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 Scholars, Laypeople and Islam’s Message

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Obedient Angel

Join date : 2011-04-30
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PostSubject: Scholars, Laypeople and Islam’s Message   Scholars, Laypeople and Islam’s Message Icon_minitimeMon Oct 07, 2013 5:29 pm

People need religious scholars to guide them in matters relating to Islamic teachings. Likewise, the scholars need other people for everything else. The gulf that exists in society between religious scholars and the general public varies depending on the social norms which govern that relationship and the way in which religious scholars are perceived in the social milieu. Nevertheless, there are certain general points to consider.

First, Allah says: “Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge; surely the hearing and the sight and the heart, all of these, shall be questioned about that.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’: 36]

A person who does not know about something should not act as if he or she does, even if that person is highly educated and specialized in some other branch of knowledge. Being qualified in one field does not make a person capable of pursuing research in every other field. It is related that Prophet Muhammad said: “From the excellence of a person’s religion is to leave off what does not concern him.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī (2317)]

In matters of Islamic Law, especially those that pertain to new and unprecedented issues, long study and practical experience are needed. Scholars must be able to order to understand how various opinions have been arrived at and what distinguishes them from one another, and the must be conversant with the legal rationales and conditions underlying various rulings. This depth of knowledge does not come quickly or easily.

Of course, all Muslims need to possess religious knowledge. They need to know what is required of them to live according to the dictates of their faith in their daily lives. As for the broader scope of Islamic legal questions, especially those wherein public policy are at stake, this is the domain of specialists. Like any other specialisation, years of study and devotion are required to gain master in the field. The Muslim society’s need for specialised religious scholars and jurists is no different than its need for doctors, administrators, media specialists, and members of all other vocations.

There are religious questions which are clear to everyone. There are matters of Islamic Law where the various scholarly opinions are well-known, easy to discern, and where the evidence for everyone’s argument is obvious. The simplicity and familiarity of these matters to the majority of Muslims should be confused with the difficult questions that Islamic scholars have to wrestle with while engaging with the Islamic legal dimensions of today’s pressing issues, issues which can seriously affect the lives of many people and even the policies of countries. These matters need to be approached carefully and be given the long, nuanced consideration that they deserve at the hands of people who possess the requisite knowledge.

It is a trust and a tremendous public responsibility to speak about such matters. Those who do so must not only be religious, but knowledgeable as well. Their being religious ensures that they will avoid injustice and respect those who differ. Being knowledgeable ensures they will not say something in ignorance. Allah warns us about our tendency to take on trusts we are not ready to assume: “We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but humanity undertook it;- They were indeed unjust and foolish.” [Sūrah al-Ahzāb: 72]

It is not enough to be honest and sincere, though these qualities are indispensable. The people who engage in such matter must possess the knowledge needed to ensure they do not speak something contrary to the teachings of Islam. This is why Allah says: “When there comes to them some matter touching public safety or fear, they spread it abroad; and if they had referred it to the Messenger and to those in authority among them, those among them who are able to think out the matter would have known it.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 83]

In his seminal work on jurisprudence, al-Risālah, al-Shāfi`ī comments on this, saying:
This is a degree of knowledge which the general public does not possess. It is not even required of all specialists. As for those specialists who can attain it it, it is their collective duty that at least some of them to acquire it. As long as a sufficient number of people do so, then others are not blameworthy for not doing so, but those who acquire it have a distinction over those who neglect it.
`Umar, the illustrious Caliph, once lamented: “I wish that there weren’t so many people involved in this field.” Ibn `Abbās asked him why he felt that way. He replied: “I fear that they will debate it endlessly.”

`Umar was right. Most of the contentious disputes and bitter arguments people have result from everyone thinking they possess the best grasp on the truth on account of whatever little knowledge they have managed to acquire, which they fancy makes them experts in a field when they are really in way over their heads.

Another point to consider is that even when someone adopts an opinion on the basis of sound evidence, it is wrong to think that this is the one correct ruling in accordance with the Qur’an and Sunnah or that it is the only true representation of how the Pious Predecessors thought on the issue.

Someone who chooses an opinion at variance with the view of al-Shāfi`ī, for instance, should pay heed to the fact that al-Shāfi`ī favoured the view he held on the basis of the Qur’an and Sunnah as well. The same goes for Mālik, Abū Hanīfah, and Ahmad. Therefore, it shows a lack of legal understanding to say that the specific opinion you might personally favour is the inevitable consequence of following the Qur’an and Sunnah. It is actually rather conceited.

You are fully within your rights to hold the opinion you do, based on the evidence you understand from the sacred texts. However, that is still your personal understanding, and you may have overlooked something in your reasoning, or failed to see some other angle to the question due to your own inherent biases.

There is a big difference between engaging in research to determine for yourself what the best opinion is on a question, and doing so to accuse others of wrongdoing for coming to different conclusions. It is wrong to insinuate that they are not following the Qur’an and Sunnah, or that they are not giving the sacred texts the respect that they are due. Beware of ostentation and pride.

The Prophet said: “No one will enter Paradise who has an atom’s weight of pride in their heart.”

A man said to him: “Some of us like to have beautiful clothes and nice shoes.”

The Prophet replied: “Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty. Pride is to disregard the truth and hold people in contempt.” [Sahīh Muslim (91)]

It is wrong to assume that a scholar deliberately ignored evidence of disregarded Islamic teachings. It might be that the scholar was unaware of the evidence in question or other evidence seemed more compelling, or the circumstances warranted a particular application of the evidence at hand. Moreover, it may be that the scholar possessed knowledge that those who disagree are unaware of.

When I disagree with a scholar, I find it best to say: “That scholar may be the one who is right. He or she may have seen evidence I do not know about, but I am responsible to my Lord to act upon what my own knowledge dictates.” This is because Allah says: “Allah burdens no soul beyond the extent of its abilities.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 286]

Every scholar has opinions that are unique, that are not shared by others. This was the case for the Companions, the leading jurists who founded the legal schools, their students, and other jurists up to the present day. Being alone in an opinion does not mean that opinion is wrong. Sometimes the passage of time and changing circumstances reveal that scholars opinion to be the right one. What was once a rare point of view becomes the one advocated by the majority. There have been many cases like this, which those who research the development of legal opinion find quite often.

This is why it is important not to blame scholars for the opinions they hold. We must assume the best about them, especially is they are of proven knowledge and sound reputation. We should behave toward their opinions at least as well as we would like people to behave towards ours.

However, the mere fact that there is scholarly disagreement on a matter does not give someone license to pick and choose on a whim. There is some level of disagreement in almost all questions of Islamic Law, and the mere existence of a second opinion is not evidence that all opinions are equally acceptable. The only case where someone is free to choose between two opinions is when the evidence and arguments for both of them are equally compelling.

Otherwise, there must be a justification for favouring one opinion over the other. This justification might be a verse of Qur’an, a hadith, or a principle of jurisprudence. In some cases, it might be that it best realises the general welfare of the people. Sometimes, in the absence of other reasons, the fact that it is the view of the majority of scholars holds a lot of weight. This is especially the case where some scholars argue that a certain view is a matter of scholarly consensus. Even if this proves not to be the case, the overwhelmingly strong agreement about a particular ruling is a valid reason to consider it more favourably.

There are people who like to shop among scholarly opinions, choosing whatever suits their fancy. This is wrong, because Islamic teaching are at stake, teachings that are based ultimately on revelation from Allah, and they are not to be subjected to personal desires.

This is why Allah says to His Messenger: “And now We have set you (O Muhammad) on a clear road of (Our) commandment; so follow it, and do not follow the whims of those who have no knowledge.” [Sūrah al-Jāthiyah: 18]

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