empty your cup

As we seek knowledge, sometimes we have baggage we need to let go of. In this article, Shaykh Abdul Rahim Reasat gives examples of Prophets, scholars and saints who have benefited through their humble seeking.empty your cup

A man went to an old sage to learn from him. The sage was pouring tea into a cup whilst his new student was pouring out all his knowledge on the subject matter to show how much he knew. He kept speaking and the sage kept pouring. ‘Stop! The cup is full’ exclaimed the student when the tea started to spill out of the cup all over the table.

The sage stopped pouring, looked up, and calmly said, ‘You are like this cup. I cannot teach you because you are full. Empty your cup.’ The student learned a subtle, yet profound lesson.

Respect for the Teacher

Regardless of whether this incident actually happened, or not, it serves as powerful reminder of the proper manners required to benefit from a teacher. A willing display of a desire to learn and benefit is just one of many of the proper manners (ādāb, sing. adab) of learning. These ādāb are firmly rooted in Islam, and adherence to them is key to befitting from a teacher.

Unsurprisingly, the most famous examples of these ādāb have been narrated from the greatest people of knowledge to walk the earth. Abū Ḥanīfa (may Allah be well pleased with him) famously said that since starting to study with his main teacher, Ḥammād b. Abī Sulaymān, he prayed for him along with his own parents after every obligatory prayer. His most prominent student, Abū Yūsuf (may Allah be well-pleased with him), after narrating this, said, ‘I pray for Abū Ḥanīfa after every obligatory prayer before I pray for my parents!’

In fact, Abu Ḥanīfa was known to have never turned his back to the direction of  Ḥammād’s house in the eighteen years he studied under him. Far from being pedantic, these displays of reverence were a manifestation of the love, honour, and respect these great individuals had for Allah, His Messenger, and the dīn.

There was a time when these ādāb were culturally imbued into Muslims from childhood, and at other times the ulema saw that they needed to be taught to people. One of best works on this matter is Imām Burhān al-Islam al-Zarnūjī’s ‘Taʿlīm al-mutaʿallim ṭarīq al-taʿallum’ (Instruction of the student on the method of learning). He began the chapter on the ādāb of a student with a famous, albeit hyperbolic, quote from ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib which reflected his standing in this matter: ‘I am the slave of anyone who teaches me even a single letter; if he wants he can sell me, and should he prefer, he can enslave me.’

The Example of Prophet Musa

One of the greatest manifestations of humility before one’s teacher is that of the Prophet Mūsā. Whilst sitting with some of his followers he was asked if he knew of anyone with more knowledge than he had; he said ‘no.’

Being the Messenger of Allah, and having been sent to a people who Allah chose over everyone else living at the time, he was perfectly justified in this response. After Allah, if a prophet is not the most knowledgeable of his time, then who would be?

Allah directed him to al-Khaḍir, who, according to the majority of scholars, is also a prophet. He had been given special knowledge of matters that Mūsā had not been taught. Mūsā sought him out to learn from him, and upon meeting him said, ‘Shall I follow you on the basis that you teach me some of the great guidance that you have been taught?’ (18:66)

The rest of the incident is well known. However, it behooves us to benefit from the insights of the great exegete of the Qurʾān, Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, who said, ‘Know that these verses indicate that Mūsā manifested many types of good conduct and gentleness when he wanted to learn from al-Khaḍir…’ He then proceeded to explain them to us.

  1. ‘He made himself a follower of al-Khaḍir because he said, “Shall I follow you…”’

This is a great display of humility on Mūsā’s part. A follower is in need of the one he follows, and is required to step where he steps. He knows that the one he follows knows the route to the destination, and getting ahead could result in not reaching the destination at all.

So, clearly seeing and expressing one’s subordination to the teacher to learn what he has to offer is of paramount. Someone who feels superior to his teacher, or expresses such a notion, has fallen far from the ādāb he should adhere to. There is no question of Mūsā’s superiority to al-Khaḍir; he is one of the greatest five messengers – Those of Great Resolve: Nūḥ, Ibrāhīm, Mūsā, ʿĪsā, and Muḥammad (Allah bless them all and give them peace). His words here express his appreciation of the value of knowledge.

  1. ‘He asked permission to be a follower by saying, “Do you permit me to make myself your follower?” This is a tremendous expression of humility.’

Mūsā did not assume anything. There was no sense of entitlement. There was, however, a recognition of who would be doing who the favour in this situation. There was a recognition of the teacher having to go out of his way to teach him, and so he asked permission.

This is quite significant coming from the greatest man to walk the earth at that time. It came from a recognition of the value of what the teacher has been given, and so, honouring the teacher for that virtue. There are times when it is obligatory for someone to impart knowledge; Imām al-Shāfiʿī said,

وَمَنْ مَنَحَ الجهّالَ عِلْماً أضَاعَهُ      وَمَنْ مَنَعَ المستوجِبين فقَدْ ظَلَمْ

“Whoever bestows great knowledge to fools has wasted it; and whoever refuses it to those deserving it has wronged [them].”

Despite this, the matter was placed before al-Khaḍir as a mark of recognition of the teacher’s worth.

  1. ‘He said, “on the basis that you teach me.” This is a declaration that he did not know [this knowledge] and a recognition of his teacher’s knowledge.’

Once again, we see that Mūsā had no qualms about stating that he was in need of the knowledge al-Khaḍir had. With regards to the knowledge al-Khaḍir had, his cup was empty – despite him being a vast ocean in the knowledge he had been granted. This attitude ensures that the student focuses and values the knowledge the teacher will impart.

  1. ‘He said, “some of the great guidance that you have been taught.” The particle ‘min’ [in the verse] is used to express ‘part of something’ so he requested to be taught some of what Allah had taught [al-Khaḍir]. This also is an expression of humility. It is as though he said, ‘I am not asking that you make me your peer in knowledge; rather, I ask you to give me a small part of your knowledge, just as one in need asks a wealthy man for a small part of his knowledge.’

There is no desire to outclass the teacher, nor to even appear to do so. Knowledge increases with study and effort, and it may be that a student is on an equal or superior footing to his teacher in a particular subject matter after years of study- but this should not be manifested outwardly. The student is forever indebted to the teacher for having been taught by him, so there remains a perpetual recognition of this.

  1. ‘He said, “Some of what you have been taught.’ This is a recognition of the fact that Allah is the one who taught him that knowledge.’

One of the forms of gratitude is to recognise the good which has been done to you. Recognition of Allah’s favours is a form of gratitude for them; hence the command to ‘recall Allah’s favour’ in so many places in the Qurʾān. This is a gentle reminder for both of the fact that the knowledge is a gift.

  1. ‘His words “great guidance” (rushd), are a request of guidance and direction (irshād and hidāya). Irshād is a matter whose absence leads to misguidance and misdirection.’

This statement is an expression of need for the knowledge al-Khaḍir has to offer, and of a desire to implement and act upon what is learned. For knowledge to truly benefit it has to be applied.

  1. ‘His words “that you teach me…what you have been taught” mean that he asked al-Khaḍir to treat him in the same way Allah treated him. This indicates that your favour upon me by teaching me this knowledge is akin to Allah’s favour upon you in teaching you it. Because of this, it was said, ‘I am the slave of whoever teaches me a single letter.’

Allah’s kindness knows no limits, everything we have is from His generosity and kindness. We can glean from the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) that Allah love it when His servants imitate His actions in dealing with people: the merciful are shown mercy; the forgiving are forgiven; He is generous and loves generosity; He is the most beautiful being inn existence, and He loves manifestations of beauty. Following the same logic, Mūsā encouraged al-Khaḍir to teach Him as he was taught by Allah.

Imām al-Rāzī mentioned the statement of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in order to clarify what he was expressing. The statement is literal for those who are taught directly by Allah; He is the source of all knowledge.  For anyone else, it is meant metaphorically as it expresses the gratitude owed to the source of knowledge.

  1. ‘Shall I follow you’ indicates that he will do exactly as the teacher does just because the teacher is doing it. This indicates that the student must submit, and not disagree and object.’

This point reflects the fact that the student’s role is to imbibe the teachings of the teacher. If the student observes the teacher do something which is not expected of him he should not object – unless it is clearly impermissible – as there is bound to be a reason behind it which the student many not be aware of.

  1. ‘The word ‘follow’ indicates that he requested to follow al-Khadir in all matters, with no restriction.

Once again, this is a recognition of the virtue and standing of al-Khiḍr. The humility Mūsā consistently shows here is clear proof of his initial statement of there not being anyone more learned than him was what he genuinely thought.

  1. It has been established in the narrations that al-Khaḍir recognised immediately that Mūsā was the prophet of Banū Isrāʾīl,; the one to whom the Torah was given; the man who Allah spoke to directly, and the one who He gave clear and overwhelming miracles to. Moreover, Mūsā, despite having these high virtues and lofty ranks, came with so many manifestations of humility. This points to him coming to seek knowledge with the greatest types of effort. This is what is fitting of him, because, the greater the knowledge someone has, the greater his knowledge is of the beauty of felicity that lies within the knowledge. Consequently, his reverence of the possessors of that knowledge is more perfect and more intense.

These are most of the points raised by Imām al-Rāzī when explaining this verse. It is noticeable that there are not many actual do’s and don’ts, due to the focus being on the inward attitude towards knowledge, its bearers and Allah, its source. When this proper attitude is present everything else falls into place.

May Allah benefit us through what He has taught us, and grant us good adab with Him, the knowledge He has taught us, the bearers and transmitters of that knowledge, and the books, pens and other instruments through which it is passed on. Amīn.


Shaykh Abdul Rahim Reasat began his studies in Arabic Grammar and Morphology in 2005. He moved to Damascus in 2007 to study and sit at the feet of some of the most erudite scholars of our time, such as Shaykh Adnan Darwish, Shaykh Abdurrahman Arjan, Shaykh Hussain Darwish and Shaykh Muhammad Darwish.
In late 2008 he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continued his studies in Fiqh, Usul al Fiqh, Theology, Hadith Methodology and Commentary, Shama’il, and Logic with teachers such as Dr Ashraf Muneeb, Dr Salah Abu’l Hajj, Dr Hamza al-Bakri, Shaykh Ahmad Hasanat, Dr Mansur Abu Zina amongst others. He was also given two licences of mastery in the science of Qur’anic recital by Shakh Samir Jabr and Shaykh Yahya Qandil.

His true passion, however, arose in the presence of Shaykh Ali Hani, considered by many to be one of the foremost tafsir scholars of our time who provided him with the keys to the vast knowledge of the Quran. With Shaykh Ali, he was able to study an extensive curriculum of Qur’anic Sciences, Tafsir, Arabic Grammar, and Rhetoric.

When he finally left Jordan for the UK in 2014, Shaykh Ali gave him his distinct blessing and still recommends students in the UK to seek out Shaykh Abdul Rahim for Quranic studies. Since his return he has trained as a therapist and has helped a number of people overcome emotional and psychosomatic issues. He is a keen promoter of emotional and mental health.


Resources for Seekers

Please share this with your family and friends:

"Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a similar reward"-- The Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him)