want me to fill up my register with the words ‘I do not know’ then that is what I’ll do.”
In spite of this, Mālik succeeded in filling the world with knowledge. His students carried his dynamic legal principles forward, and his school of law produced some of the most renowned legal thinkers and theorists the world has known, especially when it comes to the development of legal axioms, considerations of welfare, case differentiation, and principles for addressing unforeseen circumstances. This is especially true for the works of Ibn `Abd al-Barr, Ibn al-`Arabī, al-Shātibī, and al-Qarāfī, which have had a major impact on the development of Islamic legal theory and practice.
Mālik, his students, and the legal scholars who followed in their footsteps and recorded their school of law for posterity were all dedicated seekers of the truth. Their concern was for the evidence and for staying within the limits set forth by Allah. They heeded Mālik’s words when he said, standing in the Prophet’s Mosque pointing to where Prophet Muhammad was buried: “Everyone’s opinions are subject to being accepted or rejected except for the man in this grave.”
The key to being able to say “I do not know” is humility. If a person’s concern in seeking knowledge is fame and fortune, it becomes an extremely difficult thing to do.
If a person’s concern is for knowledge itself and for Allah’s pleasure, it becomes the easiest thing to say “I don’t know.”
Another of our greatest scholars, al-Shāfi`ī, used to say: “I never debated with anyone with the intention to triumph over them, but only on account of what I saw to be the truth.”
He said: “I have only ever debated with someone with the sincere purpose of advising them.”
Likewise, he said: “I have never hoped, while debating with someone, that they would make a mistake.”
How many people can truly say the same about themselves? We can believe that al-Shāfi`ī said: “I would like it if people would learn the knowledge in these books without ever attributing any of it to me.”
Al-Shāfi`ī understood human nature and human weakness. He knew that people often use their knowledge for self-aggrandisement and as a means to pursue status, wealth, and power, especially in debate and disputation, or when followers are at stake.
This is why al-Shāfi`ī said: “I have never debated anyone without hoping the other person has Allah’s help, is successful, and is supported by the truth. I have never worried whether Allah manifests the truth through my worlds or through his.”
These are words we should all live by. We should make them a guiding principle when we get into debates with one another. We should never push others into a corner or believe that giving people a hard time is the best way to get them to come around to the truth. The purpose of debate is to arrive at the truth, not to triumph over others.
Once a man debated Dāwūd al-Asfahānī. In the course of their argument, the man declared: “If you claim such a thing, then you’ve become an unbeliever, and may Allah be praised!”
Dāwūd al-Asfahānī was surprised and taken aback by his statement. He said:
Why do you say “Allah be praised”, as if you are gratified about a Muslim falling into unbelief? You should rather say: “There is no strength or power except with Allah” or “To Allah we belong and to Him we must return.” As for praise, it applies to the renewal of some blessing for you. Is that what you find in another Muslim’s unbelief”
Al-Shāfi`ī never insisted that he was absolutely right. His famous words were: “I regard my opinion to be correct, while entertaining the possibility that I am wrong. I regard the other person’s opinion to be mistaken, while entertaining the possibility that it is right.”
Many people like to quote al-Shāfi`ī’s words, but few are able to put them into practice. The normal attitude is for people to see their own opinions as the indisputable truth and the opinions of others as patently wrong.