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Learning: From Drudgery to Excitement

16 June, 2016
Q Whenever I study, I would sometimes memorize what I have learnt. I didn't feel the excitement of learning. How do I learn and how can I be a successful learner?


Salam Dear Ahmad,

Although short, I read your question a couple of times trying to get to the heart of the matter. I believe that what all of it revolves around is motivation for acquiring knowledge in the first place and, second, learning methods that help you with such a pursuit.

I will start my answer by discussing motivations for learning and the virtues of seeking knowledge, then I will outline some techniques that will hopefully help you to be a successful learner.

Motivations for Learning

All human activities, whether noble or lowly, religious or worldly, good or evil, are governed by motivation. The motivation element itself is related to the significance of the activity to the nature and interests of the doer. That, per se, is directly related to the reward the doer gets.

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From what your question reads, it seems that to you learning is a tedious and equally unattractive pursuit as it requires unpleasant labor and exhausting memorization. This is generally the case when people carry out tasks that are not of their interest.

So what could be the reason behind a person’s disinterest and lack of motivation in studying?

Some people are naturally more inclined than others to studying and reading. For example, you can find people with phenomenal intelligence that pushes them to study and pursue, like the Muslim scholar Imam Ash-Shafi`i with his superb photographic memory, intellectual insight, and piousness, and like Albert Einstein with his complex theoretical comprehension and shrewdness.

Yet, other people are not, but they try their best to love knowledge. The wisest of humans, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Gaining knowledge is through teaching oneself to learn” (Al-Bukhari). Isn’t that true?

How many persons excelled in studying a subject or acquiring a talent in their midlife or even later? Take, for example, the Muslim scholar Sheikh Zakariyah Al-Ansari who started to learn Islamic sciences when he was 40, and guess what? He excelled. The same applies to non-Islamic sciences and professions, of course.

With regard to your question, we need to take a deep look into the virtues of pursuing knowledge, whether Islamic or secular, and the techniques and tips that can help with that pursuit.

Virtues of Seeking Knowledge

It can be argued that Islam is probably the most knowledge-based faith and, at the same time, the one that favors scholars and learned people the most, whether in religious sciences or otherwise. This can be argued at least in theory, as in this age Muslims are not of the most prominent with regards to civilization and intellectual accomplishments.

Historically, it is not a coincidence that Muslims’ advancement in religious and non-religious sciences went hand in hand, as some of the most advanced seats of Islamic sciences — Jerusalem, Timbuktu, Khiva, Basra, Bukhara, Sicily, Valencia, Cairo, Timruid, Qayrawan, or Marrakesh — were the conduits for all other sciences and arts, like astronomy, physics, and architecture.

So with regard to the virtues of acquiring knowledge, which is one of the highest and most respected virtues in Islam, you can learn a great deal about it from Ihyaa’ `Ulum Ad-Din (Arabic for “The Revival of Religious Sciences”) by the Muslim scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, especially the first chapter.Learning: From Drudgery to Excitement

Here I will quote a part of it:

The evidence of the excellence of knowledge in the Quran is manifest in the words of Allah:

{There is no god but He: That is the witness of Allah, His angels, and those endued with knowledge.} (Aal `Imran 3:18)

See, then, how Allah has mentioned Himself first, the angels second, and people endowed with knowledge third. In this, you really have honor, excellence, distinction, and rank. And again Allah says,

{Allah will raise in rank those of you who believe as well as those who are given knowledge.} (Al-Mujadalah 58:11)

According to Ibn `Abbas, the scholars [believers] rank 700 grades above the believers, between each is a distance of 500 years.

… the Prophet said, “The scholars are the heirs of the prophets” (Al-Bukhari). It is well-known that there is no rank above that of prophethood, no honor higher than its inheritance (The Revival of Religious Sciences)

There are other translations in English of Islamic books that deal with this subject, like Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali’s amazing treatise The Heirs of the Prophets, translated by Imam Zaid Shakir. The book inspires in the serious reader deep love and desire to gain knowledge.

Useful Tips

In order to be a successful learner, try to take the following into consideration:

  • Start your study by making du`aa’ (supplication) to Allah to help you with your pursuit. Du`aa’ is the most practical and needed aid of all. You should have a firm belief that Allah will answer your du`aa’.

In the Qur’an, there is one place in which the Prophet was asked to pray that Allah will increase him in something. Do you know what that thing is? Knowledge.

    {and say: My Lord, increase me in knowledge.} (Taha 20:114)

  • Keep a good and friendly relation with your teachers. Have good manners toward them. You must honor, respect, and be polite to your teachers. They are the ones who will open the door of knowledge for you.

Their company will always remind you of the Companions and their company to the Prophet. Also this will encourage you to ask them for help when needed. I recommend you to ask your teachers to make du`aa’ for you, especially if you are studying religious sciences.

  • Try to designate a space at home for study, a special space with positive energy; for example, a space surrounded by your favorite books, belongings, or near the window you like.
  • Devote enough time for studying, preferably around the same time every day, so that you do not squash much studying into a short time.
  • Reward yourself after each session with something you like — a nice relaxing cup of tea or a refreshing walk with a friend.
  • Choose good friends at school. They will encourage you to gain more knowledge and will help you achieve your goal.

Memorization TechniquesLearning: From Drudgery to Excitement

Memorization techniques differ from one person to the other. I, myself, am “old school.” I read the important passages that are focal several times, and then I write them up again.

Other people walk around and speak out loud what they need to learn by heart a few times.

It is also important to have a whole idea about the text that you are studying by reading the introduction, skimming through the middle part, and glancing at the end; afterwards read the text thoroughly. This way information is better positioned, settled in one’s mind as a whole, not fragments.

I hope this answers your question. Good luck with your pursuit and best wishes.