How do we study Islam? Maximising our sitting in sermons
Part 3: The purpose and tools for sitting in a sermon
In part 1 we stated that the number of sermons we sit in and religious learning engaged in must be equal to the growth we experience; if this is not the case, how can we better our learning experience of very traditional sermons?
In part 2 we took our first principle known as حُسن السئال نِصف الجواب ‘A good question is half of the answer’, to not only encourage the asking of questions but what types of questions we must ask.
This edition will look at the purposes of sitting in the sermons and what tools we may use to maximise our learning and application.
In the biographies of the scholars, there is an intriguing story about Imam Syed Muhammad Hussaini as-Shirazi, an author of 1400 books, such that when he died, his fingers were bent from his excessive commitment to his pen. Sitting preparing his class, one of his students bursts through the door seeking urgent counsel. “I have a question, no matter how much I think it over I cannot find an answer” he says. Imam as-Shirazi welcomes him and asks what is this question he has been wrangling with, causing such anxiety. He replies, “If you have one day to live, what would you do with it?!”
We shall return to the answer later InshaAllah.
First, the Holy Qur’an tells us that not only should we seek knowledge, but seek it from Allah swt and with His approval. فَتَعَالَى اللَّهُ الْمَلِكُ الْحَقُّ وَلَا تَعْجَلْ بِالْقُرْآنِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يُقْضَىٰ إِلَيْكَ وَحْيُهُ وَقُل رَّبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا “Supremely exalted is therefore Allah, the King, the Truth, and do not make haste with the Quran before its revelation is made complete to you and say: O my Lord! increase me in knowledge” (20:114)
The supplications of Ahl al-Bayt (a) then guide us to what else we should be seeking from this knowledge:
Imam Ali ibn al-Hussain Zain al-Abideen (a) prays, “[Oh Allah] Complete for us the illuminations of knowing you deeply” و اتمم لنا أنوار معرفتك
Elsewhere he begs, “Make it that I fulfil all that is obligated upon me” اللهم اقض عني كل ما الزمتنيه
Whilst Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a) asks for divine help in navigating those matters that may be muddied between true and false claims asking, “O God! Show me the truth as the truth so I follow it, and falsehood as falsehood so I stay away from it; and let them not seem similar o me, for if this happens then I will follow my own desires without guidance from You.” اللَّهُمَّ أَرِنِي الْحَق حَقًّا فَاَتِّبَعَهُ، وَأَرِنِي الْبَاطِلَ بَاطِلًا وفَاَجْتَنِبَهُ، وَلَا تَجْعَلْهُ عَلَيَّ مَتَشَابِهًا فَأَتَّبِعَ هَوَايَ بِغَيْرِ هُدىً مِنْكَ
Collectively then, these supplications for learning tells we ask for an increase, deeper insight, to act on what I learn and fulfil what is necessary for me and to have the success of distinguishing falsities from truth. These are certainly requisites to learning for without these, sitting in the sermons may become repetitive and devoid of the foundational attitudes needed in spiritual and intellectual learning.
Second, the narrations remind us that knowledge must be sought, not through personalities, famous speakers, oratory power or how good the sermon makes us feel. All these are transient and devoid of stability. This asks us wrangle with the question of our biases and whether we attend the sermons of those whom we prefer to those whom challenge us; those who reaffirm my way of thinking or for seeking truth no matter whom it comes from.
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a) profoundly stated, “The one who enters this religion through men will exit through men just as they caused him to enter it. And whoever enters this religion through the Book of Allah and the Prophetic practise, mountains will move before he does [in his faith]. من دخل في هذا الدين بالرجال اخرجه منه الرجال كما ادخلوه فيه ، و من دخل فيه بالكتاب و السنة زالت الجبال قبل ان يزول
The best example of this was in the Battle of Jamal when people saw on one side A’isha the wife of the Prophet and leading companions like Talha and Zubayr, whilst on the other side Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) and companions like Salmaan and Ammar. They asked which side to join?! Imam Ali (a) said, ‘Do not look at personalities. Look for the truth and you will then know its people.’
Thirdly, the learning must be active and not passive. We forget so much because the sermon is long and the attention span is short. Sermons tend to be pedagogic and only make use of auditory learning, whilst in school and university we use visual and kinaesthetic tools of learning, where we engage in dialogue and sensory material. We urgently need to evolve our cultures of learning and formats of sermons lest our education system falls way behind.
Ahl al-Bayt (a) emphasised this on numerous occasions:
The Prophet (s) said, “Write down knowledge before the departure of the scholars” whilst Imam as-Sadiq (a) said, “Write! For you will not remember until you write.”
We would never tolerate our children going to school or Madressa without a pen and paper, but our culture in the sermon’s does not encourage the same. Indeed this is a hypocrisy and a requirement to review our values between secular and religious learning.
Returning to the story above! Imam as-Shirazi was desperately asked, ‘What would you do with one day to live?’
He replied, “I would be doing what you found me doing now! Learning the knowledge of Ahl al-Bayt and teaching the knowledge of Ahl al-Bayt (a)!”