For a good number of years, Muslim religious activists, both scholars and followers, have bought into a notion that “true” scholars are without flaw, or what flaws they have are negligible. If anyone has flaws, it’s either the laypeople, or those who claim to be scholars, but really aren’t. The “true scholars” of our religion are near perfect – we can assume they are the “Friends” of Allah u and they always differ among themselves with proper adab. If anyone is starting fights, it is either overzealous, first-year students of knowledge, or it is laypeople who have been counseled to patience, but have neglected the teachings of the scholars. When khatîbs ascend the minbar in many masjids, it is to remind people that we in “this day and age” are the most corrupt, the most worldly, and the most away from any semblance of religiosity, unlike in the past when apparently everything was perfect.
Fundamentally, this thought process builds a framework for leaders to escape responsibility and surrounds them with sycophants, yes-men and fan-girls that continue to validate and enable their behavior. They feel justified, infallible (almost) to the point of being unquestioned. The problems are “out there,” not “right here.” By out there, what is meant is the weak-faithed masses of Muslims who, if they would just listen to the leaders, would be better off, guided.
Speaking from personal experience in the field of daw’ah for 15 years, and working in a leadership capacity the last 10 of them, I’ve had the opportunity to deal with many types of Muslim religious leaders, and I find it untenable to agree unconditionally with such sentiments. While it is true that piety and faith can grow with knowledge and practice, the possession of the latter doesn’t guarantee the former, let alone infallibility – just ask Iblis, who worshiped Allah in the company of the angels themselves and was among those privileged to speak directly to Him.
Some of the problems I’ve seen are as follows:
1. Scapegoating Bitter Partisanship on New Students of Islamic Studies and Laypeople
A common refrain for years has been that young, zealous students of Islamic studies programs are responsible for the bitter partisanship that has wracked many a Muslim community for years running, or that tabloid fights about issues like zabiha meat and Ramadan / Hajj / Eid are the fault of ignorant laypeople. I consider this to be absolute nonsense. While such people share in the blame for propagating the problem, ultimately fault lies with the teachers and yes, the scholars.
It is not difficult, even today, to find audios, videos, and other assorted lectures in which scholars who have taken on some type of theological or jurisprudential position and elevate their view from mere academic difference of opinion to an all-out battle for the heart and soul of Islam itself. Students don’t make up those attitudes on their own; no, many times, the attitude, the bitterness, the hatred, all of it is taught to them by someone in a place of authority and respect.
Some who have wised up with age have regretted and apologized to the community for the path they took themselves and others down in their earlier years, but many still continue with the same destructive thought process of both dividing the community and then blaming the community for the reason it is so divided.
In theory, we have a holistic spiritual and intellectual framework for engaging diversity of opinion, one that respects educated differences with both respectful dialogue that allows a principled exchange of ideas, as well as spiritual humility in which one may take a strong position on a matter while allowing for the possibility that one has committed an error. The key lesson for leaders who must engage these differences is to realize that lip service isn’t enough – we must live the practice of such ideals when facing difference, both publicly and privately with supporters, both externally and internally within ourselves.
2. Scapegoating Indifference and Avoidance on “Lack of Iman”
Another common area of blame is the lack of iman in the community: People won’t come to “free” programs or events because they have no interest in spiritual betterment. They just want to be “entertained.” And when people turn out in large numbers to the events of certain speakers / teachers, it’s because they’re “entertainers” more than teachers.
Again, from personal experience, there is more to engaging a community and getting them to learning events than just making an announcement and waiting for everyone to show up. At a minimum, a leader should have a vision of what he wants to accomplish and must retain a core group of individuals with varying skill sets that support his or her efforts and evangelize his or her programs. The leaders should themselves be actively engaged with individuals to build connections and influence.
Beyond this, they should look at the way they deliver information and take feedback, whether it’s on the minbar or on a Saturday evening family night halaqah: Are people understanding? Are they benefiting? How can I, as a speaker, improve. Can I improve the way I put presentations together? Can I prepare better? Can I practice before I speak?
I once attended an ISNA conference panel where two individuals on a panel were present to speak about the Qur’an, one an up-and-coming daʿî and the other a respected scholar. It was clear the latter came to the talk with no preparation as he rattled off generic cliches and platitudes while the former had meticulously done their research to provide an informative and beneficial presentation.
Some individuals would respond by saying that in the past, when the caliphs would ask the scholars to come to their palaces for private learning, those scholars would reject them and say that even the royal family had to come to them and study together with the other students. Shouldn’t we have the same attitude?
To those who have such expectations as teachers, I would say get over yourselves. Those are the halaqat of the students of Islamic knowledge. Those scholars were not telling the leaders to come down from their positions of power because of insecure delusions of grandeur, but rather the scholars were indicating that the caliph had to humble himself before Allah and come study along with everyone else. In the case of many teachers today, especially in local communities, the teacher has knowledge, but little-to-no community engagement and takes personal affront when his pedestal is not recognized, his place not “respected” as he expects.
“Da’wah” is invitation – it is proactive, not reactive. The Prophet (ﷺ) didn’t sit in a room and wait for people to come to him to recognize his prophethood and accept Islam. He went out and actively invited, either directly or through his followers.
3. Scapegoating Poor Political Realities on Poor Practice of Faith by the Masses
I agree with this point, actually, but there is a pretense that Muslim scholars and thought leaders aren’t part of the problem as well. Despots lead many Muslim majority countries, and such individuals are religiously subsidized by government scholar fatwas that castigate disagreement and quote traditions demanding the following of leadership.
Those traditions and interpretations are not in question. What is in question is the principled nature of those scholars themselves. What can be found in the past (along with the types we described earlier) are scholars who both encouraged following the rulers while still speaking truth to power, encouraging good and forbidding evil. Today’s scholar isn’t saying, “The leader is wrong, but we have to keep the peace,” but rather, “The leader is righteous; he is on God’s path–so you had better keep the peace. Otherwise, you are excommunicated and your blood is halal.”
The latter scholars are further validated by western students of knowledge and thought leaders who lack basic common sense and seem to think that there is a moral equivalence between respecting an ijtihâd on a matter like halal meat or moonsighting differences, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, respecting the ijtihâd of scholars who find tenuous reasons to excommunicate and execute socio-religious political opponents. The principle of not criticizing a mujtahid for his or her ijtihad assumes an intent for pleasing Allah (swt) in deriving a ruling, not blatant partisanship or political conflicts of interest.
The key to change is not about whom we can blame, but rather, how we can turn our grocery list of socio-political and religious problems into a self-audit that results in concrete religious action in the form of personal worship and community contribution. This principle isn’t true simply something to tell Muslim laypeople, but leaders as well.
Speaking again from experience, I have worked with leaders who expanded themselves outside of their comfort zones, who learned not only the knowledge, but how to teach the knowledge. To this day, I see that their efforts are reaching more people and, by the guidance of Allah u, changing them into better Muslims. Unfortunately, I also see those who will take any opportunity to caricature such efforts as turning Islam into a business, or marketing, and what have you.
To those critics I say, to them you can either sit in your small cliques and continue your passive-aggressive snipes at laypeople, successful da’ees and da’wah organizations, or you can humbly take a constructively critical self-audit of your skills and behaviors and make better, proactive efforts to effect positive change firstly within yourself before calling out the so-called “misguided laity”. There exist many examples of successful Muslim leaders and organizations who have reached out in their communities and effected positive change through consistent, organized grassroots efforts. Rather than criticizing them, I would suggest learning from them. This will go a long way in learning how to reach out to the masses rather than scapegoating them for one’s own failures.