During the first few years at my undergraduate university, the Muslim Student Association worked closely with other religiously-affiliated groups. Our student organization was unique in that we did not have an immediate superior to respond to and planned and executed activities by the grace of Allah and students’ efforts. When working alongside other ethnic and religious organizations for campus interfaith and multicultural activities, something that always stood out to me was the lack of respect our non-Muslim peers had for their superiors. The professors and chaplains that served as personal mentors for student groups were treated very poorly. Along with the rest of the Muslim board, I was simply shocked to hear some of the snide comments made to other religious elders or scholars. The blatant coarseness of language and impudence caused me to cringe in shame on behalf of those students. After such events, the Muslim students often discussed how fortunate we were that the great values of our faith prevented us from such shortcomings. We took pride in our courteous and honorable demeanor even when faced with controversial situations and points of disagreement during event planning.
Unfortunately, as the years went on, these honorable mannerisms seemed to disappear from Muslim students. It became very common to witness Muslim students making rude and catty comments to professors in class along with perpetuating ridicule behind their backs. This disrespect was also seen in less explicit ways through behaviors displayed by audience members of not just classrooms, but Islamic lectures as well. It seemed as if assimilation with those of a non-Islamic background caused us to forget the foundations with which we were raised. These habits manifested not simply as poking fun at personal characteristics of professors and scholars, but also through indifferent attitudes towards gaining from educational opportunities.
Of course, it is incumbent upon us as Muslims to gain knowledge, as it is a form of worship. Yet in order to obtain it in the most proper form, we turn to Imam Ali (peace be upon him) who has said, “O young nation, keep your honor by being polite and your religion by knowledge.” It is clear therefore that both character and faith need supplemental virtues to thrive. In the case of dignity, kindness and respect to others is necessary, while in order to remain attached to religion, we are required to attain an education.
Islam beautifully demonstrates to us the significance and sanctity of a teacher-student relationship in this process. Imam Ja’fer as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) reminds us, “Your teacher has the right over you that you should honor him and pay him respect in different assemblies. You should be very attentive to his words. You should not raise your voice above his. You should not converse with others in his presence, and you should allow people to benefit from his knowledge.” This message can be applied in our middle school, high school, and college classrooms, and can also be translated to Islamic lectures, majalis, and other forms of Islamic learning. Respect for a teacher indicates not commenting on their words during a lecture or snickering about a scholar’s flaws or traits. Being attentive implies giving full effort to comprehend the information, withholding side conversations, refraining from passing notes and constantly texting, and preventing one’s self from showing complete disregard for his or her message and efforts.
Yes, there will be times both inside and outside of the classroom when we disagree with someone’s point of view or presentation of information. Islam encourages us then to stand for the truth and speak up. Yet, when abiding by the words of Imam Ali, “O believer, surely this knowledge and courtesy are your price; then try to learn them. If your knowledge and courtesy become much, your price will be high. Then you are led to your Lord by knowledge, and you can serve your Lord with courtesy very well,” it is apparent that serving Allah and seeking knowledge requires “courtesy” and dignified behavior. When refuting an idea, or providing evidence against a claim, as Muslims we should conduct ourselves with decorum and virtue. This will not only gain the respect of our compeers, but also likely elicit a positive response from the teacher as well.
As we transition into higher learning and take bolder steps towards our educational future, it is important to remember that as Muslims, we are representatives of the message of Islam. Our character, actions, and speech dictate how we are perceived in the public eye, and in turn how others perceive Islam itself. It is our duty to uphold the image of Islam in highest esteem through noble conduct as exemplified by the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), whether in school or elsewhere.