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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 formal institution from which one acquires degrees and certifications. Sometimes this may occur through ‘traditional’ learning under previous scholars, who may often give ‘licenses to teach’ (ijaazah al-tadrees). But the real way that anyone is recognized as an expert in anything is through mutual recognition within the community of experts, competence in their contributions, and trust amongst the masses. 2Imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H) discusses this topic in Irshad al-Fuhul ila ‘Ilm al-Usool, vol. 2, pp. 1102-1105. The classical scholars mentioned many general indications of scholarship including that the scholar is trusted amongst the masses and commonly relied upon, that trustworthy people testify to their knowledge and expertise, that they demonstrate competency when examined, and so on. Someone is recognized as an expert in economics, philosophy, medicine, engineering, psychology, law or anything else, when existing experts in that field attest to the knowledge and expertise of the individual, and when the individual is able to demonstrate their own knowledge in their contributions to the subject, whether in their lectures, articles, books, publications, etc. There is really nothing mystical about figuring out who is a scholar. If a person has knowledge, they are a person of knowledge. The more knowledge they have, the more knowledgeable they are considered.

What is the role of scholars in the religion? 

Since scholars are people of knowledge they are obliged to work to educate and guide the masses towards what is correct. Problems can be solved when one has adequate knowledge of the solutions, and hence scholars play a fundamental role through their teaching and advising. However, scholars are not priests or popes, they are academics. So when a scholar says something that does not mean it is automatically true. What a scholar says must be based on academic research, and it can be verified or repudiated by other experts in the field. Just as doctors must advise the public based on their academic study and clinical knowledge, scholars must advise the masses based on their academic study and religious knowledge. People ‘follow’ scholars in the sense that they learn from them and make informed decisions based on that knowledge, not that they are bound by a mystical order to obey the instructions of their master.

Why do we even need scholars?

As with many things in life, some people may decide that they don’t need the advice of experts. They figure they can decide how to fix their car themselves from the internet, decide how to treat their disease themselves from the advice of friends, and so on. But there are dangers to pursuing something without sufficient knowledge, as the Qur’an notes, “Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge.” (17:36).

People may begin to value the expertise of the car mechanic when their car malfunctions from their failed attempts at repair, and people may begin to value the expertise of the surgeon when their bowel obstruction is not alleviated by their grandmother’s herbal ointment. A person may think they have solved a difficult problem, but if their answer goes against those people who have studied the subject comprehensively for decades longer, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him referred to the central role that scholars play in guiding people when he said, “Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets; for verily, the Prophets do not leave as inheritance dinars or dirhams, but rather they leave behind knowledge. So whoever obtains it, has obtained a vast share.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi).

What knowledge do scholars have which others lack?

Many people just don’t appreciate how extensive one’s knowledge has to be before pronouncing an opinion on a subject. The average Muslim would agree with following Islam as it was revealed by Allah in the Qur’an, as it was explained by the Prophet, and as it was understood by the Prophet’s companions, who were the direct recipients of the message. But to figure out exactly what is an Islamic teaching according to this approach sometimes take significant academic effort, and that’s why it has been the goal of fourteen centuries of scholarship.

In Islamic sciences, it is not just a matter of reading one verse of the Qur’an and coming up with an opinion or interpretation. One must ensure that one’s interpretation is consistent with the 6236 verses of the Qur’an, and a detailed understanding of the Prophet’s life and teachings. This includes a deep familiarity with the Prophetic biography (seerah) and adequate knowledge of the hadith corpus comprising 7275 traditions in Sahih Bukhari, 9200 in Sahih Muslim, not to mention Sunan an-Nasa’i, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Ibn Majah, as well as ancillary collections including  Musnad Ahmad, Sunan al-Daraqutni, Sunan al-Darimi, Sunan al-Bayhaqi, Sahih Ibn Khuzaymah, Sahih Ibn Hibban, Mustaradak al-Hakim, Musnad al-Bazzar, and so on.

This careful correlation would have to be done with a thorough understanding of the syntactic and semantic rules of the Arabic language, 3There are 12 to 15 (depending on categorization) fundamental sciences of the Arabic language. These include grammar (النحو), morphology (الصرف), semantics (المعاني), lexicon (اللغة), derivatives (الاشتقاق), metaphorical speech (البيان), composition (الإنشاء), prosody (العروض), rhyme (القافية), writing (الخط), literature (الآداب), phonetics (الأصوات), etc. the epistemology of Islamic jurisprudence (Usool al-Fiqh) and its normative principles (Qawaid al-Fiqhiyyah), the voluminous reports on the understanding of the companions, knowledge of the grading methodology for various reports (Mustalah al-Hadith), the objectives and goals of the religion (Maqasid al-Shari’ah), and so on.

For anyone wishing to produce any serious academic contribution to a subject or field, it is required that one at least have basic familiarity with the existing scholarship within the field. If someone pontificates on a subject but is unable to cite a single classical work in theology, jurisprudence, or exegesis, that raises serious red flags about their purported scholarship on the subject. How can one build on a field if one is oblivious to the pre-existing contributions of academics within a field? Would you listen to a physicist who had never heard of Einstein or an English teacher who had never heard of Shakespeare?

What knowledge should everyone have?

Obviously, with any subject there are fundamentals that are known to even non-scholars, and then there are more technical matters. So even without medical expertise, a person knows that being diagnosed with cancer is different from having a viral flu, for instance. Likewise, you don’t need any scholarly expertise to know the main articles of faith and five pillars of Islam. There are basics that are so elementary everyone knows about them. And then there are detailed matters which really do require scholarly research, such as detailed rulings about prayer, detailed theological issues about the sequence of events in the afterlife, etc.

It is imperative that lay people focus on educating themselves about the basic fundamentals of their faith so that they are empowered with knowledge and better equipped to recognize genuine scholarship. Every single Muslim should be able to explain the articles of faith, they should know the life and message of the Prophet Muhammad, understand the essential moral values of Islam and its philosophy of serving humanity, and understand the message of the Qur’an and be able to read it. These are spiritual facts that everyone must know, just as there are basic scientific facts that everyone must know.

God knows best!

*Continue reading part 3 (scholars – what could go wrong?).

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References   [ + ]

1. See Ibn al-Qayyim’s detailed discussion of this quote in I’lam al-Muwaqi’een, vol. 6, p.105.
2. Imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H) discusses this topic in Irshad al-Fuhul ila ‘Ilm al-Usool, vol. 2, pp. 1102-1105. The classical scholars mentioned many general indications of scholarship including that the scholar is trusted amongst the masses and commonly relied upon, that trustworthy people testify to their knowledge and expertise, that they demonstrate competency when examined, and so on.
3. There are 12 to 15 (depending on categorization) fundamental sciences of the Arabic language. These include grammar (النحو), morphology (الصرف), semantics (المعاني), lexicon (اللغة), derivatives (الاشتقاق), metaphorical speech (البيان), composition (الإنشاء), prosody (العروض), rhyme (القافية), writing (الخط), literature (الآداب), phonetics (الأصوات), etc.
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