Life-long learning in Islam

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Islam teaches use to be life-long learners and to seek knowledge for as long as we reside on earth. Not only is seeking knowledge a religious and moral obligation, it is a continuous obligation.

Allah said:

وَقُل رَّبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا

Say: My Lord, increase me in knowledge.

Surat Ta Ha 20:114

The Prophet responded to this verse by seeking knowledge for the rest of his life and by making this task an obligation for all Muslims.

Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ

Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 224, Grade: Sahih

Ibn Utaybah, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

وَلَمْ يَزَلْ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فِي زِيَادَةٍ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ حَتَّى تَوَفَّاهُ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

The Prophet continued to increase in knowledge until Allah the Exalted took his soul.

Source: Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘Aẓīm 20:114

If the Prophet himself sought knowledge until his death, then how much more are we in need of learning?

The light of faith produces an insatiable quench for knowledge and understanding of the divine revelation as well as the mysteries of nature. We ought to pursue spiritual knowledge, especially what every Muslim needs to know in order to practice the religion correctly, but we also need scientific knowledge that can benefit our community and humanity at large. Classical scholars, such as Al-Ghazali, designated the natural sciences, particularly medicine, to be a collective obligation (fard al-kifayya) upon the Muslim community.

In contrast, the darkness of unbelief produces an insatiable quench for goods, money, and temporary pleasures at the expense of the soul itself.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْهُومَانِ لا يَشْبَعَانِ طَالِبُهُمَا طَالِبُ عِلْمٍ وَطَالِبُ الدُّنْيَا

The seekers of two concerns are never satisfied: the seeker of knowledge and the seeker of the world.

Source: al-Muʻjam al-Kabīr 10239, Grade: Sahih

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

سَأَلَ مُوسَى رَبَّهُ وقَالَ فَأَيُّ عِبَادِكَ أَعْلَمُ قَالَ عَالِمٌ لا يَشْبَعُ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ يَجْمَعُ عِلْمَ النَّاسِ إِِلَى عِلْمِهِ

Moses asked his Lord: Who are the most knowledgeable of your servants? Allah said: A scholar who is unsatisfied with his knowledge and adds the knowledge of people to his own.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 6352, Grade: Hasan

For this reason, many Muslim scholars from the righteous predecessors (as-salaf as-salih) were committed to seeking knowledge for as long as they could.

Malik ibn Anas, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

لا يَنْبَغِي لأَحَدٍ يَكُونُ عِنْدَهُ الْعِلْمُ أَنْ يَتْرُكَ التَّعَلُّمَ

It is not befitting for anyone with knowledge to give up learning.

Source: Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 423

Nu’aim ibn Hammad reported: It was said to Ibn Al-Mubarak, “For how long will you seek knowledge?” Ibn Al-Mubarak, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

حَتَّى الْمَمَاتِ إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَعَلَّ الْكَلِمَةَ الَّتِي تَنْفَعُنِي لَمْ أَكْتُبْهَا بَعْدُو

Until death, if Allah wills. Perhaps the words that will benefit me have not yet been written.

Source: Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 428

In fact, someone who considers himself without need of learning has become ignorant regardless of how much he already knows. Every scholar must remain as a student or else he is no longer a scholar.

Ibn Al-Mubarak, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

لَا يَزَالُ الْمَرْءُ عَالِمًا مَا طَلَبَ الْعِلْمَ فَإِذَا ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ قَدْ عَلِمَ فَقَدْ جَهِلَ

A man will continue to have knowledge as long as he is seeking knowledge. If he assumes that he has knowledge, then he has become ignorant.

Source: al-Mujālasah wa Jawāhir 312

Ibn Abi Ghassan, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

لا تَزَالُ عَالِمًا مَا كُنْتَ مُتَعَلِّمًا فَإِذَا اسْتَغْنَيْتَ كُنْتَ جَاهِلا

You will have knowledge as long as you are a student. If you consider yourself sufficient, then you will become ignorant.

Source: Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 430

Sa’eed ibn Jubair, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

لَا يَزَالُ الرَّجُلُ عَالِمًا مَا تَعَلَّمَ فَإِذَا تَرَكَ الْعِلْمَ وَظَنَّ أَنَّهُ قَدْ اسْتَغْنَى وَاكْتَفَى بِمَا عِنْدَهُ فَهُوَ أَجْهَلُ مَا يَكُونُ

A man will continue to have knowledge as long as he is learning. If he forsakes knowledge and assumes that he is sufficient and already has enough, then he will become ignorant.

Source: al-Majmū’ Sharḥ al-Muhadhab 1/56

Ibn Manadhir reported: I asked Abu Amr ibn Al-Ala, “For how long is it appropriate for a man to learn?” Abu Amr, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

مَا دَامَ تَحْسُنُ بِهِ الْحَيَاةُ

It is appropriate for him to learn his entire life.

And Sufyan ibn Uyainah was asked, “Which people are most obliged to seek knowledge?” Sufyan, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

أَعْلَمُهُمْ إِنَّ الْخَطَأَ مِنْهُ أَقْبَحُ

Those who have the most knowledge, for their mistakes are the most distasteful.

Source: Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 429

Recognizing our constant need for more knowledge is an act of humility. In reality, the proportion of someone’s wisdom is directly related to their proportion of humility.

Ibn Abbas reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَا مِنْ آدَمِيٍّ إِلا فِي رَأْسِهِ حِكْمَةٌ بِيَدِ مَلَكٍ فَإِذَا تَوَاضَعَ قِيلَ لِلْمَلَكِ ارْفَعْ حِكْمَتَهُ وَإِذَا تَكَبَّرَ قِيلَ لِلْمَلَكِ ضَعْ حِكْمَتَهُ

There is no human being except that the wisdom of his mind is in the hands of an angel. When he shows humility, the angel is ordered to increase his wisdom. When he shows arrogance, the angel is ordered to decrease his wisdom.

Source: al-Muʻjam al-Kabīr 12771, Grade: Hasan

Arrogance lulls us into the false sense that there is nothing that anyone else can teach us. It tempts us to reject the truth when it damages our pride and our ego.

Ibn Rajab reported:

قَالَ بَعْضُ السَّلَفِ التَّوَاضُعُ أَنَّ تَقْبَلَ الْحَقَّ مِنْ كُلِّ مَنْ جَاءَ بِهِ وَإِنْ كَانَ صَغِيرًا فَمَنْ قَبِلَ الْحَقَّ مِمَّنْ جَاءَ بِهِ سَوَاءً كَانَ صَغِيرًا أَوْ كَبِيرًا وَسَوَاءً كَانَ يُحِبُّهُ أَوْ لَا يُحِبُّهُ فَهُوَ مُتَوَاضِعٌ وَمَنْ أَبَى قَبُولَ الْحَقِّ تَعَاظُمًا عَلَيْهِ فَهُوَ مُتَكَبِّرٌ

Some of the righteous predecessors said: Humility is that you accept the truth from anyone who brings it, even if they are young. Whoever accepts the truth from whoever brings it, whether they are young or old, whether he loves them or not, then he is humble. Whoever refuses to accept the truth because he regards himself as too reputable for it, then he is arrogantly proud.

Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam 13

In sum, every Muslim has an obligation to seek spiritual knowledge in religion and the community as a whole must seek scientific knowledge in beneficial disciplines. We should have the attitude of a life-long learner, that we are always students even when we are teachers, and that we must be humble enough to learn from anyone regardless of their status.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

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