you’ll know them
by their compass
that guides them
its needle has a single marking
and points to only two—
Allah and His Messenger
sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.
you’ll know them
by their mark
it is a heart
that carries the compass
they gifted to you.
There is a lot of talk today about our obligation to follow scholars and of caution against anyone who does not have a specific leader, sheikh, or scholar whom they answer to in all practical and spiritual matters. Believers who fear for their souls in these Last Days and strive to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah as their ultimate authority are vilified and painted as misguided or evil—even if they trust some scholars in learning about their faith. However, in the minds of those who call to the blind following of sheikhs and spiritual teachers, this isn’t good enough.
If sincere believers place the Qur’an and Sunnah above their sheikhs and spiritual teachers, they are painted as having sick hearts, arrogant dispositions, or intentions to follow their desires when they should be “humbly” obeying authority.
Meanwhile, Islam itself defines spiritual authority as the teachings of Allah and His Messenger, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, and it defines scholars as those who inherit the knowledge of these teachings and point believers to this spiritual authority.
In discussing in more detail the topic of “real” scholars today, I’ve compiled (below) several of my own writings on this topic, as I’ve shared from my journal, blogs, and books over the years. These reflections are based on my more than fifteen years of traveling and studying Qur’an, the prophetic teachings, and how this topic was understood by the Companions, the earliest Islamic scholars, and our righteous predecessors.
The Role of the Scholar Is Clear
Religious knowledge is rooted more in the heart than in the mind. As such, when Allah speaks about the ‘ulamaa, people of knowledge, He speaks about their fear of Him, not their accolades and certificates from books, classes, and teachers.
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “It is only those who fear Allah, amongst His slaves, who are ‘ulamaa” (Al-Faatir, 35:28).
Thus, our classes and teachers—and accolades and certifications—benefit us only insomuch as our hearts benefit us. Reflect, O child of Adam, reflect! Then repent and self-correct.
Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam) said, “Indeed, the scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, for the prophets do not leave behind a dinar or a dirham for inheritance, but rather, they leave behind knowledge…” (Abu Dawud, Al-Tirmidhi).
This is a well-known hadith, and from it we learn that the responsibility of the scholar is great, as he or she is entrusted with inheriting and subsequently passing on the wealth of knowledge left behind by the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Thus, when we “follow” trustworthy scholars, we are only being directed to follow the Prophet himself. For the job of the scholar is only to share authentic knowledge gained from detailed study of the original teachings.
And just as a trustee of an estate does not add or take away from the wealth with which he is entrusted, so does a trustworthy scholar leave the prophetic inheritance undisturbed—except to share the knowledge in full, as his or her role demands.
Quotes from Early Scholars About Obeying Scholars
“It is not permitted for anyone to accept our views if they do not know from where we got them from.”—Imam Abu Hanifah
“Indeed I am only a human: I make mistakes [sometimes] and I am correct [sometimes]. Therefore, look into my opinions: all that agrees with the Book and the Sunnah accept it; and all that does not agree with the Book and the Sunnah, ignore it.”—Imam Malik Ibn Anas
“For everything I say, if there is something authentic from the Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, contrary to my saying, then the hadith of the Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, comes first, therefore do not [do] taqleed of my opinion.”—Imam Muḥammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi’ee
“Do not follow my opinion; neither follow the opinion of Malik, nor Shafi’ee, nor Awza’i, nor Thawri, but take from where they took.”—Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
What Is the Definition of “Scholar” Anyway?
Interestingly, for all these discussions, lectures, and posts I’ve seen on the obligation to obey scholars—even above the Qur’an and Sunnah itself—it is very rare that I’ve seen or read a clear definition of what is meant by the term scholar, practically or spiritually. This is very odd, given that Allah has made Islam itself very clear, and that He also told us in no uncertainty of terms that we will be questioned on the Day of Judgment about our adherence to this faith. In this, He taught us that if we knowingly turn away from this obligation, we run the risk of entering Hellfire.
So where is this clarity of truth from Allah regarding whom these scholars are and how we are to discern the trustworthy ones from the ones teaching falsehood? Before getting into answering that question, let’s clarify one thing about following anyone blindly and without question:
Allah would never make the path to Paradise something that is equally the path to Hellfire. Thus, to believe you are obligated to follow without question any religious personality other than Prophet Muhammad, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, not only violates divine principles; it also violates common sense.
For how many religious personalities, past and present, call their followers to misguidance and disbelief? How then is it possible that our Lord would obligate us to follow someone without question—then place us in Hellfire if we die upon misguidance or disbelief?
Your blind following of anyone is the result of conscious, deliberate choice, while knowing full well you had other options—for better or worse. Own it. Because on the Day of Judgment, you’ll have no other choice.
So Who Is ‘Really’ a Scholar?
Firstly, let’s get one common sense point out of the way: Scholars are not scholars just because we call them “scholars,” and they are not scholars just because lots of people love and admire them in this world. Scholars are scholars because they fulfill that definition in front of Allah, even if people never recognize them as such in this world.
Just as there will be prophets who come on the Day of Judgment with little to no followers from this world, there will be righteous scholars who come on the Day of Judgment with little to no believers who recognized them as “scholars” in this world. Nevertheless, does this reality make those prophets and true scholars any less knowledgeable or trustworthy in front of Allah?
In the case of scholars, Allah bestows authentic spiritual knowledge on whomever He wills, however He wills, and from wherever He wills. And His decree is not limited to humans’ definition of religious scholarship—whether via “formal training,” university studies, or sectarian group membership.
So how do we know who truly has knowledge? Allah says, “Truth stands out clear from error” (2:256).
Thus, if you want to benefit from true scholars today, you’ll first need to have a firm understanding of spiritual truth and how it differs significantly from spiritual error and falsehood. Without this firm foundation in authentic Islamic spirituality, it really doesn’t matter who is or is not “really” a scholar. You wouldn’t have the ability to recognize them anyway.
Truth Is More Important Than Scholarship
“He’s not a scholar anyway!” we often say to dismiss someone’s Islamic perspective. But here’s my question: Does it even matter?
Our priority should be gaining the tools to distinguish truth from falsehood—for the sake of our souls—not obsessing over someone’s Islamic “qualifications.” It is counterintuitive to debate who is or who isn’t a scholar when it’s our lack of knowledge that makes us need a scholar in the first place. Exactly what knowledge are we using to draw a conclusion? And since scholars themselves are debating this question, the answer becomes a rather obviously moot point, practically speaking.
Here’s the bottom line: If religious truth comes from the mouth of a layperson, are we allowed to dismiss it? And if religious falsehood comes from the mouth of a scholar, are we obligated to follow it?
Allah placed us on this earth to worship and obey Him, period. And He didn’t make this obligation hidden in rocket science or brainteasers. So as long as your heart is sincere and you consistently turn to Him for guidance, He makes the truth clear so that you follow it, and He makes falsehood clear so that you avoid it. This is the case whether you’re a layperson or scholar. And no, there is no guarantee of guidance or misguidance regardless of which category you are in.
Thus, whether or not so-and-so qualifies to be called “scholar” really shouldn’t be our concern. But whether or not we are qualified to enter Paradise, this should be.
“But we need scholars to help us!” you say. And I agree.
On this, I share this lesson from our pious predecessors: Take your knowledge from those who have passed away [i.e. the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions], for their knowledge and righteousness are well known. As for the men and women amongst you today, you do not know their affair in front of Allah, and you do not know in what spiritual state they will die. So take from them only what you recognize [as truth], and leave what you cannot verify [as truth].
And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful to His slaves.
Be Careful Whom You Trust With Your Soul
We are in the Last Days, and the rightly guided are few. Not everyone who carries the label Muslim believes in authentic spirituality, and not everyone who carries the label scholar teaches authentic spirituality.
The attitude of humility and fear for their souls is the trademark of authentic, righteous scholars. And most of them have passed away. So be careful whom you trust with teaching you the affairs of your soul.
It is true that no scholar is perfect, so we must take what is good and leave what is not. But we must be extra cautious when we find a person claiming to have authentic spiritual knowledge, yet he is more insistent on people praising and obeying him than he is on people praising and obeying Allah.
And let’s not forget that given the state of the ummah, who is or is not truly a scholar is a very subjective matter, as today, anyone who studies in a university or under a sheikh is deemed a scholar, even if they don’t fit the definition in front of Allah. But in true Islam, this subjective labeling is irrelevant, as our focus should be following truth and staying away falsehood, not putting “proper labels” on those teaching us our faith.
But where do we begin? many ask. Let’s start with understanding what it means to protect our souls from Hellfire.
How To Save Yourself From the Fire
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “O you who believe, save yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is men and stones…” (At-Tahreem, 66:6).
During your lifetime, you’ll be invited to the Hellfire many times. For the sake of your soul, refuse every time. In guarding your heart from accepting the invitation, be sure to focus more on principles than people—and don’t be naïve enough to believe that this destructive invitation will always come in the form of obvious evil.
So how do we protect ourselves? Here are five points to remember:
- Authentic Islam is based on the teachings of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as understood by the Companions and earliest Muslims, as there is no new Islam. Bear in mind that believing that it is allowed to introduce new interpretations of foundational principles, obligations, and clear matters of halaal and haraam is what laid the path for the People of the Book making entirely new religions with no connection to the teachings of the Prophets Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them).
- No human being other than the Prophet (peace be upon him) has authority to teach commandments or prohibitions in the religion or introduce concepts that promise specific reward or punishment in this world or the Hereafter—no matter how knowledgeable, righteous, or saintly we imagine them to be.
- The role of the Islamic scholar is to teach what was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) of the Book (Qur’an) and the Wisdom (the Sunnah), nothing more, nothing less.
- No Islamic teacher or believer (other than the Prophet himself) has perfect knowledge of Islam, even if his or her foundational understanding of the religion is correct. Thus, when we are studying our faith, we must constantly supplicate to Allah to allow us to benefit from what is truthful and to protect us from what is mistaken, no matter who our teacher is and no matter how much we love, trust, and respect him or her.
- Know that Allah has made the truth of His faith so clear that every human being who hears the message of Islam, whether illiterate or scholarly, has the capacity to recognize it as true. Likewise, every human being who accepts Allah’s religion has the ability—and the obligation—to recognize and reject religious falsehood being taught as Islam, no matter whom or where it comes from. In this vein, know that we will all be held accountable on the Day of Judgment for our beliefs and actions, and we will not be able to blame our spiritual teachers or scholars for our own misguidance.
When in doubt, pray for guidance. Allah hears and answers all prayers.
And remember this: Many who rejected the Messengers in history were resentful that the Prophet whom Allah sent to them did not have the qualities they felt made him honorable and worthy of such a noble role, whether it was wealth, power, or a certain lineage. And many who followed misguidance in history were pleased with the “noble” traits of the one leading them to Hellfire, whether it was because the inviter was a parent, a “righteous” person, or someone they deemed honorable in some worldly way.
Today, we find history repeating itself in Muslims rejecting obvious spiritual truths because the person speaking the truth does not have a lofty scholarly title, did not study overseas or in an Islamic university, or is not part of our favored group, sect, or culture.
Many times Allah tests us by placing the truth on the tongue of one who will reveal to us the very depths of our hearts—and our response to this divine truth will make plain to us whether it is Allah or our pride that is most beloved to us in this world.
O dear soul, be careful.
O Allah! Make us recognize truth as truth and make us follow it, and make us recognize falsehood as falsehood and protect us from it! And O Allah, purify our hearts from the destructive diseases of pride, hatred, and envy! And make Your pleasure with us our highest priority in this world!
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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