Feigning Islamic Learning: Are You a Troublesome Abu Shibr?
IN MANUALS WRITTEN TO train Muslim scholars and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). Thus it is said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: whosoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; and whoever enters the third realises they know very little.’
An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of sacred learning; having only drunk small drafts, Abu Shibr gets intoxicated, looses sight of his own infant level, and behaves in a haughty, self-righteous way. For he deludes himself into thinking he’s now something in terms of sacred knowledge and learning: a duckling that thinks it’s a graceful swan, or a kitten that thinks it’s a tiger!
Of course, not everyone who enters this first stretch of learning becomes drunk. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into an Abu Shibr persona, their wise teacher is likely able to treat them with a corrective cure). Instead, it is those whose few crumbs of learning comes by way of a few books or some YouTube videos of non-scholars, or those who are nowhere near being seasoned students of sacred knowledge, that are the usual culprits. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a danger to himself and is a trouble to others. Brash, hostile, argumentative, divisive, self-assured to the point of kibr … we’ve all seen it (and some of us may have even been it!).
As for the second and third spans of learning, as the years pass, the sincere, intelligent and well-trained student appreciates, first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even by way of a single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the complexly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it.
This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own true level. With further learning and engagement with ‘ilm, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they actually know compared to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition. ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ it has been said, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’
In our scholastic tradition there’s the idea of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: acting as if one is versed in religious issues through little haphazard reading of books or surfing a few websites, rather than any through, serious, systematic learning, studying or dialoguing with trained scholars. One of most dangerous calamities that currently afflicts the ummah is the growing spectacle of all the Abu Shibrs (and a few Umm Shibrs) that are now frantically clambering over each other, like frenzied rugby players on crack, to get attention, social-media ‘likes’, and other ego-driven ways of getting their voices heard. It is shameless, ungodly, and nothing short of stupidity on stilts. Nor is there anything as ugly as when the ego attempts to dress itself in the robes of sacred knowledge.
The lady Asma relates that a woman came to the Prophet ﷺ and asked: I have a co-wife, so is it alright for me to pretend that my husband has given me what he hasn’t given me [in order to tease her]? The Prophet ﷺ responded: ‘The one who pretends to have what he has not been given is like someone who puts on two garments of falsehood.’1 If that is the case in terms of claiming to possess worldly stuff one does not have, then what about giving others the impression that one has seasoned Islamic knowledge when one does not? For we are either qualified to represent Allah’s religion or we are not. The godly thing to do if we are ever asked questions about Islam which are above our proverbial pay grade is to simply say that we cannot give what we do not have.
In one sound hadith, we read an uncanny description of what seems to so aptly describe our times. In it, the Prophet said ﷺ: ‘Today, you are in an age in which its scholars are many and its speakers few: whoever leaves a tenth of what he knows has followed his desires. Later there will come an age where its speakers are many and its scholars few: whoever clings to a tenth of what he knows will be saved.’2
This is an era of fake knowledge, when it’s never been easier to fake what you know. Ours is an age where an increasing number of speakers sell themselves to the public as if they are seasoned shaykhs or mature students of knowledge, when most of them are clearly not. Such speakers tend not to have the dignity, gravitas or adab of the scholars, let alone their learning, wisdom and concern. And while social media and the reckless herd may have made such people into ‘influencers’ or go-to voices, the wise are wary of such self-styled speakers and Allah’s awliya appalled at their false pretensions. We should be too. The remedy for this corrupt behaviour is to make sincere tawbah and to reassess whether one should be publicly preaching or speaking on behalf of Allah; and if doing so is unavoidable, to always recall one’s level and not discourse beyond it, to never play to the crowd, and to ensure one has a healthy dose of answering questions with the godly words: la adri – ‘I do not know.’
Talking of those whose knowledge is half-baked, yet are deluded into thinking they are the real deal, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said:
‘It is said that those who most corrupt the world are: the half baked theologian, the half-baked jurist, the half-baked doctor and the half-baked grammarian. This [first one] corrupts religion; this [second], the country; this [third], physical bodies; and this [fourth], the language.’3
This too, from Ibn Hazm, is worth pondering – for those with corrupt natures and delusions of grandeur, but who earnestly wish to be rectified:
‘Some people who are overcome with ignorance, whose intellects are weak, and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they are not. There is no greater harm to knowledge or to the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, but missed a much larger part than what they grasped. Their quest for knowledge, moreover, was not a search for knowledge of God, exalted is He; nor was their intention to escape the darkness of ignorance. Rather it was to be one-up on people through showing-off or self-importance, or attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or unashamedly boasting about being scholars when in reality they are not.’4
The Holy Qur’an counsels us: And seek not corruption in the earth; for Allah loves not the corrupters. [Q.28:77]
We ask Allah that He save us from ourselves.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5219.
2. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Its isnad was graded sahih by al-Albani, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For how such a verdict was reached, cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 6:1:40-42; no.2510.
3. Majmu’ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 5:118-19.
4. ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.