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Interview – Shaykh Hamza Karamali on the Steps Curriculum

Arshad Madrassi interviews Shaykh Hamza Karamali on the genesis, structure, importance, and aims of the Steps Curriculum.

AM: Tell us the context in which the Steps Curriculum was introduced?

SHK: In pre-modern Islamic societies, the only institutional learning was the religious seminary. They would sometimes call this a Madrasa in certain parts of the world. There was no other institutional learning. The students would go to the Madrasa to learn basic literacy, how to read the Qur’an, logic, critical thinking, language skills, and then they would learn the traditional Islamic Sciences which included Fiqh (Sacred law), Kalam (Islamic theology), Aqidah (Theology), Hadith, Tafsir (Exegesis), Authentication of Hadith and the whole spectrum of other Islamic Sciences. They would then graduate from this institution and they would be employed normally in prominent positions in society.

So you would find that all of the government employees were graduates of the Madrasa, the judge of the supreme court would be a graduate of the Madrasa, the Head of the Army would be a graduate of the Madrasa, the local judges and legal advisors would be graduates of the Madrasa, the Imams of the masjid would be graduates of the Madrasa – all of the influential positions in society were occupied by graduates of this Madrasa.

With the onset of modernity and the political decline of the Ottoman Empire, we have a new form of education that began to come to the Muslim world. These were initially military and medical colleges, but they slowly grew and became universities. When these new institutions arrived on the scene, they weren’t integrated to the Madrasa. And because of the political decline in the Muslim world, there was an increasing emphasis placed on engineering, science and technology.

There was a need to modernize Muslim society, so that you could have a population that is literate enough to make the country economically competitive in the world and to have a modernized army and a strong government. So there was a split in the education system, and for a while the two systems existed side-by-side until the middle of the previous century, when the religious education system was completely eclipsed by modern schooling and universities.

This brought both positives and negatives. The positives are that you can now go anywhere in the Muslim world and you’ll have traffic lights, cars, planes, computers. Here in Amman you have special economic zones, business parks, technology hubs and modern hospitals. So you have a society that is well-educated from the perspective of being a society that fully participates in the economic and technological developments of the 20th and 21st centuries.

We no longer live a village or an agrarian society. But there is a problem, a negative. The negative is that as Muslims we don’t just live for this world: we live for the next world and every single action we do is directed towards our eternal life after death. The Prophet of God taught us how to live our lives in a way that would bring us happiness and prosperity in this world and also give us eternal felicity in the next life. But we have Muslim societies now where people are no longer educated in their religion.

We go to school, we take classes from Kindergarten until Grade 12. There is a well-thought-out curriculum of education in science and mathematics because these are socially important. But for religious education, we relegate it to after school a few times a week if you come from a conservative family or to a Sunday school which happens only once a week. In less conservative families, there is no religious education at all, just the Muslim identity of showing up at the mosque once in a while on special occasions such as Eid.

This is a religious negative and also a worldly negative because modernity has brought many harms along with its benefits. You see families have been broken up, the divorce rates are rising, there is pollution, there are wars being fought, humans are being killed, there is crime, there is homelessness, there is corruption – these problems cannot be solved by studying science or math. These are human problems.

The value of religion is that it teaches you how to be a human being. Muslims need a thorough religious education so that they can live as good human beings in societies that can be part of the 21st century but our model is the Sunna of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him. We have stable families, well-raised children, low crime rates, a compassionate society that cares for the poor, the elderly, and the environment. To do that we need a thorough religious education. Just like we have a thorough education in the other sciences. This is why the Steps Curriculum is important and we need to understand it in this context.

AM: How does the Steps Program relate to the traditional Madrasa system, and why is it online?

SHK: We live busy lives, we have family obligations, we need to earn a living but we also have to learn the religious sciences as they were studied in the past at the same level and with the same rigor. In previous times, you could go to a Madrasa and study all of the traditional Islamic Sciences in one place by spending five years there. And you’d be done. Because of the circumstances in Muslim lands, because of post-colonial legacies and the development needs of society, Muslims have not prioritized their Islamic education. A religious education does not have the same economic value as an education in engineering or medicine.

The effect of that has been that a hodgepodge of institutions are now competing to offer Master and PhD programs in Islamic studies, and there are scattered pockets of traditional Islamic learning in various parts of the Muslim world. But none of these offer the complete curriculum of the classical Islamic sciences whose graduates were great scholars like Ghazali, Nawawi, and Suyuti.

So there is no one institution where you can study everything now. al-Azhar has been reformed and modernized, the Darul Ulooms in the subcontinent no longer emphasize mastery in all of the Islamic sciences as they used to in the past. In the Arab world, the Madrasa has been completely replaced by modern university education. We now have individual scholars scattered across the Muslim world who went through this traditional curriculum. Some of them caught the last batch of the old Azhari curriculum before its modernization and others studied individually in private settings. The only way now to acquire a complete and thorough education in all of the traditional Islamic sciences is to find these individual scholars, who are often scattered across large geographical distances, and to privately study with them, moving from scholar to scholar in order to gather all of these traditional sciences.

The idea behind the Steps Curriculum is to have one place where all of the Islamic Sciences are taught. Gradually progressing from absolute zero to where you would have ended up 200 years ago in an institution like the old Azhar of Cairo or the elite Ottoman Madrasas in Istanbul or the Farangi Mahal school in Lucknow. The idea is to have an online repository of all of these courses being offered where everything can be stored using modern methods of education and pedagogy and to have assessments to ensure that students meet well thought out learning goals. And access to all of this is provided online.

Ideally, the best way to do this is to have a blended learning approach. Students today often seek the traditional Islamic sciences in places like Egypt, Turkey, India, or Yemen, but you will find that there is no complete curriculum anywhere. Teachers and institutions of particular areas have particular strengths in particular subjects but they lack experience in others. They might teach some of the sciences to a very high level, but they might not have real-world experience in the other sciences that they teach. Learning the Islamic Sciences is not just about reading books. It’s also about having the experience in using those sciences to solve real-world problems. Someone might go to a place that is not urban–a village or a desert–where we have great scholars, you learn how to answer certain questions but you won’t understand how to apply what you have learned in real life. Students can go various places in the Muslim world to study, but they will almost always find that their education is not complete and that they have to complement their studies in order to complete their education.

So the idea is to enable these students so that they can travel to learn privately in the pockets of scholarship in the Muslim world and then supplement their private studies with a complete curriculum that we provide online. They can study privately in-person wherever possible and they can fill in their curricular gaps with the Steps online curriculum.

The Steps online curriculum also helps students by providing milestones, learning goals, and assessment. As students progress in their private studies, supplementing their education with the Steps curriculum, they can benefit from mentorship, direction, and assessment through the Steps curriculum to make sure they are going in the right direction, to identify gaps in their learning, and to avoid making common mistakes and wasting valuable time. They can make sure that they are progressing through their studies towards a goal.

Everything that I’ve just explained is for students who have decided to dedicate themselves to full-time studies by traveling to the pockets of scholarship in the Muslim world. Most students, however, have other responsibilities, obligations with work, family, and community. These students can simply complete the entire curriculum online at a pace that fits their schedules.

So that’s the idea behind the curriculum and its deployment online.

AM: Will the certificates be recognized by anybody? Will the graduates of the Steps Curriculum eventually be able to become Muftis and Imams?

SHK: If you go back two hundred years to the seminaries in the capital of the Ottoman Empire—Istanbul, or even at Azhar—you had institutions but when the students graduated where did the recognition come from? The teaching license was not actually granted by the institution; the teaching license was granted by the teacher. So if a student went to Azhar, they would go to a pillar and study with a particular teacher. After years of study with that teacher (supplemented by studies with other teachers), the teacher would personally issue them a license to teach. So the value of the student’s teaching qualifications came from the individual teacher, not from the institution. Students understood this, teachers understood this, all Muslims used to understand this. This used to be common knowledge. This is how our religion was preserved and transmitted.

The hallmark of modernity is the institutionalization and the modernization of the Madrasa. When it becomes a university, now the degree is granted by the institution. The individuals fade away into the background and the institution now sets the priorities. It makes the educational and pedagogical decisions. And most of these institutions are governed by the Ministry of Education of the nation-state that they are a part of, and their employees are all graduates of the institution of the modern university. The university degree acquires its value by the value that modern society gives to these modern institutions, which have displaced and pushed the person of the traditional scholar into the background because modern society no longer gives that person the value that traditional religious societies used to.

So the challenge that a traditional institution—an institution that wants to retain the teacher-focused method of learning that goes back to the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him—faces is this social recognition. Because most of us have a different perspective on education than traditional societies did two hundred years ago, traditional teachers no longer have social value, and, as a result, traditional institutions no longer have social value. So that’s the position that we find ourselves in.

So, in light of that, let’s ask your question: Are the Steps Curriculum and its certificates recognized by any educational body? I think it’s important to rephrase the question. There are two reasons why someone might ask this question. The first reason why someone would want to know if this is recognized by an educational body is to know if this is a solid, rigorous program. That’s a good question. And the other reason is to find out that if I take this program, what social value will I have?

Now you have to step back and understand that the social priorities of Muslim societies all over the world are no longer shaped by religious concerns. This affects institutions and the employability of their graduates. Because our social priorities are no longer shaped by religious concerns, anyone who takes out time to get a religious education is making a sacrifice. He is spending time doing something that does not have social value when he could have spent that time doing something that does have social value. He is spending time doing something knowing that employability will be a challenge.

Can you be an Imam after completing the Steps Curriculum? Well, it depends on the people who are employing you to be an Imam. Are these people valuing the traditional model of Islamic education? If they are, then yes, you will be employed. If they don’t, then you might struggle.

You also have to understand that in pre-modern times, the graduates of these traditional madrasas were not always Imams; they occupied important positions in their societies—they were judges, they had social and political influence. How, then, did the graduates of the Madrasa in recent times came to be known only for being Imams? They were confined into becoming only Imams because with the modernization of Muslim society, all of the prominent influential positions in the society were occupied by graduates of competing secular institutions. And the only religious space that was left was the mosque. So we have a challenge before us. We don’t want our scholars to be confined only to the mosque, we need to bring them to the mainstream. In order to take them to the mainstream, you also need them to have a mainstream education.

If someone wants to be a counselor, he needs to go to a university and get a degree in counseling and also spend time getting a traditional religious education. Then they can use this degree and their religious education to counsel people. If someone wants to get into public policy and participate in government, then they need to have a degree in government and policy-making and also spend time getting a traditional religious education. Only then will they be able to use their religious education in the mainstream because the world which we find ourselves often looks down on people with a religious outlook and only allows people into the mainstream through a university education.

It’s also important to remember that everyone doesn’t have to have a role of public service. You can also be a computer programmer—I used to be a computer programmer! You can be a computer programmer and also learn about your religion. You can be a carpenter and also learn about your religion. You can be a secretary and also learn about your religion. Religious change begins with ourselves and our families, our households, our children. It is only when there is a large number of individuals and families who set their priorities through a religious lens that someone with a traditional religious education will be able to perform a role of public service. Otherwise he will have no one to serve! It’s a long cycle. But you have to start somewhere and religious education is where everyone has to start.


Shaykh Hamza Karamali earned his BASc. and MASc. in Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, after which he moved abroad to study the Islamic sciences full-time in private settings with distinguished traditional scholars in Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE, reading and memorizing traditional works in all of the Islamic sciences.

He taught the Islamic sciences online at SunniPath.com, then at Qibla.com, then taught advanced Arabic grammar and rhetoric at Qasid Institute, and then joined Kalam Research & Media, where he worked for three years, designing, managing, and participating in research and education projects around the integration of modern analytic philosophy and science with traditional Islamic theology and logic. He is the author of The Madrasa Curriculum in Context, as well as a forthcoming work that presents traditional Islamic logic in the idiom of contemporary logic and philosophy.

Hamza joined SeekersHub in 2016, where he has taught courses on logic, legal theory, and Islamic theology. He also has a regular podcast and video series called Why Islam is True, in which he applies logic and traditional Islamic theology to answer contemporary questions about belief in God, the genuine messengerhood of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, and the truth of resurrection and the afterlife.

Is There Any Place for Autodidactism in Islam?

Answered by Ustadh Tabraze Azam

Question: Assalam alaykum,

Is there any place for autodidactism in traditional Islam for muslim who cannot afford formal education abroad or live in countries with no Islamic educational institutions?

Answer: Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

I pray that you are in the best of health and faith, insha’Allah.

The scholars mention that knowledge is in hearts and not in the lines of books. And it is the scholars who are the keys to the books in that they unlock the scholarly language, assumptions, and implications through their years of training, worship and acting upon their knowledge.

However, there is still benefit therein in learning to become a better Muslim, and in order to strengthen your belief and certainty, by reading the books which were authored for such purposes. Examples include Riyad al-Salihin by Imam Nawawi and some of the works of Imam al-Haddad, masterfully translated by Dr. Mostafa al-Badawi.

With that, there is no harm in striving to learn some Arabic on your own, and similarly some general prophetic biography (sirah), if taken from reliable sources, but avoid trying to derive law from traditions (hadith) and similarly from works of law themselves. Such knowledges necessarily require teachers.

Knowledge is a light which Allah casts into the heart.

In the meantime, consider taking some of the following free classes: Absolute Essentials of Islam: Basic Hanafi Jurisprudence (STEP) and: Meccan Dawn: The Life of the Beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ – Part One and: Prophetic Conduct: Islamic Manners in Everyday Life

And see also: Why Learn From a Teacher? – Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani and: Using Time Wisely, Finding a Teacher, and the Accountability of Seekers of Knowledge

And Allah alone gives success.

Tabraze Azam

Checked & Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Seeking: Knowledge without Barriers – Seekers Highlight with Sidi Suhayb Booth

Suhayb Booth was born in Sunderland, United Kingdom and moved to New Zealand with his family as a child. He converted to Islam at the age of 26 and lives in Auckland with his wife and two children. He is an active member of the SeekersPoint Auckland, where he has taken on the role of Academy Manager.
This video was recorded before the launch of SeekersPoint Auckland, and speaks about Sidi Suhayb’s journey to Islam and how Knowledge without Barriers has been a important part of this journey.
This blog is part of our Seekers Highlights series for our Ends of the Earth Campaign. We hope that you are inspired and motivated by Sidi Suhayb’s story. His story and many other wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Knowledge without Barriers, please support us in bringing knowledge to the Ends of the Earth. Your donation truly helps!

Operating without Barriers : Recruiting 500 Monthly Donors


In 2012, SeekersHub Global made a big change – we began to offer all of our classes free of cost. By doing so, we sought to ensure the availability of authentic scholars and traditional Knowledge Without Barriers. In doing so, we have exponentially expanded the reach of our services, reaching 10,000 students in over 100 countries
We cannot offer Knowledge Without Barriers, however, without the help of our supporters.
Goals
We have set a target goal for the month of April at 500 monthly donors at an average amount of $35 per month. If we reach this goal, SeekersHub Global can Operate without Barriers, and stabilize the funding we need for the services we offer. No monthly commitment is too little!

High-Impact Donation

With SeekersHub Global, you can be sure that any dollar you donate will go as far as we can take it. SeekersHub has adopted a high-efficiency model for a fast paced world, using far reaching technology to link seekers of knowledge with those who can provide it.
SeekersHub Global has gathered scholars of the highest caliber to meet global challenges. The immensely popular Answers service answers 40 unique questions per day – allowing scholars to apply sound fiqh to practical conundrums faced by an increasingly scattered and diverse Ummah. By supporting SeekersHub Global you can help scholars devote themselves full time to educating and supporting Muslims in every corner of the globe, some of them who literally had no access to Islamic scholarship were it not for SeekersHub Global being a free online portal.
Importantly, we have just been granted 501c3 tax-exempt status, which means that donations made within the U.S. are eligible for tax deducations!
How you can help:
1) Become a Monthly Donor: Access our website for our Operating without Barriers campaign page, https://seekersguidance.org/donate .
2) Advocating: Share the SeekersHub Global story with your friends and family, and encourage them to take our classes and to donate to our project.

3) Organizing: If you would like to host a fundraising event in your community or know of a community that would be interested, please reach out to us and help us organize such an effort at [email protected] .
4) Sharing: Utilize your Facebook and other social media profiles to highlight our work and promote our fundraising push for 500 Monthly donors
Click here to connect to our Facebook Page
Click here for our Twitter Page, please use the #500monthly tag!
5) Supplicating: Most importantly, please keep SeekersHub Global in your thoughts and prayers.
With a humble thank you and prayers,
Abrar Qadir
Business Development Manager, SeekersHub Global

Using Time Wisely, Finding a Teacher, and the Accountability of Seekers of Knowledge

Answered by Ustadh Abdullah Anik Misra

Question: As-salam Alaykom wa rahmatullah wa barakatuhu

1) This summer i am free i will work 3 weeks and then i have all the summer on me. I do not know how to use the summer effectively.

Do you have any advice for me how to use it and how to find a teacher?  I plan on studying with someone who is a  convert but studied in many years and become a shaykh of a tariqa.  I hope to learn a little bit of tazkiyat al nafs from him.

2) I heard that the more you have knowledge the more you will be tested from Allah and those who are near to Allah are much teasted i have always thought that if you got knowledge and higher rank in islam you will live a humble life and you’ll be happy and live a good life but it seems that the better you are the more you are tested from Allah. This makes me lose motivation to study and I then think that living as a simple Muslim is better since I won’t get tested as much.

Can you clarify this?

Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate,

As salamu alaikum,

Thank you for your letter. To answer your questions:

Using Your Summer Vacation Wisely

Fill your summer with productive activities. Most of all, try to achieve balance. For example, make time to seek sacred knowledge by taking a course at a local masjid, or online at the SeekersGuidance Academy, but also make time for recreation and social interaction.

Perhaps engage in a sport, volunteering opportunity or a constructive hobby. Meet with practicing Muslims, and try to pray in congregation more often. Give yourself projects to work on, such as reading the entire Quran with a translation, or another book or lecture series. Working part-time is good also as it allows you to save money to spend for various good purposes.

Purification of the Heart and Finding a Guide

It is highly recommended to engage in purification of the heart (Ar. tazkiya or tasawwuf) at the hands of a qualified spiritual guide, while studying the sacred sciences under qualified, mainstream traditional Islamic scholars.

One should prioritize learning one’s basic fiqh (sacred law) and aqeedah (beliefs) while working on the inward science of tazkiya, which focuses on building sincerity and love for Allah, along with prophetic character traits.

If there are no scholars in your area, try online options. I am not aware of the person you have named, so I cannot comment. Consult other reliable scholars or imams in your area who understand the importance of Islamic spirituality regarding your next steps.

The Responsibility that Comes with Knowledge

The more knowledge one has, the more one is accountable for in front of Allah Most High, since people are called to act upon their knowledge, and not merely to accumulate information. This does not mean ignorance is an excuse in front of Allah; every human must learn at least enough to live in accordance with the sacred law in every situation of their lives. Learning beyond that is the pursuit of the scholars.

The purpose of seeking knowledge is to gain the pleasure of Allah by shaping our lives and the lives of those around us to be in harmony with what He has commanded us to do, which will only benefit us in this world and the next. This is how we develop true love for Allah, the Most Loving.

The Good Life is a Life of Righteousness

Seeking knowledge – then acting upon it- allows one to live a righteous life, which is the essence of a good life. A good worldly life is not one that is free of any challenges or hardship whatsoever; rather, that is the life of the Hereafter in Paradise. It is a mistake to think the perfect life can be achieved here.

The reason we lose motivation to study upon learning about the tests and responsibilities that come with knowledge is because we are seeking other than Allah from our studies, without realizing it. If we are seeking an easier life with no trials, that is not the correct intention for studying sacred learning. One who finds Allah, finds everything; the one who does not find Allah, finds nothing worth finding, even if he acquires the whole world and what it contains.

The Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets.” [Tirmidhi] This inheritance is not wealth, but sacred knowledge. But along with inheriting knowledge, one also inherits something of its tests and challenges and responsibilities. When one focuses on seeking Allah through this knowledge, one also inherits a type of tranquility in one’s heart, which brings peace of mind and satisfaction even in turbulent times, and added joy and thanks in times of ease.

I say these words to myself first. May Allah Ta’ala keep us all firm on His path, make us sincere to Him, and teach us what will benefit us and benefit us through what He teaches us.

Wassalam,

Abdullah Anik Misra

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani

Video: Words of Wisdom for the Seeker of Knowledge by Shaykh Rami Nsour

Video: Words of Wisdom for the Seeker of Knowledge by Shaykh Rami Nsour

Words of Wisdom for the Seeker of Knowledge with Shaykh Rami Nsour from Darul Hikmah on Vimeo.

Keys to Successful Seeking of Islamic Knowledge: Advice from Teachers and Teaching Assistants

Advice from Sidi Abdullatif al-Amin, SeekersGuidance Teaching Assistant:

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“I have taken several classes on SeekersGuidance and have some experience in taking some classes online. One of the most important keys I’ve found with online classes is not to fall behind on the lessons. One may want to set some time aside everyday or a few times a week whatever one can do with consistency and not only listen to the lesson but review as well.

To benefit from online courses one of the keys is sincerity, and consistency , and not to seek the knowledge in and of itself but using the seeking knowledge as a means to keeping closer to Allah….”

Here are a few links on the importance of knowledge and its purpose that we can benefit from:

The Purpose of Seeking Knowledge by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus (audio)

Ten Keys to Seeking Knowledge by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Counsels for Seekers of Knowledge by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

 

You can still register for the Winter 2011 SeekersGuidance Online Courses. Join our large and growing family of seekers: www.SeekersGuidance.org/courses

A class for serious seekers: Dars Maraqi al-Falah – Mastering the Fiqh of Worship according to the Hanafi school – with Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Mastering Worship

Dars Maraqi al-Falah

درس مراقي الفلاح

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For seekers of knowledge who have covered at least two complete texts in the fiqh of worship, and who know Arabic, Mastering Worship will be covering Imam Shurunbulali’s Maraqi al-Falah in full, with Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

The commentary (Maraqi al-Falah) will be read in Arabic, and explain in both Arabic and English, through twice a week live online lessons. The lessons will be recorded for those unable to attend live.

There will be an online forum for QA, discussion, and for related texts & resources. [The pdf of the commentary, Tahtawi’s hashiya, and other important works will be provided.]

The goal of the class is simple: to master the fiqh details of the chapters on worship (purification, prayer, fasting, zakat, and hajj). We define “mastery” as thorough understanding of the text itself, its legal reasoning, and key details. Fiqh is deep knowledge, with understanding of nuances and implications.

The purpose in this mastery is to seek the pleasure of Allah, through benefitting oneself and others by preserving, acting upon, and transmitting this noble Prophetic inheritance.

The means to mastery would be through understanding of eight matters related to the text:

1. Tawdih (clarification of the text, in expression and indication)

2. Taqyid (conditioning the text, where essential conditions are needed)

3. Tafsil (detailing the text, where essential details are needed)

4. Taswir (describing the text’s issues, through practical examples)

5. Taq`id (clarifying the legal principles the text’s issues are based on or entail)

6. Tafri` (giving the important derived rulings, classical and contemporary, that a serious seeker must know)

7. Ta`lil (understanding the legal reasoning and wisdom underlying the text’s rulings)

8. Tadlil (understanding the legal proofs for the rulings of the text)

The expectations from the students would be to:

1. Prepare for the class, by [a] thorough reading of the matn; [b] careful reading of the commentary–with focus on the legal details and reasoning mentioned in the commentary; [c] preparing properly thought-out questions related to the text and its implications. It is encouraged, especially for more advanced students, to research key issues in the reference works, commentaries, and other complete works on the fiqh of worship. (This is not an expectation. Students are welcome to email the instructor for advice on this.)

2. Attend the class, with [a] attentiveness, through cutting out distractions (no surfing, messaging, texting, etc); [b] participation when the instructor asks questions; [c] asking questions, from their preparation or from things unclear in the text or the instructor’s explanations.

3. Review of the class notes and text. Research of issues that arise is encouraged, and asking questions regarding things that remain unclear is essential. The more you can keep reviewing the text (especially the matn), the better. Test yourself, by checking whether you remember the key details. Diagramming the text helps.

4. Take notes. It is best to write out the matn itself, and essentials from the commentary (such as the key details and reasoning). This is also good Arabic writing practice.

5. Participate in the Class Forum by asking questions, sharing issues of benefit, and getting involved in the relevant discussions, with the proper manners of a keen seeker of knowledge (talib `ilm).

6. Seek Allah’s assistance, make this a means of seeking His pleasure, have high secondary intentions of acting upon what you learn with excellence, preserving and transmitting Prophetic guidance, to benefit yourself and to benefit others, and to gain all the benefits mentioned by Allah and the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) for those who seek and transmit sacred knowledge for the sake of Allah.

And Allah alone gives success.

Steps to Success on the Way to the Light of Knowledge – Nur Sacred Sciences

Click here for Original Link

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.

Advice for Students of Knowledge Overseas: A Meeting with Dr. Ingrid Mattson – By Ustadh Abdullah Misra

Advice for Students of Knowledge Overseas: A Meeting with Dr. Ingrid Mattson

Most Western religious students studying overseas intend to return home to help their communities.  However, after years of immersion in a foreign culture, students may find themselves out of touch with the Muslim community and the broader society.  These students must know the issues of the day, what is expected of their role, and the condition of their community in order to be effective teachers. Dr. Ingrid Mattson tell us what realities students can expect to face, and how to prepare for them….

Last week, SG team members Faraz Khan, Salman Younas, and Abdullah Misra had the opportunity to sit with Dr. Ingrid Mattson while she was attending a conference on Islam and the Environment in Amman, Jordan.

The questions that the group sought her advice on included: what can students of the Islamic sciences who are overseas expect to encounter upon returning to the West?  What should they know, and what can they do to prepare themselves for a life of teaching and service in the North American Muslim community?

Over the next two and a half hours, Dr. Mattson offered profound advice, with relevant examples and penetrating wisdom.  Below are snippets and summaries of her advice:

Understand the Difference Between a Scholar and an Imam

A scholar and an imam are two different things.  A scholar is primarily knowledge-based, and they spend most of their time in research, writing or teaching.  An imam is a pastor, the shepherd of a flock.  An imam’s job and responsibilities must be understood: he protects his congregation, guards against negative influences and discord, nurtures the attendees, and more.

The two roles often get confused for one another, though in the past the difference was very clear.  In recent times, scholars have assumed the role of imams.  A student of knowledge should clearly understand the difference between the two and decide which one they want to become.

An imam needs knowledge of the religion, but not to the level of a specialist.  He should know who to turn to when a matter passes his level of expertise, whether in religious law, psychology or family counseling.

Communication is Key

An imam must know how to communicate with his audience- to remind them and inspire them effectively.  The community’s souls are in his hands.  They trust him.  They put their families in his care.  He must know their lives and what they face.  He must show that he cares for them.  He cannot have a sense of entitlement because of his position.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to give good news.   The imam cannot constantly be giving people bad news.  Many imams cannot see the negative effect this has on people.

Certain people can master both Islamic scholarship AND effective communication.  Dr. Mattson cited Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, as an example.  Those who are able to do so should master both skills because people will respond positively to what they say and teach.

Know Yourself and Your Goals

A student has to know who they are.  What are you cut-out to do?  Do not follow what are others pressuring you to do.  Some people feel pressured to become academics, or scholars, or imams, and don’t feel cut out for the role; rather, they feel suited to take on another one of those roles.  A student should choose the path that best suits them.

The role of the academic, the Islamic scholar, the imam and the Muslim chaplain are always being lumped together or confused, whereas the roles are ideally supposed to be distinct and separate.

An example is that in the past, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus employed over 200 separate positions.  This included the imam for prayer, the preacher, the Friday khateeb, the teachers who taught in traditional study circles, the dhikr-leaders, and other roles that were all distinct, each one specializing in their field according to their strengths and training.

The Place of the Scholar in our Society

So where is the place for scholars in our society?  Since very few institutions exist that support scholars, they have to be prepared to carve out their own niches if they wish to stay in their field.

A professor of Islamic studies in a university is not an Islamic scholar. Many people have studied the Islamic sciences to become scholars, and then gone into academia due to their lack of knowing how to function as Islamic scholars and how to provide for their families. However, the demands of academia ensured that they were too busy to ever return to their original intention.  This is not to detract from the concept of learned Muslims going into academia; however, one should know what it entails and the reality of the commitment it requires from the get-go.

Currently, there is a limited “market” for pure scholars of Islam in North America- those whose sole occupation is with knowledge and teaching-because there aren’t enough institutions that support them.  Scholars have to start their own projects and nurture them slowly if they wish to remain in their fields.  This takes patience and sacrifice. Dr. Mattson commended SeekersGuidance as an example of a successful project in Islamic scholarship.

Tapping the True Potential of Scholars

The current trend is that a scholar-cum-imam leads a congregation all week in prayer, and then on weekends, he teaches basic classes to the community.  Their scholarly training is used only to a limited degree in this case.

However, the one-man-school model may not be fulfilling the broader needs that communities have today.  There reaches a saturation point, in certain areas, of weekend school options for adults [while other areas have only lay-preachers to guide them].

The caliber of some of these scholars is too high to be teaching introductory courses in Islamic subjects over and over again; teachers should be trained specially for that purpose.  The scholars’ time needs to be freed-up so they can use their studies to tackle the larger issues that require their expertise.

Till this day, why hasn’t our community started a Muslim teacher’s college?  Why can’t we as a community even design a Sunday School curriculum on how to teach basic Islamic studies that we can all agree on?  Islamic learning institutions need not be large to have an impact- our standards right now are so low, a few well-trained teachers would be enough to make a difference in each community.

On Chaplaincy

Why did Dr. Mattson choose to develop a chaplaincy program and not an imam program?  Because a good imam is in need of a good masjid board-of-directors in order to properly function, and so training good imams doesn’t necessarily mean communities will progress, until the way that the boards work with imams changes also.

Chaplains, on the other hand, are respected as professionals and do not have these same administrative obstacles.  They are sorely needed in our times.  They are good examples of how to benefit others and work with religion professionally in society.  It is hoped that their professionalism will be a good example for imams and masjid boards alike.

The Challenges of Being an Imam

In general, religious leaders have great challenges in the West.  Many people have the attitude of not according any authority to their religious leaders, so the imam finds great hindrances in leading the community.  People are generally harder to satisfy in our times.  A religious leader has to grapple with the reality of trying to lead fiercely independent-minded people, each with their own opinions, and balance his authority with wisdom while preserving his values and maintaining control of the situation.

Imams are often at the mercy of masjid boards who do not give them job security, or proper benefits, and do not show them respect as professionals.  On the other extreme is when a religious leader has a personality cult around him that allows him to have complete control.  Dr. Mattson was pointing towards the balance, which is rooted in mutual respect.

A Scholar Should Not Encourage a Sense of Entitlement or Superiority

Muslims don’t know their own history.  We don’t know about how our societies began, developed and changed.  We may know, at most, about very early Islamic history which shows Muslims in control of vast lands, and living according to Islamic laws, values and rule.  This lack of perspective has led to Muslims arriving in Western society and immediately becoming critical of everything they see.

Whenever something does not conform to their long-held values, they criticize it and try to correct others.  They feel a sense of entitlement in a land in which they are a relatively new and small community.  They do not look at their own faults as a community let alone try to fix their problems, but go on pointing out the faults they see in a society that has not yet heard the message.

Dr. Mattson has indicating that this is a mentality that students will come across, which will make communities resistant to change and self-criticism at times, and a religious leader should not encourage this attitude.

Love and Respect: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Muslims love each other.  When two Muslims meet, you can see the genuine love that they have for the other person, even if the two Muslims are complete strangers.  However, Muslims don’t have [enough] respect for one another.

Other religious groups may not show love for one another the way Muslims do, but they do respect one another.  For example, in a church, you will never hear someone interrupt a sermon to argue with the preacher, but this happens in masjids to the Friday khatibs.  This shows a complete lack of respect for one another.

Muslims need to have both qualities as a community in order to thrive: love and respect.  Religious leaders must raise communities with this awareness.

The Most Important Qualities in an Imam

When a community chooses an imam, it should do so on the same criteria that a woman should choose a husband: character is given first priority, and then deen (outward religious practice).   Character comes first since a person’s personality usually stays consistent and directly affects the community, whereas religiosity can increase or decrease, and is mostly a personal matter.

The Need for Muslim “Youth Ministers”

Our communities need imams, chaplains and “youth ministers”.  The three are distinct in their roles.  It is said that every 12 years, a new generation is formed.  Religious leaders must be responsive and understand the times they live in and the people in their communities.

Different people may be suited to different roles and appeal to different crowds; thus, youth should be trained by scholars and imams to reach out to youth in the masjids and community centers.

The Importance of Apologetics and Ethics

Religious leaders must combine various fields of knowledge: the Islamic sciences are essential, but the study of apologetics is also very important today.  One must know about the burning issues of our time, the current paradigms and controversies, and how a Muslim can intelligently respond to criticisms of the faith and opposing ideologies such as atheism.

Also, theology is not ‘aqeedah – theology develops in response to the burning issues of the age. Initially, the Muslims didn’t deal with certain aspects of theology only because those issues would be raised in later times- such as when the Khawarij came, the question of the day became, “who is a Muslim?”.  Later came the question of whether the Qur’an was Allah’s Eternal Speech or His creation [as the Mutazilites erroneously claimed].

Similarly today, we can no longer brush off feminist critiques of patriarchal religions.  We must recognize that feminist critiques happened in our own religious history- such as when a woman asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) why Allah Most High only addressed men in the Qur’an; Allah Most High revealed a verse which then addressed both men and women.

Ethics is the field of knowledge that is perhaps most relevant to our time and context.  Our context today isn’t demanding as much from our understanding of the details of Islamic criminal law, for example, or other points of Islamic law.  Rather, an understanding of ethics is very important right now, and students should be versed in its discussions [from the perspectives of varying traditions].

Make Your Message Relevant and Be Realistic

A religious leader needs to understand what is important to people.  People in our communities often feel split between religion and work, and the result is that they are often drawn away from religion.  Remember that one’s career defines a person much more now than it did in the past- on average people spend 60 hours a week at work.  Make your message relevant to those people, understanding the role of careers in their lives and the challenges it poses.

We must accept that people will not get everything 100% right in their religious lives.  The people will never fully perform everything expected of them- so don’t ask them to do the impossible.   A religious leader must keep this in mind and focus on what they can do, by emphasizing ethics: good behavior (not cheating, not lying, etc) and respect.  This is the area where they are most likely to see positive changes in people, rather than forcing people to choose between the Sacred Law or their careers.

Be realistic in what you expect from people; look at them with an eye of mercy and generosity.  Alhumdulillah, they are Muslims after all and that is more important than anything else.  The Prophet (peace be upon him) said there will come a time when Muslims will only have 10% of the religion’s teachings left, but it will be enough to enter them into Paradise.   They should not be made to feel pessimistic about their shortcomings, but rather encouraged by the mercy in that statement.

One has to realize people are not inherently “bad”.  The bad lifestyle choices they make have powerful negative influences driving them.  Knowing this, people cannot simply be told to change and fix themselves.  An imam must be compassionate, [gradual] and wise in this regard.

Instilling a Sense of Collective Responsibility

An imam must also understand the reality of collective responsibility.  The Qur’an speaks about it when referring to previous nations, so it is an Islamic concept.  For example, when a child is abused, they grow up and affect others negatively in turn.  This could have been prevented had mechanisms been set up to protect children in our community.  Where were we when that child was small and needed us?  Thus, an imam must have a sense of communal obligation and communicate this to his congregation.

An imam should also be versed in the arts of ministry.  This is primarily preaching and guiding, but also counseling (for family, depression, addiction, marriage, violence, children, etc.)  They cannot be an expert is every field, but they should know enough to know when there’s a problem and make a referral to an expert.

Interfaith Relations: A Modern Imperative

Interfaith relations are a must in our times.  Muslims are only 2% of American society; in Canada, perhaps 5%.  That is a reality we have to face.  We must understand other religions in order to be good neighbors.   Many times, Muslims say false things about other faiths- those are lies, and technically it could be called bearing false witness when Muslims are supposed to be truthful.

Also, Muslims cannot be the primary messengers of Islam in the West- our numbers are too low [to be able to effectively combat stereotypes and wrong impressions by ourselves].  Most people in the US still don’t even personally know a Muslim.  Thus, we need advocates and allies who will speak to others about us.  Other religious groups have more credibility in Western society than we do and they are willing to work together with us.

After 9/11, because of good relations with ISNA, a Christian umbrella group representing 40 million Protestants in the US officially passed a policy for its church members that Christians should not hate Muslims for what had happened.  They themselves then printed a book clarifying misconceptions on Islam and distributed copies to their members, so that they could empathize with Muslims as another faith group who believed in God.  This is the fruit of good interfaith relations.

Similarly, partnerships between mosques and synagogues have yielded positive results.  When any negative press is directed unfairly at Muslims by the media, it is those interfaith allies who will call you first to ask if they can offer any help.  Then, they will even give sermons in their places of worship, to the effect that good people need to stand against the voices that seek to demonize all Muslims.  This is why interfaith work has become a modern imperative for Muslims.

Know Your Context Well

The most important thing is to know your context – your society, its ideas, the people and their culture, reality and conditions.

Think Like a Citizen, Not Just as a Scholar

Sometimes, a scholar has to answer as an American, and not as a mufti.  An example that highlights this is when a jail warden asked a scholar if Muslim men needed to keep beards.  The scholar offered the legal ruling, and mentioned the differences on whether it was obligatory or not. Hearing that it was not obligatory according to some views, the jail warden prevented Muslim inmates from keeping beards.

The scholar should have answered in the context of the right to practice one’s religion rather than a technical legal ruling.  The same goes for people asking about the niqab – while there is a difference of opinion and many may say it isn’t obligatory, a scholar’s answer could cause a Muslim to lose their freedom to practice the opinion they believe in.  The scholar must be acutely aware of how his words will be taken and what is best to say in any given context.

Know How to Adjust Your Tone

When you look at the works of a scholar of the past, such as Imam Nawawi (RA), you see the times when he was to-the-point and unwavering (such as in his legal texts) and at other times, you see his softer and warmer side (such as in his texts on dhikr, or his exhortations and supplications).

A scholar must know how to be each one of these, at the appropriate time and situation.  Many scholars are either one or the other in all contexts, and therefore cannot distinguish which approach is appropriate in which context, which is not the way the great scholars of the past were.

The Difference Between Knowledge and Authority

There is a difference between knowledge and authority.  Having one doesn’t mean you are automatically entitled to the other.  The Sahaba disagreed with some of Omar’s (RA) rulings, yet they obeyed him because he was their leader and he was speaking from a perspective of knowledge as well.  There was no vigilante or mutinous attitude amongst the Sahaba; they never abandoned their leadership.

The community needs to learn to follow their leaders and support them on good initiatives, even if they disagree sometimes.  Disagreement in itself is not wrong.  People of knowledge should also cooperate with the leaders of their community in valid differences, even though they are convinced of their own opinions.  Scholars cannot think that their knowledge entitles them to authority over people when the community has already chosen its leaders.

How Do You Promote Respect for the Scholars?

Respect is a two-way street.  Scholars/imams must respect their congregation and take them seriously in order to be respected by them.  They must be professional in their roles.  They must give people attention, and show care and concern.  They should also prepare beforehand for their engagements.  Nothing is worse than hearing a khutba that obviously hasn’t had the preparation time put into it – it shows the khatib doesn’t care about his responsibilities and his congregation.

Integrity is key.  Do what you say and practice what you preach.  How people perceive the imam/scholar is important.  Does an imam do things to make himself seem at a higher status than his congregation?  Does he enjoy benefits that his followers cannot also enjoy?  If he does, people will notice and they will talk about it.  This diminishes his respect in their eyes.  Omar (RA) would not allow his son to enjoy fruit while the Muslims were experiencing a drought, only because the masses couldn’t afford the luxury of fruits at that time.

Does the imam/scholar maintain the etiquette between himself and his female students, or does he take advantage of his position and violate the teacher-student/ counselor-patient relationship?  Things can be technically valid in Sacred Law, such as divorcing one’s wife to marry a younger student from his weekend study circle, but this is not ethical or moral.  What does it tell the congregation?  Unethical behavior diminishes respect for scholars, so they should avoid it at all costs.

Professionalism is the most important factor in earning the respect of the community.  An imam who is on time and upright, fulfills his duties faithfully, shows concern, and works hard will be respected.

The Importance of Returning Home and Serving Where You Are Most Needed

A scholar is usually most effective in his home country.  Some students wish never to return to their societies after studying abroad, despite the fact that their home communities sorely need their help and guidance.

Students of knowledge who do not return to their home countries often cannot benefit the societies in which they studied, because they are outsiders to the culture and do not have enough credibility.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course.   Thus, students should return home after their studies to serve their communities because there are many people in need of guidance and inspiration.

Also, many policies which affect the Muslim world originate from the West.  Hence, when a student goes back after studies and works to correct misconceptions about Islam, this in turn educates the society at large, and since public opinion does have an effect on foreign policy, when people see Muslims as good citizens, this could very well have a positive impact on the rest of the Muslim world.

*
This is only the gist of what we learned from Dr. Mattson.  Her advice was colored with stories and examples that provoked in us a great concern.  We are very grateful that she took the time out to speak with us.  May Allah Most High preserve her and continue to use her for the good of the community.  May all the Western students of knowledge read this and benefit from it, insha Allah.

Abdullah Misra is teaching Meccan Dawn: The Life of the Beloved Prophet Muhammad

Shaykh Abdul-Rahim Reasat is teaching  Introduction to Arabic Grammar: A Thematic Overview of the Ajrumiyya, A Classic Primer

Learn & grow:
“Whomever Allah wishes well for, He grants understanding of religion,” said the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him).