Scholars, Speakers And the Culture of “Edu-Tainment”

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Shaykh Abu Aaliyah Surkheel

How do we dis­tin­guish a schol­ar from a da’i, moti­va­tion­al speak­er or ‘knowl­edge­able broth­er or sis­ter’? 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 or muftiyah who gains exper­tise, but not com­plete mas­tery, in these ijti­had cre­den­tials is a mujtahid(a) 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  or muftiyah who is a sim­ply trained jurist and is unable to grasp com­plex legal talk. What he or she does have going for them, 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 There is also this hadith: ‘Who­ev­er sets out to seek knowl­edge, is in the path of Allah until he returns.‘13 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. 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. 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.  Mus­lim, no.2699.

  13. Al-Tir­mid­hi, no.2649, who said: A hasan hadith.’