What is traditional learning?
Students in the hot Mauritanian desert are reclining in nomadic tents, listening to their teacher exposit a classical treatise on Maliki law, meticulously taking notes on a clay tablet that they will later memorize rote and wipe clean.
Students in the bustling city of Damascus are catching a taxi to their teacher’s apartment, where they will sip tea on comfortable sofas as they listen to a lesson on logic, jotting notes in the margins of the modern printed books, recording their teacher’s voice on a mp3 player for future reference.
Students in rural India are sitting cross-legged on the floor among a sea of other students, absorbing the words of their teacher as he explains a hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari from a handwritten manuscript.
These are all forms of traditional learning.
Seeking knowledge traditionally does not have to embody a particular outward form. Rather, it consists of core principles whose external realization differs with time and place. The thread that connects these principles is the metaphor of inheritance, a metaphor that has been used in the Qur’an, hadith, and scholarly literature to explain how knowledge is acquired.
The Inheritance of Sacred Knowledge
This inheritance of knowledge from teacher to student all the way back to its prophetic origins is the mark of traditional learning. The process of inheriting knowledge has 3 key components:
- the inherited wealth
- the executor of the inheritance
- the lineage of the heir
1. The inherited wealth is the knowledge that is inherited from previous generations of scholars all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace). In each religious discipline, the learning of previous generations is distilled in a series of concise teaching texts (Ar. mutun) that take beginners by the hand and lead them step-by-step to mastery. Traditional scholars often repeat the adage, “Whoever masters the teaching texts masters the disciplines.”(man haqqaqa al-mutun haza al-funun.)
2. The executor of the inheritance is the teacher. For a student’s knowledge to be reliable, he must acquire it through direct aural instruction (talaqqi or mushafaha) from a teacher. This has been a self-evident requirement of Islamic pedagogy from the earliest of times. Imam Shatibi, the great Andalusian Maliki scholar of legal methodology and philosophy, said that direct aural instruction is “the most beneficial and reliable way [to acquire knowledge],” explaining that this is because of
a special quality that God Most High has placed between the teacher and the student, which is witnessed by anyone who interacts with knowledge and scholars. How often it happens that a student reads something in a book, memorizes it, and repeats it to himself, yet does not understand it. Then, when his teacher reads it to him, he suddenly understands it and acquires knowledge of it by being present [with his teacher]. This understanding may come about through conventional means—such as contextual indications or an explanation of the difficult point in a manner that never occurred to the mind of the student—or it may arise not through any conventional means, but through something that God gifts the student with when he presents himself before his teacher in manifest indigence and plain need of what he is being instructed in. (al-Muwafaqat, 1:73)
3. The heir’s lineage is the student’s connection to the Prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) through an uninterrupted chain of teachers along with an authorization to teach from his own teacher. Through direct aural instruction, the teacher gives birth to the student into the world of religious scholarship, and the student becomes like the teacher’s child. It is in this sense that Imam Nawawi wrote of the great Shafi`i jurist, Ibn Surayj, “He is one of our grandfathers in our chain of transmission of Sacred Law.” (al-Majmu`, 1:214) But merely listening to a teacher deliver a lesson is not sufficient for being born into the world of scholarship. For a student to claim a teacher as his parent, the teacher must approve of the student by authorizing him to convey sacred knowledge to others.
The world has changed.
Our modern context calls for yet another form of traditional learning. Our goal at SunniPath Academy is to take sacred knowledge to households all over the world by realizing the principles of traditional learning in an online environment. SunniPath's pioneering online ILM system uses the latest online learning tools to make location and distance to teachers no longer an obstacle to seeking knowledge. Recorded lessons, two-way live video sessions, discussion forums, private office hours, assignments, and more, ensure that you have both an interactive learning experience and close contact with instructors. Supporting your progress are SunniPath's team of instructors, teaching assistants, administrative staff, technical support, and fellow students.
Wherever you are, wherever you may be, you can now access learning easily and conveniently. So don't wait — connect yourself to centuries of learning and scholarship today.
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