What is authentic Islamic scholarship?

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.