Friday Sermon: Maximising our questions during sermons

Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) said of his sittings with the Prophet Muhammad (s) that it opened a thousand doors of knowledge, each of which opened another thousand doors of knowledge.

Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) said of his sittings with the Prophet Muhammad (s) that it opened a thousand doors of knowledge, each of which opened another thousand doors of knowledge.

In last week’s sermon, we reviewed how many sermons and programmes we participate in throughout the year, and stated that in this ‘information age’, there is a tremendous amount of Islamic knowledge circulating. We also asked whether we are in line with the goal of reforming ourselves and whether the amount of Islamic knowledge we absorb translates into genuine progress, individually or collectively. If not, we then need tools to maximise our time listening to sermons and watching clips or reading; this is in part what this next sermon will focuses on.

Our first principle is a term coined by the scholars, the roots of which are from the statements of the holy Prophet Muhammad (s). The principle is known as حُسن السئال نِصف العلم ‘A good question is half of the answer’.

This emanates from the narration الاقتصاد في النفقة نصف المعيشة، والتودد إلى الناس نصف العقل، وحسن السؤال نصف العلم “Financial prudence with those whom you spend on is half of living well; love for people is half of good thinking; and a good question is half of knowledge.”

As we know, the Prophet’s (s) speech is perfect and purposeful. The fact that he said a “good” question means that the opposite of this means that there are also poor questions. Those are the ones asked for the sake of getting the answer you want and not genuinely learning, or to show off the knowledge that you have.

A common problem today is when scholars travel to speak at different venues, they know there will be that person(s) who will ask them a question but have asked that same question to every visiting scholar in the hope that they get the answer they want! We seek protection with Allah swt from being like that!

In short, a good question is an open enquiry to problems worth understanding and it should lead you to a new pedestal of your own growth.

The questions that the companions asked were so powerful it led them to their lofty pedestals. Those who were living as bedouins and worshipping stones, after genuine wrangling and contemplation are praised in the Qur’an (3:110) as “The best of nations heralded for mankind” while Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) said of his sittings with the Prophet Muhammad (s) that it opened a thousand doors of knowledge, each of which opened another thousand doors of knowledge.

Let us know turn to some principles of good questions from examples in the Ahadith. In this we can demonstrate a growth pattern in the questions where a process of building off the previous questions is achieved.

The first is that simple questions are not problematic. We are all at different stages of learning or unshackling ourselves from ideas and sciences that may have influenced our understanding of things.

Ayyub ibn Nuh said: “I wrote to Imam Ali al-Hadi (a) asking him about Allah swt: Did He know all things before creating them or did He not know until He willed their creation?” The Imam wrote back, “Allah (swt) eternally has had full knowledge of all things before as well as after their creation.”

It may be to you or I that question is basic Aqeedah. Simply knowing Allah (swt)’s Divine Name of the All-Knowing would suffice but for someone who does not know, their enquiry was genuine and needed. It maybe that we need to check or clarify, and there is no shame in this and needs encouraging.

The second example builds on the first. In the first the enquirer asks about God’s knowledge and will. The second will also be about the same subject but the question is far more profound. The answer will also develop the person’s thinking because it was a good question.

Bukayr ibn A’yan said: “I asked Imam as-Sadiq (a), ‘Is the knowledge and the will of Allah different or the same?’” meaning with God’s knowledge does that mean it is immediately willed into creation. He replied, “His knowledge is not the same as His will. Consider and reflect on when you say, ‘If Allah wills I will do such and such. You do not say If Allah knows I will do such and such. Your own words are proof that Allah has not yet willed it!”

Here we can see that the question is building on the knowledge of the first. But also that had the person himself reflected on his own interaction with God’s divine will, he would have come to know the answer himself.

The third is the need to build our questions off of the Qur’an primarily. Narrations are not protected like the Qur’an, and all other sciences are secondary to it. In this example, the companion is reading the verses and cannot find another verse to complete his thought:

Ibn Abi Ya’fur said, “I wrote to Imam ar-Redha (a) about the two verses ‘Ask the people of remembrance (of God) if you do not know’ and ‘Why do not some people from each group seek deep religious knowledge and return to guide their people?’ (9:122) asking, ’the verses make it obligatory for us to ask questions and seek – but it is not made obligatory upon you to answer?!’”

The fact that this companion was studying and reflecting and searching the face of the Qur’an, Imam ar-Redha (a) could but only reply from the Qur’an writing back, “If they do not do what you ask them, know they are only following their low desires” (28:50), meaning that when it is asked of us, Ahl al-Bayt (a), it is compulsory for us to reply, otherwise we would be following our own desires!

In summary, here are the lessons learned about asking good questions and about the knowledge we gain from lectures:

1) If there are questions with bad intentions, do not ask them.
2) Questions must open up enquiry to things worth deliberating upon.
3) Simple questions are important.
4) Build on those questions so they take you further in that area.
5) If you reflect, often you will find the answer.
6) Use the Qur’an as a basis for all questions.