Someone pointed out that the hadith ‘Seek knowledge even as far as China’ is a weak hadith (called da’if in Arabic, zaif in Farsi and Urdu). While many scholars do regard this hadith as being weak, there is also a different opinion on this matter. There was a debate on this hadith in the comments section of the the muslimmatters blog earlier this years. He is a relevant excerpt from the comments.
Some of the “heavy hitters” amongst classical Hadîth scholars have declared this Hadîth weak, but al-Mizzî who compiled Tahthîb al-Kamâl fî Asmâ’ ar-Rijâl, who is by far the “heaviest hitter” of the scholars of grading narrators has called for caution to be exercised with this Hadîth. He has stated, “Perhaps, its status is rectified to Hasan on account of its wide circulation, ” reasoning that an outright forgery wouldn’t have reached such wide circulation amongst the Muslims.
Likewise, al-Munâwî cites al-Dhahabî’s Talkhîs wherein he claims that it has numerous weak chains, but some are sound. However, I looked in al-Dhahabî’s Talkhîs Kîtâb al-Mawdû`ât and found that the part cited by al-Munâwî was absent. The fact that a classical work cites another classical work and that citation is no longer extant in the copies we have today is an unfortunately common evidence of the scores of “redactions” that “editors” have exercised upon these books of knowledge.
One must understand that a Hadîth being Da`îf is not enough to say definitively that it is “not Prophetic”. Imâm Ahmad’s school necessitates appealing to Da`îf narrations (under strict prerequisites) before the application of Qîyâs (deduction), and this was one of the defining differences in his approach to jurisprudence as opposed to the approach of his beloved and respected contemporary Imâm ash-Shâfi`î.
It would be safer and more wise to say that this Hadîth is correct in its meaning, but many scholars have declared it weak and Allah knows best.
The website Assunnah also has a helpful article on this subject. Here is the relevant excerpt.
The first to declare the “China” hadith forged seems to be Ibn al-Qaysarani (d. 507) in his Ma`rifa al-Tadhkira (p. 101 #118). This grading was kept by Ibn al-Jawzi in his Mawdu`at but rejected, among others, by al-Suyuti in al-La’ali’ (1:193), al-Mizzi, al-Dhahabi in Talkhis al-Wahiyat, al-Bajuri’s student Shams al-Din al-Qawuqji (d. 1305) in his book al-Lu’lu’ al-Marsu` (p. 40 #49), and notably by the Indian muhaddith Muhammad Taahir al-Fattani (d. 986) in his Tadhkira al-Mawdu`at (p. 17) in which he declares it hasan.
Given below is a quote from Dr. Mahatir Muhammad the former prime minister of Malaysia regarding this hadith. I would like to acknowledge that Dr. Mahatir is not a scholar of hadith but his stance on this matter seems to be different from other so I thought it would be helpful to reproduce it here.
A hadith says: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” It was pointed out by detractors that this was just a saying of the Prophet and it was not a command from God. When they disagreed with a particular hadith, they were quick to discredit it and refused to acknowledge it as a source of Islamic teaching. But if they subscribed to it, then they would not cease to highlight it repeatedly, even if it’s authenticity is doubted. Surely seeking knowledge in China does not mean Islamic knowledge. During the Prophet’s period, China was also known to have deep knowledge in such fields as medicine, literature and paper, explosives and many others.