In Islam, there is great reverence for many people of accomplishment. Respect is reserved for those who have become parents, elders, the virtuous and of course, the knowledgeable. However, in this day and age, the Muslim world suffers a misunderstanding of the types of knowledge people have. Islamic scholars are labelled generally as ‘people of knowledge’, but this only seems to confuse some who think that these individuals are cognisant of all types of knowledge.
Islamic Scholars, then become consulted for their opinion on every issue or matter, even matters that are far beyond their expertise in Islamic jurisprudence. This would not be so much of a problem in the classical Islamic period, when many Islamic scholars were polymaths, who mastered physics, mathematics, chemistry, sociology, psychology, politics as well as jurisprudence. However in today’s world the Ummah’s (global Muslim community) intellectual malaise produces notably far less number of polymaths than before. Some have even argued that the quality of scholarship is but a fraction of what it was in the past. Of course, this can partly be explained by the fact that due to the absence of an Ideological Islamic government, jurisprudence is currently only an abstract and academic endeavour that seldom is used for practical matters. As the saying goes, a cooking knife never used, is a cooking knife never sharpened.
However, Muslims generally suffer from a more particular problem. Charismatic or well publicised individuals identified as Islamic Scholars, are given celebrity status to such a degree, that their opinions are disproportionately given weight on matters ranging from geopolitics, psychology, sociology and even science! Now before this gets misunderstood, let me explain.
It is ok for people to have an opinion on any topic, however, if they are not specialised in that topic – or worse – they form an opinion based upon shallow or cursory reading – their opinion should not be considered anymore weighty or authoritative than the common man who (in this age of the internet and newspapers) has equal access to the same source materials.
Obviously, an Islamic scholar is allowed to have opinions on matters outside their expertise. But what must be kept in mind, is that that opinion has no greater weight than anyone else’s. An Islamic scholar’s knowledge of jurisprudence cannot help them to know the geo-political games between global powers, the motivations of a government or terror group (even if these organisations use religious slogans). An Islamic Scholar’s knowledge of fiqh or ilm ul hadith wouldn’t help them to understand international conflicts, economic recessions, the psychology of criminals, the details of quantum mechanics or civil engineering. In fact, many modern scholars who’ve spent a life only focusing on studying jurisprudence might be more ignorant on a matter than well read laymen! Therefore, to take the opinion of an Islamic scholar as authoritative in things, such as those mentioned, that are outside their expertise, could cause more misunderstanding in the public.
In the West, this would be the equivalent of getting a court judge, lawyer or ethicist (philosopher of practical morality) to provide analysis on Chinese energy development strategy for a low-carbon economy!
Political Analysis and Reality
To take an example, many scholars talk about modern day militant groups in the Muslim world without fully understanding the motivations, politics or sociological reality that cause these phenomena. Because these scholars study jurisprudence, they see the world only through the lens of law. So when they see a militant group composed of Muslims, who cynically attempt to attract support by claiming to the public that they are fighting for justice/Islam, these scholars mistakenly believe that such groups arose from a jurisprudence or interpretation.
The reality of course is not the case, and not a mystery to a historian or political analyst, who have studied case after case of militant groups in all different cultures. They know that militant groups arise due to certain socio-political circumstances that are unfortunately very predictable. Before the Iraq war,the UK intelligence service Mi6 were predicting that the war would cause an unprecedented surge in global terrorism, with internal instability and internecine warfare.
Mi6 are not Islamic jurisprudents, but they know politics, and they also know that whatever culture a terror group comes from, the group will always attempt to justify itself from its own culture and values, even if it means twisting them. The cause is the infernal fallibility of human nature. No one wakes up in the morning and says to themselves “I shall do evil for evil’s sake”, everyone fools themselves and others with ‘justifications’ for their desires. Even Iblis (The Devil as described in the Quran) believes his work corrupting mankind is to prove what he feels is a justified point – that we should never have been made, nor are we worthy of any his respect. It would be absurd to argue that Iblis rebelled against God’s command to humble himself because he merely follows an erroneous interpretation or school of thought (madhab)!
The Danger of the Everything-Happens-Due-to-Islamic-Legal-Interpretations Argument
When Scholars publicly argue that terror groups arise from bad interpretations of Islam, they inadvertently aid those Western Secularisers who make the same argument in order to demonise Islamic law and get people to ‘reform’ the parts that contradict with secularism.
It’s constantly dismaying to hear some people say this sect or that sect’s interpretations cause violence, or that one thinker or founder of this or that sect brought something into the religion that causes all the violence we see. This kind of specious argument is not new, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Manuel II Paleologus attempted to distance Abrahamic religions from Islam and allegedly blamed the militancy of Muslims, on Muhammed (saaw): “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. Of course Muhammed (saaw) never taught to spread Islam with the sword, if you look at Muhammed’s (saaw) teachings, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything that isn’t also commanded or approved of in the Tanakh or the Gospels (i.e. Bible). However the great irony here is, the Eastern Romans had a long history of conquest, violence and forced conversions of pagans to Christianity. But when the Christian emperor is suddenly on the receiving end of wars, he holds up his hands and claims to be a victim.
Which sect of Islam doesn’t believe in the Hudood or the legal definition of the Islamic concept of Jihad? Which sect (other than a subsect of the Khawarij that once debated Ali (ra)) rejects the Islamic concept of the Caliphate? Heck, the two biggest sects of Islam exist primarily over the question of simply who should be the Caliph. What madhab was Mohammed Ahmed ‘Al Mahdi’ following when he declared takfir against all Ottomans and ordered that they should be killed? What madhab was Saddam Hussein and his Baathist brother Bashar al Assad following when they massacred their own people? What madhab was the killer of Salman Taseer? What Madhab were those in Pakistan who demanded that those who criticise celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed (saw), are committing blasphemy (and got a father and son arrested)? What Madhab did Sisi follow when he obtained a fatwa to kill peaceful protestors? What Madhab is Hezbollah following in Syria? What Madhab is the sectarian and oppressive current Iraqi regime following? What madhab did Ben Ali follow when he sternly oppressed religiosity in Tunisia?
Answer: not any that came from 18th century Arabia (i.e. ‘Wahhabis’)
Of course, while Muslims are distracted looking at each other and accusing each other for the death and destruction in the Muslim world, people tend to forget to ask which madhab is followed by the U.S, Israeli, Russian and British militaries, and their allies amongst the Middle Eastern regimes, who have enacted a long history of military operations, drones, rendition, torture and chemical weapons usage (e.g. phosphorus) which have killed thousands more Muslims than all the militant groups in the Muslim world combined. It seems violence only becomes egregious in the Muslim world, if the people doing it are perceived to be following a particular madhab.
However, if one were to look at all the cases of violence, torture, oppression, intolerance and backwardness that occurs in the Muslim world, you would find not one sect’s followers that have been blameless of it – even (and especially) the Secularists – who don’t even follow a sect within Islam.
The Khawarij (a notorious 8th century rebel group that killed their opponents without mercy) too were not the result of an interpretation of Islam. Their group pre-existed their later divergent theological opinions (which they later developed to justify their desires, not the other way round).
The Khawarij’s mentality is better explained by other more obvious explanations. They were composed mostly by 7th century bedouins of Arabia who disliked central authority and were impetuous, characterised by extreme temperament, were fiercely independent and therefore were prone to believe in their own self-righteousness.
More importantly, you won’t find any Hadith predictions about the Khawarij where the doctrines were condemned rather than their actions. We hear descriptions of them like “They call to the truth, but they are not its people” and “Their speech will be that of the best of creation…They will recite the Qur’an but it shall not go beyond their throats”. The ideas and principles this group called to were not described in the hadith as the problem, but it was their actions and behaviour that were wrong, in this case specifically, their killing of Muslims and their ignoring of the real enemies of the Ummah at that time. Arguably, that last part sounds like most Muslim governments today.
Intriguingly, the doctrines of the original Khawarij STILL live on today in the Muslim world – the government of Oman is dominated by their descendants, called the Ibadiyya, who still technically consider all non-Ibadis to be ‘Kuffar nima’ (ungrateful disbelievers). However, despite this takfir (excommunication), Ibadis are generally tolerant of other sects – which means that ‘Takfeerism causes violence theory’ can not longer be used as an explanation for violence.
Ironically, Oman has been described as one of the most tolerant and politically neutral governments in the Muslim world. One might even say that the Muslim world today has descended to the point that the people acting least like the Khawarij now, are the (descendants of the original) Khawarij!
Therefore, Islamic Scholars need to stop bringing in the argument that ‘interpretations of Islam’, are the cause of all problems, and leave political analysis, sociology and criminology to those who specialise in those fields. No one would take an English court judge seriously, if he/she suggested that people steal or murder because they just misinterpret English law! Likewise Muslims must view similar pronouncements from Islamic scholars in the same way.
Categorising Specialist Knowledge and Specialist Experts
In conclusion, Muslims need to categorise knowledge better and categorise the knowledgeable better. An Islamic scholar’s opinion on anything outside Islamic jurisprudence is not different to anyone else’s opinion.
The place for Islamic scholars is to explain aspects of Islam that require expertise and issue opinions and Islamic rulings on ethical conduct in various situations. Islamic scholars in positions of authority in an Islamic government (when it is established), will have a role making judgments in state courts, and deriving laws that will be enacted by the state. Only Islamic Scholars (with the requisite expertise) can perform these vital roles in Muslim society.
Even with scholars given respect, authority and consulted appropriately within their expertise, Muslims still ultimately have the obligation to demand evidence and demonstrated reasoning for everything anyone says.
Even if the Ummah learned to differentiate between people of different specialisms, the requirement for seeking evidence for the knowledge being taught doesn’t cease for the Muslim layperson, whether it be legal opinions from scholars, or opinions on non-juqrisprudencial matters from laymen (like the one who wrote this post). This ensures that everyone must account for what they say, and be taken on the strength of their argument.
The day Muslims put reasoned arguments and evidence as their authority, is the day Muslims become ruled by reason and evidence.