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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Every Discipline has its Language:

A student of knowledge, whenever reading the books of the people of knowledge, must try to understand the matters therein according to the language of the people of knowledge. For every discipline has its Language. For example, the one who reads the fatwá of Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah (may Allah have mercy upon him) in a similar manner that he reads and understands a newspaper or a magazine, such a person will indeed make many mistakes in his understanding of the intent of Shaykh al-Islām’s words. This is because the people of knowledge, regardless of the different eras that they lived in, they wrote the knowledge according to the language of that particular branch of knowledge, and they did not write it based on the colloquial dialect that was commonly spoken in their times. This was done so that the knowledge can be continuously passed on; thus the first will understand it just as the last. Therefore, each branch of knowledge has its own terminology and language that must be understood within the repository context that embodies the language. For the language is the reservoir for the meaning of the words. Hence, it is not behoving that an individual understands what he reads based on notions acquired from the past, because if he understands the works of the scholars on this basis, his understanding will differ with what they intended. Thus, the student of knowledge whether he teaches or studies, should strive to express knowledge-based matters in accordance with the language of its people. Because if he discusses knowledge-based matters contrary to the language of its people, neither will he be fully connecting with those who preceded him, nor will he fully obtain what is ahead of him. The previously mentioned points were general guidelines (on what to look for and pay attention to when reading the books of the scholars), now we will go to the specifics.

How to Read the Books of ʿAqīdah

al-ʿaqīdah, how does one read the books of creed? ‘ʿaqīdah is based upon clarity, and it is the explanation of the pillars of īmān.

آمَنَ الرَّسُولُ بِمَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْهِ مِن رَّبِّهِ وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ ۚ كُلٌّ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَمَلَائِكَتِهِ وَكُتُبِهِ وَرُسُلِهِ لَا نُفَرِّقُ بَيْنَ أَحَدٍ مِّن رُّسُلِهِ ۚ وَقَالُوا سَمِعْنَا وَأَطَعْنَا ۖ غُفْرَانَكَ رَبَّنَا وَإِلَيْكَ الْمَصِيرُ ‎﴿٢٨٥﴾

“The Messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, and (so do) the believers. Each one believes in Allāh, His Angels, His Books, and His Messengers.
[al-Baqarah, 2:285]

Therefore, the pillars of īmān are six easy pillars that the fitrah naturally accepts. However, when misconceptions became rampant in this regard, the people of knowledge began to write books of ‘ʿaqīdah. The books of ʿaqīdah written by the salaf can be divided into two categories:

  1. Books that discussed the issue of ‘ʿaqīdah in a general form.
  2. Books that discussed issues of ʿaqīdah in a detailed manner. Some students of knowledge hold that it is more beneficial to read the detailed books of ʿaqīdah (before the general ones).

Thus, they go directly to the ‘fatāwā’ of Ibn Taymiyyah, they immediately read īmān’ by Ibn Manda or his other book ‘al-tawḥīd ‘, they go directly to ‘al-Sharīʿah’ by Imām al-Ajurrī, or al-Lālakāʾī’s book, and so forth. There is no doubt that these books give a firm grounding in the madhhab of the salaf. However the madhhab of the salaf and their statements are dispersed whereby the early scholars (al-mutaqadimīn) did not write their books in a clear, organised, structured manner. Hence, the later generation of scholars from the people of the sunnah like Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qudāmah and others like them, came after and summarised these books and matters of ʿaqīdah. Therefore, the path to the detailed books of ʿaqīdah is to understand the abridged books of ‘ʿaqīdah like ‘al-Wasitiyyah’ and ‘al-Hamawiyyah’ by Shaykh al-Islām, ‘Lumat al-iʿtiqād’ by Ibn Qudāmah, and so on. Thus, if one has a competent understanding of these books, one can refer to the books of the early scholars based on three approaches:

The First Approach:

The first approach is wherein one refers to detailed books after having studied an issue of ʿaqīdah in the abridged versions. For example, one comes across the issue of īmān in ʿaqīdah, is īmān a statement, belief and action, or is it just a statement and belief without action? This is a very well-known matter of disagreement between the people of hadeeth and the murji’ah of the fuqahāʾ. The abridged books of ʿaqīdah will give a glimpse into the
differences regarding this matter, but if one wants the specifics, he has to go the detailed books. However, before going to the books of the early scholars, one should be proficient in the books of the later generation of scholars. This is because the books of the early scholars are very profound. So if a person reads the books of the early scholars without being aware of the principles that the later generation of scholars laid down regarding ʿaqīdah, he will indeed have huge deficiencies in his understanding of the methodology and ʿaqīdah of ahlus-sunnah. For example, what is reported in some of the books of Ahl al-Sunnah about al-Imām Abū Ḥanīfah, may Allāh have mercy upon him and elevate his level in jannah. If a person reads such books of the early scholars, he would find that they mentioned things about this Imām that the later generation of scholars did not mention. Rather, they abandoned and avoided such matters altogether. Hence, one does not see in the works of Shaykhul-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah such an unfavourable mention of al-Imām Abū Ḥanīfah (may Allāh have mercy upon him). In spite of the fact that the books of the early scholars mention that he did this, he did that… and so forth. They abandoned
such issues because it was a matter that had its respective time and place. Thus, Shaykh al-Islām wrote ‘Raf al-malām ʿan aʾImamt al-aʿlām’ (Exonerating the Great Scholars from Blame), and from amongst them he defended al-Imām Abū Ḥanīfah, notwithstanding the fact that his (Abū Ḥanīfah’s) statement regarding īmān is well known. However, as it has been said regarding his honour, one should not hold these matters against him. Were a person to read the books of the early scholars before that of the later generation of them, there will be deficiencies in his understanding of their works. Where do these deficiencies originate? These deficiencies originate from the fact that if a person is not aware of the particular environment that the statements of the salaf were made in, he will fail to properly understand their statements. This means a person must be aware of the circumstances of that particular time, such as the statements of the salaf, the schools of thought, the fitnah, and so forth. Hence, for example, when Ash-Shaykh ʿAbdullah Ibn Hasan (may Allāh have mercy upon him) and those mashāyikh from Makkah who were with him, decided to print ‘kitāb al-sunnah’ by ‘Abdullah, son of Imām Ahmad (may Allāh have mercy upon them), they did not see any problem in eliminating a complete chapter related to Abū Ḥanīfah and his followers. This was done to bring about a sharīʿah benefit that agrees with the methodology of ahlus-sunnah wal jama’ah, hence they took out a complete chapter containing criticisms about Abū Ḥanīfah and his followers. Is this removal considered failing to fulfil the trust, as some claim? Absolutely not, to the contrary, this is actually fulfilling the trust. This is because the trust we are required to fulfil is not the obligation of complete acceptance of what are in these books. Indeed, the real duty is to strive so that the ummah will remain united in its ʿaqīdah and brotherly love. So if the relevance of those statements disappeared in time, then repeating them serves no benefit for the religion. And no doubt, this is a very important point to comprehend.

Some of the statements of the salaf regarding the innovators and the people of desires have its circumstantial relevance during the early period of Islām, and these statements may not be applicable in our times. However, you find some people taking these general statements and applying them to a condition that differs with the environment those statements were applicable in. But if they were to see the statements of the great Imāms and the foremost scholars from ahlus-sunnah, they would realise that they contradict these scholars in their application (of their statements). This point was brought up just to emphasise the importance of reading and having a proper understanding of the books of ʿaqīdah by the later generation of scholars from ahlus-sunnah before delving into the books of the earlier ones. For immersion into the books (ʿaqīdah) of the salaf, without knowing the principles
the contemporary scholars of ahlus-sunnah laid down will result in a defective understanding of the methodology of the salaf. And there are many examples of this that might need a longer time to explain.

The Second Approach:

The second level of approach is to know the incorrect statements from its source of origin. Now this is for the advanced student of knowledge and not the beginner. This means that one should be proficient in both the abridged books of ʿaqīdah and the statements of the salaf. After having done this, one moves on to the knowing the refuted statements from the books of origin. For it is not sufficient to accept a refutation of a person without having heard or read that person’s statement, except if the transmitter (of this refutation) is a trustworthy person. This is without a doubt sufficient, however reading the book this statement is taken from helps to clarify the intent behind that particular statement. Sometimes one finds (in the books of refutation), for example, ‘this person said such and such’, ‘the Ashāʿirah have this opinion regarding that matter’, and so on. However, if one examines their books, one would find within it details that this particular author (who is doing the refuting) did not mention, so the reader understands (this concept that is being refuted) outside of its proper context, thus the group’s ideology is misconstrued. Yes, we do not defend the people of innovation, however Allāh the Exalted, the most High made it
obligatory upon us that we do not let the dislike of a people divert us from being just.

وَلَا يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَآنُ قَوْمٍ عَلَىٰ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا ۚ ‎﴿٨﴾

“And let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.”
[al-Māʾidah, 5:8]

The one who does not let his emotions cloud his thinking should be even more impartial is his assessment and opinion of knowledge based issues. This is because (obtaining) knowledge requires that one is unbiased, and the unbiased person is the one who approaches Allāh with a pure heart. So one examines their statements wherein one comes across a refutation of those who refuted them that says, ‘this point they accuse of us is not
mentioned in our books.’
However, one would have the upper hand because one can prove that it is actually mentioned in such and such book. To give a common example we often use: the Ashāʿirah and the Māturūdiyyah perceive that the objective of tawheed is to confirm the tawheedurruboobiyyah (Allāh being single in His Lordship), and not the tawḥīḍ al-ʿubūdiyyah (singling out Allāh for worship). That is – whoever believes in the existence of Allāh the Exalted, the most High is the One who is able to originate and He is the Creator, then this is sufficient for one’s actualisation of ‘Lā Ilāha Ila-Allāh’ So if one of them comes and says, “this is not correct, our scholars (from the Ashāʿirah or Māturūdiyyah) do not say this. Rather, you all just repeat the words your scholars say of which none of you know its meaning.”
However, one can say to them, that in your abridged books of ʿaqīdah like ‘as-sanūsiyyah” which is considered the primer for ‘Ashʿarī ʿaqīdah, therein it states, ‘Fa alillahu huwa al-mustaghnī ‘amma sewāhu, al muftakiroo ilayhi kulu mā ʿadāhu ilallāh.’ That is, ‘Lā Ilāha Ila-Allāh’ means Allāh is self-sufficient of every being, and every being besides Him is in need of Him. Hence, one has established the clear evidences. Therefore, the student of knowledge must refer back to the original books if they would like to write, especially if it is a refutation, so that the people can see statements as they are, while simultaneously being trustworthy in his report. However, I repeat, this should only be done by the one is proficient in matters of ʿaqīdah. Neither is it proper for the beginner to refer to their books, nor do I advise you all to refer to their books. But if one wants to do a refutation in the correct manner, then he must adopt this methodology.

The Third Approach:

The third and final approach is to read the fatāwā of the scholars in ʿaqīdah. Many of the issues they discuss are theoretical. So who are the ones that are able to apply these theories to real life situations? The foremost people of knowledge and the ones firmly grounded in it (are the ones that are able to apply these theories to real life situations). They take these theoretical matters and apply it to reality. Hence, the third level of approach in reading the books of ʿaqīdah is to refer to the fatāwā so that one can make a connection between what is present in the books of ʿaqīdah and what is current.

We could have extended this lecture, but perhaps the general guidelines that we discussed at the beginning of the lecture can be applied to the other branches of knowledge such as matters of fiqh, grammar and so forth. Finally I ask Allāh the Exalted, the most High, to inspire me and you to that which is good and to the point, to protect us from our shortcomings and to make our accuracies exceed our mistakes. O Allāh I ask You to forgive us our sins and faults, I ask You to forgive us all. O Allāh have mercy upon us and have mercy upon our parents, indeed You are the most merciful of those who show mercy.
Endnotes: 
  1. Al-Tirmidhī: Ṣaḥīḥ
  2. Abū Dāwūd: Ṣaḥīḥ
  3. For Original source in Arabic, click here. Translated by Hishām Ibn Zayd
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Published: February 21, 2004
Edited: January 6, 2022

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