Imam Mālik’s Childhood & Education
  • Sat, 01/10/2015
Printer-friendly versionSend to friendPDF version

Mālik began pursuing Islamic knowledge as a child barely ten years of age. He was qualified to issue legal verdicts before he turned eighteen. He began teaching publicly at the age of twenty-one, and many narrators related hadith from him from this time. He drew crowds of people from all over the Muslim world from this early time up to the end of his life.

This tells us about the environment in which Mālik grew up and the values people had in the era of our Pious Predecessors. Firstly, it indicates to us the high value the people of Madinah placed on seeking religious knowledge. A child growing up there would see the respect and defence that the scholars enjoyed. They were held in the highest esteem since they were the ones who preserved the Prophet’s guidance and the knowledge of the righteous.

Al-Shāfi`ī said about his teacher: “I saw in Mālik the reverence and respect that he had for knowledge. This had a big impression on me, so much so that while attending his class if I wanted to pick up a sheet of paper I would do so as gently as possible not to make a noise, out of the awe and respect that I had for him.”

This speaks volumes about the commanding presence that Mālik had as well as the politeness and good manners of al-Shāfi`ī.

The second thing we can discern about Madinah in Mālik’s day is that the situation there was conducive to learning. There were not many obstacles to the pursuit of knowledge and distractions were few. If a student wanted to seek knowledge, the doors to the mosque were always open and study circles were always readily available. If the student headed off to the market, there would be lively discussions of Islamic legal matters to be had there as well. Even at home, there would be nothing but encouragement from parents and family. It was as if society itself was speaking out with its wholehearted support for Islamic learning.

There is a famous story about Mālik and his mother, which Mālik originally told to his nephew:
I asked my mother: “Should I go out and start writing lessons?”

She replied: “Come here and put on a scholar’s clothes. Then go out and write.”

She took me and dressed me in an elaborate outfit, and she put a long piece of cloth on my head and wound a turban around it. Then she said: “No you go out and write.”

She would always dress me with a turban and say: “Go to Rabī`ah and learn from him his good manners even more than his knowledge.”
Ibn al-Qāsim said: “Mālik pursued his studies until the roof of his house caved in. So he sold the wood. Thereafter the wealth of the world always came easily to him.”

Ibn Bukayr said: “Mālik was born in Dhil-Marwah. His brother al-Nadr was a cloth merchant, and Mālik used to help him in his trade. Then Mālik turned to study. People used to refer to Mālik as ‘al-Nadr’s brother’. It wasn’t very long before people started referring to al-Nadr as ‘Mālik’s brother’.”

Dignity and Composure

Mālik would grow up to be a tall, handsome, solidly built man. He had large eyes and a very fair complexion. He took meticulous care with his clothing and was always well dressed in public. He used the most expensive musk.

Bishr b. al-Hārith said: “I visited Mālik once and saw him wearing a fine robe that must have cost 500. Its collars came to eye level, and it had the appearance of what a king might wear.”

He wore his turban so that part of it would drape under his chin and its two ends would rest upon his shoulders.

When someone asked him about wearing heavy, rough wool, he said: “It is good for nothing except when travelling. This is how the Prophet used to use it. Otherwise, it is a form of ostentatious dress, a way of publicizing one’s asceticism. It is very distasteful for a man’s religiosity to be known by the way he dresses!”

He wore the most expensive clothing imported from Aden. He did not shave his moustache off and found the idea of doing so distasteful.

When he prepared to give a lesson on the Prophet’s hadith, he would first perform ritual ablutions, as if for prayer. Then he would put on his best clothes and hat and comb his beard. If anyone criticised him for this behaviour, he would say: “The dignity of the Prophet’s hadith demands it.”

Maintaining a good appearance did not conflict with the demands of religious piety, scholarship, or mental acuity. Quite the contrary, it was something required from a man in Mālik’s position. He was living in the Prophet’s city at a time when the world had become wide open to the people. They needed someone like Mālik to show them the permissible and balanced way to approach the finer things in life.

Moreover, it suited Mālik’s own temperament and station. He was a descendant of kings and had the dignity to go with it. In fact, kings and princes like Hārūn al-Rashīd paid him visits at his home and consulted with him. People saw in this the value and honour of Islamic knowledge, and the dignity of those who possess that knowledge without being conceited or arrogant.

We can also see a mother’s lasting influence. She is the one who got him into the habit of dressing up for his studies when he was a child. She impressed upon him that this was the way to show respect for his teachers and for the knowledge he was acquiring.

A Voracious Appetite for Learning

Childhood education was not compulsory in Mālik’s time like it is today. Only those children who had a special aptitude – and the opportunity – attended classes. They were as Allah said: “And the believers should not all go forth together. Of every group of them, a party should remain behind to acquire sound knowledge in religion, that they may admonish their folk when they return, so perchance they may take heed.” [Sūrah al-Tawbah: 122]

Mālik started studying when he was very young. He spent the first seven or eight years of his education devoted to a single teacher, Ibn Hurmuz. Even at his young age, Mālik treasured the time he had with his teacher. Many years later, he recalled how he managed to keep his teacher to himself: “I used to keep some dates hidden up my sleeve. I would give them to my teacher’s children and tell them that if anyone pays him a call, they should say that their father is busy.”

Mālik was so devoted to his teacher, that he would wait at his door for a long time. He had a straw-filled cushion that he would sit on while he waited, quiet as a stone.

Sooner or later, Ibn Hurmuz would realize that someone was at his door, maybe because of a movement that Mālik made. He would ask his servant girl who was at the door. She would look outside, come back and say: “It’s only that really white person.”

Ibn Hurmuz would then tell her: “Let him in. His is the scholar of the people.” In this way, Mālik would come for his lessons early in the morning and not depart until nightfall.

Mālik would later say: “It used to be that one man would study with another for thirty years to learn what he had.” People assumed that Mālik was referring to Ibn Hurmuz when he said this, since Ibn Hurmuz had made Mālik swear not to credit anything to his name.

We can see Mālik’s devotion to knowledge in his conduct with another of his teachers, Nāfi`, who had been the ward of the famous Companion `Abd Allah b. `Umar. In his old age, Nāfi` had weak eyesight, and Mālik used to guide from his home to the mosque. All the while, Mālik would ask him questions and Nāfi` would answer. Nāfi` lived near Madinah’s graveyard, and Mālik would look for any excuse to have a “chance” meeting with him. Sometimes this meant that Mālik would have to stand out in the Sun for a long time. Then, when Nāfi` came outside, Mālik would follow him until he found a suitable opportunity to go up and ask him something. Mālik would later recall:
At about mid-morning, I would go out to Nāfi`’s part of town. There was not even a tree to provide me with shade from the Sun. I would wait for him to come out of his house. When he did come out, I would let him be for a while, so as not to make it seem like I had been intending to meet him. Then I would go up and greet him, but let him be until he came to the central courtyard. Then I would ask him: “What was Ibn `Umar’s opinion on such-and-such?” He would answer me, and then I would let him be, since he was of a temperamental nature.
Mālik never took a day off. He would study even on the days of `Īd. Indeed, he would wait for the `Īd because he knew that no one else would be competing with him on that day for the attentions of one of Madinah’s scholars, particularly Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī. Mālik would later recall one of these `Īd day lessons as follows:
I attended the `Īd prayer. Afterwards, I said to myself: “Ibn Shihāb will be free today.” So I immediately went from the prayer area to sit by his door.

I heard him ask his servant girl: “Look to see who is at the door.”

She told him: “It is that white-skinned associate of yours, Mālik.”

He said: “Let him in.” So I came inside, and then he said to me: “It doesn’t seem like you even had a chance to go to your house before coming here.” I told him that he was right. He asked: “Have you eaten.”

I said “No.”

He said: “Then eat something.”

I said: “That is not what I need.”

“Then what is it that you want?”, he asked.

“I want you to relate knowledge to me.”

“Come here then.”

I took out my copy boards and he related forty hadith to me. I asked him to relate more, but he said: “Forty is enough for you to relate, for you to commit to memory.”

I said: “Indeed, I have already related them.”

He then took the copy boards from my hand and said: “Relate them, then.”

I related them all to him. Then he returned the copy boards to me and said: “Come with me, for you are one of the vessels of knowledge.”
Mālik used to spend all his time following the lessons of Madinah’s jurists and hadith scholars. He was aided in this by his keen intelligence, the availability of scholars in the city, and their openness to students, even on the days of `Īd. The scholars of Madinah were special. Their personalities were influenced by the fact that they lived in the Prophet’s city, and they were the direct successors of his own exquisite manners.

This was the legacy they inherited.