Humility in Knowledge and Arrogance in Ignorance
Imam Malik bin Anas (b. 93 AH, d. 179 AH) was one of the greatest Islamic scholars of
all times. Among his 1300 disciples were people from all walks of life; rulers, judges,
historians, Sufis, poets, and scholars of Qur'an, Hadith, and Fiqh. The Khalifah attended
his class as an ordinary student along with others.
In the best traditions of this Ummah Imam Malik considered his knowledge as a trust.
When he knew something to be right or wrong, no intimidation could stop him from declaring
so. It was his fatwa that divorce given under compulsion is invalid, that earned him the
wrath of the ruler (as it implied that pledge of allegiance given under compulsion was
also invalid). He was punished with lashes and at every strike he said, "I am Malik
bin Anas and I declare that divorce given under compulsion is invalid."
Yet it was the same Imam Malik who was more likely to say "la adree" (I don't
know) or "la ahsin" (I don't know it very well) in response to the constant flow
of queries directed toward him. Once a person approached him and told him that he had come
from Marrakesh --- after a six month journey --- only to ask a question. "My people
back home are waiting for your answer," he said. After hearing the question Imam
Malik replied, "Please tell your people that I do not know the answer to your
question." In one case he was asked forty-eight questions and in response to
thirty-two of them he said, "I don't know." It was commonly said that if
somebody wrote down Imam Malik's answers to questions, he could easily fill pages with
"I don't know" before writing a real answer.
The reason for this extraordinary care was nothing but a deep sense of accountability
before Allah. It was the caution of a person who was standing between Hell and Heaven,
fearful that one wrong step could lead him to the former. "Before you answer a
question about religious law, visualize that you are standing at the gates of Hell and
Heaven," he used to advise others.
Of course, he was not alone. Ibn Jareej used to attend the majlis (sitting) of Abdullah
ibn Umar, Radi-Allahu anhuma. "In answer to more than half the questions he used to
say I don't know." Ibn Abi Layla saw 120 Sahaba (companions). "Whenever one of
them was asked a question he wished that someone else would answer it."
Nor was this caution restricted to Fiqh (Islamic Law). In interpreting the Qur'an or
the Hadith, they exercised same care. Imam Muslim whose Sahih Muslim is unanimously
considered second of the two most authentic collections of Hadith, had set for himself
only the task of Hadith collection leaving the job of interpreting them to others. He was
so concerned about this that he did not even divide the book into chapters for such
classification would amount to interpretation.
They were the authoritative source on Islamic teachings, having devoted their lives to
learning and practicing them. They knew very well the tremendous burden inherent in a
statement that begins "Allah says", or "The Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa
sallam, says". For here stating something that is not so means that a person is
attributing something to Allah or the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, that is not
true. What can be a greater sin than that! They always remembered that it is Haram to give
fatwa without knowledge. They always remembered the Hadith, "Whoever interprets the
Qur'an without knowledge should make his abode in Hell."
Fast forward to today and you are in a totally different world. Across the Muslim world
today there are innumerable "experts" who are willing to interpret the Qur'an
and Hadith, give fatwas, even do Ijtihad --- all without the benefit of even the minimum
religious education and training. If such a person is a good writer or speaker that is
qualification enough. For the audiences today readily confuse eloquence with scholarship.
If the "expert" also carries the magic title "Dr." that certainly
fills any gaps in his authority. It does not matter whether his educational achievement
maybe in gynecology or business administration, journalism or nuclear science, physics or
The results have been disastrous. The vast confusion and ignorance of even elementary
subjects in religious teachings among the seemingly "educated" classes today is
unprecedented. Today one can find all sorts of un-Islamic ideas and practices,
conjectures, whims, and desires finding approval in the "Ijtihaddom" that has
been concocted. What is more we also make a virtue out of this catastrophe by bragging
that we have broken the "shackles of blind following" and opened direct access
to the original sources of Islamic teachings. But no amount of bragging can hide the fact
that this is the equivalent of allowing unlicensed and untrained people to practice
medicine. Although in this case the resulting death and injury is not physical and is
therefore less visible.
The reasons for this malaise are complex but two stand out. First, the schooling of our
"educated" people included very little or none of Islamic education. Plainly, we
do not know and we do not know that we do not know. Second, many of us harbor great
mistrust of those who have received formal Islamic education. In turn this is also based
on ignorance of what constitutes such education. It is a distant world, a black box, and
all we know is that there is something wrong with it.
For a change let us visit a darul-uloom where they are screening candidates for
admission to the next ifta class. The top scorers from the regular alim course were given
a test and just the top ten scorers from the test will be brought for interview. They are
tested not only for their knowledge of Arabic and religious texts but also their ability
to understand complex real life situations and to communicate well. Once they graduate,
they will do an internship for years under qualified and experienced muftis. But even the
best of their teachers will consult others when they face a difficult issue. After
exercising the best of caution they will learn to say "Allah knows best" at the
end of their answers.
It is not to say that the decline of Muslim political power and the general decline of
Muslim civilization has had no effect on this area of activity or our darul-iftas are
running problem free. But can anyone in all honesty declare that an alternative that
misses each and everyone of these features is better? There is a famous saying in Urdu.
"A pseudo doctor is danger to life. A pseudo religious scholar is danger to
faith." Do we know the danger?