The great muhaddith and faqīh, Sufyān Ibn 'Uyaynah rahimahullāh states:
The first step towards acquiring 'ilm is istimā' i.e. listening attentively, then to understand, then to memorise/remember, then to act upon it and propagate.
The importance of listening with full attention is the first step and an essential requisite for success in acquiring 'ilm, which is the prerequisite to acting according to the Wishes of the Creator. It is for this reason Allāh ta'ālā used the word istimā' (listening with intent) instead of sam' (merely to listen with or without intention), followed by the word insāt (to become silent), when stating the adab of listening to the Qur'ān in the following verse:
When the Qur'ān is recited, listen to it attentively and be silent, so that you may be showered with mercy. (7:204)
Allāh ta'ālā has promised to bestow His Mercy upon those who listen attentively, which will manifest in the form of the ability to abstain from wrong and engage in good deeds. Allāh ta'ālā states:
..those who listen to the word attentively (of Allāh ta'ālā and His Rasūl sallallāhu 'alayhi wasallam, and follow (it, knowing that it is) the best of it (of all speech). These are the ones whom Allāh has guided, and these are the ones who possess (true) intelligence (wisdom). (39:18)
The importance of istimā' can be further understood by how Allāh ta'ālā addressed Mūsā 'alayhis salām when sending revelation to him. Allāh ta'ālā states:
I have chosen you (for prophethood), so listen attentively to what is revealed. (20:13)
The commentators of the Qur’ān have mentioned that when Mūsā 'alayhis salām was commanded that he should listen attentively to what is revealed to him, he stood on a rock, leaning against another, placed his right hand over his left, dropped his chin on his chest and stood listening attentively.
From the above it is clear how important it is to listen attentively when seeking knowledge or listening to a discourse: only those people will genuinely benefit who listen attentively with sound understanding.
How to Listen Attentively
The pious predecessors have defined the term istimā' in detail. Wahb Ibn Munabbih rahimahullāh further explains the essence of istimā' by stating that it comprises of the following:
a. Keeping the body motionless.
A person should not engage any part of his body in anything whilst listening. He should become motionless. Fidgeting, playing around with clothes and other such actions dilute the concentration one needs when listening to religious discourses and lessons. The Sahābah radhiyallāhu 'anhum, when in the company of Rasūlullāh sallallāhu 'alayhi wasallam, would sit so still that they were described with the phrase, “as if birds were sitting on their heads.” If a bird was to sit on a person and he desired that it does not fly away, he will need to be extremely still. This was the condition of the Sahābah radhiyallāhu 'anhum whilst sitting in the company of Rasūlullāh sallallāhu 'alayhi wasallam and listening to him.
b. Lowering the gaze.
In essence, lowering the gaze means that one should not be distracted by anything and be totally focused towards the lesson being imparted. Hence, a person needs to abstain from looking here and there. Focussing in a manner which will prevent one from being distracted is essential to listening attentively. This can be achieved by either looking down or at the speaker. Furthermore, it portrays interest to the speaker which will further enhance the quality of delivery.
c. Attention of the ears.
During the discourse or lesson, a person should lend his ears only to the speaker.
d. Attention of the mind.
Whilst listening, the mind should also be alert and attentive. Being preoccupied or thinking about other things will be a hindrance in giving the required attention. It is for this reason students are advised to disengage from all such activities and devices which occupy the mind.
e. Firm intention to act.
If a person does not intend to act upon the knowledge being imparted, his attention will not always be completely focused. Having a firm intention to practice will motivate a person to focus on everything being said.
When a person adopts such a manner of listening then he will fulfil the requisites of istimā' and gain the Pleasure of Allāh ta'ālā. Allāh ta'ālā will in return, grant him the correct understanding of knowledge and enlighten his heart with a special Nūr. Consequently, he will become from those who have been guided and granted a deep level of understanding, i.e. wisdom, as stated in the verse of the Glorious Qur’ān:
..those who listen to the word attentively (of Allāh ta'ālā and His Rasūl sallallāhu 'alayhi wasallam, and follow (it, knowing that it is) the best of it (of all speech). These are the ones whom Allāh has guided, and these are the ones who possess (true) intelligence (wisdom). [39:18]
May Allāh ta'ālā grant us the tawfīq to implement the act of listening attentively so that we may acquire true benefit from religious discourses and lessons. Āmīn.
© Riyādul Jannah (Sep 2016)