Knowing Qualified Scholars from Cowboy Speakers
How do we distinguish a scholar from a da‘i, motivational speaker or ‘knowledgeable brother’? What are the proper qualifications for true scholarship? How serious a sin is giving fatwas and religious rulings without appropriate knowledge? What dangers are there in the Islamic ‘edu-tainment’ and ‘celebrity’ culture we are now in, especially where poorly qualified (or even unqualified) speakers take to social media to promote themselves and attempt to impart religious instruction? Given how the line has been blurred between qualified scholars and charismatic speakers; and given the confusion that currently surround these matters, I hope the following post will shed some much needed light on the topic.1
A good a place as any to start is a reminder about the seriousness of the matter, which can be gleaned from the following verse, hadiths and salaf-reports:
The Qur’an insists: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [Q.16:116]
The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’2
The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, let him take his seat in the Fire of Hell.’3
Similar to it is his ﷺ warning: ‘Whoever gives a fatwa without knowledge, shall bear the sin of those he gave it to.’4
Ibn Ma‘sud, one of the top-tier scholars among the sahabah, said: ‘You are in a time in which its scholars (‘ulema) are many and its speakers (khutaba) are few. But after you will come a time in which its scholars are few and its speakers many.’5
Imam Malik remarked: ‘Whoever is asked about a religious matter, before responding he should imagine both Heaven and Hell before him and consider his outcome in the Hereafter. Only then should he respond.’6
Imam Malik was once asked a religious question, to which he replied: ‘I do not know.’ It was then said to him: ‘But the issue is a light and easy one.’ At this he became angry, then said: ‘There is nothing about knowledge that is light. Haven’t you heard Allah’s words: We will soon cast upon you a weighty word. [Q.73:6] Knowledge, all of it is weighty; especially what one will be questioned about on the Day of Judgement.’7
The above examples should suffice as a rejoinder for those in whose hearts faith and the fear of God still flicker.
Since the idea of “being qualified” or “proper qualification” lies at the very heart of the matter, let’s look at the levels of the scholars/muftis, along with their qualifications, as per a classical, authoritative categorisation:
The genre of literature referred to as Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti – “Conduct of Muftis and of Fatwa-Seekers” – lists the required credentials in terms of being ‘alim bi ahkam al-shar‘iyyah, “highly versed in the rulings of the Sacred Law.”8 This requires muftis to possess thorough knowledge of: [i] The five-hundred or so legal verses in the Qur’an. [ii] Those hadiths that relate to legal issues, along with knowing how to evaluate their soundness; or to at least rely upon the experts in this field. [iii] Those cases and issues which have become subject to a scholarly consensus (ijmå‘), so as not to contradict it. [iv] Rules and principles of abrogation, so as not to rule on the basis of an abrogated verse or hadith. [v] Classical Quranic Arabic language, in order to understand literal and metaphorical usage; general and particular discourse; idioms; and also equivocal and unequivocal speech. [vi] Methods of analogical deduction (qiyas) and procedures of inferential reasoning (istinbat).
The legal literature also states that the term mufti is synonymous with mujtahid – one capable of ijtihad: i.e. of extracting and inferring rulings directly from the texts of the Qur’an or the Sunnah. A mufti who has gained complete mastery in the above-listed qualifications is called an absolute mujtahid (mujtahid mutlaq). The mufti who gains expertise, but not complete mastery, in these ijtihad credentials is a mujtahid bound by the legal framework of a law-school (mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). In both cases, these two mujtahids work with the foundational texts: the first does so unrestrictedly and directly; the second one, according to the methodological principles of his law-school or madhhab.
Below these two are muftis who are “non-mujtahids.” They too are of varying ranks. There is the mufti who, although not capable of ijtihad, is highly versed in his school’s modes of legal reasoning and analogy; has committed to memory its rulings; and is able to defend, refine and resolve ambiguous cases – tilting the scales in favour of one of two or more opinions on the matter. He can even infer rulings for new cases based on established precedents of the school. Then there are muftis who are trained jurists, but their skills are limited to distinguishing between the authoritative (mu‘tamad) and less authoritative positions of their school, as well as memorising its issues (masa’il), or positive law.
Finally comes the mufti who is a simply trained jurist and is unable to grasp complex legal talk. What he does have going for him, though, is a competency to transmit the authoritative rulings of the school on any or most given issues, with reliable accuracy. His level is ifta’ bi’l-hifz – “issuing fatwa by having carefully and diligently memorised the school’s legal rulings.” In the absence of other types of muftis, lay people and other non-muftis are obliged to ask such trained transmitters of law and legal rulings.9
Before soldiering on, a few remarks are in order:
Firstly, barring the last type of mufti, all the others engage in highly complex modes of legal reasoning and juristic activity.
Secondly, in our times, when we say that so-and-so is a mufti, we don’t mean that he is a mujtahid, but rather that he gives fatwas based on the books and rulings of his law school, or upon the ijtihad of a mujtahid he is following in the issue. That is, muftis of today do not infer legal rulings directly from the root sources.
Thirdly, although in Islam’s earlier period muftis were invariably mujtahids, the term was widened at some point to include non-mujtahid jurists too, out of a pressing need or hajah.10
Fourthly, even muftis at the bottom of the legal pecking order are thoroughly trained in religious rulings. Taking religious instruction from such muftis is to access reliable, orthodox knowledge. No such guarantee exists with a charismatic speaker or da‘i. In fact, it may very well be the case, as per the first hadith, of people taking ‘the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’ Sometimes, due to defective intentions or playing fast and loose with the religion, the “misguided and misguiding” – the dall mudill – are actually deserving of one another! And we seek refuge in Allah from this.
Fifthly, this categorisation helped people to recognise their own levels and boundaries, unlike today’s ego-driven, level-less learning, where anyone who acquires even a few crumbs of knowledge feels emboldened to give fatwas and religious instruction.
Finally, in terms of the levels of muftiship today, most muftis fall into the last category; some in the two levels above; fewer in the mujtahid level (either mujtahid in specific areas of the law, like marriage, divorce, inheritance, or finance; or the rarer mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). As for the absolute mujtahid, this cadre of muftis has been absent from the ummah for a very long time now.
Even with just a casual grasp of the above levels, the distinction between the qualified scholar or mufti, and between a motivational speaker/da’i will be clear. The former are qualified; the latter more often than not lack legal qualifications and fiqh schooling. Fatwa and religious instruction is sought from the former, not the latter. In fact, the latter are themselves in need of the former. As for the vague, new-fangled category of the “knowledgeable brother,” it would be best if we stopped using such a meaningless classification. For one’s knowledge either qualifies her or him to give religious rulings and fatwas, or it doesn’t. One is either followed in knowledge, or else one follows and imitates qualified scholarship; and in both there is goodness. Moreover, even if one has studied aspects of Islam with qualified teachers – Arabic grammar, tajwid, general Islamic studies, etc. – this does not mean that one is capable of giving fatwas or legal rulings: not unless one has been schooled in fiqh and authorised in it. Yet this simple piece of common sense is lost on so many in our time; including some graduates and drop-outs of Islamic universities.
On the topic of the ‘wannabe’ shaykh, the great polymath, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi said: ‘There is nothing more harmful to knowledge and its people than those who enter into it, yet are not from it. They are ignorant, but think they are knowledgeable; they cause corruption while they think they are rectifying matters.’11
To bring the curtain down on this article: We’ve trekked through some basic foundations concerning what depth of learning is required for true Islamic scholarship, as well as the levels of scholarship. We encountered some proof-texts that showed how odious and sinful it is to speak about the religion without due knowledge. In fact, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah went so far as to declare: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’12 We then began to broach the topic about the difference between the qualified scholar and between the charismatic, yet unqualified speakers; either doing the rounds on the conventional speakers’ circuit, or flaunting their stuff on social media. But it’s a topic we’ll explore further when we look at the current Islamic “edu-tainment” culture, in light of the teachings from our scholars, sages and salaf.
Islam encourages, even obliges Muslims to grow in Islamic knowledge – knowledge of Allah; His religion; and its rulings. ‘Whoever traverses a path in search of knowledge, Allah will make easy for him a path to Paradise,’ is what our Prophet ﷺ said.13 There is also this hadith: ‘Whoever sets out to seek knowledge, is in the path of Allah until he returns.’14 That being the case, we ought to keep in mind the Arabic proverb: raha ‘ala hisan raja‘a ‘ala baghl – ‘He set out on a steed and returned on a mule.’ Setting out to seek sacred knowledge so as to grow in divine obedience is one of the noblest acts of the din. But we should always remember our level and never pretend to be at a level we are not at. To do so would be to return from seeking knowledge dishonoured and disgraced in Allah’s sight. But that’s not to hamper the task of nurturing a large class of religiously-grounded lay people whose Islam is intelligent, comprehensive, and spiritually rooted; and who know their boundaries. This is crucial if Islam is to thrive, and not just survive. As for the pressing need to raise the intellectual game of Muslim scholarship, that will have to be discussed in another post.
1. I’d like to thank Ustadha Zaynab Ansari for her: Blurred Lines, and Mobeen Vaid’s Mass Marketing Islam and “Edu-tainment” for helping to kick-start the much needed conversation. Vaid’s piece was the first time that I happened upon “edu-tainment” (an amalgam of the words education and entertainment) to describe the growing trend of conveying Islamic teachings and instruction. As for the Ustadha’s article, although its focus is different to this article, it nonetheless raises many concerns about the current speakers’ circuit and its impact upon Muslim community growth.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2950, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan.’
4. Abu Dawud, no.3657; Ibn Majah, no.53. It was graded as hasan by al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6068
5. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8066; Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, 109. Its chain was graded as sahih in Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: al-Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 10:510.
6. Cited in Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Mudarik (Saudi Arabia: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un al–Islamiyyah, 1983), 1:144.
7. ibid., 1:147-48.
8. Cf. al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar al-Ifta, 1968), 2:330-31; Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ (Beirut: Dar Ihya Turath al-‘Arabi, 1996), 1:72-96; Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawziyyah, 2003), 6:40-208.
9. See: Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 6:125-28; Ibn al-Salah, Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Beirut: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1986), 87-102.
10. See: I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 2:86.
11. Ibn Hazm, al-Akhlaq wa’l-Siyar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 24.
12. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.
13. Muslim, no.2699.
14. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2649, who said: A hasan hadith.’