Recently, my interest in studying Islam in depth has grown, and I’ve been reading some books on a number of topics in the Islamic Sciences. While I hoped that my studies would bring me to a higher level of iman [faith] and a closer relationship with Allah, I feel that the opposite may have happened. Some of the opinions of the classical scholars, especially in regards to non-Muslims, the treatment of women, rules of slavery, and so forth have really affected my iman in a negative way. What are your thoughts on this?
First of all, I want to say that this is a very honest expression of feeling and is one that I believe many students experience as they set out on the path of talb al-ilm [seeking knowledge]. Here are a few general suggestions for one who may be feeling troubled in this way:
– Fortifying oneself spiritually: It’s not a guarantee that the more one studies the Islamic sciences, the more one will increase in iman. Studying must be coupled with many other factors, both internal and external, that are conducive to coming closer to Allah. It is for this reason that while a person is studying, they must also fortify themselves with du`a’ [prayer], dhikr [remembrance of Allah], and types of worship that helps to nourish them spiritually and keep their iman in a state of health. It is all too easy to fall into the details of “data”— issues in Fiqh [jurisprudence], rules and details in Nahu [grammar], etc. — and lose any taste of “ma’rifah” [gnosis or insight].
– Staying strong when confronted with obstacles: It may be that these feelings of frustration and confusion—or perhaps even anger, betrayal, resentment—are a means by which Shaytan is coming between you and your studying, to cause you to give up, distance you from your deen, or give you a feeling of bitterness and distaste for learning more. Just be aware that Shaytan comes to the student of knowledge from a different direction than he would another person. Realize also that the goal of this learning is the worshiping of Allah with ihsan [excellence and perfection]. Realize the heaviness and the weight of that goal, and measure the other things you come across with that.
– Distinguishing between ihtiram and taqdees of our tradition: This is such a beautiful point, which Imam Suhaib mentioned in one of his classes. We need to make a distinction between having a loving respect and honor for our scholarly tradition [ihtiram] and making it something sacrosanct, immutable, or ‘holy’ – that is above critique or change. The first allows us to benefit from our tradition, while at the same time making it a viable and vibrant system that can be applied in our time and context. The second is very problematic because it compels us to accept, without criticism, things that may be subjective or open to more than one interpretation or understanding.
– Understanding things in a greater context: A cursory look at tafaseer [commentaries of the Qur’an] throughout the ages illustrates how interpretation and understanding of the sacred texts have a direct relationship with the historical, cultural, and social dimensions at work during the time in which a particular scholar lived. We should realize that every human being looks at things through the scope of their own experiences and should take that into consideration when studying a scholar’s work. Further, we should be aware that we also, in studying the tradition, are using our own ‘lens’ of being from the 21st century, having a Western perspective, etc. whether that is something conscious or unconscious on our part.
– Realizing that scholars make mistakes: This does not take away from their contribution to Islam or the significance of their efforts. It is interesting to note that the opinion of the jumhur [vast majority of the scholars] is that only the prophets are ma’sum [sinless]; and that even a waliy—someone who has an intensely close relationship with Allah and is given that special rank—can commit sins or mistakes. “Every one of the children of Adam is a sinner; but the best of sinners is the one who repents.” (Tirmidhi, Musnad Imam Ahmad)
– Adab with our teachers and scholars: I heard a teacher explain the importance of adab [etiquette] towards our teachers and scholars in a very insightful way. He said that that honor, love, and respect we are showing is not towards that person himself, but towards the knowledge they house inside as vessels of the Qur’an and the sacred sciences. Just as we would show care to a book that has enfolded in its pages precious words or verses from the Qur’an, or would preserve a room that contains volumes of knowledge, it is the same with an individual of ‘ilm [knowledge], past or present.
Also, the scholars who came before us have a ‘haq’, a due right over us, in that we build on their knowledge and their studies. It is from their dedication, passion and devotion, their countless written pages, their students, their analysis, their foundation, that we build and that we can intelligently assess and critique.
It is from this adab that we do not intentionally seek out a scholar’s mistakes, that we ask that Allah forgives their mistakes and missteps, and that we do not dismiss the corpus of a scholar’s works because they may have erred in some things.
While studying the rulings of tahara [ritual purification] in the Shafii‘ school, a student will learn that once a body of water reaches over qullatayn (about 216 liters, basically what is deemed a ‘large amount’), then even if an impurity enters that water, it is still considered pure and purifying. Perhaps we should try to have the same outlook with the scholars that came before us, who are considered walking ‘oceans’ of knowledge. If some mistakes or errors are present in their work, it does not mean that we cannot benefit from the rest.
– Patience, humility and perspective when studying: It’s important to remember that we are still beginners on this path, and it is good for one’s soul to be humble, to give benefit of the doubt, and to suspend judgment until one studies more, discusses with one’s teachers or other advanced students, and digests, reflects and thinks deeply about the matters at hand. I’m not saying that one should immediately stifle or reject natural feelings and responses that come about when reading something that seems objectionable, but simply that one should assess those feelings calmly and draw conclusions rationally and without hastiness. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is reported to have said, “Calm deliberation is from Allah, while hastiness is from Shaytan.” (Bayhaqi)
– Du`a’: Two of the most powerful du`a’ for a student to make are the following:
Allahumma allimna ma yanfa’unaa wanfa’naa bima allamtanaa wa zidnaa ‘ilmaa.
O Allah, help us learn what is beneficial to us, help us benefit from what You have enabled us to learn, and increase us in knowledge.
Allahuma arina al-haqqa haqqa warzuqna tiba’ahu; wa arina al-batila batila warzuqna ijtinabah.
O Allah, allow us to see the truth as truth, and grant us the strength to follow and abide by it, and allow us to see falsehood as falsehood and grant us the strength to remain away from it.
In closing, I ask that Allah bless your noble efforts to learn more about Islam, and make them a means of your spiritual elevation. May He make the knowledge you acquire nothing other than a means of drawing nearer to Him and increasing in love for Him, fear of Him and hope in Him. Ameen.
Allah knows best.