In the first section of his Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn, entitled Kitāb al-‘ilm (The Book of Knowledge), Imam Ghazali includes a chapter On the Evils of Knowledge and on Determining the Distinguishing Features of the Scholars of the Hereafter [‘Ulamā’ al-Ākhirah] and those of the Teachers of Falsehood [‘Ulamā’ al-Sū’].
The following is excerpted from the English translation by Nabih Amin Faris (Islamic Book Service, New Delhi, 2002). Minor alterations have been made to the translation and words in square brackets have been added:
‘We have already enumerated the excellence of knowledge and of the scholars, while concerning the teachers of falsehood several important strictures have been mentioned. These strictures have shown that the teachers of falsehood are the most severely punished of all men on the Day of Resurrection. It is therefore very important to ascertain what distinguishes the scholars of this world from the scholars of the Hereafter. By the scholars of this world we mean the teachers of falsehood whose sole purpose in pursuing knowledge is to enjoy the luxuries of this life and to achieve power and position among its people.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “The most severely punished of all men on the day of resurrection will be the scholar whom Allah has not blessed with His knowledge” [al-Tabarani, al-Saghīr 1/182 and al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Īmān #1642]; and again, “No man will be learned unless he puts knowledge into practice” [al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtiḍā’ al-‘ilm al-‘amal #17].
The Prophet ﷺ also said, “Knowledge is of two kinds: formal knowledge which does not go beyond verbal profession – it is the evidence of Allah against His people and according to it He would judge them, and genuine knowledge deep-rooted in the heart – this is the knowledge which is useful” [al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tārīkh Baghdād 5/107-108 and Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jāmi‘ bayān al-‘ilm wa faḍlih #1151].
Muhammad ﷺ also declared, “At the end of time there will be ignorant worshippers and corrupt scholars [‘ulamā’ fussāq]” [Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak 4/315]. He also said, “Acquire not knowledge in order to vie with the learned, dispute with and silence the insolent, and win favour and popularity among men, for whosoever would do this would be doomed to Hell-fire” [Ibn Majah #259], and again “Whoever would conceal his knowledge, would be bridled by Allah with a bit of fire” [Ibn Majah #265].
The Prophet ﷺ also said, “Others make me more afraid for your safety than the anti-Christ (al-Dajjal).” On being asked whom he meant, he replied, “The false teachers” [Musnad Ahmad 5/145]…
Another characteristic expected of the scholar is that he keeps away from the rulers and, as long as he can help it, not to come near them at all, and rather avoid their company despite any efforts on their part to seek him out, because the world is attractive and inviting while the power to dispense with its riches is in their hands. To associate with them, therefore, would necessarily involve the scholar in seeking their approval and winning their hearts, although they are unjust and unrighteous. It is, then, the duty of every religious man to censor them by exposing their tyranny and decrying their practices. For he who frequents their palaces will either seek their favour and consequently forget the blessings which Allah has bestowed upon him, or hold his peace and allow their misdeeds to go uncensored, thereby courting their favour. He may also undertake to justify their sins and improve their standing in order to gain their pleasure, which is the limit in perjury and falsehood. Or he may hope to share their luxury, which is downright lawlessness…
In short, their company is a source of evil and it is, therefore, necessary for the scholar of the Hereafter to be careful and beware.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who goes out to the desert to live becomes hardy and he who devotes himself to the chase becomes unmindful, while he who frequents the company of rulers is led astray” [Abu Dawud #2859]. And again, “You will have rulers some of whom you will find out and then reject. He that rejects them will be acquitted and he that abhors them will be saved. But he that approves of their ways and follows their example will be rejected by Allah.” “Shall we then fight them?” the Prophet was asked. “No,” he replied, “not as long as they pray” [Muslim #1854].
Sufyan al-Thawri said, “There is in Hell a valley which is not inhabited except by the Qur’an readers who frequent the palaces of the king.” [Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jāmi‘ bayān al-‘ilm wa faḍlih #1097] Hudhayfah said, “Expose not yourselves to temptation!” He was then asked, “What temptation?” “The gates of the rulers,” he replied, “into which you enter giving your approval to their lies and praising them for virtues they do not possess” [‘Abd al-Razzaq in al-Musannaf 11/316 and Ḥilyat al-awliyā’ 1/277]…
Al-A‘mash was once told, “You have revived knowledge through your many disciples.” But he said, “Wait! One-third of these disciples pass away before its knowledge matures; another, which hangs around the gates of the rulers, is the worst of all men; while of the remainder only a few succeed” [Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jāmi‘ bayān al-‘ilm wa faḍlih #1115]. For this reason Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyab said, “If you see a scholar frequent the houses of the rulers, beware of him because he is a thief” [cf. al-Daylami, Musnad al-firdows #1077]. Al-Awza‘i said, “There is nothing more hateful to Allah than a learned man who frequents the house of a governor” [cf. al-Daylami, Musnad al-firdows #822 and al-Rafi‘i, al-Tadwīn fī akhbār qazwīn 3/450].
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ also said, “The worst scholars frequent the houses of the rulers while the best rulers frequent the houses of the scholars” [cf. Ibn Majah #256 and Ḥilyat al-awliyā’ 3/243]. Makhul al-Dimashqi said, “He who has studied the Qur’an and mastered the religious sciences yet associates with rulers and flatters them for gain will wade through a sea of fire in the midst of hell and will cross in that flaming sea as many steps as he had taken in the company of rulers” [This narration has been transmitted as a marfū‘ hadith on the authority of Mu‘adh ibn Jabal (ra) with a slightly different wording (cf. Al-Hakim, Tārīkh)].
Samnun once said, “How stupid is the scholar who is continually sought for in his circle but is never found there; and when the caller inquires about his whereabouts he is said to be at the governor’s house” [Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jāmi‘ bayān al-‘ilm wa faḍlih #1117]. He also said, “I often heard it said that whenever it is discovered that a scholar is fond of this world, people should immediately suspect the sincerity of his dīn. Finally I began to do the same myself, so that henceforth I never called on a governor without taking myself to task for it on my leaving him; I usually found that I was to blame despite the fact that, as you well know, I have always confronted him with rude and harsh words and repeatedly contradicted his wishes. Still more I had hoped to be spared altogether the humiliation of calling on him, although I have received nothing, not even a drink of water, from him.” Continuing, Samnun said, “Nevertheless the scholars of our time are even worse than the learned men of Israel: they tender the ruler cheap advice and tell him the thing which would please him. Were they to remind him of his obligations and of the things wherein lies his salvation, he would have found them boring, and would have disliked their visits to him. Yet this would have been their own salvation before their Lord” [Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartīb al madārik 1/357].
Al-Hasan al-Basri said, “There lived before your time a man who had embraced Islam at a very early date and who had enjoyed the company of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. (Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak held that al-Hasan al-Basri had in mind Sa‘d ibn abi Waqqas (ra)). He did not frequent the company of governors; on the contrary he avoided them altogether. And so one day his sons pointed out to him that men whose Islam was not as old as his and who, unlike himself, did not enjoy the company of the Prophet [ﷺ], frequent the company of governors, and asked him why he did not do the same. He replied and said, “O my sons! Shall I go and stand by a stinking corpse surrounded by men? By Allah! If I can help it I shall never join them.” Then his sons said, “We shall then die of starvation, father.” To which he replied, “I would rather starve to death as a believer than die as a fat hypocrite…” [Ibn Abi al-Dunya, al-‘Uzla #202].
Abu Dharr once said to Salamah, “O Salamah, frequent not the company of rulers because you get nothing of their wealth without their robbing you of something better of your dīn” [Ibn Abi Shayba, al-Muṣannaf #37778].
As a matter of fact this constitutes a great temptation which confronts scholars and places in the hand of Satan a terrible instrument which he can use against them, especially in the case of the scholar who has a pleasing voice and an attractive speech. Satan persists in whispering in his ear that through his preaching and visits to them he may be able to turn them away from injustice and to induce them to observe the dictates of the law, until finally the scholar imagines that his visits to rulers are an integral part of the dīn. However, no sooner does he call on the governors than he begins to pay them compliments and flatter them with praise and eulogy, wherein lies the destruction of the dīn.
Thus it is said: “When the true scholars acquire knowledge they go to work accordingly and when they go to work they become absorbed in their work, and when they become absorbed in their work they lose their interest in this world, and when they lose interest in this world they seek the way of Allah, and when they seek the way of Allah they turn their back and flee from the world” [Ḥilyat al-awliyā’ 5/234].
‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz wrote to al-Hasan [al-Basri] saying, “Peace be upon you. Recommend to me some on whom I can call for aid to enforce the ordinances of Allah.” Al-Hasan replied, “The people of the dīn will have nothing to do with you, and of the people of this world you will have none. Seek, therefore, the noble for they will not dishonour themselves by committing treason” [Abu Talib al-Makki, Qūt al-qulūb 1/134] If it is the duty of the people of the dīn to stand aloof even from such a ruler as ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz who was the greatest ascetic of his time, how then can it be fitting for them to seek and associate with other rulers?
The early scholars, such as al-Hasan al-Basri, al-Thawri, Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Fudayl, Ibrahim ibn Adham, and Yusuf ibn Asbat, repeatedly censored the scholars of this world, both Makkans and Syrians and others, either for their fondness for this world or for associating with rulers.’
[To view the Arabic text of this chapter from Imam Ghazali’s Iḥyā’, please click here]