At times while seeking knowledge or being involved in Islamic work, some students ask questions, feeling that this is the “M.O.” of a student of knowledge. No doubt that asking questions is a part of learning, however it is neither the first part nor the most important.
Several of the pious predecessors are reported to have said that knowledge has steps; the first is silence, the second is attentive listening, the third memorization, the fourth acting according to that knowledge, and the fifth spreading it. Another important principle stated by them is that knowledge is not passed on through mere questions and answers, asking for fatwa, or insistently prying for replies. Knowledge is passed on through study and review, questions and answers merely help solidify that knowledge.
Many people ask questions and are surprised at the reaction they get from those that they ask. Not every one who asks a question necessarily tries to annoy or incapacitate the person of knowledge they are asking. There are some however who ask not to particularly ask, but instead to show that he or she knows what they are asking about, show off to those around them that the scholar is ignorant of something that they have knowledge of, or merely to annoy the shaykh being questioned.
Some people ask questions saying such things as “I know such and such thing is correct, I just want to know why?” or “Such and such is a fact! Isn’t that right?” or “People that have such and such problem are really bad, but those that follow [insert this persons particular understanding] don’t have that problem now do they?” Scholars have said that what is even worse than this is after a person asks, he answers the shaykh’s answer saying “yeh, I knew that” or “OK, I was just checking, I heard that before” or things similar to this.
These types of questions and others are clear signs of acting in bad character with the shaykh, as they are even worse signs of acting in bad character with God himself, not having a pure intention in seeking the knowledge which God sent down not to only be learned but to be followed and worshiped by.
Not everyone asking a question means to do one of the above, and some who do so outwardly may have good intentions. However the issue of good character when asking a question can be forgotten, and for this reason many of the pious predecessors would rebuke those who asked in a manner which was demeaning to the knowledge being asked about.
Imam al-Dhahabi records in his al-Siyar[11/177]:
…that Imam Malik was teaching in a study-circle of knowledge when he was asked about an issue of inheritance and so he answered the questioner with the opinion of Zayd ibn Thabit. At this a man named Ismail ibn bint al-Suddi said to him “What did Ali and Ibn Mas’ud say about this!?”
Imam Malik signaled the guards of the Masjid, who came after Ismail; he was too quick for them and escaped leaving his belongings behind him. The guards asked “What should we do with his books and the pen he left?” Imam Malik said “Find him and kindly ask him to come here. Be gentle with him.”
They brought him to Imam Malik who said to him: “Where are you from?”
Ismail replied “From al-Kufah.”
Malik said “So where did you leave your manners?”
“I only asked the question so as to benefit.” Ismail said.
Malik said “Ali and Abdullah’s virtue is not denied by anyone, yet the people of our land follow the opinion of Zayd. If you are amongst a people and you bring up things they don’t know then expect for them to confront you with things you dislike.”
Now we all ask “Well shouldn’t we discuss issues?” and the answer is yes. However every discussion should be done with manners, especially with those of knowledge amongst us. It is no less than a crime for you to ask about things that you already know wanting to show off or prove your personal virtue to the people, seeking to demean others through promoting yourself.
The Prophet, May God shower his graces upon him, has said
“He is not from us, the one who does not respect our elderly, show mercy to our youth, and does not recognize the rights of our scholars.”
– narrated by Ahmad and al-Hakim.