Muslim Scholars

Muslim Scholars: Are They Irrelevant? by Shaykh Salim Moeladawilah

In the increasing accessibility of the digital age, we can connect with many more of our fellow believers from all over the globe. We are exposed to a greater variety of cultures, practices, traditions, and opinions. This begs the question; is it really necessary to take our knowledge from Muslim scholars, if we can access the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet ﷺ ourselves? Shaykh Salim Moeladawilah looks into it.

Imam Abu Dawud included in his celebrated collection of Hadith, a narration of a group of Companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who were journeying together. In the course of their trip, one of the party was severely wounded on the head by a rock, exposing part of his cranium. The injured Companion later slept only to awake in a state of major ritual impurity (janāba). Upon consulting his colleagues about his ablution options and whether or not it would be permissible for him to perform dry ablution (tayammum), they replied that no, they didn’t believe that he would be permitted to perform dry ablution as he was physically able to wash with water. The injured Companion bathed and subsequently passed away when water entered into his brain cavity.

The Prophet ﷺ, upon this news reaching him, expressed anger at the Companions who gave their misguided advice saying, “They killed him, may God kill them.” (Shaykh Muhammad Shams-ul-Haq Azimabadi and other Hadith commentators have noted that this was not a prayer by the Prophetﷺ against the Companions, instead it was a very strongly worded warning).

Heﷺ went on to say, “If they didn’t know, why did they not ask? Verily the cure for ignorance is the question.”


Islam as Accredited Learning?

The concept of accredited learning and religious opinion is one founded in the very early years of Islam, as this Hadith demonstrates. The Prophetﷺ attributed the death of the Companion directly to those who gave him their invalid religious opinion, stating quite clearly, “They killed him.”

This Hadith has been heavily commented upon and quoted by scholars throughout the generations, and serves as a poignant example for us all about the importance of referring all matters, particularly matters of the religion, to those who possess knowledge in that area. It is a concept also spoken about in the Quran where God says, “So ask the people of the message if you do not know” [21: 7], meaning, as some Quran commentators have stated, to refer religious matters to people who possess knowledge of the religion.

Islam has always had a deep respect for scholarly credentials. This respect does not rely merely on individual intellectual merit, but it is built upon critiquing where and who one took their knowledge from; the authoritative chain of knowledge transmission (Sanad/Isnad). Imam Muslim in his compilation of rigorously authenticated Hadith quotes the Imam Muhammad ibn Sirin as saying, “Isnad was not asked about, but when the tribulations came, they said name for us your (Sanad).”

The imam is again quoted by Imam Muslim imparting the penetrating advice, “Verily this knowledge is the religion, so look at whom you take your religion from.” The imam and follower of the Companions Abdullah ibn Mubarak is also quoted in the introduction to Imam Muslim’s work, counselling, “Isnad is a [necessary] part of the religion, and were it not for Isnad, anyone would say as they please.”


We Are Accountable for Our Misinformation

These narrations and the quoted Quranic verse show us glimpses of the remarkable scholarly evaluation and critique that is present in the Muslim academic tradition. Knowledge, as such, is not merely what one arrives at through the use of their intellect, but the intellect is kept in check by our textual sources, being the Quran and Hadith. These sources are preserved, in form and in meaning, by scholars who spend a lifetime learning and living the message the Prophet Muhammadﷺ brought us in the 23 years of his prophethood, each generation adding to the vast ocean of scholarly work present before it. It is a remarkable testimony to the authenticity of Islam that we can trace a judicial opinion, understanding, or contention back through the generations to find its origin, often fourteen centuries ago in the time of the honoured Companions. 

In front of such an incredible academic tradition, carelessness in where we take our religious knowledge from would be foolish and irresponsible. The Prophetﷺ held the Companions in the Hadith narrated by Abu Dawud accountable for the misinformation they gave their colleague, leading to his death. This in extreme example of the worldly consequences of acting upon questionable knowledge, or no knowledge at all.

Today we find countless Muslims carrying on with their lives seemingly throwing caution to the wind with many matters of the religion. Doing so they are putting themselves and others in dangerous and precarious positions in both their worldly and religious affairs, either out of a lack of knowledge or due to misunderstanding something they do know. There are examples of people combining prayers to get an early nights sleep and others incorrectly calculating and distributing their zakat. Others still enter unlawful financial transactions due to not learning about the rules of trade in Islam, and there are even some who in Ramadan continue to eat until the end of the Fajr (dawn prayer) call to prayer, when the time for fasting enters at the beginning of the time for Fajr, ostensibly having developed their own judicial ruling in the matter. The theme throughout these cases is the ignorance and carelessness we see therein, an ignorance which could easily be remedied by simply posing a question to the right person. As the Prophetﷺ said in the aforementioned Hadith, “Verily the cure for ignorance is the question,” and in another Hadith he states, “Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every male and female Muslim.”

Guidance is Getting Easier and Easier to Find…

For the Muslim who sincerely wants to know, guidance and answers are getting easier and easier to find. The excuses for ignorance in a time where verifiable scholarship can be accessed are few indeed, and when we prioritize seeking worldly knowledge with our resources over seeking religious knowledge, we are putting ourselves in a compromising situation at best in matters of our religion and consequently our eternal abode. It would be quite telling of our priorities if, when it came to matters of our bodily health, we wouldn’t settle for anything but qualified medical practitioners graduated from recognized, reputable institutes and functioning under scrutinizing federal bodies, but when it came to matters of our religion we lent an ear to and accepted the words of those who may have no credentials to their name at all. It would be even more telling and showing of our disconnect with and disrespect for authentic scholarship if we ourselves were prone to dispense these answers when we weren’t fully knowing of them.

The discerning Muslim should value matters of their religion over their worldly matters. Death may be the worst one may expect with the ruin of their bodily health, however ruin in matters of the faith can lead to everlasting ruin in the hereafter. It is pertinent that we maintain a God-fearing attitude when we take religious opinions or listen to counsel. God says in chapter al-Fatir in the Quran, It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear God [35:28], being that true knowledge imparts God-fearing and where such fear is absent, so is knowledge. This then is our metre by which we can judge both which opinions to take and what answers to give, and god-fearing would entail that should we not know, we not speak. As Imam Abu Hanifa stated, Who speaks about knowledge and thinks God won’t ask him, ‘How did you give religious opinion in God’s religion?’ has verily been lax with his self and his religion,” and as Imam Shafi’i is quoted, “Those have spoken about [religious] knowledge that, would they have kept their silence about some of which they spoke, silence would have been better and safer for them.”

Neither wanton opining nor unfounded criticism fit into Islam’s understanding of knowledge, nor does careless following. It is an understanding which lead to the famous line of poetry by Shaykh Abu Hasan al-Hussar, “Not every difference of opinion counts, only differences which are worthy of consideration.” In a Hadith the Prophet Muhammad  ﷺ states, “The believer is intelligent, discerning, and careful.”

Is it not then upon us, as followers of our Prophet, to embody these traits and exercise the utmost caution with matters of the religion? The noble Companion and second caliph in Islam, Sayyiduna Umar ibn al-Khatab is famously quoted describing himself, “I am not one who cheats, nor do I let myself be cheated.”

Caution in matters of the religion is of this wariness mentioned by Umar. Caution and wisdom dictate we refer matters to those who know better than us. To take advice directly from the Quran, “So ask the people of the message if you do not know.”

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Photos by Dennis Jarvis.