Thursday

13th Century Advice for Students


Recently, I discovered a fantastic quote from 13th century historian Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi in George Makdisi's The Rise of Colleges

The quote contains advice to students, ranging from practical matters of study to spiritual and moral counsel.

First, Al-Baghdadi's language is absolutely beautiful, as we see here:
"[L]earning leaves a trail and a scent proclaiming its possessor; a ray of light and brightness shining on him, pointing him out; like the musk merchant whose location cannot be hidden."
This text also gives us a fantastic and comprehensive appraisal of the utmost concerns for Medieval Muslim students and teachers alike, and the hardships they should expect on their path to acquire knowledge.

Enjoy!



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Advice to Students by Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 629/1231) Historian of Egypt, 'Uyun al-Anba by Ibn Abi 'Usaibi'a:
Every night, as you go to bed, you must call yourself to account, and look to see what good deed you have accomplished during your day, thanking God for it; and what evil deed you have committed, that you may ask His forgiveness, resolving not to repeat it. Then concentrate on what good deeds you can perform the next day, asking Him to help you do them. 
I commend you not to learn your sciences from books unaided, even though you may trust your ability to understand. Resort to professors for each science you seek to acquire; and should your professor be limited in his knowledge take all that he can offer, until you find another more accomplished than he. You must venerate and respect him; and if you can render him assistance from your worldly goods, do so; if not, then do so by word of mouth, singing his praises. 
When you read a book, make every effort to learn it by heart and master its meaning. Imagine the book to have disappeared and that you can dispense with it, unaffected by its loss. Once you apply yourself eagerly to studying a book, trying to understand it, take care not to work on another, spending on it time which should be reserved for the one alone. 
Also, take care not to work on two subjects all at once, rather devote yourself steadily to the one subject for a year or two, or whatever period is necessary. Then when you have achieved your purpose with it, pass on to the next. Nor should you suppose that when you have acquired a science you can rest easy; on the contrary, you will have to keep it up so that it will grow and not diminish. The way to do this is to keep it in fresh rehearsal, calling it often to mind; and if you are a beginner, by reading aloud, and studying, and holding discussions with your peers. If an accomplished scholar, then by teaching and writing books. When you undertake to teach a science or to engage in a disputation on it, do not mix it with another; for every science is sufficient unto itself, able to manage without others. Your having recourse to one science for another is indicative of your inability to exhaust its contents, as one who would make use of one language for another when he knows it (imperfectly), or is ignorant of some part of it. 
One should read histories, study biographies and the experiences of nations. By doing this, it will be as though, in his short life span, he lived contemporaneously with peoples of the past, was on intimate terms with them, and knew the good and the bad among them.
You should model your conduct on that of the early Muslims. Therefore, read the biography of the Prophet, study his deeds and concerns, follow in his footsteps, and try your utmost to imitate him. When you come to know his habits regarding food, drink, clothing, sleep, waking, sickness, medical treatment, enjoyments and the use of perfumes, and his relations with his Lord, his wives, his companions and his enemies, when you come to know this, and do ever so little of what you have learned, then you will be a completely happy person. 
You should frequently distrust your nature, rather than have a good opinion of it, submitting your thoughts to men of learning and their works, proceeding with caution and avoiding haste. Do not be conceited, for vanity will make you stumble, and obstinacy will bring about your downfall. He who has not sweat his brow going to the doors of the learned, will not strike roots in excellence. He who has not been put to shame by the learned, will not be treated with deference by the people; and he who has not been censured by the learned, will not prevail. He who has not endured the stress of study, will not taste the joy of knowledge. He who does not toil, will not prosper. 
When you have finished your study and reflection, occupy your tongue with the mention of God's name, and sing His praises, especially at bedtime, so that your very essence becomes soaked up and your imagination permeated with Him, and you talk of Him in your sleep. 
When you experience some joy or pleasure in worldly things, remind yourself of death and the transient quality of life and its various frustrations. When something saddens you, say, 'We belong to God and to Him is our return!' When you commit a heedless act, say 'I ask God's forgiveness!' Keep the idea of death ever before your eyes, and make learning and piety your provisions on the road to the Hereafter. 
When you want to disobey God, seek out a place to do so where He cannot see you. But know that people serve as the eyes of God on His servant, showing them the good that is in him though he may hide it, and the evil, though he may conceal it; so that his innermost self is exposed to God, and God exposes it to His servants. Take care, therefore, to make your innermost self better than your outward self, and your private life more radiant than your life in public. 
Do not complain if this world should turn its back on you; for were it to turn its attention to you, it would distract you from the acquisition of excellent qualities. Rarely does a rich man delve deeply into learning, unless he is very high-minded or that he became rich only after having acquired the learning. I am not saying that this world turns away from the seeker of knowledge; on the contrary, it is he who turns away from it because his efforts are dedicated to learning; so he has no time left for things worldly. And worldly things are acquired only through avidity and much thought given to their ways and means; so when he neglects the means to acquire them, they do not come to him of themselves. Moreover, the seeker knowledge is too high-minded to be involved in base occupations, demeaning profits, all sorts of trafficking, lowering oneself to mean of wealth and waiting in attendance at their doors.
One of my friends has this verse say in this regard: 
He who strives earnestly in quest of the sciences
Is allowed by their dignity to escape the baseness of avid acquisition. 
All methods of acquiring the things of this world call for spare time, skill and complete application. The student occupied with his studies is capable of none of this. Yet he expects the world to come to him without having the means at his disposal, that it seek him out without his striving for it as he would for anything else; that is wrong and excessive on his part. On the other hand, when a man masters his subject and becomes famous for it, he is courted from all sides, and offers of posts are made to him; the world comes to him submissive, and he takes it without sacrificing his dignity; his honour and piety are kept chaste. 
Know that learning leaves a trail and a scent proclaiming its possessor; a ray of light and brightness shining on him, pointing him out; like the musk merchant whose location cannot be hidden, nor his wares unknown; like the torch-bearer walking in the deep black of the night. Moreover the learned man is esteemed in whatever place of condition he may be, always meeting people who are favourably disposed to him, who draw near to him and seek his company, gratified in being close to him. Know, too, that the sciences seep away, then spring forth for a time, like vegetation or water springs; they shift from people to people, and from country to country.

Quoted in The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi, Edinburgh University Press, 1981. pp. 88-91

3 comments:

  1. Excerpt:[When you want to disobey God, seek out a place to do so where He cannot see you. But know that people serve as the eyes of God on His servant, showing them the good that is in him though he may hide it, and the evil, though he may conceal it; so that his innermost self is exposed to God, and God exposes it to His servants. Take care, therefore, to make your innermost self better than your outward self, and your private life more radiant than your life in public.]

    Hello dear friend (if i may call you that way),
    I was just puzzled with the first sentence in the paragraph above. It flies in the face of what we (and I) as Muslims believe about the Omniscience and Omnipresence of Allah (swT) with respect not only to our deeds, but also to our very thoughts and intentions. So, given the the text you provided is written by an early Islamic scholar, it seems so contradictory with our belief in Allah (swt) characteristics as Exalted He described Himself with in Qur'an. It rings rather wrong that an Islamic scholar of such caliber would give such an advice. Perhaps, it is an instance of mistranslation, and correct me if I am wrong.
    Other than that, thanks for the post. I enjoyed read :)

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    1. Thank you Brother Ismail, and you're correct about that passage. It threw me for a loop as well. I can't check for a mistranslation because the text is not mine, it's from George Makdisi's book, which I cite at the end of the article.

      I'm sure it wasn't his intention to contravene the doctrine of an Ominiscient God, and perhaps what he was trying to say, and what was perhaps lost in translation, is that if you decide to Sin do so in private. But as he says at the end of the paragraph he says your inner self should be better than your private self.

      But God Knows Best!

      On a related note, there's a relevant story about the Moroccan Sufi Abu al-Abbas al-Sabti. When he began to study with his Sheikh, the Sheikh gave Al-Sabti and each of the other students of his a dove and told them to leave him and go to kill the dove somewhere where God could not see them. They were to return the next day and explain what they had done.

      The following morning, all of the students showed up empty-handed and with guilty looks on their faces, except al-Sabti who still had his pigeon in hand. His Sheikh asked him why he didn't kill the pigeon and he said that he couldn't find a place where God could not see him because God is the all-Seeing, all-Knowing.

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    2. Thanks for your feedback. I actually noticed that the excerpt was taken from Makdisi's book, but after I posted my comment :)
      And thanks for the story of Abu al-Abbas al-Sabti. I did in fact heard it before, but it is always good to have reminders ;)
      ba'arak Allah fik

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