Jalaluddin as-Suyuti

Al-Tabarani stated that the hadith “Whoever says: `I am knowledgeable,’ he is ignorant” is not narrated except through the chain containing al-Layth ibn Abi Sulaym, who is weak. Al-`Ajluni in Kashf al-Khafa’ states that this hadith is narrated by al-Tabarani in al-Awsat from Ibn `Umar rather than the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him –, and that al-Haytami said in his Fatawa Hadithiyya that it is actually a saying of (the Tabi`i) Yahya ibn Kathir. For his part, Ibn Kathir cites it from `Umar in his Tafsir in commentary of the verse: (Have you not seen those who praise themselves for purity?)(4:49) Three narrations are indeed mentioned from `Umar in Kanz al-`Ummal, but all are weak. Al-`Iraqi in his al-Mughni said that the part actually attributed to Yahya ibn Kathir is: “Whoever says: `I am a believer,’ he is a disbeliever,” while al-Haythami in Majma` al-Zawa’id cites it from Yahya ibn Kathir with a weak chain as follows: “Whoever says: `I am knowledgeable,’ he is ignorant, and whoever says: `I am ignorant,’ he is ignorant. Whoever says: `I am in Paradise,’ he is in the Fire, and whoever says: `I am in the Fire,’ he is in the Fire.” Al-Haytami further said: “It is established from countless Companions and others that they said they were knowledgeable, and they would not commit something which the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him — had blamed. A greater proof yet is Yusuf’s statement: `I am a knowledgeable guardian’ (12:55).” However, the narration of al-Layth is confirmed by the hadith of the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him –: “Islam shall be on the rise until traders take to the sea [carrying it], and horses charge in the cause of Allah. After that a people will come and recite the Qur’an, saying: Who recites it better than us? Who is more knowledgeable than us? Who is wiser than us?” Then he turned to his Companions and asked: “Is there any good in such as these?” They said: “Allah and His Prophet know best.” He said: “Those are from among you, O Umma! Those are fodder for the Fire.”2

What reconciles the two views is that the hadith of Ibn Abi Sulaym applies to those who claim knowledge either undeservedly, or proudly, and not to those who act out of sincerity and obligation. Ibn `Ata’ Allah said in his Hikam:

The root of every disobedience, forgetfulness, and desire is contentment with the self, while the root of every obedience, vigilance, and continence is your dissatisfaction with it. That you accompany an ignorant who is not pleased with his self is better for you than to accompany a knowledgeable person who is pleased with his self. And what ignorance is that of one who is dissatisfied with himself? And what knowledge is that of one who is satisfied with himself?

Imam al-Sha`rani in al-`Uhud al-Muhammadiyya (“The Pledges We Made to the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him –“) said something similar:

The Prophet — Allah bless and greet him — took our pledge that we should not claim to possess knowledge except for a licit cause, and that we should never say: “We are the most knowledgeable of people” – not with our mouths, and not with our hearts. How could we say such a thing when we know full well that in our country, let alone our region, there is one who is more knowledgeable than we? But if it is one day ordained for us to claim knowledge, then we must immediately follow this with repentance and ask forgiveness lest punishment descend on us. This is a problem which no wise person ever faces, for there is no science which one has looked up except the scholars of knowledge anticipated him and wrote books about it – scholars whose pupil he might not even deserve to be.

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