Do we choose to be ignorant?

Sarah Bellal

I often feel as though we’re keeping our eyes shut and waiting for someone to turn on the lights.

As the Muslim diaspora grows, so too do we grow distant from the ummah’s centers of knowledge. Comprising the most privileged tiers of a globalized society, few would call Muslims in the West uneducated. Yet countless Muslims go through higher education in the West, acquiring multiple degrees and academic accolades, all while remaining ignorant of their fard ‘ayn.

“But knowledge is inaccessible.”

The more I hear this, the more I doubt its validity. This claim is often discredited by the fact that it comes from people with some degree of education.

I’ve seen repeated instances of people being chastised for spreading doubts or misinformation about the deen, only to respond by saying that ‘ilm is inaccessible and telling people to seek knowledge comes from a place of “privilege”.

The idea that people who have knowledge of the deen are privileged, in the sense that they are able to access it due to some prior unearned advantages, is absurd. For starters, these comments misuse language utilized in the discourse around unfair institutional inequalities. However, more egregiously, they portray people of knowledge as elitist and having privileged backgrounds, which is far from the truth. Many globally prominent scholars not only come from backgrounds of extreme hardship, but continue to endure financial difficulty as teachers, leaders of non-profit organizations, and imams. One of the most unfortunate paradoxes of our community is how little we invest in our most valuable resource: our scholars. So hearing comments about inaccessibility and privilege makes me wonder if these are nothing more than excuses we make to comfort ourselves.

I think back to the mind numbing process of applying to university: taking difficult courses, building a resume, and studying for standardized exams. Nearly all of the resources I found were through my much more intelligent friends or a simple Google search. I spent days scrolling through various forums trying to figure out what I needed to do. When it came to writing my personal statements, I asked teachers and friends to read them over for feedback. The entire process took well over a year.

Similarly, we spend hours gathering research to write papers and prepare presentations for school. When searching for a job, people attend networking events, read articles, and reach out to recruiters. The amount of energy college seniors spend polishing their LinkedIn profiles could power a rocket launch. We are willing to devote ample effort to things that will enrich us materially, even if it requires searching for resources and information that aren’t immediately available to us.

So when we say Islamic knowledge is inaccessible, what exactly do we mean? The average amount of effort people put into pursuing education at so-called secular institutions is not just more than what they put into gaining knowledge of their deen , but vastly more. Islamic educational institutions in the West are undeniably far from fulfilling the needs of our communities. But the prioritizing of material pursuits over knowledge of our deen is, ironically, also responsible for the lack of adequate investment in Islamic educational institutions.

Considering the disparity in effort many of us are willing to devote to university as opposed to ‘ilm, it begs the question we each need to ask ourselves: if ‘ilm became more accessible, would I start devoting more effort to seeking it? There is no reason that our willpower will suddenly change if we didn’t care to seek it in the first place. We could be served knowledge on a silver platter and if we had no himmah to take advantage of it, we still wouldn’t.

Until my second year of high school, I had no idea that applying and getting into university required more than just decent grades. But at a point when I thought I had no resources, two things became essential:

    1. A network of people, and
    2. Simple internet research.

In the course of seeking Islamic knowledge, these same two things are crucial—albeit in slightly different forms. Think of suhba, or beneficial companionship, as Islamic networking. Keeping the company of people who are well-mannered and motivated for the sake of Allah ﷻ serves as a network that can guide you to circles of learning and help keep your nafs in check. Having good suhba isn’t a static state of being, but something we deliberately seek and maintain. That includes who we follow on social media and who we socialize with on a daily basis.

I would be remiss to relegate seeking ‘ilm to a series of internet searches—but research is the first step. Some people are fortunate enough to grow up in communities of learning, but many of us only begin to learn what the process of gaining ‘ilm entails after coming across a scholar’s YouTube lecture or Facebook page. A Google search is probably not the best way to find the answer to a personal fiqh inquiry—in fact, it may end up taking you further away from guidance. Even so, more and more reliable resources of Islamic knowledge are becoming accessible online. In addition to articles and books, lectures and courses that give you direct access to scholars are increasingly available.

Regardless of the availability of free online resources, it remains the case that many of us simply don’t have spare time to gain knowledge. Free time is itself a blessing.

That said, this is directed at those who need to hear it — not people who genuinely cannot devote any part of their day to seeking ‘ilm. This is not an attempt to dismiss financial inaccessibility, or the struggles of those living far from a large Muslim community. This is, however, a targeted wake up call for those who think that knowledge of Allah ﷻ and closeness to Him will come knocking at their doorstep without any mujahadah (striving) on their part.

So as not to lay out a problem without proposing a solution, here is a list of free online sources to seek Islamic knowledge. May Allah ﷻ elevate the people who created these resources and did not seek any material reward for doing so. Note that these resources aren’t substitutes for sitting with local teachers and studying the deen in a systematic manner, which we should all try to do. Nonetheless, they can supplement and kickstart our studies as we continue along the path of seeking.

If you truly want to gain knowledge, make your environment one of learning. Keep the company of knowledgeable people, in person and online (seriously, follow scholars on Twitter). Fill your free time with things that enrich your mind, and constantly ask Allah ﷻ for tawfiq and increased knowledge.

فَتَعَالَى اللَّهُ الْمَلِكُ الْحَقُّ وَلَا تَعْجَلْ بِالْقُرْآنِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يُقْضَى إِلَيْكَ وَحْيُهُ وَقُل رَّبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا

So high [above all] is Allah, the Sovereign, the Truth. And, [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Qur’an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” (20:114)

The Qarawiyyin Project Resource Bank

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