By Abid Mohammed
This article is the first in a series entitled “10 Steps to Ace Your Exams,” in which I hope to extract gems from traditional Islamic sources that would be of benefit to students struggling to revise for their exams.
The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) said, “Allah has made excellence (ihsan) obligatory for everything, so when you sacrifice, sacrifice excellently; and when you slaughter an animal, then perform the slaughter excellently; and let any of you sharpen his knife and let him put the animal at ease.” [Muslim]
If you are a student who is going to sit an exam in the near future, I have a simple exercise for you. Ask yourself: how well do you want to do in your exams?
I’m sure everyone will say “good” but just how good is “good?” And why not “great,” “amazing” or even “stupendous?” Sometimes we can become complacent and start lowering our standards, claiming to have a “realistic” outlook on life, as opposed to tainting our lens with self-pity, which is what we are actually doing. At the beginning of the year, it seems like the sky’s the limit when it comes to what we can achieve, but by the time it comes to exams, we have successfully convinced ourselves that the limit is, in fact, the sky. We start to believe that the only hope we have is to somehow scrape by with a pass and anything more than that would be nothing short of divine intervention from above the Seven Heavens.
Islam, however, tells us something quite different. In fact, the Prophet ﷺ said that Allahsubhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) commanded us not only to raise our standards and expectations but to fix them right at the top! For Muslims, the sky’s not the limit! Paradise is. And not just any level of Paradise, but as the Prophet ﷺ instructed us to ask Allah (swt) – the highest level of Paradise, al-Firdous al-A`la! Not only is our desired destination incredibly high, but the One who is commanding us to institute excellence in everything we do, the One to whom we pray for the highest level of Paradise, is the Highest – something of which we remind ourselves on a daily basis while we prostrate in our prayers.
We must realize that just as it is an obligation to pray five times a day, to be respectful towards our parents and to be truthful, it is also an obligation to try to do everything – including our revision – to the best of our actual ability. I emphasize the word “actual” because striving for excellence entails finding out what we are actually capable of, by aiming to do the best every time and seeking expert advice in overcoming any perceived limitations to our overall ability. Past performances in exams or our vague “feelings” as to what we can achieve are not really good indicators of our true ability. If they were, most of us wouldn’t have progressed beyond an elementary understanding of math because at one point in time, we all struggled with a math equation or two. Thankfully, we persisted, and with a little of bit of effort and a lot of help from our teachers, we were able to jump those initial hurdles and move on to bigger and better things. If we adopt the same attitude with regards to all our abilities, we’ll have a much better understanding of our true ability and then be able to perform to the best of our ability and practice ihsan as God commanded us!
So the next time we start to feel our standards slip and we can feel those negative thoughts slowly seep into our minds, let us remember the words of the Prophet ﷺ and use that remembrance as a knife to “sacrifice” that self-pity, excellently, putting our minds at ease. As we remind ourselves of these words more often, our “knife” will sharpen and we will become more determined, more focused and more willing to do anything and everything to be the best that we can actually be. Let us not aim to just “pass” or do “well” in our exam. Let us aim to ace our exams like no man/woman/young person has done before. Absolute perfection is reserved for Allah (swt) alone, but excellence is something that we can all achieve, so long as it is for His sake and His sake alone: “And whoever submits his face to Allah while he is a doer of good – then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold. And to Allah will be the outcome of [all] matters.” (Qur’an 31:22)
In our next article, we will explore practical ways in which we can direct ourselves completely to Allah (swt) while revising, God willing.
- Yours Sincerely
“And whoever submits his face to Allah while he is a doer of good – then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold. And to Allah will be the outcome of [all] matters.” (Qur’an, 31:22)
Ali ibn Abi Talib (radi Allahu `anhu—may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Do not long for anything other than your Lord.”
“But seek, through that which Allah has given you…” (Qur’an, 28:77)
Imam Al Muhasibi said, “Make the world a vehicle.”
True sincerity as a whole is a difficult goal to achieve in the short time period that many have between now and their exams, at least without expert help. There are certain steps that can be taken, however, to enable us to be more sincere in our revision.
First, let’s talk about our intention. Four approaches can be used. There are those that “just want to pass” or even become “top of the class” with God not having much to do with their desire for either. Some take this a step further by saying they want to “revise or pass their exams for the sake of God,” but with this goal, the details of how they plan to use their exams as a “vehicle” to God are missing. Yet others attempt to be more specific by saying, for example, “I want to pass my psychology exam for the sake of God so that I can try to develop a groundbreaking new form of psychotherapy and thereby help fulfill my function as a member of the ummah (global community of Muslim believers) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. ‘You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind’ (Qur’an, 3:110).” However, the ideal intention would be to combine sincerity with the specifics and not leave it as an afterthought: “I want to pass my science exam for the sake of God so that I can find the next medical breakthrough and thereby fulfill the Prophet’s ﷺ command to ‘seek medical treatment’ as it is a part of ‘God’s Providence’ (Ibn Majah), for the sake of God.” Combining sincerity with the specifics will help ensure that you are actually being sincere to God and will continue to do so while traveling towards Him.
If our intentions are truly renewed, then we will see clear practical results in our revision. This does not just mean that we will generally find our revision easier, but specifically we will adopt habits that not only are more conducive for our learning but also will reinforce our sincerity. For example, we will no longer feel shy to participate in group revision sessions or seek help from others, nor will we feel the urge to waste our time in trying to “show off” our knowledge to those around us. This is because our revision is purely for God’s sake – it does not matter whether people think we are dim-witted or intelligent. As Al-Khalil bin Ahmad said: “The station of ignorance is between shyness and arrogance.” The station we hope to adopt is that of attaining knowledge, sincerely.
- Placing your trust in your rope?
Ibn `Ata’ Allah Al-Iskandari said, “A feeling of discouragement when you slip up is a sure sign that you put your faith in deeds.”
He also said, “Relax from being obsessed with your plans; what someone else has undertaken on your behalf, do not burden yourself with it.”
Having trust in God is easier said than done when it comes to revision. Everyone and everything around us is telling us at every single moment that our results are only as good as the amount of work we’ve put in, and so if we have not done “enough” work, we are going to fail our exams. While Islam emphasizes the importance of tying one’s rope, it also stresses that we must never put our “faith in deeds”. Our reliance should not be upon our own actions, but solely on God. By trusting in Him, we no longer fall into despair as a result of falling behind in our revision, because our hearts are not tied to our volatile actions – they are bound to Him, perpetually filled with awe at His continuous and everlasting magnificence. Whether we are ahead of schedule or behind schedule, His Power, Mercy and Lordship remains the same. By trusting in Him, not only are we obeying His commandment, but it also protects us from procrastinating on tasks in order to defend our self-worth and enables us to be consistent with regards to our learning.
- First things first
Allah said in a hadith qudsi (divine narration through the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him): “…My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more beloved to Me than the religious duties that I have made obligatory upon him; and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory work such that I love him…” (Sahih Bukhari)
There is a difference between acing our exams and becoming an expert in the subjects that we will be tested on. The former can be achieved in a relatively short time period and involves identifying what topics we are expected to know for our exams, to what degree we need to know them and which questions have come up in previous exams. As for the latter, we can spend the rest of our lives trying to become “experts” in our respective fields. Unfortunately, many students, in their quest to “aim high”, fail to distinguish between the two. They try to understand absolutely everything about, for example, neurology, when they are not even going to be tested on much neurology in their exams.
Putting first things first is a law that Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He) has instituted for those wishing to draw near to Him, and just as it is applicable to praying your obligatory prayers before performing any supererogatory works, it also applies to our revision. Let us therefore strive to pinpoint exactly what we need to know for our exams and not expose ourselves to the inevitable onslaught of despair and procrastination that comes from shouldering information that we do not need to bear.
- Keep it simple, silly
The Prophet ﷺ said, “Islam is based on five principles: to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger, to offer the prayers dutifully and perfectly, to pay zakat (obligatory charity), to perform Hajj (pilgrimage) and to observe the fast during the month of Ramadan.” (Sahih Bukhari)
It’s difficult to remember a thousand different facts with no apparent relation to one another, so let’s try to make life simple for ourselves. Are there any core messages that we can identify in our revision? If there are – and I guarantee there are – then it makes things easier for us. These core messages provide the foundation for further details to be added, just as the five pillars provide the foundation upon which our faith can be established. For example, as medical students, we are taught to simply list all the possible diagnoses for a particular patient using the “surgical sieve”: the cause can either be congenital or acquired; if it is acquired, it can either be vascular, infective, autoimmune, metabolic, inflammatory, neurological, neoplastic or degenerative in nature. Once we’ve started considering the relevant causes, only then can we start to explore specific diseases and their subtypes, eventually reaching a diagnosis. Of course, we could just jump to a diagnosis straight away, but for beginners at least, this is very difficult to do and it could potentially result in overlooking other possible causes.
- Story time
“There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding…” (Qur’an 12:111)
How do you ensure that you are internalising what you revise? How do you turn your revision from a passive colouring-in-a-book activity to an interactive experience? How do you prevent your mind from forgetting everything you have revised in the actual exam itself, let alone months or years afterwards? Turn your list of facts or theories to remember into stories.
Stories are one of the best ways for us to understand, remember and, as a result, convey a message – for life. In fact, they are also an incredibly effective way to act upon what we have learnt, as they serve as verbal simulators – translating what may be abstract concepts into practical examples to be followed. For this, and many other reasons, stories are one of the communication media of choice in the Qur’an. Therein, Allah (swt) has perfected the art of storytelling, thereby providing us all with the best example to follow when dealing with messages, in any shape or form.
It doesn’t matter what topic we are revising, from anatomy to economics – if we do steps 4 and 5 properly, we can easily turn our revision into a boredom-free, procrastination-free, interactive story telling process and pass our exams with flying colours, inshaAllah (God willing)!
- Sharing is caring:
The Prophet ﷺ said: “Convey from me, even if one ayah (verse), for it may be that the one being informed will comprehend better than the one listening (at present).” (Sahih Bukhari)
If we did step 6, then 7 is the next natural step. If stories are an awesome way to convey a message, then it doesn’t make sense to create a story and not share it. By sharing our stories, and our knowledge in general, with others, we are not only following the Prophet’s ﷺ command, but we are following in the footsteps of Allah (swt). Out of His Mercy, He “shared” knowledge with us (though in reality, all knowledge belongs to Him) – the Qur’an being a perfect example of this. Again, we find that by heeding Allah’s (swt) instructions, He takes care of us by instilling in us habits which enhance our learning.
As the hadith (narration of the Prophet ﷺ) above alludes to, sharing knowledge is not only the best way to test whether we have truly understand what we have learnt, but it also encourages others to share information with us. Thus, we are able to learn and gain new insights from others, even if they are just asking us questions. Those of us who fear that our own grades will suffer even by spending the slightest amount of time helping others should renew our intentions, and remind ourselves that “to Allah will be the outcome of [all] matters” (Qur’an 31:22). Results only come from Allah (swt), not from our own efforts. Let us therefore direct ourselves towards Him and follow His commandments, and start sharing what we have learnt with others, even if it is just one fact.
- Testing: 1, 2, 3…
`Umar (radi Allahu `anhu—may God be pleased with him) said, “Take yourself to account before you are taken to account, weigh your actions before they are weighed and beautify yourself for the ultimate presentation. On that day, not the slightest secret will be hidden.”
It is surprising to see that for many of us, our actual exams are the first time we are testing what we’ve learnt. This could be because we either did not intend to test ourselves beforehand, or because we were procrastinating assessing our knowledge until we had completed our entire revision. Whatever the reason, as `Umar (ra) eloquently pointed out, this approach is fundamentally flawed. Why wait until the ultimate presentation to be assessed, when it is too late to do anything about your shortcomings or weaknesses anyway?
As is clearly evident from the Islamic tradition, many of the companions, scholars and activists took themselves to account on a daily basis. If we are to reach the same lofty heights they did, in this life and more importantly in the hereafter, then we must adopt this mentality in every sphere of our lives – including our revision. Whether it’s using past papers, sitting practice exams under timed conditions or even focusing on our exam technique, it is important that we test ourselves from the get-go before it’s too late.
- Body, mind and soul
“And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance, that you not transgress within the balance.” (Qur’an, 55:7-8)
The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) said, “Do not overburden yourselves, lest you perish. People before you overburdened themselves and perished. Their remains are found in hermitages and monasteries.” (The Musnad of Abu Ya’la, cited by Ibn Kathir in his tafsir)
Imam Al Muhasibi said, “Make your spare time a source of enrichment.”
Though we must never be moderate in our ambitions or our determination to realise our goals, we must strive to be balanced in all that we do, as God commands. The Lord of our revision and exams is also the Lord of our entire lives—it does not make sense to obey Him while revising but not with regards to everything else in life.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what tends to happens for most of us, and it is precisely why many of us find a severe barakah (blessing) deficiency in our revision. We retreat to our hermitages and our monasteries to focus solely on our revision and nothing else. Our physical health is damaged by eating fast food (because we don’t have time for good food), drinking Red Bull and not exercising or getting enough sleep. Our family lives are neglected because we simply do not have time to help our parents around the house, even for a few minutes. And overall, our general well-being plummets as our spare time is reduced to checking Facebook and surfing YouTube.
Cutting out distractions is a good thing, but our friends, family, physical health and spiritual well-being are not distractions—they are integral parts of our lives. By neglecting them, we not only neglect God’s commands, but yet again, we introduce procrastination into our revision. The mental dreariness of “all work and no play makes Hamzah a dull boy” will only make us put off doing any work until we absolutely have to. By ensuring that all of our responsibilities are seen to—whether it’s our responsibility to our friends or to our own hearts—we ensure that God instills plenty of barakah in our revision. By being balanced, our body, mind and soul do not burn out; rather they are continuously alert and invigorated to perform any task that is laid out in front of them.
As Imam Zaid Shakir said, “Fill every moment with an action that will be the source of some lasting good. God reminds us, ‘…the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward and better for [one’s] hope.’” (Qur’an, 18:46.)
- Start now.
“And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous (Qur’an, 3:133).”
“Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorailty, while Allah promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. He gives wisdom to whom He wills…” (Qur’an, 2:268-269).
Imam Al Muhasibi said, “If you are motivated to do some good, hasten to it.”
Arabic adage: “Do not put off today’s work until tomorrow.”
Most of us delay starting on our revision because we feel that we are at 0% and we somehow have to hit 100% in the space of three weeks. But that simply is not true. Even if we feel that we have “done no work” the entire year, we cannot deny that we have picked up bits of information here and there. We have done the odd assignment. We have even attended a lecture or a tutorial here or there—if not many lectures and tutorials. And so in reality, we are actually at 30% or 45%, maybe even 60%! In which case, rather than trying to “start” our revision, we should just realise that we already started months ago—even if we were not necessarily in “revision mode”. Our task is now not to take that first step on what may seem like a never-ending journey, but to continue the forward momentum to reach even greater speeds and efficiency in our revision.
Of course there will be obstacles along the way. And while there will be times when we feel things are going a bit slow, we should never allow Satan’s fear-filled promises of “not enough time” or “too much information” to overwhelm us or cause us to fall into despair. Time and time again, he will threaten us with humiliation should we fail and cause us to question our own self-worth and our ability to succeed. But we must realise that these are empty threats and promises and that our mental energies are better served focusing on the words of Imam Ali (ra), who said, “Do not fear anything except your sins. Do not long for anything other than your Lord. Let none of you lacking knowledge be too shy to ask until he learns. Do not let one who is asked something he lacks knowledge of refrain from saying, ‘I do not know’”. Let us start now and hasten to our home in the hereafter.”