Scholars, Students of Knowledge, and Poverty
By Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
How does a Muslim scholar, serious student, and others who have devoted their lives to the service of Islam and the Muslims support himself/herself? I ask because this is perhaps one of the main reasons why parents don’t wish for their children to become scholars of Islam — they are usually poor, they don’t get paid much at all (if at all), and they attract trouble from different extremist groups.
I come from an upper middle-class family. How can I convince my parents that I can become a Muslim scholar and have sufficient finances to support myself and my family?
In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
This is indeed a very important issue that affects no doubt many students of Islamic knowledge and those wishing to devote their lives to studying and teaching Islamic sciences and dedicating themselves to the service of Islam. I would like to shed some light on the issue from two perspectives. The first part of the answer will look at the virtues of poverty and its strong attachment with acquiring sacred knowledge, and how poverty was the hallmark of our pious predecessors. The second part will look at the importance of scholars and those devoting their lives to the service of Deen having a sufficient income and the responsibility of the community in terms of taking care of their scholars. With this twofold approach, there will be a balance in what I intend to say, Insha Allah.
Poverty, hunger and scarcity of wealth, the hallmark of our predecessors
The great late scholar of Hadith and other Islamic sciences, Shaykh Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda (may Allah have mercy on him) compiled an excellent work on the trials, tribulations and hardships that faced many of this Umma’s scholars titled “Safahat min Sabr al-Ulama ala Shada’id al-Ilm wa al-Tahsil” (Pages on the fortitude of scholars upon the trials of studying and collecting knowledge), wherein he recorded some incredible incidents concerning our scholars and showed how much hardship they had to endure whilst studying and acquiring sacred knowledge. Some remained hungry for days, others were not able to provide for their families and some did not even marry. Some scholars went to the extent of selling their personal belongings, cloths and furniture to fund their studies and to buy books. I would really encourage students of sacred knowledge, who understand Arabic, to read this book over and over again, so that it gives us strength and makes us realize that the lack of wealth we have today is nothing in comparison to the hardships the great luminaries of Islam had to face and endure.
The fact is that the Sunna of Allah Most High has always been (for a wisdom that He knows best) to keep those close to Him and those who dedicate their lives for the service of His Deen far away from the wealth and riches of this temporary world. The word “Dunya” is from the Arabic root word “Dunuw” which means degraded and humiliated. Thus, men of Allah have always been far and distant from gathering the riches of this mortal world. Indeed, there are exceptions to this general ruling, hence we do see some great personalities of Islam having wealth in their possession, but that remains an exception and was something intended for them by Allah Most High, as it suited them, and they too utilized this wealth for Islamic causes and charities.
We see the many Prophets of Allah (peace be upon them all) that they barely made ends meat. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) is a classic example for us, in that he preferred poverty over sumptuousness. His poverty was a poverty of choice and not something that was enforced upon him.
Let us look at some of the Hadiths in this regard, taken from Imam Nawawi’s Riyadh al-Salihin:
Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “If I had the whole of Uhud in gold, it would not make me happy for three days to pass while I have any of it except something I have kept for a debt.” [Agreed upon]
An-Nu’man ibn Bashir said: “Umar ibn al-Khattab mentioned the things of this world that the people had acquired and he said, “One day I saw the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) sifting through some bad dates he had found in order to fill his belly.” [Muslim]
Sayyida A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) said: “When the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) died, there was nothing in my house that could be eaten by a living creature except for half a barley loaf on a shelf. I ate from it until I seemed to have had it for a long time. Then I measured it and it finished.” [Agreed upon]
Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “The poor will enter the Paradise five hundred years before the rich.” [At-Tirmidhi]
Sayyida A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) said: “The family of Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) never had their fill of barley bread for two consecutive days until he died.” [Agreed upon] In one variant, “From the time he came to Madina, the family of Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) never had their fill of wheat bread for three consecutive nights until he died.”
Urwa reported that A’isha used to say: “By Allah, nephew, we used to see three crescent moons in two months without a fire being lit in the houses of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace). I said. “Aunt, what did you live off?” She said, “The two black ones: dates and water. However, the Messenger of Allah had some neighbours among the Ansar, and they have milk camels, and they would send us some of their milk and we would drink it.” [Agreed upon]
Hence, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) and his noble family lived a life that was far from the riches and wealth we find ourselves in today. He remained hungry for days and tied stones on his belly out of hunger. His dress was very humble, so too was his house. There are many Hadiths covered in Riyadh al-Salihin in this regard, but the abovementioned few narrations should be sufficient for the people of reflection.
The blessed companions of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) also lived a similar lifestyle. The Companion who narrated the most Hadiths from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace), and who devoted and dedicated all his life to seeking the light of knowledge was Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him). He himself says: “There is none among the companions of the Prophet who has narrated more Hadiths than I except Abd Allah ibn Amr (ibn al-‘As) who used to write them and I never did the same.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
When we search for the reason behind Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra learning sacred knowledge in abundance and narrating a lot of Hadiths, it becomes clear that the main cause was that he chose to live a life of poverty and not utilize his time in gathering wealth.
Imam Bukhari relates in his Sahih that Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) said: “People say that I have narrated many Hadiths. Had it not been for two verses in the Qur’an, I would not have narrated a single Hadith, and the verses are: “Verily those who conceal the clear sign and the guidance which We have sent down . . . (up to) Most Merciful.” (2:159-160). And no doubt our Muhajir (emigrant) brothers used to be busy in the market with their business transactions and our Ansari brothers used to be busy with their property (agriculture). But I (Abu Hurayra) used to remain with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) contented with what will fill my stomach and I used to attend that which they used not to attend and I used to memorize that which they used not to memorize.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1/190)
Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) also said: “I saw seventy of the people of Suffa and not a man among them had a cloak. They either had a waist wrapper or a sheet (kisa’) which they tied round their necks, some reaching to the middle of their legs and some reaching to the ankles. They would gather them in their hands, not wanting their private parts to be seen.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
In accordance with the Sunna of the Prophets and the Companions, the great Imams and scholars of this Umma also led a life of poverty and self-restraint. They chose a life of hardships and trials over a life of luxury and comfort.
Sayyiduna Imam Shafi’i (Allah have mercy on him) said: “No one seeks this knowledge with pride and self-importance and then succeeds; rather, the one who seeks knowledge by putting himself down, enduring economic difficulties and serving the Ulama is successful.”
Imam Shafi’i also said: “Seeking sacred knowledge is inappropriate except for a destitute person.”
Sayyiduna Imam Malik (Allah have mercy on him) said: “No one reaches the level of learning that he desires until he endures the hardships of poverty, and he prefers poverty above everything.”
Dawud ibn Mikhraq said: I heard Nadhr ibn Shumayl say: “No individual will taste the pleasure of sacred knowledge until he becomes hungry and forgets his hunger.”
Sayyiduna Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Allah have mercy on him) used to give poverty preference over everything else and he would say: “Patience (sabr) on poverty is a station (maqam) that only great people achieve, and poverty is more virtuous than prosperity.”
One of the Imams talked about his patience and tolerance (sabr) with poverty and that it reached such a level that even the “Sabr” pleaded to him for help and said enough. He replied: “O Sabr! Have patience”!
Imam al-Zabidi (Allah have mercy on him) said a few lines of poetry in which he said: “I said to poverty (faqr) where do you reside? “Poverty” replied: “In the turbans of the Fuqaha (scholars). I have a special bond and tie with them; hence it is difficult for me to break this tie”! (All quotes taken from Shaykh Abdal Fattah Abu Ghudda’s work, Safahat min Sabril Ulama)
Moreover, these great luminaries of Islam suffered a great deal of hardship in acquiring sacred knowledge. The incidents that took place in their lives of hardships, poverty, trials and tribulations are too many to be mentioned here. If one wishes to study them, one may refer to the above-mentioned book of Shaykh Abd al-Fattah (Allah have mercy on him).
Importance of scholars having a sufficient income
Having said all of the above, it is also important to remember that Ulama and Shuyukh cannot survive without any income. They also have bills, rent to pay and families to provide for. Thus, classical Ulama also acknowledged the fact that extreme poverty can hinder one’s service to the Deen.
Sayyiduna Imam Shafi’i (Allah have mercy on him) said: “Do not take advice from one who has no flour in his house, because he will be overcome by distress.” (Manaqib Imam Shafi’i by al-Bayhaqi)
The reason behind this, as the Ulama explain, is that if a scholar is overwhelmed by extreme poverty and destituteness, he will not be able to devote his full attention towards teaching and serving the Deen of Allah. He will always be concerned with providing for his family and earning that which will help him get through life.
Thus, Ulama explain that there are two types of poverty:
1) Dark poverty (al-faqr al-aswad)
This is when poverty completely overwhelms a person to the extent that his mind is always occupied in trying to earn a living. This kills one’s intellectual potential and capacity, and the one involved in it disintegrates as a green plant would fade away when it is starved of water. This is the poverty regarding which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Poverty may sometimes lead to disbelief”. This is the type of poverty from which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) sought the refuge and protection of Allah Most High.
2) White poverty (al-faqr al-abyadh)
This is a situation where an individual is no doubt poor, but it is not to an extreme level. He is able to get through the daily economic responsibilities on a limited scale. One is content with what Allah has allocated for one; hence this poverty does not affect one’s intellectual potential, although others are generally far better well-off than one. This type of poverty is actually a blessing for a student of sacred knowledge, especially in the early days of learning, for one is saved from the worldly temptations that wealth can bring about.
Therefore, in conclusion, students of Islamic knowledge must understand that the path they have taken is a path of self-restraint, poverty and humility. One will no doubt have to sacrifice the luxuries of this world in order to truly reach a high level of knowledge and piety. Knowledge requires sacrifice. Historically, this sacrifice meant walking thousands of miles, hunger and in some cases even loss of limb. It is said that Imam Zamakhshari had a leg amputated because of frostbite he got when journeying in pursuit of knowledge.
If one is prepared to sacrifice the luxuries of this world during the early days of learning, Allah Most High then normally showers this person with bounties later on in life. The great master of inward sciences, Ibn Ata’illah as-Sikandari (Allah have mercy on him) said: “Whosoever does not endure a difficult beginning, does not have a bright ending” (man lam takun lahu bidayat muhriqa, lam takun lahu nihaya mushriqa).
At the same time, Muslim communities need to realize that scholars also have to survive and earn a living. Unfortunately, Muslim communities generally don’t appreciate and value Islamic knowledge in a manner they value other things. Scholars who dedicate their day and night in studying, teaching, researching and imparting knowledge are considered to be such that “they have nothing better to do”. Believe me, they can also go out and earn a luxurious lifestyle. They can also open their own businesses and gather wealth, but they choose not to engage themselves in earning wealth, rather they prefer to devote their lives for the service of Islam. The least we can do is to cater for their daily needs.
Imam Ibn Khallidun states in his renowned al-Muqaddima that the main reason behind Ulama being generally poor is that the masses don’t value what they have to offer. Only a handful of people truly appreciate their worth, hence they are not paid adequately. They themselves don’t like to degrade themselves by asking others to cater for their needs, hence they remain in poverty.
The value of Islamic scholars is much more than academic experts in other fields, for these experts cater for us in this life, whilst the Ulama give us advice and guide us in this life as well as the next. Hence, they should be looked after in the same manner as the experts in the other felids are looked after. Thus, we should ensure that our scholars are financially comfortable in a manner befitting their rank and honour, and that we support them in a thankful and dignified manner, not as if they are needy.
Today we see that Ulama are forced to work and run a business, for they are unable to support themselves and their families with the meagre income they acquire through teaching. As a result, their intellectual potential isn’t fully deployed for the service of the deen. This is the reason we find very few Ulama who are fully committed to the cause of teaching and research, especially in the West.
Thus, Muslim communities really need to wake up and truly appreciate the work of the Ulama. They should move away from paying the “minimum wage” to these great Shuyukh and cater for their needs in a more appropriate and respectful manner. At the same time, students of Islamic knowledge should realize that the path they have taken is not a path of gathering wealth; rather it is a path of sacrifices and hardships. With this balance, we will, Insha Allah, produce Ulama who resemble our pious predecessors in their inward and outward qualities.
And Allah knows best.
Muhammad ibn Adam
Darul Iftaa (www.daruliftaa.com)
Leicester , UK