There is a knowledge that is beyond learning. Without this knowledge, it is not possible to receive the message of the Supreme. To achieve this knowledge that cannot be taught, the faithful must seek a profound silence and unlearn everything else. The story of ‘The Shepherd’ illustrates this:
Once upon a time, there lived in Basra an old man with an only son. He was a loving and caring father, investing all his money in bringing up the boy well. The son grew up strong and handsome, learning all he could from local teachers.
The old man then decided to send him off to a distant centre of great learning. The young man went away for a few years, acquiring an education at the university under renowned scholars.
Then came the day for the son to return home after completing his studies. The old man waited at the door, looking anxiously at the road. When the son filly appeared, the old man looked into his eyes straight. But what he saw disappointed him greatly.
After the young man took refreshments and was sufficiently rested, the old man asked: “What have you learnt my son?” With pride and joy, the young man replied, “I have learnt everything there was to be learnt, father”.
The father took a deep breath. His instinct had been right. Gently he asked: “But have you learnt what cannot be taught?” It was a question strange and unexpected. The young man was at a complete loss for words. He looked at his father uncomprehendingly.
With a firmness born from great love, the old man commanded: “Go back my son. Learn this time what cannot be taught.”
The son was dutiful. Mystified though he was, he went back to his master, asking him to teach what cannot be taught.
The master smiled to himself. “Go away to the mountains with these four hundred sheep and come back when they are one thousand”, he commanded.
The young man went to the mountains and became a shepherd. There for the first time he encountered a silence vast and overwhelming. He had absolutely no one to talk to. In his desperation, he began talking to his sheep. But they would stare back at him strangely, as if to say he had gone utterly mad.
Slowly but surely the young man began to forget all his worldly knowledge. Pride and ego drained out of him. Like the sheep, he grew quiet and peaceful. Humility came, followed by profound wisdom.
At the end of two years when the number of sheep had grown to one thousand, the young man returned to his master and fell on his feet. “Now you have learnt what cannot be taught,” said the master.
This is why the great prophets of Islam at some time in their lives tended to sheep or other such animals. It is only after acquiring the knowledge of what cannot be taught, can the message of Allah be received and divined.
— the harbinger