The following is an abridged translation of a seminar given by Shaykh Haydar entitled “The Problem of Frustration and Regression in The Path of Students of Knowledge”. In this talk, he outlines some of the challenges and obstacles that are faced by seminary students and offers some advice and solutions on how to mitigate them. The lecture can be viewed here.
Our discussion this evening will be touching on a condition that we all face in our daily lives as students of knowledge. I will begin my talk with a few introductory points, after which I will then begin discussing the challenges, the causes of the problems and I will conclude with some solutions.
1. The discussion is not limited to seminary students
The discussion we are having today isn’t exclusive to the seminary but is rather a common feature of academic and learning institutes across the Islamic world. However, in certain areas, some of the problems may only be specific to the seminary environment and I will be looking specifically at the seminary environment as that is the environment we are currently in.
2. The discussion will only be considering the educational elements
I will be speaking specifically about the role of education and the religious cultural environment within the seminaries. I will not be touching on the role of scholars and their social activities, and I will only be touching on those elements that are to do with the educational matters of the student.
3. The pivotal role that education plays in the advancement of society
It is important for us to acknowledge the fundamental role education plays in the advancement of any given society. Every society that does not pay attention to education, or has an underdeveloped and neglected education system, will after a period of time be faced with a number of challenges and setbacks on a societal level. That is because from the onset of a person’s life the mode of education they engage in has a significant role in shaping the future and advancement of the society and community. That is why we see numerous examples in the contemporary world of significant societal advancement and progression that has resulted from a strong education system, such as Malaysia. If our seminary is structured on a strong education system, it would be possible to foresee the future of it in positive terms. It would be possible for the current system of education in the seminary to indicate, for example, how it would be in 20 years from now. If the education system is exemplary it would be possible to conclude that the following decade will be one of progression. However on the flip side, if the state of education was poor, it would give us a negative image of what our future holds. This is what is meant by the significant role played by education in the future of any society and educational institute.
4. Is our situation progressive or regressive?
A point of contention that has become common discussion within the seminary is to do with whether in respect to intellectual discussions and knowledge, the current condition of the seminary is progressive or if it is regressive. It’s possible that we all could try to answer this question on our personal experiences, however, if we want to speak from statistics and information, from an intellectual and knowledge perspective, is it possible to describe the seminary to be in a better position than it was in the past, or has it stagnated and regressed? On this topic, you will find differences of opinion. There is a group of high ranked and well-respected scholars who have described the current seminary situation as one of regression and that the condition of the seminary isn’t desirable and should be better. There are others who reject this and contend that our situation is very good and that it does not merit a person to be pessimistic or negative about it. In addition to these two groups, a number of other scholars have framed this discussion of analysing the current standing of the seminary to be one that benefits our enemies and therefore should be avoided.
On this basis we can see there are a variety of answers on analysing the current condition of the seminary. It isn’t sufficient for someone to try and answer this question based on their own experiences or anecdotes. It’s likely that this person might have had very limited experience of the seminary and therefore their experience doesn’t accurately reflect what is actually going on. What we require are investigations and facts so that we can truly ascertain whether our situation is a positive one or negative. I don’t wish to open this discussion further and present an answer, I wished to bring this discussion to your attention and highlight that there are various opinions on it. If I was to summarise my views, it would be that in certain perspectives our situation is better and progressive, and from another perspective, it is worse and regressive.
Now that the introductory points have been mentioned, what are the problems that some students of knowledge in the seminary currently face? Firstly, when I use the word some, I do not mean the linguistic minimum of just three people and neither am I referring to the other extreme of everyone except one. Rather I am referring to the condition present among a number of students across the different levels of studies who recognise and experience these challenges which I will touch on. To summarise quickly the feeling which is being experienced by a number of students of knowledge: they are experiencing a feeling of being at loss, they are unable to see their future clearly, they don’t know if they are travelling with guidance or not, they don’t know if the path that they have to take will yield results or not. At times they feel a sense of purposeless in what they have done, a feeling that a significant amount of time has just been wasted, a feeling that opportunities had been missed. God forbid, after spending so much time studying, I won’t reach the destination which I should have, unaware of their current situation, unable to describe their own standing and position, which level have I reached to after my studies, am I happy with myself?
To summarise it all, a feeling of personal loss and bewilderment, a sense of inner conflict where the person is unsure of whether the time spent suffices for what he has reached or whether his youth has been wasted. This is the reality of the situation. They wish for themselves to have reached a certain position but they find themselves somewhere else. They act so that their future might be a specific way but they have found their future to be something completely different from what was envisioned. They fluctuate between feelings of disappointment and frustration. They lack the enjoyment of studies, the absence of experiencing the pleasures and joys of knowledge and learning. They feel like their studies are just a job, the focus of which is to spend time and graduate then get a certificate to show others they spent X number of years in the seminary. This situation exists amongst some, especially among those who are more clever, intellectual and ambitious. Yet after 10, 15 or 20 years they find not only is the result of their studies not what they had hoped but in fact extremely unfavourable. This is what I can see going on based on my experience and analysis of the situation, and I hold that this exists in a general fashion amongst us. I don’t have statistics or precise information to calculate the exact percentage of students who experience this, however, this phenomenon is apparent all around us, we are all witnessing it. If there is anyone who can claim to be a witness to this phenomenon it is us! We can ask ourselves on whether this is happening and whether people experience this and we would testify that indeed it is. But again, I do not know the specific numbers. I do not want to generalise this situation to everyone and present a completely negative picture of seminary students neither do I wish to trivialise it to something only a handful of students go through. We are all witnesses on our selves, and we can ask ourselves in full honesty whether this is going on, either within ourselves, or within others we know around us.
Having discussed the introduction and the problems, I will now touch on the causes and split them into two sections, causes that are part of the environment and which we may not have any control over, and causes that are part of the students themselves and which they have control over.
Causes – Societal Factors
1. Incoherence between what is studied and the challenges society is facing
For example, a person who studies fiqh or usūl for years and years and then decides to engage and deal with social and intellectual issues being faced in society, they will find themselves unable to utilise what they had learnt in dealing with these new challenges. They find there is no coherency between the nature of the subjects they had spent years studying and the nature of the social and intellectual problems they are trying to resolve in the community and non-seminarian environment. This lack of coherency and relevancy leads to a feeling that much of what they have learnt cannot be utilised, and when the person realises this it creates a sense of frustration. The person feels he is unable to speak even though he might be very well-versed in the areas he has studied, and this is a result of the discrepancy between what was studied and the ideological and intellectual challenges being faced in society. This is openly admitted by some of the seminarian students who come to Qom from the West, similarly, it is heard from some of the students who come from Africa. The students who interact more with the laymen and are often questioned on what they are studying recognise this problem acutely. In my estimation, this is the first cause of the problem highlighted previously.
2. Crisis of a limited curriculum based on very few books
It is possible that a student could spend 10 or 15 years studying and in the process only complete 6 or 7 books. In addition, these few books could be categorised into just one or two subjects. This leads to a person feeling that they lack variety and diversity in their knowledge and understanding. A variety in knowledge leads to the opening of the mind and expansion of intellectual horizons, it creates vibrancy and enthusiasm, and equips a person to be able to deal with different environments and challenges. It gives the student energy, gives them the feeling of having succeeded in studies, however if a person’s knowledge is restricted to a single subject, it’s possible that a day will come where they won’t be able to experience the joys and pleasures of knowledge. Constantly having to deal with the same subject over and over again can cause a person to lose any sense of motivation and passion for learning that subject. There is no diversity in subjects, no diversity in sciences, no diversity in terminologies. It is diversity which makes the mind dynamic and agile, it’s something that keeps away Alzheimer’s, as that afflicts people who repeat the same thing for years and years. This diversity, keeping up to date with what is new, with what is different, gives the person a sense of capability and aptitude to tackle these challenges.
This notion of diversity and variety is very important. Some statistics that were recently released on the Internet in regards to the subjects of advanced classes (dars khārij) currently being taught in Iran highlight this issue: 48% of these advanced classes were on fiqh al-ibādāt, 12% were on fiqh al-tahāra and just 4% were on new contemporary issues. This illustrates how the entire emphasis is being placed on just a few subjects, and even then, it isn’t comprehensive discussions on fiqh but rather subjects within fiqh that are themselves quite similar and identical. There is no variety. And on this basis, a student who enters this environment, after a period of time begins to feel that he spent years and years of his life in one circle, in one subject. He hasn’t lived in different circles so that he could see the vastness of the sciences, or see the breadth to which people have expanded and taken sciences and knowledge to, or where the scholars have taken religious knowledge to, or even the evolution and diversity of jurisprudence itself. This absence of diversity eventually eradicates any passion for learning. Interestingly, it has even been advised by researchers that teachers who are supervising theses should not impose on students who are studying bachelors or masters a specific list of topics to write and research on. Rather they should allow the student to come up with an area in which they are motivated and feel passionate about. When you give a student a list of topics and force them to choose and not allow them the freedom to choose themselves, first of all, you’ve put them all on one path by limiting their options, and secondly, it is likely that they will choose a subject that is easy for them and not one that they themselves want to do. Passion and love are the central elements when it comes to learning and intellectual progression.
3. Crisis of teachers and teaching skills
As we all know, teachers play a pivotal role in shaping the student’s interest in the subject that is being taught. The teacher could make the student fall in love with that subject or to the contrary he could make the student detest it. In the Arab world, the subject that puts people off the most is the Arabic language and this is despite the fact that it is their own language! It constitutes their own identity and culture let alone it’s religious importance. Why is this? Because the way they are taught doesn’t cultivate a feeling of love and joy with it, instead they end up anxious and worried. The teacher has a critical role in shaping the student’s interest in a subject, by making the subject easy to digest, by making the subject worthwhile, beautifying it, by exploring the subtleties and intricacies of the subject. A teacher isn’t just someone who is knowledgeable or someone who knows the content by heart. A teacher in his truest sense is someone who, in addition to being well-versed with the content, is also well-versed in the way of teaching. He should know how to attract students, keep them interested, how to take away their fear of the subject and replace the indifference and unease with a passion and yearning. This is on top of the problem in which we face a scarcity of teachers in certain specialist subjects like ilm al-rijāl, hadīth studies and tarīkh, a problem that that isn’t experienced in fiqh or philosophy [where there are more teachers readily available]. So we face two issues, one being the teacher and his teaching ability, and secondly, the number of teachers with respect to each subject.
4. Lacking the culture of making students brave
By this, I mean that teachers generally do not inspire students to be confident and brave in their intellectual pursuits. Worse than this, at times, we even see that teachers use their students merely to strengthen and prove themselves. I don’t want to give examples of this and I’m assuming that if I was to ask you all if you have experienced this you would all raise your hands and say yes. On the other hand, we do have teachers who value their students, who teach them to be brave and who show them an attainable bright future. Yet at the same time, we have other teachers who are restrictive and only seek to validate themselves [through their students]. They would reprimand their students and say “this isn’t the time to critique Muhaqqiq ‘Arāqī, rather you need to understand him!”, or they would say “who are you to question Syed Khoie?” rather than trying to encourage students who have valid critiques to express it appropriately in class. These teachers exist and students can sense them. “Who are you to go and take part in academic institutes? You’re a beginner, don’t go”, “don’t write a book”, “don’t publish your ideas on such and such an issue”, “don’t try to teach this book”.
It might be the case that the teacher is right and that the student isn’t of the required calibre or lacks the necessary competency to engage in these activities, yet at times, even if the teacher is correct, the message he is getting across to the student is restrictive and it often results in completely removing this passion and activism from the mind of the student and this is extremely dangerous. The etiquette and ethics of the teacher are a fundamental element in education and upbringing and it is part and parcel of being a teacher. If a teacher lacks the correct etiquette it is possible he could leave a negative effect on the student that will continue to plague him for the rest of his studies. I do not want to imply that such teachers are unethical, no, in fact, they have their own justification and valid reasons for doing so which is to protect the sanctity of knowledge and the reputation of our scholars. This is valid, yet we need to balance this with another requirement which is that we encourage our current students and scholars to be like the previous ones. If we want our current scholarship to be like those before us, there is no option available to us except that we embrave them and motivate them. If we fail to do so than no one will come out from our education system except a handful of people and this is far from satisfactory.
5. Teachers being chosen on the basis of subject matter knowledge, not teaching skills
This point is in some way linked to the previous ones, that in numerous seminaries, teachers are often chosen to teach subjects solely on their expertise in it, or how extensive their research is on that subject, or how many commentaries they have read on the central book being taught, or on the basis of their intellectual abilities in analysing and understanding. However, very few seminaries, alongside the qualities listed above, would consider it important to choose a teacher on the basis and strength of their teaching abilities and skills. It isn’t important that a teacher simply has the knowledge of the subject matter, as a student, I don’t interact with my teacher in the same way he interacts with the subject, rather the student-teacher relationship is one between humans which has its own effects and etiquettes. To give my own experience, when I came to Qom I had the option of studying with two top-ranked and outstanding scholars, I found one of them to be more precise in his discussions than the other, however, I didn’t decide to study under that scholar and chose the other one. Why? Because I found the second scholar to be more organised, coherent and diverse in thought. It isn’t the be-all and end-all that the teacher simply teaches me the subject, rather it’s essential the teacher gives me his framework of understanding and makes me think the way he thinks, it is through the strength of his coherent understanding that I’ll be able to grasp the intricacies of the discussions quicker and be able to differentiate between areas that need more attention than those that do not. In my opinion, this is essential in a student-teacher relationship. If a person was to study under a teacher – who lacks this skill – for 10, 20 years, he might emerge strong in that specific subject but his thinking won’t be refined and he will lack the ability to organise different subjects and disciplines coherently.
6. Crisis of refraining from cultural and academic environments
Many students avoid getting involved with cultural and academic institutes in their society, they confine themselves strictly to the seminary environment and don’t seek to venture beyond that self-imposed boundary. For this reason, when they do decide to go into these environments they feel frustrated as they find themselves incapable of debating others and convincing them. This is due to the absence of a robust strategy that would have opened the path for students to engage with other cultural and intellectual environments beyond the walls of the seminary. I believe this is one of the reasons that has made our presence in these environments ineffective and has led many scholars to resort to ad-hominem attacks against thinkers outside the seminary as they lack the ability and knowledge to critique the content and ideology. In debates with these thinkers, it’s become normal to see the seminary scholar constantly focus on the person with the use of phrases such as “he is ignorant”, or “he doesn’t know anything”, rather than focusing on the content being discussed. Why is this happening? That is because the scholar hasn’t been equipped with the tools necessary to engage directly with the ideas and views being presented and has to, therefore, resort to personal attacks.
To give a very clear example, if we were to go back 500 years ago we would find that God was the foundation for all human thinking and intellectual activity. If a person wanted to describe an act to be intrinsically good they would say ‘this act pleases God’, or if they wanted to describe an act to be intrinsically bad they would say ‘this act angers God’. God was the axis and focal point for everything, God was the basis for describing actions as being intrinsically good or bad (husn wa al-qubh). This was the culture across the world, not just in Muslim societies. However after the Renaissance, there was a paradigm shift and we entered into a completely new environment referred to as Humanism, where the human being has removed God and in the process taken the place of being the central and focal point. We entered an entirely new and hitherto unseen paradigm, an entirely new framework for thinking and ideologies. In this new framework, the manner in which you demonstrate arguments are different, objectives are different, things considered to be of an axiomatic nature are different, actions have new criteria for being considered good or bad.
We in the seminary live in an environment that is God-centric while simultaneously living in a world where everyone else lives on the basis of Humanism. In today’s world if people want to describe an act as good what do they say? They say ‘this is an act of humanity’, this word ‘humanity’ [or similar ones like ‘humane’] didn’t even exist 500 years ago. No one ever described an act as ‘humane’ so that they could describe it as something intrinsically good. This is because we now live in a new paradigm that has taken over the entire world where these descriptions have become second nature. That is why we see that the role of God has diminished in the lives of people. God has hidden behind the clouds, as the philosopher Martin Buber mentions when he describes our contemporary times as ‘The Eclipse of God’, a time in which ‘the sun of God’ has been hidden. In such a time, people do not know the criteria for truth and falsehood, and as a result the human being becomes the criteria.
Now consider the situation, a seminarian, who lives in the paradigm of God, wishes to debate and dialogue according to the framework of his God-centric paradigm with others who live in the paradigm of Humanism. This is extremely challenging as the methodology of argument and demonstration between these two paradigms are incommensurable. How can you convince a humanist that homosexuality is evil? Or suicide and euthanasia are evil? How can you demonstrate to them ethical proofs (burhān akhlāqiyya) for this? So to summarise, today we are not just facing different ideologies, or different cultures, or different religious schools of thought, or even different religions, harder than all this, we are facing different paradigms (keeping aside the differences of opinion and the spectrum of views that often exist within every paradigm itself). Discussions that happens between people in different paradigms end up like people trying to shout at one another behind walls. That is why you can’t convince them of things which have a religious basis. They will answer back ‘this is inhumane’, ‘this is against freedom’, ‘this is against human rights’, all because they are in a completely different paradigm and think differently to us.
To get back to our discussion, the seminarian student who has lived decades strictly confined to one paradigm and is then all of a sudden taken from this paradigm and thrown straight into the deep end of another one to respond to its challenges and problems will definitely struggle to cope with the new situation. He will face unbelievable difficulty! Why? Because from day one of his studies and education he was not exposed to different methodologies of thinking, from day one he wasn’t encouraged to interact with people of different ideas and views. Rather than being encouraged, the student is told ‘be careful of interacting with these people, you’ll end up misguided!’. It is natural then that when the student finally has to deal with these people and their intellectual challenges there is only a slim chance he will be successful. On this basis conflicts in our societies are only going to increase, and rather than engaging in cordial discussion and conversation the only thing we will be capable of is insults. The world today is living in a dichotomy between God and Humanism, some of the existential philosophers have said there is no chance for a person to live life unless he completely eradicates God from his mind – they call for complete removal of God, do not even allow a small possibility of Him to remain. This is the great challenge we face today. If you aren’t aware of these challenges, if you aren’t exposed to this environment in the process of our studies and education, obviously within the working of a seminarian intellectual strategy, you’re going to face great frustration when dealing with these challenges.
7. Crisis of limited incentives
This is a really important issue and I’m sure you will all agree with what I’m about to say here. To put it frankly, what is the point in studying things to the extent which some do? Imagine you’ve gone back to your community and you’re an absolute expert in usūl al-fiqh. Now what? What’s the benefit? There could be another person, who has studied far less, yet still studied, and he could ascend the pulpit and preach to the people and be ten times more effective. What are the incentives and things that encourage a person to devote time and effort to studies? If this person was to stay in the seminary for the rest of his life then he’ll see the benefit of his efforts. By staying in Qom he’d feel the incentive and motivation to keep going and studying, given the opportunities that would open up for him. However, when he leaves the seminary he’ll realise that those subjects which he thought were the centre of the world has very little influence or sway in the bigger picture of things. The intellectual incentives are very little and other incentives, such as financial and social are far greater.
To give an example of someone I recently spoke to, and excuse me for being quite open on this, he had studied usul, fiqh, participated in dars al-khārij for many years, followed up on niche discussions, all in a period of 20 years or so, and now when he’s returning back to his city, the best thing he could hope for (unless God miraculously intervenes in his life) is to get some recognition. This is a problem that students face, that after all the studying, all the effort in research, in the end, what comes out of it? Especially for those students who don’t come from a family of scholars, or for students who aren’t in favourable environment. In a good scenario perhaps they could get a job teaching and get a better life for themselves that way. Humans always act in accordance with the benefits and incentives available to them, especially financial and social ones. To be a scholar and expert in fiqh and usūl isn’t something incentivised unless you are in the seminary. If you end up and become a marja’ than that’s a different discussion. This is an important point to pay attention to, that when a person feels an environment isn’t supportive or conducive to studies, it can cause problems. This is a problem facing students of knowledge in general, even in university settings, where people simply perform their job rather than studying out of a love for knowledge.
8. The inability of students to understand their own intellectual standing
This is because the seminaries have not provided the students with a yardstick or criteria in which they could accurately evaluate their own studies and educational progression. A person could spend 7 or 8 years studying dars al-khārij and when you ask him, how and where do you see your self [on an intellectual footing]? A lot of people don’t know, are you a mujtahid? I don’t know. Perhaps I am, perhaps I’m not. Have you succeeded in your studies? I don’t know. They don’t know anything of their own achievements. This is because there isn’t a system in place to help students analyse their own achievements and make them realise where they have actually reached. It’s possible a person could have a doctorate from the seminary, or masters, but in reality, the person isn’t aware of his own standing. This is an issue we also face when it comes to the criteria of reaching ijtihād, as from a practical perspective there isn’t a fixed criteria (as there is from a theoretical one).
9. Economic and family pressures
Pressures in these two areas prevent a person from spending time studying, they make things very challenging and cumbersome. Studying requires a free mind and not being pre-occupied with other things. This therefore also requires attention and importance.
10. The drastic increase in the number of students
According to statistics if you go back 150 years you would find around 5,000 students in Najaf. Fast forward today and you’re looking at tens of thousands if not more. This drastic increase in students isn’t a simple issue to deal with, it has positive aspects, but also corresponding challenges. A ten-fold increase in students leads to financial pressure, social challenges, economic challenges, administering difficulties, these are all new challenges that weren’t faced previously. Consider this, in a university setting when students pass from their bachelor’s to their doctorate the number of students decreases and the class sizes get smaller. As they get to their doctorate, teachers and professors can focus on the students greater as there tends to be a handful of students (contrary to how things are at the bachelor’s level, where the ratio of teacher to student is often very large). We in the seminary are precisely the opposite. At the introductory stages, the number of students in a class is very few, yet as they progress and get higher the number of students drastically increases. The teacher can’t focus and develop all of the students at higher classes, given the number of students it’s far too difficult. This is a challenge when faced with an increased quantity of students.
This is why my opinion is that the current state of dars al-khārij in the seminary is not educational. Ideally, dars al-khārij should be when a person finishes his introductory and intermediate studies and then enters an entirely new city of vibrant discussions and ideas. And the student marvels at the depth and diversity of the discussions going on and absorbs them and benefits from them under the direct supervision of a teacher. Instead today some students who reach dars al-khārij feel more laid back as there’s only one exam in the whole year. A few seminaries have tried to address this issue yet the culture of being laid back remains, especially when there is no register being taken on students being present. This issue is then compounded by the number of holidays and days off there are during the academic year.
11. Lacking a positive environment for free-thinking
A person who is smart, a person who is open-minded, a person who has creative thinking, is always thinking outside the box. If such a person is sitting in a class he isn’t able to express himself or ask the questions he wants to out of fear of being stigmatized. Similarly, if he is sitting among other seminary students he can’t ask the questions that are on his mind – so then where can he express them? He’ll end up forcing himself to stay quiet. In the process, he’ll end up developing two personalities, one personality which is his real self and the other personality which is merely a persona required from those around him. He’ll end up feeling a sense of duality and dissonance, and he’ll live with a feeling of discomfort and suffocation [from being unable to express his true self freely]. This is something experienced by everyone who lives in a seminary environment and thinks differently to everyone else. He feels he won’t be accepted if he was to share his thoughts or express ideas, even if it was in the form of questions. There is no positive environment conducive to this and this needs to change. A person should feel free to express his ideas and thoughts in front of everyone and they should be accepted, rather than being censured or dismissed simply because they are outside the status quo. By doing so this would encourage students and make them intellectually brave. Otherwise what will end up happening is the student’s sense of creativity and originality will be killed, and he will feel that any type of original thinking is a mistake and by doing so he is hurting himself. This is because the society and people around him detest it and he should, therefore, avoid doing anything original, creative and outside of the box and simply suffice in living and thinking like others.
12. Weak teachers for the introductory stage
This is an important point that directly effects the quality of education. The common culture nowadays is that it does not befit a strong teacher to teach the introductory stage. So what ends up happening is the introductory stages get taught by people who may not have sufficient expertise. The introductory stages are of the utmost importance for the student, if a student ends up weak during this stage it’s likely this will impair him throughout the rest of his studies. On the other hand, if a student studies his introductory sciences under a strong teacher it’s possible that the introductory stage becomes a strong foundation that makes the rest of his studies easier. Not paying attention to the types of teachers that teach the introductory stage can have a negative effect on both the interest the student has for studying and his potential strength in the future. This in turn will directly impact the quality of education itself and become a defining factor in whether our education is progressive or regressive.
13. Negative opinion in some societies towards religious scholars
All of the problems listed above are compounded by this problem which I am going to mention now, that in a number of societies and communities, religious scholars are looked down on and not seen in a favourable light. Religious scholars are merely seen as storytellers, or propagandists for religious authorities, or people who justify the mistakes going on around them in the Islamic world. It’s possible that some students in this environment will start to feel prejudiced by this negative opinion towards them, almost like people detest them for the mere crime of being seminary students. Criticisms that undermine them such as “a student of knowledge isn’t a scholar”, “isn’t progressive”, “hasn’t accomplished anything in research”, “isn’t culturally influential in a society” etc. will internalise feelings similar to that of an inferiority complex and impact motivation and performance in studies.
These were a number of environmental factors that mentally, educationally, behaviourally and motivationally directly impact and affect the student’s educational development. However, it isn’t appropriate to constantly push the blame on someone else’s shoulders. A seminarian student is also a responsible individual capable of making his own decisions and choices. So having looked at the environmental factors we will now look very briefly at a few individual factors and then move swiftly to the third part of solutions.
Causes – Individual Factors
1. Social media addiction
Overuse of social media has been shown to cause a number of problems such as being easily distracted, inattentiveness, weakening the inclination for studying, ruining the ability to think creatively or to memorise the content being studied. This is a serious problem that the student needs to be aware of, and organise his time effectively to minimise falling into this trap. Do not belittle this problem. For those more interested in trying to understand this further I would recommend them to read the various journals and articles you can find online written by experts that would help illustrate the negative role social media addiction can play in weakening academic studies and education in general.
2. Insistence on studying with one teacher
Another problem which the student alone is responsible for, is insisting to study continuously under just one teacher for his whole educational life. This is a problem which only the student himself can fix, and it is remarkable that people even think this way especially when we are fortunate to live in a place where we have exposure to so many different teachers. If we were living in a remote city that had no exposure to the seminary and there’s only one teacher around than doing so would be understandable. But for someone to be blessed to be living in an environment of knowledge like Qom or Najaf, where there’s an abundance of teachers, and yet be adamant to stick with one teacher is something that’s frankly inexcusable. Why are you going to stay with just one teacher? Life will become repetitive, the same structure, the same method, same subjects, same ideology, same approach, without realising, this repetition will begin to slowly wear you down and tire you. You’ll start to feel like you can only think in one fashion, devoid of any variety or change. And when you are exposed to a different method or approach, since you’re so used to having things done one way you’ll subconsciously respond negatively and detest this different approach. Vary your teachers! If there’s a strong teacher you feel attached to, great, but don’t deprive yourself of the benefit you can get from others. Utilise the good points of different teachers, there’s no issue with this. This variety will serve as a breath of fresh air in keeping you motivated and interested in learning. Even if you attend a teacher who is weak, no problem, at least you’ve experienced something new. Value the experience and the interaction you get from these different teachers.
On top of this, I’ve seen far too often teachers recommending students to re-study the same book over again. I recently spoke to a student who told me how his teacher had commanded him to re-read minhāj al-sālihīn a second time, and the poor student did as he was told. Keep in mind this is a smart, intellectual student, but despite that, he opted to spend another two years doing the same book again. Undoubtedly there might be a benefit in doing this and studying the same book again, but surely there would be the same if not more benefit in doing something different. Similarly, I have seen teachers who teach the same book 10 times! I accept that it is the right of every teacher to choose as he wishes but at the least vary yourself a little.
Diversity and change are fundamental to opening the mind and we are desperately in need of doing more work in broadening our intellectual horizons. To give an example, a person who digs a narrow hole and goes hundreds of meters deep under the ground might have found depth in that specific area, but if he was to lift his head up he’d see the acres and acres of nature that he has missed out on by simply focusing on going deep in one minuscule patch of land. In addition, going so deep underground in a tiny hole might end up being detrimental and may result in you getting buried and covered up. Diversify your teachers and studies! At times go deep, at other times lift your head up and benefit from the variety that exists. In my opinion this is extremely important.
3. Giving up after reaching a specific age
I’ve seen this to be a significant issue in the communities across the Middle East that when they reach the age of 40 they feel that they no longer have the ability to pursue anything anymore. They feel that they’ve completely used up all potential for learning and education. It is commonly thought that a person who reaches the age of 40 should just be thinking about retirement and not about how to start studying philosophy from scratch. It’s as if the age of 40 is understood to be an immovable obstacle that upon reaching your life becomes fixed and set. Perhaps the person might feel some social stigma or personal difficulty as well – how is it possible for me to go and learn from the beginning [alongside people half my age]? This culture is completely wrong. You can start studying at any age, 50, 60, it doesn’t matter. The stories we have from our scholars testify to this. If God allows us to live till 80 then from we would have another 40 years to study [from the age of 40 which we apparently can’t do anything after]! At that time you could study an entirely new field and become an expert in that area. Why do we feel that as soon as a person hits the age of 40 he becomes powerless to do anything? Go and study, don’t be embarrassed by your age. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll find it hard, or your age will make it hard for you, go and benefit and diversify your life a little. We need to extract these false ideas from our minds and replace them with ideas that encourage our progression and development.
4. Focusing on just getting the certificate
This is a problem that has afflicted the majority of students in the Islamic world, be they in university or in the seminary. They have no objective from their education and study except getting the certificate. Knowledge does not give them any joy, any love or any passion. The only aim for what they do is graduating, getting the degree and moving on in life. Why is this? Because they have looked at education as an occupation, as a job. Knowledge is seen as just a means for the person to get a better job, a better salary, a better social standing, better reputation. Knowledge isn’t treated like an end in and of itself. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is what we have previously mentioned, that society does not appreciate knowledge, and therefore they have to try and find that appreciation through different means.
Now having discussed the numerous causes above, I want to now touch on potential solutions that could help mitigate these issues. Please keep in mind, I am not going to refer to solutions that look at the seminary on an institutional or strategic level as this is not the aim of our discussion. I am not addressing the administration of the seminary for me to talk about changes that need to be made to the structure and syllabus of the seminary etc, rather I am speaking to students like myself and I am tailoring my solutions for this. There is much to be said when it comes to discussions relating to the strategy and structure of the seminary on an educational level. In the world today you will find a number of educational thinkers and researchers who have written extensively in how the current paradigm of bachelors, masters and doctorate is ineffective and needs to be completely uprooted and changed. Is this correct? What is their evidence for this? We could explore this in detail but what’s important to note is that people are entertaining this idea and producing recommendations and solutions. On this note, we could ask is the tripartite division of the seminary, the muqaddima, sutūh and bahth al-khārij correct or not? This is a discussion to do with the educational strategy and structure of the seminary. Is the current division correct? Is it productive? Is there an alternative system that could be more productive? It would be great to dedicate time to discuss this but my focus is going to be looking at the individual context of students.
1. Do not expect help from others
With respect to your educational development and progress, do not expect any help from anyone else. There will be no revelation from the Heavens that will change your circumstance and situation. Do not fall prey to the idea that someone is going to come and like magic take you to a new world and solve the problems you currently face. Do not wait for such a thing, take ownership of your situation and seek to resolve it yourself. Don’t try to push the blame on big figures in the seminary, or on the problem of administration, or the absence of a robust educational strategy. Yes, it is correct that these all have their own problems, however, at the end of the day they are trying and the system relatively works. The bigger problem we have to deal with is when a person throws blame at others for their own failure and not take responsibility, you are the one who can make a direct change of your situation for the better. No one is going to come and help you, or spoon feed you. Get out of this delusion and actively work to make things better. Changing your ideas, changing your thoughts, being positive, these can all help in making things better just as getting help from someone else does. A successful person is one that can keep working and keep going in the most challenging of situations, not just someone who can work when the situation is favourable. When the situation is favourable everyone gets along fine, they get pulled along by the tide, it’s not hard to do. Yet working when things get tough is what makes a person better than the rest. Put yourself into these hard situations, challenge yourself and act without seeking help from others. This is the meaning of being successful and triumphant.
2. Do not seek praise from anyone, work only for the pleasure of God
Do not give importance to being praised or applauded by people. If you were to have this expectation you’ll ruin everything you’ve done, all your efforts will be worthless. You’ll start to feel rubbish about yourself as you’ve wrongly made recognition from others the criteria of your success. You should only be concerned about the pleasure of God and that your conscience is clear, apart from these two leave everything and everyone else. Be indifferent as to whether others are happy with you or not. If you end up becoming successful in an area [contrary to being recognised] many people couldn’t care less, they won’t applaud you or praise you. They might even start to expose you, mention your flaws and weaknesses – this is how human beings are. Humans are jealous and greedy as we have seen in the experience of our forefathers like Hābīl and Qābīl. Humans are this way, they are covetous, wanting to take what others have. We need to be realistic here. So you shouldn’t act for the applause of others, even though recognition from others does have it’s positive elements, it does have positive psychological effects, but it shouldn’t be the case that when we don’t get the applause or recognition it makes us stop what we’re doing. So from the beginning of our studies, we should work purely for the pleasure of God and keep our conscience clear. Also, we should be aware that people who are successful end up being targets of critique and criticism and not let that disappoint us. As Shaykh Mutahharī says, “when we were young we would only throw stones at trains when they were moving if they were stationary we wouldn’t”. It’s natural for people to find others around them constantly attacking them – this is normal and in fact, it even helps become more successful as it strengthens you. Don’t let the lack of recognition of others and their criticism become an obstacle.
3. Do not be scared of being alone
The fear of being alone has killed the creativity and ingenuity of our scholars. Uproot the fear of loneliness from your heart because people who are innovative will naturally find themselves alone in certain aspects. If you fear being alone then your ability to think originally will gradually fade away. If a person is able to cultivate a sense of intimacy with loneliness, coupled with the pleasure of God and a clear conscience, then this won’t be something that frightens and scares you. Be careful of being frightened of this as it equates to discarding ingenuity. In addition, being afraid of loneliness creates a dual personality, it makes you retreat from the front lines of engaging with people and ideas.
4. Write down your objectives
Take a pen and start to write down your aims, goals and objectives. Write these down, what are the short term objectives, what are the long term objectives. Take out all the ideas and hopes you have in your mind and write them down, even if they aren’t fully formed or coherent, writing them down will help you pinpoint what you’re after. Number them in priority, split them down into objectives and capabilities. Then after a period of time revisit them and assess yourself on whether you’ve progressed or not. What do I wish to have studied after a year? Then after a year pick up that paper, has it happened? If not, hold yourself to account and examine what caused things to go wrong. Writing down our situation and aims are extremely important for self-development, and it can help act in the light of the tradition that speaks negatively of a person whose two days are the same without progression. A person who does not have clear and specified aims and objectives at the forefront of his mind will end up living life at the mercy of where ever the wind takes him. He’ll go up when the wind takes him up and down when the wind takes him down. That’s because he has nothing which guides his actions towards a specific goal, and ends up completely at the mercy of whichever direction the wind blows in. This shouldn’t be the case with us, a strong individual who wants to change his situation for the better should be the one who takes charge of his own life.
5. Make the most of time
What do we know of time and it’s importance? Unfortunately, it seems we don’t give it much value in our lives. One of the problems that causes this is that we aren’t able to focus mentally on time in and of itself, rather, as we study in philosophy, we are immersed and swim in time itself. I am of the opinion that we have plenty and plenty of time. Especially for those living in foreign lands or educational environments where normally less time is spent socialising. This is my personal claim and we don’t realise this reality because time isn’t in front of us for us to see directly just how much of it we have. We are fortunate that in our day and age you can find on the Internet thousands and thousands of lectures, courses, discussions on different sciences and areas of expertise. In Arabic, Farsi, different languages also. You can go and watch them all from start to finish, listen to different discussions, benefit from everything that’s out there. We have plenty of time [if we just paid attention to it]. Take my word for it, try to spend half an hour reading on something outside your curriculum, and you’ll see that it will open a whole new horizon for you. Half an hour, and see the effects after just a year, and you can take me to account if you don’t experience any clear cut progression. Additionally, make sure you work during the prime time you have, don’t try to study or work during the time in which you are lethargic or feeling lazy. Make the most of your golden time, especially the mornings after sunrise. We all have our own biological clocks and what timings work best for us, however even with this in mind the time after sunrise is given a unique preference and importance. Make yourself a timetable and you’ll see just how much time you have. The condition however to ensure you make the most of what you do is that it is continuous, as the tradition says, the little that is continuous is better than the much done haphazardly. It’s a big blessing that we have so much available for us to be able to read and listen to, the libraries that we have set up for us by scholars, why should we not make the most of it?
6. Avoid teachers that do not care for students
Frequent and build rapport with teachers that build you and are constructive in their dealing with you. This will help you in your long term development. The connection between a student and a teacher isn’t purely an intellectual and rational one, there’s a considerable psychological and emotional element involved too. Get close to such teachers, those who pay attention to your situation, they seek to help you when you ask from them (obviously in accordance with the time they have available). You should try to benefit from their views, from the manner in which they answer your questions, in their reasoning style and methodology, these are all positive things that will strengthen you. And teachers who don’t do this should be avoided. These teachers may be justified in what they do, I’m not speaking about whether such teachers are making mistakes or not, this is something personal to them. But ensure that you accompany scholars who open new horizons for you, and strengthen you, and who give you depth as well as breadth. Both of these are important, depth without breadth is problematic, and breadth without depth is just as useful as swimming in a pool that is only a few centimetres deep. We are blessed to live in a city where we have plenty of teachers who we can benefit from.
7. Cultivate a sense of joy for studies
Stop thinking of studying merely as a job or an occupation. Make this pursuit of beneficial knowledge one of joy and pleasure. Don’t become a student simply to use it as a means to reach a reputable position in society, don’t become a student simply because you are from a family of scholars and this is what is expected from you, don’t come here just because your family want you to become a seminary student. Remove every objective from your mind other than learning for the sake of learning and out of the love for it. As the adage goes, “knowledge will not give you of itself until you give yourself to it completely, for even if a person gives himself completely to knowledge there is still a chance knowledge doesn’t give anything of itself to him”. 1 This is the precarious situation we are faced with when studying knowledge. Knowledge is something we should yearn for, it is a type of perfection. Of course, this is all referring to beneficial knowledge, the knowledge that helps in the perfection of our soul, ethics and society.
8. Avoid befriending negative people
Do not keep company with people who are negative. There are some people who are just pure pessimists and critics. Always critiquing, cursing others, insulting others, you cannot sit with them for half an hour except that the conversation will be fixated on derogatory comments and snide remarks against everyone and everything. Similarly, I wouldn’t advise keeping company exclusively with people who live in an ivory tower and spin everything they see positively. It’s important your social circle consists of people who aren’t overly critical of everything, people who feel that everything is out to get them, and that nothing ever goes their way. Without realising this will start to impact you subconsciously. Stay around people who balance a realistic outlook and critical ability with a sense of optimism. People who aren’t afraid to talk about both the flaws and the merits. This will affect you greatly from a psychological perspective and even allow feelings of success and liveliness to flourish. We’ve all experienced this in our own lives where being around negative people ends up making us negative. These people are never satisfied or pleased even when they are doing quite well themselves.
9. Find your ideal method of learning
As much as it is possible, try to engage with different institutes and learning centres. Some people are able to read a book and absorb everything instantly, for others, they could read ten books but they won’t remain in his mind like meeting and discussing with another person. Some people can listen to an academic discussion and benefit more than if they were to read hundreds of books. There are people who are visual learners, others who are auditory learners and others who are happy to just read books. Humans all vary in their optimal and preferred style of learning, we all don’t learn the same way. For some people, if you don’t illustrate what’s being learnt visually they won’t be able to keep up, for others they need to participate and feel involved. When you get the chance, be it in your own city, or even here in Qom, go and visit the academic institutes, visit the professors and the scholars, explore your intellectual surroundings and see what there is to be found. I get this feeling often from the foreigners who come to Qom to study that they are not interested in going to see what is going on in the scholarly environments around them. This isn’t right, go and benefit from what is available. In Qom alone, there are hundreds of institutes one can benefit from let alone other places of learning in the world. Don’t just limit it to religious institutes, go and see what is happening in institutes of other sects, of other religions, of other ideologies, meeting different types of thinkers has great benefits. That’s why it is often said that meeting people of different ideas [on a personal basis] has more of an impact than simply sitting alongside them in a conference. In a conference, it’s likely that half the people there are sleeping, yet when you meet people for a one to one conversation it’s an entirely different scenario. Go and reach out to different people. Approaching different intellectual environments is critically important, it gives us diversity, it gives us strength, it gives us a taste of what the real world is like.
10. Avoid tasks that distract from studies
Try to avoid things that distract you and take your time away from your studies. It happens a lot to students who are new, or are in their introductory stages of learning, that they travel a lot and take up commitments outside of learning. It’s possible that this could affect a person’s studies negatively. A student should try to dedicate most of his time to studies, and when an urgent situation arises in which a person is forced to travel, or engage in work outside studies, try to turn that situation into one that can benefit your studies in some shape or form. This is an important point because I have seen far too many students leave the seminary because of this. They were too distracted, too busy with other things. Try to keep your focus purely on studies.
11. Stable family relations
I don’t want to expand on this but this is extremely important for the success of the student. That a person has his house under control, he has stability, good relations – this all has huge implications for a student.
12. Make the most of teachers of ethics
We live in a blessed city where we have an abundance of teachers of ethics. Classes of ethics and giving importance to spiritual progression are extremely valuable and important. It’s possible that we might not benefit much from an intellectual perspective, but from the way they speak, their admonitions and advice, we can find a sense of comfort and stability, and develop a love for belief and faith. This is a big blessing and treasure that we are fortunate to have at our disposal. The attention from these blessed pure teachers can often grant us depth and strength in our faith. Without faith, this path is extremely difficult as it is only with faith that hard challenges become easy. Faith is the strongest weapon we have when it comes to changing ourselves or the situation around us.
13. Getting help from experts
Lastly, to speak frankly, we need to have gatherings amongst ourselves where we can brainstorm and share the problems that we face. What problems do I face? What problems do you face? What suggestions do we have to fix them? We should get all of these questions and problems off our chest, converse with one another on them, and through mutual help and co-operation, we could resolve many of these issues and help each other progress. Also, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about some of the problems we are facing or the fact that we might need counselling or help. What’s the embarrassment in this? All educational faculties face this issue and they all ensure expert help is arranged for where the students need it. This is to our benefit. Thankfully I am aware that some seminaries have started to incorporate this approach of counselling and it is a step in the right direction. We should be open to sit down with experts and discuss our ideas, and not be ashamed of doing this.
My last words of advice are to try, try, and try again. Never give up. As it is said, a successful person is only successful after he has failed 90% of the time. Failing is not an impediment to success, keep going, keep trying, again and again, and if we are sincere then God will look at us lovingly and through His mercy alleviate many of the difficulties we face in this blessed path of learning.
Sadiq Meghjee is a frequent contributor to Iqra Online and has been studying in the seminary of Qom for 6 years. Prior to entering the seminary he pursued an accounting qualification and worked in London. His field of interest is intellectual history.
- al-Muhajjat al-Baydhā’, Faydh Kashāni, v. 1, p. 112