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 Allah subhanahu 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.