Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Abridged Guide for Test-Takers

Tests, tests, and tests. I never used to think much about tests. I would sleep through them, study for a couple of hours for a midterm, read my textbooks as though they were novels. But two and a half years ago, everything changed. In Pakistan, acing or failing the Intermediate Board Exams (11th and 12th for Americans) seems like life and death. If you do well in them, you get into a good university otherwise you stay among the mediocre. So, my situation made me reassess my mentality towards tests. And now I have become test-crazy. At the same time, tests are a great opportunity to understand the Qadr of Allah and establish Tawakkul. So how should you take a test?

    No one really tells us about how to go about tests. There are a lot of things involved: a mentality, dependency, hard work, pre-requisites, dealing with after-effects. But all they say is STUDY, STUDY, STUDY. But is that what test-taking is all about, studying? When we examine our colleagues, there are some of them who work hard and get good grades, but there are others who work little but achieve much. And there are others who work hard but are not rewarded properly. In all reality, studying is NOT proportional to good grades. There may be some relationship, but definitely no proportionality. As one of my favorite scholars, Ibn Hazm, said, "You should also know that many of those who value knowledge, most of them work hard by reading and learning, but in the end they attain no knowledge."

The Qadr of Allah (SWT)8

What good grades are really proportionally to is the Qadr of Allah (SWT). To put it in easy terms, Al-Qadr consists of two main things.7 (1) Allah (SWT) knows everything and (2) everything that happens is because of Allah (SWT)'s will and command. For every Muslim, understanding the concept of Al-Qadr is the key to preparing for a test, understanding the workings, and being satisfied with the results.

Allah (SWT)'s Knowledge

Allah (SWT) knows everything about us. He knows what happened yesterday, today and what will happen tomorrow. As Allah (SWT) says in the Quran, "It is Allah Who has created seven heavens and of the earth the like thereof. His Command descends between them (heavens and earth), that you may know that Allah has power over all things, and that Allah surrounds (comprehends) all things in (His) Knowledge."4

All this knowledge, our destinies were written in Al-Lawhul Mahfooz, 50, 000 years before the creation of the Heavens and the Earth (i.e. the Universe)2. Allah (SWT) says in the Quran, "And there is nothing hidden in the heavens and the earth, but is in a Clear Book (i.e. Al-Lauh Al-Mahfûz)"3. So before Allah (SWT) created everything, He, out of His knowledge, his Divine Wisdom wrote what was to happen to us beforehand.

Does that mean I should just lay back and not care about tests? If I'm destined to fail, despite my constant studying, I'll still fail? And if I'm destined to pass, even if I don't study, I'll still pass? The Sahabah (R) also asked the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) the same question. "Shall we (then) not depend on it (The Qadr of Allah), O Messenger of Allah?" He replied, "No, act for everyone will have that made easy for him." In other words, whatever you do, that will be your path. If you try to achieve success, you will achieve it. If you get lazy, then you're destined to be a loser.5

Suppose you have the unlucky occurrence of having your calculus teacher as your mother. She knows you inside out. And you have a calculus test today. Since she made the test and she knows you, she also knows how you will perform on that test. Which questions you will get correct and which questions you get wrong. She knows if you will pass or fail. But her knowledge, insight about you has nothing to do with you taking the test.

    This is the same situation with us and Allah (SWT) in this life. He has complete knowledge over everything, much more than that teacher could possibly muster. He knows so much about us that he knows what we will do tomorrow, the day after and for the rest of our lives. And he has written it all in a book, Al-Lawhul Mahfooz. Despite Allah (SWT) knowing everything, we don't have access to any of that knowledge. For us CS students, strict information hiding if you want to term it. Your actions, are not and cannot be based upon His knowledge. They are totally unrelated. Just because Allah (SWT) knows what you will do, your actions are not effected by His knowledge.

Allah's Will vs. Our Will

    The concept of free will in Islam. This is a concept that is also part of Christianity and Judaism. But because of their lack of knowledge, comprehension about it, they either totally disregard it or bind themselves upon it entirely. The reality is that this concept is quite easy to understand if you learn it the proper way.

As Muslims, we believe that everything happens by Allah (SWT)'s Will (Mashee'ah) and that everything that happens is caused by Allah (SWT). "Verily, His Command, when He intends a thing is only that He says to it, "Be!" and it is!"9 And in another ayah, "And your Lord creates whatever he wills and chooses" 11And this is the case with everything, be it small or big, long-lasting or short.

So the question arises, do I really have a free will? Does everything I do depend upon me or upon Allah (SWT)? Am I the one doing the action or is Allah (SWT) doing it? Actually it's a mixture of both. You are the one who does the action but Allah (SWT) is the one who commanded it, allowed you to do it and gave you all the necessary means to do it. You are the one who is actually studying but it is Allah (SWT) who allows that to happen. He is the one who gave you the books to study, the desire, the time an d the health. Everything that you do, its cause is Allah (SWT). Allah (SWT) says in the Quran, "And Allah created you and your handiwork"10

So who's responsible for your actions? You are, of course! Allah (SWT) created you and gave you the mind, free will, means, health, emotions etc. Everything that results from using these abilities belongs to Allah (SWT) since He created you. But how are you going to use it that's your responsibility. You are responsible for your actions as you chose to act that way with all the given abilities.

There once was a thief who deserved punishment of having his hand amputated for stealing. When he was brought before the Khalifah Umar ibn Khattab, Umar (R) ordered that his hand be amputated. He complained. "Wait, O Chief of the Believers, I only stole by the Qadr(Will) of Allah (SWT)." Umar (R) replied, "And we only amputate by the pre-decree of Allah (SWT)".12

The Principle of Tying your Camel

Now, you might be confused. What should you do? Should you put your trust in Allah (SWT)? Or should you try to do something about your life? Like for every situation, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) gave us the solution to this problem.

One day Allah's Messenger, sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam, noticed a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it. He asked the Bedouin, "Why don't you tie down your camel?" The Bedouin answered, "I placed my trust in Allah." At that, the Prophet, sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said, "Tie your camel and place your trust in Allah" – Tirmidhi
    In this short hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) explains that true Tawakul, placing one's trust in Allah (SWT) consists of taking action yourself and leaving the rest to your Lord. So for tests, you listen to lectures, take notes, study as much as you can and then leave the rest to Allah (SWT).

Increasing your favor

    Studying is one thing but in all reality, Allah (SWT) controls everything. One of the important ways to 'tie your camel' is to come close to Allah (SWT). Of the many things that you can do, here are three things that really help you come close to Allah (SWT).

Tahajjud Salah

        How can I over emphasize the importance of Tahajjud? The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, "The best of prayers, after those prescribed (Fard salah), are those prayed in the depth of the night."13 Also, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, "Dua are most acceptable in the last depth of the night, and at the end of the prescribed prayers."14
        So do you have to wake up for 2-3 hours and pray each night? No. I think the easiest way is to get up an hour before Fajr, pray two rakah and then if you're sleepy, go back to sleep. (Remember not to miss Fajr, though.)Or do it the last thing you do, when you go to sleep. My personal experience is that, whenever I pray Tahajjud salah, the next day is a good day for me. Quizzes go excellent, classes are easy to concentrate in, and time seems to be well spent altogether.

Zikr and Dua

        Zikr is one of the easiest ways to come closer to Allah(SWT) and one of the most rewarding Ibadaat(forms of worship). About those who remember Allah (SWT), Allah (SWT) says in the Quran:"So remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful to me and do not deny Me."15 Along with the final Surah of the Quran, Ayatul Kursi and the ending ayaat of Surah Baqarah, there are many, many prescribed Azkaar that one can say. (You have to look them up, I can't list them here for you.)
        As for Dua, there are hundreds of Ayat in the Quran in which Allah (SWT) commands us to worship him alone. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, "Dua is worship"16. When a person calls out to Allah (SWT), he is lowering himself, putting his hope in Allah, submitting to him and placing Allah (SWT)'s control and power over everything. Accordingly, Dua is called the greatest manifestation of worship. How much time, energy does it really take you to call out and ask Allah (SWT)?

Leaving sin

    One greatest factors in our acceptance of Dua are our how much we commit sins. There is the famous story of Imam Shafi who complained to his teacher, Waqee about his poor memory. His teacher told him to leave all sorts of sin, be it small or big. A simple translation of his poetry is as follows.

I complained to Waki' about my poor memory:
"Give up your sins!" was his advice to me;
"For knowledge is a light from Divinity (Allah),
and the Light of Allah is veiled by iniquity(sin)!"17

Good Grades = Favor: A Misconception

    Does getting good grades mean that you are close to Allah (SWT)? No way. One of the most intelligent men in the world was Abu Jahl, one of the richest in the history of man was Qarun and one of the most powerful was Fir'awn. All three of these were sentenced to Jahannum because of their disbelief in Allah (SWT) and will be in its lowest depths. Their 'blessings' in this world for them were actually misfortunes in disguise. Allah (SWT) tells us in the Quran, "And let not the disbelievers think that Our postponing of their punishment is good for them. We postpone the punishment only so that they may increase in sinfulness. And for them is a disgracing torment."18

    Ultimately what matters most is if you believe in Allah (SWT). Whatever blessings you get in this world, you have to utilize them properly by thanking Allah (SWT), coming closer to him and using them in ways which Allah (SWT) is pleased with. If you do this, then consider these blessings as good, because they will help you come closer to Him and attain eternal success. On the other hand, if you use them to become arrogant, ungrateful to your Creator and in ways that anger Him, then your blessings are a source of evil for you. On the Day of Resurrection, you will be asked what you did with the blessings you have been given in this life and rewarded or punished accordingly.

The Aftermath

    Personally, I celebrate right after I take a test, whether it goes good or bad, because now my responsibilities (of tying my camel) are over. The results are in the hands of Allah (SWT). But what usually affects us most are the grades, good or bad. I like to characterize test-takers into two categories, the losers and the winners.

The Losers

    "But I studied and studied and studied, did all my homework, assignments, everything. I still don't understand why I didn't do good on that test." A calamity. All of us hate bad grades. But Allah (SWT) tells us directly in the Quran that there may be something we dislike though it is good for us and there may be something we like though it is bad for us. How can we, as mere human beings, mortals who can't see seconds into the future decipher between what is beneficial to us and what is detrimental to us.

    Our bad result motivates us in the future, makes us work harder, see through our mistakes and helps us change our studying habits. Ibn Hazm says "If the imperfect really becomes aware of his shortcomings, he would become perfect."19 Mistakes. If you ever ask someone a 'successful' individual how he achieved success, it was because he corrected his mistakes.

    "But … there's something wrong. I fix my mistakes, I've tried everything technique, and it still seems likes there no solution. I'm a born loser. I can never do well on a test ". Still not convinced? The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, "I am astonished by the ways of a believer for there is good in every affair of his and this is not the case with anyone else except the believer. If something good happens to him, he is thankful to Allah (SWT) and that is good for him, and if something bad happens to him, he is patient and that is good for him."20 In this hadith, the blessed Prophet (SAW) told us that no matter what happens to a Mu'min, one who has strong belief in Allah, it is good for him because in the end EVERYTHING is beneficial. So make the most out of this life and try to always be optimistic.

The Winners

    Ibn Hazm again. He says "And if you feel impressed by your knowledge, then you should know that you deserve no praise. It is purely a gift from Allah (SWT), bestowed upon you by your Lord, the Almighty. So, do not repay him with disobedience, for he might cause you to forget what you have learned and known."21 Ibn Hazm explains that if you're a winner, if you do good on your tests, then it's not you who's really responsible, it's Allah (SWT).

I like to think of myself as an empty shell, a hollow robot controlled by external forces, an avatar, someone who really doesn't have control over himself. He has some hand in what he does but most of it, it's not him. After all, Allah (SWT) gives you both the ability and opportunity to study, to take the test, and ace it.

And for the vain, the proud, the boastful, he tells them "Whoever is tested by vanity should think about his faults. If he is impressed by his virtues, he should search for his vices. If his faults are totally hidden from his knowledge, so that he believes that he is free from fault, then he should know that he is troubled forever, and that he is the most imperfect among people, the greatest in fault, and the weakest in recognition."22

The Real Test

    What would you say about a person who has his finals starting next week and is only concerned about the volleyball game he has tomorrow? He cares nothing about his finals and is just aiming to star in his game, score the most points, beat the other team. You would call him an idiot, a misguided soul, blind, one who can only see what is before his eyes. That is the similar to the situation of the individual who cares only about the tests in this life. He cries and celebrates on his tests as if they would help him for eternity. Allah (SWT) tells us in many places in the Quran that this world is simply a mirage, a deception. This world is ending, absolute while the hereafter has much more blessings for us and is much longer. Allah (SWT) tells us in Surah A'laa, "Nay, you prefer the life of this world; Although the Hereafter is better and more lasting."23

    So I ask you, why should you devote all your energy for that game and forget your final. In the end, no one cares how your game went, they care about your final. They'll easily forget your game score (and you will too) but your finals will seem all important. Nevertheless, why lose one to achieve the other? If you can, do good in both but make sure when you practice for your game, you don't mess up your finals. In conclusion, do your best in the tests of the Dunya but treat them as the games they really are, and concentrate on that final you have, the results of which will be announced on the Day of Judgment.


1Ibn Hazm- Healing the Souls and Improving the Morals pg. 20 
2Sahih Muslim, No. 6416 
3Quran 27:75 
4Quran 65:12  
5Sahih Al-Bukhari, No. 4620 
7Actually, the scholars of Islam have codified it into 4-5 different pillars (Knowledge, Prescription, Will, Command and Creation)but I am grouping them into two big ones for the sake of simplification. 
8SWT = Subhanahu Wa ta'ala, "glorious and exalted is He (Allah)"  
9Quran 36:82 
10Quran 37:96
Quran 28:68 

12Story taken from an Explanation of the Three Fundamental Principles by Muhammad ibn Salih al-Uthaymeen pg.189 
13Muslim (1163) and Ahmad 
14Tirmidhi. Verified to be hasan by al-Albani (Hidayat ur-Ruwah n. 1188) 
15 Quran 2:152 
16Abu Dawud 
17Diwan Al-Imam Al-Shafi 
18Quran 3:178 
19 Ibn Hazm- Healing the Souls and Improving the Morals pg. 9 
20Muslim 42: 7138 
21 Ibn Hazm- Healing the Souls and Improving the Morals pg. 20 
22 Ibn Hazm- Healing the Souls and Improving the Morals pg. 20 
23Quran 87: 16-17

The End

I started this blog as a way to vent out my opinions and to educate others about Islam. And Alhumdulilah, I achieved that purpose to a certain extent. I was planning to do this about three years from now but I think it's really useless delaying the end of this blog. Looking back, I realize that there was a lot of good I did and a lot of articles that I wrote which weren't so good. As an early student of knowledge, I made a lot of mistakes. Stuff that I regret now like crazy.

Maybe that's why I'm not motivated as much to write these days. Scared of the consequences, scared of making mistakes, scared of speaking without knowledge. Either way, I'm not going to delete the articles, but inshaAllah add comments on the bottom to clarify misconceptions I had, the stuff I said wrong.

So, by the end I mean that there will not be any more articles published especially for this blog. Da'wah has always been a means of achieving Jannah for me, and at this early stage a backup plan, just in case I don't get to accomplish what I want. As for writing a blog, I think there are plenty of good websites out there where a person can get guidance about Islam. I don't really need to do my part, rather concentrate on other means of doing Da'wah.

Insha'Allah, I'll have an article published this week. I wrote it for my university magazine but I'm dubious that it will actually get published.(because of it's intensity, perhaps) I just need time to finish referencing all that I wrote.