Interview: Defining Knowledge and Learning – Shaykh Yahya Rhodus

Cori Mancuso interviews Shaykh Yahya Rhodus on the importance of seeking obligatory knowledge, balancing religious and worldly affairs, and engaging in traditional and western approaches to education.


CM: For Muslims who are seeking a foundational knowledge of Islam, or their fard ayn, what knowledge should be obligatory for them to learn? Why is it important to learn this knowledge?

SYR: Unfortunately, there is a lot of deep seeded ignorance around the community and the world regarding this topic. There are people who simply don’t know what they need to know, and then there’s something called compounded ignorance, when someone sees the basics as something that doesn’t really mean anything. The greatest scholars, who have reached the pinnacle of scholarship and piety, not only do they do the basics but they do them in the most excellent manner. There could be two people who are outwardly performing the prayer correctly, but they each have very different inward states in terms of concentration, meanings in the heart, and witnessing of the divine impact on creation. We learn the basics and reinforce them throughout our lives, and in the end, we hope to reach the highest degree of spiritual realization. One of the early imams, al-Junayd, was seen after his death in a dream and was asked “What did Allah do with you?” He said, “‘All the expressions have gone, and all of the subtle indications have vanished, and all that benefited me was small cycles of prayer that I prayed during the night.’”

What remains is for us to figure out what is obligatory knowledge? How can we acquire it and put it into practice? How can we reinforce it and increase it? Any knowledge that is not based on revelation, or meant to preserve revelation, is an inferior type of knowledge. These other types of rational sciences are very popular now, but we must remember that revelation is a higher source of knowledge. We are required to study knowledge throughout our lives. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, told us that whoever treads a path to seek sacred knowledge, Allah will facilitate for him to enter paradise. We cannot fulfill the duty our time by rooting ourselves in our unchanging principles and wisely deal with the challenges of our time, without the foundational knowledge. When the winds of tribulation blow through, if one is not grounded, then they are going to get blown with the wind.

Scholars have long discussed the concept of fard ayn knowledge, which is obligatory for every male and female of age. In Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum al Din, he describes this knowledge as knowledge of what is obligatory in the moment. Everything one does in their life, must be based on knowledge. Although everyone of age should learn the basics of purification and prayer, creed, and the attributes of Allah, one must also look at their own circumstances and learn accordingly. If someone is married, engages in financial transactions, or has a death in the family, they must know the law. It is shocking to see how many Muslims get involved in complicated matters while neglecting even the basics of prayer and purification. The obligatory knowledge is what we need to know for our beliefs to be correct, our practice to be right, and  our heart to become clear before Allah.

CM: In your opinion, how does one balance between seeking knowledge and seeking sustenance in worldly affairs?

SYR: The first thing is to not see the two as mutually exclusive. Imam Malik was once asked about seeking sacred knowledge. He said it is a great thing, but one should also look at their own circumstances and circle of responsibility. If someone is required to do something, whether it is to take care of a family member or a loved one, and they are not able to free themselves up for sacred knowledge, then they must give precedence to the responsibilities on their shoulders. We should not see this as all or nothing, everyone must do what they can. I want to see a rebirth and a revival around talib al-ilm, of seeking knowledge, for the young and old. For most people, it is mainly a matter of priorities. We must make knowledge a priority in our lives. As I was leaving Mauritania, and heading to Tarim, one of the scholars, Shaykh Muhammad Zayn, said, “Make knowledge an excuse for other things and do not make other things an excuse for knowledge.”

Every Muslim should be taking at least one class per week. Anything less than that is falling short of the mark. With a strong intention to learn, and dedication, one can still learn quite a bit by seeking knowledge part-time. This includes informal and formal ways of learning. Some small ways include putting a book in the car to read, playing something in the car during a commute, and reading a book with one’s spouse or children. Most people have time for these things, and this is considered seeking sacred knowledge. Any sacrifice one makes in their career, to free oneself up a little bit more to study and learn, will never be lost with Allah. Everyone should benefit from their local resources, utilizing weekend learning and vacation time. A good way to track activity is to keep a notebook, so that every time one attends a conference, retreat, or lecture, they can fill up this notebook with benefits. This enables us to teach this knowledge to others.

CM: As a student of knowledge in both the traditional Islamic sciences, and western academic institutions, what are the benefits and challenges to both approaches?

SYR: In a traditional setting, the focus is devotion. One is studying this knowledge to get closer to Allah and prepare for the hereafter. In a traditional setting, a student gets very close to their teachers and a profound love is developed through mentorship. The students try to emulate and follow the teacher. There is emphasis on the chain of narration back to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Those are some of the strengths of the traditional method. The purpose of studying sacred knowledge is to transcend the self and benefit others.

On the other hand, for the vast majority of people studying in western academic institutions, the goal is to get a degree. Some people are interested in the topic they study, but it is a different experience. A student will not develop the same type of relationship with the teacher. Knowledge is respected, but in a secular sense. The western academic institution has strengths in that it concentrates on the context of a text. In my field, I study the life of Imam al-Ghazali, who was he? How did the circumstances of his life affect his scholarship? What led outwardly to him writing Ihya Ulum al-Din? If one is grounded in traditional scholarship, they can more easily sift through the bad western scholarship and benefit from the good western scholarship that exists. This enhances one’s learning, without contradiction to the traditional understanding of the text. Although there is some benefit in studying Islamic Studies in a western academic setting, there is also a lot of ignorance surrounding the texts. They make a lot of mistakes and assumptions based on their limited understanding. Western scholarship is based on imitation, scholars will quote previous writers without confirming the validity of their sources. We must critique western scholarship. Most academics believe they are objective and that this is the only way of knowing this information.

Unfortunately, I have found the vast majority of Muslims involved in western academic institutions do not have the tools necessary to navigate these distinctions, and it becomes a little bit overwhelming. This is not to say that we should not be involved. We do not have the luxury of remaining completely isolated. We need scholars who have the proper training, who are able to find answers within the tradition, who know what to do in different circumstances, and are able to find real solutions to the problems people are facing in their lives. This is an enormous task. Everyone is affected by the society in which they live. There is a philosophy behind everything which we are exposed to. It necessary that we engage academia and have Muslim academics teaching Islamic Studies. Muslims should be contributing in all types of disciplines. We want to them to make principal contributions which reflect our values and character. This is one of our greatest challenges, to root Muslims in knowledge, devotion, and service, and train them to make principled contributions in society.


Cori Mancuso is a graduate in Religious Studies at Lycoming College. While seeking sacred knowledge, she develops content for SeekersGuidance and Sabeel Community.