In those days, students wishing to acquire higher knowledge of Islam travelled to Nishapur, which boasted several centres of learning and many teachers of repute. Ghazall, after completing his preliminary education at home, arrived in Nishapur to pursue further studies. He was brilliant and was soon acclaimed by his tutors as the most studious and painstaking student. In order not to forget any finer points of erudition, he formed the habit of noting down all that he heard and learnt from his teachers. And then he meticulously rewrote them under various headings and chapters. He treasured these notes as dearly as his life, or perhaps more.
Years later, he decided to return to his village. He tied all his prepared notes into a neat bundle and set forth in the company of a caravan. On the way, they were held up by a gang of highway thieves who robbed each traveller of all his valuables. And then it was Ghazali's turn. They searched him thoroughly, snatching away all that they wanted, and then laid hands on the tied bundle of notes.
"Take all that you want, but please do not touch this bundle," Ghazali pleaded. And the waylayers thought that there must be something very precious hidden in the bundle which Ghazali was trying to save. So they untied the bundle and ransacked the pages. What did they find? Nothing but a few written papers.
They asked: "What are these? Of what use are they?"
"Well, they may be of no use to you, but they are of great use to me," Ghazali answered.
"But of what use are they?" the robbers insisted.
"These are the fruits of my labour. If you destroy them, I am also ruinously destroyed. All the years of my attainment go down the drain," Ghazali replied.
"So whatever you know is in here, isn't it?" one of them said.
"Yes," Ghazali replied.
"Well, knowledge confined in a few papers, vulnerable to theft, is no knowledge at all. Go and think about it and about yourself"
This casual but pungent remark by a commoner shook Ghazali to the core. He realised that he had studied as a parrot, jotted down all that he learned and crammed in into his mind. He found that he knew more, but he thought less. If he wanted to be a true student and a good scholar, he had to assimilate knowledge, think, ponder, deduce and then form his own judgement.
He set out seriously to learn the way he should, and became one of the greatest ulema in Islam. But in his advanced age, when he summarised his achievements, he said:
"The best counsel and admonition which changed my thinking, came to me from a highway robber."