Realities of Islamic Knowledge & Scholarship

Knowledge, it's virtues, the rights between us and scholars, who is the scholar, and the duties and pay off of being an imam


Etymological preamble on “knowledge”

How has Islamic knowledge and scholarship status changed over the centuries?

Lesser known virtues of knowledge

The ruling of studying Islam

Mutual rights between scholars and laity

Unique rights the scholars of Islam have over the rest of us

Common shared Muslim rights that are magnified for scholars

Nurturing love for Islamic scholarship in our children

Guarding the reputation of the scholar

Applying positive spin

What rights do WE have over the scholars?

What all do students learn on the road to scholarship?

Uloom al-Aalah / al-Wasaa’il

ilm al-ghaaya

Who is the scholar?

Does “ijaazah” make scholars?

Between a “Scholar” and a western masjid imam

The payoff of pursuing this lifestyle




Etymological preamble on “knowledge”


What is knowledge?

The answer seems simple enough, as ibn al-‘Arabee al-Maalikee said: “knowledge is clearer than any need to be clarified.” So let’s focus in a little more and ask what’s the difference between ‘ilm and ma’rifah and similar words for instance?

Allah ﷻ is the Knower of the seen and unseen [عالم الغيب والشهادة], all-Knower of the hidden worlds [علّام الغيوب] and the extremely knowledgeable [العليم]. But He did not describe Himself as reasoning [عاقل], nor knowing [عارف], because to Him belong the MOST beautiful names—not just any good names. So ‘ilm is greater than anything in its class. Some of the scholars said the ma’rifah is the information gained which, beforehand, was preceded by ignorance. In other words, anything that you learned but did not know beforehand can be considered “ma’roof”, similarly with “diraayah” which implies struggling to obtain. It is also used to refer to “basic” knowledge or understanding of a thing, without having encompassed all its details. Therefore, as some of the scholars mentioned, these other words do not befit Allah ﷻ because of what they entail or suggest of deficiency, like having discovered something or earned that knowledge through experimentation and observation—i.e. not having it beforehand. Whereas Allah’s knowledge is not preceded by ignorance nor subject to forgetfulness or lacking in detail.

Whenever knowledge and the bearers of knowledge are praised in the Quran and Sunnah, as ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalaani said, it is always referring to knowledge of the deen: knowledge of Allah, His Names and Attributes, how to worship Him ﷻ properly, the mutual rights between Allah’s creation, halaal and haraam, and the consequences of all that obedience and disobedience in this life and the Hereafter. Thus, it is a mistake to take those aayaat and ahaadeeth that praise knowledge of the deen and think that they may refer to any other science or field, even if it would seem to make sense, that would contradict what Allah intended by those aayaat.

If knowledge is mentioned in a blameworthy context, then it is knowledge of forbidden things, like magic, or knowledge which did not bring its bearer closer to Allah ﷻ but instead made their heart hard when they did not act upon it, or made them arrogant when they forgot to thank Allah for having taught them. Because all knowledge we humans receive, whether it is of the deen or of anything else, is from Allah, just as He says:

{ وَلَا يَأْبَ كَاتِبٌ أَن يَكْتُبَ كَمَا عَلَّمَهُ اللَّـهُ ۚ} ﴿٢٨٢﴾ سورة البقرة

“And let no scribe refuse to record as Allah has taught him.”


The ruling of studying Islam


Throughout the Quran we are commanded to know, to have knowledge, whether that’s to know that the life of this world is play and amusement (57:20), or to know that Allah is severe in punishment and oft-forgiving most merciful (5:98) or most importantly, to know that only Allah is a true deity (47:). Allah says “Know! [all of you!]” in 26 different ayat of the Quran. That’s in addition to praising those who know and have knowledge and rebuking those who have no knowledge. The command to have knowledge is prominent in Allah’s Book and it was a great theme in the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. Ibn Maajah said:

حَدَّثَنَا هِشَامُ بْنُ عَمَّارٍ، حَدَّثَنَا حَفْصُ بْنُ سُلَيْمَانَ، حَدَّثَنَا كَثِيرُ بْنُ شِنْظِيرٍ، عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ سِيرِينَ، عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ، قَالَ: قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ﷺ: ” طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ، وَوَاضِعُ الْعِلْمِ عِنْدَ غَيْرِ أَهْلِهِ كَمُقَلِّدِ الْخَنَازِيرِ الْجَوْهَرَ، وَاللُّؤْلُؤَ، وَالذَّهَبَ.”

Anas ibn Maalik said the Prophet ﷺ said, “seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim, and the one who places knowledge upon other than its people is like the one who puts a necklace of pearls, gold and gems on swine.” Recorded by ibn Maajah with a weak chain, but al-Mizzi said that its 50+ chains of narration from other collections make is hasan. The second statement of this hadeeth could refer to teaching people who aren’t worthy of it, or labeling people as being knowledgeable who are not knowledgeable, wallahu a’lam.

There are two types of obligations for learning Islam. There is the individual `aini obligation, and there is the communal kifaa’I obligation. Every Muslim individual must learn what concerns him or her as a Muslim. As for the communal obligation, then that is having detailed comprehensive knowledge, being a reference for the community, and an overall source of guidance.

{وَمَا كَانَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لِيَنفِرُوا كَافَّةً ۚ فَلَوْلَا نَفَرَ مِن كُلِّ فِرْقَةٍ مِّنْهُمْ طَائِفَةٌ لِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنذِرُوا قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَجَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُونَ} ﴿١٢٢﴾ سورة التوبة

“It is not for the believers to go out — all of them — but a group from every party among them, even one, to stay behind and learn the religion to warn their people when they return to them so that they may be wary.” [9:122]

Seeking knowledge in this manner, and to be an inspiration and reference point for the Muslims, is a fardh kifaayah.

For those who take up that mantle, the knowledge is voluntary and recommended for them to start, but obligatory for them to continue with, since they [suddenly] become the most qualified individuals to take that spot in the community. For them, seeking knowledge has gone beyond the stage of the nawaafil to being among the faraa’idh.

And even though action is considered the fruit for knowledge, learning is so virtuous and needed by the multitudes, that it is better than voluntary worship [if the two clash] and it is one of the most virtuous acts after the pillars of Islam. That is, if you are faced with either learning more or praying a couple rak’ah, and faced between fasting a day voluntarily or reviewing lots of needed Quran, the learning or review may be preferred for those who are references in their community and may lose some of their knowledge by letting the opportunity go.


How has Islamic knowledge and scholarship status changed over the centuries?


As for the status of people of knowledge today in the 21st century—those who fulfill that command and relieve the rest of us of sin, especially in the West, we can say with confidence that their image has improved. But for the last three centuries, it seemed to go downhill at a swift pace.

During the late 1700’s, early 1800’s, scholars led the Muslim world in defending itself against the waves of colonialism, as was witnessed in Egypt, India and elsewhere. But when mystic leaders with stories of miracles and quick-patch solutions to all our worshiping needs seemed to multiply, overshadow the real scholars and gain the following of the people, assure them that they don’t need waste their time with fiqh and halaal/haraam, true knowledge was forgotten, and later on, Islamic scholarship in general was looked upon like the strange legends and myths that were used to excite the common folk into action and repentance. In other words, these were like storytellers and comforters, but not to be taken seriously in anything of material consequence. That perspective was supported and spread by the colonialist powers, who also limited the actual power of Muslim scholars severely. When an Islamic judge used to have the authority to displace a king, decree life or death over the accused, wed the unmarried and separate the unhappily married, and rule swiftly over the wealth and property of oppressive individuals and corporations, all in accordance with the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Messenger ﷺ—his position was then reduced to simply overseeing NPO awqaf endowments, and in some instances, even that was removed, reducing them to being historical symbols, storytellers and children’s Quran teachers.

Aforetime, if a child was seen to be smarter than his peers, he’d be placed under the care of an expert educator and trained in Arabic and Islamic studies. Parents would be proud, hoping their child would be the next great mufassir or qadi. But now, he’d be turned away from Islamic pursuits, even if he wanted to study Islam, and forced into the fields everyone pursues today, with little degree of flexibility, certainly not towards Islam at least.

As for who would be the next generation of Muslim scholars? The underachievers, the lowest in their classes. But they would never be real scholars, or at least not mujtahidīn. They may teach Quran, memorize fiqh, and give admonishing sermons, but as ibn Abdil-Barr and others have noted, one who simply repeats the words of others is never considered a scholar.

While we can blame outside forces and hypocrites for their direct efforts in belittling scholars in the media, and turning people away from and against them in general, these forces have existed in Islam since the time of the Prophet ﷺ. When du’aat, judges and muftis dispute among themselves over trivial matters, fall into sin, lead less exemplary lives at home, or shift their attention at the whims of their benefactors or remain aloof from the people, not enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, then this is a recipe for disaster and it allows these other infestations to multiply and overwhelm. They are befallen by what has been the rest of the Ummah: wahan, love of the comforts of the dunya and a fear and hatred of death. Were it not for it, then the hypocrites would be kept at bay, biting their fingers in angst at their inability to turn the masses away from the `ulamā’.

But in the 21st century, the tide is turning. Now in the West, no intelligent person really treads the path to Islamic scholarship except the sincere—or so we hope. A new generation is growing up that has no memory of the debasement of Muslim scholars “back home”. They don’t have any memory of Soviet, Twelver, or secularist Turkish forces rounding up Sunni Muslim scholars and putting them to death and hanging their bodies from trees. Further, they are better equipped to distinguish the rabble-rousing and foolish antics perpetrated by zealous individuals who are more appropriately classified as “thinkers” or journalists, but certainly not among the ranks of Muslim scholars—but writing in the guise of them just enough to fool the masses and give real Islamic scholarship a bad name.

So instead of remembering that, a new generation finds English speaking du’aat from North America, Oceania and Great Britain and finds that they are great role models and that their words reaffirm their identity and give them purpose of living. They are inspired to seek knowledge, travel to their seminars, and listen to their words for hours on end. The place of these du’aat and the scholars around the world hasn’t yet returned to the status that they once held, when a khaleefah or a general may be humiliated and trembling in fear if he knew a certain scholar of Islam was coming to admonish him. Nonetheless, the New World is proving to be a fertile ground for them to inspire a new generation into loving ‘ilm and thus, loving its people and inspiring their parents to reconsider the greatness that callers to Islam truly have and deserve.


Lesser known virtues of knowledge


The most famous narration touting the virtues of seeking knowledge was the one collected by Abu Dawud, ibn Maajah (his wording), and al-Tirmidhi from Katheer ibn Qays, who said:

حَدَّثَنَا نَصْرُ بْنُ عَلِيٍّ الْجَهْضَمِيُّ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ دَاوُدَ، عَنْ عَاصِمِ بْنِ رَجَاءِ بْنِ حَيْوَةَ، عَنْ دَاوُدَ بْنِ جَمِيلٍ، عَنْ كَثِيرِ بْنِ قَيْسٍ، قَالَ كُنْتُ جَالِسًا عِنْدَ أَبِي الدَّرْدَاءِ فِي مَسْجِدِ دِمَشْقَ فَأَتَاهُ رَجُلٌ فَقَالَ يَا أَبَا الدَّرْدَاءِ أَتَيْتُكَ مِنَ الْمَدِينَةِ مَدِينَةِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ ـ ﷺ ـ لِحَدِيثٍ بَلَغَنِي أَنَّكَ تُحَدِّثُ بِهِ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ ـ ﷺ ـ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَمَا جَاءَ بِكَ تِجَارَةٌ قَالَ لاَ ‏.‏ قَالَ وَلاَ جَاءَ بِكَ غَيْرُهُ قَالَ لاَ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَإِنِّي سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ـ ﷺ ـ يَقُولُ ‏ “‏ مَنْ سَلَكَ طَرِيقًا يَلْتَمِسُ فِيهِ عِلْمًا سَهَّلَ اللَّهُ لَهُ طَرِيقًا إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ وَإِنَّ الْمَلاَئِكَةَ لَتَضَعُ أَجْنِحَتَهَا رِضًا لِطَالِبِ الْعِلْمِ وَإِنَّ طَالِبَ الْعِلْمِ يَسْتَغْفِرُ لَهُ مَنْ فِي السَّمَاءِ وَالأَرْضِ حَتَّى الْحِيتَانِ فِي الْمَاءِ وَإِنَّ فَضْلَ الْعَالِمِ عَلَى الْعَابِدِ كَفَضْلِ الْقَمَرِ عَلَى سَائِرِ الْكَوَاكِبِ إِنَّ الْعُلَمَاءَ هُمْ وَرَثَةُ الأَنْبِيَاءِ إِنَّ الأَنْبِيَاءَ لَمْ يُوَرِّثُوا دِينَارًا وَلاَ دِرْهَمًا إِنَّمَا وَرَّثُوا الْعِلْمَ فَمَنْ أَخَذَهُ أَخَذَ بِحَظٍّ وَافِرٍ ‏”‏ ‏.

“I was sitting with Abu Darda’ in the mosque of Damascus when a man came to him and said: ‘O Abu Darda’, I have come to you from the Medina of the Messenger of Allah for a Hadith which I have heard that you narrate from the Prophet.’

Abu Dardaa’ said: ‘Did you not come for trade?’ The man said no. Abu Dardaa’ again asked: “Did you not come for anything else?” He said no. Abu Dardaa’ then said: ‘I heard the Messenger of Allah say, “Whoever treads a path seeking knowledge, Allah will make easy for him a path to Paradise. The angels lower their wings in satisfaction of the seeker of knowledge, and everyone in the heavens and on earth prays for forgiveness for the seeker of knowledge, even the fish in the sea. The superiority of the scholar over the worshipper is like the superiority of the moon above all other celestial bodies. The scholars are the heirs of the Prophets, for the Prophets did not leave behind a dinar or dirham, rather they left behind knowledge, so whoever takes it has taken a great share.

There is a lot to say about Abu Dardaa’s hadeeth, but because a lot has been said by others and it is so well known, I choose instead to focus on a few other texts. For example, look to when Bani Israa’eel demanded a political leader to wage war—because there is no offense without a political leader calling the shots, even if a prophet or scholar is present—and the one whom Allah deemed most qualified was a strong man, whose appearance might motivate you, and on top of that, he was knowledgeable.

{وَقَالَ لَهُمْ نَبِيُّهُمْ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ قَدْ بَعَثَ لَكُمْ طَالُوتَ مَلِكًا ۚ قَالُوا أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لَهُ الْمُلْكُ عَلَيْنَا وَنَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِالْمُلْكِ مِنْهُ وَلَمْ يُؤْتَ سَعَةً مِّنَ الْمَالِ ۚ قَالَ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ اصْطَفَاهُ عَلَيْكُمْ وَزَادَهُ بَسْطَةً فِي الْعِلْمِ وَالْجِسْمِ ۖ وَاللَّـهُ يُؤْتِي مُلْكَهُ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَاللَّـهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ} ﴿٢٤٧﴾ سورة البقرة

And their Prophet said to them, Indeed Allah has appointed Tâlût as a king over you. They said, How can he be a king over us when we are fitter than him for the kingdom, and he has not been given enough wealth. He said: Verily, Allah has chosen him above you and has increased him abundantly in knowledge and stature. And Allah grants His kingdom to whom He wills. And Allah is All-Sufficient for His creatures’ needs, All-Knower.” [2:247]

And we see that no one who is ignorant of their deen will intercede for anyone on the Day of Resurrection. So all those who are ignorant of their deen are either interceded for, or limited entirely by their own faith…

{وَلَا يَمْلِكُ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِهِ الشَّفَاعَةَ إِلَّا مَن شَهِدَ بِالْحَقِّ وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ} ﴿٨٦﴾ سورة الزخرف

And those whom they invoke instead of Him have no power of intercession – except for those who bear witness to the truth and they are knowing.” [43:86]

And Allah ﷻ takes people to account because of how they treat the scholars. What other field or occupation can claim that? Not referring to parents, the elderly, widows or orphans, but life pursuit…

{وَمِنْهُم مَّن يَسْتَمِعُ إِلَيْكَ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا خَرَجُوا مِنْ عِندِكَ قَالُوا لِلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْعِلْمَ مَاذَا قَالَ آنِفًا ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ طَبَعَ اللَّـهُ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ وَاتَّبَعُوا أَهْوَاءَهُمْ} ﴿١٦﴾ سورة محمد

And among them are some who listen to you (O Muhammad) till when they go out from you, they say to those who have received knowledge: “What has he said just now?” Such are men whose hearts Allah has sealed, and they follow their lusts.” [47:16]

The treatment of the people of knowledge is a reflection of the treatment of the knowledge itself and what it represents. And the knowledge is nothing other than Islam. So the status of the bearers of knowledge, in Islam, is unparalleled. Mocking and ridiculing them is a minor way of mocking and ridiculing Islam, hence the ayah of istihzaa’ bi-al-deen was revealed concerning people mocking the eating habits of the Quran reciters.

And for a while, the Muslim world held a great awe, respect, and I dare say—fascination—with true ascetic scholars of Islam. Their words were few, their generosity legendary, and their needs from others unheard of. And because of their fear of Allah, Allah put fear of the scholars into the hearts of others. So they commanded a tremendous amount of respect which can be read about in books of history.

‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib said to one of his companions, “Kumail, knowledge is better than wealth, for knowledge guards you while you guard your wealth, and knowledge judges everything, but wealth is judged, and wealth decreases with spending but knowledge is purified with spending.” i.e. teaching.

Ibn Mas’ood said, “No one is born a scholar, but knowledge comes with learning.”

Note that nothing can be authentically traced to the Prophet regarding the “ink of the scholars” being greater than or weighed by the “blood of the martyrs”.

Al-Hasan al-Basri said, “A man would not cease seeking knowledge, and he would not remain as he was until we see the effects of the knowledge upon his khushū’, his guidance, his tongue, his eyes and his hands.” In other words, his limbs would all start obeying Allah, because they are being driven by the heart which is being purified by streams of knowledge.

Al-Hasan also said, “the one who lives and worships without knowledge is like the one who is walking without any destination. And such a person worsens more matters than they fix. So seek knowledge in a manner that you are not harming your worship, and worship in a manner that doesn’t hurt your seeking of knowledge, because there was a people who sought to worship and they abandoned knowledge and so they pulled their swords from their sheaths and fought against the Ummah of Muhammad ﷺ, but had they sought knowledge, it would not have pointed them that way.”

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَقْبِضُ الْعِلْمَ انْتِزَاعًا يَنْتَزِعُهُ مِنَ الْعِبَادِ، وَلَكِنْ يَقْبِضُ الْعِلْمَ بِقَبْضِ الْعُلَمَاءِ، حَتَّى إِذَا لَمْ يُبْقِ عَالِمًا اتَّخَذَ النَّاسُ رُءُوسًا جُهَّالًا، فَسُئِلُوا فَأَفْتَوْا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ فَضَلُّوا وَأَضَلُّوا

Truly, Allah does not take knowledge away by removing it from the slaves, but He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars, until He may not leave a single scholar, and people would take the ignorant as their heads, so they’d be asked, and would answer without knowledge, going astray and leading astray.

I remember one of my professors in Medinah saying that this proves that the true leadership (riyaasah) is in fact, knowledge of Islam. Like Ali ibn Abi Taalib said, “it is enough of a virtue for knowledge that those who do not have any should be happy when it is ascribed to them.” Thus, we see like never before in the history of Islam, people speaking on behalf of Islam without right and even judging Islamic beliefs and practices so that they can have their fifteen minutes of fame and have their names and words be circulated among the masses during coffee table discussions and subway talks, or to simply get a few likes and re-tweets.

A lot of people think Islamic knowledge is simple, like there’s not much to it and it could be summarized in a short pamphlet, so when they add in their own opinions, they think they’re only challenging customs, perhaps totally unaware that the Quran and Sunnah have already provided guidance in that affair. But because imams and fuqahaa’ generally like to speak about Islam at a level all people can understand, some of the listeners get the wrong idea—thinking that this is all there is, and if it’s so simple and understandable, then they should be able to add in their own opinions, and get their fifteen minutes of attention. Things may be simplified for us, not because it’s simple, but because it is important for us to benefit and be made aware. It resembles the beautiful meal with a few ingredients but behind the scenes a lot of planning and cooking was taking place.

‘Awn ibn Abdillah said: I said to ‘Umar ibn Abdil-‘Azeez: it is said that if you can become an ‘aalim, then become an ‘aalim, but if you cannot, then become a student; and if you cannot, then love the scholars; but if you cannot, then do not hate them.” So ‘Umar said, “SubhanAllah, he has made for them a way out.” Meaning, a way out for those not inclined to knowledge and its people. This is unlike, on some editorials and comment sections, some individuals, may Allah guide them, proclaim their love for all humanity except religious scholars and worshipers whom they disparage. If you don’t have anything good to say…

Muhammad ibn Fadhl al-Samarqandi said, “How many ignorant people were caught by knowledge, and it saved them? And how many worshippers did the acts of the people of ignorance, so it destroyed them? Be present for knowledge, even if a good intention isn’t present, because you are only seeking, by your knowledge, the good intention. And the first thing to appear from a slave is his tongue, but the first thing to appear from his reasoning is his forbearance.” And Imam al-Dārimī said, “I heard Ali ibn al-Madeeni say something that astonished me, regarding the story of the cave, so ‘Ali said: these narrations have only been transmitted to us so that we live and act by them, not to be entertained by them.”

{وَاللَّـهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ ۙ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ} ﴿٧٨﴾ سورة النحل

And Allah has brought you out from the wombs of your mothers while you know nothing. And He gave you hearing, sight, and hearts that you might give thanks.” [16:78]

Allah gave humans different tools to learn. Some of which are intellectual, like proper logic. Others are spiritual, like a gut feeling, as the Prophet ﷺ once said, “استفْتِ قلبَك”. Some are even bodily, like the senses and what we learn from making and using tools. But these abilities are for knowledge, which leads to action, and both are required for expressing gratitude to Allah for having them to use for our benefit and enjoyment overall.

Mu’aath ibn Jabal is one of three people who ‘Umar wanted to make his successor but they all passed away before him. He said, “if I made Mu’aath my successor/khaleefah, and my Lord asked me why I did that, I would have said, I heard Your prophet say: truly, the scholars, when they are present before their Lord, Mu’aath would be before them by a stone’s throw.” Recorded by Abu Nu’aim and authenticated by al-Albaanee because of its numerous chains. So ‘Umar’s idea again was that leadership should go to the one with the most knowledge in deen, just as we saw how Allah ﷻ made the political leader over the children of Israel their most knowledgeable about deen, even if others were more successful, and therefore experienced, from a material perspective.

عَنْ أَبِي الدَّرْدَاءِ ، رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ ، قَالَ : قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ﷺ : ” يَحْمِلُ هَذَا الْعِلْمَ مِنْ كُلِّ خَلَفٍ عُدُولُهُ ، يَنْفُونَ عَنْهُ تَحْرِيفَ الْغَالِينَ ، وَانْتِحَالَ الْمُبْطِلِينَ ، وَتَأْوِيلَ الْجَاهِلِينَ ” .

Abu Hurairah, ibn Abbaas, Abu al-Dardaa’, Husain ibn Ali, and Abdullah ibn ‘Umar both said that the Prophet ﷺ said, “This knowledge will be carried by the just of every succeeding generation; negating the corruptions of extremists, the arrogations and undue assumptions of the falsifiers and dubious interpretations of the ignorant.” Recorded by al-Haakim and authenticated by Ahmad ibn Hanbal.


Mutual rights between scholars and laity


Unique rights the scholars of Islam have over the rest of us


In addition to the rights that every Muslim has over another Muslim, with regard to reputation, property, and body, the primary right of the scholars is that they are being used for what they are qualified for. Allah says:

{فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ} ﴿٧﴾ سورة الأنبياء

So ask the people of the reminder, if you do not know.” [21:7]

In Arabic, this is called a conditional phrase (“in” being a conditional particle), and it entails restriction. In other words: if you do not know, then you must ask these people, and you cannot ask anyone other than them or do anything else until you ask and learn. Asking other than them would be like surrendering one’s self to misguidance, as the Prophet ﷺ said, regarding the times where there were no scholars or people abandoned the true scholars, “so they took ignorant ones as their heads, asked them, and they responded without knowledge, they went astray and they led others astray.” And every misguidance is in the Fire. So this is the scholars’ chief right and purpose of being, whether the questions are related to matters of faith, worship, or living Islamically.

I’ll mention three other rights, although they go hand in hand with the rights of other Muslims, only they are accentuated for keepers and dispensers of the Prophet’s inheritance.


Common shared Muslim rights that are magnified for scholars


Nurturing love for Islamic scholarship in our children


Cultivation of love for the scholars in the hearts of Muslim children and youth, and connecting them with the scholars, igniting and fueling admiration for them. Just as it is the duty of Muslim parents to demonstrate a love of Allah, His Messenger, all of Islam, the prophets and the companions, and indeed, all believers around the world, but let us not forget the scholars of Islam. One way of doing this is by listening to lectures by and about the ‘ulamaa and du’aat, whether contemporary, or from the earliest generations and the middle ages. It is important for people to have this connection to the scholars of Islam from a young age. Just as the scholars themselves do not feel overwhelmed by the dunyaa or by calamities or confused and in doubt when people approach them with misconceptions, they are also signs of strength for other than them.

ibnul-Qayyim used to say that when he and his colleagues ever felt overwhelmed by anything, they would run to ibn Taymiyyah for strength, because the man was a mountain of knowledge, and knowledge is power and comfort and it gave ibn Taymiyyah courage and wisdom, even when other scholars were unsure of what to do. Just as the companions used to sometimes stand behind the Prophet ﷺ in battlefield and every other situation, because there was none braver than the Prophet when fighting became tense. As for people who are not acquainted with the scholars, whenever they hear of someone’s critique of Islam, they are thrown into doubts and think, this is it, this is the end of Islam. Or if some calamity befalls the Muslims, because they are ignorant to Allah’s sunan in testing the believers, they fear that this is the end of Islam. Even if someone does not have an active and healthy ongoing relationship with Muslim scholars, the line should never be severed. And as `Awn ibn Abdillah told Umar ibn Abdil-Azeez, at the very least, do not hate the scholars, even if you strongly disagree with some of their fatwa.

Another reason this is important is because masha’Allah, when the youthful, who are not tied down by careers, spouses and children get motivated for something, they are willing to act fast. But because of that, they will usually act in the wrong direction, or perhaps their enthusiasm will be taken for a ride by some “thinker” or rabble-rouser with no verifiable connection to true Islamic scholarship in any way or the youth will make one of their own direct their affairs. But we want them to reap the benefits of their enthusiasm in this life and the next—perform fruitful actions that are rewarded by Allah, not in any innovated path, like how the Prophet ﷺ described a lot of those who would go astray after his time, “…young in age, foolish in dreams, speaking the words of the best of creation, but their faith does not go beyond their throats…” Why is that? Because they didn’t follow the Sunnah and their knowledgeable elders, in steps, to properly rectify the Muslim community. Thus, it is important to foster admiration for true scholars from an early age., so when they get that enthusiasm, they immediately turn to the scholars and ask “what is the best thing we can do right now the Ummah.”


Guarding the reputation of the scholar


For reasons unknown, people may recall that backbiting one another is haraam, but then seem to think that it is permissible if the one whom you’re backbiting is a political leader, relative or a scholar of Islam. As the well-known saying, first mentioned by ibn ‘Asaakir, goes: the flesh of the scholars is poison. Speaking ill of a scholar, whether true or not, is like death. A very close friend of mine and former mentor mentioned a man who came to him with a story of when he made hajj. During hajj, he was sitting in a group and they started talking ill about one of the local but well known scholars. This man didn’t say anything, but he felt too weak to stand up or leave the gathering or tell his friends to fear Allah. Later that night he had a dream and someone came to him in the dream and said: as for you, your hajj is null and void, but as for your friends who ate the flesh of so-and-so, all of their deeds are ruined.” Does that seem harsh? Remember, the scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, and it is through them alone that we know Islam, so disrespecting one of them is like disrespecting a part of Islam and the Prophet ﷺ himself, like one who believes in all the messengers of Allah but disbelieves in Muhammad ﷺ. There are numerous stories like this, past and present, and about people having an ill end if they were known for disrespecting the scholars or if they earned the anger of a scholar who invoked Allah against them and saw their misguidance, self-destruction and humiliation—like Imam al-Bukhari, among others. And let us remind ourselves, even if we cannot love the scholars, let us not hate them.


Applying positive spin


A third right shared between all Muslims but accentuated for the scholars is giving them the benefit of the doubt, having good suspicion (حسن الظن) for them, making excuses for them whenever you see or hear something from them that you find disagreeable. This could be regarding the moral character of the scholar in question, although rare, it does happen from time to time especially among du’aat, who may not actually fit the definition of a scholar, but are still looked upon as scholars, since they are the primary transmitters of their knowledge to the rest of us. But if stories are circulated, and rumors spread, we should respond just as Allah guided us:

{لَّوْلَا إِذْ سَمِعْتُمُوهُ ظَنَّ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بِأَنفُسِهِمْ خَيْرًا وَقَالُوا هَـٰذَا إِفْكٌ مُّبِينٌ} ﴿١٢﴾ سورة النور

Why then did not the believers, men and women, when you heard it, think good of their own people and say: This is an obvious lie?” [24:12]

And in any and every case, we should ask Allah ﷻ to forgive and have mercy upon the scholars and du’aat of Islam and to guide them to every good and preserve them from every evil. People are always asking ‘ulamaa and du’aat to make du’aa for them, but who’s making du’aa for them? They’re not infallible, and it is their steadfastness that is steadfastness for the Muslim Ummah in general, and it may be the prayer of any one of us that saves one shaykh from some doubtful matter or sinfulness, lest they become like the one Allah described:

{وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ الَّذِي آتَيْنَاهُ آيَاتِنَا فَانسَلَخَ مِنْهَا فَأَتْبَعَهُ الشَّيْطَانُ فَكَانَ مِنَ الْغَاوِينَ} ﴿١٧٥﴾ سورة الأعراف

And recite to them the story of him to whom We gave Our Verses, but he threw them away; so Shayṭān followed him up, and he became of those who went astray. And had We willed, We would surely, have elevated him therewith, but he clung to the earth and followed his own vain desire.” [7:175-176]

Similarly, recognizing that ‘ulamaa of Islam are humans like the rest of us. Unfortunately, many people may travel far and wide to attend a lecture of a shaykh or daa’iyah that they greatly respect, then as soon as they have a chance to speak with him personally about an important question, they find his manners or answer unsatisfactory. Let’s remind ourselves of the traveler who visited Imam Maalik or Imam Ash-Shafi’ee with 10 questions or 40 questions—I think there were actually two different but similar stories—and the imam only answered about 10%, saying “I don’t know” to the rest. Afterwards, the guy said, “What should I tell my people?” So he said, “Tell them Imam Maalik doesn’t know.” Or perhaps we find their manners a bit callous, seemingly insincere or even whiny. In a lot of cases, when du’aat are traveling especially, they are sleep deprived, stressed out, overwhelmed with questions and requests and fall victim to all that the rest of us fall victim to when we’re travelling or sleep deprived and pushed around from venue to venue, bombarded with questions and requests. So don’t let that one personal instance ruin your perception of him in everything else you see and hear from him online or in publication. Some of them even get up to 100 long e-mails a day from people asking them to solve their personal problems or seek arbitration.

Likewise, giving scholars the benefit of the doubt behind their intentions and efforts when giving fatwa or offering their opinions on various issues. One of the most common slanders against many scholars in Muslim world is, for example, that because their position is by government appointment, perhaps as a judge, professor or member of a research and fatwa committee, that automatically everything they say is just to please the government, as the saying goes “scholars for dollars” or in Arabic “علماء السلاطين”. Not to say that such individuals do not exist, or that scholars may not feel pressured or motivated in some instances to rule a certain way against their better judgment, or that the atmosphere they’re in hasn’t rubbed off on them, but that is not universal, and it is important to give the benefit of the doubt, and leave the ultimate judgment and account to Allah ﷻ since we were not tasked with judging them or looking into their hearts. Put your mind at rest and worry about your own intentions.


What rights do WE have over the scholars?


So then, do we have rights over the du’aat and scholars of Islam? Yes, but they’re not the rights you probably wish you had. As Allah ﷻ

{قُل لَّا يَسْتَوِي الْخَبِيثُ وَالطَّيِّبُ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكَ كَثْرَةُ الْخَبِيثِ ۚ فَاتَّقُوا اللَّـهَ يَا أُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ} ﴿١٠٠﴾ سورة المائدة

Say: ‘Not equal are the evil and the good, even though the abundance of evil may please you.’ So fear Allah, O men of understanding in order that you may be successful.” [5:100]

In other words, the rights we have over the ‘ulamaa’ is basically to keep them bugging us, to not leave us alone, with the best wisdom and kindness that they know of, of course, but to tell us the truth when we need it and ask for it, and to remind us of it when we are negligent or fall into extremes. Our general right is to be correct when we err. And that’s a strong and difficult right for them to fulfill.

And we have a right to the truth, a right to naseehah, and a right over them that they strive to better understand and teach the deen.

While a scholar, daa’iyah or student of knowledge, may have several reasons for not immediately speaking up about a certain issue that people may be falling short in, they are not allowed, under any circumstance, to say anything but the bitter truth if they are asked specifically for the haqq. They may present it in a manner people find more acceptable if it is difficult, but he should never lie or dodge the question.

{فَخَلَفَ مِن بَعْدِهِمْ خَلْفٌ وَرِثُوا الْكِتَابَ يَأْخُذُونَ عَرَضَ هَـٰذَا الْأَدْنَىٰ وَيَقُولُونَ سَيُغْفَرُ لَنَا وَإِن يَأْتِهِمْ عَرَضٌ مِّثْلُهُ يَأْخُذُوهُ ۚ أَلَمْ يُؤْخَذْ عَلَيْهِم مِّيثَاقُ الْكِتَابِ أَن لَّا يَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّـهِ إِلَّا الْحَقَّ وَدَرَسُوا مَا فِيهِ ۗ وَالدَّارُ الْآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ لِّلَّذِينَ يَتَّقُونَ ۗ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ} ﴿١٦٩﴾ سورة الأعراف

Was not the covenant of the Book taken from them that they would not say about Allah anything but the truth while they have studied what it contains? And the home of the Hereafter is better for those who are pious. Do you not then understand?” [7:169] – another ayah about how the people before us mistreated knowledge, may Allah help us

Likewise, commanding the good and forbidding the evil, since no one is more qualified than them, and it is a communal obligation that must be in practice and seen among the Ummah. A few people sin here and a few there, and they become lax with certain things, and when no one hears anyone critical of that, then suddenly it’s as if that part of Islam doesn’t exist anymore, or is purely ceremonial, and then more people do it, and then suddenly to quote any hadeeth or aayah regarding it becomes a taboo, no one wants to be reminded of what they’re ignoring. So the scholars have a very important role in being aware of social trends, and recognizing fitnah before it swells. As Allah said:

{وَاتَّقُوا فِتْنَةً لَّا تُصِيبَنَّ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا مِنكُمْ خَاصَّةً ۖ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّـهَ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِ} ﴿٢٥﴾ سورة الأنفال

And fear an affliction which affects not only those of you who do wrong; and know that Allah is Severe in punishment.” [8:25]

When one of the sahaabah asked the Prophet ﷺ, “would Allah punish all of us while there are righteous among us?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “yes, if sinfulness/lewdness increases.”

Thus, it is the right of the Ummah that the scholars keep a hold on that and keep the situation from getting out of hand, and try to keep a lid on and constantly push back the social urge to push their limits as shaytaan whispers to us all to see what we can get away with. But Allah is watching, and the ‘ulamaa’ and du’aat are supposed to be Allah’s witnesses on earth. And that is for our own good. Likewise, the scholars and callers should mix with the people and the youth and get to know them, and as some have said, “if a scholar takes one step towards you, take ten steps towards him.” We should not wait always for them to take the initiative, but together, build rapport with one another, so that when you are advised, it comes from someone you know and respect and you know that not everything they talk and think about is what we’re doing wrong or need improvement on. The ‘ulamaa’ do not look at people like that. Some beginning students of knowledge might, but the ‘ulamaa’ look at people like a physician should look at patients. Sympathy without presumption.

About Chris
Chris, aka AbdulHaqq, is from central Illinois and accepted Islam in 2001 at age 17. He studied Arabic and Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia from 2007-13 and most recently earned a master's in Islamic Law from Malaysia. He is married with children.

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