A Brief Primer to Different Texts in the Islamic Sciences

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

Here is a brief guide to the different types of texts that one can study with a teacher in the Islamic Sciences. Much of this is from my personal experience so I hope other students and teachers can comment with their own suggestions and advice.

Introductory texts

I found that the goal of these texts is often binary:

  • To establish a foundational understanding in the subject and introduce key terminology.
  • To be short and quick but to cover most of the chapters or topics in the subject – so that the student can memorize the text easily and benefit from that memorization for the rest of their studies.

These texts do not need to be studied with an expert, but can be studied with anyone who has studied that particular subject to an advanced level, as long as he/she has excellent teaching ability – i.e. expansive and encyclopedic knowledge on the subject is not required. Excellent teaching ability is the teacher being patient enough to help a student regardless of level understand the foundations of the subject and the text itself well by letting them ask as many questions as they please and teaching them how to apply the knowledge if applicable (such as i’rab for Nahw, Sarf tables/ibdāl for Sarf, takhrij for Hadith and so on). A lot of students waste precious time, energy and motivation in hunting for experts and notables in the respective field to teach them these texts or scouring bookstores for the perfect sharh, which often runs contrary to the purpose of this kind of text.

As a student, it is highly recommended to memorize this type of text and ensure that you understand its subject matter to an excellent level. A strong understanding of foundational knowledge from these texts is key to making the transition to Intermediate texts smoother. Some will need to study an introductory text additional times if their understanding is weak in it but once is usually enough.  Make sure you ask a ton of questions to polish off your understanding on the subject.

Some examples of these texts are:

  • Al-Ajrumiyyah in Nahw or its nadhm (poetized version).
  • Tasrif-ul-Izzi (Mukhtasar al-Zinjani) in Sarf.
  • Al-Bayquniyyah in Mustalah-al-Hadith or Nukhbatul-Fikr.
  • Matn Abi-Shuja’ in Shafi’i Fiqh or other Nadhms at a similar level.
  • Akhsar-Al-Mukhtasarat in Hanbali Fiqh.
  • Al-Waraqat in Usul-ul-Fiqh.

And many others.

Intermediate texts

I found that these texts are often:

  • Written with the purpose of building upon the foundations of the Introductory texts and introducing bulk knowledge to the student.
  • Bridging the gap between the Introductory texts and the Advanced texts.

These texts can be quite a jump for some students – so do not despair but be patient – although they can be very enjoyable to study if the student has understood the introductory text(s) well, as the student will feel that they are moving beyond the stage of simple understanding to that of actually getting into the ‘meat’ of the subject.

Again with these books, a good teacher can suffice. An expert is usually not required as the text will often speak for itself to the student at this level and too much detail can make the jump even more difficult than it already is.

The student should focus on understanding once again and applying the information learned if applicable. As for memorization then usually for these texts I have rarely or even never seen it to be recommended, practiced or required, which is understandable when one observes the format of many advanced texts.

Some examples of these texts are:

  • Qatr-un-Nada wa Bal-us-Sada in
  • Lamiyatul-Af’al in Sarf.
  • Al-Muwqidhah and Al-Bahith-ul-Hatith in Mustalah-al-Hadith.
  • Umdat-us-Salik in Shafi’i Fiqh.
  • Za’d al-Mustaqni in Hanbali Fiqh.
  • Lubb-ul-Usul in Shafi’i Usul or Rawdat-ul-Nadhir in Hanbali Usul.

And many others.

Advanced texts

I found that the main purpose of these texts is:

  • Unlocking the doors to accessing Encyclopedic works, which is where the real knowledge is located.
  • To be memorized and thus provide an outline for students to utilize for the rest of their studies in life and readings of encyclopedic works.

These texts, after the introductory texts, are immensely important and because of their length can take a long time to study depending on the student and his ability and investment of time. Advanced texts are often studied multiple times with different teachers or a different sharh. Although these texts can be studied with a good teacher, ideally they should be studied with experts in their fields who are well versed with encyclopedic texts. The more experts one studies with, the stronger the students becomes in this particular subject. This is especially the case for those who wish to specialize in a particular subject or master it. Many advanced texts can be used as self-study textbooks after studying one or two of them, and so they can occupy a level that functions both as an Advanced text and an Encyclopedic text.

Multiple advanced texts can be studied with different teachers on the same subject, as all have different features, strengths and weaknesses that can add to and strengthen a student’s knowledge on a subject.

The student should memorize the text if he wishes to retain this knowledge, teach it for the rest of his life, and master it. He also should ensure that he has obtained a firm grasp on the subject matter and is now able to access the encyclopedic works in the field and understand them. If a student has successfully studied and understood an intermediate text well, often and advanced text will not be too much of a jump.

Some examples of these texts are:

  • Alfiyyat-ubnu-Malik and its shuruh (explanations) in Nahw and Sarf
  • Shafiyatu-ibnil-Hajib in Sarf.
  • Tadrib-ul-Rawi and Alfiyyat-ul-Iraqi and its shuruh in Mustalah-al-Hadith.
  • Minhaj al-Talibin and its shuruh in Shafi’i Fiqh.
  • Rawd-ul-Murbi and Sharh-Muntaha-al-Iradat in Hanbali Fiqh.
  • Sharhul-Mahalli ala Jam-il-Jawami’ in Shafi’I Usul or Sharh Kawkab-ul-Munir in Hanbali Usul

And many others.

Also included in this are the six books of hadith: Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan an-Nisa-i, Sunan Abi Dawud, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, and Sunan ibni-Majah. These books are usually studied to apply knowledge learned from Mustalah-al-Hadith and to learn the methodologies of the authors on a practical level.

Encyclopedic texts

These are a mixture of reference works from all different fields of Islamic knowledge. The number of texts in this category is endless – whether in nahw, sarf, balaghah, fiqh, hadith, mustalah, usul, adab, tarikh, sirah, tafsir or otherwise – although some texts are much more famous, useful and important than others.

These texts are often not studied teachers, as someone who has studied Advanced texts is usually capable in using them by himself. But if they are to be studied, they must not studied with anyone except an expert.

Very advanced students of knowledge but more often scholars will spend the rest of their lives reading these texts and even memorizing them. Some scholars may read particular texts multiple times and become authorities on a specific topic.

Included in this category are short treatises, essays and studies on different topics by classical authors on various topics.

Contemporary texts

Contemporary texts are mostly supplementary for the student of knowledge, whether they are in English or Arabic is a major mistake of many a budding student. Core knowledge will always be found in the books of our righteous predecessors. It must be noted however that for some modern subjects such as Orientalism, Modern Ideologies and Islamic Finance they can make up a core curriculum.

Rarely, a Contemporary text may be written on a subject not written extensively on previously, often to counter new, foreign and incorrect ideas.

Very rarely, a modern work will be so exceedingly blessed and well-written that it can make its way into a being a staple with every student of knowledge, such as the works of Sheikh Wahbah Al-Zuhaili رحمه الله Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi  حفظه الله and others.

Some Important Notes:

  • A text may be read multiple times to multiple teachers not for the sake of learning, but perhaps for revision or tabarruk (seeking blessings) in one’s study.
  • Curricula differ from region to teacher: there may be a ladder of multiple Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced texts to study.
  • A contemporary text may be used as an introductory text for a weaker student, or for a specific need.
  • The goal is always Advanced and Enyclopedic texts and the ability to understand, read and access them accurately, proficiently and easily. However, jumping texts and levels is a proven and tested way to destroy your motivation, make learning a nightmare and create serious errors in understanding.

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