Home / Blog / Pursuing Islamic Scholarship Alongside Another Career? Guidance For Aspirants

Pursuing Islamic Scholarship Alongside Another Career? Guidance For Aspirants

Jul 27, 2023Jul 27, 2023



Alhamdulillah. This article stems from a sequence of Facebook posts that many requested to be consolidated. The intention is to provide a centralized resource for students of knowledge pursuing Islamic scholarship.

The aspiration to become a scholar while maintaining another profession is commendable and not entirely unrealistic. Nonetheless, some might be driven by questionable or less-than-ideal motives toward this ambition, and many often overlook the sacrifices required and hesitate to make them. It remains vital to uplift and inspire aspirants. This is because some genuinely seek this path for the sake of Allah , or simply because they have a deep affection for acquiring knowledge. This affection, even if not the highest aspiration, is still sincere and not for mere posturing. There are numerous advantages in supporting, rather than discouraging, this inclination. Here are some:

In this article, I will inshaAllah, provide my advice to individuals from various professional backgrounds who aspire to pursue Islamic scholarship.

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Imam Aḥmad once stated:

لا ينبغي للرجل أن ينصب نفسه للفتيا حتى يكون فيه خمس خصال:

A man should not take on the position of a mufti unless he has five traits:

You might wonder about the relevance of this for a novice, asking why I cite Imam Ahmad instead of Imam al-Shafi’ee’s six prerequisites for learners. I’ll touch upon Imam al-Shafi’ee’s points soon, but Imam Ahmad’s words resonate deeply here, capturing the essence of what’s vital at both the beginning and culmination of one’s scholarly journey. He emphasized:

– Intention: This embodies your devotion to Allah . It is paramount for the acceptance of deeds alongside adherence to the Prophet’s way. They collectively symbolize the spirit of the kalimah. If you struggle with your daily awrâd, your prayers, or attending to your parents’ needs, it may be time to reassess your intentions. While volumes have been written about maintaining and purifying intention, here’s a brief guidance for the student of knowledge: Strive for humility, introspect if increased knowledge causes arrogance, seek the companionship of the righteous, be diligent in acts of devotion, and adjust your learning focus if you doubt your intention, but never cease learning.

– Character: Beyond the important traits highlighted by the Imam, steer clear of conceit, arrogance, jealousy, and recklessness. New knowledge might be exhilarating, but let it remind you of the vastness of what remains unknown. Recognize that while you might excel in two fields, others, with the same aptitude, dedicated to a single field haven’t been idle. Show great respect to those wholly committed to Islamic education and community service. In scholarly gatherings, mention your other profession only when truly pertinent. Understand that forgoing community compensation isn’t necessarily a magnanimous act. Those who accept such earnings often forego other lucrative opportunities to serve the deen and the community. Should you later be offered honoraria as a teacher, accept gracefully, and use them as you wish; it’s likely more halal than other sources of income, and you should not disrupt the customary conventions. Finally, avoid audaciousness and recklessness, and never speak or advise on matters beyond your knowledge.

– Competency/Aptitude: Imam al-Shafi‘ee highlights six prerequisites for scholarship in his poem: intelligence, eagerness, diligence, resources, guidance from a teacher, and a long time. Three pertain to personal aptitude, and the remaining to external resources. It’s essential to introspect and gauge your own strengths and limitations without drawing comparisons to others. Ensure your physical and emotional wellness and approach your studies strategically. If you like lengthy rest, ample socialization, and “play”, this scholarly journey might be challenging. Also, learning Islamic sciences requires mental resources—perhaps even more than other academic fields. If you struggle in “secular” studies, this should signal caution as Islamic studies can be even more demanding. Instead, consider focusing on foundational areas that will help you be among those who have true belief and act righteously آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات, like aqeedah, fiqh, suluk (including sira here), as well as the tafseer of the Quran and hadith. If Allah facilitates this learning for you, go back and study the technical supportive sciences.

– Resources: Your scholarly journey will demand both time and financial investment. Striving for excellence in your profession is paramount, as anything less not only undermines the knowledge you’ve acquired but is also unbefitting of a dedicated Muslim. Having said that, let us also be honest. While it’s vital for Muslims to achieve prominence in their respective fields, you’ve chosen to prioritize Islamic scholarship over complete professional dedication. This choice indicates that you may not reach the pinnacle of your profession. It also means that you should select a profession or specialty that offers the flexibility required for dedication to Islamic studies. This might mean opting for part-time positions at times or taking extended breaks for immersive study experiences. Although technological advancements like online courses offer invaluable resources, the traditional mentor-student relationship remains irreplaceable, and journeying in pursuit of knowledge will never become obsolete.

– Situational Awareness: Recognize both your strengths and the community’s needs. For instance, if living in the US, becoming the leading Mâliki or Ḥanbali faqeeh might not be your calling. Seek breadth before depth in knowledge, tailoring it to community needs.

Circumstances vary widely, but I’ll still try to address the frequently asked questions at the start of the journey to Islamic scholarship:

PC: Debby Hudson (unsplash)

It depends. If you’re close to the required competency for studying Islam in Arabic, go ahead and focus on reaching that level. If not, there are two choices. If you’re completely determined to be a scholar, start with Arabic and study all Islamic sciences in it. I say this despite dedicating years to the cause of facilitating Islamic studies in English. Teaching Islam in English still has value, especially for those who simply want to be teachers and preachers. Completing a BA in traditional Islamic studies in English, coupled with enhanced Arabic skills upon program culmination, is likely better than a degree from a conventional mainstream university. Also, some who want to become scholars may lose patience starting with Arabic, and give up before learning enough about Islam. It’s like waiting in line for utensils when food is ready. If you let them progress in both, they may continue wanting to learn and perfect their Arabic. Those studying in Arabic also need good Islamic English vocabulary if they plan to teach English speakers.

If married, be a good spouse; it might bring barakah to your learning. Around three decades ago, I encountered a student who contemplated divorce to devote more time to the pursuit of knowledge. To me, it seemed counterintuitive to start a path to the pleasure of Allah by obeying the Shayṭân. For unmarried individuals who have the flexibility to postpone marriage, considering a delay of a few years to gain a solid foundation in learning could prove advantageous.

Traditional study with mentors is like homeschooling. You need motivation, organization, and resolve. Still, I suggest enrolling in a program for a degree. The degree opens doors, and a structured program ensures balanced studies.

Given the option, I lean towards in-person learning; however, online study provides valuable flexibility, with certain programs offering a well-balanced mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. No matter what you choose, face-to-face with scholars is still irreplaceable and journeying for the pursuit of knowledge will never become obsolete. Regarding the university vs. madrasa question, curriculum and faculty matter more than names.

Although I’m against forming rigid groups, I don’t advocate for relativism and my epistemological, creedal, and fiqhi orientations are clear. However, the matter at hand is not simply a binary distinction. “Rabbani Salafism” and “Sunni Sufism” frequently converge, transcending their more extreme elements (and many scholars do not use those denominators). By the time you decide to pursue scholarship, it’s improbable that your stance hasn’t formed. Yet, if still uncertain, take more time to make an informed decision. In the interim, occupy your time with universal treasures: memorize the Quran and Hadith. Regardless of your eventual choices, these will always prove invaluable. In your chosen program, absorb as much as possible, honoring and loving your mentors while remaining open to learning beyond program confines.

Depends on circumstances and career. Gap years can be useful, focusing on Arabic and Quran memorization and understanding. If not feasible now, do your best and hope for opportunities later.

Yes, if possible. But you can make significant progress without travel. Immersive study experiences help, and living in an Arabic-speaking country improves spoken Arabic. While not crucial for comprehending Islamic texts, this skill holds value in diverse societies and international Islamic engagements.

Navigate these crossroads with careful consideration, yet avoid becoming paralyzed by indecision. It is never too late or too hard. Strive with determination, pursuing your unique potential within your unique circumstances, and refrain from competition with others for prominence. Remember, if this is being done for Allah and the betterment of your soul, the acquisition of knowledge is always beneficial and knows no limits. If it is not, you risk becoming among those who labor tirelessly but in vain. عاملة ناصبة May Allah safeguard both us and you from such a compounded loss.

PC: Masjid Pogung Dalangang (unsplash)

This religion centers around faith and righteousness (al-imân and al-‘amal al-ṣâliḥ). Consequently, the core sciences encompass the following end sciences (علوم المقاصد أو الغايات – ‘Ulûm al-Maqâṣid or al-Ghâyât):

The hadîth of Jibreel about Islam, Îmân, and Iḥsân indeed alludes to these three divisions.

All these derive from revelation: the Qur’an and its clarifier, the Sunnah of the Messenger . Thus, naturally:

are two pivotal core sciences, which may be called (علوم المصادر – ‘Ulûm al-Maṣâdir or sources).

For the average Muslim, a good basic understanding of these five core branches of knowledge is typically sufficient. Apart from memorizing a portion of the Qur’an in Arabic, they can be learned in any language.

For the dedicated student, additional auxiliary subjects enhance the understanding of the above. These can be segmented into alât (tools) and mukammilât (complements).

– Arabic Sciences: The Foremost Tool

– For Qur’anic comprehension:

– For Hadîth comprehension:

‘Ulûm al-Hadith and Hadith terminology (علوم ومصطلح الحديث). Ibn al-Ṣalâḥ identifies 65 of them, but they primarily fall under:

– For Fiqh:

– For ‘Aqîdah:

Islamic History:

The sîrah of the Prophet and his shamâ’il are integral parts of Tazkiyah. However, a comprehensive understanding requires knowledge of battles, geographic landmarks, and significant events. It’s also important to be acquainted with the history of the rightly guided caliphate, the expansive Muslim empires, and contemporary situations. Additionally, learning about the biographies of the Companions, eminent scholars, devoted mujahids, and worshippers further enriches Tazkiyah.

Sciences for Educators and Muslim Apologists:

Once you’ve grasped the fundamental tenets of scholarship, a plethora of advanced sciences awaits exploration. Consider, for instance, the Fiqh branch known as النظريات الفقهية (legal theories). This discipline provides a theoretical underpinning for understanding the law and its nuances in specific scenarios, like contracts or ownership. In the Western tradition, legal theories delve into the very nature of law, the intricacies of legal systems, and the logic of jurisprudential reasoning. Such discussions bear similarities to the subjects of maqâṣid and uṣool. However, it’s advisable not to delve into this during the initial stages of study. According to Ibn Khaldun’s three-tiered categorization, this would fall under level 3. Yet, in a more segmented system, it might be positioned further along the learning curve.

Lastly, consider utilizing an Excel sheet to monitor your progress. On the X-axis, enumerate the subjects, while on the Y-axis, denote 3-5 tiers of proficiency (or the other way around!). This visual representation can be a valuable tool in tracking your growth and achievements. The specific texts to study within each tier should come recommended by your instructors.

Expanding on the suggestion to utilize an Excel sheet to monitor your advancement across various subjects and proficiency tiers, we’ll start our tips by delving into the role of technology.

PC: GR stocks (unsplash)

Remember, احرص على ما ينفعك – “Be keen on what benefits you.” Avoid getting caught up in mere formalities (رسوم) and ritualism. Don’t be swayed by the sarcasm of those who relish negativity. You might not possess the memory of al-Bukhari or the tranquility of our predecessors. Hence, utilize what’s available to you:

YouTube and various recordings can be invaluable. Videos often have an edge over audio, but both are valuable. Inquire about the most insightful shurooḥ. The best isn’t necessarily the most comprehensive. If you’re at a beginner’s level and the instructor spends half an hour on the letter “bâ’ – ب” in Bismillah, consider exploring another series.

Embrace apps like Anki to aid memorization. I sometimes wish we had access to these during our younger years; they might have been more beneficial than traditional card decks. But if you’re partial to card decks, go with what works best for you.

There’s an array of helpful software out there. The keyword, however, is “helpful.” Set clear goals. If you come across software showcasing trees of narrators, temper your excitement if the time isn’t right.

While it’s tempting, you can’t purchase every book that piques your interest. Utilize platforms like al-Shâmilah to save money and space. These can also expedite your research and search processes. Nonetheless, there will always be certain editions and unique books not available on these platforms.

Engage with the books of turâth. The continuity of this knowledge shouldn’t suffer from epistemic disruptions. We mustn’t sever our ties with tradition. However, at times, contemporary authors offer invaluable insights that enhance your understanding. Al-Naḥw al-Wâḍiḥ, written by authors who weren’t even sheikhs, is a case in point, as is al-Balâghah al-Wâḍiḥ. Study al-Agurromiyyah, but also works by modern scholars. If your mentor suggests moving from al-Naḥw al-Wâḍiḥ to Qaṭr al-Nada, heed their advice. Not every “traditional” book demands your attention.

Always seek the best editions; inquire before purchasing. When you read a version of ṣaḥeeḥ al-Bukhari, such as those printed by Dâr al-Ta’ṣeel or Bayt al-Sunnah (all indebted to al-Sulṭâniyah), you’ll find fewer errors in ḍabṭ (tashkeel) and gain added insights from footnotes discussing manuscript variations, among other aspects.

Individual strengths vary. Some are endowed with photographic memories, while others possess analytical prowess. Age is also a factor. If you’re in your late teens or early twenties, strive to memorize some essential mutoon. For those older, prioritize understanding, but attempt to memorize crucial pieces: the Quran and about 1,000 hadiths of aḥkâm and 1,000 in assorted fields. Selections from Bulugh al-Marâm and Riyâḍ al-Ṣâliḥeen are excellent sources, especially if you filter out repetitions. If this seems daunting, begin with the forty hadiths and ‘Umdat al-Aḥkâm, expanding as you delve into relevant topics. The essence is to persevere, but not to squander excessive time fruitlessly.

إِذا لَم تَستَطِع شَيئاً فَدَعهُ وَجاوِزهُ إِلى ما تَستَطيعُ

“When a task eludes your grasp, leave it and pursue that which is attainable.”

Always remember, you’re essentially competing against your own potential. Some individuals may surpass you in intellect or memory. If you precede them to paradise, that’s the ultimate victory. If not, seek to enhance your position therein or, at the very least, secure a place.

PC: Andrew Neel (unsplash)

Prioritize books in the genre of madâkhil. These can simplify your subject comprehension. Before diving into a subject, consult your mentors regarding the best introductory resources. Madkhal, after all, signifies “entrance.”

Reading a single book thrice is often more beneficial than exploring three separate books on the same topic. Noteworthy scholars have revisited seminal works, such as al-Bukhari, countless times. Some were even eponymously identified with specific books due to their mastery and frequent teachings, e.g., al-Faṣeeḥi, al-Tanbeehi, al-Wajeezi, al-Minhâji, al-Kâfeeji, al-Ta‘jeezi, and so forth.

Maintain your focus on the current study. Avoid excessive ḥawâshi (marginalia) and try not to out-prepare your instructor. Over-preparation can lead to imbalances in your knowledge, reduce exposure to other subjects, and possibly foster arrogance, diminishing your respect for mentors.

When transitioning from one level to the next, if a significant amount of time has passed since you last read the book from the previous level, take a moment to quickly review it. Transitioning to advanced levels necessitates revisiting foundational concepts, allowing knowledge to develop in concentric layers, with foundational concepts serving as the nucleus. Organizing information mentally and proper archival is crucial.

Some scholars advise focusing on one subject at a time; this may be too difficult for someone enrolled in a program. However, aside from your revision of the Quran and a dedicated time for revision or other محفوظات maḥfoożât, do not study more subjects than what is covered in your program. If you are not enrolled in a program or paced by your instructors, study one or two subjects at a time, giving them your entire focus (until they feature in your dreams)!

If you are enrolled in a program, follow the order they give you. If not, scholars have different focuses and views on the order of learning various subjects. I will defer to your instructors. However, Manṭiq (logic) is a bit problematic. The advice is to learn it after immersion in the revelation illuminates your heart and mind. However, it is considered a tool for the other sciences, which should naturally be learned early. Honestly, you do not need it for the required knowledge or level 1 of the scholarly path. When you read it before level 2, approach it as a way to organize your thinking, knowing that most of the Aristotelian logic taught in different seminaries and by various teachers has outdated concepts, and some are based on metaphysical concepts contrary to ours. Should you read Imam Ibn Taymiyyah’s Response to the Logicians along with your first reading of Logic? Maybe not. However, remain cautious until you can read it, or Imam al-Suyooṭi’s abbreviation of it, or some contemporary taqreeb (simplification) of it.

As a general rule, be balanced, and do not advance to level 2 or 3 in one subject before finishing level 1 in all. The one exception is probably Arabic; based on the advice of your teachers, you might finish more than one level after you have learned al-‘Ilm al-Wâjib (Required knowledge).

Teach the subject you are learning to your spouse or bring a few teenagers to the masjid and try to simplify it for them. No, you are not using human beings as a means. You are benefiting them with this exposure. If there is a subject that you don’t find someone who can benefit from now, pretend to prepare a lecture and try to organize your thoughts, either in your mind or on paper, which is better. Use diagrams and visual aids, especially if you are a visual person.

Do not skip over ‘Uloom al-‘Âlah (Tools). However, do not waste your life studying them beyond the reason for which you embarked on studying them. If you live in the West, it may not be your calling to be the Ibn Hishâm al-Naḥwi of your time, unless you so wish; then that is different!

Ibn Khaldūn said,

وأمّا ‌العلوم ‌الّتي ‌هي ‌آلة ‌لغيرها مثل العربيّة والمنطق وأمثالهما فلا ينبغي أن ينظر فيها إلّا من حيث هي آلة لذلك الغير فقط. ولا يوسّع فيها الكلام ولا تفرّع المسائل لأنّ ذلك مخرج لها عن المقصود إذ المقصود منها ما هي آلة له لا غير. فكلّما خرجت عن ذلك خرجت عن المقصود وصار الاشتغال بها لغوا مع ما فيه من صعوبة الحصول على ملكتها بطولها وكثرة فروعها. وربّما يكون ذلك عائقا عن تحصيل العلوم المقصودة بالذّات لطول وسائلها.

“As for the sciences that are tools for other objectives, such as the Arabic language, logic, and their likes, they should only be considered insofar as they are tools for that other purpose. There shouldn’t be excessive discourse about them because that would divert them from their intended purpose. Their primary aim is what they serve as tools for, nothing else. Every time they deviate from this, they stray from their true objective, making engagement in them pointless, especially given the difficulty in mastering them due to their length and numerous branches. Sometimes, this can be an obstacle to acquiring the knowledge that is intended in and of itself because the means to that end become too lengthy.”2[Abd al-Raḥmān Ibn Khaldūn, Al-‘Ibar wa Dīwān al-Mubtada’ wa al-Khabar, 1st ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1401 AH/1981 AD), v. 1, p. 739.]

Still, when you move to the end sciences, focus on concepts. One of the obstacles to learning, according to Ibn Khaldun, is the fascination with terms, minutiae, and subtleties with no practical utility. Do not get trapped by that. And if you fear that someone will mention a term you didn’t know, your heart is not in the right place. When they do, ask them what they mean by it. No one knows all those terms. So, focus on practical concepts; life is short.

While some of this has been mentioned before, it’s worth reiterating. Pay attention to your intention and stay focused. Monitor your progress and remain motivated. Find peers to accompany and assist you during your journey until you can proceed on your own. Read about the biographies of great scholars and the virtues of knowledge. Stay fit physically, mentally, and more importantly, spiritually. Every time you learn something, try to implement it. Imam Ahmad hired a ḥajjâm and gave him one dinâr because he related a hadith from the Prophet that he did. Make plenty of du‘â’ for it is He who bestows all good and withholds.

واتقوا الله ويعلمكم الله And fear Allah, and Allah will teach you. [Surah Al-Baqarah; 2:282]

Muwaffaqoon insha-Allah

وصلى الله على محمد والحمد لله رب العالمين


– A Guide for Studying Arabic and Quran in Morocco –

– On Maintaining Work-Life Balance While Memorizing The Quran –

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

[Podcast] Public School, Islamic School, Or Homeschool Education? | Omar Abdul Fatah

Structural Cohesion In The Quran [A Series]: Surah Al Muzzammil

Dr. Hatem Al-Haj has a PhD in Comparative Fiqh from al-Jinan University. He is a pediatrician, former Dean of the College of Islamic Studies at Mishkah University, and a member of the permanent Fatwa Committee of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA).

[Podcast] Public School, Islamic School, Or Homeschool Education? | Omar Abdul Fatah

Structural Cohesion In The Quran [A Series]: Surah Al Muzzammil

[Man2Man Podcast] Sweetness and Success with the Qur’an

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment *

Name *

Email *



Sign up below to get started

Reflections On Hajj I Sh. Furhan Zubairi

Are Western Muslims Becoming Right-Wing? The Emergence Of A Politically Mature Community With Agency

Structural Cohesion In The Quran: Heavenly Order

The Many Eids Spent In Guantanamo: An Ex-Detainee Reflects

– Intention: – Character: – Competency/Aptitude: – Resources: – Situational Awareness:‘Aqîdah (العقيدة – Creed)Fiqh (الفقه – Jurisprudence)Tazkiyah (التزكية)Tafsîr and Tajwîd (التفسير والتجويد Exegesis and the art of correct recitation)Shurooḥ al-Sunnah (شروح السنة – Commentaries on the Sunnah) – Arabic Sciences – For Qur’anic comprehension: – For Hadîth comprehension: – For Fiqh: – For ‘Aqîdah:Islamic HistorySciences for Educators and Muslim ApologistsRelated:MuslimMatters NewsLetter in Your InboxSign up below