What is Adab?
The word adab is not fully translatable from Arabic to English. It encompasses all the good things a Muslim must do. Adab linguistically means to invite people for food. The Arabic word Ma’duba is a word derived from the word Adab, and means to invite all or many people for all types of food, or a gathering around a table. Adab hence includes all that is good; every noble characteristic, habit, or trait that is included within the scope of adab.
Adab is natural, it isn’t really taught, or learnt, but it is naturally developed. Children acquire adab from their parents, students from their teachers, the young from the elders. We may have much knowledge but lack adab and we may have much adab but lack knowledge; but it is adab that holds the greater value and importance. In today’s society, where parents, teachers, and elders are no longer given their correct honours, respect or rights; basic manners have made a swift exit, whilst we compete for glory, knowledge, or worldly gain.
The Importance of Adab
Ibn Al-Mubarak said, “Mukhlid Ibn al-Husayn once said to me,
‘We are more in need of acquiring adab than learning Hadith’.
This highlights that knowledge alone is insufficient to build a sound and balanced Islamic personality. Imam Zakariya al-Anbari once said:
‘Knowledge without Adab is like fire without wood, and Adab without knowledge is like a spirit without a body’.
So, vast amounts of knowledge and severe lack in adab, means a person is little more than a donkey laden with books. What use are the books to that donkey without being able to read? Similarly, what use is knowledge to a Muslim, without the practical mannerisms and etiquettes that really define us as Muslims?
Traditionally, adab was not taught but acquired and embodied between interactions between people. It has been narrated that Imam Ahmed (رحمة الله عليه) would have had up to 5000 attendees at his gatherings, maybe 500 would write and learn; the rest (4500) would simply learn from his actions, his adab. This has such importance that we learn by what we see, whether that is good or bad, hence it is essential and somewhat detrimental that we teach only that which is good, as the bad habits are perhaps the easier to acquire.
Looking at other classical examples from our pious Ulema; the mother of Imam Malik (رحمة الله عليه) would place an imama on his head and send him to his teacher Rabi’ah ibn Abdurrahman (nicknamed: Rabi’ah Ar-Rai’), to learn first from his manners, his adab and then his knowledge. Indeed the deen of Islam is itself manners, where anyone that surpasses you in manners, is better than you in deen (Ibn al-Qayyim). Abu Huraira (رضى الله عنه) narrated, that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said:
“I have not been sent as a Messenger, except to perfect character (Akhlaaq)”
He also said that:
“The nearest of you to me on the Day of Judgement will be the one who is best in character.”
All the books of Hadith have chapters on Adab. For example:
1. Muwatta’, Imam Malik: The book of good behaviour
2. Sahih al-Bukhari: The book of manners
3. Sahih Muslim: The book of dutifulness, ties of kinship and manners.
4. Sunan Abi Dawud: The book of manners
5. Sunan at Tirmidhi: The book of manners, and the book of dutifulness and ties of kinship.
6. Sunan Ibn Majah: Chapters on Manners.
The book Al Adab Al Mufrad was separated by Imam Bukhari (رحمة الله عليه) because he was aware of its great importance in everyday living. When we talk about Adab we must first begin with our Adab with Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) in terms of akhlaaq, sincerity, actions, avoiding shirk etc. We must qualify our respect for Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) and His attributes, His signs, His Symbols (the Quran, the Masãjid and everything connected to Him). Then we must purify and qualify our Adab with the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). In quantifying, Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) tells us in the Quran that in His (صلى الله عليه وسلم) manners and style, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) was a perfect example:
وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلى خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ
“Truly, you have the best of manners”
(Quran Al Qalam: verse 4)