When Imām al-Shāfiʿī complained to his teacher Wakīʿ of his difficulty in retaining knowledge, he was given profound advice that would become famous lines continuously echoed centuries later: “Abandon sin. For knowledge is a light. And the light of God is not granted to the disobedient.” Reflected in the wisdom of this luminary’s words, we find a common understanding possessed by the scholars of the Islamic tradition regarding the nature of learning. Namely, that knowledge is a divine gift whose acquisition is facilitated through meeting both spiritual conditions related to the heart as well as practical conditions such as consistency in study. In an Islamic tradition whose foundation was based on learning, there was generally not considered to be a dichotomy between secular and religious sciences. All of useful knowledge was regarded as sacred and its pursuit, an act of worship. Below is a summary of some of the practical steps which lead to success in the pursuit of knowledge based upon the wisdoms of our many great scholars, both past and present.
1) To maintain a consistent and continuous study schedule from the onset of one’s coursework. In addition it is essential to be vigilant about attending all of one’s classes and exerting one’s utmost effort in preparation for these classes. It is as the common saying goes, no gain is obtained without pain.
2) To organize one’s time and to take advantage of the early hours of the day to study, as it is the most productive time of the day due to its blessing. It is also important to strive to benefit from every moment of one’s time, for it is the capital of the seekers of knowledge.
The early men and women of righteousness, and those who later followed in their footsteps, were the most vigilant about ensuring that every moment of their time was devoted to good acts. It is related about ʿĀmir b. ʿAbd Qays who was one of the pious Successors (tābiʿīn al-zuhhād) that somebody once told him, “Converse with me.” He said, “Hold the sun (i.e. halt it and keep it from moving) so that I may converse with you. For, time is moving and passing and it never returns once it has gone. Once lost, it can never be replaced or made up because for each time period was what could have filled it with good works.”
3) To abstain from sins and disobedience. This has a profound impact on enhancing the intellect’s ability to understand and retain information. Whereas, sins, bad character, and acts of disobedience serve as obstacles to the mind’s ability to learn and absorb information.
This is what is meant in Imām al-Shāfiʿī’s famous lines:
I complained to Waki’ about my poor memory:
“Give up your sins!” was his advice to me;
“For knowledge is a light from Divinity,
and the Light of God is veiled by iniquity!”
This is also indicative of another truth, namely, that when a seeker of knowledge sets on the path of learning, and remains consistent and sincere in his pursuit, God grants him a light that increases his power to resist falling into wrong doing and sins.
4) To have a good relationship with God and to maintain a strong connection with Him through acts of worship. Indeed, the time spent in worship is not time lost from one’s studies. It is in fact, both a source of energy and tranquility, as well as a form of discipline for the soul that invigorates one’s motivation to remain persistent with the long hours of study necessary to succeed. Through prayer and extra worship, students find a source of solace and rejuvenation of the spirit that facilitate their ability to learn and study.
5) To exert one’s utmost effort to keeping one’s parents content with them and to strive to please them. For this is indeed, one of the secrets of divinely granted success (tawfīq) and ease in one’s affairs.
6) To keep the house clean, tidy, and ritually pure (ṭāhir). Since, ritually pure and clean settings facilitate one’s ability to learn and retain information.
7) To perform all of one’s duties and obligations both within one’s household and elsewhere. This is because when one has fulfilled his responsibilities, he acquires a sense of serenity and stability. This in turn has a significant impact in facilitating one’s ability to concentrate on one’s studies. Whereas, an individual who has anxiety and stress as a result of not fulfilling their duties will predictably have a more difficult time in finding the peace of mind necessary to focus on one’s studies.
8) To avoid bad company and squandering one’s energy on frivolous affairs that waste one’s study time such as excessive talk and the like.
9) To respect one’s teachers and maintain proper courtesy with them, if one desires to attain his aspired goals.
10) To choose a field of study that is consistent with one’s interests, capabilities, and talents.