Seeking knowledge “even if it be in China”

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 22 September 2023

“Say: Travel in the earth then see how He makes the first creation, then Allah creates the latter creation. Surely Allah is Powerful over all things.” — ch. 29, Al-Ankabūt, v. 20

قُلۡ سِیۡرُوۡا فِی الۡاَرۡضِ فَانۡظُرُوۡا کَیۡفَ بَدَاَ الۡخَلۡقَ ثُمَّ اللّٰہُ یُنۡشِیُٔ النَّشۡاَۃَ الۡاٰخِرَۃَ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ عَلٰی کُلِّ شَیۡءٍ قَدِیۡرٌ ﴿ۚ۲۰

“Have they not travelled in the earth so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts.”  ch. 22, Al-Ḥajj, v. 46

اَفَلَمۡ یَسِیۡرُوۡا فِی الۡاَرۡضِ فَتَکُوۡنَ لَہُمۡ قُلُوۡبٌ یَّعۡقِلُوۡنَ بِہَاۤ اَوۡ اٰذَانٌ یَّسۡمَعُوۡنَ بِہَا ۚ فَاِنَّہَا لَا تَعۡمَی الۡاَبۡصَارُ وَ لٰکِنۡ تَعۡمَی الۡقُلُوۡبُ الَّتِیۡ فِی الصُّدُوۡرِ ﴿۴۶

I have recited these verses in connection with a very well-known hadith which in Arabic is as follows: اُطْلُبُوا الْعِلْمَ وَلَوْ بِالصِّيْنِ، فَاِنَّ طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيْضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ and it translates into English as follows: “Seek knowledge even if it be in China, for the seeking of knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim”. The first part of this hadith, “Seek knowledge even if it be in China”, has been considered by many scholars of Islam, going back several centuries ago, as inauthentic and lacking authority. Some call it “fabricated”. Its second part, “the seeking of knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim”, though, is accepted by them because it is found in the Hadith collection of Ibn Majah (hadith 224), one of the six accepted collections of Hadith. Many Muslims, reading this verdict of those scholars, also jump to the conclusion that the first half of this hadith are not the words of the Holy Prophet. The reason for declaring this version, with mention of China in it, as not authentic is that some of the narrators through whom it has been passed down from the Companions of the Holy Prophet were unreliable persons, whose narrations cannot be accepted. However, some scholars of old times noted that this hadith has been passed down through several channels of narrators from various Companions of the Holy Prophet. Their view is that, although all the several channels of the reporting of this hadith contain unreliable reporters, yet its widespread reporting indicates that it must be an authentic hadith. To put it simply, if we hear the same story from several unrelated people, each of whom is unreliable, yet the fact that they are saying the same thing, all independently from each other, would indicate that the story could be true.

However, there is another way of testing whether a hadith is authentic. That is to ask: Is it supported by the Quran or not? This is why I chose to recite the two verses of the Quran that I read above. The first tells people to: “Travel in the earth then see how He (Allah) makes the first creation, then Allah creates the latter creation.” It says that man should go around the world studying creation to learn how creation began and how it is today. On this basis, a Muslim should go, not only to China, but every­where in the world to acquire knowledge of creation. Therefore it is plausible that the Holy Prophet could have mentioned China as an example to indicate that you may need to go as far as China, which was distant from Arabia, to acquire knowledge if you realised that it could be found there.

Here I may add, by the way, that the Arabic word for China, as in the above hadith, is Ṣīn, spelt with the letters ṣād, and nūn. In English there is a prefix sino which is placed before another name to indicate a joint relationship between China and someone else. For example, a ‘Sino-American’ organisation means a joint organisation of the Chinese and the US. Sinology is the name of a subject, which is the study of Chinese matters.

The second verse I read is as follows: “Have they not travelled in the earth so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts.” In the verses before this, Allah tells those people who rejected and opposed the Holy Prophet Muhammad that in the case of previous prophets Allah destroyed their opponents and their places of habitation after having given them respite for a time to see if they would repent. So in this verse Allah says that the opponents of the Holy Prophet Muhammad should travel to those places to see the ruins of the towns of the opponents of the earlier prophets. Then they would learn a lesson about their possible fate. However, we need not take this verse in this limited sense of travelling to see such ruins. What it says is that to broaden the mind, to “have hearts with which to understand”, and to open your ears and eyes, you need to travel in the earth, and of course acquire knowledge. This will cure the real blindness, which this verse says is the blindness of the hearts.

The Quran mentions two examples of great persons travelling to remote and distant places to seek knowledge, and one of those places mentioned could be as far as the border of China! In ch. 18 the Quran relates the journey of Moses with his assistant (18:82) undertaken to meet a person who possessed knowledge granted to him by God. According to a hadith in Bukhari, although this is not in the Quran, Allah told Moses to go and find this particular person, saying: “A servant from among My servants, who lives at the junction of two rivers, is greater in knowledge than you” (hadith 122). This junction is said to be the junction of the two branches of the River Nile, the white Nile and the blue Nile, which merge at Khartoum to become one river, the Nile. The Quran tells us that Moses became absolutely determined to reach his destination, and said that he would not stop until he reaches it even if it takes him years. This incident shows us that knowledge is so wide that even a great prophet requires more knowledge, and moreover he is prepared to go anywhere to find it.

The other example is in the same chapter 18, given immediately after the story of the journey of Moses. It is the journey of a man called Dhul Qarnain (18:83–98). He was a ruler of a huge territory, and commentators of the Quran have tried to identify who is meant. Whoever it was, he had a vast territory in Central Asia. According to the Quran, he undertook three journeys, from which it appears that he was a ruler visiting the ends of his empire to find out the condition of the people there. His first journey was, says the Quran, to “the setting-place of the sun”, where he saw the sun setting into a black sea (18:86). The “black sea” mentioned here was what is generally known as the Black Sea which lies between Ukraine to its north and Turkey to its south. The Quran calls it “the setting-place of the sun” because it was as far as he could go in the direction in which the sun sets; in other words, the furthest west in his empire. His second journey was, says the Quran, to “the rising-place of the sun” (18:90), meaning the eastern-most extent of his empire. According to research done by Maulana Muhammad Ali, Dhul Qarnain was the Persian king known as Darius the First (or Darwaish in Persian), who lived about 500 years before Jesus. His empire was the greatest that the world had ever known. In the east it stretched to what is now called Tajikistan, and that country has a border with China. Therefore, we may say with justification that the journey of Dhul Qarnain mentioned in the Quran in 18:90 was to the border of China. Hence the conclusion is that he reached China in search of knowledge.

If my interpretation is correct then not only does the Quran say in a general sense that you should travel in the world in search of knowledge but it mentions the specific example of a famous king who journeyed up to the border of China. This confirms the hadith as authentic: “Seek knowledge even if it be in China, for the seeking of know­ledge is a duty upon every Muslim”. Another point to be noted here is that Moses went to acquire spiritual knowledge, while Dhul Qarnain went primarily in search of worldly knowledge, and to strengthen his kingdom and check the needs of his people, but he also preached good to his people as the Quran tells us (18:87–88). This shows that one may go in search of either kind of knowledge, religious or worldly, and in the case of worldly knowledge one must still bear religious teachings in mind.

The authenticity of a hadith can also be established by actual facts. There is an ancient Muslim community in China, known as the Hui people, who believe that certain Companions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad visited China and established Islam there. Their claim is often considered as without any evidence. However, Sir T.W. Arnold, the British scholar, who was Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, 1921–1930, in his famous book The Preaching of Islam, has a chapter on the spread of Islam in China. Referring to the time when Muslims had just conquered Iran and the last Iranian king had died in exile in the time of Hazrat Uthman as Khalifa, Sir T.W. Arnold says that trustworthy records show that the king’s son appealed to China for help against the Arab invaders. The Chinese emperor said in reply that he could not send his troops such a long distance but he sent an ambassador to Hazrat Uthman to plead for the king’s son who was a fugitive from the Muslims. Hazrat Uthman then sent one of his generals to accompany the Chinese ambassador back to China. This was in 651, less than twenty years after the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s death. This Muslim envoy was received with honour by the Chinese emperor.

Sir T.W. Arnold also mentions two occasions when later Khalifas sent Muslim envoys to Chinese emperors, first in the year 713 and again in the year 726, and this was still less than a hundred years after the Holy Prophet’s death. He also writes that, a little later in the year 756, the second of these emperors faced a rebellion in China, and his son sent a message to the Muslim Khalifa of the time asking for military help. The Khalifa sent some Arab troops to help him. With their support the emperor succeeded in getting some of his territory back. At the end of this war, these Muslim troops settled in China and married there. Sir T.W. Arnold also writes that Chinese imperial records of the years 713–742 show the existence of Muslims in China, especially merchants in the port towns.

The fact that, as early as the time of Hazrat Uthman, when most Companions of the Holy Prophet were still alive, there was direct, person-to-person contact between Muslims and the Chinese, and a Muslim went to China, shows that the Holy Prophet could well have said: “Seek knowledge even if it be in China.”