Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) on the Virtues of Learning and Teaching in the Islamic Tradition


As to the evidence of the excellence of learning] in tradition, the Prophet of God said. “Whoever follows a path in search of knowledge, God will guide him into a path leading into Paradise.” And again: “Verily the angels will bow low to the seeker of knowledge in approval of what he does.” He also said, “To rise up before daybreak and learn but a section of knowledge is better than prostrating yourself in prayer a hundred times.” The Apostle again said. “One section of knowledge which a man learns is better for him than all the riches of the world.” And again: “Seeking after knowledge is an ordinance obligatory upon every Muslim.” He also said: “Seek ye knowledge even [as far as] China.” The Prophet further said: “Knowledge is like sealed treasure houses, the keys of which are inquiry. Inquire, therefore, for therein lies reward for four: the inquirer, the learned, the auditor, and their admirer.” He also said, “The ignorant one should not hide his ignorance nor the learned his knowledge.” And in a tradition on the authority of Abu Dharr: “To be present in the circle of a learned man is better than prostrating oneself in prayer a thousand times or visiting a thousand sick men or joining a thousand funerals.” It was then said: “O Apostle of Allah, is it also better than the reading of the Qur’an?” To which he replied, “What good, though, is the Qur’an except through knowledge?” The Prophet also said: “Whoever is overtaken by death while seeking knowledge with which to strengthen Islam, between him and the prophets in Paradise is but one grade.”

[As to the evidence of the excellence of learning] in the words of the Companions, Ibn Abbas said: “While I sought knowledge, I was abased, but when I was sought for it, I was exalted.” Similarly, Ibn Abi Mulayka said: “Never have I seen the like of Ibn Abbas. To behold him is to behold the most handsome man; when he speaks, he is the most eloquent, and when he hands down a judicial opinion, he [reveals himself] as the most learned.” Ibn al-Mubarak said, I wonder how one who sought no knowledge could be moved to any noble deed,” while one of the wise men said: “Verily I pity no one as I pity the man who seeks knowledge but understands not, and him who understands and seek it not.” Abu al-Darda’ said: “I would rather learn one thing than spend my night in continual prayer;” and “The learned and the learner are partners in righteousness while the rest of men are barbarians in whom there is no good.” He also said: “Be learned, or a learner, or an auditor but never anything else lest thou perish.” ‘Ata’ said: “[Attendance at] an assembly of learning atones [the evil of attending] seventy places of entertainment.” “Umar said: “The death of a thousand worshippers who spend their days in fasting and their nights in continual prayer is a lesser calamity than the passing away of one learned individual who is aware of what is lawful before God and what is unlawful. Al-Shafi’i said: “Seeking knowledge is better than supererogatory works.” Ibn ‘Abd-al-Hakam said, “I was [once] at Malik’s place studying at his feet when the hour of noon arrived. Thereupon I closed my books and put them away in order to pray; but he said: `What you have risen to perform is not better than what you were doing provided your intentions are pure.” Abu al-Darda’ also said: “Whoever should regard that rising early for study is not jihad [reveals himself] deficient in reasoning and intellect.”


[As to the evidence of the excellence of teaching] in tradition, the Apostle of God, on sending Mu’adh ibn Jabal to Yemen, said to him, “That, through you, God may lead one man [unto Himself] is better for you than the world and all that is in it.” He also said: “Whoever acquires but one section of knowledge in order to teach men, will be given the reward of seventy of the righteous.” Jesus said: “He who has knowledge and shall do and teach, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Prophet said: “When on the day of resurrection God says unto the worshippers and the warriors: ‘Enter ye into Paradise’, the learned would say: ‘By virtue of our learning have they attained their piety and fought for Thee’. Then God would say unto them: ‘I regard you alike with my angels: intercede and you will have your intercessions accepted.’ They then would present their intercessions and enter into Paradise.” This cannot result except from knowledge which is made active through teaching not from passive knowledge which is inert. The Prophet said: “God does not take away knowledge from men after He has given it to them, rather it vanishes with the passing away of the learned. Thus whenever a learned man passes away, whatever [knowledge] he had perishes with him. When finally there are none left but ignorant leaders they will give uninformed opinions whenever consulted, leading men astray and confusing themselves.” The Prophet also said: “Whoever has any knowledge but conceals it, will, on the day of resurrection, be bridled with a bit of fire.” He also said: “How excellent a gift and how admirable a present is a word of wisdom which you hear and inwardly digest and then carry it and teach it to a brother Muslim: verily it is equivalent to a year of worship.” And again: “Accursed is the world and all that is in it except the name of the exalted God and him who shall follow in His way, be it a teacher or one taught.” The Prophet also said: “In truth God and His angels as well as the heavens and the earth, even the ant in its hill and the whale in the sea, will bless the man who teaches his fellow men.” He also said: “A Muslim gives his brother Muslim no better benefit than a fair tradition which had reached him and which he consequently imparts. He also said: “A good word which the believer hears and follows and also teaches is better for him than a year’s worship.”

One day the Apostle of God passed by two assembled groups: the members of the first were calling upon God and offering their supplications, while the others were instructing men. Whereupon he said, “These beseech God; if He wills He will grant them their request and if He wills He will withhold it; whereas those teach men and verily I was not sent but as a teacher.” Then he turned and sat among them. He also said: “The knowledge and guidance which God has sent me to declare are like unto heavy rains which fell over a certain locality. One spot absorbed the rain and put forth herbs and much grass; another spot held the waters with which God benefited men who drank therefrom, watered the earth therewith, and then planted it; and a third spot was flat, it held no water and put forth no herb.” The first part of the parable signifies the one who reaps the benefits of his own knowledge, the second signifies the one whose knowledge is of benefit to others, while the third stands for him who enjoys neither.

Muhammad also said: “When a man dies all except three of his works perish, namely, a permanent endowment for charity, useful knowledge, and righteous progeny that bring honor upon his memory.” And again: “He who leads to something good is like him who does it.” He further said: “Envy is unlawful except regarding two categories of persons: those to whom God has given wealth and power to spend that wealth rightly, and those to whom God has given wisdom with which they regulate [their lives] and which they teach.” The Prophet also said “God’s mercy is upon my successors.” On being asked, “But who are your successors?” he replied, “My successors are those who keep my laws and teach them to God’s people.”

[As to the evidence of the excellence of teaching] in the words of the noble Companions, `Umar said: “Whoever shall relate a tradition and thus induce someone to do according to its precepts, will, with the [actual] doer be equally rewarded. “Ibn ‘Abbas said: “All things even the whale in the sea will intercede for him who teaches men good.” One of the learned men said: “The learned man occupies the position of an intermediary between God and His creatures; let the learned, therefore, be mindful how he occupies this position.”

It has been related that Sufyan al-Thawri arrived in ‘Asqalan where he tarried but no man questioned him [or sought his knowledge]. Whereupon he said: “Hire for me a beast of burden in order to depart from this city, for it is a place where knowledge does not prosper.” He had not said this except in solicitude over the excellence of teaching in which lies the preservation of knowledge. ‘Ata’ also said: “I came upon Sa’id ibn-al Musayyab while he was weeping, at which I said. ‘What causes you to weep?’ He answered, ‘No one seeks from my any information.’ It has also been said that the learned men are the lights of the ages; each is the torch of his own age and through him his contemporaries obtain light.” Al-Hasan said, “Had it not been for the learned, men would have become like animals.” For it is through teaching and instruction that men are brought out of the category of beasts to that of human beings. ‘Ikrimah said: “Verily a price is set upon this knowledge.” When asked that it was, he replied: “It is to be given to him who can keep it well and not lose it.” Yahya ibn Mu’adh said: “The learned have more compassion for the followers of Muhammad than either their fathers or mothers.” “How is that?” he was asked; to which he replied: “Their fathers and mothers shield them from the fires of this world while the learned protect them against the fires of the next.” It has been said that in the process of learning the first [step] is silence, followed by listening, then retention, then doing, and finally imparting. It has also been said, “Teach what you know to him who does not know and learn from him who knows what you do not know. If you would do this you would learn what you have not known and would retain what you have already known.” Mu’adh ibn Jabal said: “Acquire knowledge, for its acquisition is [equivalent to] the fear of God, its pursuit is [equivalent to] worship, its study is [equivalent to] praise, searching for it is [equivalent to] jihad, teaching it to him who does not know is [equivalent to] almsgiving, and imparting it to those who are worthy is meritorious. Furthermore, it is the bosom friend of the lonesome, the companion in solitude, the guide [to religion, the comforter in both] happiness and misfortune, the aid to the lonely, the relative among strangers, and the beacon on the road to Paradise. Through it God exalts a few and makes them leaders in virtues, chiefs and counsellors worthy of emulation, pioneers in righteousness whose footsteps should be followed and whose deeds should be observed. The angels seek their friendship and with their wings they touch them to gain thereby their favor. The living and the dead, yea even the whales and the fish of the sea, the lions and beasts of the field, as well as the heaven and its stars intercede for them, because knowledge is the protection of hearts against blindness, the light of the eyes in darkness, and the fortification of the body against decay. Through it man attains the dignity of sainthood and the loftiest ranks. To reflect upon it is [as meritorious] as fasting and its study, as continual prayer. Through it God is obeyed, worshipped and glorified; through it he admonishes and forewarns; through it His unity is declared, and through it also [man] abstains from sin. Through knowledge the ties of relationship are made close by kindly deeds, and the lawful and the unlawful are made known. Knowledge is like an imam whereas works are his followers. Knowledge is bestowed upon the fortunate and from the unfortunate withheld”.

[Taken from the Book of Knowledge from Ihya' Ulum al-Din; translation adapted from: http://www.ghazali.org/works/bk1-sec-1.htm]