For some, the pursuit to learn and become better Muslims may not always be as flowery as romanticised by many. In fact, many of us may have had an unpleasant experience or two which have made us drastically change a number of our perspectives. It could lead to a numb disappointment or even a trauma that requires a long time to heal from.
These unfortunate events can happen but not without purpose. More importantly, we are not alone.
Let us look into the long life of Salman Al-Farisi r.a. who faced many ordeals for a long period of time before finally reaching his objective of seeking the truth.
Salman Al-Farisi r.a. is a companion of the Prophet s.a.w. who is famously known for his contribution during the Battle of the Trench (Al-Khandaq). It was a battle where the Madinan Community was surrounded by multiple Arab tribes from different directions that greatly exceeded them in number. Salman Al-Farisi r.a. saw the opportunity to overcome the situation by the idea of digging up a defensive trench. This brilliant idea became a significant factor in their eventful victory by Allah’s will.
Imam Al-Dhahabi described Salman Al-Farisi r.a. to be wise and strong-willed. He was amongst the intellectually-gifted and devout noblemen. In some narrations, it was said that he lived a very long life.
Unlike many other companions, Salman Al-Farisi r.a. was not an Arab. He came from a land far away that was previously known as Persia, a well-established civilisation and one of the two main powers of the time. But just like the other companions who were the first generation of Muslims, he too had his own journey before becoming a Muslim and eventually, along with other companions, becoming the praised community that we know today.
Referenced from Siyar A’lam An-Nubala’ by Imam Adh-Dhahabi, Salman Al-Farisi’s story is the epic journey of a truth seeker.
Born into a family of wealth and noble stature, his father was the leader of his community back in the village of Jayya from the city of Isfahan. Salman was a devout Magian (the priesthood of Zoroastrianism). He was later even promoted as custodian of the fire they worship.
At one point, Salman started to wander into new places because of a new endeavour entrusted to him by his father. Along his route, he came across a Church. There, Salman saw how the early Nestorian Christians worship and became very intrigued by it. He spent a good amount of time observing them, contemplating and thinking about their religion.
Upon returning home, he revealed to his father how he became invested in them over Zoroastrianism. His father could not accept this and confined him by putting shackles on his legs. It was clear that at this point, Salman Al-Farisi was bold and spirited to pursue the questions about life and God.
Salman r.a. then sent a messenger to reach out to the Christians he met earlier, asking them when was the next caravan travelling to Syam (the Levant) where the centre of this newfound religion resided. Upon knowing the next schedule, he managed to escape from the shackles and set out for his journey to seek the truth.
When Salman r.a. arrived in Syam, he asked around and looked for the best person to learn from. He eventually met the Bishop of the Church. Salman r.a. offered his service and expressed his interest to learn from the Bishop. However, later he found out that the Bishop was a fraud that hoarded money for himself from all the charity works given to the church. Even though he managed to amass so much wealth from it, he never gave them to the poor and needy. Salman despised him for this.
It was not long after when the Bishop died. Salman then revealed his atrocities to the people. Soon after, another person was appointed in place of the previous Bishop. This time, Salman found the new Bishop to be a better person, ascetic in nature and longed for the Hereafter. He soon found himself proudly devoted to the service of this new Bishop and learning under his guidance.
He continued to do so until the Bishop passed away. Before his last breath, Salman asked him to point out to the next best person whom he can seek guidance from. Similarly, he finds the next person to be as good as the one before. Salman r.a. continued to seek guidance and teachers after each of their demises.
This sequence continued until the fifth teacher. As he drew his last few breaths, he said to Salman:
“By God, I do not know anyone with the same traits that your teachers used to direct you to, but you have arrived at a time where a Prophet will be appointed in the sacred land (Al-Haram). His migration will take place between two barren lands into a fertile land where palm trees will grow. Verily you will find in him signs that cannot be missed; (of which) between his two shoulders (at the back) is the Seal of Prophethood and (secondly) he accepts gifts but not charity (Sadaqah). If you are able to make your way there, then proceed, for you will come upon his era.”
Later along his journey, he met a group of Arab traders whom he hoped could guide him to reach the land that was described to him. Salman r.a. offered whatever wealth he had with him in exchange for their service. They agreed to it and brought him along until they arrived at Wadi Al-Qura (The Valley of Villages), where they betrayed their agreement and sold Salman r.a. as a slave to a Jewish man. Sometime later, he started to see date trees along his journey. He was in distress and yet, he continued hoping that he would arrive at the site he envisioned.
After an unfortunate event, he was sold again to another Jewish man. Only this time, the man came from the tribe of Banu Qurayza, who lived in Madinah. It was a city known to produce palm trees then. As they arrived in Madinah, Salman Al-Farisi r.a. became sure that this city was the site that was described to him.
During this time, the Prophet s.a.w. received his revelation in Makkah. Salman r.a. was not aware of any developments as he was too preoccupied with his labour as a slave. One day, a relative of his employer came and Salman overheard their conversation about a man who claimed to be a Prophet arriving at Quba’, at the outskirts of Madinah (migrating from Makkah). Salman shivered intensely from hearing this.
On the next day, Salman brought some food over to Quba’ to meet Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. He first had to assess whether this was the right person described to him and so he gave the Prophet s.a.w. the food he brought along as charity (Sadaqah).
The Prophet s.a.w. took and gave it to his companions r.a. Seeing that the Prophet did not eat from the charity, he thought to himself “This is definitely a sign described to me”.
When the Prophet s.a.w. finally settled in the city of Madinah, Salman r.a. came to him again and offered some food as a gift. This time, the Prophet s.a.w. ate some from it and gave the rest to his companions r.a. He thought to himself “This is the second sign”.
On the third encounter, Salman r.a. walked past the Prophet s.a.w. and tried to glimpse the Prophet’s back respectfully, hoping to catch the Seal of Prophethood. Seeing that Salman was trying to search for something, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. knew what Salman was looking for and showed him the Seal of Prophethood.
Salman lowered himself and wept from all the bottled up emotions. After a long journey of persevering, he finally met The Prophet s.a.w.
Rest assured, history tells us of how Salman Al-Farisi r.a. was later freed by the help of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. and became a notable figure amongst his companions (Sahabi).
After the passing of the Prophet, Salman participated actively in the development of the Muslim community and even became an Amir (governor) of Al-Mada-in (Ctesiphon), the ancient capital of Persia, when Islam arrived.
There are many lessons we can learn from the story of Salman Al-Farisi r.a. Here are 4:
Although being born into a well off family and noble lineage, Salman Al-Farisi did not let ease and luxury cloud him from being a devout worshipper and seeker of truth. The wealth of the world did not fill his heart, rather, it was the love for knowledge and servitude.
He would undertake a long and arduous path to seek it and would spend whatever he has left to reach his destination. He was willing to use his given wealth for goodness. Not only was he able to eventually fulfil his quest, he was also able to develop into a better version of his past self, enriched with knowledge and experience. Eventually, he even earned the honourable title as a companion of the Prophet s.a.w. (Sahabi) as well as the position of the Amir (Governor) later in his life.
Surely there will be hurdles, but his life is a testimony that doing good will not be in vain:
وَٱلَّذِينَ جَـٰهَدُوا۟ فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا ۚ وَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَمَعَ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ
As for those who strive in Our way, We will surely guide them along Our Way. And Allah is certainly with those who do good.
(Surah Al-’Ankabut, 26:69)
Although he was nurtured by his father in a sheltered and over-protective environment, this comfortable life did not stop Salman Al-Farisi r.a. to ponder and question about life and God. He did not leave his faith to be based merely upon blind adoption. Rather, it is to be based upon a sound faith. This means that it has to have a fundamental level of certainty.
This is the same for Islam as well. The faith that we, as Muslims, believe in should not be based upon blind faith. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
فَٱعْلَمْ أَنَّهُۥ لَآ إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا ٱللَّهُ
So, know (well) that there is no god (worthy of worship) except Allah.
(Surah Muhammad, 47:19)
Faith in Islam is to have certain faith and not mere speculations. This is warned by Allah s.w.t. Himself in the Quran (against the polytheists):
وَمَا يَتَّبِعُ أَكْثَرُهُمْ إِلَّا ظَنًّا ۚ إِنَّ ٱلظَّنَّ لَا يُغْنِى مِنَ ٱلْحَقِّ شَيْـًٔا ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِيمٌۢ بِمَا يَفْعَلُونَ
Most of them follow nothing but (inherited) assumptions. (And) surely assumptions can in no way replace the truth. Allah is indeed All-Knowing of what they do.
(Surah Yunus, 10:36)
There is nothing wrong with following the religion that we are nurtured in. Particularly in many Muslim families, parents play an active role in teaching their children fundamental knowledge about Islam and its practices. However, there is an individual responsibility for everyone who has reached the age of reason and maturity to learn about the religion themselves.
In the verse above, the warnings made were not directed to inheriting knowledge or religion from our parents. Instead, Allah s.w.t. warned particularly in inheriting assumptions that are not based on knowledge. In the following verse, the Quran tells us the nurturing of Prophet Ya’qub (Jacob) a.s. to his children through a dialogue:
أَمْ كُنتُمْ شُهَدَآءَ إِذْ حَضَرَ يَعْقُوبَ ٱلْمَوْتُ إِذْ قَالَ لِبَنِيهِ مَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِنۢ بَعْدِى قَالُوا۟ نَعْبُدُ إِلَـٰهَكَ وَإِلَـٰهَ ءَابَآئِكَ إِبْرَٰهِـۧمَ وَإِسْمَـٰعِيلَ وَإِسْحَـٰقَ إِلَـٰهًا وَٰحِدًا وَنَحْنُ لَهُۥ مُسْلِمُونَ
Or did you witness when death came to Jacob? He asked his children, “Who will you worship after my passing?” They replied, “We will (continue to) worship your God, the God of your forefathers—Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac—the One God. And to Him we (all) submit.”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:133)
Having this in mind, some of us may experience phases in life where we can have many questions about God which may be understood as an inadequate conviction in faith. This does not mean that we are void of Iman.
To question and hold on to faith, despite having some unanswered questions only points to the resilience in faith. Making self-assessments, pondering and learning are part of the process of strengthening our faith. What's important is to continue to seek guidance from reliable sources.
This is also why, according to our scholars, learning and knowing about Allah s.w.t. is considered to be the first obligation. It is the fundamental basis of the other obligations.
Our beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. says in a Hadith:
طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ
Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim
(Sunan Ibn Majah)
In this hadith, it is described that the way to attain knowledge is to seek it. In other words, knowledge will not come to us without any effort to seek it. Imam Malik once said “Knowledge is sought and it does not come to you (without any effort made)”
In seeking knowledge, it is important to be discerning. For example, Imam Az-Zurnuji quoted Al-Hakim As-Samarqandi from his advice to a student planning to study abroad:
“Do not be quick to delve into the debates of scholars. Take (at least) two months to assess and find a teacher (from your search). Verily, if you only go to a single teacher, and you begin to commit, but somehow you are less intrigued by it and therefore you leave and go to another teacher (in that short period of time), there will be less blessing in it.
So take two months to assess in finding the right teacher, and consult (others) so that you are sure and you don’t have to leave or despise the teacher. This will lead to more benefits and blessings in your path to seek knowledge”
The above advice is one of the many models of learning in our tradition that emphasises the importance of learning from diverse sources to help us assess and be discerning before displaying commitment, patience and the perseverance of a Seeker of knowledge.
Salman Al-Farisi r.a. showed plenty of spirit and commitment to learning the truth. He sought the best person to teach him upon arriving at Syam. This means that he had a set of basic and realistic criteria for the teacher he wanted to seek knowledge from.
Unfortunately, the Bishop later turned out to be a fraud, as discovered by Salman r.a. himself. He did not let the false image of the Bishop blind him from being discerning. To read more on the Red Flags, read: Fatwa On The Characteristics Of Deviant Teachings
In our day and age. There are many modes of learning. Amongst many, seeking knowledge from the expert of the field remains to be a relevant and significant mode of learning. To learn medicine, it is best to seek advice or learn from medical doctors. For religious inquiries, it is best to inquire from our religious teachers. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
فَسْـَٔلُوٓا۟ أَهْلَ ٱلذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
Therefore, ask those who are more learned if you do not know.
(Surah An-Nahl, 16:43)
The learning journey of Salman Al-Farisi is a path that we can find many lessons in. He did not conveniently find a teacher to guide him to the truth at the start of his journey. In fact, he met frauds and liars along the way before finally meeting the Prophet s.a.w. These unfortunate events may turn into a traumatic experience for some and it can even happen at the hands of people who claim to be ‘religious’ figures.
Regrettably, religion can be misrepresented as a result of the misjudgement and errors of ‘people of religion’. This unfortunately happens. At the same time, the blame should not be extended to the entire religious fraternity.
It’s important to know that human beings have their own shortcomings that may not necessarily reflect the fault of religion. This is similar to the case of ISIS radicals who claim to carry the banner of Islam but instead smear it and often bear the other extreme end in the likes of Islamophobes. Likewise, a fraud who uses Islam as an excuse to fulfil his or her own endless baser-desires (the nafs) in the form of money laundering or spiritual marriage (nikah batin).
This is not to say that all ideas are true and any flaws seen can be dismissed by putting the blame on the people who adhered to or exploited them terribly. As Muslims, we believe Islam is a religion by revelation, perfected by The One that is free from any imperfections to uplift humanity. Islam by itself offers arguments and evidence to answer the mental, spiritual and existential crisis.
The ordeals that are mentioned above are part of the epic journey one may need to overcome in hopes to strengthen and build his or her conviction. Salman Al-Farisi r.a. understood that the first Bishop did not represent the religion he saw, nor did he snub religion itself. Instead, it strengthened his resolve to find what is ‘real’.
In our search for knowledge to become a better Muslim, may Allah s.w.t. ease our path, protect us from harm and allow the light of knowledge to enter our hearts. Ameen.
And Allah knows best.
 Imam Syamsuddin Ahmad Adh-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lam An-Nubala’, Muassasah Ar-Risalah (1984)
 As-Shaikh Ahmad Muhammad Al-’Adawi Ad-Dardir, Sharh Kharidutul-Bahiyya
 Burhanul-Islam Az-Zarnuji, Ta’limul-Muta’allim Tariqu-Ta’allum, Al-Maktab Al-Islami (1981)