Though studying Islam as a student of knowledge has its reward, it is not without its own trials and difficult challenges as well. It could be argued that the fitnah faced by the scholar and the student is more than the average muslim faces due to the status and responsibility that comes with the knowledge they acquire. Though it is the people of knowledge who should fear Allah subhana wa ta’ala the most as Allah says;
“Only those fear Allah , from among His servants, who have knowledge. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Forgiving.” (Surah Al-Fatir 35:28)
Regarding “…Those truly fear Allah among His servants are those who have knowledge…”
Ibn Kathir stated that, “The more the knowledge of Allah and His (subhana wa ta’ala) power is complete, the more He (subhana wa ta’ala) will be feared by those who have the complete knowledge.”
This may not always be the case when the intentions of the scholar or student become distracted. And what may once have been the correct intention then becomes striving for something other than the pleasure of Allah subhana wa ta’ala, leading the scholar or student down a path to their own destruction. Some of the common fitnahs facing scholars and students of knowledge today may include:
1) Prideful feelings for having so much knowledge..
This can generally occur as a student obtains knowledge. They memorize a certain number of ahadith, or memorize the entirety of the Qur’an, a favour which Allah subhana wa ta’ala has bestowed upon them and they begin to attribute this to themselves instead.
Allah subhana wa ta’ala says:
“Then he made him and blew in him from His spirit and made for you hearing, sight and hearts. [But] you rarely give thanks.” (Surah as-Sajdah 32:9)
According to Ibn Kathir this meant, “You rarely give thanks for these strengths with which Allaah has provided you. The one who is truly blessed is the one who uses them to worship and obey his Lord, may He be exalted and glorified.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 7, p. 610)
Then they will gain a high opinion of themselves as a result, what began as sharing knowledge for the sake of Allah subhana wa ta’ala may instead exceed self-respect, turning into bragging and boastful behaviour about themselves and their lives.
Sufyaan ath-Thawree said, “Whenever a worshipper does a good deed in private, Satan keeps whispering to him until he tells other people about it. It then changes from a private act of worship to a public one.” (Tablees Iblees, p.180)
They may begin to show off with comments, statements and achievements that serve no real benefit to anyone or anything but their own personal image. Such as how they have memorized Qur’an, how they have memorized Bukhari hadith, how grand the life of a shaykh is, and other such related examples. All for the sake of praise and showing off, praise is then a fitnah for this type of student of knowledge. They may even begin to feel that they are above correction and cannot be approached even when they make a mistake and easily fall astray as a result. The Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam referred to such showing off as ar-riya and warned against it.
Abu Bakr related that the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam said: “Shirk amongst you is more hidden than the crawling of an ant, and I shall tell you of something which, if you do it, will remove from you both the minor and the major Shirk. Say: Allaahumma innee a’oothu bika an ushrika bika wa ana a’alamu wa astaghfiruka limaa laa a’lam [O Allaah, surely I seek refuge in you from knowingly worshipping others besides You and I ask your forgiveness for what I don’t know.]” (Authenticated in Saheeh al-Jaami’as-Sagheer, no.3731)
2) Feelings of superiority due to status or fame..
This can often occur when a person becomes recognized for some work and becomes famous. They will likely enjoy the admiration and are which comes with being popular and may begin to acquire feelings of superiority, causing them to look down on others and think their self above correction as a result.
Shaykh-ul-Islam Ibn Taimiyah relates in his Essay on the Heart;
“The most beloved of them to Allaah the Almighty is the most sensitive and pure.” This is a good example, for, if the heart is sensitive and soft, it easily accepts knowledge, and the knowledge then becomes firmly rooted in it and [the heart] is affected by it. On the other hand, if [the heart] is hard and harsh it is difficult for it to accept knowledge.”
So we can see such an attitude can and generally does prevent the student of knowledge from acquiring more knowledge as a result. They may carry themselves with pride, feeling entitled to praise. They might find that the easiest route to secure this admiration is appeasing the masses at the cost of integrity, in order to be accepted and well liked. So they may change their opinions or content based on the audience or individual that is listening, concerning their self with what pleases people more than what pleases Allah subhana wa ta’ala.
Allah subhana wa ta’ala says;
“Make not the calling of the Messenger (Muhammad salalahu alayhi wasalam) among you as your calling one of another. Allah knows those of you who slip away under shelter (of some excuse without taking the permission to leave, from the Messenger). And let those who oppose the Messenger’s commandment (i.e. his Sunnah – legal ways, orders, acts of worship, statements) (among the sects) beware, lest some Fitnah (disbelief,trials, afflictions, earthquakes, killing, overpowered by a tyrant) should befall them or a painful torment be inflicted on them.” (Surah An-Nur 24:63)
Allah subhana wa ta’ala also says:
“For that is Allah , your Lord, the Truth. And what can be beyond truth except error? So how are you averted?” (Surah Yunus 10:32)
So we can see that following or conveying the commands of anything beyond Allah subhana wa ta’ala and His Messenger salallahu alayhi wasalam in matters of religion is a clear falsehood. Submitting to the desires of the people over Allah is part of this.
3) Motivated by desire for wealth..
A student of knowledge may feel inclined toward seeking benefits of wealth through their knowledge. Whether this may occur through outrageous fees for classes on Islamic knowledge, making Islamic knowledge only accessible to the wealthy as a result contrary to early generations which Islamic knowledge was easily accessed by even the beggars. Or whether this wealth is acquired through issuing religious interpretations in order to appease rulers, leaders, or even business owners and receiving favours and gifts in return, which is why the modern phrase “Scholars for Dollars” was coined.
Abu Hurayrah quoted the Messenger of Allah salallahu alayhi wasalam as saying: “Indeed, this world and its contents are cursed except the remembrance of Allah, what helps to remember Allah, the scholar and the student.” (Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, vol. 5, p.413-4, no. 4113 and authenticated in Sahih al-Jaami’ as-Sagheer, vol. 1, pp. 641-2, no. 3414)
From this we can see that when remembrance of Allah subhana wa ta’ala is forfeited for the sake of wealth, then it no longer benefits the student of knowledge.
Each of the aforementioned and commonly encountered fitnah facing the student of knowledge can generally be related back to pride and arrogance. This is the same sin which guaranteed Iblis an eternity in jahannam. Generally due to attributing the favours of Allah to oneself rather than rightfully giving thanks to Allah subhana wa ta’ala. By extension they end up giving preference to the dunya and the people in it over preference to Allah. Ultimately leading to a form of shirk and a very easy shirk for the student of knowledge to fall into.
Allah subhana wa ta’ala says:
“I will turn away from My signs those who behave arrogant in the land, without right. So if they see every sign they will not believe in them. And if they see the path of guidance they will not take it, but if they see the path of error they will take it as a way.” (Surah al-A’raaf 7:146)
Overcoming these kinds of fitnah..
A practical way of developing an awareness for such pride, arrogance, and riyaa is through private acts of worship by which there can be no people to see and to praise you. This way there can be minimal danger of seeking to impress people, nor can the people ruin one’s good deeds with praise. In fact private worship is one of the characteristics of a true believer.
“And in the hours before dawn, they ask Allaah for forgiveness.” (Surah ath-Thaariyaat, 51:18)
When some scholars were moved to tears during their lectures out of fear of Allah, they would wipe their faces and tell their audiences that they had a severe cold. (Talbees Iblees, pp. 150&196)
References: The Noble Qur’an, A Commentary on Ibn Taimiyyah’s Essay on the Heart; Annotated Translation by Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, Saheeh al-Jaami’as-Sagheer, Tablees Iblees, Tafsir Ibn Kathir