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Scholars, Speakers And the Culture of “Edu-Tainment” Part 2

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Part 1

15. As to the question of charging extortionate fees and exorbitant honorariums for teaching or da‘wah – a serpent that is now in the garden – with what good faith can that be justified? Of course, what is or isn’t exorbitant is up for discussion. Of course, large organisations will have greater overheads. Of course, quality produced books, translations and media productions are more costlier. Of course, we have a collective duty to assist the ulema‘. And of course, we must thank those organisations that have helped up the ante in terms of the ethos of excellence and professionalism they have brought to the teaching and da‘wah. All such matters are, hopefully, not in question. It’s simply that while many have sacrificed well-paid jobs in secular arenas for a lesser (or even no) salary in the Islamic field, some teachers and preachers are acting rather unbecomingly when it comes to the question of financial remuneration. And that’s a shame; if not shameful. Is it even lawful for event organisers funded by the public to misuse monies given to them on trust by forking out such sums on such speakers? Or to do so without public knowledge of how their money is being misspent?

16. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah mentioned a golden rule concerning taking payment for acts of worship. As part of his reply about whether or not it is permitted to charge a fee for performing pilgrimage on someone else’s behalf (hajj al-badal), he wrote: ‘He may take [payment] to [help him] perform the pilgrimage; he may not perform the pilgrimage just to take [payment] (an ya’khudh li yahujj la an yahujj li ya’khudh). This applies to all wealth one takes so as to undertake a righteous action.’21 Then he states: ‘There is a difference between one who makes religion his goal and the world his means, and one who makes the world his goal and religion his means – the likes of this [latter person] will have no share in the Hereafter.’22

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17. Ibn Taymiyyah’s words apply to taking money for teaching or da‘wah too. There’s a big difference between someone who puts receiving money at the heart of his da‘wah affairs, and one who, although in financial need, puts it at the periphery. Again, what a difference between one who says: “I won’t do a talk unless I’m given such and such a sum of money,” and one who says: “I can’t do a talk unless I’m given some money.” If the intention is corrupted by money matters, if the niyyah isn’t solely for Allah, the act is invalid and sinful – and every person is a vendor of their own soul. Indeed: ‘Two ravenous wolves let loose amongst some sheep do less harm than craving after wealth or status does to a person’s religion,’23 said the Prophet ﷺ.

A few more concerns related to the seemingly apparent corporatisation of the da‘wah need to be queried, beyond the insatiable drive to maximise personal profits:

18.  With a corporate model of da‘wah, there’s a danger of seminars and courses being designed as consumer products, and the need to put out more and more products just to keep revenue flowing in. At what point is the role of money to help deliver courses, and courses to help deliver money? Now this doesn’t apply to organisations offering a clearly structured curriculum or syllabus, but to those that are mainly in the business of delivering courses or seminars. Al-Hasan al-Basri, rahimahu’Llah, said: ‘The penalty meted out to the scholar is death of the heart, and death of the heart causes a person to seek this world by means of actions intended for the hereafter.’24 As for how one inoculates the heart from corrupting its sincerity, Imam al-Ghazali said: ‘The remedy for sincerity consists in breaking the gratifications of the soul, ending the craving for this world, and being singularly devoted to the Hereafter such that it dominates the heart. By this, sincerity becomes possible.’25

19. Scholars and preachers who fuss over their first class travel arrangements, or their five star food and accommodation; or who design and sell courses with a desire other than the rida of Allah; or who are in the habit of turning certain topics whose essence could be explained in an hour and should be done so for free, into lucrative weekend courses – may give out the “wow” factor to their young audiences, but are unlikely to illumine hearts; unless their hearts are illumined with ikhlas to Allah, mindfulness of His scrutiny, taking significant steps in the direction of zuhd, and being sincere to the public with regards to extracting money from them. As for those who invite such DIY da‘is or celebrity speakers, they too may be answerable in the divine court for bending to the hype and not being truly concerned about the wealth or spiritual welfare of the seekers and servants of Allah.

20. Possibly of greater concern is the culture of self promotion, and not being able to point others to more learned and spiritually rooted shaykhs. Groups will do this due to hizbiyyah, or the revenue loss it entails if their own speakers aren’t the public’s port of call. Individual souls will usually do it out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame and status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons. Consider this Ghazalian wisdom: ‘How many an act has man troubled himself with, thinking it to be sincerely seeking the Face of Allah. Yet it contains deception, the harm of which he cannot see … Those subjected most severely to this trial (fitnah) are the scholars. Most of them are motivated to profess knowledge for the [mere] pleasure of [their] mastery, the joy of [gaining] a following, or of being lauded and eulogised.’26 He then gives this example: ‘So you see a preacher who advices people about Allah and counsels rulers. He is overjoyed at people’s acceptance of him and his utterances. He claims to rejoice in having been chosen to help the religion. But should one of his peers who preaches better than he appear, and people turn away from him, accepting the other, it would displease and distress him. Had religion been his true motive, he would have thanked Allah for having spared him this weighty [duty] through another.’27

21. Compare today’s self-promotion with the attitudes of our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted or well-travelled. Indeed, even the well-travelled ones would desperately avoid giving fatwas whenever possible, especially if they could pass the buck on to someone else. Ibn Abi Layla, a famous successor (tabi‘i), narrates: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved that his brother would suffice him [by answering].’28 In another narration: ‘… Whenever one of them was asked about an issue, he would refer it on to another, and this other would refer it on to yet another; until it would return back to the first person.’29 Al-Bara’ said: ‘I met three hundred of the people of Badr. There wasn’t any among them, except that he wished that his companion would suffice him by [giving] the fatwa.’30 And Bishr al-Hafi said: an ahabba an yus’ala fa laysa bi ahli an yus’al – ‘Whoever loves to be asked isn’t from those who should be asked.’31 So let no vacuum be left, and no ego promoted.

Our final issue concerns an alleged celebrity culture of sorts which surrounds certain speakers and preachers. Here, let us remember these few points:

22. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘He is not of us who does not honour our elders, have mercy on our young, or know the rights of our scholars.’32 In Islam, the scholars have always been held in great esteem and affection by the masses. Be it as guardians and teachers of sacred knowledge, or as mediators between the wider public and the ruling elite, or as wise, pious sages of the ummah, the masses have often thronged around individual ‘ulema and showered them with huge amounts of love, honour and esteem. That type of celebrity culture encircling the ‘ulema has not been absent from Muslim history or its societies. One hadith states: ‘Indeed, when Allah, blessed and exalted is He, loves a person, he calls to Gabriel saying: “Allah loves so-and-so, love him too.” Gabriel then loves him. Gabriel then proclaims in Heaven: “Allah loves so-and-so, so love him too.” The angels in Heaven then love him. Thereafter, acceptance of him is placed into [the hearts of] those on earth.’33 So whilst fame, for many, comes about by them actively craving attention, for others it is brought about because of Divine love and Heaven’s grace – especially in the case of the ‘ulema and awliya. Just because some scholars and preachers are famous doesn’t mean they’ve craved or fuelled such fame.

23. While fame has always been around, our current celebrity culture is pretty much a modern phenomenon. It is said that fame is when people know who you are; celebrity is when people know what you’re doing. Social media has given fans the opportunity to connect with their interests, crushes and idols in an unprecedented way. Fans and followers become ever more absorbed in the lives of their favourite celebrities, to the extent it becomes increasingly hard to draw a line between what is appreciation and what is obsession. The flip side of the fandom frenzy is that celebrities carefully craft public profiles on social media in order to garner fans and following, so as to sell their particular brand to people. And if not that, then it is to seek validation and adulation and assuaging the ego by publicising their lives, careers, views and talents. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that the egotistical promotion of the self is not a byproduct of social media, it is inherent to the institution itself!

24. For Muslim scholarly engagement on social media, ikhlas must be key. As scholars or da‘is maintain profiles on platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – posting fatwas, advice, anecdotes, smidgens of religious wisdom, glimpses into their personal lives, or even the occasional scholarly selfie! – they must guard against being taken on an ego trip, and against acts of narcissism. Online followership can lead to toxic levels of self-conceit (‘ujb), given the tsunami of unrelenting flattery showered on the posts. pictures or preaching of popular scholars and da‘is. A man was once praised infront of the Prophet ﷺ, to which he repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Woe be to you! You have slit the neck of your companion.’34 In another hadith, he ﷺ stated: ‘If you see people lavishly praising others, throw dust in their faces.’35 The logic why ‘you have slaughtered him, due to your praise of him’36 is fairly straightforward. For such flattery, lionisation or adulation, writes al-Munawi, all too often ‘gives rise to delusion and arrogance,’37 and can become an addiction and lead to one’s spiritual downfall.

25. Contextualising the above hadiths, Imam al-Nawawi said: ‘As for praising a person to their face, there are some hadiths which judge it permissible or recommended, and others that judge it prohibited. Scholars hold that the best way to reconcile between them is to say: If the one praised has perfect faith (kamal iman), firm conviction (husn yaqin), spiritual discipline (riyadat nafs) and complete gnosis (ma‘rifah tammah), such that he will not be subjected to temptations, nor become conceited because of it; and neither will he be played by his ego, then it’s neither forbidden nor disliked. But if any of these things are feared, then praising him [to his face] is severely detested.’38 Al-Baghawi seems to have hit the nail bang on the head as far as the condition of most of us are concerned. He said: ‘In general, praise and compliments of a person [directly to him] is disliked (makruh). Seldom is the one who praises safe from lying in his praise, and seldom is the one praised safe from conceit (‘ujb) which seeps into him.’39 Hence we should all try to balance between words of appreciation and encouragement, and those that are praise, flattery or likely to be spiritually ruinous.

26. Some insist that, ‘The knowledge should be what inspires us, not who the speaker is or isn’t.’ As true and as ideal as this is; in reality, it’s also a failure to appreciate what it takes to motivate people. Revelation teaches that familiarity, eloquence, charisma and the art of persuasion do have their place in the da‘wah and do make a difference to the receptivity of hearts and souls; as do sincerity, humility and the realisation that it is Allah who ultimately guides, not us. Indeed, Allah has gifted some people a fuller share of such qualities than others, and has made souls attentive to the words of some more than others: That is the favour of Allah; which He gives to whom He wills. [62:4] Of course, with Allah’s favour comes the eye of envy (hasad) – and many of the criticisms levelled against scholars or da‘is is nothing but envy. And of course, with the favour of sacred knowledge comes immense responsibility and trials.

27. Having a large following is a trial (fitnah) for the one being followed more than the followers. If audiences are regularly coming away from talks of particular scholars or da‘is feeling merrily entertained, or overwhelmingly wowed; but are not coming away with feelings or remorse for wrongdoings, a desire to repent and reform, or a yearning for Allah and the afterlife, there’s something truly amiss with the speaker’s intention, learning, or ability as a guide – however popular they may be and however large their following. An Arab poet has said: awradaha sa‘d wa sa‘d mushtamil/ma hakadha ya sa‘d tuwradu’l-ibil – ‘Sa‘d came in while leading them. O Sa‘d! That’s not the way you bring in camels.’ Let not scholars or callers fill hearts with frivolity, but with fear of Allah. Let them not inspire audiences to roll over in fits of laughter, but to repentance and hope. Let them not plunge Allah’s servants deeper into the dunya, but help raise their gaze to Allah and the akhirah. To do otherwise is just not da‘wah – it is not calling to Allah in any meaningful sense of the word.

28. Thus far in the blog, I’ve cited wisdoms and rulings from some of Islam’s classical and contemporary legalists and pietists. Let me end, however, by quoting, not from a scholar, but from Shelina Janmohamed – author and commentator on Muslim social and religious trends. Speaking of Generation M – young, urban, middle-class Muslims, committed to practicing Islam and being fully immersed in the modern consumerist culture – she remarks: ‘Since Islam is supposed to be about self-effacement, and our Generation M individuals aspire towards modesty and humility, the almost cultish popularity of religious scholars can be confusing.’ She then cites from Safia Latif who observes: ‘We love our Muslim scholars so much so that we jump at the first chance to follow their lives and they indubitably mean well in their efforts to reach and relate to a tech-savy generation,’ concludes Safia. ‘But we must question the psychological and sociological impact of this culture on our collective Muslim ethos.’40 I think that more or less sums things up.

29. Finally, we ask Allah to protect all our scholars, shaykhs and da‘is; increase them in sincerity, understanding and goodness; continue benefitting our ummah with them; and help them be exemplars of learning, depth and piety, as well as courage, character and compassion. We ask Allah, too, that He help the wider public sort out the wheat from the chaff with regards to scholarship; steer them away from worldly scholars to scholars of the hereafter; inspire them to yearn for the company of the truly learned lovers of Allah; and shield them from callers to frivolity and amusement, who crave for fame and seek only to buttress their own egos.

Allahumma jammilna bawatinina bi’l-ikhlasi laka wa hassin a‘malana
bi ittiba‘i rasulika. As’alu’Llaha’l-‘azim rabba’l-arsha’l-‘azim
an yaj‘alana wa iyyakum mimman yastami‘una’l-qawla
fa yattabi‘una ahsanahu. Wa akhiri’l-
da‘wana ani’l-hamduli’Llahi
rabbi’l-‘alamin.
Amin!

1. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Al-Albani declared its isnad as sahih, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For a discussion about how such a verdict was reached, cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 6:1:40-42; no.2510. I extend my thanks to Dr Abdul Haqq Baker, an old and dear friend, for alerting me to this hadith.

2. Al-Bukhari, n0.3461.

3. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alimiyyah, 2013), 8:77.

4. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 1:73. Ibn al-Salah and Ibn al-Qayyim have said something similar. See: I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 6:99-101.

5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:233.

6. As explained by al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu‘assasah al-Risalah, 1988), 3:663-64.

7. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami‘ (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), no.212.

8. ibid., no.213.

9. As in his advice to one of his sons, Laftat al-Kabad ila Nasihat al-Walad (Beirut: Dar al-Muqtabas, 2013), 60.

10. Al-Khatib, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi, 1:232-33.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.5737.

12. ibid., no.5149.

13. Al-Bukhari, no.1473; Muslim, no.1045.

14. Ahmad, no.23357; Abu Dawud, no.3416. The chain contains Mughirah b. Ziyad and al-Aswad b. Tha‘labah who have been disparaged by hadith critics such as al-Bayhaqi and Ibn Hajr. Despite that, al-Albani graded the hadith, with its supporting chains, to be sahih. The details are given in: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:513-17; no.256.

15. At-Tirmidhi, no.2917, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan.’

16. Ibn Majah, no.714; al-Tirmidhi, no.209, where he said: ‘A hasan sahih hadith. The people of knowledge have acted by this hadith and disapprove that a mu’adhdhin take a wage for giving the adhan.’

17. See: Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alimiyyah, 2013), 6:42. Ibn Hajr notes the basic objection against the allowance of taking a fee – namely, that the allowance has been abrogated by the prohibition, and that the word ajr, “wage” in the first hadith means thawab, a spiritual reward – and argues the majority case, thus: [1]: While the “allowance” hadiths are undoubtedly authentic, the same cannot be said for the “prohibiting” ones; for they are not free of defects in their chains. [2]: Even if they are sound, the prohibitions in them are not categorical. [3]: The claim of abrogation is highly speculative and therefore invalid. [4]: To interpret the word ajr as thawab, given the context of the hadith, is far-fetched and therefore invalid.

18. Nayl al-Awtar (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1993), 5:344-45.

19. See: Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Karachi: Idarat al-Ma‘arif, 2008), 1:207-8; in his discussion of Qur’an 2:41.

20. ibid., 1:208.

21. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 26:19.

22. ibid., 26:20.

23. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2376, who said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

24. Quoted in al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:221; and its like is in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1165.

25. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, 9:70.

26. ibid., 9:70-71.

27. ibid., 9:71. I based my translation of these passages on A. Shaker (trans.), al-Ghazali, Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 62.

28. Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, no.21; Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2201.

29. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.

30. Al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), no.1076.

31. ibid., no.1084.

32. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, no.421. It was graded hasan in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.5443.

33. Al-Bukhari, no.7485; Muslim, no.2637.

34. Al-Bukhari, no.6061; Muslim, no.3000.

35. Muslim, no.3002.

36. As said by Ibn ‘Uthaymin, Sharh Riyadh al-Salihin (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2015), 1476.

37. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 1:362.

38. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 448.

39. Sharh al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983), 13:151.

40. Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World (London & New York: I.B.Tauris, 2016), 200.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mona

    December 17, 2020 at 10:41 AM

    Jazakallah Khair for the detailed articles (both part 1 and part 2.) If I may ask, what is difference between the titles of Alim, Sheikh and Ustadh? These terms are very commonly used. I will be grateful if I can be referred to any source regarding the difference in these terms.

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      December 18, 2020 at 3:39 PM

      Mona, my observation as a layman: Aalim is used to refer to a religious scholar. Ustadh literally means “master.” In most of the Muslim world it used for school teachers and university professors, and even fine craftsmen, except in Southeast Asia where it specifically refers to religious scholars. Shaykh literally means elder, and while it is often used for religious scholars, in Arabia it is a title of respect and honor given to any distinguished elderly person, and especially to tribal leaders, clan patriarchs, and members of nobility.

      So while there is a lot of crossover and geographical variation, and while it’s not unusual for all these terms to be used for religious leaders, each term does have a distinct origin.

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