What is authentic Islamic scholarship?

The real thing

A brother once told me “Islamic knowledge is the most important thing one will ever receive, more precious even than the food one eats, so think carefully from whom you take it.”

The most overused and abused term in the contemporary Australian Muslim vernacular is Sheikh, in its broadest meaning it means an elder who possess wisdom, but in the most correct classical usage a sheikh is a religious scholar of the sacred sciences, from Quranic exegesis to medicine and beyond. In the secular world its meaning is confined to the sacred religious sciences.

After reading mainstream Australian media I am surprised to find that “Sheikhs” are everywhere, and everywhere absurd. All the while, they dishonour the title they have awarded themselves. They shame themselves but more importantly they shame our teacher the Prophet of Allah, Muhammad (pbuh).

Several religious personalities have awarded themselves the title of Sheikh unilaterally; others have merely falsified their qualifications. These “pseudo sheiklets” can be seen duking it out on chatrooms and Islamic forums, WWF style. Still others acquire the mannerisms and feign the gravitas of true scholars without ever learning the humility.

There are however some serious religious scholars in this country, but not many, perhaps even less than twenty.

The classical understanding is that an Islamic scholar possesses six qualities:

  1. Personal piety, the core attribute of any religious leader. This was not merely a self-serving statement that one is a good egg, but rather observed behaviour, speech and action 24 hours a day over the period of many years by a live-in mentor who was already a Sheikh. The knowledge that one acquires in scholarship must be personally transformative for one to be a Sheikh. This is a core attribute of a Sheikh, those without personal piety and integrity must never be allowed positions of authority in our community.
  2. Excellence in the sacred sciences, with a basic knowledge in all fields followed by specialisation in one. Although being a Hafiz of Quran was not an absolute, it was frequently present. All sciences were considered sacred. And excellence meant real excellence by any independent measure. Ibn Sina, a noted physician and philosopher, authored a textbook of Medicine that was used for 700 hundred years in Europe (his theology was less good).
  3. Isnad (scholarly pedigree). An unbroken chain of teachers right back to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Serious scholars can recite their sanad from memory ( I have personally seen this done). This came with an Ijazaa, or a dispensation to teach the sacred sciences or a branch of them (i.e. a graduation license).
  4. Adab; is another Arabic word that lacks one suitable English translation but conveys meanings of etiquette, excellence in manners and integrity. It also implies gravitas that comes with scholarship and modesty. In the early period of Islam when scholarship was at its height. “Oinking” to camera is not part of Adab.
  5. Lifelong scholarship. A doctor is not simply one who has a medical degree but rather someone who is employed in medical practice. So it should be with the Shuyukh. It is therefore essential that professional associations are created as well as forms of peer review (e.g. a peer reviewed journal). Thus ones entire corpus of academic output is available for scrutiny by ones colleagues. In the past this was done formally, but in the online era a peer reviewed publication would appear to be more appropriate.
  6. Peer recognition. One cannot be a Sheikh or Sheikha without the acknowledgement of other Sheikhs.

These qualities are in addition to an expectation that a Sheikh will have a mastery of classical Arabic and its grammar, not merely conversational Arabic gained from a university course.

The role of a Sheikh in society is as an individual transformed by their piety and their scholarship who can transform others . One does not create a scholar merely to be “moderate” or to be a community harmonizer, but these are consequences of authentic Islamic scholarship.

Islamic universities have gradually dwindled in both prestige and personal spiritual mentoring, and the Salafi universities have opened the Pandora’s box of institutionalizing formal western education rules on Islamic training. A glaring shortcoming of these institutions is in not training enough Sheikhas or women scholars. Islamic scholarship (the height of religious excellence) is open equally to men and women (indeed the greatest scholar is Islam was a woman, Aisha bint Abi Bakr). One would not know this from the sorry state of female Islamic scholarship today, something that we are paying for dearly.

More recently Muslims are surprised to see that western governments are eager to teach Islam in Western Universities for the express purposes of creating a form of religious worship that is convivial and pleasing to them. Whilst we are delighted to discover well-wishers who fret about the level of our religious education (as well as artistic expression) we are skeptical about the sincerity of their intentions.

If one can become a Sheikh or Sheikha merely by attending a western university and hustle a position of leadership in the Ummah, then why does one need even to be a Muslim? There is no requirement for spiritual mentoring, no observable personal piety, no demonstrated sincerity for the Muslim attending the course.

If we go down this path (of allowing others to recreate our religious education), I can see no reason why in the future, non-Muslims who have studied Islam in these courses won’t also give religious rulings to an increasing religiously crippled community.


#1 Amal on 02.15.07 at 3:34 pm

Great post, Baybers.

I agree that one of the greatest challenges for Muslims now is finding the right teachers, given the cyber fatwa phenomenon and proliferation of DIY Islam sites. With serious issues, it’s advisable to turn to a trustworthy scholar on the matter. I know there are a couple of sites with a strong reputation, but I am weary of the net for religious sources of information in general.

#2 Baybers on 02.16.07 at 3:30 pm

I agree entirely. Dial a fatwa, fatwa shopping and google fiqh have become the norm for some in Australia.

There are resources on the internet that have some benefit. But this is no substitute for the mentoring of a sheikh.

Muslims should also look carefully at the qualifications of people who have developed a degree of celebrity in the community or have studied “Islam” at university and now feel entitled to impart religious guidance.

#3 a sane voice in a mad world on 03.28.07 at 8:15 pm

You say:

A glaring shortcoming of these institutions is in not training enough Sheikhas or women scholars. Islamic scholarship (the height of religious excellence) is open equally to men and women (indeed the greatest scholar is Islam was a woman, Aisha bint Abi Bakr).

I don’t know where do you get this “not trainig enough women”. In Islamabad, the International Islamic University has a very large population of Muslimahs studying. The kutcheris in both Islamabad and Rawalpindi have a fair number of women lawyers trained in the Shariah. the al-Huda Institute is exclusively for women, and there are several other Institutes for females. The situation is the same at Karachi and Lahore.

#4 Baybers on 03.28.07 at 9:04 pm

Thank you for your comment

Can I respond by saying that you should take a very deep breath and re-read the paragraph from which you have excised that quote. As you will see it refers to the salafi universities which do not admit foreign female students on scholarship as they do to male students. They should do this (and pay for a Mahram as well).

But if one looks at all institutions of Islamic learning in the world then it is clear that the calibre and number of female scholars is nowhere near that of male scholars. Muslim women from the west find it very difficult to find orthodox Islamic training in the Muslim world, even in the institutions you name. The direct result of this is that Muslimas from the west (many of whom are converts to Islam) can only study Islam from Western Universities, from non-Muslims.

It often leads to this:

#5 Fatima on 03.29.07 at 1:58 am

There are 3 main salafi universities which accept foreign students – Medina / Umm ul Qura and Imam Saud university. Of them two accept female students. Medina doesn’t accept female students as it was setup as a male only university from the start (as opposed to the others which cater for both genders). The other two are still majority Saudi based and have limited number of scholarships for Western students.

Having said that, Medina has a number of schools available to women who live here. They are not ‘universities’ but they do the same program as the university in terms of what they learn. The reality is that most women cannot take the time out to study when they are married and have kids especially overseas where there is no family support for things like babysitting. I know a number of Western sisters who studied for a couple of years but couldn’t continue on because of family commitments.

For Western women the opportunities may be less than Western males however I would hardly blame the Salafi unis for it. They are the only universities that I know that actually offer scholarships, pay for airline fares and include a living allowance. I’m not saying they are perfect but if it wasn’t for that I doubt if many would be able to study overseas. I’m also not sure why Salafi unis are being picked on for not producing more Western female scholarship? I really haven’t seen any more ‘traditional’ learning centres around the world paying for Western females to come and study and paying all their expenses as well as their mahrams?

In a country like Saudi there is actually no shortage of local women who have studied the deen because they have alot of opportunity and also alot of support to be able to complete their studies. I think the reality is that we in the West are not very supportive of those who go study and we should be the ones responsible for paying for those in our community that we want to go study and not expect foreign governments to be paying for it.

I think people are also mistaken about what is actually studied in Medina as well. The vast majority of the students are not limited to their studies at the university. Infact that is something that the teachers emphasise on at the uni that you must go outside and seek knowledge. It is one of the reasons that my husband attends classes nearly everyday from asr till isha (combined with school in the morning) with different shuyukh. He has been studying one book of fiqh for 6 years now with one shaykh and still going. So whilst they get their basics at uni no-one is deluded into thinking that their learning stops there.

I think one of the problems that I’ve noticed with some of the Western students that get into the university is that they come from a ghetto mentality and they leave with the same mentality. You’ll generally find these are the people (they are generally fiery speakers) who unfortunately seem to attract a number of people and start saying things which are incorrect.

Just to be clear – I don’t think these universities are perfect and that there is no room for improvement :)

#6 a sane voice in a mad world on 03.30.07 at 8:25 pm

The International Islamic University at Islamabad was funded by the Saudis, and has always been a Salafi oriented one, and I have always seen the campus with a large number of women.

The al-Huda Institute was founded and headed by Dr. Farhat Hashmi, a Salafi, and she is still very much in charge. The institute has branches at Karachi and Lahore.

I visited one of the other instiutes that I mentioned, that too is a Salafi one. I forget the name, but the person running it is a scholar by the name of Bashir.

The Salafis are much maligned, and I hope this info will cause the antagonists to modify their views.

#7 a sane voice in a mad world on 03.30.07 at 8:48 pm

I just noticed a mistake in my blog link, and the link on this post corrects that mistake.

Baybers, I would agree with you that Muslimahs from the West should be encouraged to attain the status of Sheikhas.

About the link on Asra Nomani, well you will find some souls always wandering away. There is no dearth of semi or null educated people (Islamic wise) in the East who have also deviated from the path.

#8 Baybers on 03.31.07 at 1:11 pm

JKK for your comments, they are most welcome.

There are many examples, (that I have not listed here) which suggest that educated Muslim women in the west (many of whom are new converts) can only learn about Islam from non-Muslim sources.

This is something that should concern us. It is incumbent on the Islamic world to provide high quality Islamic scholarship for all those who want it. When one does the results are stunning such as Dr Hashmi. It is practically impossible for a female western convert to Islam to study in a Muslim country, something we want to rectify. Being defensive about it will not rectify the problem. It is more useful to consider that as Muslims interested in Dawah in the west we should see this as central to our efforts. I don’t want to see some deformed interpretation of Islam being sold in the west by “scholars” trained in western unis.

The reason that I blame the Salafis especially is because when one makes a high claim for ones self (i.e. we are following in the footsteps of the Salaf and ipso facto you are not), then they should be open to having that claim tested. Clearly the Salafi movement has not thought at all about it at all. I wish it had.

Fatima makes the point that the “traditional Islamic” movement should also get a share of the blame. I agree they should (a large share), but as a salafi you should be evangelizing the cause that all Muslims should get a salafi training rather than anything else, shouldn’t you? you should see it as an opportunity to corner the Islamic intellectual market.

Finally I wish to ask the question:

What is the definition of a salfi?, if anyone can post a comment with the right answer, I will give them a prize.

(my point is highlighted by “A sane voices” link on her(?) website to Syed Qutb, who is no salafi.

as I said, whoever can give the most complete and precise definition of a salfi wins a prize.

#9 Baybers on 03.31.07 at 3:59 pm

I should add (before I am again accused of an anti salafi bias) that the two scholar that I most highly regard in this country and whose lectures I attend were trained at medina university, one of whom is the foremost salafi scholar in Australia.

So if someone can give a precise definition of Salafi Islam and highlight the difference with “traditional” Islam, there is a prize in it for them.

#10 JDsg on 03.31.07 at 4:50 pm

It is practically impossible for a female western convert to Islam to study in a Muslim country, something we want to rectify.

Months ago, I came across a blog written in part by a non-Muslim woman who’s studying Arabic, Fiqh, etc., in the KSA. So how “impossible” can it be for Muslimah converts to study in Muslim countries?

I suspect issues of money for tuition and language are more at fault than anything else.

#11 Baybers on 03.31.07 at 5:12 pm

i agree money is a big part of the barrier.

Fatima is correct to write that Muslims in the west who want scholars should be expected to pay for them (i.e. their training, and their wages).

I am not saying that what the saudis are doing is bad, rather that it could be improved further to make it accessible for more students

#12 Amir on 03.31.07 at 5:41 pm

Before we lament the lack of access to tertiary-level religious education, we should discuss whether more people studying abroad (or locally) is a good thing. I can see a few problems with the current situation:

1. Most people who go to study abroad from Australia either fail miserably or give up which suggests that there is either something lacking in the selection process or perhaps something lacking in the education/environment;

2. Of those that finish, a large percentage of them return to Australia to join the ranks of the unemployed and the unemployable. The smart ones, it seems, go and acquire another qualification because a degree in an Islamic field isn’t going to get you a job in Australia and there are no institutions willing or able to pay you.

#13 a sane voice in a mad world on 03.31.07 at 7:54 pm

Salafi? :)

I tend to use it loosely, but perhaps if may hazard a guess

those of the ahle Sunnah wa al jamaah who take their deen/rulings from the Quran and the authentic AHadeeth,

as opposed to those who take the deen/rulings without necessarily support from authentic AHadeeth. For them following a faqih of a particular madhab is enough.

a sane voice is a him :)

#14 Fatima on 03.31.07 at 10:30 pm

I don’t consider myself a Salafi :) At least not the Western examples which generally mean an anti-madhabi who likes to use slogans and rhetoric.

I think a distinction has to be made between what ‘Salafis’ are like in the West and what they are like in Saudi. I’ve hardly ever heard the type of discussion that goes on in Australia over here. By this I mean the usual debates which are matters of fiqh i.e. where do you place your hands in prayer, do you shake your finger in tashahud and so on.. I’ve heard of them only in a discussion in an actual fiqhi and knowledge based context . I’ve never seen people condemning others for not ‘following the Quran and Sunnah’ because they follow a different opinion.

I’ll probably get bashed for this but I really don’t believe the avg Salafi in the West has much of a clue when it comes to discussions of fiqh or knowledge. And that is why I think more ‘traditional’ Muslims are better in that sense because at least they admit to not having a clue and rely on their shaykh in getting rulings.

I also don’t think you can make an actual definition of a Salafi as there are many different types in many different places. The Salafis in Saudi are nothing like the Salafis in Australia. There are Salafis who follow madhabs and others who advocate that following a madhab is akin to putting the words of the Imam before the Qur’an and Sunnah.

I think the one thing that you will *generally* find consistent in the difference between traditionals and Salafis is probably in a few matters of aqeedah.

#15 Fatima on 03.31.07 at 10:31 pm

JDsg: Money in some senses is a factor but the schools here that I mention are actually free of charge. The main problem was actually being married and having kids – who are you going to leave your kids with when you go to study? Back home, you have family etc to help you and the women who are from here have the same. They have large extended family and friend units. For a Western woman by herself she doesn’t have that option. The woman you mentioned I would hazard a guess probably didn’t have kids or if she did the good thing about tutors is that it can be arranged at a suitable time whilst schools cannot.

#16 Fatima on 03.31.07 at 10:48 pm

Let me add that I think increasing female scholarship is a great thing and really needs to be done. And I think facilities for it can be improved everywhere in the world. Ideally we would have a lot of female scholars but unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world.

From a practical point of view I can see why women in the West though are unable to go through with finishing their studies and studying properly because of the reasons I listed above.

If we want to train female scholars then I think practically it needs to be done from a much younger age. Once a woman is married and has kids, she will find it extremely difficult to study full-time and get to the same level that men are able to much more easily. So her basic knowledge I feel should be gotten before marriage.

Amir also make a good point. A high number of people from the West drop out in their first year when coming here. People come with stars in their eyes wanting to seek knowledge but when the reality hits them – culture shock / lifestyle / living conditions etc. It’s not easy. Out of all the actual Aussie converts who have come here not a single one has graduated. Most dropped out in their first or second year.

The second point about employment is another big one. We want people to go learn and become scholars but then we get no benefit from it as people have families to support. If they are working 5-6 days a week where is the time left for teaching or studying? Many graduates for that reason have ended up just working normal jobs because their knowledge is not valued and the community is not going to support them. So whilst we lament the lack of knowledge in our community we also are generally not prepared to use money to support those with knowledge.

I believe Muslims are very cheap when it comes to knowledge. People will complain about paying $100 for a course but will not blink an eye buying a $5000 plasma TV.

Being the daughter of an Imam I really saw how undervalued people of knowledge are. Don’t you think it is sad that when you have an Imam for one of the richest communities in the Muslims that his family used to get a lot of things from the salvation army and church groups? That he never bought new clothes or shoes for himself for over 10 years and used to get them second hand? My mum used to say to my dad to go become a taxi driver because at least it paid to support his family.

#17 JDsg on 04.01.07 at 2:11 pm

Money in some senses is a factor but the schools here that I mention are actually free of charge.

I was aware of that. However, let’s say you’re considering a school outside of the KSA. If, for example, someone wanted to attend the International Islamic University Malaysia, they’re going to be charged for tuition, housing, etc.

The main problem was actually being married and having kids – who are you going to leave your kids with when you go to study?

But this problem will exist for both men and women under these circumstances, married with or without children. It certainly doesn’t apply just to women. Several years ago, my wife wanted me to go off to get a PhD. That would have been nice, but I also knew how disruptive it would have been for our lives.

The woman you mentioned I would hazard a guess probably didn’t have kids…

Yes, I suspect that’s the case; I suspect that she’s like most other Western university students: in her late teens or early 20s, never been married, with no children. That’s why we all went to college early in our lives, to get that necessity out of the way prior to marriage. It sounds to me like now you’re saying, “We need more female scholars and that they should be able to go off for their studies after they’re married and have kids.” To which I say, “Good luck,” but with little sympathy. Welcome to the real world.

#18 Fatima on 04.02.07 at 3:34 am

JSDG: I am mentioning the problem for most of the Western women who come here (who are married and have kids) and why they don’t go on to finish their studies. I do think women have it harder than men though as primary care for kids is from the wife.

I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. If you look at what I said I actually said that I think women need to be taught from a younger age or there is only a small likelihood of them actually being able to study as long as they need to. Once you are married it is unlikely you are going to put off having kids for 6 years (the length of the courses here).

The problem then exists though of how are women going to go study when they are younger? Being married gives you the mahram relationship you need to be able to go overseas. Before that your only option is a brother or a father. And they are unlikely to be able to give up work and their life to go overseas for that length of time.
Even if you were to follow an opinion that you can go without a mahram there are not too many Muslim parents who will be sending their daughters off overseas for 4-6 years by themselves.

#19 Alia on 11.03.07 at 2:43 pm

Asalamo alaykum, I am a divorced Muslima and have been seeking a way to formally study islam in depth (preferably not at one of the trendy salafi institutions) and have been completely unsuccessful in finding a location or the means to do this…Any suggestions would be appreciated! jazakAllah Khairun

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