Recently, a Facebook post that caused a considerable amount of debate on the permissibility of a ‘faded haircut’ left me somewhat astonished at the debate it generated, predominantly because of all the things that the sheikh has written about in the recent past, this was more trivial in comparison. Nevertheless, the post was interesting in so much as showing the scholarly thought processes that underpin a religious verdict.
What followed was a ‘cut and paste’ exercise by some, where opposing religious verdicts were copied into the discussion thread by those scholars deemed to be ‘authentic’. But what do these terms even mean? How do we recognise an ‘authentic’ scholar? Isn’t this just a partisan exercise, where only those scholars who are part of group’s ideology ‘authentic’, and everyone else essentially heretical?
It seems that some Muslims are unable to recognise those in the realm of Islamic scholarship as true professionals with specific expertise; but instead they can only be those who have been ‘approved’ by members of a sect as people, can merely show some time having been spent in some form of Islamic learning, and follow the rules of a partisan club. In order to maintain their status as a ‘scholar’ or someone of authoritative stature, they must remain within the confines of these rules.
An interesting example of an individual who moved on, according to his own reflections, from partisan confines was Sh. Yasir Qadhi. An individual who was revered by many, many English-speaking salafis understandably saw him as the man who would give their group the intellectual firepower to influence Muslim thinking in the Western world. However, back in the US and operating on the ground, whilst open to all of the experiences that come with it, he notoriously began to question many of the groups foundational ‘rules’ and was shunned almost overnight by some his supporters. Absurdly, the ‘authentic’ scholar had turned into a ‘dangerous heretic’ who had been ‘corrupted’ by Western academia. However, all that he did, and continues to do, is follow the example set by the swathes of scholars that have preceded, and not to simply accept the status quo, instead using his years of training to question redundant viewpoints and initiate a religious discussion relevant to his world.
I feel there is a pathological problem afflicting many Muslim communities at present, in which not only are we incapable of recognising expertise, but we also struggle to engage with scholars in a meaningful way. For some, scholars are icons; individuals who are there merely to provide some legitimacy to their preconceived notions and ideas about religion, whilst on the other end of the spectrum, idolising individuals who are perceived as being incapable of saying or doing anything wrong because their clique have determined them to be ‘on the Haq’. Both of these varying situations have a common theme: a lack of sincerity on the part of the layman.
We are often reminded that ‘Religion is sincerity’. In order to be truly sincere, we must rid ourselves of the type of ‘baggage’ that can cause a bias in our thinking, and objectively examine an idea on the basis of its merit. One of the things I have always found particularly interesting is how this point is laboured in the numerous religious dialogues that some Muslims have with non-Muslims. The thrust of the Muslim’s dialogue tends to focus on the importance of being open minded and objective, which of course are key ingredients of true sincerity. Yet, the moment one of these individuals decides to become a Muslim, it seems the opposite is true, as the grip of a particular group or sect clasps around their once broad-mindedness, into an extremely narrow world-view. If it is sincerity that we advocate, then in many instances we strip away a person’s sincerity (and perhaps even their religion) the moment they enter Islam.
The reality of course is that sincerity is something that we must strive to maintain in the quest for truth. At least 17 times a day we plead to God that we be guided to the straight path. To help us in this endeavour, God has raised scholars amongst us, who signpost us to that straight path. They are normal human beings who have been blessed with an expertise; and in-depth understanding of the words of God and His messenger. Thus, in order for us to truly benefit from their expertise, we must engage them with an attitude of open-mindedness, and in doing so, perhaps we might find ourselves that much closer to the truth.