Differentiating Between a Scholar of Islam and a Muslim Scholar
Often today we are faced with ‘Scholars of Islam’ from the West, who are not Muslim, doing original research into Islam and Islamic theology, history and the Qur’an itself. Then they publish their conclusions and are applauded for their approach. We on the other hand seem to be caught up in our traditional methods of teaching and learning which are primarily focused on preservation of knowledge and not necessarily in its understanding, interpretation, application or contextualization for the modern world.
We treat all that comes under the banner of Islamic knowledge, be it history, biography, legal interpretation or even the sayings of our Salaf in the same way as we treat the Qur’an – as being above any critical analysis. This is a big mistake that prevents us from making Islam applicable to the modern mind and world. There are things in our theology that are sacred and not open to criticism or change. But there are other things which are not sacred and must be critically analyzed and lessons derived from them which are applicable to the times in which they are being studied.
For example, to understand some of the statements of Imam Ghazali with respect to the Khilaafa and how the absence of a Khalifa and a Muslim government affects each individual, one needs to study his comments in the context of the times he made the comment in and then the lessons from that must be derived and application methods suggested. Simply memorizing Ihya Uloom-ud-Deen would be a meaningless exercise.
The same example can be applied to the books of other scholars. It is necessary to critically analyze them and learn from them, not merely repeat what they said and call it learning or knowledge. If mere preserving is the purpose then today technology can do if far more reliably and permanently than any human mind. I believe that the purpose of studying Islamic knowledge, however, is not merely passive preservation but understanding, wisdom, application and propagation.
It is true, therefore, that our current methodology of teaching needs major overhaul and needs to be focused much more on application and for this Western models of research and critical analysis have much to offer. Original research, argument, counter argument, what-if reasoning, logic (we used to teach this – Mantiq – but that too has become divorced from reality today), acceptance of difference of opinion and so on. We must learn from them and use their methods where they will help us.
However, I must differentiate between Islamic knowledge and other branches of knowledge.
When we talk about Islam and Islamic Studies (what a euphemistic term it is) we must never forget its purpose. Islamic Studies is the result of the knowledge of the Revelation. Its purpose is to connect the student with the One who sent that Revelation and to produce its effect in the individual. Allah describes this in the famous Ayat:
“Had We sent down this Qur’an on a mountain, you would surely have seen it humbling itself and rending asunder by the fear of Allah. Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect.”
Knowledge of Islam must produce an effect. And that effect is the Khashiya of Allah. Allah quoted an example and said in effect that if the knowledge of Islam (Qur’an) had been given to a mountain, it would have humbled itself and crumbled to dust with the Khashiya of Allah. If the mountain remained standing it would indicate that the Qur’an was simply sitting on it – and had not been understood and internalized. Allah called this fear of Allah a sign of knowledge. It is the essence, the result and the purpose of all knowledge. Knowledge that takes you away from Allah is misguidance. He said (Fatir 35:28):
“It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah.”
Wael Hallaq of McGill who is a Christian Scholar of Islam, writes extensively on Islamic law. Sometimes we are asked, ‘Do you say that Wael Hallaq has nothing to contribute because he is Christian?’ I ask you what a man who can’t differentiate between Allah and his creature can have to contribute to us about Islamic law. I ask you what someone who considers Jesus to be God or the son of God; someone who does not have the sense to distinguish the Divine from the mortal, who does not have the discrimination to ask himself these questions can have to contribute to us? I ask you what the use of all his knowledge of Islam will be to him if he dies on his present Aqeeda? How will all the Qur’an and Ahadith that he knows help him if he dies believing that Jesus is the son of God?
What does he do when he reads (Al Kahf 18: 4-5):
“And to warn those (Jews, Christians, and pagans) who say, ‘Allah has begotten a son (or offspring or children).’ No knowledge have they of such a thing, nor had their fathers. Mighty is the word that comes out of their mouth . They utter nothing but a lie.”
I agree that the students who learn by rote and are unwilling to critically analyze the writings of this or that classical scholar are a bit narrow-minded and this approach is not helpful. However let us not lose sight of the fact that even with their narrow mindedness they will stand before Allah on the Day of Judgment and be sent to Jannah (Insha’Allah) whereas our friend Wael Hallaq, if he dies as a Christian – despite his broadmindedness and willingness to criticize anyone – will be sent into the Hellfire.
So in my view there is a very big difference between someone who knows about Islam and someone who knows Islam. I call the first one a Scholar of Islam and the second one a Muslim Scholar. One would presumably know all the Arkaan, Sunan and Mustahabaat of Salah but would worship Jesus or be an atheist or a Progressive, while the second one establishes Salah. One knows about it. The other knows it. Knowing about is different from Knowing. Knowing about Wisaal is not the same as Wasl, is it? Knowing about Gulab Jamoon is not the same as eating a Gulab Jamoon, is it? What is the good of looking at Mona Lisa through a microscope? You will be able to see every brush stroke but never the smile. What is the Mona Lisa if not the smile?
Ta’al-Allahul Amthaal – how can knowing about Allah be the same as knowing Allah. That is why when Rasoolullah (SAS) was asked about Al-Ihsan he did not say, ‘Having a PhD in Islamic Studies.’
The biggest problem with the Western approach to Islam is that they study Islam like they study any other religion. They study the Qur’an as they study any other book. And there lies the problem.
Islam is unique. The Qur’an can’t be read like any other book because its author is not like any other author. The Qur’an came to be listened to, read, understood and obeyed. It did not come to be read, critiqued and put aside. Those who do that – how can we call them ‘scholars of the Qur’an’ when they have not even understood the most basic of principle of the Revelation: that it is meant to shake the foundations of your being and open your eyes to your Rabb. If all their reading and critical analysis doesn’t open their eyes to the majesty of their Rabb how good is that analysis?
That is what I mean by the difference between a Scholar of Islam and a Muslim Scholar. Without the Ta’alluq Ma’a Allah there is no Islam, no matter how much data you have accumulated in your mind – your heart is vacant and barren and dark – without the Noor of the love of Allah.
A man dead and a man asleep look the same. Except that one is alive and the other isn’t. Big difference, no?
As one tradition reports:
“Wrote Omar ibn Al Khattab may Allah be pleased with him, to Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, may Allah have mercy on him: ‘The FIQH is not a heavy narrative and broad SPEECH and NARRATION, but FIQH IS the fear of ALLAH Azza wa Jalla.'”
Indeed, we can and should benefit from the research methodology of these people but must never allow ourselves to become overawed by them and their scholarship. As Rasoolullah (S) said in one case – ‘Allah sometimes uses the Faasiqh to do His work.’
That doesn’t change the nature of the Faasiqh or his ending. This relates to the incident of the man who fought very well on the side of the Muslims in Uhud but who in the evening committed suicide. And this is also good for the student of Islam to remember because sometimes we get so engrossed in our study and argument and counter argument that our hearts harden and become immune to the effect of the Qur’an. We get so lost in the Usool that we get disconnected with the Asl.
We get so caught up in authentication of Ahadith that we lose the power of the realization that this was God speaking to man – something that will never happen again. I am a great believer in the fact that the essential difference between Islamic knowledge and any other knowledge is this Isteh-zaar of the Ilm – a feeling for what we are studying or know.
The closest example of this that I can give is the difference when a student of aeronautical engineering reads about flight and that it is the flow of air over the aerofoil section of the wing which produces lift, it is nothing more than theory; perhaps interesting in an intellectual sort of way but not much else. Then he trains to be a pilot and on his first ever flight, as his little plane lifts off the ground, the feeling in the pit of his stomach etches the principles of flight into his mind with a welding torch. Same theory, big difference in application.
That is why Allah mentioned the standing in the night as the best time to understand the Qur’an. He said (Muzzammil 73:6):
“Verily, the rising by night (for Tahajjud prayer) is very hard and most potent and good for governing (the soul), and most suitable for (understanding) the Word (of Allah).”
The one who studies the Qur’an like any other book and has never tasted the pleasure of standing before His Rabb and reciting His Kalaam to Him can never understand the Qur’an in the way in which it was meant to be understood, no matter how much analysis he may do.
I fully accept the points about analyzing our history and learning lessons from it. Our current cherry-picking method of teaching it does not help at all. We skirt around all the prickly issues which is where all the learning really is and so we are condemned to repeat the experiences over and over. We must certainly change much in the way we teach and learn and research. No doubt about that. So we take what is useful but we don’t mistake it for scholarship in the way it is meant when we speak of Muslim scholars.