Interview: Defining Knowledge – Shaykh Yahya Rhodus

Cori Mancuso interviews Shaykh Yahya Rhodus on the importance of seeking obligatory knowledge, balancing religious and worldly affairs, and engaging in traditional and western approaches to education.


CM: For Muslims who are seeking a foundational knowledge of Islam, or their fard ayn, what knowledge should be obligatory for them to learn? Why is it important to learn this knowledge?

SYR: Unfortunately, there is a lot of deep seeded ignorance around the community and the world regarding this topic. There are people who simply don’t know what they need to know, and then there’s something called compounded ignorance, when someone sees the basics as something that doesn’t really mean anything. The greatest scholars, who have reached the pinnacle of scholarship and piety, not only do they do the basics but they do them in the most excellent manner. There could be two people who are outwardly performing the prayer correctly, but they each have very different inward states in terms of concentration, meanings in the heart, and witnessing of the divine impact on creation. We learn the basics and reinforce them throughout our lives, and in the end, we hope to reach the highest degree of spiritual realization. One of the early imams, al-Junayd, was seen after his death in a dream and was asked “What did Allah do with you?” He said, “‘All the expressions have gone, and all of the subtle indications have vanished, and all that benefited me was small cycles of prayer that I prayed during the night.’”

What remains is for us to figure out what is obligatory knowledge? How can we acquire it and put it into practice? How can we reinforce it and increase it? Any knowledge that is not based on revelation, or meant to preserve revelation, is an inferior type of knowledge. These other types of rational sciences are very popular now, but we must remember that revelation is a higher source of knowledge. We are required to study knowledge throughout our lives. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, told us that whoever treads a path to seek sacred knowledge, Allah will facilitate for him to enter paradise. We cannot fulfill the duty our time by rooting ourselves in our unchanging principles and wisely deal with the challenges of our time, without the foundational knowledge. When the winds of tribulation blow through, if one is not grounded, then they are going to get blown with the wind.

Scholars have long discussed the concept of fard ayn knowledge, which is obligatory for every male and female of age. In Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum al Din, he describes this knowledge as knowledge of what is obligatory in the moment. Everything one does in their life, must be based on knowledge. Although everyone of age should learn the basics of purification and prayer, creed, and the attributes of Allah, one must also look at their own circumstances and learn accordingly. If someone is married, engages in financial transactions, or has a death in the family, they must know the law. It is shocking to see how many Muslims get involved in complicated matters while neglecting even the basics of prayer and purification. The obligatory knowledge is what we need to know for our beliefs to be correct, our practice to be right, and  our heart to become clear before Allah.

CM: In your opinion, how does one balance between seeking knowledge and seeking sustenance in worldly affairs?

SYR: The first thing is to not see the two as mutually exclusive. Imam Malik was once asked about seeking sacred knowledge. He said it is a great thing, but one should also look at their own circumstances and circle of responsibility. If someone is required to do something, whether it is to take care of a family member or a loved one, and they are not able to free themselves up for sacred knowledge, then they must give precedence to the responsibilities on their shoulders. We should not see this as all or nothing, everyone must do what they can. I want to see a rebirth and a revival around talib al-ilm, of seeking knowledge, for the young and old. For most people, it is mainly a matter of priorities. We must make knowledge a priority in our lives. As I was leaving Mauritania, and heading to Tarim, one of the scholars, Shaykh Muhammad Zayn, said, “Make knowledge an excuse for other things and do not make other things an excuse for knowledge.”

Every Muslim should be taking at least one class per week. Anything less than that is falling short of the mark. With a strong intention to learn, and dedication, one can still learn quite a bit by seeking knowledge part-time. This includes informal and formal ways of learning. Some small ways include putting a book in the car to read, playing something in the car during a commute, and reading a book with one’s spouse or children. Most people have time for these things, and this is considered seeking sacred knowledge. Any sacrifice one makes in their career, to free oneself up a little bit more to study and learn, will never be lost with Allah. Everyone should benefit from their local resources, utilizing weekend learning and vacation time. A good way to track activity is to keep a notebook, so that every time one attends a conference, retreat, or lecture, they can fill up this notebook with benefits. This enables us to teach this knowledge to others.

CM: As a student of knowledge in both the traditional Islamic sciences, and western academic institutions, what are the benefits and challenges to both approaches?

SYR: In a traditional setting, the focus is devotion. One is studying this knowledge to get closer to Allah and prepare for the hereafter. In a traditional setting, a student gets very close to their teachers and a profound love is developed through mentorship. The students try to emulate and follow the teacher. There is emphasis on the chain of narration back to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Those are some of the strengths of the traditional method. The purpose of studying sacred knowledge is to transcend the self and benefit others.

On the other hand, for the vast majority of people studying in western academic institutions, the goal is to get a degree. Some people are interested in the topic they study, but it is a different experience. A student will not develop the same type of relationship with the teacher. Knowledge is respected, but in a secular sense. The western academic institution has strengths in that it concentrates on the context of a text. In my field, I study the life of Imam al-Ghazali, who was he? How did the circumstances of his life affect his scholarship? What led outwardly to him writing Ihya Ulum al-Din? If one is grounded in traditional scholarship, they can more easily sift through the bad western scholarship and benefit from the good western scholarship that exists. This enhances one’s learning, without contradiction to the traditional understanding of the text. Although there is some benefit in studying Islamic Studies in a western academic setting, there is also a lot of ignorance surrounding the texts. They make a lot of mistakes and assumptions based on their limited understanding. Western scholarship is based on imitation, scholars will quote previous writers without confirming the validity of their sources. We must critique western scholarship. Most academics believe they are objective and that this is the only way of knowing this information.

Unfortunately, I have found the vast majority of Muslims involved in western academic institutions do not have the tools necessary to navigate these distinctions, and it becomes a little bit overwhelming. This is not to say that we should not be involved. We do not have the luxury of remaining completely isolated. We need scholars who have the proper training, who are able to find answers within the tradition, who know what to do in different circumstances, and are able to find real solutions to the problems people are facing in their lives. This is an enormous task. Everyone is affected by the society in which they live. There is a philosophy behind everything which we are exposed to. It necessary that we engage academia and have Muslim academics teaching Islamic Studies. Muslims should be contributing in all types of disciplines. We want to them to make principal contributions which reflect our values and character. This is one of our greatest challenges, to root Muslims in knowledge, devotion, and service, and train them to make principled contributions in society.


Cori Mancuso is a graduate in Religious Studies at Lycoming College. While seeking sacred knowledge, she develops content for SeekersHub and Sabeel Community.

What Job Opportunities Can I Pursue After Finishing My Islamic Studies?

Answered by Shaykh Umer Mian

Question: I am a recent graduate of a traditional Darul-Uloom in the UK and I find myself unsure of what career path to pursue. Salaries offered in mosques are low in relation to the current cost of living in the UK. Essentially, I would like a job whereby I can help people and benefit them with what I’ve studied. What do you recommend?

Answer: In the Name of Allah Most Gracious, Most Merciful,

It seems that you are already aware of the opportunities to be the imam of a masjid or teacher in an Islamic school or madrasah. These are perhaps the most common careers pursued by graduates from Islamic seminaries such as the Darul Ulums. If you don’t find yourself inclined towards such opportunities or don’t feel they would be practical for you, then you may want to consider the following possibilities:

1) Chaplain. I cannot speak for the U.K., but in the U.S. and Canada, Muslim chaplaincy has really taken off in the past decade or so. Large institutions such as universities, hospitals, etc. are hiring Muslim chaplains to act as advisors, teachers, mentors, and administrators of Muslim activities. Your studies at the Darul Ulum could provide a strong foundation to fulfil these roles. However, you’d probably need to complete a chaplaincy course in order to be best prepared for the job. This career provides a great opportunity for da’wah and serving the Muslim community.

2) Arabic language instructor. Your studies at the Darul Ulum probably included significant exposure to the sciences of the Arabic language. Universities and other institutions in the Western world are in need of Arabic language instructors. Teaching in such places can provide great opportunity for da’wah. Many of one’s students would likely be Muslim, and there’s nothing better than connecting Muslims with the language of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

3) Graduate student/Researcher. Some students of sacred knowledge choose to pursue graduate studies in Western universities. The curriculum of a Darul Ulum has overlap with numerous academic fields, such as Near Eastern Studies, Religion, Law, History, etc. Obtaining a Ph. D. in one of these fields opens doors to the roles of academic researcher, professor, author, etc. Prior to pursuing this path, one should consult with trustworthy, knowledgeable Islamic scholars, in order to avoid the many pitfalls and challenges present in academia.

The above are some ideas of paths you could take to work your Darul Ulum education into a sustainable career. Of course, there are many other opportunities that are not directly related to the religious education you received at Darul Ulum. Some people choose to go back to school to study a profession such as medicine (doctor or nurse), information technology (programmer, systems administrator, help desk technician, etc.), business (small business owner, real estate agent, etc.), and so on.

With the financial independence offered by one of these careers, a person could be free to teach and serve the Muslim community on their own terms. Ultimately, choosing a career will depend on a number of personal factors such as education, experience, talents, natural inclinations, job market, family situation, etc. One should be sure to consult with trusted elders and Islamic scholars, and also pray istikhara.

The Messenger of Allah (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) said: “No one ever ate any food better than that which his own hands had earned, and the Prophet of Allah Dawud (upon him be peace) used to eat from what his own hands earned” (Bukhari).


[Shaykh] Umer Mian


What Are the Best Ways to Retain Knowledge?

Answered by Ustadh Tabraze Azam
Question: Salam,
What are the best ways to retain Knowledge? Especially when studiying online…

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
I pray that you are in the best of health and faith, insha’Allah.
The scholars mention that of the greatest of ways of retaining knowledge is acting upon it.
Beyond that, start with what is personally obligatory for you, study step by step– don’t jump to advanced texts and material before truly understanding simpler, and usually, more practical matters– review regularly, and consult your teachers often. And don’t take too much on at once– a little understood and acted upon is far superior to much taken and forgotten.
Remember that the point is worship; knowledge is a means and not a goal in and of itself.
Please see: What is Required in Order to Become a Teacher in Islam? and: Advice Regarding Being a Student of Knowledge and Taking Notes
And Allah alone gives success.
Tabraze Azam
Checked & Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani.

Advice Regarding Being a Student of Knowledge and Taking Notes

Answered by Sidi Tabraze Azam

Question: I have problems with taking notes in Islamic lectures and classes. What methods would you recommend using? Or what advice could you give in order to improve this problem?

Answer: Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

I hope you are in the best of health and spirits insha’Allah. Jazakum Allahu Khayr for your excellent question.

The Proper Etiquette (Adab) of the Seeker

Our tradition is deeply rooted in proper manners (adab); or the right way of doing things. For this reason, the scholars have always stressed its importance in training new generations of students in order that they may be fit to receive the Prophetic light.

Imam Zarnuji (Allah be pleased with him), the author of the excellent work Instruction of the Student and the Method of Learning (Ta`lim al-Muta`allim fi Tariq al-Ta`allum), writes that it is of the utmost importance that one has deep respect for the knowledge one is studying and its people.

It is narrated that Sayyiduna `Ali (Allah be pleased with him) said, “I am the slave of the one who teaches me a single letter.”

Imam Ghazali (Allah be pleased with him) mentioned that, “We didn’t attain unto this knowledge except by way of humility”. Similarly, Imam al-Halwani (Allah be pleased with him), a great Hanafi, is reported to have said, “We didn’t attain unto this knowledge except by way of exaltation (i.e. of the knowledge and deeming it something great); for I have not touched a single piece of paper except in a state of ritual ablution (wudu)”.

Furthermore, Ibn Jama`ah (Allah be pleased with him) noted in his work, Memoir of the Listener and the Speaker in the Training of Teacher and Student (Tadhkirat al-Sami` wa’l Mutakallim fi Adab al-`Alim wa’l Muta`allim), that one should appear before one’s teacher in a state of purity, of clothing and body. One should be focused in one’s state, not tired, hungry, or otherwise. This is in order that one can fully benefit from the teacher and his instruction.

When one realizes the greatness of that which is being sought, those it is being sought from and that one is seeking to attain a portion of the Prophetic inheritance, one humbles oneself, is in awe of knowledge and its people and gives one’s all.

The etiquettes (adab) to follow are many. The more one adheres to them, the greater the benefit one attains. “Act upon that which one knows, and Allah will grant one knowledge of that which one knows not.”

Taking Notes

Below are some general guidelines which may be of benefit:

[1] Jot down key topics/words;

[2] Divide one’s paper into sections;

[3] Use headings and bullet points to organize one’s notes for each particular topic;

[4] It is useful to have a different coloured pen, or a highlighter, available to highlight key points;

[5] Write up one’s notes as soon as one can (with detail);

These are simply general guidelines. Here are some useful links related to note-taking and “systems”:

[i] How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison

[ii] How to Take Lecture Notes

[iii] Geek to Live: Take study-worthy lecture notes

Some Recommended Readings

[1] Instruction of the Student: The Method of Learning

[2] Memoir of the Listener and the Speaker in the Training of Teacher and Student

[3] Imam Ghazali’s Book of Knowledge

[4] The Book of Knowledge from The Gardens of the Righteous (Riyad al-Salihin)

[5] The Path of Muhammad: A Book on Islamic Morals and Ethics

[6] Ten Adab of Seekers of Knowledge – Notes by Ayaz Siddiqui

May Allah grant us all the divinely granted success (tawfiq) to benefit from the knowledge we learn and its people. Amin.

And Allah alone gives success.


Tabraze Azam

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani