بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيم
Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem
Seeking knowledge is an essential part of our Islam. Whatever our context; as converts or born Muslims, using informal or formal methods; we seek knowledge of our religion in order to know how to please our Lord and fulfil our obligations as Muslims. This article outlines why learning the religion is so important, and gives tips for learning Islam.
Why is it so important, and why can't we just learn the basics and dismiss what we do not know?
And thus We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an and have diversified therein the warnings that perhaps they will avoid [sin] or it would cause them remembrance. So high [above all] is Allah, the Sovereign, the Truth. And [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Qur'an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, "My Lord, increase me in knowledge." Taha, 20:113-114 (Sahih International translation - affiliate link)
رَّبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا
Rabbi zidnee 'ilman
My Lord, increase me in knowledge
This placement of this dua comes after ayat describing the Day of Resurrection (20:99-112) and suggests that the Qur'an itself is knowledge, and that Allah is the giver of knowledge. It serves as a reminder that seeking this knowledge and acting upon it is essential so that we may have hope of being saved from the Fire. Isn't the ultimate purpose of seeking knowledge to be guided and to hope for Allah's mercy?
Knowledge isn't supposed to be ugly
Knowledge is not just essential, it's beautiful too. Whether someone dedicates their life to learning and teaching others or just listens to a little tafsir now and then, the processes of seeking and building knowledge are enjoyable and admirable. Unfortunately, knowledge appears to be surrounded by conflict as well, and sometimes it seems more ugly than beautiful. When someone encounters something that contradicts what they know (or what they think they know), attempts at correcting others can soon turn into ridicule and patronising behaviour.
But isn't it really the lack of knowledge that causes conflict among us 'regular' Muslims? Having a restricted and isolated Islamic perspective in addition to a lack of linguistic understanding if learning from translations can cause lots of problems. Building and maintaining solid Islamic knowledge should result in appreciation and respect for matters of fiqh, not the position that there is only one choice for everything in Islam, and that anything that does not fit a particular view is completely wrong. Even when exploring aqidah, we should be fearful of the ways we discuss Allah, because He tells us over and over again how he dislikes arrogance, that is having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one's own importance or abilities (google). Allah says in the Qur'an:
Allah does not like arrogant, boastful people, who are miserly and order people to be the same, hiding the bounty Allah has given them. We have prepared a humiliating torment for such ungrateful people. Nisa, 4:36-37
How ungrateful are we for guidance alone when we treat our brothers and sisters with insults and humiliation for not following an entirely uniform way of Islam? Islam is for everyone, but this doesn't mean everyone must live in exactly the same way. It means that Islam can be maintained alongside different cultures and individual circumstances, and trying to apply one embodiment of Islam in every circumstance will only create difficulty for people. I say this often in my posts about Islam: the religion is not hard.
Strive hard for God as is His due: He has chosen you and placed no hardship in your religion. Hajj, 22:78
We would do good to remember the following hadith of our Prophet, may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him, when considering the reality that there is not just one correct view for everything.
A'isha, may Allah be pleased with her, reported: Whenever the Prophet, may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him, was given a choice between two matters, he would (always) choose the easier as long as it was not sinful to do so; but if it was sinful he was most strict in avoiding it. He never took revenge upon anybody for his own sake; but when Allah's Legal Bindings were outraged, he would take revenge for Allah's sake. Sahih Bukhari and Muslim
Don't take credit for your knowledge
A lot of the ugliness surrounding knowledge is because of how it is used, and stems from how it was gained and the intention behind gaining it. Generally speaking, when we learn something new it makes us feel better about ourselves. We may feel like we have a responsibility to teach it to others, which can lead to a sense of superiority. We feel like we've accomplished something which can breed a feeling of pride.
When we seek knowledge in order to please our ego rather than please our Lord, we will end up using that knowledge in ugly ways, and that's if Allah grants us any real knowledge at all. Forgetting that this knowledge does not come from us, the purpose of gaining knowledge becomes to show off. We forget to acknowledge and be grateful to Allah for it, instead learning to feed our own ego rather than learning to please Allah. Allah is the One who has given us this knowledge. He has allowed us to learn it, and we must remain aware of this and grateful to Him always.
When we maintain awareness that anything we think we know is only by the permission of Allah, and seek it only for the purpose of pleasing Him so that we may have a chance of His mercy, then we wont use it to raise our own status or sense of superiority, or belittle others in an arrogant facade of 'reminders'.
Understanding is more than knowing
When man suffers some affliction, he prays to his Lord and turns to Him, but once he has been granted a favour from Allah, he forgets the One he has been praying to and sets up rivals to Allah, to make others stray from His path. Say, 'Enjoy your ingratitude for a little while: you will be one of the inhabitants of the Fire.' What about someone who worships devoutly during the night, bowing down, standing in prayer, ever mindful of the life to come, hoping for his Lord's mercy? Say, 'How can those who know be equal to those who do not know?' Only those who have understanding will take heed. Zumar 39:8-10 (Abdul Haleem Translation - affiliate link)
I want to talk about the last sentence in the above ayat. Only those who have understanding will take heed. 'Take heed' is translated from يتذكر (yatathakaru), from the root word thikr, and is often translated as 'remember'. To take heed means to listen carefully to something, to pay attention, and to follow or be obedient to it. If we remember something, it would imply we are aware of it and can act upon it.
In life it takes more than just knowing something in order to remember and take heed of it. We might know that we need to pay our bills, and even know how to and have the means to, but that doesn't mean we're going to pay them. But if we understand that not paying them will result in a halt in services, bad credit, and other consequences, we'd be more inclined to take heed and actually pay those bills. In a similar way, understanding something in Islam means a lot more than knowing it. We know that have to perform salah at specific times, but without understanding how important our salah is not only in our attempt of reaching Jannah but also in maintaining guidance within this dunya, we might not take heed and become neglectful.
How do we gain an understanding? We must learn from people who understand. Someone with only knowledge can pass on knowledge to someone else- they can tell you that you need to pray, but they can't pass on an understanding of salah, the why's and how's. Without that factor of understanding, we are less likely to take heed of that knowledge. Taking from people with only knowledge is OK, but our primary teachers must be people with understanding. Having knowledge without understanding of linguistics and context, and specifics, can evidently lead to misunderstanding which results in misinformation.
With the necessity of understanding in mind, it's clear that we cannot seek knowledge lazily, reading some translation with no understanding of context and drawing purely literal and simplistic conclusions. Of course lots can be taken from the Qur'an and ahadith by those with only little understanding, but lots of it requires more reflection and comprehension, such would be the case when considering abrogated verses or ahadith, for example.
This is a blessed Scripture which We sent down to you [Muhammad], for people to think about (or reflect upon) its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed (or remember). Sad 38:29
Three things to consider when seeking knowledge:
1. Make a proper effort
'Abdullah narrated it on the authority of his father Yahya: Knowledge cannot be acquired with sloth. Sahih Muslim
We cannot seek knowledge lazily, we must put in proper effort to consider the ways in which we seek it and the sources that we gain it from. If we're taking classes, we need to make sure we attend and pay attention, contribute and make the most of it. If we're studying in other ways we need to commit and take care to continue our studies.
2. Be consistent
The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him, said: "O people, perform such acts as you are capable of doing, for Allah does not grow weary but you will get tired. The acts most pleasing to Allah are those which are done continuously, even if they are small." Sahih Muslim
However you seek knowledge, do it in ways that you can maintain. Don't burn yourself out by doing too much and then not being able to keep it up. Life is full of highs and lows, and when the lows come we mustn't let it discourage us from picking ourselves back up and continuing.
3. Maintain adab
One very important thing to consider about our sources of knowledge is the adab (manners) of the teachers. If someone is teaching Islam whilst not maintaining basic good character and behaviour, should we be learning from this person? Rudeness, arrogance, talking bad about other Muslims who hold a different position, refusing the validity of all other positions except their own, should all be red flags that cause us to question whether we should take knowledge from them. In the same way if we are passing on things we've learnt or discussing matters with others, we should maintain good adab. If we find ourselves entering a hostile argument, we should ask ourselves- are we doing this to please Allah and to hope for His Mercy, or are we just feeding our own ego?
Can we not be brothers even though we disagree about something?
How to gain Islamic knowledge and understanding
With everything we've discussed in mind; our intention for seeking knowledge, the way we use it, being mindful of Allah being the One who gives us knowledge and not feeding our own ego, the necessity of truly understanding rather than just knowing something, giving proper effort, being consistent, and maintaining adab and being aware of the adab of teachers; how can we gain Islamic knowledge? Here are a few ways:
Find local teachers and classes. This is by far the best way to learn- from people with understanding. Consider the experience of the institute and the teachers as well as their Islamic background.
Read recommended books. We will always do an amount of self-learning and required reading from home. Consider the origin of the publication, what is their aqeedah? What principles of fiqh do they follow? Check the Bookshelf for updated lists of suggested books.
Learn online. This is a risky way to learn. If we are to take fatawa from websites, we better know the background of that website and the people giving the fatwa before we apply them, or worse, dictate them to others. I don't recommend learning this way. There are beneficial ways to learn online though- some distance learning Islamic Diploma or Sanatain courses from reputable institutes, as well as sources like Bayyinah TV.
Learn from friends and family. Our friends and family may have limited knowledge, but we shouldn't shy away from asking questions when we have them. They may have an answer.
Whatever way we are able to learn, it is so important that we do. If we don't learn aqeedah, how can we develop our iman? If we don't learn the fiqh of salah, for example, how will we know what invalidates it? If we don't learn about our Prophet, may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon Him, how can we develop our love for him, and how can we benefit from the story of his life, salallahu alayhi wa salam? And if we don't know, how will we teach our children?
You can't disconnect 'ilm from ibada. You can't disconnect knowledge from worship.
Sheikh Omar Suleiman
'Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-'As, may Allah be pleased with him, reported: I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him, saying: "Allah will not decrease knowledge by removing it from people, but He will decrease knowledge by the death of the scholars, and when no knowledge remains, people will take some ignorant heads who will be asked (to give verdicts) and will give no true answers or verdicts which (in turn) misguide them and they will misguide the people." Sahih Muslim