When Islam is left to the scholars
In every field of study, scholars serve a vital function, they help us understand the problems and how to resolve questions, they help us learn about the subject with help of their deep knowledge and they help lead us to higher levels of understanding.
But scholars can be wrong; they often have been and many, still are. There was a time when scholars said the speed of sound was the ultimate barrier; one could not go any faster. Before that, there were teams of scholars who said the Earth was flat, there were scholars who said the Earth was the center around which the universe revolved and it was not so long ago, when scholars said the limits of computing had been reached. The Genocide of the American Indian, the Aborigines of Australia and the White rules in Southern Africa, were all justified as Divine Mandate emanating from the Bible. Jews, Hindus, Shinto, no faith is immune from intolerant, extremist, religious scholars who promote and sanctify violence against “the other”.
In Islam too, as in all other faiths, there have been many scholars who insisted that theirs was the only valid point and anyone who disagreed, was not only wrong, but served the devil because he was spreading doubt about Islam.
People who raised questions about certain claims made by Islamic scholars have frequently been silenced, either by being told that they may not question a scholar unless they have scholarly credentials themselves or, by being told they were going against God’s law…and that, could bring down the wrath of some over-enthusiastic follower with dire results.
The faithful have been cowed into believing that to question or, to dare to challenge a scholar is tantamount to challenging the Quran and while the punishment of such bold question is (they say) going to be Hellfire in the Hereafter, some fanatical follower will bring the punishment forward to right now. Over the past four decades, the rule of fanatics has grown more and more established across most, if not all, Muslim-majority nations.
It is important to note that there are many, many Muslim scholars who are wonderful, kind, gentle folk, who are very open-minded and very learned. These people are humble in spite of their vast knowledge and their grasp of religious matters and they are not the ones under discussion in this article. Far too many of our Muslim scholars study Islam through the words and thought of others, applying little of their own thought into their own learning. As a result, they become experts at repeating the thoughts of others and gain their prestige by claiming to have studied at some particular place or, with a particular teacher. Far too many of our scholars are simply regurgitating machines; they will tell us the rote answer they have learnt during their studies, without critical thinking.
Question some of these types of scholars and we can expect to have our faith put in question; “Do you think this scholar was wrong when he said this?”, “Do you think this book is wrong when the writer (a scholar of note) said this?”, “Do you not believe this Hadith (quote from the prophet Mohammed)?”, “Do you not respect Sunnah (action of the prophet Mohammed)?”
Point to the Quran and ask if such a thought is also reflected in the Quran and they will tell us that the Quran is great but its words have been further elaborated by this Hadith and that Sunnah and expanded by these early scholars.
A common re-statement of the Quran is in the punishment for adultery; in 24:8-9, the Quran clearly states that the punishment is 100 lashes, but the punishment can be averted if there are not four witnesses and the accused swears she is innocent. Translations of the Quran provided by the King Fahd Publishing House and written by Hilali and Khan (“The Noble Quran”), go into details of how punishment for adultery is death by stoning and then provide different punishments, depending on the marital status of the accused…clearly, not contained in the original Arabic version, but editorialized into the text as if it were.
Al-Fatiha, the very first surah of the Quran is a simple, seven line prayer asking God to keep us on the straight path and help us to not stray into the path of those who have incurred God’s wrath. Again, Hilali & Khan have included language that points to Christians and Jews and other transgressors from whose path we should be protected.
Thankfully, almost all others, who have also translated the Quran, have restricted themselves to the original Arabic only and have stayed away lfrom including their own biases into the Quran.
Many South Asian Muslims revere scholars like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, the author of “Bahishti Zewar” (Heavenly Ornaments). This book is routinely given to young brides to help them become better Muslim women; it deals with practically all aspects on life; how to relate with one’s brother, cousin, uncle, some other known male or, an unknown male. Among some other things it tells readers, is that those who are not Muslim and those who convert out of Islam, must be killed. This, in the face of verses like 107:1-7 and 4:137, in which God says such people will be punished…but in the Afterlife, not on Earth. There are also numerous verses such as 15:9, 3:20, 88:21-22, 42:48 and 5:54, which tell the Prophet Mohammed (and Mankind) that their only job on Earth is to inform people of their mistakes and that only God is the guardian of His faith; that it is not for Mankind to punish those who turn away from Islam’s message.
In Mauritania, slavery was abolished only recently and even today, there are scholars who say slavery is a right in Islam and there are still slaves in Mauritania because of the support from such scholars.
In Nigeria, there are scholars who have deemed that all foreign learning is “Haram”…forbidden and they proceed to kill those who are found to be studying “foreign” thought…with their foreign-built weapons!
In Afghanistan, there are scholars who have determined that it is Haram for a woman to outside her home unless accompanied by an unmarriageable male relative. Women who may not have such a “guardian” can die if they get sick because nobody can take them to a doctor and female doctors are hard to find because women are not allowed to study. The contradictions in such lines of thought, leave one dizzy.
Arabian scholars have decreed that women must not drive cars because their uterus might fall out. In Arabia, the restrictions against women is so strong that when a girls boarding school caught fire, the girls were not permitted to leave the premises because they were not dressed modestly enough; all the girls perished in the flames. During Haj, men and women may worship side by side, but women are not permitted to come to perform Haj unless accompanied by an unmarriageable male relative.
Many Muslim scholars have decreed that singing and music are Haram, because such things are erotic and would lead to fornication. One has to ask, where does that leave the singing and music and yes, even the dancing, of children who have no concept of erotica? Where does such thinking leave the great performers of sacred music and song which in South Asia, is called Qawwali? What to do with the dervishes and the Sufis who dance to music because they feel connected to God?
In Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, those who are not recognized as Muslim, may not use the term “Allah”. This includes Christians, and even Muslims who don’t qualify as Muslims, because their school of thought is considered false by the majority. Scholars have decreed such practices and have preached that anyone who is not Muslim, must be killed. Even an innocent and universal term like “Allah” has been turned into a trademark and copyright for the intolerant; “Allah”, which is simply Arabic for “The God” (“Al-Lah”), the same God who says in the Quran, the He is the master of the universe and that anyone who prays to Him, the One God, is a Muslim.
All of the above practices are established and enforced, because scholars have made such rulings and have impressed such narrow and intolerant thinking into their people. Interestingly enough, the many calls for forgiveness, mercy and generosity that are in the Quran, are ignored when it comes to inflicting punishments on the helpless.
It should not take a scholar to recognize wrong, or a genius, to see that God would not wish to spread hate against any of His creation, nor would God want to spread cruelty or Injustice. These are universal values to which we must all subscribe, if we are to survive as Humanity and certainly, no God would require such egregious acts by any of His creation. One does not need to have read the Quran or studied Islam, in order to know that one should love and respect his parents and that a mother is a supremely important person. One should not need to be a scholar to understand that killing a person who has done him no harm, is wrong. We should not have to spend years of learning of Islam, to know that the poor and the weak need to be supported by society or, that we must take care of orphans and treat our neighbors with compassion, justice and generosity. We should be able to differentiate evil from good and know that lying is wrong, without being an Imams or a scholars.
Thus, if someone were to approach me and say we must kill this group or that one because “God wishes it” I should have the right AND the duty to tell him he is wrong and to inform other people that this person is preaching falsehood.
Many disagree. They say it takes a lot of work and time, to study Islam to work to the level of understanding required to become a scholar. They say that reading the Quran is not simple, that it has deep meanings which cannot be fully understood except by someone who has devoted his (it is usually a man) life to the study of scripture.
If this line of thinking were valid, then nobody but a lawyer would have the right to complain against a law, no matter how outrageous. Nobody but a soldier could decide on a war and nobody but a cook, would be allowed to say whether a certain dish is worth eating or not. But we know that’s not true, so why do we have such high walls built around the holy book that the common Muslim dares not interpret, but listen to scholars with his or her brain shut down?
Are our imams and scholars no different than the witch-doctors of the past who had the sole claim to religion and those who disagreed with them were killed? Certainly that is what so many Muslims do to those who question, back in the Old Country. People accused of “blasphemy”, are often killed before their guilt or innocence is established.
This opens another debate; who decides on which scholar to trust or obey? For that matter, who gets to decide whether someone is a scholar in the first place? Most will say theirs is the only scholar who can be trusted because he knows what God means, in His book. Many would insist theirs is the only correct school of thought and theirs is the only way to interpret the Quran. Some go even further; not only are their scholars right about every aspect of Islam and the Quran, but all others who disagree or who follow other scholars are…”Kuffar”…Infidels and therefore, must be killed. The same people who insist we must listen to scholars without question, will not allow anyone other than their own, to be called a scholar.
In the Quran God has said (17:36, 49:6, 49:12) we are responsible to using our own brain to help us examine issues. Yet, far too frequently, we unquestioningly take calls to violence by “scholars” to be the final word.
In law schools, the students are taught to think deeply when reviewing a law because there can be many different ways to interpret the same law and this is why courts have full case loads; there are two lawyers arguing the merits of the same action, under the same law, but from opposing positions. Surely the Quran has many ways to be interpreted and surely, one may not be condemned for believing certain Quranic edicts mean something different from what certain scholars may wish to promote? Surely people can disagree on the interpretation of the Quran, without being cast out or killed, for disagreeing with the scholars!?
Scholars deserve due respect and consideration, but one must never allow respect to smother one’s own voice of conscience; one’s own sense of right and wrong, because there is such a thing as universal truth and universal morality, that is common to all faiths. Personally, I have found that whenever I have questions about a certain interpretation of the Quran and I go back to study the original text. I find the Quran to be much more generous and forgiving than what was said by the scholar.
Churchill once said, “War is too important to be left to the Generals”, a re-wording of this statement could be, “Islam is far too important to be left to the Scholars“.