In an age where information is accessible at our fingertips and with e-learning becoming more relevant than physical classes, one might lose touch with the organic and respectful relationship between a student and a teacher.
In this time of e-classes, it may seem like the etiquette of learning does not apply or is not relevant. For example, we may think that it is fine to talk to someone else, even though it’s not urgent or necessary while our teacher is teaching.
Let us take this opportunity to refresh our knowledge about the relationship between a teacher and a student in Islam. In fact, I believe that the etiquette of learning is even more relevant and needed in this age to preserve the sanctity of knowledge and its inheritors.
Allah s.w.t. has clearly raised and mentioned the ranks of scholars and inheritors of knowledge in the Quran:
قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ إِنَّمَا يَتَذَكَّرُ أُوْلُوا الْأَلْبَابِ
Are those who know equal to those who do not know? None will be mindful (of this) except people of reason
(Surah Az-Zumar, 39:9)
یَرۡفَعِ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِینَ ءَامَنُوا۟ مِنكُمۡ وَٱلَّذِینَ أُوتُوا۟ ٱلۡعِلۡمَ دَرَجَـٰتࣲۚ وَٱللَّهُ بِمَا تَعۡمَلُونَ خَبِیرࣱ
Allah will raise up, by many degrees, those of you who believe and those who have been given knowledge: He is fully aware of what you do
(Surah Al-Mujadila, 58:11)
The Prophet s.a.w. once said in his hadith:
وَإِنَّ الْعَالِمَ لَيَسْتَغْفِرُ لَهُ مَنْ فِي السَّمَوَاتِ وَمَنْ فِي الأَرْضِ وَالْحِيتَانُ فِي جَوْفِ الْمَاءِ وَإِنَّ فَضْلَ الْعَالِمِ عَلَى الْعَابِدِ كَفَضْلِ الْقَمَرِ لَيْلَةَ الْبَدْرِ عَلَى سَائِرِ الْكَوَاكِبِ وَإِنَّ الْعُلَمَاءَ وَرَثَةُ الأَنْبِيَاءِ وَإِنَّ الأَنْبِيَاءَ لَمْ يُوَرِّثُوا دِينَارًا وَلاَ دِرْهَمًا وإنما وَرَّثُوا الْعِلْمَ فَمَنْ أَخَذَهُ أَخَذَ بِحَظٍّ وَافِرٍ
The inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth, and the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned man. The merit of the knowledgeable person in comparison the devout is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither dinar nor dirham, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it have acquired an abundant portion.
(Sunan Abi Daud)
Imam Asy-Syafie is one of the pillars in Islamic legal thought and was the first to formulate the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. His contribution to the lives of Muslims in various parts of the world remains evident until today. Apart from his contributions in knowledge, we can definitely learn from his meaningful life stories, particularly in his exchanges with his teachers and students, showing us the beautiful student-teacher relationship that we can benefit from.
Here are 3 impactful reminders from Imam As-Syafie on how to treat our teachers well:
Within our tradition, we are encouraged to ask constructive questions and have fruitful discussions while seeking knowledge. However, there are times when discussions could get heated and turn into arguments. If we are not careful, we may end up getting upset, yelling, using sarcasm, or being condescending.
Knowledge seekers can disagree with their teachers while still being respectful of their thoughts and opinions. We should also expand our readings beyond respective specialisations so that we may understand both sides before arguing an opinion.
Let us recall the etiquette of Imam Asy-Syafie, who was a student of Imam Malik Ibn Anas and Muhammad bin Hasan Asy-Syaibani. He respected his teachers so much that he ensured that his conscience and intentions are clear before disagreeing with them. Imam As-Syafie once said:
مَا نَاظَرْتُ أَحَدًا قَطُّ إِلا أَحْبَبْتُ أَنْ يُوَفَّقَ وَيُسَدَّدَ وَيُعَانَ وَيَكُونَ عَلَيْهِ رِعَايَةٌ مِنَ اللَّهِ وَحِفْظٌ وَمَا نَاظَرْتُ أَحَدًا إِلا وَلَمْ أُبَالِ بَيَّنَ اللَّهُ الْحَقَّ عَلَى لِسَانِي أَوْ لسانه
I never debated anyone except that I would love for him to be successful, directed, aided, and for him to be under the care of Allah and His protection. And I never debated with anyone but that I did not mind whether Allah has put the truth on my tongue or his tongue.
Imam ibn Hasan Asy-Syaibani described and praised Imam As-Syafie as a student who was calm and composed in his ability to ask questions respectfully and listened carefully when he faced opposing views.
He was patient towards his teachers in his pursuit of knowledge. He remained in Madinah where his teacher Imam Malik was residing at and would only leave Madinah when he wanted to visit his mother or go on educational trips to other cities. Before heading to these cities, he would let Imam Malik know. Imam As-Syafie once said:
اِصبِر عَلى مُرِّ الجَفا مِن مُعَلِّمٍ فَإِنَّ رُسوبَ العِلمِ في نَفَراتِهِ
Be patient with the bitter harshness (strictness) of a teacher, for the stores of knowledge are present in his harshness.
Imam Asy-Syafie showed much veneration and respect for his teachers. Also, out of respect for our teachers’ time and efforts, we can strive to focus on our teachers during our classes and avoid doing other unnecessary things.
Imam As-Syafie was indeed a knowledgeable person, and despite that, he wasn’t shy to learn from many teachers.
Aside from one’s willingness to learn from different teachers and asking questions to understand different or opposing views, writing notes is also a sign of humility and respect one has towards knowledge. It shows that the student is attentive and takes an interest in the class.
Even though Imam As-Syafie was reported to be gifted with a photographic memory that enabled him to memorize the Quran at the age of 7, he made sure that he wrote down everything he learnt from his teachers.
Without humility, this would not have been possible. He says in his Diwan (compilation of notes and poems):
العلم صيد والكتابة قيده، قيد صيودك بالحبال الواثقة، فمن الحماقة أن تصيد غزالة، وتتركها بين الخلائق طالقة
Knowledge is a hunt, and writing is a rope, so tie your hunt down with a sure (tight) rope! For it is naive to capture a deer, and then let it wander freely between people!
Teachers are human beings too. We never know what their struggles are. Thus, we should always be kind and show empathy.
Imam As-Syafie was so empathetic towards his teachers to the extent that he used to turn pages and papers carefully so that he would not cause even the slightest noise that may disrupt his teachers. Such mindfulness in his conduct as a student was exemplary.
It was recorded by Ibn Al-Jauziy in the biography of Imam As-Syafie that he did not have anything to give or offer to his teacher as a sign of appreciation and empathy. That surely did not stop him. Instead, Imam As-Syafie offered the service of taking care of the teacher’s children when he was away, hoping to ease his affairs.
In the current situation where lessons are available online, let’s try our best to understand the thoughts, feelings or emotions of our teachers. If they seem weary or tired, we can practise empathy and not ask too many questions. These are some of advices that we may find Imam Az-Zarnuji's book entitled 'Instruction of the Student: The Method of Learning'.
Other advices include; to refrain from intruding into their private time. We can respect our teachers’ privacy by consulting at the correct time. Whenever possible, we should also ask if they need any help in their lessons.
May Allah s.w.t. bless our teachers and join us amongst His righteous and guided servants.
And Allah knows best.