How to Read the Books of the People of Knowledge

Al-ʿAllāmah Ṣāliḥ ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh

Seeking knowledge is a lengthy path that is not possible to embark upon except by abandoning play and amusement and approaching it in a serious manner. This is because Allāh the Exalted, the Most High, described what He revealed to Muḥammad (ﷺ), and He (Allāh) is the most truthful in speech, as a weighty word. Allāh the Exalted, the Most High says, “Soon shall We send down to thee a weighty word.”
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All praise is due to Allah, the One who sent His Messenger (ﷺ) with the guidance and the Religion of Truth, that He may cause it to prevail over all religions, and Allah is sufficient as a witness. I testify that there is no god but Allāh alone and that He has no partner. And I testify that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger (ﷺ), may Allāh greatly bless him, his family, and his Companions.
And as to what follows,

Seeking knowledge is a lengthy path that is not possible to embark upon except by abandoning play and amusement and approaching it in a serious manner. This is because Allah the Exalted, the most High, described what He revealed to Muhammad (ﷺ), and He (Allāh) is the most truthful in speech, as a weighty word. Allāh the Exalted, the most High says,

إِنَّا سَنُلْقِي عَلَيْكَ قَوْلًا ثَقِيلًا ‎﴿٥﴾

“Soon shall We send down to thee a weighty word.”
[al-Muzzamil, 73:5]

And this weighty word is the kitāb and the sunnah. Thus, when it was said to Imām Malik Ibn Anas, the Imām of Dar-al-Hijrah (Madīnah), “These are easy questions”. concerning some questions he could not answer, he replied, “Do not say this, for regardless whether the knowledge is small or big, there exists no such thing as easy because Allāh the Exalted, the most High described it as a “weighty word.”

One must know that books from any science whether it is books of tafsīr, ḥadīth, fiqh, ʿaqīdah etc. are divided into the ‘mutūn’ or the basic, abridged texts, the intermediary level books and the books of detailed explanation. Consequently, the one who delves into the detailed books before the basic ones has indeed missed a very important point in establishing the proper manhaj of seeking knowledge.

Ṣālih Āl al-Shaykh

This is a very in-depth understanding. It is the first step towards seeking knowledge – that one realises that all knowledge is weighty. Every field (of knowledge) requires that one approaches it wholeheartedly and with an objective mind. So whoever says that this is an easy matter and just passes by it without paying close attention, then such a person will not gain knowledge until all the branches of knowledge are of equal footing (to him/her). Whether it is the generalities (of knowledge), the specifics, the principles or the details. A person must give equal concern to all the aspects of knowledge, whether it is obtaining it. revising it or memorising it. If you leave it, it leaves you, and if you approach, it accommodates you. As the famous saying states, “Knowledge is a thing that if you give it all of yourself it gives you some of itself, and if you give some of yourself you will gain nothing of it.” Practical experience proves this. Hence, I titled this lecture, ‘How to Read the Books of the People of Knowledge.’ This is a very important topic because many people have read different types of books, and a lot of them complain that they have not obtained firmly grounded knowledge to the extent that they can feel satisfied (with themselves) for all the years that they have exerted in seeking knowledge. Perhaps some of them have attended classes of the people of knowledge, they may have even written research papers or wrote books. However, within themselves they are aware that they have not attained knowledge whereby they can clearly distinguish matters. Thus, because of this problem, this lecture came about. For one must have a structured methodology when reading the books of the people of knowledge. And whoever does not tread upon a structured methodology that he can resort to, he will leave the clear path and adopt conflicting ones.

The Evolution of Knowledge:

If one were to look at the books that are present in our times, one would discover that there are tens of thousands of them in many different subjects. But is there great knowledge as is reflected in the great number of these books? The answer to this question was given by the rightly guided khalifah ʿAlī Ibn Abī Ṭālib (radī Allāhu ʿanhu), when he said. “Knowledge is a small dot magnified by the ignorant ones.” He meant that the basis of the knowledge that the Companions (radī Allāhu ʿanhum) referred to was relatively small (just the understanding of the kitāb and the sunnah). This knowledge was relatively little with regards to the many problems that began to appear during the time of ‘Alee (radī Allāhu ʿanhu). This is because as time progresses; the more people become distanced from the period of the early Muslims (al-Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ), the more the need for knowledge and books increases so that people can understand (their religion).

It is because of the presence of ignorance and its people that many books were written. By doing this, many of the ignorant ones were enlightened and many of those who went astray were guided. Likewise, one finds that the books during the initial stages of Islām were very little, then it gradually increased. The first books to be written were those of ḥadīth after the complete compilation of the Qurʾān. Then the books of ʿAqīdah came when the different groups began to appear like the khawārij and the murjüah. These books (of ʿaqīdah) were found either within the works of the people of ḥadīth (like al-Bukharee, Muslim, etc.) or in the form of treatises, (and things evolved like this) until each Islāmic science had many books. So therefore, if we would like to establish a standardised
methodology for reading the books of the people of knowledge, then we will have to divide this (methodology) into two broad categories.

General Guidelines for Reading Books:

I am going to mention some general guidelines that are applicable for reading any kind of
book, whether it is the books of ʿaqīdah, tafseer, fiqh etc. But first of all it must be known that Islamic knowledge is divided into two main categories:

  1. Knowledge that is sought as an end in of itself
  2. Knowledge that is sought as a means to an end The knowledge that is sought due to its intrinsic nature is the knowledge wherein one is able to comprehend the Book of Allah and the sunnah of his Messenger (ﷺ). Those (who posses this knowledge) are the ones who are praised in the ayah,

يَرْفَعِ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْعِلْمَ دَرَجَاتٍ ۚ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌ ‎﴿١١﴾‏

“Allah will exalt in degree those of you who believe, and those who have been granted knowledge.”
[al-Mujādilah, 58:11]

Meaning that they understand the Book of Allah and the sunnah of his Messenger
(ﷺ) as it should be understood. Knowledge of the Qurʾān and the sunnah consists of al-tawḥīd and matters of ḥalāl and haram. Therefore, this issue in fact goes back to two types of knowledge – al-tawḥīd which is actually ʿaqīdah, and matters of ḥalāl and ḥarām (i.e. fiqh). These two types of knowledge are aimed at in of itself, because by (knowledge of) al-tawḥīd one achieves sincerity in his worship of Allāh, and by (knowledge of) fiqh one is able to execute the commands of Allah and abstain from His prohibitions. For Allah the Exalted, the most High has made this deen based upon information and commands, therefore believing in the information is considered ʿaqīdah (creed, and fulfilling His command is considered action. Allah the Exalted, the most High states,

وَتَمَّتْ كَلِمَتُ رَبِّكَ صِدْقًا وَعَدْلًا ۚ ‎﴿١١٥﴾

“And the Word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and in justice.”
[al-Anʿām, 6:115]

Truth as in what He informs of, and justice as in His commands and prohibitions. Thus, the knowledge of at tawḥīd and fiqh is sought for its innate nature. The other branches of knowledge such as Arabic grammar, principles of fiqh, the science of ḥadīth, seerah etc. are all sought as a means to an end and not as end in of itself. Because when a person reads these books, he reads them in order to arrive at the knowledge of ʿaqīdah and the knowledge of fiqh.

Reading Books in Stages:

One must know that books from any science whether it is books of tafseer, ḥadīth, fiqh, ʿaqīdah etc. are divided into the ‘mutūn’ or the basic, abridged texts, the intermediary level books and the books of detailed explanation. Consequently, the one who delves into the detailed books before the basic ones has indeed missed a very important point in establishing the proper methodology of seeking knowledge. The abridged books serve a purpose, which is to establish the foundations of knowledge, and any building as is known, needs a foundation to be laid before it can be raised up. The basic or abridged books pave the way for the intermediary level books, and the intermediary level books pave the way for the detailed ones. Therefore, the one who is not proficient in the basic books should not delve into the detailed ones, because the function of the detailed books is to clarify what may be difficult to understand in the basic ones. Likewise, it is not very pleasing that we hear from some rudimentary level students of knowledge when they say, “I read Fatḥ al-Bārī, or “I read al-Mughnī”, or “I read al-Majmūʿ Sharḥ al-Muhadhab,” or “I read al-Muhala,” and so forth.

This is not admirable because even though they read these books, the end result will be a lack of attainment. Furthermore, the information such a person attains will be scattered in his mind, unable to link and organise the knowledge he posses. Therefore, in order to establish a proper foundation, one must begin with the abridged or basic books, then the intermediary level books and finally the books of detailed explanation. However, if one would like to research an issue, then refer to any book – basic or detailed, but just keep in mind that when it comes to seeking knowledge one must build a foundation by learning the things that are elementary before the advanced issues. How excellent was what al Muwafiq In Qudāmah did when he authored books in fiqh that exemplified this methodology. He wrote the book, “al-umdah” which is an abridged book for the beginner, then “al Muqniʿ” which is a bit longer than “alumdah”, then “al-kāfī” which is for the intermediate student and also a bit longer than “al-Muqniʿ,” and finally for the advanced student, “al-mughnee (all books of Ḥanbalī fiqh). I remember one time I heard al-ʿAllamah ʿAbdur-Razzāq al-ʿAfīfī (May Allah have mercy upon him) say, “Indeed al-Muwafiq Ibn Qudāmah (May Allah have mercy upon him) preceded the present day educational system, he made “al-umdah” for the one in elementary school, then “al-Muqniʿ” for the middle school student, then “alkāfī” for the high school student and “al mughnee” for those at a collegiate level. The point I am trying to emphasise is that it is very important that one should differentiate between reading to establish a foundation and reading just to be informed about certain issues. I gave an important lecture that has been recorded about this issue entitled: “The Difference between the Essentials and the Anecdotes of Knowledge.” Knowledge has essentials by which it is built upon and the anecdotes are that which help to support the essential knowledge. Hence, whoever immerses himself in the anecdotes and abandons the essentials of knowledge will not gather anything (substantial). Rather, such a person will know a lot of stories and have a lot of information; however, he will not be able to discuss an issue of fiqh or ʿaqīdah with clarity. Therefore, the proper methodology is to read the basic, general books, and then to move on to the more detailed ones.

Being Familiar with the Authors Background:

The reader must pay special attention to the madhhab of the author. The scholars wrote books, however they wrote them according to their madhhab and educational background. There were those who were Ḥanbalī, those who were As-Shāfiʿī, those who were Mālikī and those who were Hanafee. Likewise, there were those who very knowledgeable of the sunnah, there were those who mostly had correct opinions and few mistakes, there were those who mixed bid”ah with sunnah and so forth. Therefore, knowing the background of an author is very important before reading his book, because the reader can be influenced by the author while he is least aware of his background. For example, some students of knowledge always give precedence to what is in the books of the explanation of ḥadīth over what is in the extensive books of fiqh. This is because, according to them,those who explain the books of ḥadīth are more independent-minded and further removed from taqleed (blind following) than those who explain the books of fiqh.

Thus, such a person thinks that the disposition of the explainer of the books of ḥadīth has more weight than the disposition of those who explain the books of fiqh, and this is not always correct. As a matter of fact, we found that the inclinations of those who explain the books of ḥadīth are often based upon their madhhab. For example, one finds that Imām al-Nawawī in his explanation of Ṣahīh Muslim gives more weight (to an opinion) according to what the Shāfiʿī madhhab considers the strongest opinion. Also, if one observes how he derives his rulings, one would realise that he derives his rulings based upon the Shāfiʿī principles of fiqh. So a person looks and notices that Imām al-Nawawī uses an authentic ḥadīth to give precedence to a particular opinion, therefore this person agrees with him (Imām al-Nawawī) based upon fact that the ḥadīth is authentic. This may be a correct approach in most instances; however, in some instances this approach can be incorrect. Sometimes we find he (Imām al-Nawawī) gives more weight to a particular opinion whereas the correct one may be otherwise. How is that? Because the authenticity of a ḥadīth is not sufficient to establish the validity of an opinion in matters of fiqh. To the contrary, and more importantly, it is to look and see from what standpoint that scholar arrived at that particular ruling. I mean, how did he arrive at this particular ruling based upon his understanding of the ḥadīth. This in actuality goes back to the principles of fiqh. For example, one finds in his book ‘Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn’, he has a chapter entitled: “The Undesirability of Swearing in the Name of Anything besides Allah” wherein he uses as his evidence the ḥadīth, “He who swears by anyone or anything other than Allah, has indeed committed an act of Kufr or Shirk.”1 And the ḥadīth, “He who swears by an amanah (trust) is not one of us.”2 So a person notices that Imām al-Nawawī considers it ‘makrooh’ or disliked to do such an act based on (his understanding of the ḥadīth. However, there is a big difference between saying something is makrooh and the statement of the Messenger (ﷺ), “He who swears by anyone or anything other than Allāh, has indeed committed an act of kufr or shirk.”

Moreover, it an established principle with the foremost scholars of the people of
knowledge, that the statement of the Messenger (ﷺ), “He is not from us whoever does such and such” indicates that this act is prohibited. The majority of scholars of the principles of fiqh also confirm this rule. Therefore, putting a heading on a chapter is one thing, but how this evidence is used is another. If we were to discuss with Imām al-Nawawī why he considers this makrooh, we do not know what he will say. But I think his interpretation of the ḥadīth will be based upon a principle of fiqh from the Shafiʿī madhhab that considers this type of shirk to be a minor one.

The point I am trying to make is that one should pay attention to the difference between a ruling on a matter and how the evidences were used to arrive at this ruling. Therefore, as a general principle when reading the books of the people of knowledge, one should pay attention to the methodology of the author. Simply because one author uses an authentic ḥadīth as proof for the validity of his opinion, and another lacks any evidence, means that this author’s opinion is actually the strongest one in that matter – this in very rare indeed (that those of opposing view lack any evidence). These issues are referred to as matters of differences of opinion and our discussion is not about this. Verily, what one finds is that the differences occurs using the same evidence. One scholar views it this way, and the other views it another way. Therefore, when should an opinion be considered the weightiest (among differing opinions)? If it is that the opposing viewpoints to the first opinion are less than the opposing viewpoints to the second opinion (then this is most likely the strongest opinion in this matter). For example, whenever one reads the books of fiqh, one finds that two scholars arrive at differing conclusions based upon the same ayah or ḥadīth. So therefore, which of these opinions would be the strongest, the first or the second? This is not a matter of choice based upon whim and fancies. Rather, we give more weight to the opinion that has the least objections to it. Moreover, one should not think that of the many issues of differences of opinion, the strongest opinion is the strongest in the absolute sense, i.e. one opinion is completely correct and the other is completely incorrect. This rarely occurs in matters of knowledge. More accurately, what happens is that one scholar uses a ḥadīth or an ayah to prove this and the next one uses the same to prove that, however, the objections to opinion number one is less than the objections to opinion number two. Thus, the one that has the least objections to it would be considered the stronger opinion than the other which has more objections to it.

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Published: February 21, 2004
Edited: January 6, 2022

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