Worshiping is good but acquiring knowledge is better

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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

a2.1 (Nawawi:) Allah Most High says:

(1) “Say, ‘Are those who know anad 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).

a2.2 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 benefitted from, or a pious son who prays for him.”

(4) “A single learned Muslim is harder on the Devil than a thousand worshippers.”

(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.”

a2.3 ‘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.”

a2.4 Abu Darda’ (Allah be well pleased with him) said,

“Teaching Sacred Knowledge for a brief time is better than spending a night in prayer.”

a2.5 Yahya ibn Abi Kathir said,

“Studying Sacred Knowledge is a prayer.”

a2.6 Sufyan al-Thawri and Shafi’i said,

“There is nothing after what is obligatory that is superior to seeking Sacred Knowledge.”

a2.7 (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.


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  1. I think the writer needed to make an absolutely essential qualification. Not every man of knowledge is superior to the worshiper. What about him who knows,but does not live by that knowledge? Nor are all kinds of knowledge commended. What about profane knowledge,Sorcery, for an example? Moreover, knowledge is not an end in Islam. It is an essential means to a superior end. The end of Islam is to ‘be’, ‘be’ that inwardly and outwardly which pleases Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

  2. In Islam there is no division of sacred and profane knowledge, and consequently, the

    pursuit of physical science is an act of Ibadah (worship). It is true that the highest

    level of knowledge is the knowledge of deen (religion), but the process of knowledge

    is such that one cannot understand the highest level of knowledge unless one builds

    up the lower.

    The foundation of physical science is based on three principles: •

    -unity of mankind

    • -unity of knowledge

    • -unity of nature

    The first one to give these principles of unity (tawhred) was the Holy Prophet (saw)

    Why is it that three-quarters of the verses of the Holy Quran refer to natural

    phenomena? And after these verses we are told:

    “In these are the guidelines for those who use their reasoning powers.”

    (Q 13:4)

    So, we need to unite knowledge ,ie. Knowledge in the Quran and Hadith with the

    scientific knowledge. All knowledge is created by Allah.

  3. Knowledge, No Doubt will make a huge difference. This is the first step in Islah/Self rectification: in the way of Islam (Quran & Sunnah) by seeking/providing more authentic knowledge of Islam.

    This will help us to differentiate between real Islam and Innovations and make us good Muslims(and dawah/daaees. Quran 12:108 ‘Say: This is my path, I call unto Allah upon sure knowledge.’) and we can practice based on Quran and Sunnah and avoid us to get deviated beliefs/innovations/Bidaa.

    Quran 13:11 ‘Allah does not change what any people have until they change what is in themselves.’

    Quran (20:114) “Say, O Lord, Increase in my Knowledge”

    Hadith: “Seeking knowledge is a religious obligation for every Muslim”. (Bayhaqi, Ibn Majah)

    Shaykhul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah ‘This is why those who are in authority are of two groups: the Scholars and the Rulers. If they are upright, the people will be upright; if they are corrupt, the people will be corrupt.’

    Consequences of no Knowledge/Education in Islam: Please remember if we do not do Islah (self-Rectification by education/knowledge) and Dawah (clearing misconceptions/educating Non-Muslims), the things will get worse and we will be responsible for our own calamities and the coming generations will be greatly affected.

    If Muslims do not learn/get educated to convey the ‘Truth of Islam’ then some so called Muslims: hypocrites and with ill knowledge & Non-Muslims will take over and they will spread the fabricated and distorted messages about the true Islam-This is what is presently happening! For indeed they propagate false beliefs and theories.