Over the globe, great many men and women committed to Islam face a dilemma late in their years. Following the tradition, family desires, elders’ advice, but without the right guidance, they choose to go into professional courses. Soon however, and especially if the commitment to Islam increases, they realize that they are in the wrong place, wrong studies and maybe wrong professions. Not that they feel themselves square pegs in round holes, a misfit in their educational or professional fields. They have no problem about that. Commitment to Islam indeed polishes their brains and sharpens their intellect, so that they hardly ever lag behind others in their studies or in jobs. In fact, many of them excel over others in their fields. But they simply feel out of place, in a non-congenial atmosphere, in the company of puny men, cheap materialists: rats chasing cheese balls. It frustrates them to think that the race (and the honorable company) will only end at the grave, if they escape a stroke.
They are aware of the demands of Islam, have a desire to serve, the ability to deliver and a yearning for intellectual, moral and spiritual growth. But, having entered into the mainstream, they find that the circumstance do not allow them as much leeway as they think they should be getting. They are in a dilemma. What should they do? Should they quit and start all over again? If yes, where to start and where will they end up? Will they end up in a college or Madrasah teaching Islam? Should they become an Imam controlled by the Mosque Committee? Or a social worker dependent on the charities of the rich and goodwill of the old, decrepit, rusted and rustic Trustees? Most of all, what about religious knowledge? How to get it? Years pass, the dilemma remains and inner situation worsens.
We do not believe however that it is any dilemma at all. At least it is not something unusual, especially in the lives of the Muslims. It is merely a question of choice and firmness of character. Muslims have always faced the choice throughout the ages. It is the choice between this world and the next: both rarely come together. One requires the sacrifice of the other. How can one be making a chair and attending a Qur’anic session at the same time? How can one be writing a business report and doing da`wah work in the same hours? How can someone work in an office 12 hours a day, and also teach the children Qur’an in the mosque? So, one has to choose, mark boundaries, allot times, and take what comes. The Prophet (saws) has said in a hadith of Ahmad, “He who loved his world will do harm to his Hereafter. And he who loved his Hereafter, will do harm to his world. Therefore, give preference to what will last over what will perish.” Another hadith also of Ahmad says, “He who intended the Hereafter, will have to forego the good things of this life. He who did it, demonstrated modesty of the true type before Allah.” A third hadith says, “Allah bestows this world on him He loves and on him He does not love. But He does not bestow the Hereafter except on him He loves.” The Qur’an has not asked us to abandon this world. Its complaint is (87: 16): “But you give preference to the life of this world.”
The earliest Muslims, the Companions of the Prophet, also faced this dilemma and made their choices. They had the choice of either working in the fields, doing business, or going out in Jihad risking their lives and limbs. We know what they went through as a result of their choice: the empty cupboards, the shoeless feet, the twisting, twirling intestines, the destroyed economy, and so on. But they didn’t complain. For, they had made a choice, knew of the consequences and were not surprised when the passage of time transformed their fears into facts. The Qur’an said about them (33: 22), “Of the believers are men true to what they promised Allah. Among them is he who fulfilled his vow, while there are others who are waiting. And they did not alter in the least.”
The later Muslims also faced similar choices. Either they did trading, tilling, manufacturing, or devoted themselves to Islamic causes. Imam Shafe`i had to make the same decision. Either he went into business or took up Fiqh. Imam Bukhari faced a similar situation. Either he traded, or studied hadith. Imam Malik’s teacher Rabi`ah picked up rotten dates from Madinan garbage for his dinner. We might look into the lives of any number of renowned Muslims. We will discover them facing a similar dilemma in the earlier stages of their lives, and in consequence, facing hardships in later days: hardships that only left them when they left the world while their heirs were looking for money for the coffin. (And that’s the difference between them and the non-Muslim scholars: the latter usually die rich).
There is nothing special then about modern man and his dilemma. The world is not all the more difficult now than it was in the past. If some things are more difficult now than they were before, when life was simpler, then, there are other things that have become easier. The difficulties and eases balance out. Today it is the same life as of the past ages. It makes the same demands, promises the same deprivations or the same riches and allows the same choices as before.
Religious demands too have always been of the same nature. They require sacrifices. The Qur’an referred to them as steep hills. One needs energy to climb. Nonetheless, these steep hills can be climbed. It said (90: 12-14), “But he did not attempt to ascend the steep hill. And what will tell you what the steep hill is? Freeing of a neck, or feeding on a day of hunger.” Obviously, the Qur’an has not listed here all the requirements of a climb of the steep hills. They are spread over its pages. The point is, a choice has to be made: do you want to climb, or do you not?
Now, we all tend to answer in affirmative. Somehow we have great faith in ourselves. But can the self-assessment and self-acclamation withstand the test of life? Are we truly capable of what we imagine we are? Do we truly deserve what we think we should receive here and in the after life? (“And, if I am returned to my Lord, I shall surely find better than this as a retreat”: Al-Kahf, 36). Can we climb as high as we think? A few steps reveal the reality and prove or disprove the claims. (It is another thing that failures do not shatter the dreams, for man attributes his failures to outer causes and continues to dream and lament).
In any case, to move forward, the question that can be asked is, with reference to those who missed the early chance: how to go about it. That is, climb the steep hills? How to fit things in this modern life? How to climb up the ladder without breaking it? How to discipline the soul without killing the body? What are the guidelines? What are the landmarks?
Well, the answer is, the first step for someone attempting to ascend the steep hills is to make a mental decision: what is known as the intention. Make a firm resolve about some definite changes in life. That done – which is not easy – one is ready to set goals for himself and fix daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly targets.
Yet, wait! The intention and firm resolve alright. But at the moment you cannot go any further. For, at this point the intention and resolve are clothed in vagueness. To say, for instance, that “I am all for the next world and not this,” is to make a vague statement. You wish to make a firm resolve. But over what? Hence out words above, “set goals and fix daily … targets.” This programming removes the vagueness.
In what follows, we lay down a few guidelines for those who wish to make something of themselves. A mediocre is assumed. It is also assumed that the person has read no serious material so far, that he will offer 4-5 hours a day, including holidays, (but weekly holidays are excluded, since, as will be noticed, weekly holidays will be utilized for field work).
Arabic Language: First and foremost, he must start off on learning Arabic. This is an absolute must. There are several books. One might start with Minhaj al-`Arabiyyah. Do all the five books. Time target: a year and a half at the rate of an hour and a half everyday. Alternatively, (and especially those who do not know Urdu) do the course as developed by Dr Abdul Haque Ansari (as published by Markaz-e-Islami). Time target same as above. But in both cases, a teacher is a must. Enter into a contract with a teacher that neither the student nor the teacher will abandon the course until the finish, within the target time. (Pay him up well, if you want good services). Another alternative is the correspondence course as offered by Iqra Welfare Trust. This course comes with written lessons and explanations in audio tapes. An average person does not need the services of a teacher. Do one lesson per week, (initially two or three). In total there are 78 lessons. Time target: 78 weeks. That is, a year and a half. Send across exercise sheets for evaluation. But don’t wait for results. Keep moving on.
When the initial course is done, move on to the books prescribed by Nadwah (Lucknow, India) for its various levels. Study all the books they teach, up to the higher classes. If the initial course (as detailed above) is done properly, no teacher will be required. As confidence grows, add books, such as, e.g. Tafseer Jalalayn, or Safwa by Sabuni.
The Qur’an: You are left with two hours and thirty minutes a day. Devote one hour to the study of the Qur’an. Best time: after Fajr Prayers. Start with translation by Yusuf Ali, or one as prepared by Sahih International (Riyadh). If Sahih International version is not available, make use of the Noble Qur’an (Darus Salam). Read a textual verse, and then read its translation. When some 10 verses are done, read the translation of those 10 verses once again (but not necessarily the text). Do as much as possible, if not, at least 45 minutes. Do the whole Qur’an once. Target time: six months. Next, start a comparative study. Those who know Urdu only: Tafsir Uthmani, Tafsir Ma`arif al-Qur’an, Tafsir Bayan al-Qur’an, Tafsir Majidi (Urdu), Tafheem al-Qur’an. Read some five verses. Read the commentary of the relevant verses from one Tafsir, then go to the second, and third. Don’t change the order as given above, that is, start with Tafsir Uthmani and end with Tafheem al-Qur’an. English only: Yusuf Ali, Ma`arif al-Qur’an (available in English), Tafsir Majidi (English), Tafheem al-Qur’an, Ishraq al-Ma`ani. Those who know both Urdu and English: Ma`arif al-Qur’an (Urdu), Bayan al-Qur’an (Urdu), Tafsir Majidi (Urdu), Tafsir Majidi (English), Tafheem al-Qur’an, Ishraq al-Ma`ani. Time target: 3 to 3.5 years. (Don’t study Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Wait until you know enough Arabic to study it in that language). Also commit to memory whatever portion of the Qur’an that appeals most.
Hadith: Both English and Urdu: Start with Forty-Hadith by Nawawi. Then take up a small collection known as 200 Hadith. (Urdu speaking: First volume of Kalam-e-Nubuwwat). Next, take up Riyadh al-Saleheen. Next, Meaning and Message of the Hadith (Ma`arif al-Hadith in Urdu) by Manzoor No`mani. Best time before going to bed. Study for about 30 minutes. Mark your own 40 hadith to memorize them. Time Target: 3-3.5 years. By then you would have learnt enough Arabic to move on to Hadith books in Arabic. Start with Ibn Majah, second volume. Next Tirmidhi (with Sharh Al-Ahwazi), starting with Abwab al-Fitan, volume six, downwards. When finished (to the end of Tirmidhi), take up Kitab al-Iman of Muslim with Nawawi’s commentary.
General: We are left with one hour a day. We should devote this to biography and history. Start with the Prophet’s life: (1) Muhammad the Unlettered Prophet Who Changed the World in 23 years, (2) The Life of Muhammad by Tahiyya al-Isma`il (Abul Qasim Publications), (3) Fiqh as-Seerah by Ghazali, or Raheeq al-Makhtum, or Seeratun Nabi: anyone. (4) Life of the Prophet by Martin Lings (5) Seerat Rasulullah by Ibn Hisham (or Ibn Is-haq). Finished with these, one may go to the lives of the Companions (detailed works), then of the Followers (Tabe`een) and their Followers (Taba` Tabe`een), then of renowned Muslims, and finally, a good history of Islam. (P.K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs is quite good, though not adequate). When taking time for above, give some time to Sayyid Qutub, Mawdudi and Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi.
The targeted time for all the above should be between 4-5 years. Once completed, one is now familiar with the basics of Islam. He is ready for more serious study. What discipline will it be, will have to be decided by the person himself or herself. The background knowledge gained by now will lead to inclination towards some kind of specialization. However, before moving further, an introductory knowledge of what are known as the “Usul” disciplines is an absolute must. They are: Principles of: Qur’anic commentary, of Hadith criticism, and of Law. These are subjects that can be done only in the Arabic language and with a teacher. Self-study will not do. Madrasah scholars can easily handle these subjects.
The above is for the theoretical side. The following will be useful as field-work. Select 8-10 boys and girls of the family: nephews, nieces etc. (Age group: 8-10). Work out a syllabus for them and teach them Qur’an, hadith, Fiqh, Seerah, Manners etc., for about 2 hours a week, on weekly holidays (Sundays). Teach them everything you know. That will take a decade. But when finished, your knowledge would have been polished, and they would become practicing educated Muslims. Some of them might become community leaders.
Yet another thing. Form a group of men and women who have agreed to go through studies and field-work as suggested above. It need not be a large group. Five or six are enough, or even less. Meet with the members of this group for say two hours at week-ends. Discuss the studies and religious matters between yourselves. Once a month, the group should, as a group, take out the boys and girls that every member of the group is training, to a suitable place, for picnic and interaction. During the four or five hours of outing, deliver say one speech, hold competitions, let the trainees deliver short speeches, etc. One or two cautions: (a) don’t form a Jama`ah; (b) do not ask anyone for funds – put in your own money for the outings; (c) during the self-training, do not read newspapers, magazines or watch the TV for any more than half an hour any day.
The above done for say five years and above would, firstly, vastly develop your personality, help you learn of your own potentials, give you leadership qualities, and, in consequence, will tell you what you should do next, turning your life into a meaningful affair.
Finally, if you feel that the daily commitment of 4-5 hours is too much, or the course is too long, or too tough, or weekly assignments a burden, etc., then don’t worry. We did not have you in our mind when we wrote the above lines. “And of the people are some who say, ‘We have believed in Allah and in the Hereafter.’ They seek to deceive Allah and the Believers. But they deceive none but themselves. But they realize not” (The Qur’an).