First of all, we would like to stress that seeking knowledge is a meritorious act, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Surely, angels spread their wings for joy and pleasure with the knowledge seeker.”(Ahmad) Also, abuHurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, If one treads a path in order to seek knowledge, Allah will make easy for him the (way) to enter Paradise.” (Muslim)

As far as religious knowledge is concerned, Muslim scholars state that it is obligatory for the Muslim to learn what is necessary for him or her to establish his or her religion regarding different acts of worship and different kinds of transactions. This is in addition to knowing how to express sincerity towards Almighty Allah and how to deal with other fellow humans.

Dr. Husam al-Din IbnMusa `Afana, professor of principles of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Quds University, Palestine, states: According to the knowledgeable scholars of Islam, there are three categories of religious knowledge: (1) individually obligatory knowledge, (2) communally obligatory knowledge, and (3) supererogatory knowledge.

Individual Obligatory Knowledge

This is the knowledge learned by the legally responsible individual, without which the obligatory religious acts or transactions he or she is involved in cannot be accomplished. Accordingly, the Muslim must know how to perform ablution and Prayer, and the basic rulings with regard to fasting, zakah (if he or she possesses the zakah-payable amount), and Hajj (if he or she is physically and financially able to perform it). He or she must also know the rulings related to business transactions if he or she works in fields related to it, such as money-changing and the like.

Ibn `Abdin quoted Al-`Allami as saying, according to the latter’s FusulAl-`Allami: “It is obligatory in Islam that one learns what is needed in establishing one’s religion, expressing sincerity to Almighty Allah, and dealing with people. Hence, it is an obligation upon every individual, male and female, after being guided to the right path of worshiping Almighty Allah alone, to learn how to perform ablution, the purificatory bath, Prayer, fasting, zakah, Hajj, the rulings pertaining to sale (if he or she is working in the field of trade) so that he or she avoids the doubtful and undesirable things related thereto. This applies to all professions and trades individuals work in (i.e., they are to learn the rulings pertaining thereto so as to avoid committing a prohibited thing therein)” (HashiyatIbn `Abdin, vol. 1, p. 42).

Imam An-Nawawi also said, “The individually obligatory knowledge is a legally responsible individual’s learning the knowledge without which the obligatory acts he or she must perform cannot be accomplished, such as how the ablution and Prayer are performed and so forth. Its obligatory character is based on how groups of scholars have interpreted the hadith in the Musnad of Abu Ya`la Al-Mawsuli, on the authority of Anas, who reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.’The meaning of this hadith, though the hadith itself is not well authenticated, is true” (Al-Magmu`, vol. 1, p. 24).

The authenticity of the hadith quoted by Imam An-Nawawi above is controversial among scholars. For example, Imam Al-Bayhaqi said about it: “This is a well-known hadith, but its chain of reporters is weak. In fact, it was reported by a multi-chain of reporters which are all weak.” It was also considered weak by Imam Ahmad as mentioned by Al-Hafidh Al-`Iraqi in TakhrijAhadithIhya’ `Ulum Ad-Din. However, some scholars of Hadith, such as As-Suti and Al-Albani, are of the opinion that this hadith, having been reported by a multi-chain of reporters, can be taken as evidence of the importance of acquiring knowledge. Anyway, the knowledge referred to in this hadith applies only to the individually obligatory religious knowledge, not all kinds of knowledge.

Communally Obligatory Knowledge

According to Imam An-Nawawi, this category refers to the attainment of those religious sciences which people cannot do without in practicing their religion, such as memorizing the Qur’an and Hadith, their ancillary disciplines, methodological principles, fiqh
, grammar, lexicology, declension, knowledge of Hadith transmitters, and of scholarly consensus and non-consensus. As for knowledge which is not of a religious nature but is required to sustain worldly existence, such as medicine and mathematics, it too is a communal obligation” (Al-Magmu`, vol. 1, p. 26).

Supererogatory Knowledge

An example of this is in-depth research and elaboration beyond the amount of religious knowledge required by the communal obligation. In this regard, it should be taken into account that seeking religious knowledge in general is preferred to performing supererogatory acts of worship. Imam An-Nawawi dedicated a whole chapter in his multi-volume book Al-Adab Ash-Shar`iyah to tackling the importance of seeking religious knowledge over offering supererogatory Prayers, fasting, and the like of acts of worship whose benefits are reflexive upon their doers. He then mentioned a number of Qur’anic verses, hadiths, sayings of the righteous predecessors and scholars in this respect. Of these are the following:

  1. Allah Almighty says, (Are those who know equal with those who know not?) (Az-Zumar 39:9).
  2. `Abdullah ibn `Amribn Al-`Aas reported: (One day) the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came to the mosque and found therein two groups of people, a group learning a religious lesson, and a group praying to Almighty Allah. He (peace and blessings be upon him) commented, “The two groups will be rewarded, one for praying to Almighty Allah and the other for learning religion and teaching it to [those] who do not know. This (i.e., the second group) is better. I have been sent to teach.” Then he (peace and blessings be upon him) sat with the second group. (IbnMajah)
  3. Abu Hurairah said, “Learning a chapter of knowledge is, in our opinion, better than offering a supererogatory thousand rak`ahs of Prayer.”
  4. `Atta’ said, “True worshiping groups are those who assemble to learn the lawful and prohibited in religion, the rulings of sale and purchase, the rulings pertaining to Prayer, fasting, marriage, divorce, Hajj, and so forth.”
  5. A man asked Ibn `Abdullah Ibn Al-Mubarak, “Tell me, Abu `Abdur-Rahman, what is better for me to spend my leisure time in: learning the Qur’an or acquiring knowledge?” Ibn Al-Mubarak said, “Do you learn from the Qur’an what enables you to perform Prayer correctly?” The man answered in the affirmative. Ibn Al-Mubarak said, “Then it is preferable for you to acquire knowledge.” (Al-Adab Ash-Shar`iyah, vol. 2, p. 34)

However, it should be taken into account that it is not right to say that the hadith of “Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim” indicates that a person offering a supererogatory Prayer or reciting the Qur’an in the mosque is to stop praying or reciting the Qur’an when a lesson is given therein. In other words, it should not be said that since seeking knowledge is obligatory, according to this hadith, while offering supererogatory Prayer and reciting the Qur’an are only recommended, Prayer and reciting the Qur’an should be stopped when a lesson is given meanwhile. This is also untenable because the knowledge meant in this hadith refers (as also mentioned above) to the individually obligatory knowledge only, not all kinds of knowledge.

It is to be borne in mind also that this does not contradict the above-mentioned point that seeking religious knowledge in general is preferable to offering supererogatory Prayer and reciting the Qur’an.