“When knowledge becomes too convenient, it will never settle in the heart.”(1)
In these modern times, with the internet, social media, YouTube etc. We are blessed with the accessibility of knowledge at the click of a button, yet cursed with the convenience that has robbed us from the struggle of attaining knowledge.
One of the most beautiful stories about attaining knowledge found in the Qur’an is the meeting of Musa (as) and Khidhr (as). Allah (swt) sent his Prophet (sawa), Musa (as), to meet and learn from a particular servant of Allah (swt), al-Khidhr (as), who had been given mercy and certain esoteric knowledge that Musa (as) did not have.
The desire of this knowledge that was out of the reach of Musa (as) is where the story begins, with the first lesson being Musa (as) declaring his commitment in seeking this knowledge. He says:
وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِفَتَاهُ لَا أَبْرَحُ حَتَّىٰ أَبْلُغَ مَجْمَعَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ أَوْ أَمْضِيَ حُقُبًا
And [mention] when Moses said to his servant, “I will not cease [traveling] until I reach the junction of the two seas or continue for a long period.”(2)
Here Musa (as) was so committed to this knowledge, he claims that he would never stop searching for this knowledge until he attains it. This is in contrast to many of us that quite readily give up after the first page of “shaykh” google did not give us the answer.
This willingness to seek knowledge closely resonates with the mursal hadith attributed to the Prophet (sawa):
اطلبوا العلم ولو بالصين ، فإن طلب العلم فريضة على كل مسلم
“Seek knowledge even unto China, for the seeking of knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.”(3)
Notice how Allah (swt) forced Musa (as) to go and search for this knowledge, and did not lead al-Khidhr (as) to Musa (as) at the comfort of his own home.
The second important lesson is that Allah (swt) ensured that Musa (as) met his teacher, al-Khidhr (as), on an empty stomach. Allah (swt) says:
فَلَمَّا جَاوَزَا قَالَ لِفَتَاهُ آتِنَا غَدَاءَنَا لَقَدْ لَقِينَا مِن سَفَرِنَا هَٰذَا نَصَبًا قَالَ أَرَأَيْتَ إِذْ أَوَيْنَا إِلَى الصَّخْرَةِ فَإِنِّي نَسِيتُ الْحُوتَ وَمَا أَنسَانِيهُ إِلَّا الشَّيْطَانُ أَنْ أَذْكُرَهُ ۚ وَاتَّخَذَ سَبِيلَهُ فِي الْبَحْرِ عَجَبًا قَالَ ذَٰلِكَ مَا كُنَّا نَبْغِ ۚ فَارْتَدَّا عَلَىٰ آثَارِهِمَا قَصَصًا فَوَجَدَا عَبْدًا مِّنْ عِبَادِنَا آتَيْنَاهُ رَحْمَةً مِّنْ عِندِنَا وَعَلَّمْنَاهُ مِن لَّدُنَّا عِلْمًا
So when they had passed beyond it, [Moses] said to his boy, “Bring us our morning meal. We have certainly suffered in this, our journey, [much] fatigue.” He said, “Did you see when we retired to the rock? Indeed, I forgot [there] the fish. And none made me forget it except Satan – that I should mention it. And it took its course into the sea amazingly”. [Moses] said, “That is what we were seeking.” So they returned, following their footprints. And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge.(4)
Interestingly, we find the story starts with Musa (as) being hungry, and ends with Musa (as) also being hungry – just as al-Khidhr (as) was to give his final lesson in explaining the esoteric secrets of each action taken throughout the journey:
فَانطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَتَيَا أَهْلَ قَرْيَةٍ اسْتَطْعَمَا أَهْلَهَا فَأَبَوْا أَن يُضَيِّفُوهُمَا فَوَجَدَا فِيهَا جِدَارًا يُرِيدُ أَن يَنقَضَّ فَأَقَامَهُ ۖ قَالَ لَوْ شِئْتَ لَاتَّخَذْتَ عَلَيْهِ أَجْرًا قَالَ هَٰذَا فِرَاقُ بَيْنِي وَبَيْنِكَ ۚ سَأُنَبِّئُكَ بِتَأْوِيلِ مَا لَمْ تَسْتَطِع عَّلَيْهِ صَبْرًا
So they set out, until when they came to the people of a town, they asked its people for food, but they refused to offer them hospitality. And they found therein a wall about to collapse, so al-Khidhr restored it. [Moses] said, “If you wished, you could have taken for it a payment.” [Al-Khidhr] said, “This is parting between me and you. I will inform you of the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience.(5)
Although this may seem like a trivial point, Allah (swt) mentioned it for a specific reason. Perhaps, He (swt) wanted to emphasise the importance of having an empty stomach when seeking knowledge – which is reported through many hadiths of the infallibles.
In a marfoo` hadith attributed to the Prophet (sawa), he (sawa) said:
نور الحكمة الجوع والتباعد من الله الشبع والقربة إلى الله حب المساكين
The light of wisdom is hunger, and the distancing from Allah (swt) is a full stomach, and the nearness to Allah (swt) is love for the poor.(6)
Thus, we find in this story Musa (as) was prevented by Allah (swt) to eat and ensured he was on an empty stomach, while instead he (as) helped the poor (through the first story of the hole in the boat).
It is reported the Prophet (sawa) also said:
لا تشبعوا فيطفأ نور المعرفة من قلوبكم
Do not fill your stomachs, for the light of cognizance (ma`rifah) will be extinguished from your heart.(7)
Not only was Musa (as) endeavouring to walk on and on to seek knowledge, he was also exhausted and enduring hunger. Allah (swt) displays the etiquette we must adopt in seeking knowledge. There is no comfort or rest in the body when it comes to attaining the divine blessing of `ilm. As Imam Ali (as) has reportedly stated:
لا يدرك العلم براحة الجسم
Knowledge is not attained with a comfortable/relaxed body.(8)
In conclusion we see that seeking knowledge is not one in which we can have an “arm-chair” relationship with. This age of accessibility of knowledge is in danger of becoming the age of ignorance – where we demand, or expect, answers and wisdom to be given to us as fast as our ADSL2+ connection speed, while we eat our Doritos in the meantime. This “spoon-feeding” goes against the blessings and essence of seeking knowledge. More importantly, if we do not find the answer we are looking for within a few moments, we either give up and sweep it under the carpet, or we wage war with our intellect and accept any cheap answer to satisfy our conscience.
We must be prepared to travel great lengths to reach our goal, while these days attending the masjid seems to be a struggle. We must have the correct mindset, starting with an empty stomach – while these days we cannot attend prayers without thinking about our next meal. We must have a passion to find the truth no matter where it takes us, while these days we only take what suits our bias and reject anything that goes against our whims.
Indeed, this path of seeking knowledge is long and hard. Yes, we will get frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed, helpless, lost and impatient – just as Musa (as) did with Khidhr (as) – but surely with that hardship, the knowledge we gain will be stamped in our heart. We must struggle and strive, and hope that we are worthy of Allah (swt) bestowing the light of wisdom in our hearts. In the words attributed to Ameer al-Mu’mineen, Ali ibn abi Taleb (as):
الشاخص في طلب العلم كالمجاهد في سبيل الله
The one who is occupied in the seeking of knowledge is as the mujahid in the path of Allah.(3)
- This piece was inspired by the words of Sh. Azhar Nasser in his lecture titled: Musa and the Mysteries
- Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf, 18:60, Translation: Sahih International
- Wasaa’il al-Shia, Volume 27, Page 27, Hadith #33120
- Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf, 18:62-65, Translation: Sahih International
- Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf, 18:77-78, Translation: Sahih International
- Makarim al-Akhlaq, Page 149
- Makarim al-Akhlaq, Page 150
- Ghurur al-Hikam, #10684