A Little Bit of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

From a young age, we have all had the importance of education impressed upon our minds. The hadith, “Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim” (Tirmidhi, 74) is one of the most famous and oft-repeated sayings of the Prophet PBUH, and it is rightly a teaching that is heavily emphasized in our community.

Yet amid this desire to educate ourselves is a worrying impatience. Rather than accept the different opinions in our religious tradition and study the various schools of interpretation, more and more youth seem to have decided they can be their own teacher. Done correctly, studying the religion improves character, increases faith, and brings one closer to Allah SWT. But on the other hand religious education that is shallow, hasty, and lacking the aid of an educated teacher leads to misguidance and can result in dangerous conclusions. Indeed, the root of radicalization in young Muslims is often a desire to interpret Scripture in isolation, ignoring the need for qualified guidance.

This is why famous scholars such as Sufyan ibn `Uyaynah would proclaim, “Hadith are a source of misguidance, except for the Jurists”. To the uneducated reader, it is impossible to tell whether an isolated story provides a general ruling or a specific one, or whether it is communicating a rule or an exception. Because of this, it is critical for us to avoid rushing to conclusions based on a single verse of hadith, ignoring the vast theological discourse that has taken place over the last 1400 years.

While the desire for education is a noble one, it must be pursued with patience and through the correct avenues. A few YouTube videos and scattered hadiths do not a Sheikh make.

Indeed, in looking at the examples and traditions of our scholars, past and present, the one continued characteristic is a measure of humility. As students, their treatment of their teachers was almost reverential. And this did not change once in positions of authority and consultation, in their interactions with other learned people, or in the standards of conduct they held themselves to.

Imam Al-Ghazali explains in “The Beginning of Guidance” (Bidayat al-Hidayah) both the etiquettes of the student and of the scholar. He notes of the scholar, that the qualities of “not [being] too proud to say ‘I don’t know’ . . . genuinely attempting to understand [a] question [asked of you] . . . fully accepting [another’s] proof [in a debate]” are but a few that must be possessed by people of knowledge. In regards to the student, he states, “not to point out something contrary to his opinion, [while] thinking himself more learned than the teacher” among other behaviours, all rooted in respect and sincerity.

The traditions of learning and teaching within our religion seem to be the antithesis of the most common debates we see today; public, hateful, and far removed from attempts of genuine and respectful pursuit of knowledge. In the place of humble curiosity, there is a growing trend among our youth towards naive certainty.

As this month comes to a close, let us strive to replace arrogance and hastiness with humility and patience. For if the greatest scholars of our religion admitted the possibility their interpretations were wrong, who are we to be so certain in ours?

 

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