(The progress of technology has resulted in many people accessing Islamic literature on their own without the guidance of anyone. This trend of self-study is increasing in our communities. The great Maaliki scholar, Imaam Shaatbi rahimahullah (d. 790 A.H.) discusses this topic in a very beautiful manner in his book Al-Muwaafaqaat – vol. 1, pgs. 82 – 88. The following is a summary of his detailed article.)
The most effective and beneficial method of acquiring knowledge is to obtain it from its true bearers who possess it truly and completely. This refers to such matters which require scrutiny and examination, therefore the presence of a teacher is necessary.

Self Study:

People ask: “Is it possible to acquire knowledge without the medium of a teacher?” While it is undoubtedly possible in the literal sense, however the scholars are unanimous that by and large, learning under a teacher is necessary and self-study is practically impossible. They have also said: “Knowledge was in the hearts of men, then it moved to books; however its keys still lie in the hands of men (teachers).” This statement advocates the necessity of acquiring knowledge from qualified teachers. The proof of this is an authentic Hadeeth of Rasulullah (sallallahu alaihi wasallam): “Indeed Allah Ta`ala does not snatch away knowledge suddenly from the people. Instead He takes it by the demise of the `Ulama.” Thus, qualified teachers are definitely the keys of knowledge and knowledge can only be acquired from them. This also is something extremely clear and logical. Therefore, the following well known conditions have been laid down for every learned person, irrespective of which field he belongs to:
  • That he be well-versed with the principles and elementary aspects of that field.
  • He is able to explain the correct intended meaning adequately.
  • He understands the implications of it.
  • He has the ability to clear any doubt which arises regarding that field (knowledge).

When we examine the pious Imaams of Deen of the past in the light of these conditions, we find them possessing these qualities to the highest level.

Who is an expert?

There are certain signs by means of which one can recognize an expert scholar of Deen:
  1. He practices on his knowledge and his actions conform to his words. If his actions contradict his words, then he is not worthy of being a teacher and of being followed.
  2. He was nurtured by the experts of that field, studying under them and holding firmly to them, until a time came when he became worthy of the same titles as them. This was in reality the noble practice of our pious predecessors.
  3. He follows in the footsteps of his teachers, and adopts their conduct and mannerisms as was the practice of the Sahaabah (radiyallahu anhum) in following Nabi (sallallahu alaihi wasallam), and the Taabi`een in following the Sahaabah and this process continued from generation to generation. When this quality was ignored and overlooked, innovations began creeping into Deen, because choosing not to follow one’s elders is due to some new factor, the root cause of which is the following of one’s desires.

Two reliable ways of acquiring knowledge:

There are two reliable ways of acquiring knowledge from its authorities:
  1. Acquisition directly from an Ustaadh. This is the safest and most effective method of the two, since Allah Ta`ala has placed a special effect between the teacher and student. Everyone who pursued knowledge will bear testimony to this. Often a student will read a ruling in a book, memorise it and repeat it but will not grasp it fully. However, once the teacher presents it to him in the lesson, he comprehends it instantly.
  2. Studying the books of the different authors in that field. This is also beneficial with two conditions:
  •   He obtains sufficient understanding of the goals of that field, together with knowing the various terms used in that subject allowing him to research its books correctly. This can only be achieved through the first method i.e. learning under a qualified teacher. This is the meaning of the statement “Knowledge was in the hearts of men, then it moved to the books, however the keys to it are still in the hands of men.” Books alone cannot give the seeker of knowledge any benefit without him accessing them via the scholars. This is the tried and tested method.
  • He studies the works of the earlier reliable scholars of that science, because they are more firmly rooted and well grounded in their knowledge than the latter scholars.