Good character comes before knowledge of Islamic sciences

April 5, 2016

Seek knowledge humility Umar ibn al-Khattab

By Abu Amina Elias

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Good character, morals, and manners are the heart of Islam. All of the Islamic sciences are directed towards refining people’s inward and outward behavior and their relationship with Allah and humanity at large. Ethics is its own science in Islam and, in reality, is the most important science to precede all other advanced fields of knowledge.

It has been established from the Prophet and his companions that the transmission of ethical knowledge is an essential objective of the religion of Islam.

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

إِنَّمَا بُعِثْتُ لِأُتَمِّمَ صَالِحَ الْأَخْلَاقِ

Verily, I have only been sent to perfect righteous character.

Source: Musnad Aḥmad 8729, Grade: Sahih

Ad-Dahhak, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

السَّيِّدُ الْحَسَنُ الْخُلُقِ

The head of the matter is good character.

Source: Makārim al-Akhlāq lil-Kharā’iṭī 524

Hence, every rule, concept, and practice in Islam is meant to ultimately affect our inward and outward behavior.

Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:

الدِّينُ كُلُّهُ خُلُقٌ فَمَنْ زَادَ عَلَيْكَ فِي الْخُلُقِ زَادَ عَلَيْكَ فِي الدِّينِ

The religion itself is entirely good character, so whoever surpasses you in character has surpassed you in religion.

Source: Madārij al-Sālikīn 2/294

And Ash-Shatibi writes:

وَالشَّرِيعَةُ كُلُّهَا إِنَّمَا هِيَ تَخَلُّقٌ بمكارمِ الْأَخْلَاقِ

The Sharia in its entirety only creates noble morals.

Source: al-Muwāfaqāt 2/124

The companions understood that ethics is a science distinguished but integral to other Islamic sciences. They encouraged their students and the Muslims as a whole to seek knowledge while at the same time learning good character and manners.

Imran ibn Muslim reported: Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

تَعَلَّمُوا الْعِلْمَ وَعَلِّمُوهُ النَّاسَ وَتَعَلَّمُوا لَهُ الْوَقَارَ وَالسَّكِينَةَ وَتَوَاضَعُوا لِمَنْ يُعَلِّمُكُمْ عِنْدَ الْعِلْمِ وَتَوَاضَعُوا لِمَنْ تُعَلِّمُوهُ الْعِلْمَ وَلا تَكُونُوا جَبَابِرَةَ الْعُلَمَاءِ فَلا يَقُومُ عِلْمُكُمْ بِجَهْلِكُمْ

Acquire knowledge and teach people. Learn along with it dignity and tranquility and humility for those who teach you and humility for those whom you teach. Do not be tyrannical scholars and thus base your knowledge upon your ignorance.

Source: Shu’b al-Imān 1650, Grade: Sahih

Good character and manners is not something that comes without effort. Just as we study large books of commentary on the Quran and Sunnah, likewise we need to study ethics and etiquette.

Raja’ ibn Haywah reported: Abu Darda, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

إِنَّمَا الْعِلْمُ بِالتَّعَلُّمِ وَإِنَّمَا الْحِلْمُ بِالتَّحَلُّمِ

Verily, knowledge only comes by learning and forbearance only comes by cultivating forbearance.

Source: Rawḍat al-ʻUqalā 100, Grade: Sahih

Character and manners are actually two side of the same coin, two aspects of single ethical reality. Character (al-akhlāq) are the qualities that reside in the heart,[1] and manners (al-adab) are the outward behavior that people manifest.[2] In other words, good manners is the result of good character. As such, we need to learn about the methods of achieving a pure heart and the social behavior that should follow it.

Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:

وَحَقِيقَةُ الْأَدَبِ اسْتِعْمَالُ الْخُلُقِ الْجَمِيلِ وَلِهَذَا كَانَ الْأَدَبُ اسْتِخْرَاجَ مَا فِي الطَّبِيعَةِ مِنَ الْكَمَالِ مِنَ الْقُوَّةِ إِلَى الْفِعْلِ

The reality of manners is that it results from beautiful character. Thus, manners is the externalization of the integrity and strength in one’s inward disposition into action.

Source: Madārij al-Sālikīn 2/361

Since ethics has such an important place in Islam, it should be our top concern after learning the basics of Islamic beliefs and worship. It was the practice of the righteous predecessors (al-salaf al-sālihīn) to focus on acquiring good character and manners before seriously approaching the advanced fields of Islamic knowledge related to Quranic exegesis (al-tafsīr), the Sunnah (al-hadīth), creed (al-‘aqīdah), law (al-fiqh), biography (al-sīrah), history (al-tarīkh), leadership (al-imāmah), and other subjects.

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

تَعَلَّمِ الأَدَبَ قَبْلَ أَنْ تَتَعَلَّمَ الْعِلْمَ

Learn good manners before seeking knowledge.

Source: Gharāʼib Mālik ibn Anas 45

And Malik said:

كانت أمي تعممني وتقول لي اذهب إلى ربيعة فتعلم من أدبه قبل علمه

My mother would dress me up and say to me: Go to Sheikh Rabi’ah and learn from his manners before his knowledge.

Source: Tartīb al-Madārik 1/130

Ibn Al-Mubarak, may Allah have mercy on him, said to the people of hadīth:

أنتم إِلَى قَلِيلٍ مِنَ الْأَدَبِ أَحْوَجُ منكم إِلَى كَثِيرٍ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ

You are in greater need of a little manners than a great deal of knowledge.

Source: Tārīkh Dimashq 32918

And Ibn Al-Mubarak said:

طلبت الأدب ثلاثين سنة وطلبت العلم عشرين سنة وكانوا يطلبون الأدب ثم العلم

I sought manners for thirty years and I sought knowledge for twenty years. The righteous predecessors would seek manners and then seek knowledge.

Source: Ghāyat al-Nihāyah 1/446

Sufyan Ath-Thawri, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

كَانَ الرَّجُلُ إِذَا أَرَادَ أَنْ يَكْتُبَ الْحَدِيثَ تَأَدَّبَ وَتَعَبَّدَ قَبْلَ ذَلِكَ بِعِشْرِينَ سَنَةً

If a man intended to write the hadīth, he would study good manners and worship for twenty years before doing so.

Source: Hilyat al-Awliyā 361

Al-Laith ibn Sa’d, may Allah have mercy on him, said to the people of hadīth:

تَعَلَّمُوا الْحِلْمَ قَبْلَ الْعِلْمِ

Learn forbearance before seeking knowledge.

Source: Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 581

In fact, the righteous predecessors would learn more from a scholar’s manners than they would from his knowledge.

Az-Zuhri, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

كُنَّا نَأْتِي الْعَالِمَ فَمَا نَتَعَلَّمُ مِنْ أَدَبِهِ أَحَبُّ إِلَيْنَا مِنْ عِلْمِهِ

We would come to a scholar and what we learned from his manners was more beloved to us than his knowledge.

Source: Hilyat al-Awliyā 4575

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

مَا تَعَلَّمْتُ مِنْ أَدَبِ مَالِكٍ أَفْضَلَ مِنْ عِلْمِهِ

What I learned from the manners of Malik was better than his knowledge.

Source: Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm 581

Failure to understand the importance of ethics and its status among the fields of knowledge is causing much misguidance among Muslims today. The reason is that the advanced Islamic sciences contain complicated details related to creed, sects, differences of opinion, and confusing issues that most people do not know about it.

Only those who are strongly grounded in Islamic ethics are able to approach these issues in the best way, without causing confusion among the masses or indulging in fruitless arguments. In contrast, many young people learn a little bit of advanced knowledge, without its requisite manners, and thus they engage in sectarianism and transgression against other Muslims.

The Prophet and righteous scholars warned us that bitter and self-righteous debates in the religion are one of the main causes that lead people astray and foment hatred.

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

مَا ضَلَّ قَوْمٌ بَعْدَ هُدًى كَانُوا عَلَيْهِ إِلَّا أُوتُوا الْجَدَلَ

No people go astray after being guided except that they indulge in arguments.

Then the Prophet recited the verse:

مَا ضَرَبُوهُ لَكَ إِلَّا جَدَلًا بَلْ هُمْ قَوْمٌ خَصِمُونَ

They strike an example for you only to argue. Rather, they are a quarrelsome people. (43:58)

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3253, Grade: Sahih

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

الْمِرَاءُ وَالْجِدَالُ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَذْهَبُ بِنُورِ الْعِلْمِ مِنْ قَلْبِ الرَّجُلِ

Disputation and arguments about sacred knowledge cause the light of knowledge to extinguish in a man’s heart.

And he said:

الْمِرَاءُ فِي الْعِلْمِ يُقَسِّي الْقَلْبَ وَيُؤَثِّرُ الضَّغْنَ

Disputation about sacred knowledge causes the heart to harden and results in hatred.

Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam 1/248

The solution is to return to the ethical knowledge in the Quran and Sunnah as the primary Islamic science. The purpose of everything that we learn in Islam is to make us better people, better servants of Allah and better companions to humanity at large. When we understand this, we will be able to confront modern problems and complicated issues without descending into misguidance and hatred.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

[1] Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān Al-‘Arab 5/140

[2] Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān Al-‘Arab 1/70