The following is excerpted from the book “Reliance of the Traveler.” The Classic Manual of Islamic Law ‘Umdat al-Salik by Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri (d769/1368) English translation by Nuh Ha Mim Keller.
Superiority of Knowledge over Devotions
(Nawawi:) Allah Most High says:
(1) “Say, ‘Are those who know and those who do not know equal?’ ” (Koran 39:9).
(2) “Only the knowledgeable of His slaves fear Allah” (Koran 35:28).
(3) “Allah raises those of you who believe and those who have been given knowledge whole degrees” (Koran 58:11).
The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
(1) “Whoever Allah wishes well, He gives knowledge of religion.”
(2) The superiority of the learned Muslim over the devotee is as my superiority over the least of you.” Then the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Allah and His angels, the inhabitants of the heavens and the earth, the very ant in its anthill and the fish bless those who teach people what is good.”
(3) “When a human being dies his work comes to an end except for three things: ongoing charity, knowledge benefited from, or a pious son who prays for him.”
(4) “A single learned Muslim is harder on the Devil than a thousand worshipers.”
(5) “Whoever travels a path seeking knowledge Allah makes easy for him a path to paradise.
“Angels lower their wings for the seeker of knowledge out of pleasure in what he seeks.
“Those in the heavens and the earth, and the very fish in the water ask Allah to forgive the person endowed with Sacred Knowledge.
“The superiority of the learned Muslim over the devotee is like the superiority of the moon over all the stars.
“The learned are the heirs of the prophets. The prophets have not bequeathed dinar nor dirham, but have only left Sacred Knowledge, and whoever takes it has taken an enormous share.”
(6) “He who calls others to guidance shall receive the like of the reward of those who follow him without this diminishing their own reward in the slightest. And he who calls others to misguidance shall bear the like of the sins of those who follow him without this diminishing their own sins.”
(7) “He who goes forth to seek Sacred Knowledge is in the way of Allah [syn. jihad, def: o9] until he returns.”
(8) “This world and what is in it are accursed [dis: w5] except for the remembrance of Allah, that which Allah loves, someone with Sacred Knowledge, or someone learning it.”
Ali ibn Abi Talib (Allah be well pleased with him) said,
“The religious scholar is greater in reward than the fighter in the way of Allah who fasts the day and prays the night.”
Abu Darda’ (Allah be well pleased with him) said,
“Teaching Sacred Knowledge for a brief time is better than spending a night in prayer.”
Yahya ibn Abi Kathir said,
“Studying Sacred Knowledge is a prayer.”
Sufyan al-Thawri and Shafi’i said,
“There is nothing after what is obligatory that is superior to seeking Sacred Knowledge.”
(Nawawi:) There are similar statements from whole groups of early Muslims I have not mentioned that are like those I have quoted, the upshot of which is that they concur that devoting one’s time to Sacred Knowledge is better than devoting it to voluntary fasting or prayer, better than saying “Subhan Allah” (lit. “Exalted is Allah above any limitation”), or other supererogatory devotions. Among the proofs for this, besides the foregoing, is that:
(1) The benefit of Sacred Knowledge affects both its possessor and the Muslims, while the above-mentioned supererogatory works are confined to oneself;
(2) Sacred Knowledge validates, so other acts of worship require it, though not vice versa;
(3) Scholars are the heirs of the prophets, while devotees are not characterized as such;
(4) The devotee follows the scholar, being led by and imitating him in worship and other acts, obeying him being obligatory and not the other way around;
(5) The benefit and effect of Sacred Knowledge remain after its possessor departs, while supererogatory works cease with the death of their doer;
(6) Knowledge is an attribute of Allah Most High;
(7) Sacred Knowledge, meaning the knowledge we are discussing, is a communal obligation (def: c3.2), and it is thus better than the supererogatory. The Imam of the Two Sanctuaries (A: Juwayni) says in his book al-Ghiyathi that “the communal obligation is superior to the personal obligation in that the person performing it fulfills the need of the Islamic Nation (Umma) and lifts the obligation from it, while the obligation of the individual is restricted to himself.” And success is through Allah [al- Majmu’ (y 108), 1.18-22].
Nuh Ha Mim Keller is an American Muslim scholar of Islam. He has translated several Islamic books of Arabic to English. He is a specialist in Islamic law. He currently lives in Amman, Jordan and is considered one of the foremost Muslim theologians.