This is a piece discussing how Muslims can be divided into three categories in terms of religious knowledge, and how the middle category is where much of the ummah’s woes and fitnahs spring from. And as counter-intuitive as it may sound, this middle problematic category are those that are commonly referred to as the more committed in learning ‘practicing Muslims’! Finally, while the title may be somewhat on the dramatic side, it is my hope that the piece itself will be read with careful thought and measured consideration.
In the biography of ‘Ali b. Qasim, Imam al-Shawkani (d.1255H/1839CE) wrote the following: ‘From the beautiful words I heard from him were:
“People are of three categories: The highest category are the major scholars (al-‘ulema al-kibar) who are well-acquainted with truth and falsehood; and when they differ their differing does not become a cause for fitnah, because of their knowledge of what each other has [of proofs].
“The lowest category are the general public (‘ammah) upon the fitrah, who do not flee from the truth. They are followers of those they emulate: if those they emulate are correct, they are likewise; if they err, then they do too.
“The middle category is the source of evil and the root cause of fitnahs arising in the religion: They are those who are not seasoned in knowledge, such that they rise to the level of the first category, nor have they forsaken it to thus be of the lowest category. They are those who, when they see one of those from the highest level say something which they are not acquainted with and which contradicts their belief in which they fell short, they fire arrows of accusation at him and hurl at him all sorts of insults. They [also] corrupt the fitrah of the lowest category [the masses] from [no longer] accepting the [scholarly] truth, through disguising falsehood. By this, they establish religious fitnahs on a firm footing.”
‘This is the meaning of his words which I heard from him; and he has spoken the truth. For whoever ponders over them will find it to be so.’1
There are a number of benefits which may be taken away from the above; they include the following:
1 – In matters of furu‘, the branches or details of shari‘ah law where there is no juristic agreement or consensus (ijma‘), the scholars uphold the rule: ikhtilafu ummati rahmah – ‘Differences in my community is a mercy.’2 Such a rule has lent itself to mutual respect between scholars and an appreciation for the basis of legitimate scholarly differing (ikhtilaf) – even when a scholar passionately holds his view to be the correct one.
2 – This rule was so part and parcel of Sunni orthodoxy that we see someone like Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, the chief Hanbali jurist-theologian of the early seventh century, include it as part of the staple Athari creed: ‘Differing in the furu‘ is a mercy. Those differing are rewarded for their scholarly ijtihad. Their differing is a comprehensive mercy: their agreement a decisive proof.’3 Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘Realise, to know the madhhab of the salaf with its proof is a most essential need. For their differing in furu‘ issues is a mercy.’4
3 – As for the view of the late Salafi scholar Shaykh al-Albani, where he tried to show the futile nature of this rule then, in the light of our past Imams and theologians, I’ve discussed how his view is out of sync with the classical Sunni position, in my book, Fussing Over the Fifteenth of Sha‘ban & the Golden Rule of Differing. Hence rather than rehearse the arguments here, and before someone regurgitates the gist of his objections in the comments section, I recommend that one refer to the book.5
4 – That the ummah would be afflicted with its share of barefaced pretenders to Islam’s scholarly heritage is something our Prophet ﷺ cautioned us about. One hadith says: ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; but He takes away knowledge 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.’6 These people are usually not from the lowest category of the general public, but – as al-Shawkani mentions – from the ‘middle category’ of the practicing Muslim cohort; those who have some passion to learn, practice and proselytise a little more than is usual for non-scholars.
5 – Ibn Mas‘ud 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.’7 This ‘speaker’ syndrome has, in our time, mushroomed into a rite of passage for any ignoramus, with the flimsiest knowledge and no grounding in the sacred Islamic sciences, to speak on behalf of Allah and to engage in shameless self-promotion. Such people deserve to be labelled as liars, as Imam Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he did not intend to lie!’8
6 – Left to their own natures, the general public always understood that there is a huge difference between them and scholars who, not too long ago would have had to spend, on average, seven to ten years just to get on the first rung of the ladder of serious scholarship. That is, a lay Muslim knew that he or she must follow qualified scholars in religious matters – taqlid being the technical religious term for such following, and muqallid for the follower.
7 – Over the past three decades, a vile bid‘ah has infected practicing Muslims, who are otherwise well-intended. And that is the idea that even they, without any juristic training; qualification; or expertise, can weigh-up shari‘ah proofs in the highly complex minutae of Islamic law and determine the ‘strongest’ view! And all because they believe they know a proof-text (dalil) or two on the issue. Ibn Taymiyyah put such falsehood to bed when he said: ‘As for a person who only knows one scholar’s view and his proof, but not the other scholar’s or his proof, is from the generality of the muqallids. He isn’t from the scholars capable of evaluating or weighing-up [proofs].’9
8 – The middle category of religious practitioners, as al-Shawkani points out, not only corrupt their own fitrah, but have been instrumental in corrupting the nature of the third category – a growing number of whom are also persuaded that they too can dive into detailed fiqh/furu‘ matters and play the part of self-made muftis. And whilst any Muslim may join the scholarly conversation, they can only lawfully do so with sound learning that is isnad-approved. Otherwise, it’s as Ibn al-Mubarak said: al-isnad ‘indi min al-din, law la’l-isnad laqala man sha’a ma sha’a – ‘The chain [of transmission], in my view, is a [required] part of the religion. If it were not for the chain, anyone could claim whatever they wanted to claim.’10
9 – That the lay folk aren’t obliged to know the proofs behind a fatwa or ruling they read or are given, shouldn’t prevent them from increasing in their overall knowledge of the Qur’an and the Hadith corpus. Islam encourages all Muslims to increase in their share of Islamic knowledge. Let lay people apply their God-given intellects to grow in knowledge of those verses and hadiths that relate to foundational beliefs; ethics and good character; virtues and vices of the heart and its spiritual growth; and rights and responsibilities. Books like Imam al-Nawawi’s Riyadh al-Salihin are priceless in this respect. It’s just in the domain of detailed Islamic law, in fiqh, where the proofs are often complex and subtle to fathom without formal legal training, that taqlid is legislated and qualified scholarship must be followed.
10 – Rather than acquaint themselves with the basic meanings of the Qur’an, or with hadiths that expound on the broad aspects of Islam mentioned above, the middle category feign knowledge; overstep their mark; criticise what they don’t understand; and eagerly plunge into pointless argumentation and issues of contention, none of which arouse in the soul a yearning for Allah or a desire to increase in acts of devotion. Malik b. Dinar said: ‘Whoever learns knowledge so as to act by it, his knowledge humbles him. Whoever seeks it for other than that, only increases in pride by it.’11 And Abu Qilabah advised: ‘If God gives to you knowledge, give to Him worship; and do not let your concern be to merely narrate to the people.’12
11 – Corrupt intentions or the soul’s arrogance aside, the chief reason why this middle category is a harbinger of fitnah is their lack of upholding the ikhtilafu ummati rahmah rule. For them, differing in the furu‘ is no longer a mercy, but a menace! Be it driven by compound ignorance (jahl murakkab – being ignorant of one’s ignorance), personal jealousy or sectarian prejudice, the hallmark of such people is ta‘alum – ‘feigning knowledge’ and, what could be described as fascist fiqh!
12 – Let me try to explain this last trait. Fascist fiqh is where furu‘ differences rooted in ijtihad are made into larger than life issues which are then used as a benchmark to judge who is deviant; whose Islam is not ‘sahih’ enough; or who must be boycotted, snubbed or shunned. That is why such bigotry, intolerance and authoritarianism in matters of legitimate scholarly differences is nothing short of a facist mentality in fiqh/furu‘. Hence, fascist fiqh. Ibn Taymiyyah tells us: ‘When it comes to issues of ijtihad, whoever takes the position of one of the scholar, cannot be rebuked or boycotted; while whoever adopts the other view cannot be censured either.’13
13 – Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘In such ijtihadi matters, one cannot forbid someone with the hand, nor impose upon others the view he follows. He may, however, discuss it with knowledge-based proofs. Then whosoever sees one of the two views to be correct may follow it, while whoever follows the other view cannot be criticised. And the likes of such issues are many.’14 Such ijtihadi issues can be in matters of fiqh, or in hadith authenticities and the reliability of specific narrators, or even whether the conditions have been fulfilled for a person to be warned about or boycotted. For as long as there is no scholarly agreement or consensus on the matter, one scholar’s ijthad cannot be enforced or imposed on others. To do so is sheer misguidance and the essence of fascist fiqh.
14 – Regrettably, there is quite a lengthy catalogue of issues where this middle category has made mountains out of molehills, thereby riding roughshod over Sunni orthodoxy and causing schisms and divisions within this already fragile ummah. So whether it’s from using tasbih beads to tawassul bi’l-nabi, or from whether to mark out the night of mid-Sha‘ban with extra worship or celebrate the Prophet’s mawlid/milad ﷺ, then all such things are areas of valid scholarly ijtihad and are from the issues of fiqh and furu‘, not usul nor ‘aqidah. This will be evident, and as clear as day, just by looking into even what Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah had to say about these issues.15
15 – Given all the above, it won’t come as a surprise that making issues which are not agreed upon (mujma‘ ‘alayhi), but are instead valid differing (mukhtalif fihi), into benchmark issues or mini inquisitions one imposes on others, has always been deemed by the ‘ulema to be the stock-in-trade of the innovators. Typifying Islamic orthodoxy on the matter at hand, let’s here from Imam Ibn Taymiyyah one last time: ‘It isn’t [lawful] for anyone to set-up for the ummah an individual, calling to his way or basing one’s loyalty or enmity around him, except if it be the Prophet ﷺ. Nor must an opinion be set-up for them, around which loyalty and enmity is formed except if it be the Speech of Allah, or His Prophet, or what the ummah has agreed upon. Rather, this is from the practice of the people of innovations (ahl al-bida‘); those who affiliate themselves to a specific individual or opinion, basing their loyalty and enmity around such an opinion or affiliation.’16
Let me conclude with the following. In his scathing rebuke of those with half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi wrote – and how yesterday resembles today:
‘Some people who are overcome with ignorance, whose intellects are weak, and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they are not. There is no greater harm to knowledge or to the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, 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 shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’17
Of course, none of the above will likely have any effect on those in whose vapid hearts the poison of attention-seeking and shamelessness has been secreted. For as the Prophet ﷺ warned: idha lam tastahih f’sna‘ ma sh’it – ‘If you feel no shame, then do as you wish.’18 We ask Allah for safety from fitnah, and from the evils of our own selves.
From a struggling, mediocre student of sacred knowledge,
Surkheel Abu Aaliyah
1. Al-Shawkani, al-Badr al-Tali‘ (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Islami, n.d.), 1:473.
2. The rule or principle is related as an actual hadith. However, al-Subki said: ‘it is not known to the hadith scholars and I cannot find a chain for it; whether sound, weak or [even] fabricated.’ As cited in al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), no.288; 1:352.
3. Lum‘at al-I‘tiqad (Kuwait: Dar al-Salafiyyah, 1986), 35; no.94.
4. Al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Jeddah: Maktabah al-Irshad, n.d.), 1:19.
5. Fussing Over the Fifteenth of Sha‘ban & the Golden Rule of Differing (London: Jawziyyah Press, 2014), 46-53.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.
7. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8066, and its chain is sahih. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: al-Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 10:510.
8. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.
9. ibid., 35:233.
10. Sahih Muslim, Muqaddimah (Beirut: Dar al-Tasil, 2014), no.28; 1:316.
11. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1977), no.31.
12. ibid., no.38.
13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:15.
14. ibid., 30:80.
15. On Ibn Taymiyyah’s opinion concerning tasbih beads (subhah), see: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa, 22:506; on tawassul with the Prophet ﷺ, see: Majmu‘ Fatawa, 1:40, where he cites Imam Ahmad doing so, thus validating it as a legitimate fiqh view; concerning earmarking the fifteenth of Sha‘ban for optional ‘ibadah, cf. 23:131-32; on the mawlid, see: Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Maktabah Ishbiliya, 1998), 2:123, where he holds people will be rewarded for their love in doing so, but not for the actual act, again showing he considered it as an issue of legitimate ijtihad and differing.
16. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.
17. ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.
18. Al-Bukhari, no.6120.