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Scholars (3) – What could go wrong?

This is a continuation of the discussion on the role of scholars. Please read the preceding part 1, and part 2. Do scholars sometimes make mistakes? Despite the advantage afforded by lengthy educational training, human error is inescapable. Imam Malik (d.179H) famously said, “Everyone can have their statement accepted or rejected, except the Prophet Muhammad”. 1Siyar ‘Alam al-Nubala 8/93 Whenever an expert advances a viewpoint that is not substantiated by research and is contradicted by other experts in the field, such a viewpoint is rightly repudiated by those who possess the requisite skills to evaluate the research. It is essential that such a repudiation come from the community of experts so that the lay people are not left in the dark. How should a mistaken view be handled? The best way to help people is for other experts to clarify the correct understanding of the subject. Focusing on the person who made the mistake rather than the topic itself only leads people to get caught in unhelpful partisan debates driven by emotion rather than reason. On the other hand, when people acquire a correct understanding of the topic, they can judge for themselves and understand why a certain view is incorrect. Also, it is important not to disregard everything from a person when they make an error on one matter – they may still have valuable contributions on other matters. Just because an expert holds a mistaken view on one matter does not disqualify them from being an expert, or else there would be none left! When is there a risk of bias in a scholar’s views?  Human beings...

Scholars (2) – Do we really need them?

This is a continuation of the discussion on the role of scholars. Please read the preceding part 1. What is a scholar? Muslims growing up in the modern culture often face difficulties understanding how to deal with scholars. For the sake of simplicity, the term ‘scholar’ will be used broadly to refer to any person who has acquired a comprehensive education in all the sciences of the religion. Not all scholars are at the same level then; some will be knowledgeable enough to engage in very sophisticated academic research, while others will have enough knowledge to teach masses the basics. People often use different arabic terms to refer to different degrees of knowledge – aalim, mufti, ustadh, shaykh – the particular usage is often arbitrary and besides the point. What is important is to recognize that the essential definition of a scholar is possessing knowledge, and that there are levels among scholars according to how much knowledge one possesses. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.240H) stated that a scholar must possess five qualities: sincerity of intention, spirituality of the heart, independence from others, academic expertise, and familiarity with the situation of people. 1See Ibn al-Qayyim’s detailed discussion of this quote in I’lam al-Muwaqi’een, vol. 6, p.105. How do we know who is a scholar? Obviously, a person is not born as a scholar, nor does a person automatically become a scholar because of their appearance, name, ethnicity, language, etc. The only way to become a scholar is through learning. As the Prophet Muhammad said, “Verily, knowledge is acquired through learning and study” (al-Tabarani). Sometimes this may take place in a...

Scholars (1) – Differences of opinion

What does it mean to follow Islam? Islam means submitting to the way of God, and striving to do what God has asked of us. That means following the guidance which God has revealed in the two foundational sources of Islamic teachings – the Qur’an and the Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad). “O You who believe, answer the call of God and His Messenger when they call you to that which will give you life!” (Qur’an 8:24) This necessitates that God has given us a system of guidance that is meant to be followed, and in order for one to understand that guidance one must study it and acquire knowledge. 1This is a crucial point which leads to the concept of textual intentionalism – that there is an intended meaning to the words of the scripture. In other words, we do not invent the meaning of the scripture, we discover the meaning of scripture through study and scholarship. Why doesn’t Islam have a central authority? Islam is not a human institution like a company, business or organization that is run based on the personal decisions of a central human figure. The teachings of Islam are known through learning the Qur’an and Sunnah, and therefore knowledge of scripture is akin to other academic disciplines – medicine, science, mathematics, etc. These are fields based on learning, research, and study. Conclusions are not based on personal opinion but are contingent on the strength of the evidences which one provides. It doesn’t make sense in these disciplines therefore to ask for central authorities. Instead, one should seek rigorous standards to ensure sufficient knowledge of the scholars...

Top Five Misquotations Of The Qur’an

The recent surge in negative sentiments towards Islam and Muslims has resulted in many attempts to depict the religion as inherently violent. This has also resulted in absurd accusations against the Qur’an. What are the five most frequently misquoted passages in the Qur’an? Do accusations of violence stand up to academic scrutiny, or are the verses being distorted to suggest the opposite of what they actually say?   Religion has always been a convenient scapegoat for violence. Genocidal maniacs and extremists throughout history have frequently invoked religion to grant cosmic significance to their earthly conflicts. The political conflicts, brutal dictatorships, and warfare involving Muslim countries in recent decades have led to the emergence of modern extremist groups attempting to justify violence in the name of Islam. Chaos, instability and prolonged warfare create a political vacuum where power-hungry groups vie for control. Such groups will raise whatever banner draws support for their cause, whether it be the banner of ethnic identity, cultural identity, nationalism, or a particular ideological or religious identity. One should immediately be skeptical of the political instrumentalization of religion by such groups, and of the attempt to shift blame to a religion that has been around for 1400 years and is practiced by almost two billion adherents around the world. Nevertheless, certain verses of the Qur’an have been tossed around by radicals and by islamophobes alike, alleging that there is some Qur’anic support for violent activity. The slightest familiarity with the verses in question would demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth. It is fairly easy to misquote a text. All one must do is...