The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) said, “Knowledge is to be carried in every generation by the upright and just. They repel from it the distortions of the over-zealous, the forgeries of the fabricators, and the misinterpretations of the ignorant.”
There are many relevant points to be taken from this hadith (record of the words of the Prophet ﷺ) but let’s first start with its grading.
Grading of the Hadith
There has been much discussion about the authenticity of this hadith. It was related by al-Bayhaqi and others. Scholars such as al-Albānī, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Ibn al-Wazīr, and others considered it an acceptable hadith, while others disagreed. Nonetheless, considering the disagreement and the sound meaning of the hadith it is worthy to reflect upon it and draw lessons from it.
Knowledge is Carried by the Upright
The word that is used in Arabic here is the plural of ʿadl. The term essentially indicates that the person should be upright, just, trustworthy, etc. Two lessons can be learned from this: 1) that the people of knowledge should struggle as much as possible to be upright and respectable people; 2) that students and regular Muslims should seek out those whom they trust because of their character when approaching the people of knowledge. Yes, there are people of knowledge who are corrupt, who do not respect the rights of others, and who abuse what they know. They are not the true heirs of the Prophets and excuses should not be made simply because they “know a lot.”
In Every Generation
The second thing to learn from this hadith is that knowledge will be passed down between the generations. A certain level of learning can happen through websites and books but true knowledge is obtained through spending time with the people of knowledge themselves. It is through this action of companionship and studying that knowledge as well as wisdom and etiquette is passed down through the generations. On the other side of this is that knowledge does not disappear through the loss of books but through the death of the righteous scholars. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Knowledge will not be snapped up from the people but rather the scholars will pass away and knowledge will go with them until all that remains amongst the people is ignorant leadership who will answer questions without knowledge. They are misguided and will misguide others.”1
Three Types of People to Watch Out For
The next thing that is mentioned in the hadith is a miracle to be pondered over. In it the Prophet ﷺ refers to three types of people and their dangers that are repelled by the works and knowledge of the righteous scholars.
The first of these dangers is the distortions of the over-zealous. There are always people who are over-zealous and who in their love for Islam end up making it much harder than it needs to be. If their interpretations were to be accepted in all matters the religion would be taken from its fundamentally easy nature into something too difficult for people to practice. This was also mentioned in another hadith where the Prophet ﷺ said, “Be careful of over-zealousy in the religion. Verily, being over-zealous destroyed the people who came before you.”2
The second danger that he warned of is the forgeries of the fabricators. Just as there are always those who take things too far, there are also those who try to add things to the religion. Sometimes this is done with good intentions and sometimes with bad, but it is always unacceptable. God revealed Islam to us through the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and what he has brought to us is enough. Many of the enemies of Islam realized from a long time ago that they could not be successful in this attempt with the Qur’an because of its place in the hearts and minds of the Muslims. This did not stop them from fabricating hadith though, and throughout the centuries there have been amazing scholars of hadith who have defended the Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet ﷺ) from forgeries and innovations. These scholars were so knowledgeable and gifted that they were able to come up with an entire methodology and various branches of sciences to support it for checking the validity of hadiths. Some scholars even compiled books only containing forged hadiths so that people could read these books and stay away from hadiths that were attributed to the Prophet ﷺ even though he has nothing to do with them.
The third danger is the misinterpretations of the ignorant. In our times these have become very prominent. With the nationalization of the traditional institutes of learning in the Muslim world and the advent of the printing press and mass communication, the central role of the scholars in interpreting Islam has diminished. It is possible for all kinds of people “learned” or not to speak about Islam and come up with new ideas and opinions that have never been discussed before. Granted, at times this can be a good thing, but unfortunately often times it is done by people who are completely unqualified. The result is that often times these arguments look convincing at first glance but for the person who truly studied Islam, their error is obvious.
It is truly amazing that the Prophet ﷺ mentioned these three categories of dangers that the scholars are to protect the religion from. When one looks at them and ponders over the current state of affairs and Islamic history there are themes that repeat themselves over and over again.
We ask God to guide us, grant us knowledge and wisdom, and protect us from falling into these dangers.