Friday, January 25, 2013

Lessons in Learning

Learning is a natural ability that all humans as well as animals are endowed with. This capacity to process, remember, deduce, understand, record, summarize, conclude from and articulate large quantities of information is particularly developed in humans. It is what distinguishes them as ashraful makhluqaat (most honorable of Creation). The end result of learning is the acquisition of wisdom, i.e. the ability to perceive holistic patterns, trends, principles and inferences in the knowledge that has been accumulated. An analogy of this in computer science might be that of a data warehouse in which knowledge (data) is stored and wisdom might be the conclusions drawn by mining that data in various ways. If done properly data mining can result in the analyst seeing the whole picture made by the interconnection of the various events that have been recorded in the data warehouse. It is this capability which leads to the development of the firasa (Islamic intuition) of a Muslim and ultimately the ennoblement of his character and refinement of his manners.

It is the latter part of learning that one finds so much lacking in today's globalized society. We have huge quantities of data, but we often are unable to make sense of it all and arrange it in our perspective of reality. In short, we have knowledge but no wisdom. So what are various ways a conscientious Muslim can develop his perception of reality in today's world?

The first thing to realize is that learning is a never ending process. Curiosity and the inclination of learning have been bestowed in all humanity. They just need to be nurtured in the right environment for the full realization in an individual. The ultimate reward in Jannah will not be the tasting of delicious food and accompaniment of perfect spouses but to see the "Face" of Allah (SWT). I remember in graduate school in NJ, I read an obituary of a Professor of Mathematics in the university newspaper. He was reported as saying that after death he wanted to see all the proofs of the mathematical problems that he had struggled with all his life. I might be wrong, but I deduce seeing the "Face" of Allah, among other things, to be able to see the complete wisdom and cause of all things which one experienced in life. Thus learning should be a lifetime endeavor cultivated for ultimately a spiritual goal which is the best of reward in the aakhira.

Today, students tend to learn to get their degrees and faculty tends to teach to secure their tenure and support their research. To get real benefit from education, students should learn to learn for the sake of the aakhira, rather than the sake of the GPA or even a job offer.

Another aspect of modern learning is that it is disconnected and divided into different subjects for the sake of classifying knowledge. A serious student should realize this and not limit himself to only one subject of specialization. A human, especially a follower of Muhammad (SWAS), experiences many roles and situations in life in fulfilling the obligations he needs to carry out. This balance which is a hallmark of Muslims, encourages them to constantly explore and learn new subjects as they crop up in their lives. Today we find professors who do not feel obligated to influence the morality of their students, psychiatrics who have little insight into the spiritual dimensions of the soul, engineers who do not understand the social aspects of the buildings they construct, etc. It seems that professionals who earn a degree shut themselves off to other streams of learning that would help them realize their full potential if they continue in the path of learning. Thus humility is an essential prerequisite for a life of learning.

For university study, I was advised to keep changing my alma mater for every degree program. This diversity of approaches to learning enhances a person's ability to look at the same thing from different angles. I believe one should bring the same type of attitude to all learning. Thus one should learn to tolerate people of different backgrounds and methodologies. One should adopt a perspective which one feels is right, but this does not mean one associates with only people who share one's own school of thought. By studying other people, one develops an appreciation of where they are coming from, even though one may not always agree with them. Today, this flexibility is greatly lacking in Muslims. They are divided and unwilling to tolerate each other. So those who follow specific schools of fiqh do not associate with those who consider hadith more important, or those who celebrate the Maulid, do not learn from those who do not, etc. By adopting such an attitude, Muslims are restricting their sources of useful knowledge. Not only should they be open to learn from other Muslims but they should be open to learn from non-Muslims as well. The nature of knowledge is universal, and thus useful principles that do not conflict with Islam should be picked up from various sources. I recommend studying the value system and good habits of people who have contributed to their societies. I have found (auto) biographies especially useful. Try studying the lives of people like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Carnegie to gain an insight into their thinking.

Just as diversity of thought leads to beneficial learning, diversity of experience contributes to it too. A person who has lived, studied, worked and contributed to various societies of the world, can understand the world and the principles of reality much better than one who has lived in one place and only read books. The same goes for learning languages which provide dimensions to muti-faceted paradigms of reality. The best language to learn is Arabic for it gives the learner access to the thought patterns of the Prophet (SWAS) and his Companions (RA) -- something that is invaluable to a Muslim. One should constantly learn from the experiences of others as well. Listening to a scholar who understands modernity and constantly travels the globe gives us a better perception of reality than one who does not. Good documentaries are particularly beneficial sources of learning. They give important insights and can increase eeman. The study of history provides us an opportunity to learn principles that work in the phenomenon in life independent of time and the prevalent factors that we are accustomed to in our lives. Thus history provides us valuable avenues of learning. My personal opinion is that a person learns faster and with deeper insights and perceptions if he spent some time away from his family and community, as this experience gives him independence of thought. One should regularly take out some time of the day to reflect on his day and contemplate about his past to better understand the principles at work in his life. Stopping watching television has helped me in this respect.

To make use of the diversity of thought and experiences one must have the correct framework to incorporate this knowledge. That comes from the Quran. I grew up not understanding the Quran, so my solution for it was to purchase a set of audio cassettes of the whole Quran. There was something special about this set, in that the qari first recited the Quranic verse in Arabic. This was followed by its translation in English. Then this was repeated for the next verse ... and so on.This format helped me to be impacted by the actual miraculous recitation of the Quran in Arabic while also understanding its meaning in English. I used to listen to these tapes during all the time my ears were free, e.g. while driving, eating, changing, doing chores, cooking, before dozing off, etc. Soon I found it coloring my mind and soul with the right perspective of things. I did this for an extended period of time and found that I became familiar with Quran Arabic vocabulary, the style of the Quran and the gist of its message all unconsciously without much effort on my part. Later I learnt Arabic and now I do not rely on a translation, alhamdulillah.

Learning is not much of any use if it is not implemented. The best method of learning is to do projects based on what one learns. By doing so knowledge becomes etched in one's personality giving the learner personal lessons into the subject. The most beneficial actions are those based on the Sunnah which one should try to implement in one's life as much as possible. It is often after implementing the Sunnah that one gains insight about the wisdom in it. Thus one should seek to implement it whether one understands it or not; whether one feels comfortable with it or not. The Sunnah allows us to act in the proper pattern that the Quranic framework of thought entails.The best way to consolidate knowledge is to try to live it and teach it to others.

We should approach learning with the proper intention, neither limiting us to one subject, nor perspective of one school, nor experience of one place or time while using the right framework to make sense of everything. By implementing knowledge properly and teaching it to others we can hope to benefit from it in this life where it gives us an inner understanding of different experiences and the aakhira where the secrets of all the mysteries of this life may be revealed to us, insha Allah.

Allahhumma alamtana ma anfaana wa anfaana ma alamtana wa zindna ilma.

O Allah! Teach us what benefits us, and benefit us from what you teach us and increase us in knowledge.

Ameen Ya Rabbil Alaameen


  1. It is one of the best post I ever read. Completely aligned with the thoughts of a Muslim and may be any free thinker. I have shared this with the people who read my facebook posts.

    1. I would suggest you also read The Essence of Education ( as well as Faith & Reason ( on this blog.


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