“I’ve read almost all of his books, and I’ve never seen him say anything even close to that,” I said in response to the woman’s claim that a well-known scholar should not be trusted because he was involved in teaching some specific concepts that were contrary to the basic principles of Islam.
“That’s because you don’t have the knowledge to detect the errors in his books,” she said.
I felt myself getting upset. This woman didn’t know me, yet she’d already decided the depths of my religious ignorance. Just an hour ago, she didn’t even know my name before we were formally introduced. “You don’t know what I know,” I said firmly. “You don’t know how much knowledge I have or don’t have. You’ve never even met me before today. So how can you say what I have the ability to detect?”
Part of me wanted to point out that the grave errors she was accusing this scholar of could be easily detected by a teenager who had taken a single year of Islamic studies in high school. But I held my tongue. I’d already said enough.
She bowed her head in shame. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “You’re right. I don’t know you, so I shouldn’t have said that.”
Some years later I was reading through the comments on a blog I’d written about my experience with Muslims telling me that it was impermissible for authors to autograph their books because it was a form of riyaa’ (showing off and lack of sincerity). In the blog I explained how riyaa’ was more an internal reality of the heart than a detectable external sin that others could accurately pinpoint. Thus, it was virtually impossible for onlookers to accuse someone of this sin without falling into religious error themselves.
In the comment section, a woman shared a fatwa by a major scholar who was of the opinion that the culture of a famous person signing his or her name for fans was sinful because it fell under imitation of the kuffaar (disbelievers). I then responded to her by pointing out that the act of signing something you wrote (whether a letter, a note in a card, or a book) was a practice that had roots even at the time of Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, when they signed letters or messages exchanged amongst themselves. I also explained to her that my intention for signing my books was not the same as a rock star, for example, signing someone’s hand which they vowed to never wash again due to their excessive idolization of the person. I told her that my intention was to firstly make the book personal and beloved to the reader, just as one writes a personal note along with a gift. I also said that I also use it as an opportunity, whenever possible, to make du’aa for the recipient in my note. Therefore, what I was doing couldn’t possibly fall under imitation of the kuffaar, a topic that in itself had many branches, some of which were rooted more in the intentions of the person’s heart than in the external act itself.
The woman then became angry with me and accused me of disrespecting scholars and following my desires. She ended her comment by saying, “And you’ll never have the knowledge of Sheikh so-and-so!”
At that, I decided to disengage from the conversation, as it was clear that this more about her problem with me as a peron than with what I was saying. However, some time later I saw that someone else had replied to her, and till today, I remember the wisdom in the person’s response, in which they effectively said: “How do you know that? What gives you the right to speak on behalf of Allah, the All-Knowing, All-Capable and claim that one of His servants will never be granted increase in knowledge more than another servant? If Allah wished, He could elevate the status of Umm Zakiyyah in this world and increase her knowledge such that she becomes more knowledgeable than even the greatest of scholars. You don’t know what Allah has written for her, so it’s best not to speak about what will never happen.”
You’re Not a Scholar!
Anyone who is familiar with my writings likely knows that I have a strong aversion to popularity contests, especially in the context of spiritual teachings. Today, in both secular and religious circles, much of human ideology is rooted in personalities over principles instead of principles over personalities. This is not to say that personalities have no place. It’s just to say that truth and right guidance are rooted in principles, and it is from these principles that we come to appreciate the personalities that teach them to us.
However, so many of us have come to believe (even if unconsciously) that truth and right guidance are rooted in popular personalities, and only when these popular people say something is true and right should we also say it is true and right. The only time this mentality is justified is when it is applied to the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, himself. Other than that, we’re treading very dangerous waters when we apply this to regular people, even those whom we imagine to be scholars.
Given that the role of a scholar is only to point the believers to the authentic teachings of the Prophet himself, it is indeed puzzling when we reject those authentic teachings when they come on the tongue of a non-scholar. Naturally, whenever a non-scholar teaches us religious truth, there is almost always a group of scholars themselves (in past and present) who have also taught this same religious truth. However, because we don’t know these scholars personally, we reject the teachings of the Prophet if we learn them from a person we don’t like or from a person we have arbitrarily decided is not a scholar and thus someone we don’t “have to” listen to.
And when I say we have arbitrarily decided that the person is not a scholar or worthy of being listened to, I mean that literally. This really is the simplicity of our thinking process. We give the person a mental once-over, and if they don’t measure up to our mind’s definition of a scholar or an important person, we deem them ignorant and we reject what they say.
Whenever someone says to me, “You’re not a scholar!” when I’m writing or teaching about Islam, I can’t help wondering how they came to that conclusion (though I certainly don’t consider myself a scholar). But since most times they know little to nothing about my Islamic studies background, I can’t help thinking, “Why is my being a scholar such an unfathomable possibility to you?” Is it because I’m an African-American female?
Personally, I have repeatedly witnessed many a men from Arab backgrounds labeled “sheikh” and “scholar” who have a much shorter résumé than my own in their Islamic studies. Some have no formal Islamic studies background whatsoever, yet they’re given the title scholar. And no matter how much someone of my color and gender studies Qur’an and Islamic studies (in my case, more than fifteen years), it’s rare that we’ll ever earn the title “scholar” in the hearts of most Muslims. Thus, I know on a very personal level that most times these arbitrary claims of someone not being a scholar have absolutely nothing to do with the principles of Islamic knowledge and everything to do with Muslims’ unconscious racism and sexism that leads them to view authentic Islamic scholarship as an impossibility for certain people, specifically an African-American female like myself.
But more importantly, when someone responds to my writings and teachings about Islam by saying “You’re not a scholar!” I can’t help wondering why it even matters to them. No matter how much I hear this claim, whether directed at me or someone else, it breaks my heart. Not because I want myself or anyone else to be considered a scholar, but because it points to just how far we’ve strayed from the prophetic teachings of Islam. Both the Qur’an and the prophetic Sunnah make it clear that authentic Islamic practice is rooted in following truth and right guidance—regardless of whom Allah placed in our path to share this divine truth with us.
Why Does It Matter?
In the following reflection from my book Faith. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah, I reflect on the troubling reality of our obsession with the label “scholar”:
“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’s 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.
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, no guarantee of guidance or misguidance exists for either.
Thus, whether or not so-and-so qualifies to be called a “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 (Al-Walaa Publications, 2016).
When Scholars Lie To Us
One of the most spiritually damaging side effects of a religious culture rooted in personalities over principles (instead of principles over personalities) is that we voluntarily hand over our souls to human beings when Allah has obligated us to submit our souls to only Him. This transaction of giving our souls to those we call scholars makes it virtually impossible to be spiritually strong or even spiritually “awake” enough to detect when we are being lied to by those we trust. And here, when I say “scholars” I mean the label we’ve given certain people, irrespective of whether or not they have earned this label in front of Allah.
Who is or is not really a scholar has never been a topic of interest to me. Though I certainly have in my heart and mind scholars I love and respect, mostly from the Companions of the Prophet and the earliest generations, in our current reality I find this argument to be more harmful than helpful, as my reflection from Faith. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah alluded to above.
What’s much more important than figuring out who is or is not a scholar is figuring what is or is not right guidance and truthful information about our faith. While no human is infallible and thus even the greatest of scholars can make mistakes, human error is not always at the root of the misinformation we are receiving about Islam.
Today, in nearly every part of the world, and most especially in the West, it is very rare to find any celebrated scholar whose teachings adhere more to Islamic truth than pandering to the political powers of the land. In America in particular, the culture of Muslim apologists amongst scholars is much more common than that of strong religious leaders who stand up to speak spiritual truth, no matter the cost. Consistently, their fatwas, blogs, and speeches distort Islam such that it appears more appealing to White American culture. In some cases, they outright lie about Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) if they imagine this will bring the “greater good.”
As a result, the masses of sincere struggling believers suffer daily as they consistently turn to these emasculated leaders for guidance, but are given “Islamic information” that is rooted more in scholars’ saving face and impressing the West than in protecting the very real human needs of the believing souls on the ground.
Spiritual Refugees Seeking Safety
The sad reality of today is that the primary role of many uncelebrated non-scholarly community leaders working with the masses of regular people is to undo the spiritual damage inflicted on them by those they imagined to be scholars.
Whether we are talking about women being denied their right to marry an available compatible Muslim man after a “scholar” took it upon himself to deny or trivialize the teachings of the Qur’an on plural marriage. Whether we are talking about both men and women being labeled evil and corrupt if they had a private halaal ceremony that a “scholar” labeled a “secret marriage.” Whether we are talking about Muslims feeling emboldened to slander their believing brothers and sisters because a “scholar” taught them that any marriage that White America doesn’t legitimatize is illegitimate and sinful in front of Allah.
Whether we are talking about African-Americans suffering emotional and mental breakdowns after repeated exposure to the subtle and blatant anti-Black racism in most predominately Arab and Desi communities and from the tongues of “scholars” who consistently equate their culture with “imitation of the kuffaar.” Whether we are talking about a woman feeling “less than” because male scholarship consistently taught her that she has no right to exist except in servitude to a man. Whether we are talking about those who dedicated years of their lives “sacrificing for the sake of Allah” by giving up things they loved, one after the other, only to discover that they were merely collateral damage in one scholar’s desire to win a religious debate with another scholar—by recruiting as many people as possible to his side of legitimate difference of opinion.
Whether we are talking about artists, musicians, and entertainers being repeatedly told they are agents of Shaytaan and under the wrath of Allah due to their work, only for them to discover the existence of legitimate Islamic perspectives on many of these issues. Whether we are talking about believers being told that they have no love of Allah or Qur’an in their hearts because they follow the minority fiqh opinion on the permissibility of music. Whether we are talking about women giving up their studies and careers “for the sake of Allah” after being told they were “intermingling with men” at school and work.
Whether we are talking about abused women and children being consistently advised to be patient in their servitude of violent husbands and parents even at the expense of their mental health and physical safety. Whether we are talking about victims of oppression being told they are bad Muslims if they don’t forgive their oppressors and abusers. Whether we are talking about people on the verge of leaving Islam—or who have left already—because “scholars” kept adding to the list of haraam and doubtful matters until the religion became impossible to practice….
We are looking at thousands upon thousands of spiritual refugees in the world searching for a safe space of divine protection after suffering emotional and mental trauma due to what they learned from “scholars.”
Back to Basics and Grassroots Efforts
For anyone who wants to help themselves and others navigate this current spiritual tragedy, it is incumbent upon us to go back to the basics by rooting our faith in the clear, definitive and foundational teachings of the Qur’an and prophetic Sunnah. In this, we must leave alone our obsessions with certain personalities, our fixations on debating issues of legitimate disagreement, and the misguided “scholarly permission” to scrutinize and criminalize the private halaal choices of other believers’ lives.
To get a clearer idea of what this shift of focus looks like, I invite you to watch my video series, I Almost Left Islam: How I Reclaimed My Faith—and to also read the accompanying book by the same name:
Why Should We Listen To You?
I know for some people reading this, they will wonder why they should listen to anything I say (since I already admitted I’m not a scholar). And my answer is simple: You shouldn’t. If you find anything truthful or beneficial that I’ve said, then take it; and if you find anything harmful or not beneficial that I’ve said, then leave it.
My only prayer is that, for the sake of your soul, you apply this same principle in every environment where you are learning about your faith—irrespective of whether or not the writer or teacher carries the label “scholar.”
Your very soul and emotional health could depend on this seemingly simple approach to discerning spiritual truth.
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 parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Umm Zakiyyah holds a BA in elementary education and an MA in English language learning. She studied Arabic, Qur’an, Islamic sciences, ‘aqeedah, and tafseer in America, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia for more than fifteen years. She currently teaches tajweed (rules of reciting Qur’an) and tafseer in Baltimore, Maryland.
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