By: Shaykh Abd al-Fattāh Abu Ghuddah
Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him) says: “Knowledge is of three types: the book that is forever speaking (Qur’an), an established sunnah, and ‘I do not know’.”
In his explanation to this statement, al-Munāwi (Allah grant him mercy) says: “It is learnt from this hadith that it is a duty of an ‘Ālim that if he does not know the answer to a question, he should say ‘I do not know’, or, ‘I am not certain’, or, ‘I have no knowledge thereof’, or, ‘Allah knows best’. If a person is asked a question and he replies, ‘I do not know’, this does not lower his rank, as some ignorant people assume. This is because the ignorance of a qualified ‘Ālim with regard to certain matters does not harm him. Rather, his saying, ‘I do not know’, raises his rank because it is proof of his great status, the strength of his dīn, the fear of his Sustainer, the purity of his heart, the perfection of his recognition [of Allah] and the goodness of his intention.”
“It is a person whose religiosity is weak and whose recognition [of Allah] is little who will scorn such a statement. This is because he fears a drop in his status in the eyes of those who are present but does not fear a drop in his status in the sight of the Sustainer of the worlds. This is an act of ignorance and weakness in din.”
The statement, “I do not know” and “I have no knowledge” have thus been recorded with regards to the four Imams, the four rightly guided caliphs, in fact, even from Rasulullah (Allah’s peace be upon him) and Jibrā’īl (peace be upon him).
Imam Abu ‘l-Hasan al-Māwardi (Allah grant him mercy) says: “Since there is no way whatsoever of encompassing all knowledge, there is no shame in not knowing some of it. Since there is no shame in not knowing some of it, you should not feel shy to say: ‘I do not know’, with regard to what you do not know.”
Saying “I Do Not Know” Is Half Of Knowledge
Imam al-Ghazzāli (Allah grant him mercy) says: “The person who remains silent when he does not know—and he does this solely for Allah—is no lesser in reward than the person who speaks. This is because admitting ignorance is more difficult on the soul.”
Abu Tālib Makki (Allah grant him mercy) says: “This is because the beauty of a person remaining silent for the sake of Allah out of piety is like the beauty of a person who speaks of knowledge for the sake of Allah willingly.”
Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (Allah grant him mercy) narrates from someone of knowledge who said: “Learn to say, ‘I do not know’, and do not learn to say: ‘I know’. This is because if you say: ‘I do not know’, they will teach you till you know. But if you say, ‘I know’, they will continue questioning you till you have no answer.”
Abu Khaythamah al-Nasā’i (Allah grant him mercy) narrates on the authority of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, who said: “It is part of knowledge for a person who does not know, to say Allah knows best.”
Ibrahim al-Nakha’ī (Allah grant him mercy) asked a question to ‘Āmir al-Sha’bī (Allah grant him mercy), who was a great Imam and a great scholar from among the Tābi’īn (followers). So the latter replied: ‘I do not know.’ On hearing this, Ibrahim al-Nakha’ī (Allah grant him mercy) said: “I take an oath by Allah that this is a true ‘Ālim—he was asked about something which he did not know and he said: ‘I do not know’.”
 Al-Dāraqutni; Gharā’ib Malik. Al-Khatīb al-Baghdādi: Asma man rawā ‘an Mālik. Abu Dāwūd: Kitāb al-Farā’id, Vol 3, p.164. Ibn Mājah: in the introduction to his sunan, chapter eight.
 Al-Munāwi: Fayd al-Qadīr bi Sharh al-Jāmi’ al-Saghīr, Vol 4, pp. 387-388
 Al-Māwardi: Adab al-Dunya wa al-Dīn, p. 82 as quoted in Sharh al-Ihya, Vol 1 p. 394 of al-Zabīdī (Allah grant him mercy)
 Al-Ghazzāli: al-Ihyā, Vol 1, p. 69
 Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jāmi’ Bayān al-‘Ilm, Vol 2, p. 55
 Abu Khaythamah al-Nasā’i: Kitāb al-‘Ilm, p. 120
Extracted from The Sunnah Way Of The Sufis, Zam Zam Publishers, p.80-82.