Beyond a collection of facts, knowledge transcends the tangible and quantifiable. It is both production and consumption, providing structure, methodology, and substance: the sum of generations of thinkers, teachers, and students. The authority to transmit knowledge is reserved to those who have extensively studied and practiced it. Expertise within a field is a rare blessing and the onus is on laymen to take knowledge from experts about everything, from structuring our lives to engaging with society.
The role of scholars is substantial, especially in Islam. Abu al-Darda, may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him, reported that the Messenger ﷺ said “The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets.”¹ This Hadith indicates that scholars, as inheritors of the faith, have effectively and uniquely preserved Islam for 1400 years. Extinguishing the importance of scholars threatens the vast tradition of Islam itself; indeed, scholars are blessed as caretakers of the faith by Allah ﷻ. They spend years mastering classical Arabic to simply understand sacred texts, let alone interpret and derive rulings from them. Scholars must understand the time and place in which they live, including the complexities of societal and technological advances, to set guidelines for the direction of a believer’s life.
Establishing a clear and strong connection between knowledge and its source is also important. Islamic scholarship emphasizes isnād, or chain of transmission, so much so that Imam Abdallah ibn Mubarak, may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him, said, “isnād is part of deen,” and “the one who seeks matters of his deen without isnād is similar to the one who climbs his roof without a ladder.” Humans thrive because of the information predecessors have transmitted and the isnād is the most meticulous form of transmission. Receiving sacred knowledge from a chain of trustworthy scholars is unique to the Ummah of Sayyidina Muhammad ﷺ. No other community stringently verifies and conveys knowledge like Muslims do.
However today, many Muslims disregard the role of the scholar and Islamic scholarship. Their attempts at “reformation” threaten the core of the religion. Their opinions are propagated not only on obscure websites or personal Facebook accounts, but also on popularly frequented websites. Some prominent Muslims are now calling for the community’s detachment from the scholar and widespread general Islamic illiteracy is only one of the visible consequences of doing so. People who disregard scholarly opinions, due to personal whims and manufacture their own opinions, deviate from the religion. Detachment from the preservers of the religion leads to detachment from the religion itself. Abu Muslim Al-Khawlani, may Allah ﷻ have mercy on him, said “the scholars on Earth are like the stars in the sky: when they appear, the people are guided, but when they disappear, the people get lost.”
Those advocating for reform must be aware of the current intellectual climate in the West. Christians, who underwent reform throughout most of their history, populate our society. Contemporary Christianity is diluted because of the historic trend of resisting authority, a trend caused in part by society’s labeling of religious clergy as authoritative and abusive. One reason for the rise of atheism in the West, especially in the Christian community, has been such reformation: namely, disparaging of religion and its preservers. When Muslims propose reform, they must first analyze their social context to determine where they get their “novel” ideas from. Muslims have more to lose from degrading scholarship like Christians have done, as our scholars are unique in being both preservers of knowledge and community leaders.
Encroachment on scholarship by laypeople is present in other fields as well, perhaps convincing some that it is acceptable to similarly degrade Islam. Many scientists today commit intellectual trespassing in their criticisms of religion, but are appropriately disregarded as they are unqualified in the field. In medicine or law, unqualified practitioners are susceptible to receiving criminal charges. If we defend the experts in matters of this world, why do we so easily neglect the experts in matters of the afterlife? Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets. They are best equipped to treat our spiritual ailments, so let us let them heal us. Let us let them lead us.
¹ Related by al-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Maja, Ahmad, Ibn Hibban, and others. Verified as sahih (authentic).
² 8th century Muslim scholar, Muhaddith, student of Abu Hanifa, may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him.
About the author: Zain is a student at Arizona State University and is involved with various Muslim organizations across the U.S. You can follow him on Twitter here.