The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “knowledge & epistemology”

The State Seeking to Domesticate Muslim Scholars

I suppose our starting point can only be this advice from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Whoever comes to the doors of the ruler is put to trial.’1 Discussion about this, I must admit, is a difficult and delicate one; so I’ll try to be as nuanced and even handed as possible. And Allah’s help is sought.

This concern, first off, is not new. Scholars down the ages of Islam have cautioned the scholarly community about the trial (fitnah) entailed in rubbing shoulders with rulers or governments. Ibn al-Jawzi sketches the usual pious concerns, thus:

‘From the Devil’s deception on the jurists is them mixing with the rulers and sultans, flattering them and leaving-off censuring them when able to do so. And perhaps they find allowances for them when there really isn’t one, in order to attain some worldly thing … In summary: entering upon rulers entails great danger. For the intention may be good at first, but then may change by them honouring you or bestowing [gifts] on you; or by [you] harbouring worldly ambitions; or by not being able to avoid flattering them; or leaving-off censuring them. Sufyan al-Thawri used to say: “I don’t fear them debasing or disgracing me. Rather, I fear them being generous towards me so that my heart inclines towards them.”‘2

Again, teasing out the soul’s psychology in this matter, and the subtle cravings of the ego, Ibn Rajab said: ‘Also, many of the salaf used to forbid those who desired to order the kings with good or prohibit them from evil, from entering upon them … And this was from fear of the fitnah of entering upon them. For when he is at a distance from them, the ego deceives the person into believing he will order and forbid them, and be stern with them. However, when he comes face to face with them, his soul is swayed towards them. For love of being honoured is concealed in his ego. Hence, he starts to flatter them, is over lenient with them, and perhaps he grows fond of them and loves them – especially if they treat him well and hold him in high regard, and he accepts this from them.’3

Of course; and this is the second point, this avoidance is by no means categorical, nor absolute. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr rounds-up the chapter in which he relates the salaf’s dislike of entering upon rulers and kings, stating: ‘The meaning of this entire chapter is with regard to the wicked, oppressive ruler (al-sultan al-ja’ir al-fasiq). As for the just among them, and the virtuous, then entering upon them; meeting them; and assisting them to rectify affairs is from the best deeds of righteousness … Thus when a scholar enters upon the ruler now and again, and whenever there is a need; and he says what is good and speaks with knowledge, then that is good and is a means of Allah’s pleasure until the Day he meets Him. Such meetings, however, are usually a fitnah; and safety lies in abandoning what is in them.’4

One will not find a ‘one-hat-fits-all-sizes’ rule in this area. For the needs and variables of each country or polity are different. The whole affair hinges on benefits and harms and final outcomes; and rests on the individual scholar’s intention and ability to cope with the fitnah, and the openness or otherwise of the ruler or regime. If a scholar feels strong enough in faith or feels obligated to to do so, or/and the ruler is open to advise, then one enters and does ones duty wisely, courageously and respectfully (respectful, if not of the actual ruler, then of the office they hold). Scholars should also keep this juristic maxim in play: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak ba‘duhu – ‘If one cannot achieve the whole, one does not give-up [achieving] the part.’ What a scholar must not be is a sheepish partisan voice piece for the outrages and injustices of power, or an apologist for it. The scholar’s burden is neither to pander to the palace, and nor to the public. It is simply to be principled according to the dictates of piety.

My third and final point bears upon Muslim scholars in Britain (and North America, for that matter); especially in respect of helping their governments in the fight against extremism and the promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. The aim in what follows is not to preclude any collaboration or cooperation between Muslim scholars (or activists) and governments. Instead, I wish only to point out that there are different fitnahs at work in any such union, which cannot be ignored.

One issue that tends to haunt the air of any genuine cooperation for many a scholar is the RAND report of 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks. The report strategised how the United States government could nurture what they accepted to be ‘moderate’ Muslims: those committed to the liberal values of democracy, human rights, equality, and who oppose terrorism or other illegitimate forms of violence. As for conservative shari‘ah expressions, they are seen as incompatible with this world view, needing to be either jettisoned or interpreted away. It suggested partners in this effort would best be found in secularists, liberal Muslims, and moderate traditionalists; including Sufis: but not Salafis or Islamists. It urged aiding liberals, moderate young scholars, activists and women’s groups; helping moderateness with an online presence too.5 A decade on, and much of that strategy is well under way – both in the US and in Britain. With this being so, it makes even well-intended cooperation with government, in the fight against extremism, more than a little murky and problematic.

Not only have terms like ‘moderate’ Islam; ‘good’ Muslims; ‘Islamists’ and ‘terrorists’; or equating being too ‘conservative’ with an inclination for violence, been predefined and then institutionalised for all to fall in line with. But even spaces to air legitimate political dissent and social frustration are rapidly diminishing or being highly policed when it comes to Muslims. The irony may be that in the effort to root out extremism from Muslim communities and establish a government engineered ‘moderate Islam’, favourable conditions for driving disenfranchised individuals into the arms of violent extremism are being created.

In a climate where organisations and individuals are in a panic to establish themselves as bastions of moderate Islam, it is vital that Muslim scholars not get caught up in all the political posturing and money grabbing. They must also avoid succumbing to the pressures of employing religious vocabulary or definitions imported from outside the scholastic tradition. In fact, the onus is on them to inject some much needed nuance or tafsil into the discourse. One example concerns the driving factor behind terrorism of the ISIS type. Some insist it is driven solely by oppression, foreign policy, or other similar rational grievances: religion has no hand in it whatsoever. Others dismiss such naiveté and aver it is inspired purely by the vile, totalitarian ideology of Islamism (and for some, just Islam): they brook no further discussion about it.

The reality is that religion plays a role, less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage. To deny the role of foreign policy in nurturing violent extremism is as naive or coloured by self interest as denying the role of a twisted fiqh-cum-theology in fostering it. Until we acknowledge and tackle both gremlins, we fail public security and give kudos to a false political narrative. This has been my experience, since the early 1990s, while engaging some of the key voices and ideologues of such extremism. As for the twisted theology bit, I’ve attempted to discuss this in: Khawarij Ideology: ISIS Savagery.

Another fitnah scholars must be circumspect about is: giving fatwas under siege. Ibn Hamdan, a highly accomplished legalist in the Hanbali school, explains: ‘Fatwa is not to be given in a state where the heart is preoccupied or inhibited from examination or careful deliberation; because of anger, hunger, thirst, sadness, grief, fear, melancholy, overwhelming joy, sleepiness, fatigue, illness, irritating heat, intense cold, or needing to answer the call of nature.’6

If, as can be seen from above, pretty much any debilitating emotional or physical state renders giving a fatwa a no no, what about the state where a mufti is under relentless socio-political and psychological pressures to get Islam to conform to the essentially atheistic, liberal landscape? Or the case where a mufti’s mind and moods of the heart have already been significantly colonised by the attitudes of the dominant [Western] monoculture? How will that affect the quality, integrity and correctness of the fatwa? To think this does not already happen is to live in a cocooned or naive state. How else can one explain why proposed maqasid-based reforms to the shari‘ah so often seem to be of Western inspiration. ‘The public interest (maslahah, maqsad),’ says Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, ‘always turns out to take the form of what is intelligible and desirable to those outside Islam.’7

For the above reasons and more, scholars, perhaps more than ever before, need to be spiritually rooted. The temptations that are touted before them, or the convincers to compromise aspects of the faith and its scholastic teachings, are perhaps greater now than they’ve ever been. Fitnahs so easily throw intellects off balance, and sullying the intentions of a single scholar is more beloved to Iblis than causing a thousand feet of the general Muslim public to stumble. For such reasons our fiqh needs to be deepened and made much wiser; reading and intellectualisation need to be both broadened and sharpened; an atmosphere needs to be cultivated of being less judgemental and more judicious; hostility to sins needn’t be carried over to sinners; and the ego’s pretensions need to be reigned in and conditioned by humility and spiritual poverty (faqr). If we’re not spiritually-anchored, there’s a huge danger of being cast adrift in the tumultuous socio-political storms of the age.

As scholars try to remain alert against the fitnah of governments domesticating them; as they train themselves to deliberate not just on quick-fix fatwas or short term goals, but the longer-term vision too; and as they deepen the virtue of zuhd in their personal lives (the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘What is little but suffices is better than what is plentiful but distracts’8), let them not loose sight of the following:

Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the pure message of Abrahamic monotheism or tawhid; and failed to heed the discontent and exploitation of the masses by a powerful, wealthy elite, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, felt it, and Allah caused him to give voice to it. The fact that: ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,’9 as one hadith says, should cause them to follow suite in seeking to heal the disconnect and discontent; in whatever community, and in whatever time or place they find themselves.

We beseech You, O Allah, to protect our scholars, and increase them
in goodness, understanding, courage and wisdom. We ask
that You place honour in our hearts for sacred
knowledge and its inheritors. And save
us, O Lord, from poisoning our
souls by slandering
the scholars.

1. Abu Dawud, no.2869; al-Tirmidhi, no.2256., who said: ‘This hadith is hasan gharib.’

2. Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 175-6.

3. ‘Ma Dhi’ban Ja’i‘an’ in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 1:86.

4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 644.

5. See: RAND report, 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks, pp.65-74.

6. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 195.

7. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 42.

8. Al-Shihab, Musnad, no.1262. It was judged sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.947.

9. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. The hadith is hasan, due to its various chains that strengthen one another. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 1:245.

Scholars, Speakers & the Culture of “Edu-Tainment” [2/2]

little-baby-with-big-adult-shoes-and-baseball-cap-beautiful-baby-wallpapersThe first part of the blog (here) discussed certain basics about what qualifications are required to be a scholar capable of giving fatwas, and how it is a vile and major sin to speak about the religion of Islam without proper knowledge. We observed how Imam Malik, rahimahullah, was fearful and reluctant to give religious rulings, because of the huge responsibility and consequence this entailed. ‘Before replying he should imagine Heaven and Hell infront of him, and consider his outcome in the Hereafter; only then should he respond,’ cautioned Imam Malik.1 And he was speaking to those who were qualified for the task, those fit for purpose; not those unschooled and ignorant in the science of fiqh!

In an age where craving for fame, recognition and celebrity-like status has found new outlets, “practicing” Muslims have found that they are not immune to such egotistical impulses. In fact, society and social media are currently awash with wannabe shaykhs, speakers and religious spokespersons – many (maybe even most) who are simply unfit for purpose. The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘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 shall come an age in which its speakers are many and its scholars few: whoever clings to a tenth of what he knows will be saved.’2

Ours has become an age wherein an ever increasing number of speakers and da‘is sell themselves to the public as if they are seasoned scholars or well-grounded students of the sacred sciences; when most of them are clearly not. Such speakers and da‘is tend not to have the dignity, gravitas nor decorum of the scholars, let alone their learning or wisdom. And like toddlers trying to wear daddy’s or mummy’s shoes which are way too big for them, any attempt to take more than a few steps or walk at an adult pace is likely to result in a stumble or fall. But unlike the kid in daddy’s shoes or trainers, who is likely to elicit a smile or a sentiment of affection and cuteness from us, the wise are wary of such self-styled scholars and Allah’s awliya appalled at their false pretensions. We should be too.

As certain controversial inclinations wiggle their way into the da’wah – e.g. corporate attitudes, the conscious use of comedy and joking around, edutainment, the huge fees or honorariums that some da‘is now charge for their da‘wah, and the celebrity culture now surrounding some speakers – the final part of this blog tries to assess the validity or illegality, and the benefits and harms, of these matters in light of Islam’s revealed texts and scholarly teachings. Wa bi’Llahi’l-tawfiq.

Intending it as a nasihah and an opportunity for collective introspection, no specific individual or organisation is intended by any of the following points. But before the actual nitty gritty stuff, let’s start with some vital pointers about the layman:

1. The Prophet ﷺ exhorted: ballighu ‘anni wa law ayah – ‘Convey from me, even if it be [just] a verse.’3 Thus regardless of whether or not one is a scholar, this hadith urges every Muslim to pass on to others whatever little teachings of Islam they know, even if it is just a single verse from the holy Qur’an. Commenting on the phrase, ‘even if it be [just] a verse,’ hafiz Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote: ‘So that everyone who heard him would hasten to convey whatever he heard of the verses, even if it was only a little. In this way, everything which he ﷺ came with would be relayed.’4 Of course, the caveat here is that they must be sure that such a piece of knowledge is actually part of Islam, and that there is no distorting it or relating it out of context.

2. Having established that conveying the teachings of Islam is not just the province of the ‘ulema, the non-scholar must observe the following rule: When a layman conveys something of Islam, if it is a well-known and agreed upon matter – like the obligation to pray and fast, or the prohibition of consuming wine or swine – then he may do so unconditionally. But if it is a detailed issue of fiqh, or one in which there is a bonafide juristic difference or controversy, the layman can only relate what he knows by citing the religious authority he is following in the matter. Using juristic vernacular, the rule runs like this: ‘Muslims have a consensus that it is impermissible for a muqallid to say that something is lawful or unlawful in matters of ijtihad where he is making taqlid of someone else. What he may say, however, is that: “This is the ruling in the madhhab I follow,” or: “I sought a fatwa and this was the reply.”‘5

3. Non-scholars spreading even the detailed teachings of Islam to others – accurately, wisely, responsibly and contextually – is something Islam promotes. But this must not be an excuse to forget our own levels of learning, invent fatwas and fictions about the religion, be careless in relating the words of the scholars, use da‘wah to vent the ego’s anger and frustrations, or imagine that one can weigh-up the evidences of the jurists and come to one’s own unlearned or delusional conclusion. About this latter practice, Ibn Taymiyyah had this to say: ‘As for someone who only knows the opinion of one scholar and his proofs, but doesn’t know the other scholar’s view or proofs, he is from the generality of the muqallids. He is not of the scholars who are capable of evaluating and weighing-up [the proofs].’6 In fact, even if the layman was aware of both scholarly opinions, unless he is a trained jurist, or a highly competent student-jurist, he would not have the expertise or skill to weigh-up proof-texts. To imagine otherwise is to be thoroughly deluded or thick-headed. In both instances, it would be a case of following the falsehood Satan has secreted into the soul.

4. As for how a layman determines who is a scholar, this is usually dealt with in works on Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh). Some ways of identifying a scholar are surer and far more certain than others. In decreasing levels of certainty, they are: [i] Established scholars testifying to the scholarly credentials of the person, or accrediting him with a scholarly authorisation (‘ijazah). [ii] A person holding a teaching post at a recognised institution of scholarly learning. [iii] Scholarly respect accorded to a person by other people of knowledge. [iv] A layman being informed by someone he deems trustworthy in religious issues that a particular person is indeed a scholar. [v] His general scholarly reputation in the Muslim community at large. In brief, the layman does his best to act on sure certainty (yaqin), or preponderant certainty (aghlab al-zann), as to whom he deems to be a qualified scholar.7

As for speakers feeling the urge to season their call to Islam and their exhortations to taqwa, tawbah and recollection of the akhirah, with comedy, jokes, or humour, then it is best if the following is kept in mind:

5. Sacred knowledge is to be conveyed with seriousness and dignity, given the sources it is being conveyed from and the realities it reveals. The Qur’an speaks about itself in these terms: We shall soon cast upon you a weighty word. [73:6] And: Do you then marvel at this discourse and laugh, but not weep. [53:59-60]

6. Even if we are not scholars, it behoves speakers and seekers of sacred knowledge to adopt the demeanour and comportment of the scholars. Imam Malik counselled: ‘It is a right upon a seeker of [sacred] knowledge to be solemn, dignified and have reverent fear [of Allah], and to follow in the footsteps of those who preceded him.’8 This must be done out of a love of virtue, beauty of adab, and saving others from the unsavoury aspects of our character; not from showing-off or pretending to be what we aren’t. Of course, actions are judged by their intentions.

7. Those giving religious instruction are supposed to help raise our levels of piety and make us serious people. They cannot pander to the mediocrity or frivolity that people steep themselves in, or surround themselves with, today. ‘Ali, radia’Llahu ‘anhu, said: ‘When you have learnt knowledge, retain it; and do not mix it with laughter or futility so that hearts spit it out.’9 Ibn al-Jawzi makes a similar point concerning the wa‘iz, or preacher, not laughing and joking nor behaving as common folk do, ‘so that they hold him in high esteem and thus benefit from his admonition.’10

8. The occasional dignified humour or light hearted remark is permitted, providing it does not undermine the seriousness of the message, nor makes light of it in peoples’ hearts. While advising the students of Hadith, advice that can also be applied to other scholars, teachers and preachers of Islam, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi wrote: ‘The seeker of Hadith is required to shun levity, frivolity, or lowering oneself in gatherings by being silly and idiotic, roaring with fits of laughter, excessive joking, or being too humorous and frivolous. However, a little humour is permitted occasionally, as long as it doesn’t transgress the bounds of refined manners or the way of knowledge. But as for foolish, immodest, or immoderate behaviour, or whatever else gives rise to it in peoples’ souls or creates harm, it is repugnant. Too much joking or laughter demeans one’s standing and diminishes one’s gentlemanliness (muru’ah).’11

With respect to corporate attitudes in da‘wah, this comprises a few issues. First there’s the ruling on taking money for da‘wah. Then there’s the matter of classes and courses designed as products to be purchased, and the need for such organisations to put out more and more products just to keep the revenue flowing in. Finally, there is the issue of these organisations not being able to defer to those more knowledgeable in other organisations, or point people to their events: that would simply be bad business! The bottom line underscoring much of what follows is the question of the soul’s sincerity, or ikhlas, to Allah ﷻ:

9. The Qur’an relates these words from one of Allah’s earlier prophets: ‘I am to you a trustworthy messenger. So fear Allah and obey me! I ask of you no wage for this; my wage is but from the Lord of the Worlds.’ [26:107-9] Again: ‘O my people! I ask of you no money for this. My reward comes only from Allah.’ [11:29] And the Qur’an says about one of the God-fearing people: And there came from the farthest part of the city a man running. He cried: ‘O my people! Follow those who have been sent. Follow those who ask of you no fee, and who are rightly guided.’ [36:20-1] This is a common theme running throughout the Qur’an, that Allah’s prophets, ‘alayhim al-salam, are trustworthy, sincere and selfless, and do not seek payment, wealth or fame for being the earthly means of bringing the message of Islam to their people.

10. When the above verses are read along with certain hadiths, the actual ruling about taking money or a salary for teaching Islam or giving da‘wah isn’t so obvious. A few of those hadiths include: The hadith of Ibn ‘Abbas where the Prophet ﷺ said to a group of Muslims who had stipulated a fixed payment in lieu of performing ruqyah, reciting passages of the Qur’an as incantation, over someone afflicted with an illness: ‘Indeed, the payment you are most deserving of taking is for the Book of Allah.’12 There’s also the hadith of Sahl in which the Prophet ﷺ married a man to a woman on condition he teach her what he knew of the Qur’an, as a dowry payment.’13 Then there are the Prophet’s words to ‘Umar: ‘When wealth comes to you which you neither craved nor asked for, then take it. Otherwise, do not covet it.’14 By contrast are hadiths that seem to imply the opposite: The Prophet ﷺ warned ‘Ubadah b. al-Samit, who had taught some Muslims the Quran and writing, and received a gift of a bow in return: ‘If you desire to have a bridle of fire around you, then accept it.’15 ‘Imran b. al-Husayn once heard a person reciting the Qur’an and then asking to be recompensed. So he related the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ to him: ‘Whosoever recites the Qur’an, let him ask Allah [for reward] for it. For a people will soon come who will recite the Qur’an and ask [for reward] for it from people.’16 Lastly, let’s bring the hadith of ‘Uthman b. Abi’l-‘As into the mix, who narrated the following: ‘The final undertaking of the Prophet ﷺ to me was that I should pick a muezzin (mu’adhdhin) who wouldn’t ask for a wage for giving the call to prayer (adhan).’17

11. Scholars have exerted much juristic energy and activity to try and make sense of the above assortment of proof-texts. In brief, I’ll quote what Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani said about the first hadith, ‘Indeed, the payment you are most deserving of taking is for the Book of Allah,’ so as to get a gist of the issue. He wrote: ‘The majority infer from it the permissibility of taking a wage for teaching the Qur’an; as opposed to the Hanafis who don’t permit it, but allow it for ruqyah …’18 Likewise, al-Shawkani, critiquing the chain of each hadith rigorously, along with the juristic reasons offered for and against taking a wage for the Qur’an, concludes by siding with the majority.19 For the sake of completion, a mention must be made of the stance of later Hanafi jurists. As the need for Qur’an teachers grew, and state support for such teachers significantly dwindled, Hanafi jurists felt the public interest would best be served by allowing teachers of the Qur’an to take a wage to help them in their profession of teaching.20 What applies to teaching the Qur’an, applies to the other sacred sciences of Islam too.21

12. Although scholars differ as to how this permissibility ought to best manifest itself, many urge that if one can have an income from another source other than teaching the din, that would be far better and safer. This way, when teaching the Qur’an, or any other sacred knowledge, ikhlas is less likely to be tainted by monetary considerations, and one can dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to seeking the pleasure of Allah ﷻ. Many also advise that money shouldn’t be given as a remuneration for teaching: that must be done only for Allah’s sake. Instead, it should be given as an aid for scholars to continue teaching and serving the general interests of the ummah.

13. The above refers to qualified scholars teaching the sacred sciences to unqualified people. As for the da‘i, the “caller” to Islam, this is a more problematic area. For until quite recently, this category didn’t exist in the way that it does now. And while there is a long-established norm of how and when someone becomes qualified in the sacred sciences, that isn’t the case with da‘wah. What counts as being qualified in da‘wah and who authorises its? A healthy share of Islamic knowledge, wisdom, gentleness, the art of persuasion, prioritising the message, and a familiarity with audience type are core qualities a da‘i must possess, as per the Book and the Sunnah. As such, all Muslims are expected to be da‘is/du‘at – less with words, more with character and conduct. Da‘is getting paid for da‘wah, then, is far more thorny and controversial.

14. That said, some contemporary scholars have allowed individuals or organisations engaged in da‘wah to non-Muslims to receive financial support – again, to fill a need and establish a public interest. But they advise that if such da’is aren’t suited or fit to give da’wah – e.g. they aren’t scholars or under the direct guidance of scholars; or they corrupt more than they rectify; speak about issues hastily, recklessly and beyond their level of learning; drive people away from the scholars and demean their status; or are immature, ignorant and lack serious concern for peoples’ welfare; or have desires and goals that they call to at the expense of calling sincerely to Allah – then such so-called da‘is should be advised but not financially assisted. And since ours is an age in which many such da‘is and speakers shamelessly peddle themselves and sell themselves, we’d do well to be aware.

15. As to the question of charging extortionate fees and exorbitant honorariums for teaching or da‘wah – a serpent that is now in the garden – with what good faith can that be justified? Of course, what is or isn’t exorbitant is up for discussion. Of course, large organisations will have greater overheads. Of course, quality produced books, translations and media productions are more costlier. Of course, we have a collective duty to assist the ulema‘. And of course, we must thank those organisations that have helped up the ante in terms of the ethos of excellence and professionalism they have brought to the teaching and da‘wah. All such matters are, hopefully, not in question. It’s simply that while many have sacrificed well-paid jobs in secular arenas for a lesser (or even no) salary in the Islamic field, some teachers and preachers are acting rather unbecomingly when it comes to the question of financial remuneration. And that’s a shame; if not shameful. Is it even lawful for event organisers funded by the public to misuse monies given to them on trust by forking out such sums on such speakers? Or to do so without public knowledge of how their money is being misspent?

16. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah mentioned a golden rule concerning taking payment for acts of worship. As part of his reply about whether or not it is permitted to charge a fee for performing pilgrimage on someone else’s behalf (hajj al-badal), he wrote: ‘He may take [payment] to [help him] perform the pilgrimage; he may not perform the pilgrimage just to take [payment] (an ya’khudh li yahujj la an yahujj li ya’khudh). This applies to all wealth one takes so as to undertake a righteous action.’22 Then he states: ‘There is a difference between one who makes religion his goal and the world his means, and one who makes the world his goal and religion his means – the likes of this [latter person] will have no share in the Hereafter.’23

17. Ibn Taymiyyah’s words apply to taking money for teaching or da‘wah too. There’s a big difference between someone who puts receiving money at the heart of his da‘wah affairs, and one who, although in financial need, puts it at the periphery. Again, what a difference between one who says: “I won’t do a talk unless I’m given such and such a sum of money,” and one who says: “I can’t do a talk unless I’m given some money.” If the intention is corrupted by money matters, if the niyyah isn’t solely for Allah, the act is invalid and sinful – and every person is a vendor of their own soul. Indeed: ‘Two ravenous wolves let loose amongst some sheep do less harm than craving after wealth or status does to a person’s religion,’24 said the Prophet ﷺ.

A few more concerns related to the seemingly apparent corporatisation of the da‘wah need to be queried, beyond the insatiable drive to maximise personal profits:

18.  With a corporate model of da‘wah, there’s a danger of seminars and courses being designed as consumer products, and the need to put out more and more products just to keep revenue flowing in. At what point is the role of money to help deliver courses, and courses to help deliver money? Now this doesn’t apply to organisations offering a clearly structured curriculum or syllabus, but to those that are mainly in the business of delivering courses or seminars. Al-Hasan al-Basri, rahimahu’Llah, said: ‘The penalty meted out to the scholar is death of the heart, and death of the heart causes a person to seek this world by means of actions intended for the hereafter.’25 As for how one inoculates the heart from corrupting its sincerity, Imam al-Ghazali said: ‘The remedy for sincerity consists in breaking the gratifications of the soul, ending the craving for this world, and being singularly devoted to the Hereafter such that it dominates the heart. By this, sincerity becomes possible.’26

19. Scholars and preachers who fuss over their first class travel arrangements, or their five star food and accommodation; or who design and sell courses with a desire other than the rida of Allah; or who are in the habit of turning certain topics whose essence could be explained in an hour and should be done so for free, into lucrative weekend courses – may give out the “wow” factor to their young audiences, but are unlikely to illumine hearts; unless their hearts are illumined with ikhlas to Allah, mindfulness of His scrutiny, taking significant steps in the direction of zuhd, and being sincere to the public with regards to extracting money from them. As for those who invite such DIY da‘is or celebrity speakers, they too may be answerable in the divine court for bending to the hype and not being truly concerned about the wealth or spiritual welfare of the seekers and servants of Allah.

20. Possibly of greater concern is the culture of self promotion, and not being able to point others to more learned and spiritually rooted shaykhs. Groups will do this due to hizbiyyah, or the revenue loss it entails if their own speakers aren’t the public’s port of call. Individual souls will usually do it out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame and status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons. Consider this Ghazalian wisdom: ‘How many an act has man troubled himself with, thinking it to be sincerely seeking the Face of Allah. Yet it contains deception, the harm of which he cannot see … Those subjected most severely to this trial (fitnah) are the scholars. Most of them are motivated to profess knowledge for the [mere] pleasure of [their] mastery, the joy of [gaining] a following, or of being lauded and eulogised.’27 He then gives this example: ‘So you see a preacher who advices people about Allah and counsels rulers. He is overjoyed at people’s acceptance of him and his utterances. He claims to rejoice in having been chosen to help the religion. But should one of his peers who preaches better than he appear, and people turn away from him, accepting the other, it would displease and distress him. Had religion been his true motive, he would have thanked Allah for having spared him this weighty [duty] through another.’28

21. Compare today’s self-promotion with the attitudes of our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted or well-travelled. Indeed, even the well-travelled ones would desperately avoid giving fatwas whenever possible, especially if they could pass the buck on to someone else. Ibn Abi Layla, a famous successor (tabi‘i), narrates: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved that his brother would suffice him [by answering].’29 In another narration: ‘… Whenever one of them was asked about an issue, he would refer it on to another, and this other would refer it on to yet another; until it would return back to the first person.’30 Al-Bara’ said: ‘I met three hundred of the people of Badr. There wasn’t any among them, except that he wished that his companion would suffice him by [giving] the fatwa.’31 And Bishr al-Hafi said: an ahabba an yus’ala fa laysa bi ahli an yus’al – ‘Whoever loves to be asked isn’t from those who should be asked.’32 So let no vacuum be left, and no ego promoted.

Our final issue concerns an alleged celebrity culture of sorts which surrounds certain speakers and preachers. Here, let us remember these few points:

22. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘He is not of us who does not honour our elders, have mercy on our young, or know the rights of our scholars.’33 In Islam, the scholars have always been held in great esteem and affection by the masses. Be it as guardians and teachers of sacred knowledge, or as mediators between the wider public and the ruling elite, or as wise, pious sages of the ummah, the masses have often thronged around individual ‘ulema and showered them with huge amounts of love, honour and esteem. That type of celebrity culture encircling the ‘ulema has not been absent from Muslim history or its societies. One hadith states: ‘Indeed, when Allah, blessed and exalted is He, loves a person, he calls to Gabriel saying: “Allah loves so-and-so, love him too.” Gabriel then loves him. Gabriel then proclaims in Heaven: “Allah loves so-and-so, so love him too.” The angels in Heaven then love him. Thereafter, acceptance of him is placed into [the hearts of] those on earth.’34 So whilst fame, for many, comes about by them actively craving attention, for others it is brought about because of Divine love and Heaven’s grace – especially in the case of the ‘ulema and awliya. Just because some scholars and preachers are famous doesn’t mean they’ve craved or fuelled such fame.

23. While fame has always been around, our current celebrity culture is pretty much a modern phenomenon. It is said that fame is when people know who you are; celebrity is when people know what you’re doing. Social media has given fans the opportunity to connect with their interests, crushes and idols in an unprecedented way. Fans and followers become ever more absorbed in the lives of their favourite celebrities, to the extent it becomes increasingly hard to draw a line between what is appreciation and what is obsession. The flip side of the fandom frenzy is that celebrities carefully craft public profiles on social media in order to garner fans and following, so as to sell their particular brand to people. And if not that, then it is to seek validation and adulation and assuaging the ego by publicising their lives, careers, views and talents. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that the egotistical promotion of the self is not a byproduct of social media, it is inherent to the institution itself!

24. For Muslim scholarly engagement on social media, ikhlas must be key. As scholars or da‘is maintain profiles on platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – posting fatwas, advice, anecdotes, smidgens of religious wisdom, glimpses into their personal lives, or even the occasional scholarly selfie! – they must guard against being taken on an ego trip, and against acts of narcissism. Online followership can lead to toxic levels of self-conceit (‘ujb), given the tsunami of unrelenting flattery showered on the posts. pictures or preaching of popular scholars and da‘is. A man was once praised infront of the Prophet ﷺ, to which he repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Woe be to you! You have slit the neck of your companion.’35 In another hadith, he ﷺ stated: ‘If you see people lavishly praising others, throw dust in their faces.’36 The logic why ‘you have slaughtered him, due to your praise of him’37 is fairly straightforward. For such flattery, lionisation or adulation, writes al-Munawi, all too often ‘gives rise to delusion and arrogance,’38 and can become an addiction and lead to one’s spiritual downfall.

25. Contextualising the above hadiths, Imam al-Nawawi said: ‘As for praising a person to their face, there are some hadiths which judge it permissible or recommended, and others that judge it prohibited. Scholars hold that the best way to reconcile between them is to say: If the one praised has perfect faith (kamal iman), firm conviction (husn yaqin), spiritual discipline (riyadat nafs) and complete gnosis (ma‘rifah tammah), such that he will not be subjected to temptations, nor become conceited because of it; and neither will he be played by his ego, then it’s neither forbidden nor disliked. But if any of these things are feared, then praising him [to his face] is severely detested.’39 Al-Baghawi seems to have hit the nail bang on the head as far as the condition of most of us are concerned. He said: ‘In general, praise and compliments of a person [directly to him] is disliked (makruh). Seldom is the one who praises safe from lying in his praise, and seldom is the one praised safe from conceit (‘ujb) which seeps into him.’40 Hence we should all try to balance between words of appreciation and encouragement, and those that are praise, flattery or likely to be spiritually ruinous.

26. Some insist that, ‘The knowledge should be what inspires us, not who the speaker is or isn’t.’ As true and as ideal as this is; in reality, it’s also a failure to appreciate what it takes to motivate people. Revelation teaches that familiarity, eloquence, charisma and the art of persuasion do have their place in the da‘wah and do make a difference to the receptivity of hearts and souls; as do sincerity, humility and the realisation that it is Allah who ultimately guides, not us. Indeed, Allah has gifted some people a fuller share of such qualities than others, and has made souls attentive to the words of some more than others: That is the favour of Allah; which He gives to whom He wills. [62:4] Of course, with Allah’s favour comes the eye of envy (hasad) – and many of the criticisms levelled against scholars or da‘is is nothing but envy. And of course, with the favour of sacred knowledge comes immense responsibility and trials.

27. Having a large following is a trial (fitnah) for the one being followed more than the followers. If audiences are regularly coming away from talks of particular scholars or da‘is feeling merrily entertained, or overwhelmingly wowed; but are not coming away with feelings or remorse for wrongdoings, a desire to repent and reform, or a yearning for Allah and the afterlife, there’s something truly amiss with the speaker’s intention, learning, or ability as a guide – however popular they may be and however large their following. An Arab poet has said: awradaha sa‘d wa sa‘d mushtamil/ma hakadha ya sa‘d tuwradu’l-ibil – ‘Sa‘d came in while leading them. O Sa‘d! That’s not the way you bring in camels.’ Let not scholars or callers fill hearts with frivolity, but with fear of Allah. Let them not inspire audiences to roll over in fits of laughter, but to repentance and hope. Let them not plunge Allah’s servants deeper into the dunya, but help raise their gaze to Allah and the akhirah. To do otherwise is just not da‘wah – it is not calling to Allah in any meaningful sense of the word.

28. Thus far in the blog, I’ve cited wisdoms and rulings from some of Islam’s classical and contemporary legalists and pietists. Let me end, however, by quoting, not from a scholar, but from Shelina Janmohamed – author and commentator on Muslim social and religious trends. Speaking of Generation M – young, urban, middle-class Muslims, committed to practicing Islam and being fully immersed in the modern consumerist culture – she remarks: ‘Since Islam is supposed to be about self-effacement, and our Generation M individuals aspire towards modesty and humility, the almost cultish popularity of religious scholars can be confusing.’ She then cites from Safia Latif who observes: ‘We love our Muslim scholars so much so that we jump at the first chance to follow their lives and they indubitably mean well in their efforts to reach and relate to a tech-savy generation,’ concludes Safia. ‘But we must question the psychological and sociological impact of this culture on our collective Muslim ethos.’41 I think that more or less sums things up.

29. Finally, we ask Allah to protect all our scholars, shaykhs and da‘is; increase them in sincerity, understanding and goodness; continue benefitting our ummah with them; and help them be exemplars of learning, depth and piety, as well as courage, character and compassion. We ask Allah, too, that He help the wider public sort out the wheat from the chaff with regards to scholarship; steer them away from worldly scholars to scholars of the hereafter; inspire them to yearn for the company of the truly learned lovers of Allah; and shield them from callers to frivolity and amusement, who crave for fame and seek only to buttress their own egos.

Allahumma jammilna bawatinina bi’l-ikhlasi laka wa hassin a‘malana
bi ittiba‘i rasulika. As’alu’Llaha’l-‘azim rabba’l-arsha’l-‘azim
an yaj‘alana wa iyyakum mimman yastami‘una’l-qawla
fa yattabi‘una ahsanahu. Wa akhiri’l-
da‘wana ani’l-hamduli’Llahi

1.  Cited in Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Mudarik (Saudi Arabia: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un al–Islamiyyah, 1983), 1:144.

2. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Al-Albani declared its isnad as sahih, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For a discussion about 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. I extend my thanks to Dr Abdul Haqq Baker, an old and dear friend, for alerting me to this hadith.

3. Al-Bukhari, n0.3461.

4. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alimiyyah, 2013), 8:77.

5. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 1:73. Ibn al-Salah and Ibn al-Qayyim have said something similar. See: I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 6:99-101.

6. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:233.

7. As explained by al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu‘assasah al-Risalah, 1988), 3:663-64.

8. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami‘ (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), no.212.

9. ibid., no.213.

10. As in his advice to one of his sons, Laftat al-Kabad ila Nasihat al-Walad (Beirut: Dar al-Muqtabas, 2013), 60.

11. Al-Khatib, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi, 1:232-33.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.5737.

13. ibid., no.5149.

14. Al-Bukhari, no.1473; Muslim, no.1045.

15. Ahmad, no.23357; Abu Dawud, no.3416. The chain contains Mughirah b. Ziyad and al-Aswad b. Tha‘labah who have been disparaged by hadith critics such as al-Bayhaqi and Ibn Hajr. Despite that, al-Albani graded the hadith, with its supporting chains, to be sahih. The details are given in: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:513-17; no.256.

16. At-Tirmidhi, no.2917, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan.’

17. Ibn Majah, no.714; al-Tirmidhi, no.209, where he said: ‘A hasan sahih hadith. The people of knowledge have acted by this hadith and disapprove that a mu’adhdhin take a wage for giving the adhan.’

18. See: Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alimiyyah, 2013), 6:42. Ibn Hajr notes the basic objection against the allowance of taking a fee – namely, that the allowance has been abrogated by the prohibition, and that the word ajr, “wage” in the first hadith means thawab, a spiritual reward – and argues the majority case, thus: [1]: While the “allowance” hadiths are undoubtedly authentic, the same cannot be said for the “prohibiting” ones; for they are not free of defects in their chains. [2]: Even if they are sound, the prohibitions in them are not categorical. [3]: The claim of abrogation is highly speculative and therefore invalid. [4]: To interpret the word ajr as thawab, given the context of the hadith, is far-fetched and therefore invalid.

19. Nayl al-Awtar (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1993), 5:344-45.

20. See: Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Karachi: Idarat al-Ma‘arif, 2008), 1:207-8; in his discussion of Qur’an 2:41.

21. ibid., 1:208.

22. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 26:19.

23. ibid., 26:20.

24. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2376, who said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

25. Quoted in al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:221; and its like is in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1165.

26. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, 9:70.

27. ibid., 9:70-71.

28. ibid., 9:71. I based my translation of these passages on A. Shaker (trans.), al-Ghazali, Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 62.

29. Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, no.21; Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2201.

30. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.

31. Al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), no.1076.

32. ibid., no.1084.

33. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, no.421. It was graded hasan in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.5443.

34. Al-Bukhari, no.7485; Muslim, no.2637.

35. Al-Bukhari, no.6061; Muslim, no.3000.

36. Muslim, no.3002.

37. As said by Ibn ‘Uthaymin, Sharh Riyadh al-Salihin (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2015), 1476.

38. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 1:362.

39. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 448.

40. Sharh al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983), 13:151.

41. Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World (London & New York: I.B.Tauris, 2016), 200.

Scholars, Speakers & the Culture of “Edu-Tainment” [1/2]

Conference.001How 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. [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. [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

In the first part of this article we 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, seasoned 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 in Part Two, 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.

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.’

Beware Pseudo-Scholars & Half-Baked Knowledge!

tumblr_md1w1eooHu1rvnjwto1_500The best proverbs manage to capture important ideas in just a few words. One well-worn Arab proverb has it that: nisf al-‘ilm akhtaru min al-jahl – ‘Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.’ ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ insists Steven Hawking, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ In the scholastic tradition of Islam there is the concept of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: claiming to be well-versed in religious matters merely by reading books, rather than by learning, studying and dialoguing with seasoned scholars. And so very often, such half-baked knowledge can be more corrupting and dangerous – to both the individual and the society – than simple, plain ignorance. Permit me to elaborate:

The whole notion of how a little knowledge can deceive a person into thinking they are more expert than they actually are has, I think, been wonderfully stated in a poem by the English poet, Alexander Pope. In his An Essay on Criticism (1709), he says:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Some of the lines of his Essay have become part of the popular lexicon, such as: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Then there is the famous first line of the above couplets, often misquoted as: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’

In Greek mythology, it was held that drinking from the Pierian Spring would grant a person great knowledge and inspiration. Pope explains how if a person only learns a little; if they only drink shallow drafts, it’s likely to intoxicate them and make them feel giddy and delusional. It’s apt to make them feel as if they know a great deal. However, a greater share of learning should remove their false pretensions and humble them. For drinking largely sobers, in that one then understands their level and becomes aware of how little they truly know.

Pope’s dangers of a little learning finds an earlier parallel in Muslim heritage. In some of the manuals written to help train Muslim scholars, teachers and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). It’s said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: Whomsoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; while whoever enters the third realises they know nothing.’1 An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of learning; having only drunk shallow drafts, Abu Shibr is intoxicated, looses sight of his fledgling level, and acts as if he is seasoned in sacred knowledge.

Of course, not everyone who enters the first stretch of learning becomes intoxicated. 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 the Abu Shibr persona, the experienced shaykh is likely able to treat the disease with an effective cure). Rather, it’s those whose knowledge comes only by way of a few books or surfing the Net that are most at risk. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a problem to himself as well as to others.

As for the second and third spans, or stretches, of knowledge, then as the months and years pass, the one seeking it appreciates, at first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even via one single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the highly 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 level. With further learning and engagement with knoweledge, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they truly know – in comparison to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition.

Nowadays, online forums and chatrooms are awash with pseudo-scholars audaciously speaking about things they have no knowledge of. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’2 Such pretenders might know something about the subject they are discussing, but do not know enough for a God-pleasing, objective discussion. They know a thing or two on the matter, but are ignorant of ten other things about it: and all too often they are ignorant of their own ignorance! This is due to a diseased heart and diminished piety, so the ego pushes them into false pretence, denial, haughtiness, conceit and being too full of themselves – wa’l-‘iyazubi’Llah.

Al-Khalil b. Ahmad remarked: ‘There are four types of people: (1) One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! (2) One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! (3) One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! (4) One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’3

Our ‘ulema explain that there are two types of ignorance (jahl): simple ignorance (jahl basit), and compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab). Simple ignorance is, to a degree, a minor problem, in that it is easily remedied by the simple act of asking. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, orders the Qur’an [16:43] One hadith states: ‘The cure for ignorance is to ask (innama shifa’u’l-‘iyy al-su’al).4 Simple ignorance is where one is aware that one doesn’t know; in other words, one realises their state of ignorance. As such, there is a sense of humbleness that accompanies simple ignorance.

Not so compounded ignorance which, Islamically speaking, is a far more pernicious problem. For the person wallowing in this ignorance is convinced he knows what he doesn’t know. He thinks he has knowledge of the issue, while in reality he knows next to nothing about it. Much of the Islamic postings on the Internet are characterised by such ignorance upon ignorance, or half-baked knowledge, as they pass themselves off as the real McCoy. But what causes a person to pant like a dog on heat, insisting: ‘I do know, I do know’, while the reality is very different? And what are the telltale signs of being soiled by such ignorance?

As noted earlier, the ego is all too often the culprit in such matters. In his censure of half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, the great Muslim polymath, Ibn Hazm wrote:

‘Some people – who are overcome by ignorance, whose intellects are weak and whose nature is corrupt – think they are from the learned, but they aren’t. There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah; exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or to shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’5

A telltale sign that one is afflicted with such a disease includes: An eagerness to poke one’s nose into difficult religious issues that are well above one’s proverbial pay grade, so as to offer their tuppence worth on the matter. The Arab proverb likely fits such a person: laysa hadha bi‘ushshik fadruji – ‘This isn’t your nest, so hop along.’

Another telltale sign is: being obnoxiously adamant that one’s own opinion is correct, and that everyone else is off. All too often this leads Abu Shibr to take this differing to the next level. His half-baked knowledge doesn’t allow him to realise that there may be more than one valid take on the issue, and that his mightn’t even be the soundest. But by this time it’s already too late, Abu Shibr has already made a mountain out of a molehill. In his hubris, he thinks that he alone is on haqq and the others are on batil. Such delusions of grandeur lead him to demean, defame and even boycot and warn against those who differ with him. In the bigotry and blind-following of his desires, Abu Shibr unwittingly does the devil’s work, becoming an active agent in destroying unity and brotherhood among the believers – and we seek refuge in Allah from such mischief and misguidance.

Another sign is: hiding behind phrases like, ‘I’ve got a brain to think for myself.’ But I suggest that this is to draw from the phrase more than is warranted. Whilst it’s a fact we’ve each been endowed with some level of intelligence or reason, it’s also a fact that some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, a person who can reason well in one topic or area of life, may be unfit to do so in another. Surely, true intelligence should lead us to acknowledge that some disciplines of life and learning require an immense amount of study and specialisation. Such is the case for the intricacies of Islamic law and theology. Yet some will casually dismiss the verdicts of highly qualified scholars, not upon a detailed evidence-based critique, but upon a vainglorious whim. ‘I’ve got a brain’ demands that we engage the evidences and legal rationals of the experts before dismissing their conclusions, or humbly defer to their authority. Anything else would make intellects look suspect; or even down right stupid! The Qur’an says: Yet among people are those who argue about Allah without knowledge, guidance, or an illuminating Book. [31:20]

Compounded ignorance; this Abu Shibr syndrome, is extremely difficult to cure. For the one afflicted with it doesn’t see the deficiency in himself. As far as he’s concerned, he knows; and that’s that! To reveal to him that he is ignorant of his own ignorance is nigh on impossible. And yet it’s because the Abu Shibrs of this world are least likely to recognise their inadequacies, and because the Abu Shibr syndrome can be contagious, that we need to be alert to the following shari‘ah cautions:

Firstly, that speaking about Allah, His religion, or its rulings, without due knowledge, is a heinous crime and amounts to lying against Allah and the religion of Islam: 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. [16:116] Such a crime against Allah requires an immediate handbrake turn to tawbah.

Secondly, to reign-in our soul from its egotism, exhibitionism and from seeking to be a wannabe. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever does deeds in order to be heard of, Allah will make him heard of; and whoever does deeds to show-off, Allah will make a show of him.’6 That sincerity to Allah and sound intention are key, is vividly demonstrated in the next hadith too: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then Allah shall enter him into Hell.’7 As can be seen, Islam doesn’t do ego. Those who are eager for it to be otherwise have possibly got the wrong religion and way of life.

Thirdly, that one of the best defences against getting intoxicated on shallow draughts of knowledge is: learning to say, ‘I don’t know’. In fact, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: la adri nisf al-‘ilm – ‘To say: “I don’t know” is half of knowledge.’8 One of the scholars said: ‘Realise, that to reply with, “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish one’s status; as some of the ignoramuses imagine. Instead, it elevates it. For it is a splendid proof of his lofty rank, strength of his religion, his fear of his Lord, and the purity of his heart.’9

Fourthly, ask, inquire, learn, study, discuss, and grow in Islamic knowledge – but let us do so with humility and with being aware of our own levels. In this respect, let’s take our queue from how the Angels extolled Allah: ‘Glory be to You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are the Knowing, the Wise.’ [2:32]

That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing is only when intentions are corrupt, or if we lose sight of our own levels. We all have half-baked knowledge about many matters. In some of those matters, our half-baked knowledge will mature and become seasoned knowledge. In some, it may improve but never fully ripen. In other cases, it may always remain half-baked. But that needn’t be a problem, so long as we are aware that we don’t know; that we don’t act like Abu Shibr; and that, if required or wanted, we are open to learning. In this regard it’s been wisely said that: ‘A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.’

Hear, hear!

1. Consult: Bakr Abu Zayd, ‘Hilyat Talib al-‘Ilm’, in Majmu‘at al-‘Ilmiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 198.

2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.

3. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, nos.336-7. The hadith says: During the time of the Prophet ﷺ a man suffered a serious head wound. Later he had a nocturnal emission and inquired from some companions if he was allowed to perform dry ablution (tayammum)? They said that they didn’t think it was permissible. So he took a full bath (ghusl), because of which he died. When the Prophet ﷺ came to learn of this, he said: ‘They have killed him; may Allah kill them! Why didn’t they ask, if they did not know. Indeed the cure for ignorance is to ask.’

5. Ibn  Hazm, ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.6499; Muslim, no.2986. The meaning of: ‘Allah will make him heard of’ is: Allah will publicly expose and humiliate him on the Day of Judgement – as said by al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1990), no.1626.

7. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2654. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6382.

8. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Madkhal, no.713.

9. Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir, 2013), 68.

Teaching & Purification: the Two Prophetic Tasks

Illuminating Turkish BeautyThe Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am the prayer of my father Abraham and the glad tidings [proclaimed by] Jesus to his people, and the vision of my mother who, while pregnant with me, saw a light issue forth from her which lit up the castles of Syria.’1

The good news of Jesus, referred to above, is mentioned in the following verse of the Qur’an: And [recall] Jesus, son of Mary, who said: ‘O Children of Israel, I am the Messenger of Allah to you, confirming that which was before me in the Torah and bringing good news of a Messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad.’ [61:6]

As for Abraham’s prayer, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: ‘Our Lord! Raise among them a Messenger from them who shall recite Your signs to them and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

Allah’s response to His khalil’s prayer is: He it is who has sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the wisdom, though before they were in manifest error. [62:2]

The above hadith and verses highlight some weighty considerations for our faith and spiritual growth; these include:

1. That our Prophet ﷺ was commissioned with two principle tasks: teaching (ta‘lim) and purification (tazkiyah): teaching us revealed knowledge about God, divinity and the afterlife; and purifying souls from the vices of idolatry (shirk), disbelief (kufr) and heedlessness (ghaflah) of the revealed commands and the Divine Presence.

2. Although Abraham put ta‘lim before tazkiyah in his supplication, Allah responded with tazkiyah first, then ta‘lim. Again in the Qur’an, Allah puts tazkiyah first: We have sent to you a Messenger from among you, to recite to you Our signs and purify you, teach you the Book and the wisdom, and teach you that which you knew not. [2:151] This tells us that purification has a distinction over teaching, and that the former is the goal while the latter is the necessary means.

3. That knowledge must be coupled with action – which is a sign that the purification process is underway – is borne out by the following salaf-reports: From Ibn Mas‘ud, may Allah be pleased with him, who repeatedly insisted: ‘O people, learn! Whosoever learns, then let them act.’2 The venerable sage, Sahl al-Tustari remarked: ‘Knowledge, all of it is of the world; that of it which is of the Hereafter, is action upon it.’3 And Abu Qilabah, a traditionist and pietist of Islam’s second century, stated: ‘When Allah gives you knowledge, give to Him worship; and let not your desire be to merely narrate it to the people.’4

4. In the context of knowledge and purification, the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Two qualities shall never coexist in a hypocrite: good character and understanding of the religion.’5 In other words, a hypocrite may acquire a sound, theoretical knowledge of Islam, but it won’t be reflected in piety, character or demeanour. Or it could be that a hypocrite might have a graceful character, but will lack a sound understanding of faith. It is only with the true believer that a sound understanding (fiqh) of the religion is united with righteous action and inward illumination of the soul. So knowledge in itself does not save: unless it is translated into piety, concern for beautiful character, compassion for creation and, ultimately, seeking Allah and the afterlife.

5.  As the monoculture puts Muslim distinctness under greater siege, we must ensure that the Quranic purification always remains at the heart of the Islamic story and its engagement with modernity. That any meaningful diversity is now seen as potentially destabilising to social cohesion simply serves to prove liberalism’s intolerance, as well as its growing totalitarian nature. Tawhid is told to not be so judgemental upon shirk. The Abrahamic odyssey is required to make way for the new Nimrods: the new lords of misrule. Monotheism is put on notice and told to bow down to Babylon. Pressures such as these will, regrettably, produce victims – except if my Lord has mercy. [12:53] For conformity is part of human nature. But a browbeaten Muslim who reluctantly gives in or capitulates isn’t the same as the ever growing cadre of Muslims who are anxious to please and who play fast and loose with revealed principles. Where we cannot live up to the social demands of faith, let us admit our own weaknesses and implore Allah for forgiveness, courage and strength. We cannot twist revealed truths, or water them down, or adulterate them just to fit in, gain acceptance, or curry favour. For as far as faith and hope are concerned, better a sinner than a sell-out.

6. Keeping the two core prophetic tasks firmly in mind, we need to be mindful about any activism or call to action which seeks to eclipse them or deflect the ummah away from them. In fact, all socio-political activism must be subordinate to these two tasks. Those who have lost sight of these core concerns should be gently and wisely guided back to them. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Salvation for the first part of this nation is with certainty (yaqin) and worldly renunciation (zuhd); destruction of the last part of this nation is by miserliness (bukhl) and [lengthy] hopes (amal).’6 Munawi said: ‘Meaning that the earlier ones adorned themselves with certainty and worldly detachment and purged themselves of miserliness and hopes. This was a cause for their salvation from perdition. In the latter times, the opposite will be the case.’7 He also wrote: ‘In it is a censure of miserliness and hopes (amal). But what is blameworthy is lengthy hopes, as has been said. As for hopes in themselves, they are necessary for the establishment of this worldly life.’8 Yaqin, certainty of faith, is the fruit of sound teachings, while zuhd is the outcome of the soul’s restraint; itself a fruit of purification.

7. As to the levels of faith and certainty, they are: (i) Faith via taqlid: where faith comes from taking it from an authority one trusts, without knowing the formal proofs for it. This is the faith of the lay people, and is easily susceptible to doubts. (ii) Faith through evidence (burhan): this is the fruit of learning formal proofs and discursive arguments. This is the faith of scholars and theologians. (iii) Faith via spiritual sight (‘ayan): this is where faith is the result of the heart having an abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of Allah. It’s the faith of those having reached the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). (iv) Faith via spiritual witnessing (mushahadah): it is where the heart witnesses Allah, as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). The first level of faith can be fragile: the next three beget ascending degrees of conviction and certainty.9

8. Beware reformist Muslims aching to align Islam with current western sensibilities, desperate to erase any distinctness that may make the monoculture feel unsettled. Be mindful of Muslim preachers unhinged from the sanad tradition, unschooled in adab and spiritual wisdom, who conflate harshness and severity with piety, thereby helping to drive many a servant of God into the icy realms of Riddastan. Beware, also, of the Muslim activist adopting the Sunnah out of reaction, protest, desperation, insecurity, identity politics, or because he cannot discover what else he wishes to be. Experience repeatedly demonstrates that such a person is likely to be ‘an engine of tanfir, driving humanity away from Islam by turning it into a language for proclaiming his inward traumas.’10

9. Before finishing, this concern about ta‘lim and tazkiyah; teaching and purification: Be not like those who became fixated on demonstrating the correctness of Islam, but came to practice nothing of Islam itself. Be not like those who were busy proving the existence of God, but came to care nothing for God Himself.

10. Lastly, ta‘lim reveals that our age is frought with so much confusion. Tazkiyah tells us that souls have never been so prone to egotism or spiritual lethargy. Together they help us realise that the times call on us that we too, like Allah’s wali, be infused with a spirit of love. For loving Allah, the wali loves His purposes; and looking at creation with love, laments that the Lord is forgotten, His commands disobeyed, and His signs unheeded.

Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina,
wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan,
waj‘alna min al-rashidin.

1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.4175. It being a sahih hadith is shown in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1545.

2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.11.

3. ibid., no.20.

4. ibid., no.37.

5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2684, and it is sahih due to its collective routes of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.278.

6. Ibn Abi Dunya, Qasr al-Amal, no.20. Al-Albani graded the hadith hasan li ghayrihi in Sahih al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.3340.

7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:282; no.9256.

8. ibid., 6:282.

9. For a further discussion on these levels of faith, see: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

10. A.H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: Quilliam Press, 2012), 66.

“We Only Follow the Qur’an & Sunnah.” Really?

In an earlier post (it can be read here), I discussed how the words of the Four Imams (Abu Hanifah, Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Ahmad bin Hanbal) concerning taqlid (incorrectly translated as “blind following”) continue to be misunderstood and misused by many groups and individuals today.

In this post, I wish to tie-up some loose ends on the subject of taqlid – “the following of qualified scholarship” – by addressing some common objections raised about the matter. It is advisable to read the previous posting on the subject, if it has not already been read, for it lays down certain cornerstones for us. Scholars state, man lam yutqin al-usul hurima’l-wusul – “Whoever lacks a firm grasp of the foundations, will be barred from arriving [at the goal].”

1. The objection most frequently heard against the permissibility of taqlid is: “We only follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah!” What is commonly implied by such a statement is: (i) that each Muslim has a duty to go directly to the root sources and derive their own fatwas and religious rulings, or (ii) that every Muslim must “weigh-up” the proofs and “select” the strongest scholarly view on the issue. Aside for highly seasoned jurists or fuqaha, permitting this to the religiously unqualified is nothing short of a wicked and woeful innovation. Explaining Ibn Hazm’s (d.456H/1064CE) words, ‘I follow the truth, make ijtihad, and do not limit myself to a [single] madhhab,’ Imam al-Dhahabi (d.748H/1348CE) wrote:

‘Yes! Whoever reaches the level of ijtihad, and a number of scholars testify to it, taqlid is not allowed to him. Much like how a novice jurist, or a layman who has memorised the Qur’an or most of it, is not permitted to attempt ijtihad at all. How could he make ijtihad? What could he possible say? On what can he base his opinion? How can he fly and he has yet to grow wings? The third type is a highly skilled, intelligent, discerning jurist who – having committed to memory a primer in fiqh, and on juristic maxims and legal theory; mastered grammar; memorised the Book of God and busied himself with its exegesis (tafsir); and possesses a sharp, analytical intellect – has now reached a rank of restricted ijtihad and is thus qualified to investigate the scholarly proofs. So whenever the truth becomes apparent to him in any given issue, or the proofs well established, and it has been acted upon by one of the great Imams like Abu Hanifah, for instance, or Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Abu ‘Ubayd, Ahmad or Ishaq, he should follow [what he sees as] the truth; without chasing concessions, but instead by being scrupulous. Taqlid is not allowed to him in the issue after the proofs have been established to him.’1

Now compare this with the da’wah that obligates (or at least, encourages) those who have nothing of the above depicted skill-set to “investigate” and weigh-up proofs! A mournful case of ducklings that can barely wade into water, convinced they can swan gracefully across the lake of legal rulings. Inna li’Llahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun!

2. A second objection runs as follows: If taqlid is “accepting the ruling of a scholar, but without knowing the proof for it,” then when a layman learns a proof in an issue, he is no longer a muqallid (one who is doing taqlid). To this confusion, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) wrote:

‘As for someone who knows the opinion of one scholar; along with his proofs, but not that of the other scholar or his proof, he is still from the generality of the muqallids. He is certainly not of those scholars who can evaluate and weigh-up [proofs].’2

This is a highly important point that is very often misunderstood. The great majority of jurists maintain that if a person is aware of a basic proof (dalil) for any given matter, but is unaware of the complete proofs, he is still classed as a muqallid (some calling him a muqallid muttabi‘ – a muqallid nonetheless). This complete knowledge entails three aspects: knowing the relevant proof-texts; knowing how rulings actually arise from them; and knowing how to resolve textual conflicts (ta‘arud al-adillah). Hence the muqallid includes: (i) a layman who does not know any proofs; and (ii) a layman who knows some proofs, but in an incomplete manner, and (iii) a student of fiqh ‘who has gained some learning of a law school and has studied a few of the manuals of the later scholars … yet despite this, is deficient in examining the proofs and evaluating the views of the jurists. Such a person is also required to perform taqlid.’3

3. Another popular anti-taqlid objection bases itself upon the verse: When it is said to them: “Follow what God has sent down,” they retort: “We will follow what we found our forefathers following.” What! Even though their forefathers understood nothing, nor where they rightly-guided. [2:170] It is claimed that since God condemned blind-following of one’s forefathers, this is proof that taqlid of the scholars is also forbidden. Al-Qurtubi (d.671H/1273CE) rebutted this erroneous thinking centuries ago, saying:

‘One group have linked this verse to the condemnation of taqlid, since God censured the unbelievers for following their forefathers in their falsehood and emulate them in their disbelief and disobedience: which is true in terms of falsehood. But as for taqlid in the truth, then this is one of the foundational principles of the religion, and one of the safeguards that the unlearned Muslims who are unable to examine detailed issues can take shelter in.’4

Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘One who [totally] turns away from following the Book and the Sunnah, and from obeying God and His Messenger – turning instead to his customs; or that of his forefathers or community – is from the people of ignorance; deserving to be under the threat of divine chastisement … As for one who is unable to ascertain the ruling of God or His Messenger, and so follows in the issue a scholar; knowing of no other view preferable than his one, he is to be praised and rewarded; not rebuked or punished.’5

In conclusion: The matter of taqlid and ijtihad is straightforward enough, a summary of which is given in this passage from Ibn Taymiyyah: ‘What the great majority of the ummah hold is that ijtihad is permitted, in general; and taqlid is permitted, in general. Ijtihad is not obligated on everyone while taqlid forbidden, nor is taqlid obligated on everyone and ijtihad forbidden. Rather, ijtihad is legislated for whoever possesses the qualification, while taqlid is legislated for those incapable of ijtihad.’6

A final point to press home. If the above type of taqlid is sanctioned by religion – not only that, but jurists have reached a consensus (ijma‘) on its lawfulness; how then can it then be spoken of in derogatory terms (i.e. taqlid is “blind-following”)? Rather, piety demands that this type of taqlid be spoken of in praiseworthy terms and be depicted for what it truly is: “Following qualified scholarship in the detailed rulings (furu‘) of the religion.” After all, following qualified fatwas and rulings, without being burdened with knowing the juristic reasoning behind them, is something one gets rewarded for by God. The muqallid is praised for taking recourse to taqlid, never censured! Indeed, abandoning such misrepresentations of taqlid, and the doors of religious anarchy this has flung open, is seriously long overdue.

1. Siyar Alam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 18:191-92.

2. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:233.

3. Ibn Mu‘ammar, Risalah fi’l-Ijtihad wa’l-Taqlid (Jeddah: Dar al-Andalus, 2000), 43-46.

4. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:142.

5. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa, 20:225.

6. ibid., 20:203-4.

Practical Steps for Learning Fiqh

Ummayad MosqueAccording to Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE), there are two opinions whether a lay person is obligated to follow one school of law (madhhab) or not. He stipulates: ‘What the proof necessitates is that a layman is not required to adhere to a specific madhhab. Instead, he seeks a fatwa from whomsoever he chooses or whomsoever he encounters [from the scholars]: on condition that he not hunt for concessions (rukhsah). Perhaps those who forbade him from doing this did so because they weren’t convinced that he would not avoid chasing after concessions.’1

Thus strictly following one madhhab in all that it orders or forbids is not obligated, but nor is it forbidden. Rather it is preferred.

Having said this, the most effective way to learn fiqh, as our scholars point out, is for the seeker to follow one specific madhhab from the four remaining orthodox Sunni madhhabs: namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali. There are many benefits and advantages in doing so; such as:

(i) It avoids the confusion of what to do when faced with differing opinions on a given fiqh issue. (ii) It trains the ego to submit to some higher authority, instead of the other way around. (iii) It facilitates the learning of religious rulings, principles and maxims in a systematic fashion. (iv) It ensures that for any religious ruling (hukm) we abide by, we will not be sinful in doing so because we are imitating legitimate and authoritative rulings; not our own whimsical concoctions.

Shah Wali Allah al-Dehlawi (d.1176H/1762CE) stated: ‘These four codified madhhabs that the ummah, or rather those in it whose views are worth considering, has agreed may be followed, up until our time, then in doing so lie certain benefits which are not hidden. Particularly in our time when peoples’ resolves are hugely deficient; souls are drunk with desires; and each individual is infatuated with his own opinion.’2

In the wake of this, therefore, let us now consider some pragmatic steps for acquiring sound knowledge of our fiqh:

1. One either builds on the madhhab they were raised on; cementing and enhancing one’s grasp of it. Or else one commits to learning a madhhab whose teachers and texts are practically and readily accessible.

2. It is preferred to study with a qualified teacher who has been authorised to teach by recognised scholars; starting with a primer or beginners text.

3. Commit to a step-by-step study of fiqh. Begin with the rules related to purification, prayer, zakat and fasting; then move on to the rules concerning marriage, buying and selling; and other relevant areas of fiqh as your needs dictate.

4. One learns the actual rulings – i.e. one must know if the act, or the aspect of the act, is obligatory (wajib), recommended (mustahabb), offensive (makruh), prohibited (haram), or licit (mubah).

5. Learning the proofs (dalil) behind a ruling is commendable; it is not a requirement. The goal is not for us to all become fully-fledged jurists, but to present to God works of faith based on a valid shari‘ah understanding. This taqlid – “following the opinion of a qualified scholar without knowing the proofs” – is allowed in our religion by juristic consensus or ijma‘. Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi (d.620H/1223CE) asserts: ‘Taqlid in the branches of the law (furu‘) is permitted by scholarly consensus.’3

6. Along with learning basic acts of worship (‘ibadat) and social dealings (mu‘amalat), one learns the rights and responsibilities (huquq) owed by us to others: be it to Allah; the Prophet, peace be upon him; parents and relatives; other Muslims; non-Muslims; the animal world; or the Earth itself. One should also study a text which outlines the major sins, as well as learn basic Qur’an recitation (tajwid).

7. Lastly, we should never forget that the fiqh school we follow is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. Biggotry or ta‘assub to any madhhab or scholar is prohibited. In this respect, al-Dhahabi (d.748H/1348CE) said: ‘You must not believe your madhhab is the best one or the one most pleasing to God. You have no proof for this; nor does the one who differs with you. The Imams, may God be pleased with them, were all upon great good. Those issues wherein they were correct, they will receive a double reward; those in which they erred, they shall receive a single reward.”4

Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) stated: ‘Rather, the names that are permissible to call oneself by – such as an ascription to an imam like Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali; or a shaykh like Qadiri or ‘Adawi; or tribes like Qaysi or Yemani; or region like Syrian, Iraqi or Egyptian – then it is unlawful to test people using them, or form allegiances or enmity around them. Instead, the noblest people in God’s sight are those who have the most piety – whatever group they belong to.’5

1. Minhaj al-Talibin (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 2001), 11:117.

2. Hujjat Allah al-Balighah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 1:286-7.

3. Al-Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1996), 3:1015.

4. Bayan Zagh al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2010), 124.

5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:416.

Misunderstanding the Four Imams on Taqlid?

AwzlXG2CQAIdDt-.jpg-largeLet me clarify two issues before I explain the point of this post. The first issue that needs clarifying is: what is taqlid? The second one is: who are the Four Imams?

[1] As an Arabic word, taqlid stems from qallada, meaning: ‘To place a collar (qiladah) around the neck.’1 It is called this because the person who does taqlid, the muqallid, entrusts his affair to the one he is performing taqlid of. He is like someone being led by the collar, so to speak.

In its religious or legal sense, taqlid is: ‘Accepting the opinion of someone without a proof (qabulu qawli’l-ghayr min ghayri hujjah).’2

Usually, taqlid is taken to mean a layman accepting a religious ruling from a qualified jurist or scholar without being burdened with knowing the proof behind the ruling. In doing so, the layman agrees to be guided by the scholar out of trust and confidence he has in his scholarship.3

[2] A jurist who is qualified to examine and evaluate the evidences from the Qur’an or the Hadiths, so as to extract or infer legal rulings from them, is called a mujtahid. The process of a mujtahid ‘expending or exerting every possible effort so as to evaluate the evidences’ – to leave no stone unturned, as it were – is called ijtihad.4

Several mujtahid scholars have graced our history; some of whom had a school of law (madhhab) ascribed to them, while others didn’t. Of them, the madhhabs of only four mujtahids endured: they were the schools of Imams Abu Hanifah (d.150H/767CE), Malik (d.179H/795CE), Shafi‘i (d.204H/820CE), and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d.241H/855CE). Their schools along with their legal doctrines are known as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali madhhabs, respectively.

The issue: There are certain statements reported from these above Four Imams which explicitly state that one should not make taqlid of them. That is, one must not follow their juristic opinions until one is aware of the proofs or legal reasoning behind their judgements and rulings. Some people have seen in such words a justification, not just for qualified jurists to evaluate proof-texts, but for the non-qualified, the ill-versed and the down right ignorant to dabble in the fine art of juristic reasoning too. The bottom line for such people is that they believe the Four Imams were emphatic in prohibiting taqlid to one and all: to scholar and layman alike.

Whether in mass-marketed books on “sahih” Islam, websites, or YouTube videos, this claim is hammered home again and again by such people. Hence let us examine this claim, by first citing a sample of the verdicts of the Four Imams concerning the issue of taqlid – may God bestow His mercy upon them all.

Imam Abu Hanifah stated: ‘It is unlawful for anyone to accept our opinion if he does not know from where we took it.’5

Imam Malik urged: ‘Indeed, I am but a human being. At times I am correct, at [other] times I err. So look into my sayings: whatever agrees with the Book  and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever contradicts them, ignore it.’6

Imam al-Shafi‘i asserted: ‘For everything I say and there is something authentic from the Prophet, peace be upon him, that opposes my view, then the hadith of the Prophet comes first. So do not make taqlid of me.’7

Imam Ahmad declared: ‘Do not make taqlid of me, nor of Malik, al-Shafi’i, al-Awza’i or al-Thawri. But take from where they took.’8

Analysing the above statements seems to make a few things pretty clear. Phrases such as, take from where they took (Abu Hanifah, Imam Ahmad) clearly suggests looking into the root sources directly – the root sources being the Qur’an and Hadith. Look into my saying (Imam Malik) is surely an instruction to evaluate the evidences. And then there is the phrase, do not make taqlid of me (al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad) – which pretty much puts a lid on things. Or does it?

There seems to be no shadow of doubt that they all forbade unconditional acceptance of their opinions without evaluating them first. But the very notion of scrutinising proofs, in the context of a legal argument or discourse (and obviously in the original Quranic Arabic language), clearly suggests another thing too: juristic qualification! To believe the Four Imams were addressing the illiterate; or those who could read and write, but had poor knowledge of Arabic grammar and language structures; or even if they were grammar proficient, they have no legal training whatsoever, would be the wildest stretch of the imagination (if it weren’t so ludicrous). The idea that the Four Imams were telling the unqualified, untrained masses (the bulk of whom couldn’t and still cannot understand Quranic Arabic) to evaluate proof-texts, beggars belief!

Cast in this light, it becomes crystal-clear just who the Four Imams were speaking to in their censure of taqlid. Their words were aimed squarely at their student, as well as anyone like them who were, in varying competent degrees, versed in legal reasoning and ijtihad. Indeed, this has always been the classical scholarly understanding of their words.

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) said the following, in conclusion to one of his fatwas on the issue of taqlid:

‘As for the likes of Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Sufyan; or Ishaq b. Rahawayah or Abu ‘Ubayd, there is a clear stipulation in another place that he [Imam Ahmad] deemed it unlawful for a scholar capable of legal inference (istidlal) to make taqlid of the aforementioned. He said: “Do not make taqlid of me, nor Malik, al-Shafi‘i, or al-Thawri.” … He ordered the lay people to seek fatwas from Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd, Abu Thawr and Abu Mus‘ab. But he prohibited those of his students who were scholars – such as Abu Dawud, ‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id, Ibrahim al-Harbi, Abu Bakr al-Athram, Abu Zur‘ah, Abu Hatim al-Sijistani, Muslim and others – from making taqlid of any other scholar. He would say: ‘Stick to the basic principle by [following] the Book and the Sunnah.9

Conclusion: To some, all of this may sound like a mere piece of academia. But it isn’t. The consequence of misusing the sayings of the Four Imams, or of misunderstanding them, has been both tragic and terrible (and not without its irony too).

It is tragic because taqlid – following qualified scholarship without being required to know the proof – is something permitted to lay people by scholarly consensus (ijma‘). Imam al-Qurtubi (d.671H/1273CE) said: ‘There is no difference between the scholars that the lay people should perform taqlid of their scholars.’10 Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti (d.1393H/1972CE) wrote: ‘As for the permitted [type of] taqlid, which none from the Muslims contest, it is a layman making taqlid of a scholar qualified to issue fatwas about the various circumstances and issues one encounters. This type of taqlid was in vogue during the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him; no difference existed about its legality.’11 Forbidding taqlid to even the lay people not only opposes scholarly consensus, and therefore Sunni orthodoxy; but even more tragically, such a view has, historically, only been associated with the innovators (ahl al-bid‘ah). Which is why Ibn Qudamah (d.620H/1223CE) stated: ‘It is the view of some of the Qadarites that the lay people are required to investigate the proofs, even in the detailed religious rulings (furu‘). But this is futile by consensus of the Companions.’12 One more scholar worth citing is Ibn Abd al-Barr (d.463H/1071CE), who said: ‘The scholars do not differ that the lay people must make taqlid of their scholars, or that they are the ones meant by God’s words: So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [16:43]’13

It is terrible because of the religious anarchy such a misunderstanding has unleashed; especially in the last decade or so. That countless lay people now fiercely believe they are obligated to examine proofs, and that they cannot accept any scholarly statement on simple trust, has caused untold chaos to souls and society. Hostile arguments, false accusations of “blind following”, ignorant people weighing-up proofs and then trying to thrust their ill-conceived understanding down the throats of others, a new method (manhaj) of da‘wah that distances itself from other Muslims because of their perceived deviancy of taqlid, creating immense mistrust for classical scholarship only to replace it with a cultish following of a handful of contemporary shaykhs – these, and other ills, now abound; continuing to shatter our unity and fragment our communities.

As for the irony, the anti-taqlid posse is forever quick to label the average lay Muslims with the pejorative term, “blind-followers”. Yet those who take the sayings of the Four Imams well beyond their intended remit, and disseminate this misreading uncritically and without due examination – are they not the real blind-followers here?!

1. Al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1990), 3:650.

2. Al-Ghazali, al-Mustasfa min ‘Ilm al-Usul (Cairo: Maktabah al-Tijariyyah, 1937), 2:387.

3. Cf. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 1991), 1:64.

4. As per al-Shanqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddah: Dar al-Manarah, 1994), 622.

5. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 3:470.

6. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 775; no.1435.

7. Ibn Abi Hatim, Adab al-Shafi‘i, 93; cited in al-Albani, Sifat al-Salat al-Nabi (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 52.

8. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 3:469.

9. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 20:226.

10. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1997), 11:181.

11. Adwa’ al-Bayan (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 7:318.

12. Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1993), 3:1019.

13. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, 989.

Legitimate Islamic Learning: Being People of Isnad

Manuscripts-a-Timbuktu-15One cannot worship God with loving submission, save with sound sacred knowledge or ‘ilm. The Golden Rule in this regard was stated by Imam al-Bukhari in these terms: al-‘ilmu qabla’l-qawli wa’l-‘aml – ‘Knowledge comes before speech and action.’1 If we don’t possess sound knowledge, we may make something a part of the religion which should never be part of it – effectively introducing an innovation or bid‘ah into Islam. One hadith says: ‘Whoever does an act that we haven’t instructed, it shall be rejected.’ [Muslim, no.1718] The Qur’an itself says: Do they have partners who have made lawful for them in religion that which God has given no permission for? [42:21]

What follows are six points summarising, God-willing, the issue of what constitutes legitimate Islamic learning:

1. The crux of how one seeks sacred knowledge is best expressed by a famous maxim: ‘Indeed this knowledge is religion, so look from whom you take your religion.’2 The upshot is that one avoids learning religion from those who are not Imams; or people not schooled, qualified or authorised in the traditional sciences: be it in theology, law, hadith, Qur’anic recital (tajwid), or any other discipline.

2. This qualification/authorisation (‘ijazah) must be part of an unbroken chain (isnad) of learning extending back to the Prophet, peace be upon him. One hadith says: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the fabrications of the liars, and the wrong interpretations of the ignorant.’ [Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209] If one takes knowledge from those outside of this unbroken chain, there is no telling what deviation can be passed-off as “the real deal” – as is all too often the case in these times.

3. To believe that the truths of Islam existed among the salaf; the pious predecessors, but then “sahih”, “authentic” Islam was lost or neglected for the next thousand years or so; until recently when it was rediscovered, is nothing but a dangerous myth which flies in the face of what God declared in the Qur’an: Indeed, it was We who sent down the Remembrance, and of a surety We will preserve it. [15:9] Consider also the following hadiths: ‘My ummah shall never unite upon misguidance.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2255] And: ‘There will never cease to be a group of my ummah unmistakably upon the truth.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2230; Muslim, no.1920] Also the hadith above: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation.’ [Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209]

What these proof-texts collectively tell us is that God has promised that knowledge of Islam shall always be kept intact and be transmitted from one generation of scholars to the next, in an unbroken chain. While it is true that individual scholars can and do err; and while it is true that individual scholars can and do espouse aberrant (shadhdh) opinions that are excluded from the umbrella of legitimate scholarly differences; it is utterly preposterous to believe that many truths and sunnahs were unknown, lost or neglected by the entire scholarly community for many centuries (even a millenium), only to be revived or rediscovered by certain scholars in our time! Such a belief could only be held by one whose heart is plagued either with ignorance (jahalah), innovation (bid‘ah), hypocrisy (nifaq), deviation (zandaqah) or disbelief (kufr). And we seek refuge in God from such things.

4. In terms of fiqh (Islamic law and rulings; or to use its modern equivalent, “positive law”) the unbroken chain now only exists in the four remaining Sunni schools of law or madhhabs: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali. To the question as to why a person cannot follow other Imams or schools of fiqh besides these four, Ibn Rajab says: ‘It is said [in reply]: We have already alerted you to the reason for preventing this, which is that the schools of other than these [four] were not widely diffused, nor fully codified. At times views are ascribed to them which they never said, or their pronouncements are understood in ways they never intended. There is no [expert in] these schools to defend them or point out where such slips and errors lie – contrary to the case of the well-known madhhabs.’3 Hence it is from these four madhhabs and their relied-upon (mu‘tamad) manuals and teachers that fiqh must be taken.

5. As to a murajji‘, a “comparatist” (a highly-versed jurist qualified to analyse the views of the mujtahid Imams and to then select the ruling he deems to be the ‘strongest’), al-Dhahabi wrote: ‘There is no doubt, one who has an intimate familiarity with fiqh, and whose knowledge is copious and intentions are sound, should not rigidly cling to one specific madhhab in all that it states. For maybe another madhhab has stronger proofs in a certain issue, or evidence may emerge by which the proof is established to him. In such a case, he must not follow his Imam, but must act by what the proof dictates; following another mujtahid Imam whose view agrees with the evidence – doing so not out of pursuing whims and desires. However, he must not give a fatwa to the public, except in accordance with the madhhab of his Imam.’4

6. Ibn al-Qayyim was asked about someone who possessed Sahih al-Bukhari, or Sahih Muslim, or one of the Sunans, and if he is able to act on the hadiths in them without first consulting a scholar. He replied thus: ‘The correct view in the issue is that there is some detail: If the textual indication in the hadith (dalalat al-hadith) is obvious and clear to whoever hears it, and allows for no other plausable reading, he should act on it and give fatwa according to it: he doesn’t need the approval of any jurist or Imam. The saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is proof in itself, no matter who it opposes. But if the indication is vague, or the intent is unclear, then it is unlawful for him to act on it or to give a fatwa based upon what he thinks it means, until he asks a scholar and gets clarity about the meaning of the hadith … This applies to one who is qualified, but has some shortcomings in his knowledge of fiqh, the principles of the legalists, and the Arabic language. If he isn’t of those who are qualified, his duty is simply to act on what God says: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [16:43]’5

Much more can be said about the subject, but what has preceeded should suffice. The sum and substance being that fiqh authority and orthodoxy resides in the four Sunni schools of law. The current ‘do-it-yourself’ fiqh culture which actively encourages the lay people, or those unschooled in fiqh, to dabble in the sacred texts and to ‘weigh-up’ the proofs (or the equally absurd ‘the-hadith-is-clear’ syndrome), are unwitting pawns who only serve to plunge this fragile ummah into even further religious anarchy. Such a method must be seen for what it truly is: dal mudill: misguided and misguiding! Those holding such mistaken notions must correct them.

1. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002), 29.

2. Muslim b. al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1991), 14.

3. Al-Radd ala man Ittabaah Ghayra’l-Madhahib al-Arbaah (Makkah: Dar al-‘Alam al-Fuwa’id, 1997), 33-4.

4. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:93-4.

5. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Jeddah: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002) 6:164.

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