We are all looking for new and improved ways of doing things, be it getting the latest and most useful smartphone, trying out the new exercise we learned on YouTube, or just changing our morning routine. And for the most part, change is good. Doing things in a novel way can improve results and spur new ideas.
But what if you already have what is the best, but still look for something new beyond that? We as humans many times look for what we don’t have, without realizing the answer is right in front of us. Kind of like the famous saying of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), “If a son of Adam possessed two vast valleys wherein gold and silver flowed, he would still wish to search for the third one.” This trait has and will continue to be the downfall of many a people. Islam counters this by teaching us that being content with what we have is the best of traits.
As absurd as it sounds, some of us consume so much Islamic knowledge from books, speeches, and the Internet that we start to glaze over things we have seen and heard before, and look for “new” information. Many times people say they would rather not listen to a certain speaker, because he talks about “the same thing” all the time, or hear someone exclaim that the masjid needs some new books in the library because they have already read everything that is currently there. Though gaining as much Islamic knowledge as we can is of utmost important in Islam, acting upon that knowledge is even more important. Indeed Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said, “That knowledge is very superficial which remains only on your tongue; the intrinsic merit and value of knowledge is that you act upon it.” This is the whole aim of gaining knowledge. But what should we do once we feel that we have heard the same things over and over and need some new information?
In any profession, one can be “stuck in a rut”, meaning to be doing something for such a period of time that it becomes tedious and unproductive to keep doing it. Besides taking a nice vacation, almost always the solution can be found in going back to the basics. Delving into Islamic knowledge is no different. If someone feels that there is not enough new information being presented or it is being presented in the same old way, the best answer is to go back to the basics: the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet and his Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them all). In essence, all of our Islamic knowledge comes from these sources, so there are no better sources to go back to. But instead of just reading over the words of the Qur’an or Nahjul Balagha superficially, the best thing we can do is to ponder over them and try to look at them in a new light. In Islam, quality is always preferred over quantity. That one prayer we do with sincere intention is better than all of the distracted prayers we have done. And that one verse of the Qur’an we ponder over is better than all the verses we have read superficially.
This is where Islam really shines, in that the same verse in the Qur’an or the same narration in Nahjul Balagha can have so many different levels. It is simply up to us to make the effort with our minds to find those new levels, and keep our minds and ideas from becoming stagnant and rigid. Those verses of Quran and Hadith that we see time and time again are actually treasures that are waiting to be discovered. A superficial reading of all the Islamic knowledge is nothing compared to a deep understanding that leads to action of just a few verses. This is something the Prophet, the Imams, and their loyal companions have truly realized, and it is that which leads to true salvation. Though Islamic thought is constantly evolving through time, the basic Islamic tenets were finalized by the Holy Prophet and propagated by the Immaculate Imams. These are the ideas that we should constantly refer back to, delving deeper into them each time we do.
So the next time we read about the story of Prophet Yusuf or Imam Ali’s letter to Malik al-Ashtar, let us really sit down and read it, and try to think about it in ways we have not before. If we feel that a scholar is talking about the “same old topic”, let us put our ego aside and really listen to what he is saying, ponder over it, and discuss with him. More likely than not, this same scholar has been studying Islam for much longer than we have and has some deep knowledge he can impart to us. Many scholars have said that if you really read Nahjul Balagha, for example, it should be different for you each time. That is, if it is read with the sincere intention to absorb that knowledge and act upon it. It would be appropriate to end with a narration from the Holy Prophet Muhammad which most of us have probably heard, but is still worth pondering over: “I emphasize the importance of good morals for you, because Almighty God has sent me especially for this purpose.”