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Learning From A Teacher & The Importance Of Isnad

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   Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari (db)




I have
read one of your recent articles and I wanted to know, what is the legal
requirement for someone to be considered a knowledgeable scholar whom we can
take knowledge from? Is Isnad(chain of transmission) one of the
requirements and is there any evidence for this deduced from the sources?

Also, I have noticed that Isnad is not usually mentioned by the
scholars as a prerequisite for someone to be considered a Mujtahid. Can one
therefore be self taught?



In the
name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,


There are
two aspects to your question. The first is regarding the importance of the
chain of transmission (Isnad/Sanad) in relating Islamic
knowledge, and the second concerns the status of learning from a qualified
teacher. I will attempt to shed some light, Insha Allah, on both of these
topics in the light of the Qur'an, Sunnah and the statements of classical


(chain of transmission) of knowledge
Allah Almighty has honoured the Ummah of the best
of creation, our master Muhammad (Allah bless him & give him peace) with
many special characteristics that were not given to any other nation before us.


among these favours is the unrivalled and unique feature of Isnad in
relating the various sciences of Islamic knowledge. Isnad was
regarded by the early Muslims (salaf) as the first and primary condition
in relating any aspect of Shariah even if it was merely relating one word.


this, Allah Most High fulfilled his promise of preserving the Deen which
includes the book of Allah, Sunnah of the beloved of Allah and the various
Islamic sciences that are indispensable in understanding the former two.


Most High says:


“We have
without doubt, sent down the Message; and we will assuredly guard it.” (Surah
al-Hijr, V.9)


“message” here refers to the book of Allah and also the Sunnah of his blessed
Messenger (Allah bless him & give him peace), for whatever the Messenger of
Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) says is from Allah Almighty, as
Allah Most High says:


“Nor does
he (the Messenger of Allah) say (aught) of (his own) desire. It is no less than
revelation (wahi) sent down to him.” (al-Najm, V. 3-4)


Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) explained both
verbally and practically the contents of the book of Allah. The Qur’an is quite
ambiguous and limited in stating the laws of Shariah, and the Messenger of
Allah’s (Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) duty was to explain these


Most High says to his Messenger (Allah bless him & give him peace):


“And We
have sent down unto you the Message (Qur’an); that you may explain clearly to
men what is sent for them.” (al-Nahl, V. 44)


So the
promise of preserving the Deen is not restricted to the Qur’an, rather it
encompasses the Sunnah and also the Companion’s (Allah be pleased with them
all) understanding of the Sunnah and the understanding of those who took from


Isnad is a unique feature of the
Messenger of Allah’s (Allah bless him & give him peace) Ummah. No other
nation, religion or community can claim or boast to have such rigorous analysis
of the various aspects of their faith.


Muslim scholars examined and analysed each and every statement that came to
them, whether it was the statement of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him
& give him peace), his companions (Allah be pleased with them all) or
anyone else. They studied the life and character of those who were part of the
transmitting chain (isnad) in the strictest way possible.


Thus, the
Ummah witnessed an amazing introduction of the “science of studying the
reporters of Hadith” (rijal al-Hadith) which was unprecedented and is
unrivalled till today. The recording of the names, dates of birth, dates of
demise, qualities and characteristics of thousands and thousands of people is
something that only Muslims possess.


such as, Tahzib al-Kamal by al-Mizzi, Tahzib al-Tahzib by
Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Mizan al-I’tidal by Dhahabi and Lisan
 by Ibn Hajar are just some examples of this amazing
phenomenon. There are also books that are dedicated to preserving the
biographies of the Sahaba, such as Tabqat of Ibn Sa’d, al-Isti’abby
Ibn Abd al-Barr, Usd al-Ghaba by Ibn al-Athir and al-Isaba by
Ibn Hajar, in which the biographies of approximately ten thousand companions
(Allah be pleased with them all) have been covered.


Imam Abd
Allah ibn al-Mubarak (Allah be pleased with him) said:


Isnad is
part of religion (deen), and if it was not for Isnad, one would
have said whatever one desired. When it is said (to the one who speaks without
an Isnad): “Who informed you? He remains silent and bewildered.”
(See: Introduction to Sahih Muslim, 1/87, al-Jami’ li akhlaq al-rawi wa
adab al-sami’
 and others)


He (Abd
Allah ibn al-Mubarak) also stated:


one who seeks matters of his deen without an Isnad is similar
to the one who climbs to the roof without a ladder.”


al-Thawri (Allah have mercy on him) said:


Isnad is
the weapon of a believer. When one does not possess a weapon, then with what
will he combat?.”


Imam Shafi'i (Allah have mercy on him) says:


example of the one who seeks Hadith without an Isnad is of a
person who gathers wood in the night. He carries a bundle of sticks not knowing
that there is a snake in it.” (meaning, he gathers and collects all types of
narrations, the genuine and spurious, ).


ibn al-Walid (Allah have mercy on him) once related to Hammad ibn Zaid (Allah
have mercy on him) certain narrations that were void of Isnad. So
Hammad said: “If only they had wings.”


Imam Ibn
Taymiyya (Allah have mercy on him) states:


“Isnad is
a unique feature of this Ummah and Islam. Then from among the Muslims, it is a
specialty of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah.”


above statements have been recorded by Shaykh Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda [Allah
have mercy on him] in his excellent work, al-Isnad min al-Din P.


These and
many other similar statements of the predecessors imply that the early Muslims
held Isnad to be indispensable in order to acquire Knowledge.
So much so, that in order to relate even one word in their books, they would
mention a whole chain of transmission that covered three or four lines.


Isnad was not only mentioned in order
to narrate Prophetic traditions (hadith), rather, it was related for every form
of knowledge, such as the exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an, stories of the pious
and worshippers, incidents of history, etc.


After the
Prophetic traditions were gathered in the great compilations, such as Sahih
al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and others, and other compilations in various other
Islamic sciences, it was not deemed necessary to relate every statement with a
chain of transmission going back to its original authority. Rather, it was
sufficient to have an Isnad or Sanad going
back to the author. The Isnad of the author going back to the
original authority would be mentioned in his book.


Till this
very day, we have scholars from around the globe relating Prophetic traditions
and other branches of Islamic knowledge with a chain that goes all the way back
to the authors of the respective books.


The six
major books of Hadith are generally taught with an Isnadthat goes
back to their authors, and from them to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him
& give him peace). Many scholars are seen to travel and make distant
journeys in order to acquire Ijazah[authorization] and
a higher form of Isnad.


In terms
of Isnad with regards to prophetic traditions (hadith), the
scholars of the Indian subcontinent are (perhaps) at the forefront
. The science of Hadith is given
special attention there and almost every student that studies in the various
Islamic institutions (Dar al-Ulooms) is blessed with an Isnad in
each of the major books of Hadith. Even major Arab scholars are seen to
travel to Indo/Pak in order to acquire Ijazah and Isnad from
the great Hadith masters.

In terms
of other branches of knowledge, such as the science of Tajweed, Fiqh, etc, we
see the Arab scholars at the forefront in relating and teaching the various
books with Isnad. Major scholars in Syria and elsewhere have a
chain in the recitation and memorization of the Qur’an that goes back to the
Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) via the angel Jibril
to Allah Almighty Himself.


The major
books in Hanafi Fiqh (and other Madhhabs) are taught with a Isnad/Sanad going
back to their authors and to Sayyiduna Imam Abu Hanifa (Allah be pleased with
him) himself. Books in other sciences are also taught and related in a similar


conclusion, Isnad (or Sanad) is a unique feature
with which our Ummah has been blessed. It has always been regarded to be
indispensable in teaching and seeking knowledge.
 Scholars mention, that even
today, one should acquire knowledge from a scholar who has an Isnad or
at least a teacher who he studied with. Having a complete chain of transmission
is not a pre-requisite for teaching. However, what is necessary, is that the
one from whom one takes his/her knowledge, is amongst those who studied by
other shuyukh. This is discussed further in the following section.


from a qualified teacher


Most High created man different from animals. Animals are not in need of a
teacher or trainer in a way man is. We see for example that, when a fish is
born, it automatically begins to swim without being taught how to do so. If a
man was to take the example of the fish and throw his new-born baby into the
river thinking that he will swim, then he is without doubt insane, for a fish
is not in need of an instructor who instructs it how to swim, while a man needs
a tutor to teach him to swim.


Take the
example of the new-born chick; the moment it comes out of the egg, it begins to
nibble at food without being taught. However, a human baby will not know how to
eat unless it is taught practically how to consume the various types of foods.


It is the
Sunnah (way) of Allah Almighty that he fashioned human beings in such a way
that they are in need of practical instruction from a teacher in order to learn
any science, technique or craft. From the moment one is born, one is in need of
practical teaching and guidance in all aspects of life.


There is
almost consensus on the fact that it is virtually impossible for one to master
any science or art in the world without the guidance and tutelage of a
qualified teacher under whom one practically learns the fundamentals of that
is not possible to gain expertise in any field unless one submits himself to
the guidance of a teacher.


Take for
example the science of medicine. If one was to think that I will read and study
the books on medical science in the comfort of my home, thus become a medical
practitioner, then he will be considered to be insane by almost everybody. If
this individual was to perform surgery on a patient or begins to treat people,
then his patients will not end up anywhere other than the graveyard!


Even if
this individual is very talented and knowledgeable, the guidance of a tutor is
. Suppose
this individual is able to understand the books of medical science and he
masters the language in which the books are written, he will still not be
permitted to work as a physician or surgeon unless he studies under the
guidance of a qualified person in the field of medical science. No government
will ever allow this individual to take up the medical profession, due to the
fact that he did not pursue the method necessary in order to take up this


It is the
same with all the other sciences of the world in that the guidance of a teacher
is necessary. No body would allow you to practice law until you don’t attend a
law school and learn form a qualified barrister. Let alone the major sciences,
even the simple art of cooking is not achieved by merely reading a book. There
are several books published explaining the methods of cooking different types
of food. If an individual who had never cooked in his life before, cooked by
merely reading the procedure of cooking mentioned in the book, then you can
imagined what the outcome would be!


So, it is
the nature of man that he can not acquire knowledge merely from books unless he
has a teacher and mentor to train and guide him. He needs to stay in the
company of a qualified teacher who will help and assist him on every step and
save him from the errors that may be committed. This applies to every science,
art and craft, and sacred and religious knowledge is of no exception. It is not
possible for one to acquire sacred knowledge unless one is trained by a
qualified teacher and mentor.


This is
the secret behind a book or scripture never being revealed except Allah
Almighty sent a Messenger to explain its contents. There are many examples
where a Prophet was sent by Allah Almighty and no book or scripture was
revealed unto him, but there is not a single case where a book was revealed
without a Prophet carrying it.


simple reason behind this is that if a book was sent on its own, man would not
possess the capability to understand it without the teaching of a Prophet. If
Allah wished, He could have sent the book on its own. Every individual could
have found a book when he woke up in the morning, and a voice from the heavens
would have declared: “Obey what is in this book” but Allah, the Creator of
mankind, who is fully aware of the human instincts, chose to send the book with
a teacher who would explain the contents of the book, both practically and


Most High explains this concept in the following verse:


did confer a great favour on the believers when He sent amongst them a
Messenger from among themselves, reciting upon them verses (of the book), sanctifying
them, and teaching them the scripture (book) and wisdom, while before that,
they had been in manifest error.” (Surah Ali Imran, V. 164)


Allah Most High says:


“And We
have sent down unto you (O Messenger) the message, that you may explain clearly
to men what is sent for them.” (al-Nahl, V. 44)


it is the Sunnah of Allah Almighty that He has kept two means for the guidance
of mankind. One is through the medium of His books (kitab Allah) and the
other is the Prophets and their successors. Hence, both, the book of Allah (kitab
) and men of Allah (rijal Allah) are necessary for one’s
guidance. Sufficing with one of the two will surely lead to deviation.


At this
point, it would be useful to quote the great scholar of Usul, Imam al-Shatbi
(Allah have mercy on him). The following is the crux of what he stated on this
issue in his renowned treatise al-Muwafaqat:


“The most
beneficial and effectual way of gaining knowledge is by learning it from those
who are masters in their fields. It is necessary to have a teacher in aspects
of knowledge that need explanation and interpretation. It is not impossible for
one to gain knowledge without a teacher; however, normally it is observed that
a teacher is of utmost importance. This is, somewhat, agreed upon by the


said: “Sacred knowledge was in the hearts of men, then it moved into the books
and the keys to these books are in the hands of scholars (rijal).” This
implies the necessity of acquiring knowledge from the people who master it.


The basis
for this is the Hadith which states:


Allah does not take away knowledge by snatching it from the people but He takes
away knowledge by taking away the scholars, so that when He leaves no learned
person, people appoint ignorant as their leaders. They are asked to deliver
religious verdicts and they deliver them without knowledge, they go astray, and
lead others astray.” (Sahih al-Bukhari & Sahih Muslim)


If this
is so, then the scholars are without doubt the keys for this knowledge.” (al-Muwafaqat)


al-Shatbi (Allah have mercy on him) further mentions three signs and
characteristics of a expert qualified teacher:

1) He practices what he


2) He himself has been trained
by a qualified scholar,


3) His students follow and
pursue in his footsteps, for if his students generally tend to not follow him,
then this is a sign that there is something inherently wrong with him. (ibid)


There are
many benefits and wisdoms in learning from a teacher:Sound
understanding of the texts, its correct interpretation, being saved from making
errors in understanding the texts (for each science has its own special
terminologies) , getting questions and queries that may arise answered,
practical application of the knowledge and obtaining the Baraka and light of
guidance from that special teacher-student relationship are just a few to


conclusion, it is necessary for one that he learns his knowledge from a scholar
of knowledge, piety and wisdom, and who himself has been taught and trained by
a similar scholar. That does not mean it is incumbent for an individual that
each time he picks up a book, he must find a scholar to teach him, rather one
needs to study the fundamentals of each science with those who are qualified,
thus become acquainted with the different terminologies, terms and expressions
used. Thereafter, one may study a book on his own with always referring to
senior scholars whenever something is unclear.


And Allah
Knows Best


Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam Al Kawthari


Leicester , UK

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