Adapted from a talk given to sisters studying at Qalam Seminary, Jan. 2019
On Spirituality, Personal Development & Practice
1) Withhold yourself from complaining about this journey: There will obviously be obstacles and challenges, frustrations and difficulties, that come on the path of sacred learning. In whatever institution or program we are enrolled in, or teacher we are studying with, we may find flaws or problems. However we should seek to have a positive outlook, train our tongues to speak khayr (what is good and beneficial) and to realize the immense blessing of this endeavor.
Remember the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ in which he says, “Whoever Allah wants good for, He grants him/her tafaqquh (deep understanding) of religion.” This path, and its opened doors and opportunities, are an incredible sharaf (honor) that Allah has gifted us. There are many who wish they could have such an opportunity and yet are held back due to personal circumstances, financial difficulties, oppressive governance, etc. We must also appreciate the difficulties and sacrifices of so many in our history to attain this knowledge. An amazing book on this topic is Safahaat min Sabr al-Ulema [Glimpses of the Perseverance of the Scholars] by Sh. Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah.
Refraining from complaining is from the beautiful etiquette of a student. It is a way to bring blessings to our studies and efforts, and a means of increasing them, as Allah says, “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you (in favor).” (Surah Ibrahim)
2) Avoid ‘What-Aboutism’: We may have experienced this when we ourselves have given a lecture or talk: we emphasize the importance of a certain teaching or practice, only to have someone immediately ask, “Well, what about (in XYZ extremely exceptional case)? It doesn’t apply then, right?”
This phrase — “Well, what about...” — can be a defense mechanism. Instead of letting a certain point of counsel or warning hit and impact us, our defenses go up, and we tell ourselves, “It’s not applicable to me... that’s not always the case...” As students we find even more intellectual grounds for self-defense. One of my teachers would say that we are the best defense attorneys for ourselves, yet quick to prosecute others, when in fact we should be the opposite, and call ourselves to task. We should take advice and counsel very seriously and not allow ourselves to feel personally exempt. One of the biggest spiritual poisons for a student of sacred knowledge is not being able to take advice. We need counsel more than ever in our times, when most of us do not have a personal relationship with a shaykh, shaykha, or murabiyya who can tell us, “Look, these are the things you need to work on.”
We know historically how teachers were with their students. They would not allow them to teach until they were ready. They would make them focus on certain things within themselves and fix them, and would make them do things to intentionally break their ego or arrogance before they felt they were ready to teach. Sufyan ath-Thawri said about Rabia al-’Adawiyya that she was his “mu’addiba” — his mentor who taught him conduct and manners. Most of us do not have such a person in our lives. In the absence of that, we need to focus deeply on our own nafs and its spiritual development and cultivation.
One of the ways our nafs can deceive us is by assuming an air of righteousness while there are many spiritual ailments present, such as arrogance, ta’assub (partisanship), love of one’s own opinion, seeking of fame, etc. Remember the words of Rumi, “The nafs has a Quran and a sibha in its right hand and a dagger in its sleeve.” Meaning, your nafs will deceive you into thinking you are righteous, while blinding you to your own spiritual illnesses that are the killer. We must keep working on our spiritual state and never think we are beyond the process of tazkiya or tarbiyya even as we progress in our studies. In fact, we are more in need of it as we progress than less, as we begin to speak authoritatively on Islam and ‘represent’ it to others.
3) Practice War’ (scrupulousness, precaution) in our personal religious practice: This can become a challenge as we learn more about the breadth of Islamic rulings, particularly in fiqh and in other subjects as well. In many instances, as you study more, on many issues you will find a spectrum of opinions across the board on a topic. Most scholars say this legitimate ikhtilaf among scholarly opinions is an abundant mercy for the ummah, a flexibility that allows for it be practiced across a spectrum of cultures and circumstances. However the slippery slope we may fall into, after learning about different opinions, is always subscribing to the easiest and most convenient opinion for oneself, especially if this is done repeatedly. This is a misuse of the knowledge we have attained and is an unhealthy way to practice Islam. Instead, we should be increasingly strict with the self, and follow the safest view in our own personal practice.
Many books talk about the war’ of the student. Imam an-Nawawi was an amazing example, who out of war’ would never eat from the fresh fruits of Damascus even though it was a land of such abundant fruits and produce. He restricted it for himself, concerned that they were from the lands intended as endowments that have been neglected over time, though he permitted it for others (because it was no longer clear who appointed it as an endowment and for whom it was intended, which made it technically permissible.) You will find consistently that scholars of sacred learning were extremely cautious about what they consumed, and were very protective of their acts of worship and ensuring their validity.
Holding oneself to certain principles of ‘best practice’ is a type of discipline with the self and honoring of this knowledge. It is also connected to a type of intellectual honesty: we should not, either for ourselves or for others, present an obscure or very minor view as equal in weight to the majority view.
4) Seek out teachers and mentors: It is very important not just to have people to take from in terms of knowledge, but people from whom we can take in terms of lifestyle, conduct and spiritual state. We need not only teachers, but also big brothers/big sisters on this path, whom we can turn to when we feel burned out, or when we read something and are in doubt — people who may have struggled with that same issue or been in that same situation, and who can tell us to take heart and be patient, and give us encouragement. Remember that we are not always the first — the first to study something, encounter a certain text, have a certain experience or frustration, or take on something. Thinking this way can be a type of narcissism. We should lean on those who came before us.
Find people who inspire you, though you do not have to agree with them on everything. Sidi Ahmad Zarruq said, “There are no more perfect teachers.” That was in his time — in the 9th century Hijri, and even more applicable in ours.
5) Have consistent spiritual soul food: Have a wird (certain adhkar that you say daily) and have a portion of Quran you read regularly — that you approach for the benefit and nourishment it gives you, not just to improve in tajweed or study tafseer. Take time to step out of analytic mode and feel and taste. Know that you can be on this path of sacred learning and still be far from Allah. Spend time with Allah and do not neglect your worship. Make dua often, for your understanding and for knowledge to be a means of drawing you closer to Him (for how many do we know for whom it was a fitna or did the opposite?) and that He protect you from its pitfalls.
You should have a consistent, daily spiritual diet of ‘soul food,’ that nourishes you. This will give you a lot, and protect you from a lot.
On Islamic Work / Da’wah
6) We do not always have to comment on everything: This is the ailment of our times with social media. This is very harmful, especially when criticizing specific individuals who have served the community, or speaking on new and contentious issues that are still being navigated. It is safer to refrain. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Man samata najaa” - “Whoever remains silent is safe.”
There are obviously times to speak — especially in cases in which you may have direct personal knowledge of some harm happening, or feel there is a critical issue that must be addressed. But be selective, speak from knowledge, and think about the probable consequences of what you share.
Sometimes as new students we are eager to speak, or people are eager to hear from us, pushing us to the mic with the title of ‘Shaykh’ or ‘Shaykha’, while not knowing our own actual level of expertise or spiritual state. We must be honest with ourselves and there are times when we should defer to others or admit that we don’t know.
7) Keep grounded: As students it is easy to form a ‘bubble’ of other students and scholars, and spend our time on topics and rhetoric that are relevant to them at the expense of the wider community. Our knowledge can become constrained to abstractions and theory, instead of being put into practice fulfilling the real needs of the community, who may be looking for basic things that we can provide, such as teaching tajweed, guiding women on the fiqh of menstruation, writing a decent book on women in Islam, etc. It is helpful to stay connected to friends and family, who can keep you in check if your ego becomes inflated and can remind you of what everyday people need help with. Remember also that some of the most pious and beloved to Allah may not be the well-known scholar or erudite student, but the humble lover of God unknown and overlooked by others.
8) Along with this is remembering the importance of small deeds: There is a beautiful story of a shaykh who was a master of various Islamic sciences and passed away, and a colleague saw him in a dream wearing the garments of Paradise, in bliss. He asked him, “Which was it, from among your deeds, that has brought you such evident pleasure of Allah?’ to which he answered, “It was neither the books I wrote nor the classes I taught, but that there were days I would go out to the countryside. There lived some old women who did not know much about Islam, and I would sit with them and teach them the Fatiha. This was the deed that elevated my rank with Allah the Most High.” Do not overlook the significance and the power of small deeds done with deep sincerity, especially when they fulfill the needs of your brother or sister in faith.
9) Do not always be reactionary: Sometimes our energy is consumed with responding, reacting and rejecting what already exists, when producing something proactively would be a better use of our time and abilities. When we are constantly reacting, we are in many ways limiting ourselves, whereas we should think creatively about what would be the best contribution we could make using our strengths and talents. Once we have a platform, we should also use it to promote others of sound knowledge and understanding, instead of constantly harping on who and what are not accurate depictions of Islam. Have high himmah (aspirations) and show people what Islam is, instead of constantly telling them what Islam is not.
10) Lastly, finish, finish, finish your studies! As so many people in our times make the claim to speak authoritatively on Islam, it is very important for our community to have people who have both a strong and solid grounding in Islam, as well as proper qualifications. This is a special encouragement for women students, for whom completing one’s studies can be especially challenging as one may get married, have children, needs to start working, or have other responsibilities that come up and may put a hold on one’s studies. When so many people take the mic and claim to speak for Muslim women, our need for knowledgeable and qualified Muslim women is dire. So finish that program. Attain that degree. Complete your hifz. Get that ijaaza. And once you have it, do not ‘lose it’ — which may happen as other responsibilities take us away from devoting our time to studying and teaching. If one cannot commit to these full time, keep up with at least two hours each week — one of giving — teaching, writing or contributing to the community in some way — and one hour of receiving, by studying, attending a class, reading, etc. This will keep you connected to the knowledge, and when you are ready to ‘come back’ when your other responsibilities lessen, you will still be connected to the community and you will still have something to give!
In conclusion, I will share here some beneficial points of advice given by other women scholars when I asked them, “What is some advice you would give to a student of sacred learning?”
"العلم لا يعطيك بعضه حتى تعطيه كلك" [“Sacred knowledge will not give itself to you until you give all of yourself to it.”]
- "Be organized and conscious of wasting time."
- "Have intellectual humility."
- "Slowly but surely: Don't get ahead of yourself, and be wary of engaging as 'scholars' on the outside until you have firm footing. It will be easy to fool yourself that you are knowledgeable if you compare yourself with others who may not have the good fortune or opportunity to study."
- "Be thankful to Allah by making it a point to implement what you learn."
- "Take advantage of your fellow female peers, build strong bonds, love each other for Allah’s sake, and help each other be studious and righteous."
- "Seek help when needed, ask people for suggestions, and ask for help in regards to studies, time management, etc. As a student I have struggled figuring out the simplest tips myself but now I realise if I was brave enough to ask it would have made things so much easier."
- "Consistency is key. Develop essential good habits like good time management. Making the habit of reading a paper or two everyday builds our thinking consistently and makes us more grounded. Cramped readings do not settle in well nor produce good pieces of writing."
- "Make dua during tahajjud even if you are not praying at that time. Just heartfelt dua during that time make a huge difference. As students of knowledge the amanah we have is so huge, we absolutely cannot do it without Allah’s special help and mercy. The level of accountability is incredibly big. So, tahajjud can really guide and keep us on the right track."
- "Good manners is the key to handling this sacred responsibility well. Dua for good manners and focusing on developing it is an absolute necessity."
- "Have a vision for your life, what you will do with your knowledge, and how you will act upon it first and foremost."
- "I think it’s important to tell students on the path: LEARN ARABIC well! There are no shortcuts and no scholarship without Arabic as its foundation. And that means committing to learning Arabic properly, over the long term. It will open the treasures of Islamic knowledge to you properly."
- "Learning Classical Arabic can be fascinating but it has its tedious moments too. It has its struggles. This is a test of your patience and endurance. Get through the struggles to the other side."
- "Don’t try to rush being a ‘scholar’. Learn things properly in the right order even if it takes longer."
- "Your output will only be as good as your input. Spend time taking in, learning, developing, and being in the company and mentorship of scholars. Don’t be too quick to start the output/da’wah/activism, without having spent a long time on input."
- "Realise that after you have lots of responsibilities, you will look back at this time and wish you made the most of it. Grab the opportunity you’ve been given to seek knowledge with teachers."
By Shazia Ahmad , 19 Sep 2019