Do I Need a Shaykh? And How Can Tell if He is a Reliable Source of Knowledge?
Where Do You Derive Your Knowledge From?
Knowledge comes from seeking it. It does not just descend on you. But then where is the best place to seek it from?
The Need for Scholars
For many of us Islam was passed down to us culturally and evolved through contact with books, courses and video clips. How do we know if our understanding is correct?
To gain sound understanding, knowledge should be sought from trusted scholars. Allah Almighty says:
So ask the people of the knowledge if you do not know (21:7)
You cannot depend on books alone. Just as you cannot learn any subject from books alone – imagine practising law, engineering or medicine from textbooks and YouTube videos, without proper teachers. What you get from reading is not necessarily the correct understanding of the meaning. Without being aware of the context, you can get it wrong. Completely wrong!
Unless knowledge is taught to you by trusted people, your attempts to understand will be like searching in the dark. At school we acquire knowledge from teachers and that is just in dunya. Knowledge of the deen is like any science, and in fact it is more than that, which makes it dangerous when we make mistakes. If a doctor makes a mistake it could have fatal consequences. If we misunderstand our deen, our akhirah for eternity is at stake.
Ibn Sirin (may Allah be pleased with him), the tabi’een and scholar, said:
“This knowledge is a religion, so consider from whom you receive your religion.” [Muslim]
Scholars have said:
قال أهل العلم:
لا تأخذ العلمَ من صُحُفي، ولا القرآن من مصحفي.
الصحفي: الذي يقرأ في الصحف أي الكتب ولا يتلقى عن أهل العلم.
المصحفي: الذي يقرأ من المصحف دون شيخ.
Do not take knowledge from Suhufi, nor the Qur’an from Mushafi.
[A suhufi is the one who reads from books, and does not learn from scholars. Al-Mushafi is the one who reads from the Qur’an without a shaykh.]
The Perils of the Internet
The proliferation of misinformation and opinions on the internet add to the confusion. Just as more and more patients are becoming even more certain they know better than their doctors and turn up to consultations to argue about their diagnoses and treatments on the basis of what they have read online, believers are finding themselves tangled in theological issues, trapped by extreme opinions and wallowing in a sea polluted by ignorance and contradictions.
All the while, they are becoming more assertive and assured armed with what they have gleaned here and there, and ready to reject the heavyweight scholars on from whose chests knowledge has been meticulously catalogued and preserved over centuries.
Attacking the Source of the Sunnah
We have Muslims who demand ‘Who is Bukhari?’ ‘Who is Abu Hanifa?’ And question why they should read what they have to say. Confident that, equipped with their own intellect, they can understand Islam with their own mind.
Attacks on the sunnah are quite common place. With questions like ‘How could one man collect all 600,000 hadith in 23 years? When did he sleep and how did he do it?’ People are assailing the authority of Imam Buhkari, tearing him apart, not innocently, but in a deliberate attempt to discredit the body of work that conveys the sunnah.
How Can You tell a Good Shaykh from a Bad Shaykh?
A five year alim or alima course does not make a person a shaykh or shaykha. Those who say that we are all shaykhs trying to understand the truth, are not comparing like for like. While we are all on a quest to further our understanding, it is the real shayukh who have spent their lives delving into the depths of knowledge from the original sources and the trusted scholars before them who are qualified to give guidance on Islamic matters. This cannot be compared to gathering fatwas off the internet and deriving conclusions from that.
A Real Shaykh should have fulfilled the following four criteria:
- KNOW THE ORIGINAL TEXT
He must have studied the origin of the deen and have an understanding the text. He would have to know the explanation of it, through tafseer in Arabic, along with the interpretations by the four schools of thoughts or at the very least one school very thoroughly.
- KNOW THE CONTEXT
It is necessary to understand the context in which the ayahs of the Qur’an were revealed and the backgrounds to the hadith. The sunnah may say something, but those words need to be understood in their context – on what occasion did the Prophet (peace be on him) say those words? This can change the entire application of a ruling. This is a heavy task. Sadly this element is not a dominant practice in our studies.
A teacher who does not know this will struggle to explain the full meaning ayahs and hadith. It is much easier (and more dangerous) to study the text as it is parrot fashion, without understanding.
As in medicine, a doctor does not become a doctor simply by studying or graduating, but learns his profession by shadowing and observing experienced doctors for years before they become capable and proficient in their fields. Textual knowledge grows into wisdom after this practical exposure.
- UNDERSTAND REALITY
To apply sacred knowledge correctly, a shaykh must understand the reality of his audience – their circumstances and challenges, their psychology and the choices they have to make. Not just live in books and articles and a Utopian reality that they are imagining from their teachings. Theory cannot be applied to life practically when a shaykh is living with a 500 year old mentality that he read in his books. It does not fit the audience. Children are playing Fortnite. So he should know what Fortnite is. If you are on a different planet, you are irrelevant and cannot benefit your audience and they will not trust you. When people hear common sense, it resonates with them. When people hear nonsense, they shun away from it.
Without appreciating the reality of living in this century, scholars can give fatwahs which cause hardship and damage to people’s lives and relationships. For example, one scholar with limited understanding issued a fatwa against having a mortgage to a lady who sold her home, moved into rented accommodation and then struggled to pay rent and ended up on benefits. He misguided her. Similarly scholars who have no wife or children should not give advice on marriage and raising children.
How many graduates are there from Islamic Colleges in this country? At least 500. They should be in touch with the lives of the community they are serving.
Some Islamic institutions are a world in themselves. Replete with barbers and cemeteries, one could enter them and never need to leave! They are engaged in preserving the text and language but are a bubble. The gap between them and the reality that ordinary people experiencing is vast.
Islamic Colleges should be in touch with reality. Their students need to have practical training on the ground and in the community.
Islam should not be inaccessible. Islam has to be relevant to people.
The challenge lies in how to make it useful and beneficial for lay people. We need to train teachers to be relevant, as Dr Akram Nadawi, Ebrahim College are doing good work in this area mashallah. Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad has also done good work with his Cambridge Muslim College, ‘which offers trained imams a one year diploma in Islamic studies and leadership, designed to help trained imams to better implement their knowledge and training in 21st-century Britain.’ We need more of these.
The Prophet (peace be on him) said the one who lives among people is better than the one who isolates himself:
A believer who mixes with people and endures their annoyance is better than the one who does not mix with them and does not endure their annoyance. (Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi)
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