It was attributed to Sufyan al-Thawrī to have said, “We learned knowledge for other than God the Exalted, but knowledge refused to be sought for other than God.”
Imam Ahmed said, “The essence of knowledge is awe of God.”
These statements and others like them from different scholars that have spanned the entire history of the Islamic Tradition are often repeated by traditional teachers of Islam to their students. They serve as reminders to the teachers and as warnings to their students with regards to what seeking Sacred Knowledge is about. “It is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in true awe of God.” [Quran 35:28]
In seeking Sacred Knowledge, the student is always reminded by the statement of Muhammad ibn Sirin that is related in the beginning of Sahih Muslim, “Verily this knowledge is religion, so investigate from whom you are getting your religion.” This statement can be viewed in light of another one from the companion Ibn Masoud RA who said, “People will remain well as long as they take knowledge from their elders, trustworthy ones, and scholars. If they take it from their youth (in reference to their degree of knowledge not necessarily in age) and evildoers, they are destroyed.”
There are occasions where scholars have even specified who not to take Sacred Knowledge from. Imam Malik said, “Knowledge is not to be taken from four: an ignoramus audacious with his ignorance; one with caprices calling to them; one known to lie in his narrations from people even if he doesn’t lie in narrations from the Prophet peace be upon him; and one who is known to be righteous and upright but doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The virtue of Sacred Knowledge, the weightiness of it, and the emphasis placed on ensuring who one gets it from cannot be overstated. Scholarship is praised in both the Quran and the Hadith, and those who possess knowledge are granted a special status in Islam. al-Hasan al-Basrī said, “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.” It even gets to a point that a student of knowledge and a scholar writing and studying at night are considered to be performing a version of a night vigil (qiyam) that’s more virtuous than prayer, because their study is to benefit the people, whereas their optional prayers would be to benefit only themselves. A student was sitting with Imam Malik after the morning prayer reviewing his notes, and all of a sudden he got up and prayed an optional nafila prayer. When he came back Imam Malik asked him why he did that. The student replied, “I wanted to catch the Forenoon (Duha)prayer.” Imam Malik said to him, “You left that which is more virtuous for that which is less so.”
Sacred Danger to the Soul
Although high in its status, Sacred Knowledge is usually accompanied with danger to the soul. The majority of people, except the few chosen ones, who begin their pursuit of Sacred Knowledge will find the feelings of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance taking over their hearts. Indeed, that was Imam al-Ghazzali‘s problem as noted by his own brother. Before he went on his 10-year journey that made him into the magnificent scholar we look up to today, Imam al-Ghazzali was known for his remarkable level of knowledge and erudition. But that was combined with a level of intellectual pride not to be missed by people of the hearts. Imam al-Ghazzali described it as being on a cliff about to fall into an abyss. His knowledge was in his brain and on his tongue, but it had not yet taken over his heart.
The danger of Sacred Knowledge can be felt before one embarks on the journey of seeking it. The signs of its negative effect can be felt before one acquires it. All one has to do is reflect on what and who they associate Sacred Knowledge with.
There seems to be a growing number of retreats, conferences, and seminars where various scholars are brought together for a number of days to transmit some of the knowledge they carry in their hearts. Eager young Muslims will travel to attend and experience a few days of bliss. They experience a manufactured atmosphere that smells of musk and they recite or listen to different poems on love of God and His Messenger peace be upon him. Sometimes they’ll arrange a night of dhikr and poetry and get themselves on a spiritual high. But eventually it all has to end and everyone has to return home to the lives they left behind. Talk about a spiritual crash!
For the most part, these isolated opportunities are all that young Muslims in the West get for learning Sacred Knowledge. It’s a sad reality nowadays that the majority of Muslims who do go to the mosque, perform their daily prayers, and fast Ramadan don’t actually know the rulings of these and other acts of worship. If asked, they have no idea what makes a valid prayer, how fasting can be invalidated, how to perform ritual purifications, etc. They’ll speculate, but if pushed to provide a list they would have confidence in, nothing will come forth. It’s typically in these retreats and seminars that they get confronted face to face with their religious illiteracy. It’s then that they finally realize a sense of urgency about learning how to properly establish their religion based on knowledge rather than cultural inheritance from their parents.
Now armed with a sense of urgency, they really want to seek Sacred Knowledge. The reference point, who this Sacred Knowledge is typically associated with, is usually their favourite teacher. That’s who the newly eager student wants to be like. So they make it a point to find out everything they can about that teacher. The most obvious one is which school of Fiqh (maddhab) that teacher follows, because now that’s the school they want to follow as well. Today, there are Muslims who are self-proclaimed Malikis, even if they’ve never studied anything about Maliki Fiqh in their lives, for no other reason except that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is a Maliki. That in itself, as a starting point at least, is not that bad. What’s bad is when one goes to a program where Shaykh Hamza is teaching, gets inspired, goes back home and now wants to study Fiqh, but makes it a condition that it must be Maliki Fiqh. Meanwhile, in their vicinity there are only Hanafi Fiqh teachers who they refuse to study under. Instead, they complain about how there are no teachers in their city. This scenario can be applied to any teacher and school. This is how Islam becomes about the scholars rather than about the God of those scholars.
There are also those who have prejudice based on an induction from their limited perception. The clearest example are those who prefer to remain in ignorance than to study with the only qualified teacher in their city, simply because the teacher is from Saudi Arabia or that they teach Hanbali Fiqh, or worse yet, they could be both. A few news articles, many of which are lies and fabrications about Saudi scholars, have now tainted many young people’s perceptions so much that they don’t even want to take the time and investigate the teacher as an individual. Being Saudi and/or Hanbali has become an automatic guilty verdict.
Seminar then Ijaza?
Then comes the realization of the importance of ijazas. The official chains of transmission linking one to the scholars who wrote the traditional texts and the permission from the teacher for the student to teach it. Not a retreat or a seminar goes by where a teacher covers a text except that a request from the students will be made to be granted the ijaza for that text. Those who know what an ijaza really means will understand the ridiculous nature of this request. Somehow a text that the teacher took at the very least months if not years to study, read the commentaries on, and memorized with their teacher, can be covered in a weekend or a couple of weeks long retreat in a resort and then grants those students permission to teach it.
But the teachers are usually nice. Instead of rejecting the request, they give an ijaza for blessing (baraka). This type of ijaza is really a soft letdown because the truth of the matter is that just by virtue of being present during the lessons covering the text, one automatically establishes the direct connection with the author. All the teacher does is acknowledge it verbally in order to not completely reject the students’ request.
An actual ijaza can only be obtained after the teacher personally checks the student’s mastery of the text and subject matter that it covers. This is an absolute must because the ijaza is a permission to teach others the religion of God. This is a heavy burden and a huge responsibility. When the teacher gives an ijaza, he’s vouching for the student and putting his own reputation on the line. He’s declaring that he has checked that the student is qualified to be a guide for people. This is not something one can obtain in a weekend seminar. The only time such a feat is possible is under one condition: the student has been studying for a while already with other teachers, and is looking to get an ijaza from a specific teacher due to their eminence so they travel directly to them to get it. This particular ijaza is not really similar to the ijaza they have from their primary teachers. It’s more of a chain of transmission (sanad) from this eminent teacher they travelled to, who in turn confirms that the the text this student has accurately conforms with the original text of the author.
What the ijaza really does is serve a psychological function for the students requesting it. After having been faced with their religious illiteracy, they feel a sense of intellectual inadequacy. Most of the time those requesting ijazas are academically competitive students in their colleges and universities, and have gotten used to identifying their self-worth with their educational achievements, which they normally get to show validations for. The ijaza is the proof they can display when they get back home that they have indeed been acknowledged by scholars to be “true” seekers of Sacred Knowledge. Ijazas for these students are equivalent to academic awards they received through the years. More importantly though, ijazas are their means for self-proclaimed legitimacy when speaking about Islamic matters. When they go home, they can now exercise religious authority. If questioned they can now say, “I have an ijaza!”
This is of such paramount importance to these students that they’ll settle for anything they can get their hands on, including so-called Diplomas and Certificates offered through online programs. However, although they can pretend externally to the public, and even delude themselves into thinking they’ve gained some authority, deep down they know that what they’ve learned does not qualify them to be religious authorities in Islam. They’ve merely learned the foundations and individual obligations. But that doesn’t mean they can start to derive rulings and weigh different scholarly opinions.
Everyone is a Shaykh and an Ustadh
Nowadays, as more young Muslims begin to look into the Islamic Tradition, they’re unable to identify scholars from students very well. This is also another consequence of religious illiteracy. When one doesn’t even have their basics down, they can easily give more estimation to individuals than they actually deserve. Because they’re unable to assess the level of scholarship of an individual, they can only use themselves as a reference point. This can make a beginner student who barely covered a single text or two seem like the Proof of Islam to many Muslims. All of a sudden, due to the general culture of Islamic education, they feel themselves compelled to address this individual, who’s a beginner student, by titles like “Shaykh” and “Ustadh”.
This becomes an even bigger problem when the beginner student is deluded and believes that they’re actually a Shaykh now. So they transgress their limits and start giving fatwas and opinions about matters they haven’t even gotten the ABC’s sorted out in. To make themselves look credible, they might list a number of texts they studied, which can surely be very impressive. Except that for those who know, these texts were initially written for children to learn their basics of Islamic practice. What can seem impressive to many is in actuality basic material that every Muslim must know and shouldn’t make one stand apart as a “Shaykh” anyways.
There are two extremes Muslims can get into with ijazas. One group realizes the importance of it and the importance of following scholars to such an extent that they actually negate their intellect completely. On the other side are those who react to such extremism by going to the other extreme of rejecting scholars and ridiculing ijazas as meaningless “Sufi” practice to grant undeserving people religious authority.
Anyone who rejects Islamic scholarship and religious authority citing “there’s no priesthood in Islam” hasn’t thought the matter through. Although it’s true that there’s no priesthood in Islam, this doesn’t negate religious scholarly authority. Islam is a field of study like any other. No one in their right mind will drive onto a bridge that was designed and built by people who never officially studied engineering and merely read books on their own or took some online courses and then claimed to be engineers. There’s a control mechanism in place for every professional field that deals with people’s lives in this world to ensure that its professionals have gone through the necessary schooling, training, and licensing processes. No one will accept any less standards in these fields. However, it seems that for Islam, a field that deals with people’s lives in this world and the next, some feel that such control mechanisms are superficial and meaningless.
For those individuals who reject scholarship, they say the Quran and Hadith are what one needs and nothing else. In this view, one can reject the people who transmit the Quran and Hadith, but at the same time accept the very Quran and Hadith they transmit. This is a self-refuting view that doesn’t warrant consideration. Moreover, such people will trust that the various printing presses they obtain their books from will accurately transmit what various authors have written. Instead of trusting professionals in Islam, they trust professionals in business. This is not to mention trusting their own understandings without the tools required to understand these texts, over the understandings of people who actually have those tools. As a principle, the least that can be said about such an approach is that it’s completely ludicrous from both secular and religious perspectives. It has no academic merit and relies on nothing but an ego trip.
The extremism of rejecting ijazas comes from an extremism of an ijaza “culture.” It’s not from nothing that some Muslims view ijazas as meaningless. The increased number of Muslims who go to seminars and retreats, and come back after a couple of weeks with “ijazas” does render them as meaningless recognitions. Muslims are travelling and spending money not seeking Sacred Knowledge, but seeking Sacred Ijazas to boost their Non-Sacred Egos. It’s also from the presence of self-proclaimed Sufis who made Islam all about Sufi orders (tariqas) and surrendering oneself completely to a Shaykh, where they no longer dare to even think without their Shaykh’s permission. This is one of the often cited reasons by some Muslims for the regression of Muslim scholarship and truth be told, there’s validity in this accusation.
Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said, “God will have mercy upon a person who knows their estimation.” Islamic scholarship is a serious matter. But many today have deluded its importance and rendered it as a superficial endeavour that anyone can do in their spare time. It’s easy to prove how important being qualified is. But it’s also easy to go into an extreme about it. Things are known by their opposites, and the presence of any extreme is an indication of an opposing extreme at play. The modern bombardment of people of information has deluded the presence of people of knowledge. It’s one of the negative externalities of the information age, where extremism prevails over balance and moderation. It’s also the age when students barely able to sit up or crawl in the Tradition are called “Shaykhs”, and actual Shaykhs are debased, ignored, and “refuted” by nobodies.