Abd al-Rahmaan ibn Abi Haatim al-Raazi, the author of the great book al-Jarh wa’l-Ta’deel, was famous for staying close to his father and learning a great deal from him. He used to say, “He would be eating, and I would read to him, or walking and I would read to him, or on his way to the washroom and I would read to him, or going home to get something and I would read to him.” (Siyar A’laam al-Nubalaa’, 13/251).
Reading is one of the important means of gaining different kinds of knowledge and of benefitting from the achievements and experiences of others, earlier and later scholars. It is something vital which the person who wants to learn can hardly do without. It is an essential need which is hardly less important that food and drink. Individuals – let alone cultures and civilizations – cannot advance without reading, for reading brings minds to life, enlightens hearts and sets thinking straight.
Methodical readers – usually – form an enlightened elite which plays an influential role in forming the intellectual and cultural ethos of the Ummah. Hence by taking care of reading we take care of the heart and soul of the Ummah which is then able to give and contribute.
Reading is a skill and an art; not everyone can be good at it. How many people there are who devote a lot of time to reading, yet despite that they gain only a little from that!
I will mention – by the help of Allaah – some of the problems which some readers could have, especially at the beginning of their efforts.
The first problem:
Not having much patience when reading and studying.
This is an old problem which has become more common in our times, especially when there are so many other distractions. Many readers are not able to persevere with their reading, and they need to take their time and be patient. No one has the patience to study and research and read books and the treasures of knowledge in depth; when a reader starts to look at a book, he soon puts it aside and becomes busy with something else.
The intellectual field these days is suffering from obvious shortcomings in reading skills. You see many people who would be included among those who are regarded as educated, who have university degrees and even graduate degrees, but you would be surprised to learn that many of them would not be able to complete one book outside his specialty!
We are suffering a severe crisis whereby many educated people – let alone the ordinary rank-and-file – have given up reading and researching. This is one of the reasons that have led to confusion in people’s way of thinking, extreme shallowness in many people’s opinions, and a lack of proper insight.
Training oneself and forcing oneself to read is one of the most successful ways of developing this noble quality, especially when one is young and at the beginning of one’s quest for knowledge. One may feel incapable at the beginning, or get bored, but by being patient and persevering, he will – by Allaah’s leave – develop this skill to the point where it will become second nature to him and he will not be able to give it up. Hence the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “Knowledge comes by learning (making the effort to learn).” (al-Silsilah al-Saheehah, 1/605). Forming this habit and implanting it is one of the most important things which readers and educators must pay attention to.
I do not know how we daa’iyahs can seek power and glory, and hope to alter the course of history, when we do not make the effort to focus on books of knowledge, and we are content with a few scattered bits of information that we have picked up here and there…!
Look at the great advantage which our forbears gained. For example, al-Hasan al-Lu’lu’i said: “I spent forty years during which I never stood up or slept but there was a book on my chest.” (Jaami’ Bayaan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi, 2/1231).
Ibn al-Qayyim said: “I know someone who, if he is stricken with a headache or a fever, he still keeps a book by his head. When he comes round, he will read, and when his sickness overwhelms him again he will put the book aside.” (Rawdat al-Muhibbeen, p. 70).
The second problem:
Not being able to focus.
Many readers read only with their eyes, not with their minds, and they do not focus their minds and make an effort to understand and research. The reader may let his mind wander all over the place, thinking of all kinds of worries and other business, then suddenly notice that a long time has passed and he has not learned anything worth remembering.
Some readers start off with interest and focus, but after reading a few pages they start to get bored gradually, until they lose track of what they are reading. Then they wake up suddenly after wandering in the vast world of their own thoughts that have nothing to do with the book. Taha Hussein said: “Often we read just to pass the time, not to nourish our minds and hearts. Often we read to help ourselves fall asleep, not to keep ourselves awake.” (Khisaam wa Naqd, p. 6).
This lack of focus may sometimes lead us to getting mixed-up or gaining confused information, which has the opposite effect, i.e., the results are harmful to the reader instead of being beneficial. This may also go beyond him and harm others.
If one possesses the ability to focus, then one has the ability to learn a subject inside-out, and this is the primary means of gaining understanding and a full grasp of a topic. The required level of concentration varies according to the nature and level of the book being read, and also the intellectual level of the reader himself and what he hopes to gain from his reading. The concentration needed to read a specialized academic book is different from that required to read a novel or a book written at a general level.
This brings us to the division of reading into two types:
The first type: skimming or flipping through the pages.
This is the kind of reading which the reader does when he wants to see what the book is about and its main topics, when he wants to form a general impression of the book’s chapters and how the author has dealt with his subject. This method is fine as an introduction to reading, as it lets the reader decide whether it is worth reading the book in a more focused manner, or whether quickly skimming through it is sufficient. This is sufficient for gaining some general information, but it is not a proper basis for solid, in-depth knowledge.
The second type: scientific reading.
This is the kind of focused reading in which the reader responds to the contents of the book and interacts with it, analyzing its points and aims. He may even enter into a positive debate with it. This kind of reading is the correct way to build a solid basis of knowledge and make facts stick in one’s mind. Because of the book’s worth, the reader may go back and read the book again, several times, in order to retain the information that he has gleaned from it, and perhaps to pick up more information that he missed the first time around. We have the example of Dhu’l-Mazani, who read Imaam al-Shaafa’i’s book al-Risaalah five hundred times! (Muqaddimat al-Risaalah, p. 4)
A mistake that many people make is flipping through a detailed academic book, reading it as one reads a newspaper, where one’s only aim is to finish the book. You can imagine how little a reader gains when this is his only method of reading!
Scholars and educators have described many things that help the reader to focus, such as choosing a suitable time and place, free of distractions; being mentally focused; being mentally and psychologically prepared to muster one’s intellectual abilities… and other suggestions, which would take too long to describe here. But they may be summed up in one phrase as being serious and keen, with a sincere intention. Whoever possesses this keenness will overcome all the obstacles in his path.
Written by: Abdulrahman Al-Suwyyan
Majallat al-Bayaan, no. 148; p. 74