بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
We’ve all heard the following narration, attributed to the Prophet of Islam (s):
اطلبوا العلم من المهد إلى اللحد
Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.
While this hadith may invigorate our spirits temporarily, inevitably when faced with a 400 page book, our spirits wane and we get bored. We move on to the dopamine filled joy of Facebook posts and YouTube videos.
So what’s the solution? The answer: you seek knowledge relevant to the problems current in your own life.
I remember as a teenager I went through a phase of tackling doubts about Islam, as most thinking Muslims do who grow up in the West. One of the most pertinent problems in my mind was the question of Divine justice. If Allah was All-Good, how could evil exist? Why did bad things happen to good people? Most importantly, why is this life so unfair? I would stay up at night pondering these questions, my heart writhing with pain, and I would beg Allah for an answer.
These questions plagued my mind and heart and might have lead me to atheism were it not for chancing upon Shaheed Mutahhari’s book Divine Justice. This book was a difficult read for me, especially at that stage in my life when I had not yet developed the relevant philosophical background to be able to easily comprehend what he was saying. But, because Mutahhari is a gifted presenter of ideas, even I was able to understand the major arguments he put forward after I put in the effort.
I had to use almost zero will-power to get myself to read that book. The reason was that I was burning with a desire for answers to my questions. I was having an existential crisis. I was doubting my Lord; or rather, I was looking to worship the Most-Just, who is the only God. I would put in all the work I needed to until I could get a satisfactory response.
This is an example of a burning intellectual curiosity that I could not forgo. But sometimes the problems in your life are more emotional. Perhaps your problem is that you want to have a better relationship with your parents, or your children don’t listen to you. Perhaps you have social anxiety in certain situations. Maybe you need to loose weight, or you’re addicted to pornography, or your phone, or TV, or social media, or your sleep is bad, or you’re mildly depressed. You might want to develop a new skill like public speaking, or learning to write better. Whatever it may be: you have a problem that you want to solve. It’s usually staring you right in the face, and you probably don’t need very long to come up with a few questions you would like answered.
Here’s where reading comes along. You see, someone, somewhere, has probably had the same or a similar problem that you are facing right now. That person has either spent years working on that problem, or is a lot smarter than you; usually both. That person has spent hundreds of hours gaining the experience and expertise to put together a thorough presentation that they have edited and re-edited countless times until it reached the pristine final form a printed book. That person is inviting you to have a conversation with them whereby you can learn from their experience and try out the solutions they’ve provided. It’s like having a wise uncle who has a wealth of experience sitting you down and explaining to you how to solve your problem.
All that is required is that you feel a sufficient level of discomfort with your current situation; you must feel that burning need to learn how to resolve your problem: whether it be intellectual, physical, social, emotional, spiritual, or technical. Once that burning desire is felt, you will suddenly discover that you don’t require any other external motivation. You only need be directed to the source of where an answer might be found and you will devour that information like it’s iftaar after a long summer Ramadan day.
Once you solve your problem, you’ll discover something profound: it is possible to solve the problems in your life by reading from the life-experience and wisdom of others, and then applying it. Furthermore, you will discover something else, namely, that you have a lot more problems than you ever realized!
Let me give you an example; let’s say you want to improve your relationship with your parents and you feel that your parents are exceptionally difficult people. In order to get to a long term solution on the issue, you are going to realize that you are half the problem. Your character needs change. Your communication style needs refining. Your empathy and ability to listen needs to improve. You will find that there is a lot to learn in all of these domains and once you realize that your character is incredibly flawed, and you humble yourself to seek the knowledge of how to fix those flaws, you will start to notice other flaws in your character. You would’ve never noticed these flaws before, but as you’ve gone through the process of character building, you realize that they were there all along. If you are successful in at least partially fixing some of these, you will jump up at the opportunity to fix new flaws.
Likewise, say you wanted to learn a skill like giving effective presentations. Once you realize that by learning and applying what you learn, you get tangible results, the next time you have a skill you need to learn, you will be motivated to do the same thing in order to learn that new skill. There are dozens of skills, minor and major, that you might want to learn throughout your life. Things as simple as cutting fruit correctly or as complicated as practicing medicine. Most people don’t have the motivation because they don’t feel like they have a pressing problem that needs to be resolved, that can be resolved if they simply learned more, and then applied what they learned. Past successes are important here to reinforce that idea that one can improve.
I’ll end with a third example in the intellectual domain. Let’s say you have a doubt about the existence of God. This query will take you down a rabbit hole of metaphysics and epistemology. One question will lead to another. Initially, you might have zero interest in a topic like the philosophy of mind, or the philosophy of science. But, once you realize that there are discussions in the philosophy of science that are relevant to the main question about which you were initially concerned, namely, the existence of God; you will be motivated to learn more about the philosophy of science in order to understand it’s implications vis a vis the existence of God. And once that door is open, you’ll find yourself naturally becoming more interested in the philosophy of science for the sake of the philosophy science; the philosophy of science will lead you to becoming interested in the history of science; the history of science will lead you to become interested in the history of ideas more generally; the history of ideas will lead you to become interested in political ideas and so forth. Thus one’s intellectual acumen is sharpened and their interest in intellectual matters is permanently secured for life just by a few initially inquiries which may confront them viscerally, and then grow into a more general curiosity. The way to think about this is that people who have watched the first season of a really good TV show are going to watch the second season of that same show. People like learning about things that are related to things they already know. One piece of the puzzle connects to another piece and one of the great joys of the thinking animal is to put it all together in a coherent fashion.
Recently, a young brother contacted me who was having questions about the truth of Islam, let’s call him Rahim. Rahim asked if we could do a Zoom call. I asked him to first send me a list of questions he had, to which he obliged. I then sent him a tailor made list of material to address his concerns, including an hour long podcast to listen to, and 2 or 3 long-form articles, probably about 15,000 words in total. I told him once he finished all of that material, we could talk on the phone (the reason being is that I would rather speak on the phone to clarify anything he misunderstood rather than have to spend an hour explaining each topic from scratch.) I expected Rahim to take a while to get back to me. In fact, I expected there to be a chance that he’d never get back to me because my past experience has been that some people want you to spoon feed them and if you require them to put in any work, they’ll simply walk away. To my surprise, Rahim got back to me the very next day. He had spent all of his spare time the previous day plowing through the material I had sent. When we called, I was glad to speak to him for as long as he needed because he had what I was looking for; he was thirsty. I wanted answers. I would give them to him, as best as I could. Every now and then Rahim sends me messages with new questions and I am happy to oblige him every time.
The first step to learning is having a real problem. Having a real problem means having a real question: how do I solve the problem that I’m having? Once you have that in mind, it’s easy now that we have the internet to find the best books which give solutions to the problem that you are facing. Once learning starts, it is hard to stop. I predict a bright future for Rahim.