An often quoted sentiment is that the flesh of scholars is poisonous, an expression meant to dissuade the laity from making uninformed and unjustified accusations against the learned and righteous. However, what we mustn’t be is partisan to the idea that all those learned of the shari’ah are inexorably righteous; there are in fact various prophetic traditions that reveal the existence of a priestly lot who use their knowledge to spread corruption and misrepresentations, largely for personal gain. Often, certain characteristics such as arrogance, belligerence, the occasional uncouth outburst, and notably in the modern age, a distinct relationship with despotic rulers, tend to be revealed.
It is these sorts that the revered Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali school of law, opined as being wasikh, literally translated as grime or filth. The Hanbali jurist and traditionalist, Ibn Muflih, wrote in his opus al-Adab al-Shar’iyyah:
Imam Ahmad would neither frequent the caliphs, leaders, nor the governors, and would refrain from correspondence, completely prohibiting his companions from doing so too. A group (of his companions) has reported this from him and his articulations on the topic are notorious. Muhanna said: “I asked Ahmad about Ibrahim ibn al-Harawi, he said that he is filth! I asked: what do you mean by filth? He said: whoever panders to leaders and judges are filth.” So too opined a group of early Muslims, their statements are well known, such as Suwaid b. Ghaflah, Tawus, al-Nakha’i, and Abu Hazim.
So what are we to make of the likes of scholars such as Dr Ali Gomaa, courted in the UK by self-declared ‘progressive’ organisations? The former mufti of Egypt has been utterly clear in his reproach of democracy in Egypt, and has sided with both the military junta and the illegitimate removal of an elected leader. In fact, he has repeatedly justified the killing of unarmed protestors, even legitimising the killing of an entire group of unarmed people because of the actions of one individual. Should such opinions be a surprise? Well actually not really. Besides Dr. Gomaa’s boorish mannerisms and frequent sectarian outbursts against anyone who refuses to espouse secular sufism, the fact that he was a staunch ally of the former Egyptian despot, Hosni Mubarak, who appointed him as mufti speaks volumes. In the same way that he has spoken of peace and brotherhood abroad whilst hypocritically legitimising oppression by Arab leaders, Dr. Gomaa has spent the last two months singing jingoistic praises of the Egyptian army and its leaders, notably el-Sisi. In one televised interview he claimed that the widely respected Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi had Alzheimer’s because he opined, with it being quite self evident I might add, the superiority of the Israeli army to the Egyptians (made up largely of the illiterate and uneducated).
Of course, to be fair, Dr. Gomaa hasn’t been the only friend to tyranny; many of the salafist scholars of Alexandria (in the form of the Noor Party) also sided with the military regime, and backed by the Saudi regime continue to do so. The head of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, rather unsurprisingly backed the removal of Mohammed Morsi, having formerly been a member of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Even beyond the Egyptian affair, the Syrian scholar Dr. Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Buti sided, as had been his constant practice, with the Assad regime against the Free Syrian army and other rebels. More recently, Dr. Abdur Rahman al-Sudais the Imam of the Holy Mosque in Makkah expressed with his characteristic eloquence, the criminal nature of peaceful Egyptian protestors, and like Gomaa, sang praises for the Egyptian regime in line with the Saudi establishment’s position.
Now a fine line has to be tread, and in no way am I suggesting that the laity run wild with accusations against scholars, the irrational methods of reasoning employed by most people demands silence and reservation over disparagement. Foolishly, some negate an individual’s scholastic ability because he adorns western clothing, others because his beard isn’t long enough. Some believe there are no scholars, anywhere for that matter, and some act as if a working knowledge of Arabic or some claim of succession, such as a ‘golden chain’ qualifies a person to issue legal verdicts. In the era of little learning and much opinion, to offer license to attack those who represent the truth sent from God would be extremely injudicious. Likewise, we must also be intelligent when ascertaining exactly who it is that sincerely represents that truth, not offering the mantle to anyone that happens to come along, or, meets our arbitrary indices.
There are those scholars we might disagree with, and it is an aspect of prophetic morality that we learn to deal with differences, especially those tolerated amongst orthodox schools. It is with muru’ah (decorum, civility and a sense of humanity) that we learn to be civilised believers, that when our sensibilities are questioned we do not pugnaciously rally behind superficial rhetoric or ad hominem arguments but engage in a godly manner with those we deem to be sincere. As for the contemptible, well God instructs us on how to deal with them:
And when the ignorant address them, they say “peace.”
And if they pass by vain talk, they pass by with dignity.
Do scholars make mistakes? Indeed. The eminent jurist and pietist Ibn al-Qayyim put it: ‘Scholars are oceans and their mistakes dirt. It is known that if water exceeds the amount of two qullah it doesn’t carry filth’ – that is to say that an excessive amount of water acts as a purifier against the filth it contains, and similarly, the vast amount of knowledge and goodness inherent in scholars dictates we overlook their lapses. Al-Dhahabi wrote, ‘Ibn Khuzaimah erred on the hadith of the image, but were we to disregard every Imam that had made a mistake we would have none left!’ But, the mistakes of scholars are very different to the perpetual support for tyranny, oppression and corruption, the difference between the two far too obvious to require an explanation. As the ancient Arab poet al-Mutanabbi put it:
Nothing will ever be comprehended by intellects requiring evidence that it is daytime.