Keeping it Real: Student of Knowledge Superstars


Who ever thought that glitz and glamour would be associated with being a "talib al-'ilm"? Did anyone ever imagine that being a "student of knowledge" would become a glorified dream for many Muslims? Is it acceptable to say that becoming a "da'ee" is the new way of 'being the man'? Is it fair to equate aspiring to be a 'baller' in jahiliyyah to aspiring to be a "student of knowledge" in Islam? A big disclaimer before continuing: This is not a critique of seeking knowledge, of students of knowledge, or anything of that sort. Rather, what follows is an examination of the culture found in our communities of aspiring students, their motivations in seeking knowledge, and the method employed in doing so.

When you grow up in the West without Islam - even if you are a Muslim - you will have certain people you still look up to, some who have nothing to do with who you really are. For example, young desi kids dressed like gangsters and thugs, listening to rap music [See related post on Hip Hop and Islam.], meeting with their friends to mack on girls, then going home to eat biryani and study for those extra chemistry classes they are taking in preparation for med school. Aren't we all to some extent products of our own environment?

The bottom line is, though, to some extent - in jahiliyyah (not necessarily exclusive to people who converted) - people aspire to be like those celebrities, famous and adored. I don't think it's even necessarily the appeal of the money as it is the adoration of the people. Everyone craves having the respect and attention of people. Muslims who start learning see examples of people who are famous in the Muslim ummah. They have CD's, DVD's, they travel around giving talks and classes, and are to a large extent adored by the Muslim masses. I remember going to a convention once where the crowd of people waiting to get in to hear one particular speaker talk resembled the crowd outside an arena waiting to get into a rock concert.

When Muslims give up some of the aspirations they may have had before, they try to replace them with more 'halal' ones. Unfortunately, while our actions reform quickly, the intentions are often lagging behind. The virtues associated with seeking knowledge are motivation enough to study. However, with studying comes the pitfalls of seeking attention, fame, debating with people, being 'known' as 'knowledgeable,' and studying things which do not benefit. It becomes easy to cast aside scholars who speak about "the same things" and become infatuated with people who are always engaged in novel things you have never heard before, or authoritatively assert themselves in controversial issues.

Just the virtue of having a reputation as knowledgeable or academic is often enough to mess with the intention of a seeker of knowledge.

Even women are a huge fitnah for the aspiring student of knowledge. The respected males in western culture are the ones who get all the girls. For many of such aspiring 'students' the girl factor is definitely a big plus in the path of seeking knowledge. It doesn't help, of course, to go to a conference, and have sisters sending up questions like "are you looking for a second wife?" in the Q/A portion of the talk to the Shaykh. Many think that by becoming a 'student,' marriage prospects will flow forth without end and they will somehow be forced to struggle to narrow themselves down to only 4 lucky women.

That status as a "student of knowledge" becomes the goal by which to attain respect, admiration, women, and even to some respect, money. Is this just a zabihah version of the 'baller' lifestyle?

Surely the picture is not as bad as it has been painted above is it? Many people (especially youth) are confused oftentimes as to their own intentions. While the pursuit of studying the Sacred Knowledge is no doubt noble and virtuous, that pursuit does not come without tests - chief amongst them is the test of our intentions. We are all familiar with the hadith of the first 3 people to be thrown into the Hellfire - amongst them a scholar and reciter of Quran (may Allah protect us all from Hellfire). We have to assess our goals in learning the deen, set realistic expectations, and study the proper way.

What are the warning signs we can look for to see if we're headed down the wrong path in seeking knowledge?

The Prophet (saw) was commanded in the Qur'an to ask for an increase in knowledge. In some hadith, it is narrated that he would ask Allah for the beneficial knowledge, and in even other narrations we find he (saw) sought refuge in Allah from knowledge that did not benefit.

So, for the aspiring student, is there a focus on knowledge that benefits?

Islam is in some respects a religion of priorities. Aisha (ra) said for example, that had the prohibition of alcohol been the first commandment in Islam, no one would have accepted it. They had to go through a process to reach the stage of giving it up. Similarly, when learning the deen, as with any other subject, you have to master the basics and essentials first before moving on to more complex subjects. The important underlying factor with Islamic knowledge is using this litmus test: Is what you are learning bringing you closer to Allah (swt) or not?

Is it proper for an aspiring student of knowledge then, to -

Engage in debate and criticism of real students of knowledge on issues of aqeedah, bid'ah, and advanced issues of 'ilm and ijtihaad while they themselves have not even studied Islam to the extent of reading Quran with proper tajweed or memorizing more than Juz 'Amma?

What about people who cannot even name the arkaan of salaah authoritatively telling others about the fiqh of how to move the finger in salah?

How about those who are always engaged with defending hotly contested issues like Mawlid and Tawassul, while almost ignoring and never calling to acts of ibaadah that are undisputed?

What about someone engaging themselves for days and weeks on end 'researching' whether to go into sujood on your hands or knees first, while they have not even properly studied fiqh to know what types of water can be used to make wudu?

How about passing judgment on other Muslims, calling them innovators, or having corrupted aqeedah/manhaj while not even knowing the technical differences between shirk and kufr?

Similarly, what about people who make walaa and baraa over Fiqh issues, like refusing to pray behind someone who wipes over their socks, or boycotting people who eat "outside meat"?

The "student of knowledge culture" for some people has spurred strange affiliations. You meet people at the masjid sitting and discussing the virtues of ashaabul-hadeeth (the People of Hadith), and calling themselves students of hadith, even studying relatively advanced issues of sciences pertaining to its narrators - yet, they have not even read any of the 6 books of hadith from cover to cover - much less read them with a teacher! Some affiliate themselves to traditional Islam while not even having studied the basic usool and dalaa'il for the "traditions" they claim to follow - yet they feel pious and knowledgeable enough to look down upon others not on the same path as them.

For many, being a "student of knowledge" has resulted in a disregard for the basics, a focus on advanced issues of ikhtilaaf, and adherence to a strict dress code. Dress code? You know the types. People in tailored thobes, Saudi style kufis, izaar hemmed exactly halfway between the knee and ankle, discussing and debating rulings and verdicts and scholars of whom they have never even read an original writing from. Or groups of people, all discussing the wird and adhkaar given to them by their teacher, ignoring the adhkaar found in the Sunnah, and all dressed like they were hired to endorse the spring 2008 line for Shukr clothing.

There is a huge element of people plateauing in the first stage of knowledge - when you think you know everything. This is also known as "a little bit of knowledge is dangerous." The intention to reach the advanced stages is noble. People obviously have a thirst to learn the upper levels of Islamic sciences, especially the issues that are in vogue in the communities. Everyone wants to argue about halal meat and Doritos but no one wants to actually study the usool and evidences that go into it. Everyone wants to offer up tafseer of the Quran, but no one wants to take the time to memorize it, or even read it every day.

That's another amazing thing, the number of people running around as "students" who ignore even the most basic aspect of our deen and have no daily relationship with the Quran, or even a solid plan in place to finish memorizing it.

There is definitely a certain level of arrogance that comes with studying the deen in this way - going for the "sexier" issues and ignoring the basics - because you start looking down on others for their stances on a handful of particular issues. I myself cannot remember how many times I was told something was bid'ah, would get angry with people for engaging in it, and then upon studying the issue more with a teacher would find that in fact there are other evidences, opinions, and explanations showing that it was either not bid'ah - or at the least not something to get your blood boiling over. How many people in our communities fight with and boycott each other over these types of issues? It's definitely a disease we have to combat. One telling sign is that people going down this path, as they "progress" in seeking knowledge, they become more and more disenchanted with the community. They withdraw. They start looking down on the rest of the community, they begin to disregard things like social work as beneath them - even if they do not explicitly say it, then it's shown through their actions. This is when the knowledge of the deen goes from an encompassing life practice to an almost strictly academic pursuit.

One sign of this is the rapid rise in IOD. What's IOD? Internet-Only-Dawah. We have so many people in our communities who shun the masjid and the community, and instead engage themselves with only internet dawah. This is not to say that there's no dawah online or anything of that sort (obviously, this article itself is on a blog of all things), but it's more about people who get caught up in the culture described above spending all their time debating in chatrooms and PalTalk and forums. The incessant back and forth, name-calling, boycotting, and email lists rehashing these debates have become widespread. People withdraw from their communities and abandon dawah there, opting instead to just label others and label scholars with different names and bicker in the name of dawah. This is a deception of Shaytaan and something that hardens the hearts. There is definitely a huge market for making dawah online, but it must be done correctly, and I would personally venture to make the argument that it will not be successful if a person is not also actively engaged in dawah in their own community IRL (in real life).

It's time to be real with regards to how we learn our deen. There are entire books on how to seek knowledge, its methods, and its virtues. This article is not the place to reinvent the wheel, but to draw focus on two of the biggest problems we all face in our quest to learn the religion,

  1. Intention
  2. Patience

For those of us aspiring to become real students of knowledge, we have to seriously check our intentions. What is the goal of learning? Is it to debate with people? Is it to gain admiration of people? Is it to write books or give talks and impress others?

Or is it seriously about coming closer to Allah, and bringing benefit to others? If this is the case, we have to act like it. We must focus on learning that which will bring us closest to Allah. The example of Quran has been mentioned in this article a few times, let's look at how this example applies.

Some people caught up in the allure of just "seeking knowledge" for the sake of knowledge will always exert themselves in finding loopholes to justify whatever they are doing. If, for example, you try to bring them back to the basics like focusing on the Quran, they will research and research until they find an example of one scholar who couldn't correctly read with tajweed, or one scholar out of thousand upon thousands who didn't actually finish memorizing Quran. We have to be willing to step back and assess ourselves, and see if we are willing to put in the hard work into the basics - which may be boring - in order to get to the stage of being able to properly study the subjects we may be more interested in.

To do the basics takes patience, and we have to be very real with ourselves regarding our goals. Are we going to become scholars? Do we have the skill set for it? Put it this way, if you are faltering in regards to your secular education, and you cannot keep up with your classes or make good grades - why would it all of a sudden change at an Islamic university? That's a very tough truth we have to face. Do you have the time and ability to actually set aside 6-8 years (at the minimum) to actually study full time?

It is nearly impossible to be a full time secular student, or a full time employee, and a full time student at the same time. If you are going to be studying part time, are you ready to face the fact that most likely you will not become a scholar or big student of knowledge? If that is the case, are you ready to focus yourself on becoming a productive community member, maybe a good khateeb, teach good halaqahs, make the avenues available for others to learn, do community work, and fulfill the other roles our ummah needs? We definitely need more scholars, no doubt. But what we do not need is people who fool themselves into thinking they will be scholars, and not only miss that goal, but have missed out on helping the ummah in other ways as well.

Are you willing to focus on learning that which is most essential to you (and not necessarily what you are most interested in learning)? Let me give an example of something that some of us 'part time' students fall into. Someone may not have the ability to study full time, but wants to learn Arabic. This is a good goal. They will dedicate 2-3 years of their life spending all their free time studying sarf, nahw, balaghah, and other grammatical sciences in extremely great detail. But after 2-3 years they are only now at the level of reading basic Islamic texts that could have been covered in English already.

It's important to realistically identify what stage you want to reach. There is nothing wrong with becoming a knowledgeable, practicing Muslim - not everyone is cut out to be a scholar. How many people spend 5-6 years of their life 'chasing the dream' and not doing anything else with their time, only to be now hitting their 30's without any true Islamic education or even secular education to show for it? Many people are just "waiting to go overseas" or "go study" and they bide their time not doing anything - not memorizing Quran, not studying with the Imams in their communities, and not even going to college and at least getting a solid secular degree! People like this after 5 years are still studying, discussing, and debating the exact same things they were 5 years prior without any progress.

The path of seeking knowledge does not have to culminate in being a scholar or da'ee only as many people assume. If people in the ummah were dedicated to learning, and becoming practicing Muslims, imagine how our communities would be. Imagine that all the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen were all practicing Muslims - having taqwa of Allah in raising their families, in teaching their kids, in spending their wealth, in volunteering their time, and dealing with each other. What kind of a community would that be? How would it be to go to that masjid where these people are? The entire knowledge level and practice of the whole community would shoot through the roof, and you would have dedicated members of the ummah helping each other out.

Once we identify a tangible goal to reach, we have to work to get there, and supplicate to Allah (swt) to not only allow us to be carriers of the knowledge, but those who act on what we learn. Looking at what this takes should humble us in regards to embarking upon what we want to achieve. It should increase our respect for those students of knowledge who have dedicated years of their lives studying, and are now active in teaching the deen. We should grow in our respect for our local imams who are often neglected and overlooked. What we learn should nourish our hearts. If we are questioned later about what we learned and why, we should be able to answer appropriately. Before reading a book, before listening to a lecture, we should ask ourselves why we are doing it. After we finish, we should ask ourselves what we learned from it that will benefit us in the akhirah, what we gained from it that we can pass on to others, and benefit the people with.

We all want to become more knowledgeable of our deen, but we have to be true to ourselves, and our sincerity to Allah(swt) in what we're trying to get out of what we learn if we want to be successful.

As a final note, one important narration must be mentioned from Sufyaan ath-Thawree,

"We began seeking knowledge for other than the sake of Allah, but knowledge refused to be sought for other than Allah's sake"

Even though many of us may start out with mixed intentions, or our intentions may change as time goes on, as long as we keep working, then insha'Allah Allah(swt) will give us the tawfeeq to correct our intentions and become true carriers of what we are learning.

I hope that this article is not misconstrued, and I hope that it doesn't discourage anyone from seeking knowledge - that is definitely not the goal. The goal is rather to serve as a reminder of our approach to seeking knowledge, and making sure we are doing it in the proper manner, and with the proper intentions. No matter what stage of life we are in, we can begin seeking knowledge, even in old age - but we have to do our utmost to do it with the proper etiquettes.

Alhamdulillah, many avenues have opened up for us to learn Islam. We can take online programs, distance education programs, weekend seminars, summer intensives, halaqahs, and even short intensives overseas that last for a few weeks. The opportunities are all there for us to learn, but we have to seize them, and make the best use of them that we possibly can so that we can learn more and more of what brings us closer to Allah(swt).

In closing I wish to direct everyone to this book in pdf format, The Pitfalls in the Quest for Knowledge by Salmaan al-'Awdah which says a lot of what I wanted to in a far more eloquent manner - I just wish I had found this book before writing this article and not after :)

Some related resources,