Pitfalls in the Quest for Knowledge

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  • Pitfalls in the Quest for Knowledge




    Approaching the
    Sacred Texts in a Superficial Manner

    Approaching the Qur’ân and Sunnah requires
    intellect,probity,experience,and a deep
    understanding of the intents and purposes of Islamic Law.It requires
    broad knowledge of
    the Arabic language and its idioms.Some students,however,possess none
    of these
    faculties.Moreover,some of them have no aptitude for Islamic Law.They
    cannot cope
    with uncertainties and multiple possibilities and have not the insight
    to derive rulings
    from their proper sources.Such people have a tendency to take a single
    text and derive
    from it all the legal rulings that come immediately to mind,and then
    adhere doggedly to
    these rulings,hurling at anyone who disagrees with them a number of
    unsavory epithets.

    There are two closely associated problems here.One
    is that of taking an
    overly literal
    approach to the texts.The other is that of being hasty in drawing
    conclusions from them.
    Let us look at a few examples of each:

    Taking an
    Overly Literal Approach to the Texts

    First Example:

    Take an issue related to Islamic beliefs.The Prophet
    (peace be upon
    anyone possesses four qualities,then he is a hypocrite,and whoever
    possesses one of
    these qualities has within him an aspect of hypocrisy until he gives it
    up.They are as
    follows:If he is entrusted with something,he betrays his trust.If he
    speaks,he lies.If he
    makes a covenant,he breaks it.If he gets into a dispute,he acts
    sinfully.”Sahîh al-Bukhârî
    (33,2279).Sahîh Muslim

    Some people take this hadîth on its face value and ignore all the
    other texts dealing with
    hypocrisy.In this way,they fall into error.On one occasion,someone went
    so far as to
    say that the hypocrisy mentioned in the hadîth refers to absolute
    unbelief,so that anyone
    who breaks a promise,lies,breaches a covenant,or acts sinfully in an
    argument is an
    unbeliever and is no longer a Muslim!

    This person,by making this declaration,has
    disregarded hundreds of
    passages from the
    Qur’ân and Sunnah that indicate that a sinner does not become an
    unbeliever on account
    of his sins.This is a principle of faith in Islam.Al-Tahâwî
    says in his classic treatise on
    Islamic beliefs:“The followers of Muhammad (peace be upon him)who
    commit major
    sins and die without repentance will not remain in the Fire forever as
    long as they die on
    monotheism,knowing Allah.”This is a point of consensus among all
    orthodox Muslims.
    This shows us the danger of taking a cursory reading of one text and
    ignoring all the

    Second Example:

    The prophet (peace be upon him)said:“No ablutions need to be made
    unless you hear the
    sound of flatulence or feel the passage of gas.”Musnad Ahmad
    (9712).Sunan al-Tirmidhî (69).Sunan Ibn
    Mâjah (508).

    If we were to take this hadîth on face value,no one would ever
    have to make ablution
    except for the stated causes.This is the literal meaning of the
    hadîth .But is it the
    intended meaning?The answer to this question is:certainly not!A person
    who wishes to
    pray must make ablutions after going to the bathroom,after waking up
    from sleep,and
    for other reasons.However,if a person was going to base his
    understanding solely on the
    literal meaning of the text cited above,he would have to come to that
    false conclusion.
    This is why the people of knowledge have always emphasized the need to
    compile all the
    relevant texts on a matter before drawing any conclusions.Ahmad
    said:“If we did not
    receive a single hadîth in seventy different ways,we would never
    have understood it.”He
    was referring here not only to different chains of transmission for a
    single hadîth,but also
    to numerous hadîth on a single topic.

    Third Example:

    The Prophet (peace be upon him)said:“No one should urinate in still
    water and then
    bathe in it.”Sahîh al-Bukhârî
    (232).Sahîh Muslim (424).
    Some literalist scholars of the
    past have opined that if
    a person were to
    urinate in a cup then pour the contents of the cup into the water,there
    would be no
    objection to bathing in it,since the only thing that the hadîth
    prohibits is direct urination!You can read about this opinion
    and the refutation of it in Ibn
    Hazm,al-Muhallâ (1/166)and al-Nawawî,al-Majmû`(1/118).

    This is a good example of severely dogmatic literalism.The intent of
    the Prophet (peace
    be upon him)in this hadîth is perfectly clear.

    Hastiness in
    Drawing Conclusions from the Texts

    We will now turn our attention to the problem of
    being hasty when
    attempting to derive
    rulings from the texts.The examples that we will be citing below are in
    fact matters of
    disagreement between scholars.Our point here is not to support a given
    legal position,
    but to illustrate the importance of being methodical and deliberate
    when dealing with the
    sacred texts.

    First Example:

    There are numerous hadîth in which the Prophet (peace be upon
    him)said:“There is no
    prayer for one who has not made ablution,and there is no ablution for
    one who has not
    invoked the name of Allah upon performing it.”Musnad Ahmad
    (9050,16054,22152,25894,25896).Sunan Abî
    Dâwûd (92).Sunan Ibn Mâjah (392, 393,394).

    Numerous scholars have
    attested to the
    authenticity of this hadîth.Some scholars have understood from it
    that ablutions are only
    valid if the name of Allah is invoked before performing them.This was
    the opinion of
    Ishâq b.Râhawayh,one opinion of Ahmad,and the view of a
    number of hadîth scholars.

    Now,I do not intend to discuss the merits or
    demerits of this
    opinion,but I would like to
    point out the other opinion and the evidence used to support it.

    The majority of scholars,including Abû
    Hanîfah,Mâlik,and al-Shâfi`î,consider
    mentioning Allah’s name before performing ablutions as a preferential
    sunnah act and do
    not see it as obligatory.This is also one of the opinions related from
    Ahmad and the view
    of many later scholars including Ibn Taymiyah,as well as the opinion of
    contemporary jurists.

    Should we assume that all of these eminent scholars
    took the
    hadîth mentioned above and
    threw it against the wall,like some rash students today have
    In actuality,a few classical scholars did not deem that hadîth to
    be authentic.Many of
    them,however,did consider it authentic but had a different
    understanding of the words
    “there is no ablution for one who has not invoked the name of Allah
    upon performing it”.
    They did not take the hadîth to mean that ablutions without
    mentioning Allah’s name are
    invalid,but simply that such ablutions are not performed in the best
    manner.There is a
    decent amount of evidence to support their interpretation.

    First of all,there is a hadîth with a good
    chain of transmission
    in Sunan Abî Dawûd
    wherein a man comes to the Prophet (peace be upon him)and asks him how
    is to be carried out.So the Prophet (peace be upon him)calls for water
    and gives him a
    demonstration.He washes his hands three times,washes his face
    once,wipes over his
    head,traces his wet fingers and thumbs around his ears,and washes his
    feet three times.
    Then he says:“This is how ablutions are to be made.Whoever adds
    anything to this or
    leaves anything out has done wrong.”Sunan Abî Dawûd
    The man asking the question was a desert Arab who had no idea
    how to
    ablutions.Therefore,since the Prophet (peace be upon him)did not teach
    him to invoke
    the name of Allah,we can safely assume that it is not necessary to do
    A second piece of evidence comes from the fact that at least twenty-two
    have described how the Prophet (peace be upon him)made ablutions and
    not one of them
    mentioned that he invoked Allah’s name.

    Another argument offered by the scholars is that a
    full ritual bath can
    be done in lieu of
    performing ablutions,and nowhere is it mentioned that Allah’s name must
    be invoked
    before taking such a bath.Scholars actually assume that mentioning
    Allah’s name is
    recommended before performing a ritual bath on the strength of the fact
    that the regular
    ablutions are performed as part of the bath.

    A fourth piece of evidence is that mentioning the
    name of Allah is not
    given in the verse
    of the Qur’ân that spells out to us how ablutions are to be
    made.Allah says:“O you who
    believe!When you prepare for prayer,wash your faces and your arms up to
    the elbows.
    Wipe your head with water and wash your feet to the
    ankles.”[Sûrah al-Mâ’idah:6]

    These arguments show us that the opinion of the
    majority of the
    scholars is not due to
    their pointedly ignoring the hadîth,as some hasty students today
    are wont to believe.It is,
    in fact,based on sound juristic principles as well as a deeper insight
    into the meaning of
    the text that takes into account other textual evidence.

    Second Example

    The Prophet (peace be upon him)said:“When any one of you wakes up from
    his sleep,
    he should not place his hands in a bowl of water until after he washes
    them three times,
    because he does not know what his hands might have touched while he was
    asleep.”Sahîh al -Bukhârî.Sahîh Muslim

    Some scholars of the past understood from this hadîth that it is
    obligatory to wash your
    hands after sleeping before you can place them in a bowl of water and
    that it is forbidden
    to do otherwise.This was one of Ahmad’s opinions on the matter.Some
    scholars have held this view as well.

    On the other hand,according to most
    scholars,including Abû
    and Ahmad in another one of his opinions,doing so is merely
    recommended.Should we
    assume that these eminent scholars simply tossed this hadîth
    behind their backs or that
    they just did not care very much about the command of the Prophet
    (peace be upon him)?
    Some brash young students today are actually saying such things about

    These scholars are as far removed as you can get
    from such
    accusations.They merely
    took into account a number of factors which demonstrate that the
    command given in the
    hadîth is indicative of preference,not obligation.Let us consider
    the following:

    First of all,there is the reason cited by the
    Prophet (peace be upon
    him)for the order that
    he gave.He said:“…because he does not know what his hands might have
    touched while
    he was asleep.”Now,the ruling about impurity in Islamic Law is that
    unless you are
    certain that there is some impurity upon something,you are not
    obligated to wash it.
    Suspicions are not enough to make a washing obligatory.Therefore,it
    would not be
    obligatory on a person to wash his hands after waking from sleep for
    the reason that the
    Prophet (peace be upon him)gave.This leads us to believe that the
    command to wash the
    hands is meant merely to encourage a preferable act.
    Another indicator that we are not dealing here with an obligation is
    that the Prophet
    (peace be upon him)said we should wash our hands three times.In Islamic
    impurities are removed after only one washing,then one washing is

    A third indicative factor is that there is another
    hadîth that goes:“When one of
    you wakes up,he should rinse his nose out with water three
    times,because Satan spends
    the night in his nasal passages.”11 In this case,consensus has been
    established among all
    scholars save Ibn Hazm that rinsing the nose is not obligatory.

    All of these factors support the idea that the
    hadîth encourages
    washing the hands after
    waking from sleep and does not obligate it.

    I would like to repeat here that I am not saying all
    this to support
    one opinion over
    another.You are free to agree with these opinions or disagree with
    them.Someone might
    say that it is obligatory to mention Allah’s name before making
    ablutions or feel that it is
    obligatory to wash one’s hands upon waking.There is nothing wrong with
    this.My only
    purpose in bringing up these issues is to show how dealing with texts
    understanding and knowledge of how to deal with numerous pieces of
    evidence and
    diverse indicative factors.I also wished to highlight the necessity of
    referring back to the
    discussions of people of knowledge when investigating any issue.This
    allows the student
    to choose the opinion that convinces him on the basis of knowledge and
    merely on a cursory reading of a single text.Then,whatever position you
    choose in these
    matters is acceptable,because you have a precedent for your choice
    among the earlier

    A Look at the
    Zâhirî (Literalist) School
    of Law

    It is appropriate at this point to discuss the great
    scholar Ibn Hazm.No doubt,he
    was a great jurist with a number of great works to his credit.The most
    important of these
    is his legal encyclopedia entitled al-Muhallâ,a substantial work
    of law containing
    numerous insights.However,it also contains its share of errors and
    mistakes.All works
    of such scope do.

    The problem is that some students read
    al-Muhallâ and become
    totally enamored of Ibn
    Hazm.Ibn Hazm has a very assertive style of writing,especially when it
    comes to
    refuting his opponents’use of analogous reasoning.His specialty is
    showing how his
    opponents contradict themselves.Some students become enthralled by this
    style and end
    up judging by his decisions in all matters,whether or not his opinion
    agrees with that of
    the majority of the scholars.They accept from him even his strangest

    This behavior is incorrect.For this reason,I feel
    that a beginning
    student should not read
    al-Muhallâ,but should start with other books that are more
    comparative,more balanced
    in their treatment of the issues,and less confrontational.In this
    way,the student will
    develop a broad perspective and learn the proper way in which matters
    should be
    discussed.I recommend the works of scholars like Ibn `Abd al-Barr,Ibn
    11 Sahîh al -Bukhârî (3052).

    Qudâmah,and Ibn Taymiyah.Afterwards,the
    student will be more
    prepared to read
    whatever reputable books he chooses.


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