For the Struggling Student


Question:

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?

Answer:

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:

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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:

اللهُمَّ علِّمنا مَا يَنْفَعُنا وَانْفَعْنا بِما عَلَّمتَنَا وزِدْنَا عِلما

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.

اللهُمَّ أرنا الحق حقا وارزقنا اتباعه وأرنا الباطل باطلا وارزقنا اجتنابه

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Haq says:

    subhanAllah… “While studying…‘oceans’ of knowledge” what a gem! [al-hikmah daalatul Mu'min] so if you dont mind, I will definetly use this when addressing students, barakAllah feeki…

  2. Arif says:

    I, too, have gone thru such feelings while studying this beautiful religion. There have been occassions where literally some piece of knowledge I’ve learned troubled my heart for months, even years, until Allah blessed me with insight into such a matter and I am increased in my faith. This is DEFINITELY a test you are going thru. Inshallah with patience and humbleness, as mentioned above, these doubts will be removed. This is exactly the best thing you could do…go to people of knowledge and express to them the troubles you are having with such knowledge. We all need support from friends and mentors from time to time if not always.

    salaam

  3. Arif says:

    Don’t be ashamed or shy from going to your teachers or leaders of the community and expressing your feelings, the WORST thing you can do is allow such thoughts build up in your heart.

  4. Abu Majeed says:

    May Allah reward the sister for another excellent advice. I would only like to add another point which is also helpful when you find something which is strongly grounded in the texts or is an opinion wihtout disagreement.

    The truth is that part of our tests are similar to the great test of Allah to Moses (pbuh) by way of Khidr (pbuh). Many things will not make sense or agree with our enviornmentally molded thinking/culture. The big test of being is Muslim is indeed that, seeking to become a true servant of Allah. One who can completely replace thier will with Allah’s will. Thus whatever is found to be carried by the authentic texts with a clear decisive meaning then we know that indeed this is from Allah and maybe beyond our reason.

    The only way to do this is to try and gain that well-established immovable faith as Moses (pbuh) had. By the grace of Allah that is possible through His blessing in preserving our texts and making His final miracle a lasting one which is completely tangible to all people until the Day of Judgment.

    I advise anyone with similar problems to follow these steps in their studies-

    1- Read an anytical seerah like Muhammad Ali Sallabee, Qahtani or Saeed Ramadan Buti. English Maritn Lings or Adil Salahi

    2- Read Specifically about the miracles of the Prophet to his people

    3- Read material by Dr. Zaglool al-Najjaar or other non-exaggerated material about the scientific consistency between modern science and teh Holy Qur’an and Sunnah.

    4- Read about the lives of the sahabah. Did they reflect the actions of those who are possibly in doubt about the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh).

    5- Read about the history of our great scholars and their lifestyle.

    When you are firmly grounded in these founding realities of our Faith in Allah as revealed in the Qur’an and Sunnah, then no issue that you don’t understand can come between you and your firm faith.

    As a new Muslim we were at the park and a fly stopped on the edge of my cup and touched my water. The brother said, dunk it in the water then take it out and drink it. I was like what tha #&!@. man you are trippin’. He was like no thats what our Prophet (pbuh) said that a fly has a disease on one side and the cure on the other so this is the best way to deal with it in order to save your drink. So I had a major dilemna with this until I read a scholar comment that this Hadith seems to go against logic and science, but that its chain of narrators is sound and undisputed. So he said that even then maybe someone made a mistake. That helped with that issue but created a new problem. So how do I know for sure what is real and what isn’t??? About three years ago in Kuwait, someone asked me about this Hadith in a Halaqah that I used to take part in. I told him what the shaikh said and said Allahu a’lam.

    Then a brother from that Halaqah who is a professor of medicine in the faculty of medicine at Kuwait U. sent me an e-mail that opened my eyes (heart) as Khidr did Moses (pbuh). It was some collegues of his from Austrailia who did a research looking to find a stronger antibiotic than the common pennicillan. They were trying to find something to deal with those nasty resistant to antibiotic strands of bacteria. They did a research on the fly since it is known to gravitate to bacteria infested places and indeed they found that often on its feet an wings there is some bacteria, but under his wings and from the top of his legs is an emission of a very strong antibody. Thy are currently researching this issue. Subhannallah! As a final comment, the hadith in mention was said to people who often have to buy water and they were very much in need of every cup. Today the situation is different.

  5. Isa says:

    The various issues of Islamic law that sometimes contradict our 21st century Western lense really need to be addressed in an elegant matter. Is there a book in English that discusses these issues at length? I have met many a potential Muslim who couldn’t get past these type of issues.

    • Suhaib Webb says:

      Asalamu alaykum,

      Recently I discussed this with one of the muftis here in Egypt. I complained to him that some return to our homelands articulating some of these hard to swallow opinions to the masses. He mentioned that many fail to understand the difference between studying a madhab for literacy and the craft of ifta (fatwa). The former is studied for training, understanding and feel, while the latter is based on a much wider set of parameters than simply looking into a matn (classical text) drawing out an answer and requires a deeper insight into the spirit of the law and its texts, objectives and Arabic.

      A glance at the life of the Prophet shows that rulings changed in order to address new realities and events that flowed through the society.

      “Initially, I forbade you from visiting graves. Visit them (now),”

      “Oh ‘Aiesha! If your people had not recently accepted Islam, I would order the Kaba to be brought down and rebuilt on the foundations of Ibrahim.”

      This dynamic continued from that time, through the age of the Companions the Four Imam’s and is still found today. Imam Ahmed is reported to have had 18 opinions regarding one issue, and Abu Hanafi’s school changed their position regarding a woman attending the prayers, Juma and ‘Eid a number of times through history. All of this was based on a change in custom and social realities.

      Al-Qarafi noted “There is no ruling save custom plays a role.” Now this of course comes with conditions and parameters that protect the community from using custom as a means to wash away their religion and, as Ibn Sunna al-Hanafi noted, “Custom is not a legal proof in itself,” but “A tint” which influences the ruling.

      The point is that, as the sheikh noted, by studying the classical texts at a base level, one will not be able to understand that he/she is looking at a set of postulates that changed, outside of ritual acts of worship, due to circumstance, custom and other factors. In other words one is looking at “Issue” + “Realities” = opinion. Trying to inject opinions founded on customs that no longer exists would be like trying on the wrong sized shoe, and blindly attacking the opinions of early scholars with out knowing what realities they faced would be criminal. What is needed is a respect for the past with a firm belief in the dynamics and potential of revelation. The sageous statement of al-Qarafi rings loud clear: “Reliance upon opinions found in texts or one’s custom only, is manifest error.”

      There is much more on this. And time will not allow me to add, but it would be wise to realize that there is a difference between studying a madhab within a set of limited variables and the dynamics of fatwa.

      Allah knows best
      Suhaib

      • Asif says:

        Assalamu ‘Alaikum,

        Ustadh may Allah bless you for this thought provoking comments. If a person wants to understand this dynamics but he doesn’t have the opportunity to take them from scholars face to face, is there any way he can learn this by reading books? Or can you suggest such a person a set of reading so that he can have some grasp on this matter?

        I don’t know whether you will agree but such an understanding should transcends the upcoming muftis and should be had by any educated muslim.

  6. iskender says:

    selam aleykum

    im following your blog since a couple of month and it`s a perfect source of knowledge.
    i can not find any email from you and how to contact you. but we would like to invite
    you to germany. i would be happy to hear from you

    ma salama

    brother iskender

  7. Jazaka Allahu Khair for sharing your experience. The comments were just as refreshing. Like Arif, I too have been down the road of reading some information that troubled me for years until I came upon some additional information that clarified it. I think the story of Khidr and Musa (AS) is an excellent example of what the student of knowledge goes through.

  8. ahmad b says:

    Great article and great comments too! Masha’Allah!

  9. Hanaa Hamad says:

    Jazaky Allahu Kheir for this insightful article. I would advise the brother or sister, who asked their question so bravely, to continue their pursuit in knowledge of Islam, through the internet and other written (or spoken lectures) by modern Islamic Scholars (Youtube can be especially helpful) and you will find them very reassuring. Every young Muslim living in this epoch has struggled with these controversial issues (dealing with slavery and the treatment of women), but I discovered that the issue deals very deeply with time, and the transformation of societies through time. The following link might help you profoundly, as it did with me.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Mz8nTTS27g

  10. Ahmed Saleh says:

    Assalamualaikum

    Great topic. There are many things to mention about this topic, although I would like to focus on two main issues:

    1. Scholars make mistakes. Its not rare, its normal. Dont think that all scholars are robotic Islamic ruling machines that never fall. If you dont agree with a specific opinion, search for his/her reasoning. If you still are not relaxed, then search for other authentic opinions from other known scholars.

    2. AL Waswasah and Culture: Alwaswasah is the whispering of the shaytan. And because of the culture we live in, it is very easy for the shaytan to make our Shariah (Islamic Law) look bad. Not everything always sounds right, because we have become used to a different way of life. We need scholars today to rephrase a lot of what is in some of these older texts. Ignore the waswasah, and put more energy trying to understand why certain things are said, while considering the time and place they were said in. Wallahu A3lam

    Assalamualaikum

  11. UmmAbdullah says:

    I dealt with the same issue recently. It helped me a lot when I consciously realized after trying to search for the answers to my ‘strange an odd recurring questions that kept changing in nature’ that this was indeed waswas and to IGNORE IT.

    I have tried to since:
    -ignore the waswas
    -morning dhikr
    -focusing more in prayer, doing sunnah.
    -listening to lectures and stuff.
    -pondering over the scientific and other verses in the Quran.
    -qiyam ul layl

    It has helped because indeed there is so much overwhelming proof that even if you have waswas, insh’allah if you try and make the effort, Allah will help you. HE WILL INDEED MAKE A WAY OUT. BUT ONLY IF YOU SEEK THE WAY TO HIM.

    To the brother and sister who asked this question i would say i think its a good sign that this has bothered your heart and you want to seek the remedy. I hope Allah grants you jannah.

  12. Holly Garza says:

    Great post, tips and question well done MashaAllah

  13. Hanaa Hamad says:

    I have to agree that the scientific, mathematical and mental logistics of Islam are what erased my doubts in it, and the social controversial issues that arise so repetitively in the Western World. Subhan Allah, all one has to do is think logically, and research, and ask for Allah’s assistance, and Allah will reassure his believers in so many ways. Alhamdulilah, now after going through that thought process, I can say I’m a believer that carries no doubt in Allah’s faith.

  14. tka says:

    Aslaamu alaykum

    ‘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’

    Shaykh, to be fair maybe the advice could stress more on the fact that many of these issues are agreed upon between the four mathaahib- the concept of jizya, etc, and it’s just the influence of the jahili environment we live it that makes it so ‘unpalatable’ to us

  15. Zaufishan says:

    As’salamualaykum,
    Greatness! I don’t believe I haven’t rummaged through this website earlier (misplaced intimidation, now gone). Apologies brother Suhaib & team *waves flags in support*

    An EXCELLENT print-worthy & framing-worthy piece. I’ve learnt the tactics behind studying, that quality is better than quantity, that scholars are not prophets – but human beans and open to mistakes (but the greater always forgives insh’Allaah); I shall be making a note of the Arabic terms for linguistics, al’hamdulillah for dua *off to learn* and SABR : to become a …”sabara”? (Surah Luqman). Patient with YOURSELF, being patient with OTHERS (teachers) and patient with your ibadah (developing worship). It can’t happen “just like that”.

    Shameless plug – I’m taking part in Al Maghrib courses and have put some of these lessons into use. Here’s to practising more.

    With respect,
    Zaufishan & England.

  16. Akhukum says:

    as salaamu alaikum

    How am I able to submit a question to Imam Suhaib or one of the members of the writing team?

    I think maybe the question will be of benefit if published.

    Please, drop me an email.

    Jazaakumullaahu khayran.

  17. muslimun says:

    JZK for this!

    The adab part was very helpful…something I need to take heed of.

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