The Public's Guide to Islamic Scholars and Scholarship
Updated: Jan 23
With the name and praises of Allah, the All-Knower, the All-Wise
The dynamics between Islamic scholars (ulama, s. alim) and the general Muslim public have changed recently in both positive and negative ways. In terms of the latter, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish genuine from pseudo-Islamic scholarship and there has also been greater and sometimes unfair public scrutiny of scholars (based on unrealistic expectations). However, some scholars have done themselves no favours by proliferating controversial views and causing public confusion.
At the heart of these problems is that general Muslims do not know how to recognise legitimate Islamic scholarship or know and understand how to interact with it in a proper manner, and this is what we will explore below.
Addressing the issue of authority and remit to speak on Islam first, the general public can inform and teach each other the basic and well-known aspects of Islam, but anything beyond is the realm of the scholars to detail and they must be referred to here.
The public may however convey what they learn from scholars on the more detailed aspects of knowledge to one another as messengers and not teach or debate them amongst themselves.
Islamic scholarship is determined by three qualities: the requisite knowledge and understanding of the Islamic sciences (Qur’an, Hadith, aqeedah, fiqh, Arabic, et cetera), the minimum level of piety to be taken as a trustworthy guide, and adherence to Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’at.
An individual’s piety and adherence to Sunnism can be determined through observation and ‘requisite knowledge and understanding’ by their having graduated with an ijaazah (license) in all the relevant Islamic sciences. This would have been conferred to them by those who themselves have ijaazah, thereby forming an unbroken chain back to the Prophet (ص) himself. This is what is what often meant by 'traditional scholarship'.
Traditional scholarship can be attained through sufficient study with traditional scholars, whether privately or at institutions, such as dar al-ulooms and Islamic universities. Molvi, Mawlana, Mufti, Shaykh, et cetera are titles often used for traditional scholars.
Based on a lack of ijaazah then, pure self-study and completion of Islamic studies programs at secular universities are not authoritative means to Islamic scholarship and will not be recognised in the religion, whether the individuals concerned are non-Muslim or Muslim.
Individuals who do not possess an ijaazah, are only part-studied, or who are vague about their being fully qualified, but are regarded or act as scholarly figures should not be referred to as traditional Islamic scholars, no matter how popular or good they may be as preachers, debaters, or academics.
A lot of trouble can be prevented if simple background checks were performed before referring to individuals as Islamic scholars, be it in person or online. This is an individual obligation and the public should not accept anything less than sufficient transparency from claimants to scholarship in this regard.
The primary role of Islamic scholars is to study Islam, teach it to others, and ensure the preservation of its intellectual heritage. They are not authorities in secular areas beyond the Islamic injunctions therein, so the relevant experts should be consulted there instead. The two ought not to cross each other’s boundaries, but work together to provide Islamic solutions to issues that may arise.
Not every instance of a scholar providing advice or guidance will be Islamically based. If it relates to Islam, then it can of course be taken as such by default, otherwise it will be just like taking advice from any other person. They do not need to be followed here, as some believe.
Not every scholar is an imam or a preacher or able to fulfil those roles. Many become teachers, researchers, et cetera or even choose secular careers and serve the religion through personal endeavours.
A person can take from any scholar they trust. This may be one scholar for all issues or different scholars for different issues. With the latter, after having acted on a particular scholar’s verdict on a particular matter, one cannot switch to another differing opinion based simply on their desires or without a shari’ah authorised need or a change in circumstances.
If a scholar errs, they should not be thought of in a bad light and should continue to be followed, unless they make overly numerous or serious mistakes. Their having erred can be determined by the scholar withdrawing their view or acknowledging their mistake. If a person loses trust in them regardless, then they may switch to another scholar whilst not criticising the first.
If a scholar is corrected, but defends themselves against the criticism, one may continue to follow the scholar as long they do not commit major errors, such as violating the precepts of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’at, openly committing major sins, abuse of their position, supporting oppressive governments, et cetera.
Scholars who objectively are not fulfilling their roles despite having the necessary support structures in place (see below), such as speaking in ignorance or acting aloof and arrogant, should be held to account.
Referring to foreign scholars on matters that relate to one’s own country is not permitted.
There is nothing wrong with following certain scholars because they are entertaining (within reason) or famous, provided one ensures they are actually scholars and something of substance is gained from them too.
The pubic sometimes incorrectly stereotype scholars as disconnected and disinterested from real world issues amongst others.
New scholars and graduates should be given the opportunity to assimilate back into society after returning from their studies, and the public and institutions should provide imams and teachers with the necessary resources to be able to devote themselves to their scholarly duties (good annual salaries and formal training).
The public also have a responsibility to solve modern challenges facing the ummah as per their expertise and capacities, and should not shift all the burden to scholars to deal with. Everyone has a role to play in this endeavour.
The digital age has given rise to many unprecedented phenomena and among the most widespread is that it has provided the general public the freedom to express their views and share information on any topic they wish and to potentially large audiences. Judging by the undoubted popularity of social media platforms, websites, and blogs, this is largely seen as a positive development, but there are also some significant negatives.
For instance, sacred Islamic topics are now subject to the broadcasts of laymen and self-proclaimed experts (of whom there are many), and given that generally the Muslim public are unable to differentiate genuine from pseudo Islamic scholarship, sometimes even being careless of where they get their knowledge from, the danger of misinformation and falsehood quickly spreading is very real.
Quite unfortunately, there are also a growing number of scholars (ulama, s. alim) expressing controversial opinions and statements, and whereas in the past their sphere of influence would have been more limited, mass media has meant their ideas can and do proliferate, leading to much public debate and at times dismay too.
Similarly, that scholars legitimately differ with one another and make mistakes has always been a reality, as has the fact that public expectations of scholars can at times be unrealistic. But with information being so accessible nowadays, people impatient, and opportunists abound, public scrutiny of scholars has rarely been so ready and unforgiving, leading to a rise in what we now know as ‘refutation culture’.
At the heart of these growing problems is that the public do not know how to navigate the oft confusing world of Islamic scholarship. More specifically, how to recognise legitimate Islamic scholarship, understand its dynamics, or how to interact with it in a proper manner; so in this article, we will explore these ambiguities in some detail in sha Allah, as well as some other closely related topics.
Who May Speak on Islam?
Before we delve into these issues however, it is important to identify who exactly has authority to speak on Islamic matters and to what extent. In other words, can anyone from the Muslim public explain Islamic beliefs and rulings, et cetera, and if so, how far does this permission extend? And is there a need for Islamic scholarship at all?
For the straightforward and broadly agreed precepts of the religion, there is usually no harm with the Muslim public informing one another of their general details, providing one has the knowledge and is able to accurately convey it. For example, that God exists, the prohibition of shirk, the finality of prophethood with Prophet Muhammad (ص), the righteousness of all the Companions (ر), the basic procedures for the five daily prayers, fasting, and zakaat; or that giving to charity, being dutiful to one’s parents, et cetera are rewarding and lying, cheating, et cetera are sins. This category of beliefs and practices are very much within the remit of the general Muslim public to inform one another about and since they usually relate to the essentials of Islamic belief and practice, in some instances, it can even be required.
Other matters of the religion are not as simple. They may be complex ideas, reasonably differed over, or require extensive pre-requisites, so greater expertise is needed for their proper understanding and commentary than is ordinarily possessed. Meaning, and quite evidently so, one must be an actual scholar of the religion to delve into these issues and without this qualification, it will not be permissible to even hold, much less express one’s personal views or judgements therein. As a result, whenever the public require information on more complex topics, the only rational option for them would be to refer to scholars and this has been the general understanding throughout Islamic history.
To what extent can the public go beyond learning the basics of Islam and into these more detailed matters? In essence, to any degree their needs require and the scholar they refer to deems fit, but they must always bear in mind that without going through the actual process of becoming scholars, no level of informal learning will qualify a layman as a scholar or an expert. So someone can attend short courses and intensive seminars, et cetera, for a more detailed understanding of Islam and this is certainly encouraged for those who wish to, but this will not be sufficient to now classify them as an actual scholar or expert.
Does a layman who possess a degree of more detailed knowledge and understanding have the right to convey it to others? Providing the information is gained from a scholar, communicated exactly as the scholar detailed it and in the same context, then there may be scope to do so. However, meeting these conditions is not easy, so it is certainly more cautious for non-scholars to refer people to scholars directly here than to pass the information on themselves. And should it be an issue over which scholars themselves differ, it is also absolutely prohibited for the public to argue over them within their own capacities. Unfortunately though, this is something very common in Muslim societies today and the cause of a lot of disunity, and it goes without saying that this dangerous culture needs to change.
Now, some people accuse scholars of acting as ‘gatekeepers’ of Islamic learning and barring the public from any degree of knowledge beyond the basics. In light of the above however, this notion is clearly false. Why such individuals have problems with authority will vary and at times some scholars themselves may be to blame, but notwithstanding, there can be genuine reasons for not discussing detailed topics with members of the public too. There can indeed be practical difficulties and sometimes even dangers in discussing certain issues outside of expert circles, such as when preliminary knowledge and understanding of the Islamic sciences are needed or if there is a possibility of fitnah, et cetera. If someone unknown to a scholar asks them about these issues and the scholar does not know the individual’s level of Islamic knowledge, understanding, and character traits, it is quite reasonable of them to be cautious and opt for an alternative solution than delve into the complexities.
Personally speaking, when I was a budding student, I never had any problems with scholars who knew me well barring me from asking about complex matters. Scholars I was not familiar with did turn me away and at the time I felt offended, but I realise now that they were not necessarily just being difficult. This does of course happen, but the public also have to be aware of the responsibility scholars have in ensuring the public are not misguided. It is very much a double-edged sword for them here. If they protect people, they are accused of being controlling and if they provide answers, the public sometimes are unable to process them
Islamic Scholarship Defined
But it seems as though everyone possessing a few books or who has attended a few popular level courses regards themselves a scholar nowadays, so how is scholarship actually defined in Islam? Broadly speaking, it comprises three major aspects: a) that a person possesses a specified minimum higher level of knowledge and understanding of the core Islamic sciences (Qur’an, Hadith, aqeedah, fiqh, Arabic, et cetera); b) the requisite level of piety and trustworthiness to be followed as religious guides; and c) from a Sunni perspective, that they adhere to the ideals of Ahl al-Sunnat wa al-Jama’at:
a) Knowledge and Understanding - On the basis that the essential function of a scholar is to know and understand a field of study to a specified minimum higher level of expertise, that the definition of Islamic scholarship comprises these two elements is obvious and strikes at the very core of what it means to be a scholar. Otherwise would be to permit incompetency and outright error in the religion, so these qualities are critically important.
b) Piety - That Islamic scholars are meant to advise and guide others, be it directly or indirectly, they must also possess the requisite character traits to be followed as guides. Clearly, someone who peruses personal interests at the expense of Islam or the public good is not worthy of such a leadership position. This aspect is also somewhat related to the first in that acquiring the knowledge and understanding of Islam that scholars are meant to have, does usually develop the minimum required personal qualities in them too, but this is not guaranteed, so the two are distinct endeavours.
c) Doctrine - Finally, scholars needing to be from Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’at is predicted on the idea that of the various factions in Islam, it alone has achieved accuracy and validity at a necessary level (click here to learn more). Though non-Sunnis as people can inherently have Islamic knowledge and good character traits, there is a significant deficiency in either or both that results in their outright incompetence, mediocrity, and misguidance, so they cannot be included within the definition of valid Islamic scholarship. Otherwise, the followers of deviated groups can absolve themselves by claiming that they are simply following what their scholars teach them and they have no need to seek guidance elsewhere, whereas the Qur’an does not accept such excuses,
يَوْمَ تُقَلَّبُ وُجُوهُهُمْ فِي النَّارِ يَقُولُونَ يَا لَيْتَنَا أَطَعْنَا اللَّهَ وَأَطَعْنَا الرَّسُولَا ۞ وَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا إِنَّا أَطَعْنَا سَادَتَنَا وَكُبَرَاءَنَا فَأَضَلُّونَا السَّبِيلَا ۞ رَبَّنَا آتِهِمْ ضِعْفَيْنِ مِنَ الْعَذَابِ وَالْعَنْهُمْ لَعْنًا كَبِيرًا
The Day their faces will be transformed in the Fire, they will say, ‘Would that we had obeyed Allah and obeyed the Messenger’. And they will say, “Our Lord, indeed we obeyed our chiefs and our authorities, and they led us astray from the [right] path. Our Lord, give them double the punishment and curse them with a great curse.
How to Determine Someone is a Scholar
Following our broad definition of scholarship above, actually determining at a practical level that an individual is of the requisite piety and doctrine to be followed as a scholar (aspects b. and c. above) is relatively straightforward. With the former, as long as they are not known to commit sins that would call their trustworthiness for their role into question, they can be referred to for guidance in Islamic matters and what they may or may not do in secret is between them and God. Similarly with creed, sectarian affiliations are usually declared, but even if they are not, one can gauge whether a scholar belongs to Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’at by what they preach and teach, and their reputation amongst other Sunni scholars.
Unlike these two delineating features of scholarship however, there is some ambiguity on what exactly the ‘specified minimum higher level of level of knowledge and understanding of the Islamic sciences’ is. In other words, at what exact point of learning does a person transition from being a layman or even a student of the religion to being an Islamically sanctioned qualified scholar and how can the general public recognise whether someone has achieved it or not?
Though some have downplayed its importance, I believe the benchmark for Islamic scholarship is an ‘ijaazah’. Essentially, this is a formal authorisation or license confirming that at the point of issue, a person has achieved the minimum higher level knowledge and understanding of the necessary Islamic sciences (Qur’an, Hadith, aqeedah, fiqh, et cetera) to be recognised as an expert. These are conferred by those who themselves have a similar ijaazah and thereby, teacher and student form part of an unbroken historic chain of licensed individuals reaching back to the Prophet (ص) himself (and hence its formal nature), and this is what is meant by ‘traditional scholarship’. Ibn Mubarak said,
لولا الإسناد لقال من شاء ما شاء (رواه مسلم)
If it was not for isnaad, whoever wanted to could say what they want.
So an ijaazah acts as an Islamically sanctioned regulatory measure that tries to ensure, if implemented correctly, that an individual has attained the required minimum standards of higher knowledge and understanding of the religion to be considered a scholar, just as a qualification would in a secular field.
Consequently, seeking authoritative Islamic expertise without an ijaazah, such as through pure self-study, will not be acknowledged in the religion. This is because anyone can read the relevant books independently of traditional teachers and then deem themselves sufficiently skilled, but there is no religiously authorised quality control mechanism and therefore no confirmed learning involved. In other words, due to personal bias and circularity amongst other reasons, self-examination is not a valid method for determining whether one has correctly learned and understood a subject and its texts, and assessments need to be performed by authorised external agents. One could in theory study the relevant subjects independently and then seek ijaazahs from traditional scholars, but successful examples of this nowadays are few and far between and actual study under scholars or close association with them would typically be required first.
Unfortunately, some individuals wish to speak on Islam and be taken seriously, but possess no ijaazahs and they mock the idea that as laymen, they ought to defer expertise to traditional scholars, likening it to blind adherence to authority. Typically, the only aspect such individuals have over and above the average Muslim is some degree of (usually self) study and they then develop a false sense of self-importance and believe this qualifies them as equals to scholars who have ijaazahs. This is a fatal attitude, plain and simple. Would they trust the life of a critically ill loved one to someone like themselves, who is self-taught and has no formal training or qualifications? I do not believe anyone in their right mind would. So why do they act this way with the religion of God and potentially jeopardise their hereafter? If they are really that interested in developing expertise in Islam, they need to do what the scholars have always done. Dedicate themselves to studying the religion in a traditional way and gain the necessary qualifications in the right manner. There are no shortcuts or easy routes.
Some contend that despite having ijaazahs, some scholars are still inadequate, so it cannot be an effective system for gauging a person’s competence. Though this is a valid concern, the reality is there will always be individuals who do not meet the required standards of scholarship that slip through the net and I am not sure this can be entirely eliminated. But there are also some scholars and institutions that deliberately allow failing students to graduate with ijaazahs and this is a far greater worry. However, these are more practical problems than a failing of the ijaazah system in theory in that it is the responsibility of the scholarly community to set the right procedures so that failing students do not progress to graduation. It is also possible that a scholar loses their competency after having earned an ijaazah in the proper manner, and this is more common than one may think. Many graduates do not maintain their learning and regress significantly over subsequent years and the relevant concern then becomes determining if someone with even an ijaazah is inadequate, which will be discussed a little later, in sha Allah.
Finally, though attaining ijaazah grants an individual religious authority and scholarly status relative to the public, it does not mean they are now senior within the scholarly community itself, just as someone who is only an undergraduate from a secular university does not automatically make them an expert in their field equivalent to someone with a PhD. This normally requires years of further study, association with other scholars and experts, experience, et cerera. Nevertheless, it does produce a clear dichotomy between graduates and the general Muslim public and students, and relative to them, they are indeed scholars, so can be referred to for religious guidance.
This distinction is useful for understanding some of the varying conceptualisations of Islamic scholars in different regions and traditions in the Islamic world. So in the Subcontinent for example, it is quite normal to refer to even fresh graduates as scholars and this is based on their position relative to the general public, whereas in Arab lands, only more experienced and senior scholars are regarded as actual scholars and new graduates still only ‘students of knowledge’, based on their positions relative to those who are more senior. Both are correct in their own perspectives.
Different Traditional Systems of Education
There are two main avenues through which one may gain an ijaazah from traditional scholars: private study with them or graduating from an institution where they teach and issues it.
Private study typically entails students having to locate individual scholars to teach them the Islamic sciences via study of whichever books the teacher deems fit. These individual scholars may teach only certain books and topics, in which case the student would have to locate different teachers to learn other texts and subjects, or they may teach all the relevant material and sciences, though this is rare and probably not recommended either. The student thus acquires ijaazahs as they go along until they have covered all the necessary areas.
Institutional study is by far the most popular choice nowadays and is divided into two further types, traditional madrasah (most prevalent in the Subcontinent) and Islamic university (most prevalent in Arab countries) based learning. What each comprises and their pros and cons are not relevant here, but as long as all the necessary sciences are taught to students by traditional scholars to the required level for an ijaazah, their having graduated from any of these institutions will be recognised and held as authoritative in the religion. Some famous examples of traditional madrasah-based institutions include Dar al-Uloom Deoband and Dar al-Uloom Bury; Nadwat al-Ulama; Jami’ah Naeemiyah and Jami’ah Al-Karam; et cetera, whilst traditional university based institutions include Al-Azhar and Al-Madinah, and others.
Titles typically used for scholars from madrasahs include Mulla; Molvi; Mawlana; and if they have also completed specialisation/further study in fiqh, Mufti, whereas scholars from private and university style traditional study are typically referred to as Shaykh.
Secular University Academics
This brings us onto another, relatively recent form of Islamic education - Islamic studies programmes in secular universities (not to be confused with the Islamic universities discussed above). There are many features that distinguish these institutions from traditional ones, but we will briefly look at just two.
Firstly, until now, teachers and lecturers at secular universities have typically been non-Muslims, let alone traditionally trained, so naturally will lack ijaazahs (though more recently Muslims and even traditionally trained Muslim scholars are taking up degrees and teaching positions). Thus, they essentially suffer the same ‘absence of religiously sanctioned quality control mechanism’ problem as self-study described earlier.
Secondly, their objectives are completely unlike those of the traditional systems. Namely, not to preserve and develop the Islamic sciences for the betterment of Islam, but to study them through a secular lens without normative boundaries and regardless of what results, even if it is heretical. For example, that the Prophet (ص) did not exist and Islam is an invention of early Ummayad caliphs, the Ka’bah is not in Makkah, the stories in the Qur’an are not literal, perennialism, Hadith are unreliable, et cetera are just some of the revisionist ideas being proposed by secular researchers.
For these reasons, academics from secular universities who do not meet the three criteria for legitimate scholarship described above are not authoritative points of reference as far as traditional normative Islam is concerned, even if they are Muslim (some so-called Muslim academics can be just as bad as their non-Muslim counterparts). This is not to say their work is of absolutely no use, quite to the contrary. There is plenty of beneficial research being produced by secular academics too, many even supporting traditional narratives, but because of the inherent dangers mentioned, it is not the realm of non-scholars to investigate their content or take them seriously. If they do and as a result are misguided, they will only have themselves to blame and will be liable before God for not having referred to the correct sources of knowledge.
Identifying and Dealing with Pseudo Scholars
Given the importance of referring to qualified scholars, it goes without saying that the public must be careful not to be duped by pretenders. Unfortunately however, social media in particular has facilitated the spread of such individuals at unprecedented levels, making this all the more difficult. However, hopefully by now, readers will have a good understanding of what legitimate scholarship constitutes, so God willing, anyone lacking one or more of the necessary components ought to be easily detectable, even if they are popular figures, like Dr Zakir Naik and Assim al-Hakeem, or fringe charlatans like Abu Khadeejah and Anjem Chowdhry (all of whom have no ijaazahs and may be lacking in some of the other necessary aspects too).
But there is also a proliferation of those who portray themselves as being qualified, yet choose to be vague about their qualifications. Many simply state in their profiles that they have ‘studied with shaykhs’ or at certain institutions without mentioning who their shaykhs were, where they studied, or whether they even graduated with ijaazah or not. Some may even be ‘currently studying’ with scholars or at certain institutions, but these qualities are not sufficient for taking them as proper sources of Islamic learning and is quite easy to be deceived by. Examples of individuals from this type include Daniel Haqiqatjou and ‘Dawahman’ Imran ibn Mansur, who speak on matters that require scholarly learning, but do not have the authority to do so.
Both types of pseudo-scholars are of course at liberty to preach and analyse general Islamic topics and issues affecting the Muslim world as da’ees and may even be doing valuable work in these areas (often and sadly more so than even traditional Islamic scholars), but they are not qualified to discuss or give their opinions on matters that require expertise of Qur’an, Hadith, fiqh, theology, et cetera, as scholars would. This applies no matter how knowledgeable they may appear to the untrained eye, how much Qur’an and Hadith they quote, how academic and lengthy their writings may be, how good they may be at teaching and public speaking, or how good their Arabic is.
The good news is that such deceptions can very easily be remedied through simple background checks and it would be no exaggeration to say that a lot of trouble can be prevented if this was practiced more diligently. This is in fact an individual religious obligation, so if anyone is misguided because they did not perform due diligence before referring to an individual for religious learning and just assumed they possess scholarly credentials from their appearance, popularity, oratory or written skills, et cetera, they will be held accountable before God for their laxity and negligence, and will only have themselves to blame. It is also a duty on claimants to religious authority (whether direct or indirect) to be clear about their qualifications and suitability for it and the public should not accept anything less than sufficient transparency. Ibn Sireen, the great tabi’ee said,
إن هذا العلم دين فانظروا عمن تأخذون دينكم (رواه مسلم)
Verily, this knowledge is religion, so consider (carefully) from whom you take your religion
The troubles of the internet and social media not withstanding, there are still many reputable websites and online services to which people can refer to for Islamic learning. One just has to be sure to check who is behind them and if they are qualified and reputable.
The Role and Remit of Scholars
The primary role of Islamic scholars is to study Islam, teach and inform others about it, and ensure the preservation of its intellectual heritage. The fact that the religion guides us in most if not all the aspects of our lives means that by extension, scholars’ religious jurisdiction in this sense can extend to any number of areas. These typically include the strictly religious areas of theology (aqeedah), rulings (fiqh), and the spiritual to those that are also secular, such as family and relationship counselling, business, politics, science and technology, sports, culture, and more. Scholars thereby oversee the religion in all those matters in which it provides dictates and should take a guiding role in doing so (though not always the sole responsibility, depending on the issue at hand).
Being Islamic scholars though, they are not experts or points of reference in fields that also have a secular element beyond the remit of the Islamic guidance therein, such as in family and relationship counselling, politics, science and technology, et cetera, and public expectations on the extent of their authority in these areas should be tempered accordingly. They can of course provide the appropriate guidance from Qur'an and Sunnah here, but these topics are more extensive and generally require professional direction or help. Similarly, secular experts must not regard themselves as qualified to speak on the Islamic perspectives relating to their areas of expertise independently of Islamic scholars. To each is their specialism and in creating comprehensive frameworks, both groups need work together, with secular experts detailing the dynamics of their fields and Islamic scholars providing the relevant religious injunctions therein.
A somewhat related point is that not every instance of a scholar providing advice or guidance on a matter is a religious one. Sure, if it is a religious issue then one can expect a religious answer, but in purely worldly matters, scholars are human and like other human beings, have their personal experiences and views. Here then, they are not acting in a religious capacity, but as the individuals that they are and one would do well to distinguish between the two and respond accordingly. Unfortunately, some people go to extremes in following their shaykhs and fervently adhere to every instruction and advice they give without question, even in non-religious matters. This is not Islamically justified and is very possibly detrimental.
Another point the general public often overlook is that scholars come in all shapes and sizes. Some become imams, some become public speakers, some go into research and publishing, some go into teaching, some even choose completely secular careers and serve the religion through personal endeavours, and some do a mix of these. Many scholars in fact just inconspicuously mix with the public and go about their business unnoticed, except by those who know them. So not every scholar can and should be expected to fulfil the role of an imam or public speaker as some Muslims often expect.
Interacting with Scholars
So we have explored what scholarship constitutes in a normative sense, but does it matter which traditional scholar one refers to? And what if a scholar makes a mistake, how should one react? More seriously, how does one recognise if a traditionally trained scholar is incompetent or has subsequently deviated from the right path, and what to make of the recent ‘celebrity shaykh’ culture from a public perspective?
In essence, a person can refer to any scholar they trust and this may derive from whatever factors are important to an individual beyond the three minimum criteria detailed earlier. It may be that someone values their experience, expert knowledge, character, seniority, popularity, et cetera; whatever one feels to be important. And whether they choose to refer to multiple scholars for different issues or place their trust in just one scholar for all of them, either way is permissible, but certain factors should be kept in mind.
Firstly, for those who refer to multiple scholars, it is important to be aware that they may learn of different answers from different scholars to a single question and it can be very tempting to switch between them for purely selfish reasons. This is prohibited. As soon as someone acts on a particular answer from a scholar they trust in the most, it is necessary to adhere to it going forward and one cannot switch to a different opinion without genuine need (as defined by the shar’iah, such as to save one’s life or avoid significantly damaging their health, et cetera) or a change in circumstances.
For example, scholar 1 may permit consuming food X, whilst scholar 2 (who may be from the same madhab as scholar 1 or otherwise) may not. If a layman opts to follow scholar 2 here (due to having greater trust in him or her), they must stick to this view thereafter, unless there is a genuine shar’i need to contravene it or a change in the original circumstances surrounding the question posed. So if this layman is now presented with food X at say a party and feels awkward in refusing, they cannot switch to scholar 1’s opinion and deem it permissible to consume for convenience. This would not count as a genuine need in the shari’ah and would be to subject Islamic laws to one’s desires, rather than the opposite.
Secondly, if a scholar makes a mistake, it is not cause to abandon or think low of them, and it certainly is not the place of any layman to criticise them. Scholars are human and can make errors no matter how senior they may be, but as long as they are not overly numerous or serious (which is indicative of incompetence and deviation, respectively), one’s referring to them should be maintained. How can a scholar's having erred be determined? Generally, if they withdraw their verdict, admit to it, or are corrected by other scholars and upon being informed, they accept the correction or remain silent. Contrarily, if a scholar disagrees with or defends themselves against corrections, then one should continue to follow that scholar provided one’s confidence in them is maintained. Otherwise, they should just switch to another scholar without criticising the first.
However, a scholar’s defending their position would not be tolerated if by it they commit major errors that are cause for deviation (something every Muslim should be able to discern given their obvious nature – see here for more). For example, if they abuse their status or position of trust, support tyranny and justify clear government oppression, openly commit major sins, refuse to retract their view despite not being able to defend their position, deny or interpret the beliefs and practices of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’at in a false way, et cetera. Unfortunately, there are a growing number of scholars who fall into this category, amongst which are the likes of Shaykh Imran Hussain and Mufti Abu Layth (Nahiem Ajmal). One must however, get as much clarification as possible from scholars whom one suspects of deviancy first and then preferably refer to reliable scholars for advice and guidance about their views and actions before writing them off.
Sometimes they may pass verdicts or comment in ignorance, particularly when it comes to social, political, scientific, technological, or philosophical, or other secular issues. Based on what was stated earlier, Islamic scholars are not experts in these areas by default and their verdicts and comments here should only be taken seriously if they are adequately qualified. Similarly, if they are not addressing contemporary challenges in an objectively satisfactory manner or at all (in whatever capacity this may be, whether as imams, academics, teachers, et cetera) despite having the necessary support structures in place (see below), or act aloof and arrogant, or are unapproachable, they should be held to account, since these violate integral parts of their role.
Judgements in such cases are also made by what is apparent, not by what may be a person’s intentions. So a scholar may be committing or preaching a major wrong due to coercion or a genuine need, but because accepting that wrong from them (on the presumption that they may have a valid excuse) has greater negative societal effects than the individual harm caused to that scholar from being refuted, societal well-being must be given preference and the scholar’s being wrong recognised. If the scholar truly has a genuine excuse, this will be a test for them from God and they will receive their reward in sha Allah.
Thirdly, a more contemporary issue arises from globalisation and the fast international communication made possible over the last several decades, namely the public in one country referring to and following scholars of a different country, such as those in the UK following scholars from the Subcontinent, Saudi Arabia or the USA. As long as a country has its own qualified and trustworthy scholars, referring to foreign scholars on domestic matters that are specific to one’s country (not general issues) is forbidden. The scholars of your locality and country are far better placed to guide you correctly than external scholars, as they will know the conditions of your locality and country, whilst the foreign scholar will not.
Another very recent phenomenon is the ‘celebrity shaykh’ culture. How exactly this is defined is somewhat unclear, but from a public perspective, a couple qualities can be associated with it. Firstly, people following certain scholars because they may be entertaining and secondly, people following certain scholars simply because they are popular whilst knowing little to nothing about their credentials and achievements. With the former, as long as ‘celebrity shaykhs’ are actually scholars; their entertaining does not dominate or undermine their preaching and teaching; and their audiences trust in (as described above), learn and take away something of substance from them, I do not see an inherent problem with it. Others may prefer a more serious style or a more academic style. These are just personal preferences that can vary between individuals and with time and place, and there is nothing wrong with any of them provided scholars deliver a quality service and their audiences religiously benefit. The second aspect of the celebrity shaykh culture however is a serious issue and is exactly the kind of thing this article aims to address. It is imperative that the credentials of those whom we refer to for Islamic information are known and appropriate before taking them as religious guides.
Addressing Public Grievances with Scholars
To many in the public, scholars are perceived as disconnected from the experiences of ordinary Muslims and reactionary at best when it comes to responding to modern challenges, if ever they do that is. Often not practicing what they preach, they are more concerned with status and filling their stomachs than solving the ummah’s problems and are not of much benefit beyond leading prayers, teaching children the basics of religion, and conducting religious ceremonies. Though these kinds of sentiments are not uncommon nor entirely without justification, it would be unfair to characterise the generality of scholars this way. In any case, clearly there are certain tensions that need to be addressed.
A significant contributing factor to the public’s grievances with scholars is that for the greater period of their formative years, the majority of scholars were isolated from wider society in full-time boarding madrasahs. During this time, they were in a largely protected and very specific Islamic environment, and not properly aware of conditions beyond their small world. So the culture shock that results when they eventually return to wider society is often difficult to manage and takes time to adjust to, let alone then familiarise themselves with societal challenges, and then develop and implement solutions. A little public empathy, patience, and where possible support therefore, at least for newer graduates, can go a long way.
Further problems arise with scholars’ employment conditions and annual salaries being far below national standards (at least in the UK), despite the wide range and intense tasks they (and in particular imams) undertake. Scholars are people too and have families, responsibilities, and living costs just like everyone else, but their meagre annual salaries fall far short of being able to cater for these needs. As such, most cannot fully devote themselves to their religious research, work and duties, as they are too busy seeking livelihood elsewhere.
The reality is that if the public want to see the results they desire, they need to be prepared to service their scholars well as imams, teachers, researchers, et cetera. just as they would wish for themselves. Only then will scholars be able to dedicate themselves to actually being scholars and not be distracted by seeking other professions to meet living costs. There certainly are very talented and capable scholars out there and they just need to be given the resources to demonstrate their abilities and take the ummah forward.
Additionally, as mentioned earlier, scholars, and in particular imams are expected to provide guidance and advice and on a variety of secular areas, such as business, politics, science and technology, sports, culture, and more. But the mosques and institutions they may work for often do not provide or fund any formal training in this regard. Even in teaching maktab, there are no formal courses and qualifications needed and teachers usually just learn regulations and develop teaching skills, to whatever extent they may, on the job. Is it then any wonder that some maktabs are inadequate and children do not learn well enough or enjoy attending (which then negatively affects their religiosity and perceptions of scholars and Islam for the remainder of their lives)?
At a communal and international level, if scholars are unable to provide guidance on some of the inter-disciplinary, modern, and difficult issues facing the ummah (though to their credit they sometimes do) or are silent, they get all sorts of accusations thrown at them, from the typical 'ignorant Mullas/Molvis' slurs to being apolitical wimps and disconnected from real life affairs, et cetera. True as this may be at times, it is also very easy to shift responsibilities on to scholars and absolve oneself from doing anything, as is often the case.
Finding solutions to many of these problems is on Muslims as a whole, not just the scholars. Yes, scholars should be able to provide guidance on the shari'ah aspects of these matters as discussed earlier, but in and of themselves, these difficulties are the duty of the entire Muslim community to resolve collectively and every individual can make a contribution in their own capacities. So Muslim scientists, economists, political theorists, historians, environmentalists, et cetera, all need to play their part and they are just as culpable as scholars for failing in this regard. My philosophy is to make things as easy as possible for the public, but there is no escaping that they too have responsibilities towards Islam, and cannot just shift it all on scholars to deal with.
This being said, there are still many scholars who do make the sacrifices as good imams, teachers, researchers, et cetera, sacrifices that most of the Muslim public would not be prepared to make themselves. Scholars who are very knowledgeable of and experienced with current issues, and who are making a difference. Of course, some also fit the public’s stereotype mentioned, but bad apples exist in every group and those that are deliberately failing in their role and remit ought to be interacted with by the public in the manner described above.
In understanding Islamic scholarship and its dynamics, we have covered a wide range of topics and discussed many points that if borne in mind, will in sha Allah help Muslims correctly navigate some of its confusing developments in the contemporary world, not least on the internet and social media.
The main points to take away are that the public should recognise and remain within their specified remit when discussing Islamic topics, know the credentials of whom they take their Islamic learning from are sufficient (which should safeguard them from the unqualified and pseudo scholars), know the role and boundaries of scholars and set expectations accordingly, and interact with scholars with some common sense and at times patience too (which will address a large variety of confusions and contentions). But this article being of the few attempts to explore this discussion, especially in English, it can only be a starting point to progress from.
 See for instance Ibn Abideen in Sharh Uqood Rasm al-Mufti quoting from Ibn Humaam saying the public may follow any scholar whose knowledge and piety they trust.
 Such as Al-Suyuti in Al-Itqaan and Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi in his Fataawa.
 Though there are different types of ijaazahs, the term is employed only in this sense in this article.
 Refer to Ibn Abideen’s Sharh Uqood Rasm al-Mufti, who quotes from Ibn Hajar and Al-Nawawi stating that it is not permissible for someone who does not have a shaykh (teacher) to issue religious edicts.
 Such as Shaykh Al-Albani.
 This is evidenced by the fact that it is quite normal for non-Muslim lecturers and professors of Islamic studies to have dedicated their entire careers to researching and writing on Islam with great enthusiasm and admiration for the religion, but having no interest in actually becoming Muslim. It is in other words, just a career path or area of interest for them and nothing more.
 Ijaazah, trustworthiness, and Sunnism.
 By checking they meet the three criteria for scholarship stated earlier or other indications, such as their teaching at traditional institutions, membership to scholarly organisations, or being acknowledged as qualified and worthy by other scholars.