Travelling in Search of Knowledge

By Spahic Omer

Kathir bin Qays said: “I was sitting with Abu al-Darda’ in the mosque of Damascus. A man came to him and said: Abu al-Darda’, I have come to you from the town of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) for a tradition that I have heard you relate from the Messenger of Allah. I have come for no other purpose. He (Abu al-Darda’) said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) say: If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in their great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge, the inhabitants of the heavens and the earth and the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned man. The superiority of the learned man over the devout is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither dinar nor dirham, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion” (Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 26, Hadith No. 1).

The following insight can be gleaned from this hadith.

In the hadith, a man came from Madinah to Damascus – a distance of more than 1,300 km – only to verify a statement of the Prophet (pbuh) from its narrator, Abu al-Darda’. The man was specific about his mission, declaring that he had no other affair in Damascus. 

This shows how serious the culture of seeking knowledge and travelling for its sake was in the early phases of Islamic civilisation. People were ready to sacrifice most of the things they had for such noble enterprise. They were ready to go the distance, both literally and metaphorically. 

This led to the creation of the recognisable concept and real-world experience of rihlah fi talab al-‘ilm (travel in search of knowledge), which was unique to Islamic civilisation. People followed the advices of the Prophet (pbuh) and wanted to secure the benefits entailed in the above-mentioned hadith.

In addition, such a tradition was the only way to knowledge enhancement and perfection. Without a doubt, so valuable knowledge is that the rihlah tradition was worthwhile. As Ibn Khaldun rightly pointed out that “traveling in quest of knowledge is absolutely necessary for the acquisition of useful knowledge and perfection through meeting authoritative teachers (shaykhs) and having contact with (scholarly) personalities.”

What many people have done bordered on the unimaginable. Their exploits became the stuff of legend. Travels were not only about distance, but also about duration. If thousands of kilometres did not pose a problem to many, neither did months and even years. 

For instance, Jabir b. ‘Abdullah, a companion of the Prophet (pbuh), once famously bought a camel and travelled for one month to Syria to hear a hadith from a person who had heard it directly from the Prophet (pbuh). Jabir b. ‘Abdullah feared that he or the narrator might die before he heard the hadith. 

Also, ‘Alqamah bin Qays al-Nakha’i and al-Aswad bin Yazid al-Nakha’i, who were based in the city of Kufah in Iraq, used to go to Madinah just to meet Caliph ‘Umar bin al-Khattab and learn directly from him certain hadiths (traditions) of the Prophet (pbuh). Sa’id bin al-Musayyab likewise used to say that for each hadith he had learnt he had to travel on foot for days and nights. 

Things persisted for centuries. Imam al-Bukhari travelled basically to all centres of Islamic learning for the purposes of collecting (acquiring) and also disseminating knowledge, primarily the knowledge of the Prophet’s hadith. His journey to the Hijaz region, where he visited Makkah, Madinah, Ta’if and Jeddah, was epic. It lasted six years.

In passing, the Qur’an too persistently urges Muslims to travel through the earth. It does so more than a dozen times. The aim is as much educational as it is spiritual, in order for people to have “hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear; for indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts” (al-Hajj, 46). 

One of the greatest travellers and explorers in human history – who was a scholar at the same time – Ibn Battuta, was nothing but the product of this Islamic spirit. While responding to the divine calls to travel through, learn from and explore the creation of Allah, Ibn Battuta, and many others, were international standard-setters. Domestically, though, they were simply discharging their duties.

As a matter of fact, the above hadith itself demonstrates how common the travel culture was. To come all the way from Madinah to Damascus only for the purpose of verifying a single hadith, at a first glance, was supposed to be undertaken by a famous scholar or by someone who might have had other relevant interests or backgrounds, such as business or politics. However, such by no means was the case in this particular occurrence. 

Instead, the protagonist in the hadith was merely “a man”. Nobody knew his name, his background, or his occupation, and nobody asked. The man arrived as an anonymous visitor, obtained from Abu al-Darda’ what he had wanted and had come for, and departed as mysteriously. Nobody yet seemed (overly) astonished at the man’s feat. Only Abu al-Darda’ might have enquired if he came for trade or anything else as well, to which the man replied in the negative.

This shows that what the man did was rather a common custom. He came to authenticate the hadith whose content he already knew and was practicing, walking thus his – and the Prophet’s – talk. His act of travel was in full conformity with the provisos of the hadith he came to validate. 

Rihlah or travelling in search of knowledge was a ubiquitous culture in which many people, spanning across all walks of life, participated. As one would expect, this was the main reason why Islamic civilisation quickly rose to extraordinary heights, and was able to sustain itself head and shoulders above the rest for centuries. Herein also lies the clue to the subsequent deterioration of Islamic civilisation, as lies a pointer to the prospect of its future restoration.

In the same vein, the Prophet (pbuh) said – in a weak hadith though – that a word containing wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it he has more right to it” (Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 37, Hadith 4169). The phrase “a word containing wisdom” is so comprehensive that it involves everything pertaining to knowledge, knowledge seeking and knowledge dissemination for which the whole world is the auditorium.

It is yet believed that the Prophet (pbuh) said that seeking knowledge is desirable to such an extent that one should do so even if one have to go to China. However, it ought to be stated that this hadith is not sound and is fabricated (al-Albani), but the motives of those who had constructed the hadith seem to be obvious: making sure that the honourable knowledge-related culture does not dwindle. Providing a boost might likewise have been intended. ***

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in the Department of History and Civilisation, AHAS KIRKHS. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)

Leave a Reply