Navigating religious knowledge on the method of Aisha

Ustadha Jinan Yousef

Living in the information age, it has never been easier to access data. While this means that knowledge is now accessible to most, we are faced with information (and misinformation) overload. Thus, basic critical thinking and information literacy is crucial, particularly when it comes to religious knowledge. Part of the reason many of us are left with less clarity is because we are bombarded with decontextualized and oftentimes incorrect teachings. Instead of strengthening our conviction, we feel more isolated from our faith and more doubtful of its teachings.

Clarifying what causes us doubt is our responsibility. But where do we start when we read online that a certain issue is established? Or someone quotes what they say is an authentic statement from the Prophet ﷺ? Or we hear a short clip of someone who looks like a scholar with authority?

We can start with the methodology of our mother, Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her.

The methodology of Aisha (ra)

Aisha (ra) was intelligent — a scholar and teacher in her own right — who asked questions, corrected others when she saw mistakes, and never hesitated to defer to others when she did not know. Let us take some lessons:

1. When you do not understand, or find something inconsistent, ask for clarification from those who do know.

When Aisha (ra) did not understand, she asked. She questioned if something taught appeared to be contradictory, particularly if it seemed inconsistent with Qur’anic principles and injunctions. From her, not only do we have issues clarified, but we have a methodology for seeking knowledge. In Bukhari’s Sahih (authentic statements from the Prophet ﷺ), the section on knowledge contains a chapter entitled “Whoever heard something (but did not understand it) and then asked again till he understood it completely”. Here he transmits:

Whenever Aisha (ra) heard anything which she did not understand, she used to ask again till she understood it completely. Aisha said: “Once the Prophet ﷺ said, ‘Whoever will be called to account (about his deeds on the Day of Resurrection) will surely be punished.’ I said, ‘Doesn’t Allah say: ‘He surely will receive an easy reckoning. (84:8)'”

Let us pause here. Aisha (ra) heard the Prophet ﷺ say something that appeared to contradict the Qur’an and his previous teachings. So she asked him, and relayed her understanding and the basis of her understanding (the Qur’anic verse quoted).  The Prophet ﷺ clarified, “This means only the presentation of the accounts, but whoever will be argued about his account will certainly be ruined.” (Bukhari)

What we take from this is not to simply take things at face value. We are allowed, and indeed encouraged, to ask questions sincerely seeking the truth. We can and should cross-reference to gain a fuller understanding of our faith.

2. Understand context.

Recently, I wrote a ten-page report about institutional changes that needed to be made in the workplace. Should these changes occur, it would be reasonable to make certain policies mandatory upon employees. Later, I heard that it was being said that I had suggested particular policy changes that many thought to be impracticable and even unfair. Technically, I did make those suggestions, but they were conditional upon implementing the preceding nine pages of the report!

It is perhaps obvious — or should be obvious — that context is critical to understanding any one statement. In the example above, simply citing the suggested policies divorced from the background gives an incomplete rendering of the purpose of those suggestions and, indeed, ignores the critique of current policies.

I hope it is clear where we are going with this. Once we have established that a hadith is authentic — and that should be the crucial first step — this only tells us that the Prophet ﷺ said something. It does not tell us to whom, or where, or why he said it, which are instrumental to understanding his words.

Aisha (ra) knew this and taught this; indeed, she corrected senior companions when they relayed a hadith on its own that appeared to say something taken out of context.

For example, one of the companions taught a hadith that the Prophet ﷺ condemned the child born out of wedlock as “the worst of the three” (Abu Dawud, Ahmad, Hakim), appearing to mean that the child is worse than the parents who committed the sin. What do you feel reading this statement? The parents sinned, so why would the child be the worst of them, since he or she did not commit any wrong?

When Aisha (ra) heard this, she said, “As for his saying that ‘an illegitimate child is the worst of three’, the hadith was not like that.” She explained that one of the hypocrites would verbally abuse the Prophet ﷺ, and the Prophet ﷺ was told that the hypocrite was born out of wedlock. So regarding that person, he ﷺ said: “He is the worst of the three.” The statement can be taken specifically and the wisdom more generally. That hypocrite was worse than his parents due to his hypocrisy and abuse of the Prophet ﷺ — meaning, despite the fact that his parents had done something that is considered a major sin in Islam, he was the worst one of the trio because of his own deeds, not because he was simply born out of an illegitimate relationship. And Aisha (ra) then recited the verse, “And no bearer of burden bears the burden of another” (Qur’an, 6:164).

Similarly, a hadith is narrated whereby the Prophet ﷺ seemed to caution that the deceased is punished for the wailing of the living over them (Bukhari). Again, Aisha (ra) refutes the generalized meaning given to his statement and provides the background. She explained that the Prophet ﷺ had passed by the funeral of one who had rejected faith, and his family were wailing over him and mentioning his good qualities. Then he ﷺ said: “They are crying over him and he is being punished.” Aisha then recited the verse: Allah does not burden a self beyond its capacity” (Qur’an, 2:286).

Any one of these statements can be looked at in isolation, resulting in the meaning attributed to it to be completely different from what was intended. We forget that the Prophet ﷺ did not simply sit in front of the Companions and lecture. His statements were not monologues or simple proclamations before an audience of followers. He was not dictating phrases to the Companions to write down in a book. Rather, he was living life alongside his companions and his family. He responded to their questions, experienced events with them, and commented on what was occurring around them. Therefore, his statements need to be understood within the context in which they were said. Aisha (ra) helps us to understand this by explaining the circumstances surrounding the sayings of our beloved ﷺ, and indeed teaches us the way we should approach knowledge and what questions we should be asking.

A note on specialists

The above teaches us the manner of approaching knowledge, as well as dealing with information when it comes to us. However, there is an additional point to consider. Some might still be confused about, for example, the grade of a hadith, since authenticity is the first step. Isn’t ‘hasan’ acceptable? What about other designations?

Of course, the best way to truly comprehend is to study hadith sciences, but since most of us will not do so, we need to understand our scholars within the context of their own specialty. One can be a doctor — someone who has the requisite training and practice in medicine — yet he or she is not a dermatologist or a pediatrician (or any other sub-specialty). A GP will give you preliminary observations, and if the issue does not need specialization, they will diagnose your illness and may even prescribe medicine for you. But when your ailment is specific, you go to a specialist. Your GP may be able to pinpoint what he or she thinks the problem is, and they could be right, but there may also be important nuances that they would miss simply because the issue requires specialization.

Similarly, if there is a particular matter we do not understand, we should realize that there are specialists in that field. A knowledgeable scholar may be able to answer many or most of our questions, but a specialist can really go to the core. Indeed, we can go back to the example of ‘Aisha (ra). Someone told Aisha that ‘Umar (ra) would physically enforce not praying voluntary prayers in the mosque after the ‘asr prayer. She was surprised, saying that the Prophet ﷺ had prayed after ‘asr. The Companions came to her for clarification, as they were unaware of this, and only knew that it was disliked to pray voluntary prayers after the ‘asr prayer. When they came to ask her, she referred them to Umm Salama (ra), because she was more knowledgeable about the issue and could give a fuller explanation.

This is perhaps most pertinent when it comes to hadith. A person may be versed in fiqh (jurisprudence), but they are not a muhaddith (a hadith scholar). This means that, while they can go back to the sources and be able to read, understand, cross-reference and distinguish between them in ways that a lay person cannot, their scrutiny of the sources themselves is not to the level of one trained in the science of hadith.

Now if this is for our scholars, what does it say about a lay person who picks hadith at random, is oblivious to the context, and proceeds to infer rulings from them?

Our responsibility

Filter

Do not get your religious knowledge from random bits of information online, whether that be one-minute tiktoks, truncated online fatawa, or 280-character tweets. There are legitimate organizations dedicated to the dissemination of sound knowledge and dispelling doubt. One of these is Yaqeen Institute, which is well-suited to a lay audience. Others to follow on social media include (but are not limited to) Imam Suhaib Webb, Sheikha Shazia Ahmad and Ustadha Maryam Amir. However, we must remember that social media can only give us general information and short eman boosts. It is not generally a place to discuss or learn issues in detail, or indeed argue about them.

Study

There are plenty of institutes that have online classes now, for all levels. We all have access to learned people and we should invest in understanding our faith properly. Here are some centers for learning:

1. SWISS: For basic religious literacy and for all ages, with specific classes for teens, this online institute was founded by Imam Suhaib Webb who has studied and trained for decades.

2. Al-Salam Institute: They provide degree courses as well as short-course diplomas, both at a general as well as more advanced level. Pre-Covid classes were onsite as well as online, now they are exclusively online until further notice. Main course instructor: Sheikh Muhammad Akram Nadwi, a scholar and hadith specialist. Sheikh Akram also has an open Q&A session every Thursday.

3. The Majlis: Aimed at the average Muslim, they provide weekly courses on a variety of topics, with scholars such as Sheikh Jamal Diwan, Sheikha Muslema Purmul, and Ustadh Fouad Algohari. The aim is to provide safe community spaces where people can learn and live Islam, based on the traditional sources of understanding. Pre-Covid classes were onsite, now they are exclusively online until further notice.

4. Rabata: Established by Dr. Tamara Grey, a scholar who spent decades in Syria, this online institute is for women, by women. The institute is dedicated to building spiritual connections between women, the spiritual nurturing of women, and the establishment of the female voice in scholarship.

Read: The Qarawiyyin Project Resource Bank

Ask with sincerity

Aisha (ra) was known for her questions. There is no shame in not understanding; rather, it is imperative for us to ask for clarification. Our intention should always be to know the truth and understand what Allah wants from us, and not to impose our own desires. And if we are sincerely seeking Allah, then surely He guides all those who strive for Him.

The author would like to thank Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi for his explanation of Aisha’s (ra) commentaries on the above mentioned ahadeeth.

Jinan Yousef has been an author for over a decade writing about topics related to the Islamic faith. She has been a student of Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi alongside others. Jinan is a course instructor at Al-Buruj press and regularly lectures on the names of God, connecting to Allah, and growing in faith. You can find Ustadha Jinan’s course based on her book here, and follow her on Instagram here.

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