Stages of Seeking Sacred Knowledge
Excerpt from the Seeker's Regalia
It is said, “Whoever does not perfect the foundation is prevented from reaching (his destination i.e. knowledge).”
It is also said, “Whoever wants to attain knowledge in one go, will lose it in one go.”
It is also said, “Overcrowding knowledge in the ear misguides understanding.”
The seeker should make the following his modus operandi with every subject he studies:
Memorize a primer on the subject.
Master it by studying under a proficient teacher.
Not engage with larger works or works that span several subjects until mastering the basics.
Not swap from one book to another without necessity, since this is a sign of impatience.
Take proper notes.
Mentally prepare himself to seek and progress in seeking knowledge. Also, to have zeal in attaining increasingly higher levels until he progresses into the largest works with ease.
It was the opinion of Ibn al-Arabi al-Maliki that the seeker should not mix between two subjects while studying, that priority should be given to learning Arabic, poetry and mathematics, then the Quran. He was rebuked by Ibn Khaldun who said that the (then) present day customs did not encourage this method, and that the first priority should be given to memorizing and studying the Quran.
Among the scholars were those who taught Hanbali fiqh from Zad al-Mustaqni‘ for the beginners, Al-Muqni‘ for difference of opinion within the madhhab and then Al-Mughni for differences at an advanced level. They did not permit the beginners to sit with the intermediate class and so on, in order to eliminate confusion.
As for studying two or more subjects simultaneously, this depends on the aptitude of the seeker and his enthusiasm.
The list of primers and larger texts used as curricula will differ regionally, based on madhhab and proficiency of the teachers in certain books over others.
After memorizing the Quran and learning tajwid, the seeker progresses through the stages of seeking knowledge, beginner, intermediate and advanced, continuing on this path until he meets His Lord.
Al-Hafidh ‘Uthman ibn Khurrazadh (died 282AH) رحمه الله said:
“The person associated to hadith is in need of five qualities, and if one of them is lost then it is considered as a deficiency; [he is] in need of a good mind, piety, precision, proficiency in this field, as well as being well known for his trustworthiness.”
Al-Dhahabi رحمه الله commented on it, saying:
“Trustworthiness is a portion of the din (piety), and precision is included in proficiency; so what a hafidh really needs, is to be: fearful (of Allah), intelligent, grammatical, a linguist, righteous, modest, salafi, and it is sufficient enough for him to write two hundred volumes and to gather five hundred reliable compilations (books), and not to become fatigued by seeking knowledge till death, with sincerity and humility, otherwise let him not trouble himself.”
Al-Taj al-Subki رحمه الله said:
“Some people claimed being well versed in Hadith while in fact their knowledge did not exceed reading Mashariq al-Anwar of al-Saghani, and if they sought higher rank they would read Al-Masabih of al-Baghawi, thinking by that they reached the rank of Muhaddith while, in fact, they assume that just because they are ignorant in Hadith. In fact, if those people memorized by heart these two books and memorized on top of that double what is in them, they will not be Muhaddith, and will only be in this rank only if the camel entered the eye of the needle. And, if they worked harder and studied Jami‘ al-Usul of Ibn Kathir and Sciences of Hadith of Ibn as-Salah or even the abridged version of it known as Al-Taqrib wa al-Taysir of al-Nawawi and such alike books, you find them called ‘Muhaddith of all Muhaddithin’ and ‘the Bukhari of this era’ and such titles that are falsely attributed to them. This is because whoever does all what I have mentioned will not qualify him to be a Muhaddith. The Muhaddith is he who knows the chains of narrators and defects, the names of narrators, the high chains and low chains, and memorized numerous mutun and heard from scholars the six books of Hadith in addition to Musnad Ahmad, Sunan al-Bayhaqi, Mujam al-Tabarani, and on the top of all that he memorized 1000 juz of hadith. This is the least rank and if he heard from scholars all what I mentioned and wrote the tibaq and studied under scholars of hadith and taught defects of hadith, deaths of narrators, and masanid he will be in the first rank of Muhaddith, and Allah increases in knowledge whoever He wants.”
This was an excerpt from The Seeker’s Regalia: A Primer on the Etiquette of Seeking Sacred Knowledge, which is an abridged translation of Hilyat Talib Al-Ilm by Sheikh Bakr Abu Zaid رحمه الله.