What does is it mean to be ‘rabbaani’ or godly? We find the concept of rabbaaniyya mentioned in the Qur’an in Surah Ali-Imran:
“It is not for a human [prophet] that Allah should give him the Scripture and authority and prophethood and then he would say to the people, ‘Be servants to me rather than Allah,’ but [instead, he would say], ‘Be pious scholars of the Lord because of what you have taught of the Scripture and because of what you have studied’.” (3:79)
Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi1 comments that in this verse three things (1) the Book, (2) wisdom and (3) prophethood are mentioned in the most eloquent of sequences as a subtle indication that divine revelation descends upon a prophet which leads to understanding the revelation through the intellect; this is referred to as hukm in the verse. It is agreed upon by the linguists and exegetes that hukm here means knowledge (`ilm) as further affirmed by a verse in Surah Maryam
” And We gave him judgment [while yet] a boy.” (Quran, 19:12)
Allah is alluding to the meaning of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Once the understanding of the Book is gained then it is conveyed to others and that is Prophethood (nubuwwa).
The verse from Surah Ali-Imran then continues,
“…Be pious scholars of the Lord…” (Qur’an, 3:79)
Al-Razi mentions the many opinions that have been given to explain the meaning of rabbaaniyyah:
1) Sibawayh2 said that the word rabbaani is derived from the word rabb, meaning Lord, and therefore refers to a believer who is knowledgeable about his Lord – Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) – and is consistent in obedience to Him.
2) Al-Mubarrad said rabbaani refers to the one who nurtures knowledge and people, meaning he teaches them about their deen, rectifies their condition and takes care of their affairs
Thus, according to Sibawayh the word rabbaani is related to rabb (Lord, or literally, sustainer) and according to Al-Mubarrad it is strongly related to the word Tarbiya (to nurture and develop). Also, according to Ibn Ashur3 tarbiya itself is defined as “the gradual nurturing of something to perfection.” This last definition is significant for all those charged with the responsibility of educating and caring for others. It is important that the education and development of others, whether for mature students or young children, must be done gradually in stages, but with the ultimate aim to attain the highest of levels according to the individual’s capacity.
3) Ibn Zaid has said that the rabbaani is the one who takes care of the affairs of the people. This responsibility lies on both the political leaders of this nation and their scholars. This meaning is also affirmed in Surah Al-Maidah where Allah (swt) says in relation to Bani Israail,
“Why do the rabbis and religious scholars not forbid them…?” (Qur’an, 5:63)
Here, the Rabbaniyyoon refers to their leaders (rabbaaniyoon) and scholars (al-ahbar). These are the two esteemed groups that are normally followed and obeyed by people. Therefore the meaning of the original verse (3:79) according to this understanding would be as follows,
“…I do not call you to worship me, rather I call you to be kings (leaders) and scholars and to abide by the commands of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala whilst being consistent in His obedience.”
4) Abu Ubaida says rabbaani refers to a person who knows, acts by what he knows and then keeps working to teach people all the paths to goodness.
The verse in Surah Ali-Imran ends with:
“[be pious scholars of the Lord] because of what you have taught of the Scripture and because of what you have studied.” (Qur’an, 3:79)
Allah continues to explain the meaning of rabbaani as a person who is not satisfied with being only learned himself but he is someone who goes out and actively teaches others. This is similar to what Murra b. Shurahil used to say about Alqama that he was amongst the rabbaniyyun who used to teach people the Qur’an. And this is what Allah (swt) ordered the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) to do:
“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction…” (Qur’an, 16:125)
The Prophet ﷺ was the greatest teacher sent to mankind since Allah (swt) describes him as one who “teaches them the book and wisdom,” (Qur’an, 3:164). He personally educated and nurtured the greatest generation of human beings to have walked this earth. He literally took care of the souls around him and never said ‘no’ to any requests. The Prophet ﷺ combined the roles of a teacher and a leader, as well as many others, and will always remain the paragon of rabbaani to be emulated by all teachers and leaders.
All prophets redirected their people to the sincere worship of Allah (swt). They represented the height of tawhid (monotheism) in knowledge and worship. So the logic of verse 3:79 is that with all the prophets’ effort and sacrifice to ensure people were educated representatives of the rabbaaniyya concept in knowledge of Allah and obedience to Him, it is impossible that these messengers would then call anyone to worship anything besides Allah.
So ‘rabbaani’ is the person who:
1) Has knowledge – `ilm
2) Acts according to that knowledge
3) Is consistent in his good actions
4) Continues to study the deen (religion) and then teaches this to others
5) Is also the one who takes care of the general welfare of others and nurtures them or is a leader who rectifies the affairs of people around him.
So in summary, a Muslim who has knowledge, actively learns and teaches should necessitate for him to become rabbaani – by which his learning and teaching are both for the sake of Allah alone. In other words the rabbaani is the one whose good deeds are motivated by seeking the pleasure of Allah, and whose refraining from bad deeds are motivated from fleeing from Allah’s punishment.
If learning and teaching do not lead the person to “be rabbaani” then he is like the one who planted a beautiful tree, which is beautiful to look at but it grows no fruit. That is why the Messenger ﷺ said “I seek refuge in Allah from knowledge that does not benefit and from a heart that does not fear”4
- Fakhruddin Razi or Imam Razi, was a Persian polymath: He was born in 1149 CE (543 AH) in Ray, Iran, and died in 1209 CE (606 AH) in Herat, Afghanistan. Razi’s major work was the Tafsir-e Kabir (The Great Commentary), his eight-volume Tafsir (exegesis) on the Qur’an, also named as Mafatih al-Ghayb (The Keys to the Unknown). ↩
- Sībawayh, by name of Abū Bishr amr Ibn uthmān (born 760CE?, al-Baydāʾ, Iran—died 793CE?, Shīrāz), celebrated grammarian of the Arabic language. His monumental work is al-Kitāb fī an-nahw (“The Book on Grammar”) or, more simply, al-Kitāb (“The Book”). ↩
- Shaikh Muhammad al-Tahir ibn Ashur is the most renowned Zaytuna Imam and one of the great Islamic scholars of the 20th century. He was born in Tunis in 1879CE and died in 1973CE. He left behind a wealth of long and detailed experience in public and administrative life as well as a rich legacy of diverse and scholarly publications and articles absolutely unmatched in nineteenth and twentieth century Tunisia. ↩
- Sahih Muslim : part of Hadith no. 2722. ↩