On the Proprieties of the Student and the Teacher – Imam al-Ghazzali

Posted on July 5, 2010 by


On the Proprieties of the Student and the Teacher.
By Imam al-Ghazzali

The formal proprieties and duties of the student are many but may be classified under ten headings:The first duty of the student is to purify his soul from impure traits and blameworthy characteristics because knowledge is the worship of man’s heart as well as the prayer of his inmost self (sirr) and the oblation of his inward being before Allah. Just as prayer, which is the duty of the physical senses, is not fulfilled unless the physical body has been purified from excrements and impurities, so is the worship of the inward being as well as the reformation of the heart: they, are not fulfilled through knowledge unless they first be cleansed from impurities and uncleanliness. Thus the Prophet said, “Religion has been built on cleanliness.” This is true physically and spiritually. Allah said, “Verily the polytheists are unclean…”1 as a reminder to the mind that purity and uncleanliness are not confined to the externals which are perceived by the senses. Thus the polytheist may be physically clean and immaculately dressed yet he is inwardly unclean, i.e., his inward being reeks with impurities. Uncleanliness is a word which represents that which is avoided and from which people desire to stay away. It is more important to avoid the impurities of the heart than to avoid physical impurities because, besides their abomination in this world, the impurities of the heart are fatal in the world to come. For this reason the Prophet said, “The angels do not enter into a house where there are dogs or images”2 The heart is the house of the angels, the place on which they descend and

1.           Surah IX: 28.

2.           Al-Tirmidhi, Adab, 44: al-Darimi, lsti,dhan, 34.


in which they abide, while bad traits like anger, lust, rancour, envy, pride, conceit and the like are barking dogs. How then could the angels enter the heart when it is crowded with dogs? Besides, the light of knowledge is not made to shine upon the heart of man except through the instrumentality of the angels, and it is not possible for any man to have any communication with Allah except through revelation or through a veil or through a messenger whom Allah sends and instructs to declare His will. Similarly whatever knowledge is sent by the grace of Allah to the human heart is transmitted by the angels who have been entrusted (muwaooolun)1 with this responsibility. They are the angels who have been made holy, pure, and free from all blameworthy traits. They attend to no one but the good, and with what they possess of the mercy of Allah they reform no one but the pure.

I do not say that, in the above quoted tradition, the word house itself means heart and the word dog, anger as well as other blameworthy traits; but I do say that it is a suggestion. Thus there is a difference between ignoring the literal meaning of words in favour of an esoteric interpretation on the one hand and incidentally pointing out an esoteric significance while affirming the literal meaning on the other hand. This subtle point is exactly what distinguishes the Batinites from the true believers. This is the method of suggestion, which is the way of the learned and the righteous. For suggestion means that what has already been mentioned should also represent something else and consequently attention should be paid to both. Thus the wise man may witness a calamity befall someone besides himself and the calamity would serve as a warning to him, in that it would wake him up to the fact that he too is subject to calamities and that time is full of vicissitudes. Thus to turn one’s attention from the examination of the affairs of others to those of his own and from those of his own to the examination of the nature of the things for the sake of learning is a praiseworthy practice. Proceed, therefore, from the consideration of the house built by Allah and from the consideration of the dog which has been pronounced blameworthy, not for its physical appearance

1.      See Al-Qazwini ‘Aja-ib, pp. 62-3.


but for its inherent beastly characteristics and uncleanliness, to that of the animal spirit which is bestiality.

You should know, too, that he whose heart is saturated with anger, greed, indulgence, and readiness to slander people is actually a beast although he appears in the form of a human being. He who has keen insight regards the real meaning of things and not their form. In this world forms obscure the realities which lie within them, but in the hereafter forms will conform to realities and the latter will prevail. For this reason every individual will be resurrected according to his own spiritual reality; the slanderer will be resurrected in the form of a vicious dog; the greedy, a wild wolf, the haughty, a tiger, and the ambitious, a lion. Traditions have attested to this and the men of insight and discerning have testified to it.

You might say that many students of bad character have sought and acquired the knowledge of the sciences. That may be so, but how far they are from real knowledge which is useful in the hereafter and which insures happiness! Characteristic of that true knowledge is that even a rudimentary grasp of it would show that sin is a fatal and destructive poison. And have you ever seen anyone take anything which he knew to be fatally poisonous? As to what you hear from the sophists it is nothing but [spurious] traditions which they fabricate and repeat – it is no science at all. Ibn-Mas‘ud said, “Knowledge is not the prolific retention of traditions but a light which floods the heart.”1 Others, having in mind the words of Allah, “Such only of His servants as are possessed of knowledge fear Allah.”2 hold that knowledge is the fear of Allah. This verse evidently alludes to the choicest fruit of knowledge; and for that reason one of the scholars said that the meaning of the words, “We sought knowledge for other purposes than the glory of Allah but failed to grasp it and it remained the attribute of Allah alone,” is that knowledge has resisted our efforts to grasp it and consequently its truth was not revealed to us; all we acquired was its words and terms.

1. Cf. Hayat al-Awliya’, Vol. I, p 131.

2. Surah XXXV: 25.


Should you say that several well-learned men and jurisprudents, while characterised by blameworthy traits from which they never purified themselves, have excelled in the principles of law and applied jurisprudence and have been considered authorities thereon, my answer would be that if you had known the relative ranks of the sciences as well as the value of the science of the hereafter, you would have realized that the sciences to which they have addressed themselves are of little avail as knowledge but are of use merely as works provided they are sought as means with which to draw near to Allah. This last point has already been mentioned and will again be discussed.

The second duty of the student is to reduce to a minimum his ties with the affairs of the world and leave his kin and country because such ties occupy one’s time and divert one’s attention. Furthermore Allah has not given man two hearts and the more the mind divides its attention among several things the less able it is to comprehend the truth. For this reason it has been said, “Knowledge will surrender nothing to man unless man surrenders his all to it.” Even when you devote yourself completely to it, you cannot be sure that you will attain any of it. This mind which divides its attention among different things is like a stream the water of which flows in several directions only to be absorbed in part by the earth and in part by the air with the result that nothing is left for irrigation of planted lands.

The third duty of the student is that he should neither scorn knowledge nor exalt himself over the teacher, but rather entrust to him the conduct of his affairs and submit to his advice just as the simple patient would submit to a sympathetic and clever physician. He should humble himself before his teacher and through his service seek reward and honour. It was related by al-Sha‘bi1 that once upon a time as Zayd ibn-Thabit2 was leaving a funeral service at which he had just officiated, his mule was brought to him and as he was about

l.       Abu-‘Amr ‘Amir ibn-Sharahil (between A.H. 103 and 105 A.D. 721 and 724). See ibn-Khallikan, Vol. I, pp. 436-8.

2.      The scribe of the Prophet (ca. A.H. 54/A.D. 674). See Tahdhib al-Asma’, pp. 259-60.


to mount it ibn-‘Abbas rushed and held the stirrup for him. Thereupon Zayd said, “Oh! No! Bother not thyself O cousin of the Apostle of Allah.” lbn-‘Abbas replied, “Thus have we been charged to treat the learned and the illustrious.” To which Zayd, bending over and kissing ibn-‘Abbas’ hand, replied, “Thus have we been charged to venerate the household of our Prophet.” The Prophet also said, “It is not the habit of the believer to flatter anyone except when he is seeking knowledge.” Therefore the seeker after knowledge should not lord it over his teacher. One manifestation of such a pride is the pupil’s reluctance to heed the advice of anyone except the popular and well-known teachers.

This is foolishness itself because knowledge is the way to salvation and happiness. Besides anyone who is seeking an escape from the claws of a threatening wild lion does not mind, as long as he is saved, whether he is led to safety by a well-known celebrity or by an obscure person. The tortures which the flames of hell fire inflict upon those who are ignorant of Allah are greater than any which the lions of the jungle are capable of inflicting. Wisdom, therefore, is the aim of every believer; he siezes it wherever he finds it, and is under obligation to anyone who imparts it to him, no matter who the person may be. For this reason it has been said:

“Knowledge humbleth the haughty youth,
As the flood washeth away the hill.”

Thus knowledge is not attained except through humility and harkening. Allah said, “Lo! Herein is warning for him who hath a heart or harkeneth with his ear while he himself is an eye-witness.”1 By “him who hath a heart” is meant the person who is prepared and capable of understanding knowledge but would fail to do so unless he would open his ears and heart and would attentively, humbly, thankfully, gladly, and gratefully receive whatever he is told. Let, therefore, the pupil be to his teacher like the soft soil which has received heavy rains and completely absorbed them. Whatever the teacher should recommend to the pupil the latter should follow, putting aside his own opinion since his teacher’s faults are more

1.      Surah L: 36.


useful to him than his own right judgment because experience would reveal details which might be strange but are nevertheless very useful. Often a physician may treat a patient suffering from fever with warm applications and drinks in order to increase his resistance to withstand the shock which results from the administration of the medicine. Because of his ignorance1 the uninformed would be amazed by this treatment. Allah pointed out the possibility of such a thing through the story of al-Khidr2 and Moses where al-Khidr, addressing Moses, said, “Verily thou canst not have patience with me, how canst thou be patient in matters the meaning of which thou comprehendest not?” He then allowed Moses to follow him on condition that the latter would maintain silence and ask no questions, and said, “If you follow me, ask me not of aught until I have given thee an account thereof”3. Nevertheless Moses did not wait and persisted to query al-Khidr with the result that they had to part company. In short, be sure that every pupil, who would hold fast to his own opinion and choice in defiance to those of his teacher, is doomed to disappointment and failure.

Should you also come forth with the assertion that, whereas Allah said, “Ask ye the people who are warned by Scriptures if ye know not,”4 asking questions was ordained by Allah, you should remember that this is only so in whatever the teacher allows. On the other hand to ask about things which you are not yet competent to understand is blameworthy, and it was for this reason that al-Khidr had forbidden Moses to ask any questions. In other words do not ask questions out of the proper time and season; the teacher is better informed than you are as to things you are capable of understanding and as to the appropriate time for making them known. Similarly

1.      Also al-Khidr, see Surah XVIII:-59-81; al-Tha alibi, Qisas al-Anbiya’ ( Cairo , 1297), pp. 207-220; al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf: al-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Tafsiar al-Qur’an. See also A.J. Wensnick, art. “Al-Khidr” in Encyclopaedia of Islam.

2.      Surah XVIII: 67-7.

3.      Ibid., 69.

4.      Surah XVI: 45; XXI. 7.


unless, in anyone of the successive planes, the appropriate time of revelation is come, the time for its expectation does not arrive.1

‘Ali said, “Among the obligations which you owe the learned man are: not to pester him with too many questions nor expect him to reply to all your inquiries; not to be importunate when he seems lazy nor attempt to detain him when he starts to go away; and finally not to divulge his secrets nor to tell tales about other people in his presence. Furthermore do not seek to trap him; whenever he commits a mistake be ready to excuse him. In obedience to Allah it is your duty to respect and honour him as long as he himself continues to obey Allah. Remain standing in his presence and whenever he needs something be the first to wait on him.”

The fourth duty is that the student should at first pay no attention to the numerous differences of opinion which exist among people, whether in the secular sciences or in the sciences of the hereafter, because they would confuse and perplex his mind, cool his enthusiasm and cause him to despair of ever comprehending or learning anything. Rather he should first master the one and only praiseworthy way which is satisfactory to his teacher and then attend to the other schools of thought and questionable ideas. He should be on the look out to see if his teacher is not capable of reaching independent opinions but is in the habit of repeating the opinions of the different schools and the comments which have been made concerning them, because the influence of such a teacher is more misleading than it is helpful. One blind is not fit to lead the blind and guide them.2 Anyone of his description is still in the darkness of perplexity and the wilderness of ignorance. Furthermore isolating the novice against questionable ideas is like segregating the newly converted Muslim from the unbelievers; while selecting the

1.      Mystics hold Allah reveals Himself in five planes: (1) the plane of the Essence, (2) the plane of the Attributes, (3) the plane of the Actions, (4) the plane of Similitudes and Phantasy, and (5) the plane of sense and ocular vision. Each of these is a copy of the one above it, so that whatever appears in the sensible world is the symbol of an unseen reality.

2. Cf. Luke VI: 39; Matt. XV: 1,4.


experienced to dabble with and examine the different conflicting opinions is like urging the man whose faith is firmly established to mix with the unbelievers. For the same reason the faint-hearted are not allowed to attack the lines of the unbelievers but the task is delegated to the brave. Forgetting this subtle difference, some of the feeble-minded have thought that it was permissible to emulate the strong-minded in some of the lenient attitudes which they have taken towards certain questions, failing thereby to realize that the responsibilities of the strong differ from those of the weak. In this connexion someone said, “Whoever should see me at the beginning of my journey would become righteous (siddiq), but whoever should see me at the end would become unrighteous (zindiq), because at the end the acts of worship would be performed inwardly, and the senses would be rendered passive except in the fulfilment of the ordained duties. Then it would seem to the observers that the travellers were indolent, lazy, and negligent.” But how far from the truth this is because the end is the state wherein the heart basks in the light of Presence, seeing Him face to face, and invoking His name constanally which is forever the best form of worship. For the feeble-minded to imitate the strong-minded in things which are clearly wrong is like his throwing a little refuse into a pitcher of water and justifying himself by pointing out several times more dirt is being continually dumped into the sea which is greater than the pitcher.1 He then says that what is permissible in the case of the sea is still the more permissible in that of the pitcher .2 But the poor fellow does not realize that, because of its enormity, the sea decomposes all refuse into water and consequently every uncleanliness, through the prevalence of the waters, is made, like the sea, clean. But a little refuse in the pitcher prevails over its contents of water and m. He was thus permitted to have nine wives, because he had enough vitality to enable him to deal justly with them despite their number. Others besides him would not be able to be even partially just with their wives, with the result that jealousy would develop among them and akes it, like itself, unclean. For a similar reason the Prophet was allowed what was forbidden to others

1.      John IV: 23-3.

2.      Cf. al-Bukhari, Nikah, 4.


finally would drive the men, in their efforts to please, to trespass against Allah. He who would compare angels with blacksmiths would not succeed.

The fifth duty is that the seeker after knowledge should not allow any branch or kind of praiseworthy knowledge to escape him without carefully examining it in order to become familiar with its aims and purposes, and should time permit, he should take it up in detail; otherwise he should address himself to and master the most important, while acquainting himself with the rest, because the different branches of knowledge are both supplementary to one another and closely inter-related. Besides one of the immediate benefits of such acquaintance is that the student will no longer persist in his hostility to branches of knowledge other than his own – a hostility born of ignorance because, ordinarily, men are the enemies of the thing they do not know. Said Allah, “And not having submitted to guidance, they proceed to say, ‘It is an age-long lie.’1 The poet said:

“Fresh water in the mouth of the sick seems bitter.”2

Knowledge, whether lower or higher, either leads men to Allah or helps them a little on their way. In this respect it is classified in relation to its ability to draw them nearer to their goal, [namely Allah], or how far it can send them away from that goal. Those who take up these branches of knowledge are like the guards who patrol the frontiers and outposts – each has his own rank, and according to that rank he has a reward in the hereafter, provided he had thereby sought the face of Allah.

The sixth duty is that the student should not address himself at the same time to every branch of knowledge, but should rather observe some kind of order and begin with the most important, especially since life is ordinarily too short to enable a person to pursue all the branches of knowledge. It is therefore wise to acquire

1.      Surah XLVI:10.

2.      This verse is by al-Mutanabbi; see his Diwan, ed, S. 1. Sadir ( Beirut , 1900), p.116,1, 11.


the best of everything, satisfying oneself, so to speak, with the mere tasting of it while directing whatever power one has left, after having obtained all available knowledge, towards mastering that noblest of all sciences, the science of the hereafter including the science of practical religion, as well as the science of revelation. The goal of the science of practical religion is revelation and the goal of revelation is to know Allah. By this I do not mean the creed which the common folk receive from their parents or accept on the authority of others, nor the rules of dialectics and argumentation in defence of one’s position against the devious attacks of adversaries which is the aim of the theologians. What I mean is a form of conviction, which is the result of a light with which Allah floods the heart of a servant who, through self-mortification, has purified his soul from all impurities until he has attained to the measures of abu-Bakr’s faith which, as the Lord of creation testified, would outweigh the faith of all the world if it were ever compared with it.

I do not believe that the layman’s belief, systematized by the theologian whose profession – because he excelled the layman in the art of stringing words together – was called the science of words (kalam),was beyond the ability of ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, and the rest of Companions. But abu-Bakr excelled them all by virtue of the secret which rested in his bosom. It is, moreover, strange that a person, who had heard such sayings from the Prophet, should despise and dismiss similar sayings claiming that they were Sufi drivel and consequently unreasonable. You should, therefore, be careful, otherwise you would lose your capital. Work hard to possess that secret which is not found in the paraphernalia of the jurisprudents and theologians, and which you cannot attain except through your diligent search.

In short the noblest and the highest of all sciences is to know Allah. This science is like a sea the depth of which cannot be determined. In this science the highest rank is that of the prophets, then that of the saints and finally those that follow. It has been related that the portraits of two of the ancient wise men were seen on the wall of a certain mosque. In the one portrait one of the two wise men holds


in the hand a scroll on which is written, “When you have done everything well, think not that you have fulfilled all until you have come to know Allah and to know that He is the Cause of all causes and the Creator of all things.” In the other portrait the second wise man also holds a scroll on which is written, “Before I had known Allah I was wont to drink and thirst again; but when I have known Him my thirst was quenched without any drinking.”1

The seventh2 duty is that no one should address himself to one branch of knowledge before he has already mastered the branch which precedes it because science is of necessity so arranged that one branch prepares for another and one branch leads to another. Only the person who would observe this order would succeed. Allah said, “Those to whom We have given the Book, they read it as it ought to be read.”3 In other words they do not leave a single branch of knowledge until they have mastered it in theory and in practice. Furthermore, in every branch of knowledge which the student may pursue, his aim should be the one above. Nor should he ever declare a certain science useless because its protagonists disagree among themselves, or because of the error of one or more among them, or because with their actions they violate the ordinances of their own science. Thus you find some who have relinquished the philosophical and theological sciences excusing themselves on the grounds that if these sciences had any truth in them they would have been comprehended by their protagonists. (These fallacies have been exposed in the Mi‘yar al-Ilm).4 Others believe that the medical science is false because of an error they have seen committed by a physician. Another group believes in the authenticity of astrology because a single prediction involving a certain person turned out right while others disbelieve it because in another case the prediction was faulty. All are wrong, however. Each case should be determined separately, as not every branch of knowledge can be independently mastered by every person. For this reason ‘Ali said, “Accept no truth

1.      Cf. John IV: 7-14.

2.      The seventh duty is found only in C and the margin of SM while lacking in B and the text of SM.

3.      Surah II:115.

4.      By the author, printed in Cairo , A.H. 1329.


because of the men who hold it but first find the truth and thou shalt know who are its real protagonists.”

The eighth duty is to know how to ascertain the noble nature of this or the other science. By this is meant two things; the nobility of its fruit and the authenticity of its principles. Take for example the science of religion and medicine. The fruit of the one is eternal life and the fruit of the other is the physical life; consequently the science of religion is the nobler; or again the science of arithmetic and astrology: the former is the nobler because of the firmer and more authentic foundations of its principles. If on the other hand arithmetic should be compared with medicine the latter would be the nobler with respect to its fruit while with respect to its principles arithmetic would be the nobler. The fruit, however, has the priority. For this reason medicine, although mostly guess work, is nobler. Similarly it becomes evident that the noblest of all sciences is the science of knowing Allah, His angels, Books and apostles as well as that of knowing the path which leads to these sciences. Seek, therefore, nothing else and treasure nothing besides.

The ninth duty is that the student’s purpose should, at the time, be the adornment and beautification of his inner self with virtue, and at the end, nearness of Allah and ascent to the neighbourhood of the heavenly hosts, the angels and the cherubim. His aim should not be the attainment of authority or influence nor contention with foolish men and boasting before his peers. But if his aim was to draw near to Allah he would inevitably seek that which was closest to it, namely the science of the hereafter. Nevertheless he should not look with contempt upon the other sciences such as the sciences of jurisprudence, the sciences of syntax and grammar which are connected with the Qur’an and the sunnah, and other sciences like those already mentioned in connexion with the auxiliary and supplementary sciences1 discussed under those sciences the acquisition of which is fard kifayah.

You should not, however gather from our enthusiastic praise

1.      See supra, p. 39.


of the science of the hereafter that we seek to disparage the other sciences. On the contrary those who have undertaken to study them are like those who have undertaken to guard the outpost of Islam where they are encamped, or like the conquerors who are warring on behalf of Allah. Of them some are active fighters, others are on the reserve, others are in charge of the water supply, while others look after the mounts; but all will receive their reward if their aim is the glory of the word of Allah rather than the possession of spoils. Allah said, “Allah will raise those of you who believe, and those to whom knowledge has been given, to loftier ranks.”1 And again referring to those who have followed His good pleasure, “there are (varying) grades with Allah.”2 Virtue is relative and our scorn for the money changers when we compare them with royalty does not mean that they are contemptible when compared with the street cleaners. Do not think, therefore, that whatever falls short of the highest rank is worthless. For the highest rank belongs to the prophets, followed by that of the saints, then that of the learned men who are well versed in knowledge, and finally the righteous according to their ranks. In short “whosoever shall have wrought an atom’s weight of good shall behold it; and whosoever shall have wrought an atom’s weight of evil shall behold it.”3 Whosoever will seek Allah through knowledge, no matter what kind, he is sure to profit and advance.

The tenth duty of the student is that he should know the relation of the different sciences to the goal so that he might not attach more importance to closeby, inconsequential matters than to remote but important things. The word important signifies anything which is of import to you; and nothing is of any import save your fate in this world and the next. But since, as said in the Qur’an and attested by insight and experience, it is not possible to enjoy both the pleasures of this world and the bliss of the next, it is more important to concern oneself with those things which will endure forever. Then will this world become a temporary abode, the body a vehicle, and works the power which will ‘propel’ it to the goal. Furthermore, there is no goal

1.      Surah LVIII: 12

2.      Surah III: 157

3.      Surah XCIX: 7-8


except meeting Allah; and, despite the fact that very few in this world do realize its significance, in its achievement lies all bliss.

As related to the happiness attending meeting Allah seeing His glorious face, which the prophets understood and sought but both laymen and theologians have failed to grasp, the sciences are of three grades. These grades can be understood by comparison with the following illustration. The slave whose freedom as well as the right to hold property are dependent upon performing the pilgrimage has been told that if he would perform the pilgrimage he would receive both his freedom and the right to hold property; but if he had made his preparations and actually set out, then for some unavoidable reason was detained on the way, he would receive his freedom only, thereby escaping the wretchedness of slavery, but would fail to enjoy the right to hold property. To accomplish all that he has to do three things: First, the preparation of the means of travel of buying a she-camel and a water-skin, and by packing the provisions and fitting out the mount. Second, setting out on the journey to the K‘abah and leaving behind home and kin. Third the fulfilment of the ceremonials of the pilgrimage one after the other. Then after he had fulfilled all obligations and discarded the habit of pilgrimage (hay‘at al-ihram), having already performed the farewell circumambulation (tawaf al-wida) of the K’abah, he would qualify for freedom and the right to hold property. To every stage in the journey there is a corresponding rank: one for the preparation for the journey, another for setting out on the journey and crossing deserts, and third for performing the duties of the pilgrimage. Thus he who has already begun to carry out the duties of the pilgrimage is closer to happiness than either he who is still occupied in packing the provisions and fitting out the mount or he who has just embarked on the journey.

Similarly the science are of three kinds: One corresponds to the packing of the provisions, the fitting out of the mount, and the purchase of the she-camel; it is science of medicine and jurisprudence and whatever pertains to the physical welfare of the body. Another corresponds to travelling in the desert and surmounting obstacles; it is the purification of the inner being from impure qualities as well as


surmounting those enormous obstacles against which both the ancients and the moderns have failed, and over which only those favoured by Allah have prevailed. This is following the way the acquisition of the knowledge of which is like the acquisition of the knowledge of the directions of the different desert routes and the encampments along the way. And just as the knowledge of the location of these encampments and acquaintance with the desert routes is useless without actually crossing them, so is the science of ethics useless without practice. Yet practice without knowledge is not possible. A third corresponds to the pilgrimage and its duties; it is the science of knowing Allah, His attributes, angels, and works as well as that we have mentioned in the survey of the science of revelation. In it is salvation and attainment of happiness. Salvation will be the lot of any follower of the path provided his aim be the true goal which is safety. The attainment of happiness, however, is not achieved except by the gnostics who know Allah and are close to Him, who are given to enjoy in His neighbourhood happiness, bounty and a garden of bliss. But to those who fall short of the full measure of perfection, only salvation and peace are given. This is in accordance to the words of Allah when He said, “But as to him who shall enjoy near access to Allah, his shall be happiness, bounty and a garden of bliss. But as to him who shall be of those of the right hand, his shall be (the greeting) –‘Peace to thee’ – from those of the right hand.”1

Anyone who does not proceed on the path which leads to Allah nor set out on (the journey), or anyone who does set out, not because of obedience or devotion, but for expedience, belongs to those of the left who have gone astray, and his shall be, “an abode of scalding water and brolling of hell-fire.”2

You should know, therefore, that this according to the learned, men who were well-versed in the science of religion, is the “certain truth”3 a truth which they have perceived inwardly through contemplation(mushahadah). This contemplation is more real and clearer than seeing with the eye. In it they rose above the stage of

1.      Surah LVI; 87-90.

2.      Ibid: 93-94.

3.      Ibid: 95.


accepting truth on authority. They are like those who having heard, believed, then having seen for themselves were confirmed in their belief. The others are like those who accept truth and belief without enjoying either contemplation or the opportunity of seeing with their own eyes. Happiness lies beyond the science of revelation which in turn comes after the science of practical religion, the last being the following of the path of the hereafter. Overcoming the frailties of human nature as well as doing away with its blameworthy elements is possible only after mastering the science of human nature. The science of therapeutics and its administration depend upon the science of hygiene. The promotion of the conditions of health and hygiene by united action, mutual help and co-operation through which clothing, as well as the means of livelihood and lodging are secured, is entrusted to the magistrates, while the principles in accordance with which it is carried out for conducting human affairs in the spirit of justice and good government are in the domain of the jurisprudent. On the other hand the condition of health pertains to the physician. Thus anyone who says that science is divided into two parts – the science of the bodies (i.e. medicine) and the science of religion and means by the latter jurisprudence, has in mind the common exoteric sciences rather than the specialized esoteric studies.

Should you ask why have I likened medicine and jurisprudence to the packing of the provisions and the fitting out of the mount, then know that that which seeks to press towards Allah in order to attain a place in His neighbourhood is the heart and not the body. And by the heart I do not mean the palpable matter of flesh but one of the mysteries (sing. sirr) of Allah which the bodily senses fail to perceive; a spiritual substance (latifah) from Allah, sometimes indicated by the word spirit (ruh) and at times by the calm soul (al-nafs al-mutma innah). In law it is referred to as the heart (al-qalb) because it is the primary vehicle for that mystery (sirr), and through it the whole body becomes a vehicle and an instrument for that spiritual substance (latifah). To remove the veil from that belongs to the science of revelation, a science withheld from men, and its discussion is proscribed. The limit to which it is permissible to go in its discussion is to say that it is a precious jewel and a pearl of


inestimable worth, more excellent than all material objects. It is a divine commandment as Allah Himself explained when He said, “And they will ask thee of the Spirit. Say: The Spirit (proceedeth) from the command of my Lord.”1 All created things stand in relation to Allah but the relation (of the heart) is of nobler character than that of any of the other organs. To Allah belong both “the creation and the command,”2 but the latter is the greater. This is the precious jewel which contains the trust of Allah and which antedates the Heavens and the Earth and the mountains, since when it was offered to them they refused its burden and feared to receive it3 because of the world of dominion (‘alam al-amr) i.e., the attributes of Allah. This should not be taken to mean that the (spirits) are eternal, as he who holds that the spirits are eternal is a blind fool who does not know what he says. Because this is beyond the scope of our subject let us desist from its discussion. What is intended here is to show that this spiritual substance(latifah) is the driving force which presses toward Allah, because it has proceeded from the command of the Lord. It came from Allah and to Allah it returns.

As to the body it is only the vehicle which that spiritual substance occupied and through which it accomplishes its work. The body serves the same purpose for it on the path of Allah as the she-camel does for a man on the pilgrim route; or like the water-skin in which is stored the water which the body needs. Thus every science the aim of which is the welfare of the body is a contributor to the welfare of the vehicle of the spiritual substance. It is evident that medicine is one of these sciences because it is necessary for the preservation of health. Even if the individual were living by himself he would be in need of the science of medicine. Jurisprudence, however, differs from medicine in that it may be dispensed with by the individual if he were living by himself. But man has been created in a way which makes it impossible for him to live all alone since he is unable to secure his food and livelihood through tilling, farming, bread-making, and cooking as well as manufacturing clothes, building

1.      Surah XVII: 87.

2.      Surah VII: 52

3.      Cf. Surah: XXXIII: 72.


houses or constructing tools for all these activities. Man was, therefore, compelled to lead an agrarian life of co-operation. But no matter how much people mix with one another their ambitions are aroused and consequently they compete for the satisfaction of their desires, and contend and struggle for their fulfilment. From their struggle would result their destruction because of the external disharmony in the body politic just as it would result from internal disturbances in their physical bodies whenever the harmony between the humours is lacking. Through medicine the harmony between the opposing humours within the body is maintained and through politics and justice the harmony between the contending elements in the body politic is preserved. The science of how to maintain harmony between the humours is medicine, and the science of how to preserve harmony among men in their affairs and transactions is jurisprudence. Both of these, whether medicine or jurisprudence, are for the preservation of the body which is the vehicle of the spirit. The person who devotes himself to the study of either medicine or jurisprudence, unless he mortifies his body and reforms his heart, is like the person who purchases the she-camel and its feed as well as the water-skin (in preparation for the pilgrimage) but never does set out. And he who spends his life over the niceties of words which occur in the course of the debates of jurisprudence is like him who spends his life tracing the minute fibres of the strings with which the water-skin that the pilgrim carries is sewn together. The relation of the former, of the followers of the path of reforming the heart which leads to the science of revelation is like the relation of the latter to those who go forward along the pilgrimage route or those who perform its duties.

Think therefore of these things and then accept this free advice from one who has accomplished these things but only achieved them after a great struggle and a brave effort to break away from the established tradition of men, the common folk and the elite, which tradition is based on ambition and lust.


Man occupies four states in relation to knowledge similar to


the four states he occupies in relation to money. One state is that of the acquisitiveness of the financial lord, in which case he would be seeking; another is that of possession which would eliminate the necessity of asking for help; another is that of spending his money on himself, in which case he would be indulging in the luxuries it affords; and finally there is the state of spending his money on others, in which case he would be a generous philanthropist. This last state is the noblest.

So also is it with regard to knowledge. First, there is the state of seeking knowledge in which man is acquisitive: another is that of having knowledge in which state he would not need to inquire of others; a third state is that of reflection wherein he would contemplate and enjoy his achievement; and last, there is the state of teaching wherein he imparts his knowledge to others. This last state is the noblest.

“Thus he who has knowledge and shall do and teach the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”1 – In this state the teacher is like the sun, which being itself luminous, sheds light; or like the musk which being itself fragrant, makes other objects fragrant. On the other hand he who possesses knowledge but does not practise it is like a notebook, which itself being unintelligent, nevertheless serves as a medium of transmission of the knowledge that its pages contain; or like the whetstone, which, itself being blunt, sharpens the razor; or like the needle, which while it remains naked, serves in making clothing for others; or like the wick of a lamp which bums itself out in giving light for others. A poet said:

“A glowing wick is he
Who gives his light and dies.”

Whoever takes up teaching for a profession takes upon himself a great mission and a grave responsibility. He should, therefore, observe its proprieties and fulfil its duties. The following are these duties.

1.      See supra, p. 21


The first duty of the teacher is to be sympathetic to students and treat them as his own children. The Prophet said, “I am to you like a father who desires to save his child from the fires of hell, which is more important than any of the efforts of parents to save their children from the fires of the earth.”1 For this reason the rights of the teacher have become greater than the rights of the parents. The parents are the cause of the children’s present existence in this mortal life, while the teacher is the cause of their immortal life. Without him that which has been brought into existence through the parents would be doomed to eternal destruction. Only the teacher is of service for the eternal life in the next world. By teacher I mean the teacher of the sciences of the hereafter or the science of this world, whose goal, in all his work, is bliss in the hereafter and not success in this world. Teaching with a view to achieving success in this world is destruction for both the teacher and the student. From such destruction we seek refuge with Allah.

Just as it is the duty of the children of one father to love one another and co-operate in achieving all their common goals so it is also the duty of the students of one teacher to love and cherish one another. This is not possible unless the hereafter is their goal; but if this world is their aim, jealousy and hatred will plague them.

The learned men and the children of the hereafter are travellers journeying to Allah, and starting from this world they follow the path to Him. The years and the months are only stations on the path. If friendship and love are fostered by companionship along the road among travellers journeying to different countries, how much more should they be fostered by companionship along the path to Paradise !

Since there will be no scarcity of happiness in the hereafter, there will be no struggle among its children; but whereas there is no abundance of pleasures in this world, men persist in struggle and competition. Those who seek to attain position of authority through knowledge exclude themselves from the company of those whom Allah meant when He said, “Verily the believers are brethren,”2 and

1.      Cf. ibn-Hanbal, Taharah,121: abu-Dawud, Taharah, 4.

2.      Surah XLIX:10.


include themselves among those of whom Allah said, “Friends on that day shall become foes to one another, except the Allah-fearing”1

The second duty of the teacher is to follow the example of the Law-giver: he should seek no remuneration for his services on behalf of knowledge and accept neither reward nor thanks. Rather he should impart his knowledge free for the glory of Allah and for the sake of drawing near to Him. He should not feel that his students are under any obligation to Him although the feeling of obligation is incumbent upon them. He should give them credit for disciplining their hearts with knowledge in order to draw near to Allah. Thus, when someone lends you a lot of land so that you can exploit it for yourself by planting it. The benefits you reap are greater than those of the owner of the land. Would you then feel that he was under any obligation to you? Similarly, in teaching, your compensation is greater than that of the student, and without him you would not have attained it. Therefore, look for no reward except from Allah Who said in His Book, “Oh my people, I ask you not for riches: my reward is of Allah alone.”2 Riches as well as everything in the world are servants of the body while the body is the vehicle of the soul which, in turn, is in the service of knowledge with which it is honoured. Therefore anyone who would seek riches through knowledge is like the person who, in order to clean the soles of his shoes, would wipe them against his face, reducing thereby the master into a servant, and making of the slave, a lord. This is what is meant by falling headlong and is exactly like the fate of the criminals on the day of judgment when they “shall droop their heads before their Lord.”3 In short, to the teacher belong the honour and the credit. Nevertheless see how the affairs of religion have fallen into the hands of men who claim that their sole aim, in pursuing the sciences of jurisprudence and theology and in teaching these two and other sciences besides, is to draw near unto Allah, yet they sacrifice their riches and rank, and suffer great humiliations in the service of rulers in order to gain their favours. Were these men

1. Surah XLIII: 67

2. Surah XI: 31; B and text of SM have Surah XLII: 22 instead.

3.      Cf Surah XXXII:12.


to turn away from such practices they would be ignored and no one would turn to them for advice.

Furthermore the teacher often expects the student to follow him in everything, and to back his supporters, fight his adversaries, rise publicly to perform his demands, and to wait upon him in all his needs. If the student fails to fulfil all these expectations the teacher will turn against him and become one of his most virulent enemies. How despicable is the learned man who is not only content with such a position but is also proud of it, and is not ashamed to say that his aim in taking up teaching is to spread knowledge for the sake of drawing near unto Allah and for defending His religion! But you have only to look at the record in order to see the hypocrisy and the deception of it all.

The third duty of the teacher is that he should not withhold from the student any advice, or allow him to attempt the work of any grade unless he is qualified for it, or permit him to address himself to abstruse sciences before he has mastered those which are clear. He should also point out to him that the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to draw near unto Allah rather than power, boasting, and competition, and should, in the strongest possible way, condemn any such things in his students.

The harm which the unrighteous learned man does is greater than the good. If the teacher notices that the student is seeking knowledge only for the sake of worldly advantages, he should examine what sciences the student is pursuing. If he finds that these sciences are those of disputation in jurisprudence, argument in theology, and handing down opinions in controversies and legal disputes, then he should dissuade him from them because they do not belong either to the sciences of the hereafter or to those which have already been described as sciences which we learn for a purpose other than the service of Allah but turn out to be for that same purpose, the most useful. These include the sciences of interpretation and tradition as well as those branches of knowledge to which the ancients


addressed themselves in connexion with the science of the hereafter and the science of the characteristics of the soul together with the manner of their reform. If the student had learnt these things with the intention of seeking the world with his learning he had better be let alone because, although he had addressed himself to them in the hope of becoming a preacher and gaining a following, he would, in the course of his work, wake up to the fact that in them lie those sciences which are conducive to the fear of Allah and which belittle the world and glorify the hereafter. This may finally lead the student to the right path and he would then observe what he preaches to others. The desire to be popular and influential are to man like the grains which are scattered around the trap in order to snare catch the birds. The same thing has been done by Allah in connexion with man: He created sexual desire in order to ensure procreation and the survival of the race. He also created ambition as a means for perpetuating knowledge, a thing highly desirable in these sciences. But to devote one’s life to sheer controversies, theological argumentations, and unusual details while ignoring other studies promotes, in all except those to whom Allah has shown mercy or those who have taken up other religious sciences as well, nothing but hardening in the heart, negligence toward Allah, excess in iniquity, and inordinance in striving for power. There is no better proof for this than personal experience and observation. Therefore look, learn, and think so that you might witness the realization of this fact by men all over the world. Truly Allah is the source of our help.

It has been related that Sufyan al-Thawri was once seen in a sad mood and was, therefore, asked, ‘Why are you sad?’ To which he replied. “We have become a traffic for the children of this world. One after another would attach himself to us until he had acquired a measure of learning; whereupon he would be appointed a judge, or a governor, or a mayor of the place (qahraman).”

The fourth duty which is one of the finer points of the profession of teaching is that the teacher, in dissuading the student from his evil ways, should do so by suggestion rather than openly,


and with sympathy rather than with odious upbraiding. Open dissuasion destroys the veil of awe, invites defiance, and encourages stubbornness. The Prophet, who is the guide of every teacher, said in this connexion, “If men had been forbidden to make porridge of camels’ dung, they would have done it, saying that they would not have been forbidden to do it unless there had been some good in it.” The same principle is brought out in the story of Adam and Eve and the prohibition imposed upon them.1 This stony has not been related as a night entertainment but as an example and a reminder. Such allusions and suggestions invite men of noble souls and discerning minds to attempt to elicit their import, and the pleasure of grasping their meaning results in a greater desire on the part of man for learning in order to show that such things are not beyond the capacity of his intellect.

The fifth duty is that the person who is teaching a certain science should not belittle or disparage the value of other sciences before his students. Thus it is customary for the teacher of language to disparage jurisprudence and the teacher of jurisprudence to slight the sciences of tradition and interpretation saying that they are nothing but stories and narratives similar to those of old women and that there is no room in them for intellect or reason. The teacher of theology is in the habit of avoiding jurisprudence and saying that it is nothing but hair-splitting and disputations and menstruation and, therefore, should not be compared with theology – the study of the attributes of Allah.

Such traits are blameworthy and reprehensible in teachers, and should be avoided. In fact the teacher of one science should prepare the student for the study of other subjects, and whenever he is responsible for the teaching of more than one subject, he should observe the rules of gradual progress in promoting his students from one grade to another.

The sixty duty, of the teacher is that he should limit the student to what the latter is able to understand and should not require of him

1.      Cf. Surah, II: 33; VII: 18-9, Gen. 2:16-7.


anything which his mind cannot grasp for fear that he would develop a feeling of dislike for the subject, and his mind would become confused. In this the teacher should follow the example of the lord of men who said, “We prophets have been commanded to give every man his rightful place and to communicate with everyone according to his own ability to understand.”1 Therefore let the teacher impart the truth to his student if he is sure that the latter is able to understand it. The Prophet said, “No one ever relates a tradition to a people which is beyond their minds to understand without being the cause of perplexity to some of them.”2 ‘Ali, pointing to his breast, said, “Herein lies much knowledge. Would that there were some to comprehend and transmit it?” He was right in his assertion because the hearts of the righteous are the vaults of divine mysteries. Therefore the learned man should not divulge all his knowledge to any one indiscriminately, especially when the student, who may be able to understand that knowledge, is not capable of making use of it, and still less when the student does not understand it.

Jesus said, ‘Do not hang pearls around the neck of a swine.’3 But wisdom is better than pearls and he who abhors it is worse than a swine. For this reason it has been said, “In order to be safe from his hand and useful to him deal with every person with the measure of his own intellect and mete out into him with the scale of his own mind. Otherwise, because of the disparity between the measure and the mind, your efforts will result in failure.”

A certain learned man was once asked about something but he gave no answer. Then his questioner said to him, “Have you not heard that the Apostle of Allah said, ‘Whoever will conceal any useful knowledge will, on the day of resurrection, be bridled with a bit of fire’.” The learned man replied, “You may leave the bit here and go. Then if anyone who understands comes and I still conceal that useful knowledge from him, let Allah bridle me with that bit of fire.” Did not Allah say, “Do not give to the fools your substance,” 4 as a warning

1.      For first part of tradition cf. Muslim, Intro.; second part unidentified.

2.      Cf. Muslim, Intro.

3.      Cf. Matt. 7:6.

4.      Surah, IV: 4.


that the safeguarding of knowledge from those who might corrupt it is more important than imparting it. Similarly to give to those who are not in need is not a lesser offence than withholding help from those who are in need.

Shall pearls be giv’n to herders of the sheep,

Shall wealth be trusted to their rustic keep?

They would not comprehend nor know its worth,

To give them would be adorning beasts.

But Allah is kind if by His grace He sends

One worthy of my knowledge, of my wit,

To him my goods I’ll give and gain his love;

Until such time I will withhold my gifts –

One’s learning would be wasted upon fools;

And he doth sin who from the worthy keeps.

The seventh duty is that the teacher should give his backward students only such things as are clear and suitable to their limited understanding and should not mention to them anything about the details that are apt to follow but which he deems fitting for the present to withhold. Such a course would discourage the students and make their interest even in easy subjects, lukewarm, perplex them in their minds and make them think that the real reason for the teacher’s reluctance to impart to them those details is his illiberality, especially because everyone usually, believes himself capable of mastering every science no matter how complex. Thus there is no one who is not satisfied with Allah for the perfect mind He gave him. Even the most foolish and most feeble minded among men is usually the most pleased with the perfection of his mind. For this reason any one of the common folk who is law-abiding and in whose heart the articles of faith, which have come down to him from his forbears, and unequivocally and unqualifiedly established, and his conduct is good but his mind is not capable of anything beyond that, such a person should not be confused in his belief. On the contrary he should be let alone because if he were confronted with the esoteric interpretations of externals he would relinquish his standing as a layman without attaining the status of an educated man. Then will the obstacles which


have hitherto deterred him from evil crumble and he will be transformed into a rebellious devil who will destroy both himself and others. In fact laymen should not be bothered with discussion on the realities which underlie complex sciences but rather should be confined to instruction in the acts of worship (‘ibadat) and honesty in carrying out their respective professions. Their hearts should be filled with yearning forParadise and fear of Hell-fire as the Qur’an has ordained. They should not be confused with questionable ideas for fear that such ideas strike root in their hearts with the result that it becomes difficult for them to free themselves from such errors and consequently fall victims to misery and destruction. In short the door of controversy and discussion should not be opened to the laymen because it will interfere with their professions on which the welfare of the world as well as the continued happiness of the elite depends.

The eighth duty is that the teacher do what he teaches and not allow his works to give the lie to his words, because knowledge is comprehended through the mind while works through the eyes. But those who see with their eyes are more than those who perceive with their minds and therefore when practice contradicts theory righteousness is frustrated. And again whenever a person partakes of something and warns others not to touch it because it is a deadly poison, he makes himself a laughing stock to men and lays himself open to their accusations and, what is still worse, he makes them more anxious to try what they have been forbidden to do, saying that had it not been the sweetest and the most delicious of all things, he would not have kept it exclusively for himself. The relation of the guide to those who seek his guidance is like the relation of the stamp to the clay and like that of the shadow of the cane to the cane itself. How then could the clay be stamped with a stamp that bears no character and how could the shadow of the cane be straight if the cane itself were crooked? The following verse conveys the same meaning:

If thou condemn a sin and then commit

The same transgression, shame upon thy head.

Allah also said, “Will ye enjoin what is right upon others, and forget yourselves?”1

For this reason the learned man’s responsibility for his sins is greater than that of the ignorant especially because many will follow the learned man’s example and will be misled through his faults. And whoever establishes an evil precedent shoulders responsibility for that precedent and for the sins of those who might follow its example. ‘Ali said, “Two men have broken my back [with the weight of their sins]: a debauched learned man and an ascetical ignorant one. The former misleads men through his debauchery and the latter through his asceticism.”

1. Surah, II:  41

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