The Prophetic Methods of Teaching
By Muhammad Haq
The traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), namely in the form of sayings (hadiths) as well as being a source of law and religious guidance, also holds many other meanings and lessons, available to those who read it analytically. This is alluded to in the following hadith:
“May Allah brighten (the face of) a person who hears a hadith from us, and reports it as he heard it, for perhaps the one whom the hadith is reported to, is more understanding than the one who reported it to them.” (At-Tirmidhi)
In this short article, we’ll explore a hadith with this in mind. However, at the outset, it is important to remember that this is ‘a’ prophetic method, not ‘the’ only and exclusive prophetic way, as the Prophet often would address those present according to their intellectual capacity, as he said:
“Treat people according to their ranks/ability/status.” (Abu Dawud)
Thus a philosopher or an academic will be engaged in different discussion than a simple nomad.
From Universals to Particulars
A man migrated from Makkah to Madinah (Hijrah) because he intended to marry a woman called Umm Qays. The woman said she will accept his proposal only if he migrated. Thus he became known as ‘the migrator to Umm Qays’.
The man then went to ask the Prophet about the status of his action, will he get the reward for making the Hijrah? To this, the Prophet replied:
“Actions are by their intentions and every man (or woman) shall have what they intended. Thus he whose migration was for Allah and His Messenger, his migration was for Allah and His messenger, and he whose migration was to achieve some worldly benefit or to take some woman in marriage, his migration was for that for which he migrated.” (Al-Bukhari)
The Prophet first stated a universal (kulli or jinse):
“Actions are by their intentions and every man (or woman) shall have what they intended.”
He then applied this universal to two general categories (naw`): Doing something for the hereafter, and doing something for this world.
He then placed the actual case in hand, i.e. migrating for the purpose of marriage, under the ‘mundane’ category (`ayn):
One of the strengths of this approach is that you not only answer the specific question under discussion, but also equip the questioner with the knowledge necessary to answer any other question of a similar nature. Furthermore, your questioner benefits from the fact that you expose your line of reasoning.
This Prophetic method is utilized by many Islamic jurists when they, like the Prophet (peace be upon him), answer questions. Moreover, as Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim mentions, it allows breadth for the jurist to answer questions by including additional, but relevant, knowledge.
By extension, it is completely acceptable for a Muslim to ask the jurist or mufti for his reasoning when the latter issues a legal response (fatwa), and the jurist should not be offended by this, as that would indicate he deems himself above the Prophetic method.
This approach of moving from generals to particulars is also employed in the science of Qawa`id Fiqhiyyah (legal maxims), which unfortunately is not studied except by dedicated students of the Islamic sciences, more specifically those who are training to issue legal rulings (fatwas).
Lastly, it is important for us to note that this is not something jurists or scholars employ just to show intellectual prowess as is sometimes alluded to. As well as having a discourse which accommodates everyone, it is also vital that we appreciate and keep alive our intellectual rigour and sophistication. We need not ‘dumb everything down’, all in the name of accessibility. Sometimes, the onus is on the student, to ‘up her game’.
Employing this Method in Our Discourses
Of course, this method is probably not the easiest to grasp at first, and thus it needn’t be used all the time, however, to be better equipped at ‘internalizing’ the logic of the Shari`ah (Islamic law), it is indispensable.
This will allow a person to acquire a new level of understanding, one that is deeper than simple do’s and don’ts. This eventually leads a person to grasp the aims and purposes (maqasid) of the Shari`ah, at least to some degree.
The Common Method
The more common method when teaching Islamic law and ethics, however, is to cover each issue individually with its ruling, i.e. the particulars only. This is due to its expediency and the fact that it equips people to immediately deal with the issue at hand and know the Shari`ah stance towards it. This is also a method employed by our Prophet (peace be upon him.