The importance of studying under an ustadh (teacher)

By Mawlana Mohammed H Abasoomer 

Q.      Some people have stated that the ijazah system and the isnad of a scholar is essential whereas others say that one does not require isnad or ijazah to be a scholar and that knowledge can be obtained from books alone. Which is the correct opinion and is there any evidence to prove this point? 

A.      To acquire knowledge under the expertise and guidance of a fully qualified, Sunnah-conscious ‘alim of the Deen is absolutely essential. Failure to do so generally results in absolute misguidance. In fact, this has been the practice of the Anbiya (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon them all), as well as our pious predecessors. The following is substantiation of this. 

1. The Holy Qur’an was revealed by Almighty Allah as guidance and a means of knowledge for mankind. But without the explanation of the Messenger of Allah (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) the meanings would inevitably be misunderstood. Almighty Allah addresses his Messenger (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in the Qur’an:  

And we have revealed to you the Qur’an so that you may explain to the people what has been revealed to them. 

This is the strongest and most evident proof for our view. 

2.  Almighty Allah mentions in the Qur’an:

 Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.

 3.  The Prophet Dawud (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is said to have benefited immensely from Luqman al-Hakim, before Dawud (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) received prophethood. (Tafsir al-Qurtubi)

 4.  Sayyiduna Musa’s (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) sojourn to Sayyiduna Khadhir  is well-known and enshrined in the Holy Qur’an.

 5. Furthermore, during the era of the Tabi’un, whenever anyone would claim to have any knowledge, he would be questioned as to whom he had acquired that bit of knowledge from. (Muslim)

 6.  Hafiz Khatib al-Baghdadi (may Allah have mercy upon him), the famous muhaddith of the fifth century, states in his book Taqyid al-Ilm (p.61):

 Many scholars of the classical times had, at the time of death, either destroyed their books themselves or instructed others to do so on their behalf. This was due to fear that it may end up in the hands of ignorant ones who would not understand its verdicts and would only take the apparent meanings therefrom.

 Thereafter he reported several such incidents from the lives of classical scholars. From among them were Imam Abidah al-Salmani, Imam Shu’bah ibn Hajjaj, Imam Abu Qilabah and Imam ‘Isa ibn Yunus (may Allah have mercy upon them all). (ibid, p.61-62)

 7.  Imams Muhammad ibn Sirin, Hakam ibn Atiyya and Waki’ ibn al-Jarrah (may Allah have mercy upon them all) have all said that the primary cause for the misguidance of Banu Isra’il was the books that they inherited from their forefathers. (Taqyid al-Ilm, p.61 and its footnotes)

 8.  Imam Awza’i (may Allah have mercy upon him)) says:

 Knowledge was sublime for as long as it was obtained from the mouths of learned men. But when it ended up in books, its nur (spiritual light) disappeared. (ibid, p.64)

 Note: The purpose of the previous three quotations is to prove that mere studying of books is incorrect and devoid of divine assistance. Ideally, one should study under the auspices of a learned teacher. Undermining the books of Shari’a is not intended here.

 9.  Imam Malik (may Allah have mercy upon him) was once asked if knowledge could be acquired from one who did not sit in the company of the ‘ulama and instead he sufficed with, and depended only on, books. He replied in the negative and said: “Knowledge should not be acquired except from one who has memorized, accompanied the scholars, practiced upon his knowledge and possesses piety.” (Adab al-Ikhtilaf, p.145)

 10. Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwamah – a leading muhaddith of our times – mentions beautifully in his book Adab al-Ikhtilaf:

 [The ‘ulama] never used to pay attention to one who did not have an ustadh (teacher), neither would they consider such a person even worthy of being spoken to [in matters of knowledge] due to him being prone to mistakes.

 He further writes:

 Qadi ‘Iyad (may Allah have mercy upon him) and others have narrated that when Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may Allah have mercy upon him) was requested by the ruler of his time (al-Mu’tasim) to discuss a certain matter with Ibn Abi Du’ad, he (Imam Ahmad) turned his face away and said: “How can I converse with a person whom I have never seen at the door of any ‘alim?” (ibid, p.144)

 We hope that the above ten points are sufficient to prove that merely relying on the study of books without the supervision and mentoring of a fully qualified teacher is incorrect and has never been acceptable in the tradition of Islamic knowledge.

We conclude this brief article with the translation of a famous poem attributed to Imam Shafi’i (may Allah have mercy upon him):

 Oh my brother!
You will never acquire knowledge
Without the following six essentials:
Intelligence, desire, poverty,
Sojourn, tutelage of an ustadh

Accompanied by a long consistent period (of studying under him).  

 (ibid, p.142-143)

 Only Allah Most Magnificent Knows Best.