Imam al-Shafi‘i remarked: ‘Time is like a sword, if you do not cut it, it will cut you.’ He also said: ‘Your soul, if it is not kept busy with the truth, it will busy you in untruths and falsehood.’1
Islam’s “masters of the heart” tell us that filling our lives with works of faith and with service to others is how blessings (barakah) of time is manifested and the journey to God made constant. The jewel in the crown of the journey, and the seeker’s weapon, is remembrance of God (dhikr).
Imam al-Ghazali (d.505H/1111CE) speaks about the need to organise our time and fill it with prayer, charity, dhikr and other award (‘litanies’, ‘regular acts of devotion’) so that our time is blessed and not squandered, and so that we are not cast adrift from the path by dragging our heels and constant procrastination. He writes:
‘You should not waste your time, doing at any moment whatever chances to present itself when it presents itself. Instead, you should take stock of yourself and structure your acts of devotion during each day or night, assigning to each period of time some specific function that is kept to and is not left for something else in that time. In this way the blessing (barakah) of your time will become evident. But if you leave yourself to drift, aimlessly wandering as cattle do, not knowing what to occupy yourself with at each moment, you will squander most of your time. Your time is your life; your life is your capital through which you spiritually transact [with God] and through which you reach endless bliss in the proximity of God. Every breath you take is a priceless jewel that cannot be replaced. Once it passes, it can never be retrieved.”2
1. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1998), 239.
2. Bidayat al-Hidayah (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2004), 120.
The duties instated by faith are a necessary measure in order to regulate human affairs, guide man, prevent him from straying, as well as dissuade him from self-harm or harming others. By recognising that the Sacred Law (sharī‘ah) exists to guide and protect us, we can attain to a reasonable equilibrium in this world and joy in the next.
Vital to this is knowledge, for without it we would not know how to live out God’s will in our lives. As such, a core body of sacred knowledge has been made obligatory upon each Muslims to acquire and learn – which is what is meant by this celebrated hadith: ‘The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.’1
In our quest to gain and to grow in knowledge (‘ilm), the following seven considerations should be kept at the forefront of our mind:
1. God loves and honours the learned and the seekers of knowledge: God will raise to high ranks those who believe and those among you who have knowledge. [58:11] It is stated in a hadith: ‘Whoever traverses a path in order to seek knowledge, God will facilitate for him, due to it, a path to Paradise.’2 Another states: ‘The world and whatever is in it is cursed, except for the remembrance of God and whatever is attached to Him, and a scholar and a learner.’3 Knowing how beloved to Allah sacred knowledge is should help spur us on to learning sacred knowledge and valuing its acquisition.
2. Knowledge is a means to the goal, it is not the goal in itself. That goal is worship and action. ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge,’ states the following prophetic caution, ‘in order to compete with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to turn peoples’ faces towards him, let him takes his seat in the Fire.’4 Similar sentiments echo in the following hadith: ‘Whoever learns knowledge by which is sought the Face of God, but he does so only to achieve some worldly gain, shall not smell [even] the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection.’5 Abu Qilabah, one of Islam’s early pietists, advised: ‘If God gives to you knowledge, give to Him worship; and don’t let your concern be to merely narrate to the people.’6 Knowing that knowledge is a means should help focus our sincerity on singling-out Allah for His pleasure and acceptance in seeking sacred knowledge.
3. Learning knowledge must be prioritised. At the base of the pyramid is learning the fard al-‘ayn – what is a “personal obligation” on each individual (in contrast to a fard kifayah, or communal obligation). Ibn Rajab said: ‘So it is obligatory on each Muslim to learn what is mandated by religion in terms of ritual purification, prayer or fasting. It is obligatory on those who possess wealth to know what is due from it in terms of giving zakah, financial maintenance [of one’s dependants], performing pilgrimage and aiding jihad. Likewise, it is obligatory on those in trade and commerce to learn what transactions are valid and invalid … Realise, too, that knowledge of the lawful and prohibited must also be learnt.’7
The golden rule in this regard is as follows: afḍal al-‘ilm ‘ilm al-hāl wa afḍal al-‘aml hifẓ al-hāl – ‘The best knowledge is knowledge of one’s [current] state, while the best action is guarding one’s [current] state.’8 That is to say, one must acquire as much knowledge as one requires so as to fulfil the obligation of the moment (be it a duty one owes to God or to others), or to refrain from the prohibition of the moment. Knowing that knowledge must be prioritised, as well as what to prioritise, will save us from the aimless confusion most people fall into concerning this matter.
4. As important as it is, one must never acquire secular or worldly learning while being ignorant of one’s fard al-‘ayn – knowledge of one’s “personal religious obligations.” Thus, whilst censuring those who adopt such a negligent attitude, the Qur’an says: They know the outward appearances of the life of this world, but are heedless of the Hereafter. [30:7] In light of this verse, al-Hasan al-Basri once protested: ‘By God! One of them knows about this world to the extent he can pick up a coin and tell you its weight and worth. Yet he doesn’t know how to pray properly!’9 Yet how many still choose to skate on thin ice, even today? For how many Muslims are there who are versed in the finer details of politics, football, fashion, celebrity culture, or just the latest social media gossip, yet are woefully ignorant about their fard al-‘ayn duties; content with leaving their religious knowledge at a precarious or infantile level.
5. The ideal way to learn is to study with qualified teachers who have been granted license (‘ijazah) to teach by recognised scholars. This next axiom is key: inna hādha’l-‘ilma dīnun fa yanẓuru ‘amman ta’khudhūna dīnakum – ‘Indeed, this knowledge is religion; so look from whom you take your religion’. In the absence of such teachers, form a study group, basing it on humility and the ability to say, “I do not know” when needed. Think, reflect, ponder, question – but never invent your own rulings or fatwas. Instead, cling tenaciously to the divine order: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [21:7] Knowing this will help save us from the pitfalls many have stumbled into, by taking as teachers charlatans, DIY-da‘is and other pretenders unfit and unqualified for teaching sacred knowledge.
6. We must know our own level and harbour no pretensions about how little we really do know. Simple ignorance (jahl baṣīt) may not always be blameworthy. For the act of asking and being answered is usually cure enough for such lack of knowledge. But compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab) – ignorance of actually being ignorant! – is a different kettle of fish. One often finds those who paddle in such a pitiful state to be highly argumentative, hostile, bigoted and an enemy to the righteous. To this end, al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad once said: ‘There are four types of men:  One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him!  One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him!  One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him!  One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’10
7. Lastly, it’s vital that knowledge be internalised and rooted in the heart, in order to beget reverent awe before God and humility before Man. Sound intention is key. Mālik b. Dīnār said: ‘Whoever learns knowledge so as to act by it, his knowledge humbles him. Whoever seeks it for other than that, only increases in pride by it.’11 Imam al-Dhahabi advised: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge in order to act by it, his knowledge humbles him and causes him to weep at himself. But one who learns knowledge just to teach, to give fatwas, or to brag and show-off, becomes foolish, arrogant, argumentative, perishes in his vanity and is despised by others: He is indeed successful who purifies it [his soul], and is a failure who corrupts it. [91:9-10].’12
We end with the words of the celebrated pietist, Yusuf b. al-Husain: ‘With courtesy (adab) you understand knowledge. With knowledge, your actions are rectified. With actions, you are endowed with wisdom. With wisdom, you understand worldly renunciation (zuhd) and are given to achieve it. With renunciation, you cast aside the world. By casting aside the world, you long for the Afterlife. With longing for the Afterlife comes the pleasure and acceptance of God.’13
1. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.224, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Manawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:267.
2. Muslim, no.2699.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2323, who said the hadith is hasan.
4. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2654.
5. Abu Dawud, no.3664. Al-Nawawi declared its chain to be sahih, in Riyad al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1399.
Muslim religious authorities speak about three levels of fasting: Firstly, the “outward fast,” where one abstains from food, drink and sexual union. Secondly, the “fasting of the limbs,” whereby the eyes, ears, tongue, hands and feet refrain from sins and acts of disobedience. Thirdly, and it is the highest degree of fasting, the “fasting of the soul,” where the above practices are perfected by an abstinence from any thought that may hinder constant awareness of God’s presence: Fasting is enjoined on you, as it was enjoined on those before you, that you may perhaps become God-conscious. [Qur’an 2:183] The first two levels of fasting are types of abstinence that Islam instates as a duty. It is the third level, however, which is the sought after goal.
One of the finest treatments on the inward aspects of fasting was penned for us by Imam al-Ghazali (d.505H/1111CE) in his remarkable fusion of Muslim law, ethics and spirituality, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din – “Revival of the Religious Sciences”. What follows is a translation of his opening comments on the subject:
“Realise that there are three degrees of fasting: the fasting of the generality (sawm al-‘umum), the fasting of the elite (sawm al-khusus) and the fasting of the elect (sawm khusus al-khusus).
The fasting of the generality involves the stomach and the genitals refraining from indulging their passions, as has previously been explained.
The fasting of the elite involves keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands, feet – all the organs – free from sin.
As for the fasting of the elect, it is the fasting of the heart from all unworthy concerns or worldly thoughts; a total abstinence from all else besides God, Mighty and Majestic is He. Such a fast is broken by thinking about other than God or the Afterlife; or by thinking about worldly things – except those worldly thoughts conducive to religious ends, for these constitute provisions for the Afterlife and are not of this lower world. Masters of the heart (arbab al-qulub) have even said: “A sin is recorded against he who spends his day concerned with what arrangements he has to break his fast.” This is because it shows a lack of trust in God’s grace and a lack of certainty in His promised livelihood. To this [third] degree belong the prophets, saints and those drawn near to God. We need not dwell on the description of this type of fasting, since its true nature is best revealed in action. It is to be wholly dedicated to God and to turn away from all else other than Him. It is to embody the words of God, when He said: Say: “God” then leave them to play in their vain discourse and trifling. [6:91].”1
1. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 2:110-11.