In the Name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate
No power is there, and no strength, but by God, the High, the Great!
Transcendent are You! We have no knowledge save that which You have taught us. You are indeed the Knowing, the Wise! [ 2:32]
ALL PRAISE BELONGS TO GOD, Who never disappoints those who hope in Him, never refuses those who ask of Him, never ignores those who quest for Him, never underpays those who act for Him, never deprives those who thank Him, never fails those who battle for Him, never allows those whose comfort is in His remembrance to be estranged, never surrenders to those who surrender to His might, never abandons to others those who depend on Him, and never forsakes those who trust and commit themselves to Him. Those who firmly hold to His Book shall never err, and those who take refuge in His Presence shall never find disgrace.
I praise Him for all that He has inspired and taught, and thank Him for all His grace and bounties. His help I request to fulfil His immense right [upon us], and I seek refuge in the light of His noble Countenance against the loss of His favours and the onslaught of affliction. It is God I ask whelm with His blessings and peace His most noble Prophet, most eminent Messenger and greatest Beloved, who is our master and patron Muhammad, and his Family and Companions, who are the essence and generosity, the very fountainhead of knowledge and wisdom. And may these blessings and peace endure for as long as pens write and banners are unfurled!
To proceed. The righteous shaykh of integrity and intelligent understanding, `Abd al-Rahman ibn `Abdullah `Abbad, has requested me to answer a number of questions which he committed to writing and presented to me in the town of Shibam after my visit to the great gnostic shaykh Sa`id ibn `Isa al-`Amudi, and to to other people of virtue, both living and dead, in those regions. I perceived in him signs of eagerness for the truth, combined with the fragrance of sincerity, and therefore promised him a response. The time has now come to fulfil that promise–by God’s ability and power–and to welcome the arrival of his pertinent questions with the hospitable offer of clear replies.
I feel it is appropriate to precede these answers with a prologue which will give insight and reassurance both to the questioner, and to all other intelligent people of similar tendency.
Therefore I seek God’s help, relying on Him, committing myself to Him, and asking Him (Transcendent is He!) to guide me to that which is correct in His sight, for He guides whom he will to a straight path [10:25]; the path of God to Whom belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth. Indeed, to God do all things return. [42:53]
I say: Know that to put a question whenever a need or problem arises and to seek further knowledge and insight it is the wont and custom of the elite of every time and place. It is deemed obligatory where obligatory knowledge is concerned, and a virtue in the case of supererogatory knowledge. For questions are the keys to the sciences and secrets of the Unseen which some people carry in their hearts and breasts. Just as valuables and goods kept within locked houses can be reached only by using keys fashioned of iron or wood, so too are these sciences and gnoses, borne by scholars and gnostics, to be reached only by questions fashioned out by the wish to profit, and accompanied by sincerity, enthusiasm, and courteous manners. Questioning is encouraged and enjoined by the Shari`ah, for God the Exalted has said: Ask those who recite the Book before you, [10:94] and Ask the people of remembrance if you do not know; with clear signs and the Scriptures. [16:43-4] And the Messenger of God, may blessings and peace be upon him, has said: ‘A good question is [already] half of knowledge.’ The intention of every leading scholar or Imam who has ever informed others of the breadth of His knowledge was that this should be known about him so that people might ask and seek it from him. This was related in the case of `Ali, `Umar, Abu Hurayra, and others among the [early] predecessors and those who came later, may God be pleased with them all. And there were other scholars, such as `Urwa ibn al-Zubayr, al-Hasan al-Basri and Qatada, who likewise encourged people to put questions to them. Sufyan al-Thawri immediately left any town he entered when none of its people asked him for knowledge, saying: ‘This is a town where knowledge dies’. Whenever al-Shibli, may God have mercy on him, sat in his [teaching] circle and no questions were put forth to him, he would recite: ‘And the word shall fall upon them because of their wrongdoing; they do not speak.’ [27:85]
A scholar may sometimes question his companions to asses their knowledge and so be able to benefit them. It has been related in a sound hadith that the Messenger of God, may peace and blessings be upon him, once asked a group of his Companions about a tree of leaves which did not fall and which resembled the believer. None of those present answered, so he informed them, may blessings and peace be upon him, that it was the date-palm. Ibn `Umar was there, and had recognised it, but kept his silence; subsequently he informed his father the latter blamed him for his silence. `Umar, may God be pleased with him, often questioned his companions, and whenever one of them replied, ‘God knows best,’ he would become angry and declare: ‘ I did not ask you about God’s knowledge, but about yours: either say “I know” or “I know not”!’
A scholar may question one of his companions about something which he already knows, so that others present may benefit. Such, for example, were the questions put to the Messenger of God, may peace and blessings be upon him, by Gabriel, peace be upon him, concerning Islam, Iman and Ihsan.
A lesser man may for subtle reasons be in possesion of a particular item of knowledge unknown to a superior one, and the latter may thus need to ask about it. An example of this is `Umar’s questioning of Hudhayfa, may God be pleased with them, about [future] tribulations, and about the hypocrites.
A scholar may ask his equal, or one who is nearly so, about the way he has understood certain things in God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Messenger, may blessings and peace be upon him, to see whether they share the same opinion, which will serve to confirm or strengthen it. This again resembles the practice of `Umar, may God be pleased with him, who asked a group of Companions about a particular interpretation of the verse When support comes from God, and victory, [110:1] and only Ibn `Abbas agreed with him–may God be pleased with them both. Many such things occured with great men, in both the early and later [generations]. As for `Umar’s question to `Ali , may God be pleased with them both, the purpose behind it was to learn from him, since `Ali was granted a privilege share by no other Companion, which was to be the Gate to the City of knowledge’–the city being the Messenger himself, may blessings and peace be upon him. As for the order given by the Messenger of God to his Companions not to ask him too many questions, this prohibition, although stated in general terms was particularly directed at questions concerning legal judgements, retaliatory punishments [qisas] or hudud and public affairs. This was out of compassion for the Nation, and out of the merciful wish that they should not be charged with something they would unable to implement. The evidence to support this is His saying, O you who believe! Inquire not after things which, if they were discovered to you, would vex you, yet if you question concerning them when the Qur’an is being sent down, they will be discovered to you. God has effaced those things, for God is Forgiving, Forbearing. A people before you questioned concerning them, then disbelieved in them. [5:101-2] And there is also the saying of the Messenger of God, may blessings and peace be upon him: ‘God has made certain obligations incumbent upon you; so neglect them not. And He had drawn limits; therefore violate them not. He has prohibited certain things, therefore commit them not. And He has remained silent concerning certain things–out of mercy for you, not out of forgetfulness–therefore do not inquire about them.’ And in another hadith: ‘Those who came before you were destroyed by their great inquisitiveness and their arguments about [what was brought to them by] their Prophets.’ A man once asked the Messenger of God, upon whom be blessings and peace, whether the Pilgrimage [hajj] was a yearly obligation, and the Prophet kept his silence. When he repeated his question, he replied: ‘Once in a lifetime; and had I said “Yes!” it would have become obligatory for you, and you would have been unable to comply.’ Underlying this anecdote is a noble secret which is that it is not possible to disclose in writing but you can search for it within the context of His saying (Exalted is He!): Whoever obeys the Messenger has obeyed God, [4:80] and Those who pledge their allegiance to you do but pledge their allegiance to God. [48:10]
A disciple who asks his shaykh a question, or a student who asks his teacher, should have no other aim but to benefit, and should beware of wanting to test him, for that may lead to his deprivation and failure. When a disciple or student asks a shaykh or a scholar about something the knowledge of which may be harmful or beyond his understanding, then the latter should stop and ponder; they are to inform the questioner of his lack of qualification only if their assesment of him is that [such a response] will not break his heart, and be religiously damaging to him, or that no aversion will arise in his soul which would deflect him from his quest; otherwise they should stoop in their answer to his level of knowledge and understanding.
Should they divert the answer from the strict implication of the question they are not to say, as one of the people of realization once said:
It is my duty to carve rhymes from the bedrock of words; It is not my concern if cattle do not comprehend.
For such an utterance is peculiar to a certain spiritualal state and situation.
A shaykh or a scholar is like a compassionate father and a gentle tutor; he speaks in such a manner as to be of benefit and profit. Gnostics, however, are subject to overpowering and absorbing spiritual states in which they become unable to keep in mind what we have just mentioned; their states should be conceding acknowledged, for they are too high in rank to be objected to or accused of ignorance or negligence. This is not the place, moreover, to elaborate a justification of such authoritative writers for divulging in their books and treatises the secrets of Lordship and the realities of the Unseen.
It may be permissible for a man to question another with the intention of testing him in two situations. The first is when a scholar, compassionate and of good counsel, sees a man so deeply under the sway of self-admiration that he is prevented from seeking knowledge, or from adding to the knowledge which he already has, or from acknowledging the merits of the virtuous; he may then question him–preferably in private–to test and try him, so that this man may know his real worth, this being a form of counsel to him. The second is when one sees a hypocrite speaking assertively and threatening to confuse weak believers by introducing into religion things which do not belong to it, he may then question him in their presence to test him and demonstrate to them his failings and his ignorance. While doing so, his intention should be to counsel and warn him about his faults, in the hope that he will return to a fairer judgement and submit to the truth. It is this that has drawn the scholars, may God be pleased with them, into debates with those who innovate, deviate, or falsify the truth.
The scholars of the present time must not keep their knowledge to themselves and wait for someone to come along and ask, for most people today are complacent about religion, uninterested in knowledge and in anything else that will benefit then in the hereafter, to the extent that a man’s beard may grow white and he still knows nothing of the obligatory parts of the ritual ablution and prayer, or what is mandatory for him to know by way of belief in God, His Angels, Books, Messengers and the Last Day. The very states of such people mutely proclaim their ignorance; and for scholars endowed with understanding, that is sufficient to be a question.
A seeker travelling to God, whose sole aim is to acquire knowledge of Him, and whose wish is to rid himself of anything that may distract him from going to Him, should never ask for knowledge unless it is necessary in his [own particular] state and time. However, in this blessed time of ours, such a seeker is stranger than the Phoenix and rarer than the philosopher’s stone. So let each man be prolific in his questioning after knowledge, so as to profit and grow, for a believer is never sated with good things. In a hadith it is said: ‘Two [kinds of] people can never get enough: those who are avid for knowledge, and those who are avid for money.’ The proof for what we have just said about the seeker is what is related about Dawud al-Ta’i, may God’s mercy be upon him. When he decided to devote himself to God began by sitting with the scholars: he thus kept the company of Imam Abu Hanifa, may God’s mercy be upon him, for nearly a year. Sometimes when a question arose [in his mind] which he was , in his own words: ‘more eager to know than a thirsting man is eager for cool water,’ he refrained from asking about it, the reason being, as we said earlier, that a seeker is only to ask about that which is a necessity for him.
There are many proofs for the correctness of the topics discussed in this brief introduction; and it would lead us away from our intended brevity if we were to delve into every one of them. The indications that we have given will, however be sufficient.
Success is from God, also help and confirmation. We trust in Him, upon Him do we rely. He is our sufficiency, and He is Best of Custodians.
It is now time to begin fulfilling our purpose. God speaks the truth, and He guides the way. [33:4]
Gifts for the Seeker, Imam `Abdallah ibn`Alawi al-Haddad (translated from the Arabic by Mostafa al-Badawi)