Al-Ghazali on the Duties of the Teacher & Student

Al-Ghazali on the Duties of the Teacher & Student

The following translation is an excerpt from the Chapter on Knowledge and Learning of Imam al-Ghazali’s Mukhtasar Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din

The Duties Of The Student

Concerning the student, there are many etiquettes and duties that he is required to perform. Nevertheless, we will summarize all of them all in seven sections.


The first duty of the student is to prioritize the purification of his soul of blameworthy characteristics, due to the Prophet’s words ﷺ, “Islam was built upon purity.”

The Prophet ﷺ was not speaking about keeping one’s clothes pure. Rather he was speaking about the heart. This is indicated in the words of Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ: (Indeed, the polytheists are impure) (al-Tawbah, 28).

It is obvious that the impurity mentioned does not refer to the clothes of the student. As long as the student does not purify his inner being of impure traits, his inner being will not accept beneficial religious knowledge, nor be illuminated through the light of knowledge.

Ibn Mas’ud رضي الله عنه said, “Knowledge is not knowing a lot of narrations. It is a light that is cast into the heart.”

Some of the realized folk said, “We studied knowledge for other than Allah. However, knowledge refuses to be acquired for other than Allah.”

This means, ”Knowledge refused and rejected us, such that its reality was not revealed to us. Rather, we only acquired its speech and words.”


The second duty of the student is to limit his attachments and travel away from his homeland so that his heart will be free for knowledge. For Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ has not placed for any man two hearts in the same breast. That is why it has been said of knowledge, “It will not give you a part of itself unless you give it all of you.”


The third duty of the student is that he does not behave haughtily before knowledge, nor command his teacher. Rather, he should place himself under his teacher’s complete control, just as an extremely sick person submits himself completely to his doctor. The sick person does not pretend to give his doctor instructions, nor advise him on which medicine to use.

It is also imperative that the student be constantly in service to his teacher. This is shown in what has been narrated regarding Zayd b. Thabit رضي الله عنه. Zayd b. Thabit رضي الله عنه prayed a funeral prayer, after which, an animal was brought to him so that he might ride it. Ibn ‘Abbas رضي الله عنه came and held the animal to help Zayd b. Thabit رضي الله عنه mount the animal. Zayd رضي الله عنه said to him, “Leave that, o cousin of the Messenger of Allah.”

Ibn ‘Abbas رضي الله عنه said, “This is how we were commanded to treat the Scholars and the elders.”

So, Zayd رضي الله عنه kissed his hand and said, “This is how we were commanded to treat the People of the House of our Prophet ﷺ.”

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Adulation is not from the character of the believer, except in seeking knowledge.” It has been said that knowledge flees from an arrogant person the same way that a stream rushes from high places.


The fourth duty of the student is that he avoids giving his attention to the disagreements of the people of knowledge, because that breeds confusion and perplexity. For, in his beginning stages, the student’s heart inclines to whatever it is presented to it, especially to if it leads to inactivity, which corresponds to his laziness and inoccupation.

It is not permissible for the beginner in his journey to follow the actions of the people at the end of their journey. In fact, one of the Sages said, “If someone visits us in our beginning stages will become a siddiq. If he visits us in our final stages, he will become an apostate.” That is because, in the final stages of their journey, their limbs refrain from actions, except the obligatory acts. They replace voluntary acts with the journey of the heart and perpetual witnessing. And, the negligent person will consider this to be inaction and inoccupation.

Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ said: (You see the mountains and consider them still, even though they move like clouds) (al-Naml, 88).


The fifth duty of the student is that he does not leave any discipline among the praiseworthy sciences, except that he investigates it until he reaches its objective. If he is able to, he should master it completely. If not, then he should master the most important part of it. And that is only possible after first reviewing it in its entirety.


The sixth duty of the student is that he gives great concern to the most important science: the knowledge of the Hereafter. By that [the knowledge of the Hereafter], I mean the category of knowledge that deals with perfecting character and unveiling. The perfection of character leads to the unveiling. And unveiling is the gnosis of Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ, which is a light that Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ casts into a heart that has been purified by worship and struggle, having arrived at the level of the faith of Abu Bakr رضي الله عنه, about whom it has been narrated, “If the faith of the people of the earth were weight against the faith of Abu Bakr, the faith of Abu Bakr would outweigh it.” That was due to a secret stored within his heart, not that which can be measured and weighed.

How strange is it that someone should hear these statements of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and then hear with the ear of contempt similar statements of the Sufis, believing that they are inventions of the Sufis. Be careful of holding such contempt, for it will cause the destruction of your capital. So, be eager for the knowledge of that secret, which is beyond the goods of the jurists and theologians. For you will only be guided to that secret through your eager search.

And know that the noblest of sciences is the gnosis of Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ, which is an ocean whose limits cannot be reached. The highest degrees that the human being can reach in that science are those of the Prophets and the Saints, followed by the degrees of those who follow them.

It has been said that two wise men, from among the wise worshipers, were seen (in a dream). In one of their hands was a page on which was written, “If you do everything well, do not believe that you are perfect, until you know Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ and that He is the Establisher of means and the Creator of all things.”

In the other’s hand, there was a page that said, “Before I knew Allah, I would drink and remain thirsty. When I knew Him, my thirst was quenched without drinking.”


The seventh duty of the student is that his present goal be to fill his inner being with the characteristics that will cause him to arrive before Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ and to the vicinity of the high hosts [al-mala’ al-a’la], among those drawn near. He should never seek, through knowledge, leadership, wealth, or status.

The Duties Of The Guiding Teacher

The most excellent state of the guiding teacher is his joining between knowledge and action. Such a person is greatly considered in the hidden realm of Heaven. He should not be like the needle that makes clothes for others, while it is naked itself, or like the wick of a lamp that gives light to others while it burns itself out, as has been said:

“I became as an exhausted wick,
Which illuminates people while it burns.

If someone assumes the role of teaching, he has taken on a great responsibility. So, he should observe its etiquettes and duties.


The first duty of the guiding teacher is being softhearted towards the student and treating him as he would a son, due to the Prophet’s ﷺ words, “I am to you like a father to his children.”

Rather, in reality, the guiding teacher is the true father, because one’s father is a means to the ephemeral life, while the teacher is a means to eternal life. That is why the teacher’s right has been considered greater than the right of the parents. If that is the case, then the different students of a single teacher should love him. For the Scholars and the children of the Hereafter are wayfaring towards Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ, traveling upon the path that leads to Him.

As for teaching for the sake of seeking this world, it is a way of evident destruction.

The world, its years, and its months, are waystations upon a roadway. And, the gentle treatment between the travelers from one land to another causes them to have love and affection for each other. So, what about the journey to Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ and Firdaws, in which there is no constriction. Then, let them steer far clear of rivalry and contention, due to His سبحانه وتعالىٰ words: (The believers are but brothers) (al-Hujurat, 10).


The second duty of the guiding teacher is following the Prophet’s ﷺ words, “Do not seek a wage for teaching.”

Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ said: (We do not want any reward, or even gratitude from you) (al-Insan, 9).

And even if he [the teacher] is owed favor from the students, they are owed favor from him, because the students are a means to his drawing near to Allah سبحانه وتعالىٰ through cultivating knowledge and faith in their hearts.


The third duty of the guiding teacher is that he not put off any sincere counsel until tomorrow, such as his forbidding them from assuming a position before deserving it, or delving into hidden knowledge before becoming fully established in apparent knowledge.


The fourth duty of the guiding teacher is to counsel the student and forbid him from displaying blameworthy characteristics. However, the teacher should do this indirectly and not directly. Mentioning such things directly will remove the veil of reverence.

In addition, it is necessary that the teacher be upright, before seeking that the student be upright. Otherwise, the teacher’s counsel will not benefit the student, because following someone in deed is stronger than following their words alone.

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