How does the Teacher Know when to Appear?

It has been frequently said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Experience shows that this is true in many ways. But how does the teacher know the right moment to appear?  Who tells the teacher that the student is ready? And how does the teacher “appear” out of thin air?

The fact is that the teacher is quite marginal in this phenomenon; virtually everything depends on the student, so much so that the teacher may not even know his/her role as a teacher. In fact, the teacher may not be a person; it may be an object, the juxtaposition of two or more objects, an apparently random event, or a series of events. Given the endless variety of things from which people have learned invaluable lessons, it is doubtful that there is anything in existence, or even in imagination, that is incapable of acting as a teacher. This is another way of saying that we are constantly immersed in and surrounded by entities, including other people, that are potentially our teachers in one way or another. Whether they will in fact fulfill that role, as well as when and how, is not a matter that is entirely in their control; instead, it is a phenomenon that is largely mysterious and unknown. The process of learning from human and non-human teachers is therefore unpredictable in its precise details, though it is certainly discernible in its general features and overall trajectories. If anyone has any obvious role to play in this regard, it is definitely the student, or, rather, the readiness of the student to learn a particular lesson.

There is, then, no dearth of potential teachers; anything and everything can teach the appropriate lesson, given the student is ready. It is not that a teacher “appears” out of nowhere; instead, it is we as potential learners who decide, consciously or unconsciously, that we are ready to be taught, leading to the recognition that something or someone in our vicinity is a teacher. At that moment it may seem to us that a teacher had suddenly appeared, when it was, in reality, only a matter of our having become attentive and alert, as well as willing and open, to learn a particular lesson.  This usually happens when our ignorant behavior has run into a resistant reality too many times, though exactly how many is too many obviously varies from person to person. Some stubborn souls keep knocking their heads against reality for a very long time, insisting on the correctness (or sometimes fairness) of their theories over and against the stream of evidence to the contrary. Others, with a more open aptitude, may stop relatively early in this process to ask themselves if they were doing anything wrong; by doing so, they open up the possibility that a teacher will appear to them to teach exactly what they need to learn in that moment.

Thus, one way in which we make ourselves ready to be taught is when we recognize that our repeated failures in a given venture may not be due to a lack of effort.  At that moment, we recognize that working harder at what we have already been doing for a while is not going to solve our problem, that instead of working harder than before we may need to try something different. This recognition is difficult and painful, for it involves an acknowledgement of ignorance rather than just failure. Failure is relatively easy to admit, because one can always blame someone else, but to admit that one has been wrong all along hurts the ego where it is most vulnerable. Yet, no teacher will appear and no learning will take place until we stop hitting our heads against concrete reality, and become willing to say to ourselves that perhaps there is a wall here. Once we are willing and open to learn, the teacher appears as if by a miracle. The miracle, of course, is not the appearance of the teacher; the miracle had already happened inside the student, which is what made it possible for the teacher to “appear” in the first place.

What does the teacher do when he/she finally appears?  Does the teacher tell us something that we did not already know?  This is unlikely, for something that is not already inside us will always appear alien and unacceptable, and therefore nonsensical; it won’t evoke true insight.  Instead, let us imagine the possibility that the teacher never taught us anything new at all; that we became open and ready to a teacher only because we had already learned the lesson in ourselves and by ourselves; and that we needed a teacher only to make the implicit lesson explicit, the unconscious realization conscious.  Learning, then, may already have happened somewhere deep inside us well before the teacher appeared.  The teacher merely pointed out to us what was already present within us but not yet fully appreciated or recognized as such.

The teacher, according to this view, is an external sign that points out to us the existence of a particular sign within us, which, in turn, points toward the lesson which is to be learned.


  1. Really curative and brilliant.
    But dilemma stands there when voices from surroundings specially deep rooted traditional
    “Do not study Quran yourself learn it from certified Aalim”
    If every human is a potential learner then still this enlightenment is unable to make it way out of those Ulama’s who control the heart of minds of millions of Muslims

  2. This is a question we had at the dinner table tonight.

    Can doubt be your teacher?

    Modernism wants us to doubt everything EXCEPT reason.
    Post-modernism wants us to doubt everything, including reason.

    Can classical Islam jump past modernism, straight into post-modernism and still come out with faith intact? How would this faith be different from classical Islam? Or would it really be any different? i.e. was al-Ghazali’s doubt different from the doubt espoused by Tillich?

    “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
    – P. Tillich, ‘The Courage to Be’.

    Certain persons at our dinner table suspect you are uncomfortable with the issue of doubt.

    Certain persons at our dinner table have commented that now that Ramadan is here and Shaitan is disappeared they are, “lonely, because there is no one to talk to.”.

  3. Generally speaking, doubt is not a teacher but a motivator for learning, perhaps the most important motivator. Doubt can be a great starting point, but it is not a destination.

    Modernism enshrines reason, but only one particular kind of reason. There are other kinds of reasons too.

    Postmodernism can be deconstructive or reconstructive. The former wants to doubt everything, but not the latter.

    I am not sure if modernism can be skipped. Probably not.

    And it’s not just me, we are all uncomfortable with doubt, which is part of its very definition. If doubt does not cause you discomfort, then it isn’t doubt.

    I am also unsure if al-Ghazali and Tillich are referring to the same thing.

  4. Certain persons at our dinner table insist on discussing the post-modern implications of the Shahada.

    This is what we get for sending the kids to Sunday School.

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