Safety in Following the Righteous

December 24, 2007 § 15 Comments

Over the past few months, perhaps due to my presence, the topic of ‘shaykhs and those whom associate with shaykhs’ have come under fire by the local imams of a New York mosque that I attend on Fridays. So I thought I might write about the experience and ‘independently conclude’ whether my rights to worship without harassment have been violated. And if my rights have been violated, then the logical conclusion is that local leaders of the mosque that I attend are in fact abusing their position of authority and leadership within this community.

In mosques all around the world, those of authority and leadership function as a reminder to the faithful by addressing the community on pertinent issues of faith and fealty concerning one’s shahadat, the testament that there is no god but that One who created the Heavens, Earth and all creatures big and small and that Maulana Muhammad is His Messenger. They also remind us of the subsequent duties of the religion, that support the shahadat. This makes those of authority and leadership in Islamic society quite key feature of the religion, especially since there is no priesthood in Islam.

So I find it peculiar that a person of authority and leadership would give a Friday sermon generally criticizing the traditional role of the elders among the Islamic community, a role which was established by the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him). Why would a local leader, who is in effect leaning on the doctrine of taqlid, for his sermon’s acceptance, preach against taqlid and suggest that ‘Muslims should reject shaykhs, read and study, then form independent conclusions’ of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence? Taqlid, is the acceptance of religious advice from a higher authority other than one’s self without asking for technical proofs and is the fulfillment of Qur’anic commandment to follow the righteous,

“Follow those who ask of you no fee, and who are rightly guided.” (36:021, trans: Pickthall)

But how do we determine what righteousness is and furthermore who is righteous? Perhaps returning to the Noble Qur’an, the source that instructed us to follow the “rightly guided” may explain to us how to recognize the “rightly guided”. For example, in suratul baqarah it says,

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah (SWT) and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah (SWT)-fearing.” (tran: Yusuf Ali)

The above are not the inherent qualities of young men, in fact the above verse describes more accurately someone of a mature position within the community, an elder. Which implies to me that a community leader preaching against Muslims following shaykhs, an element hard-wired into the infrastructure of the religion, is somewhat self-defeating isn’t it? It seems to me that rather than criticizing the general role of shaykhs, those of authority and leadership would find a more reasonable position attacking the individuals themselves and perhaps discuss the points which they disapprove. However, that is just too risky and may over expose their critique, spoiling an agenda.

The word shaykh in the Arabic language literally means elder or mature man of wisdom which is used not only by Muslims but Arab Christians as well. In the Qur’an the word shaykh, or a variant, is used in reference to elderly men of a “venerable” status. (A.Yusuf Ali) For example, in suratul Hud verse 72 the word shaykh is attributed to the Prophet Abraham (a.s.), also in suratul Yusuf verse 78 the Prophet Joseph’s (a.s.) brothers likewise refer to their father the Prophet Jacob (a.s.) as a shaykh and when the Prophet Moses (a.s.) reached the Midyan’s water in suratul Qasas verse 23, the two women referred to their father, the Prophet Shuaib (a.s.) as a shaykh.

Therefore, the word shaykh, in Quranic language, has noble connotations as suggested by Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Qur’anic exegesis. And to speak ill of a position that Allah Almighty has generally given noble qualities is indeed a strange message for a Friday sermon. A shaykh is a community leader, an elder of the community which has been recognized as one that has attained a place of authority and leadership within a given community. So why would a man of authority and leadership attack the function of shaykhs?

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him) was the first shaykh of Islam. Traditionally, the Prophet (may Peace and Blessings be upon him) gave the sermon and led the congregational prayer on Fridays. But today, the imam is known to lead the prayers; and the sermon is usually given by a shaykh: a scholar, an elder or recognized person of wisdom.

If someone does both he is in fact following the tradition of the Prophet (may Peace and Blessings be upon him), but not only is he following the noble tradition of the first shaykh of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him), but by making the Friday sermon one is either accepting the role of a shaykh or permissibly acting as a representative of such authority. So why would a person making the Friday sermon, accepting the role of shaykh or at least one’s representative, give a sermon against following shaykhs?

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§ 15 Responses to Safety in Following the Righteous

  • hassan says:

    Asalaamu ‘alaykum,

    This is indeed strange. I could barely keep myself from laughing when I read this:

    Why would a local leader, who is in effect leaning on the doctrine of taqlid, for his sermon’s acceptance, preach against taqlid and suggest that ‘Muslims should reject shaykhs, read and study, then form independent conclusions’ of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence?

    However, this is far from a laughing matter. Because of this logic, the imam of my local mosque is getting a lot of flack from some members of the congregation. For him there is always someone who thinks he is doing something wrong. Some of them would dismiss his excellent points and say, ‘he does this cause he is from so and so’ or, ‘where is the daliil? is his daliil sahih or not?’ It is really stupifying.

    Why is someone preaching against following the Shaykhs wasting his time? He should tell his congregation to stop listening to him and just learn fiqh from sahih bukhari and muslim.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. hassan you wrote,

    “the imam of my local mosque is getting a lot of flack from some members of the congregation.”

    This kind of action is really troubling. This is what happens as a result of the destabilization of the authority and credibility of the ijazat system. In fact it is the result of the destabilization of authority within the Islamic community across the board.

    “He should tell his congregation to stop listening to him and just learn fiqh from sahih bukhari and muslim.”

    He should… but why doesn’t he? Why does he continue to stand up in front of the community telling them not to listen to others? Hmm 😉

  • jonolan says:

    This may be a reaction to the current political climate in the US. It is possible that the iman is saying that it is good to independently interpret the fiqh and ignore the concept of taqlid in order to diffuse the potential for seeming extremism. If the “congregation” are encouraged to interpret the law for themselves, the mosque cannot be held accountable for their actions.

    This is a trend I’ve been seeing in Islam since 9/11 – a removal of the scholar, the ’shaykhs, the interpretors of the Qur’an and the Haddith.

  • Aaminah says:

    Jonolan, you may be right that this is how some people are thinking, but it is irrational. For one because allowing everyone to intrepret the law for themselves is exactly what DOES lead to extremism. Allowing people with no basis of knowledge to interpret everything on their own is putting dangerous possibilities into the wrong hands. Self interpretation is exactly what those who are committing atrocities in the name of Islam are doing; they are not guided by genuine Islamic scholars to begin with so they are making things up and imposing their own interpretations on things that are widely understood in a completely different context.

    But also, it is irresponsible for any imam or shaykh to suggest this because by virtue of studying to become an imam or shakyh themselves, they have accepted a responsiblity to guide others rightly in accordance with their knowledge.

    It seems more likely that this particular imam wants everyone to listen to him and avoid all other guidance.

  • jonolan says:

    Aaminah,

    You may well be sadly right; the imam may just be consolidating his “power.” I was just pointing out a possibility, since independent interpretation of the Qur’an and Haddith seems to be central to the growing “reformist” Islamic movement that has sprouted and grown in the wake of 9/11.

    The simplest answer is normally the right one, but the other possible answers need to be considered as well.

  • brnaeem says:

    AA- Saifuddin,

    “So why would a man of authority and leadership attack the function of shaykhs?”

    While I don’t agree with the stance taken by this ‘man of authority and leadership’, its clear that he is not preaching against all authority – simply against the blind, irrational following of some authority, correct?

    It seems that he (and his ilk) differ with your understanding of shaykh – they are addressing the shaykh who is given baya’a and is blindly followed without any questioning or reasoning, while you are referring to the more general interpretation of a wise and respected elder.

    The two of you seem to be talking past each other.

    Additionally, your definition of Taqlid seems to have missed one essential element, the absence of individual reason. You write:

    “Taqlid, is the acceptance of religious advice from a higher authority other than one’s self without asking for technical proofs…”

    In the understanding of the khateeb, Taqlid would include an added descriptor – blind, as in the *blind* acceptance of religious advice…where one’s individual intellect is thrown aside when in conflict with the teaching of the shaykh.

    So in essence, this comes down to the ‘reason vs revelation’ debate that I’ve been seriously pondering lately. What role does reason play in the understanding of Islam by traditionalists?

    Finally, its very interesting to note that the modernists/rationalists/reformists and their arch-enemies the neo-Salafis share this fundamental principle (raising individual reasoning over the institution of the shaykh) which they use to come up with altogether different conclusions.

  • Yursil says:

    BismillahirRahmanirRahim

    When treading the dangerous paths of the mountains, sometimes it is best to see ahead, and other times the guide will blindfold you, knowing the fear of what is underneath will paralyze you.

    But that doesn’t mean the direction the guide is taking us is irrational, rather it means that sometimes in order to progress, we have to see the rationale after treading the path.

    In fact, one might say in that dangerous situation, the most rational thing to do is to rely on the guide.

  • Yursil says:

    If this isnt a Sufi story of progress, I don’t know what is:

    “Macfarlane takes us on an impressive journey through the last few hundred years, illustrating how Westerners have moved from being in awe of the craggy heights of mountains like the Alps (sometimes actually blindfolding themselves on mountain passes so as not to pass out wth sheer fright), to learning to appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of mountain scenery.”

    http://www.encompassculture.com/readerinresidence/botm/may05/

  • Aaminah says:

    Asalaamu alaikum.

    Jonolan, I agree with you and recognize the merit of what you describe. It is true that many “reform” Muslims today are pushing individual interpretation. I was merely intending to point out the falaciousness of such an idea as a legitimate way to do things. 🙂

    Naeem, I am in no way as well versed on this matter as you are but I find your comment disturbing and it “seems” to me (i.e. I could be totally misunderstanding) that you do not properly understand the concept of bayat or how it actually plays out.

    I have taken bayat to a shaykh, so I will give you my personal experience which may show you why I find your definition wanting: My shaykh has never demanded that I take leave of my own reason and intellect; quite the opposite in fact. He often talks me through my questions to help me to see the answer, other times he does give me the answer and often that answer is given with explanation. If it is a fiqh question, yes, he provides me the answer without “proofs” necessarily, but why do I need the proofs? I am asking him for the answer and trusting it. If I were confused by the answer, I would ask him to explain it to me and he has let me know that I may do so. But on non-fiqh specific matters, I have chosen his guidance on purpose because he is learned, because he is just and exemplifies the kind of Muslim I wish to be. I used my own reasoning to make the decision to take bayat to begin with. My shaykh has never “told” me “do this or don’t do that”. He has suggested things to me, he has recommended things to me, and he has encouraged me to ask him the meanings of things as is sometimes appropriate. He has also encouraged me to maintain relations with other of his murids who have been with him longer and may be able to share their experience with me. I am a pretty rational person, but I have found that most often if I am inclined to question something he has said, it is not that I am questionning his wisdom but that I am merely trying to understand the application of it. I have found that this desire more often stems not from disagreeing with him on a rational level, but from fear/laziness i.e. ego that fights doing what I recognize I need to do.

    In essence, I do not feel that my shaykh expects “blind” following from me. Just as I expect obedience from my pre-teen son without alot of questions, but I respect that he will have questions and disagree with me at times as long as he respects that I know better and that the end result is what he needs. There is a time and place for those questions, and other times where he just needs to do what I have asked of him. My shaykh does expect obedience, but he does not make commands because there are other ways to get the obedience than actually demanding it. He has never asked me to forgo common sense or forget the (small) knowledge I have. But when you are talking about deeper spiritual matters (beyond fiqh) and inner growth, this is not necessarily always going to be rational. Rationality is in many ways the very crutch of the nafs. There is a point where the rational mind must be silenced temporarily and allow the spiritual side to take over. Afterall, faith is not rational and yet it is faith and trust in Allah that is the basis of our entire deen.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum, brnaeem its good to see you back on my site. I’ve missed having you around, your comments were and are always a welcome addition to this site. You wrote,

    “While I don’t agree with the stance taken by this ‘man of authority and leadership’, its clear that he is not preaching against all authority – simply against the blind, irrational following of some authority, correct?”

    Of course not all authority, but the “blind irrational following” has been positioned poorly, if that is what he means. But I know the man personally, have known him for several years and he is anti Shaykh, anti formal Islamic education, Anti-Tariqat and his views lie somewhere between traditionalism, Arab Nationalism and Wahhabism.

    My attempt in this article was merely to bring some attention to the clarity of the matter so perhaps any wrongs, if any exist, may be redressed. Since he has spent nearly two months on the same topic 😉

    -Saifuddin

  • jonolan says:

    I think, that if it were me, I would find another masjid. The imam at the one you’re attending seems to be leaving Islam the religion behind and moving into “Islamic Politics.” It is my thought that this is not the role of an imam, if for no other reason than it involves a level of hubris that I think is undesirable in a holy man.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    jonolan, it would not be appropriate to leave the community for another masjid. The imam’s views are not shared by the entire community. In fact his sermons are the result of other pressures from other areas within in the local community. This is as far as I can go on that matter.

    What this situation boils down to is manners. Islamic manners are something very specific and not something we can learn from reading. Just as our parents taught us about general etiquette, so do shaykhs and learned ones teach us of the prophetic manners and conduct to which the Islamic community received through the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him). Today we receive these lessons in manners and conduct through the inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad and those are the Shaykhs and learned ones. If we do not associate with them how can we learn the prerequisite to knowledge in Islam… good Islamic manners.

    Sufyan Yunus wrote an interesting article called Loving and Respecting One’s Shaykh. It is a good read.

  • brnaeem says:

    AA- Aaminah bhaji,

    Thank you for your well thought out comment. Its very inspiring to read about your very dynamic relationship with your Shaykh. In fact, your experience is more in line with my understanding of a shaykh-murid connection.

    If you look back at my comment, I was referring to the concept of Taqlid *as understood by the khateeb*. I was merely pointing out the misconception that many of our neo-salafi brothers have on taqlid and they deride the concept as one based on the blind following of one’s shaykh.

    Having said that, I do believe that an element of ‘reason-suspension’ is required, as Yursil explained in his comments, when dealing with a more knowledgeable and experienced teacher. Some would call that irrational, I prefer to see that as faith and trust.

    However, I’m struggling on where to draw that line.

    I wonder if you have studied any manuals of traditional fiqh with your shaykh? I have found that to be one area where alot of blind acceptance is expected, as many of the older rulings are very difficult to rationalize (especially for those of us raised in a 21st century liberal democratic society). You basically end up having to take most of it at face-value and simply move on.

    In a more contemporary context, I’m not very satisfied with the answer given by traditional scholars on the reason for staying out of politics. So must I accept their stance on remaining apolitical, even though its contrary to my reasoning?

    One may counter, who am I to have the audacity to think that my reasoning has any weight when compared to the spiritual and intellectual stars of our time? Indeed *my* reasoning is an offspring of *my* nafs and so I agree that my nafs plays a divisive role in this reason v revelation debate, but surely there must be a middle ground where both my faith and my reason can co-exist.

    Does the crushing of the nafs (which I unequivocally accept as a spiritual necessity) equate to crushing of the aql (which, interestingly enough, my aql cannot accept – surprise, surprise)?

  • hassan says:

    Asalaamu ‘alaykum,

    I think a valid question to ask is, is reason an objective thing? Regardless of how thoughtout, thoughtfull and throughgoing of ones reason, it is still limited by the limited knowledge and experiences one has experienced; is it not?

    Thinking like this, my thoughts are that trusting the reasoning of an individual with access to much larger pools of knowledge and experiences is a very reasonable thing to do and, dare I say, the most reasonable. But for the most part we’re treading a well traveled path. So for a long period of time ones individual reasoning is only necessary for understanding the material and wisdom behind it and not to chart out a novel path.

    An interesting note to make is that previous scholars have forbidden their students to follow taqlid once they’ve reached a certain level of understanding, although the possibility of this happening now-a-days has decreased exponentially. So to me, it is not a matter of reason vs. no reason. Rather it is reason being carried out by qualified individuals vs. reason being carried out by unqualified individuals.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    wa ‘alaikum as-salaam hassan, you wrote:

    “But for the most part we’re treading a well traveled path.”

    Indeed, even the most benign of the faithful can say that they have traveled this path at least in some part. For example, concerning something that is as fundamental today as literacy shows us how this works in relation to one’s teacher. If a child goes to kindergarten the child must trust the teacher accepting that the teacher’s knowledge is superior. So that when the teacher draws an A or an Alif, it is accepted as an A or an Alif. And when the teacher associates a sound to this symbol the child also must accept it to be true.

    Can you imagine what would happen if a child rejected the sound but accepted the symbol! That would be disastrous, so the point here boils down to accepting that one’s reasoning, despite how clever we think we are, does not surpass the knowledge of our shaykh. If we are not accepting that… then what are we accepting? It must be that we are qualified to be a shaykh or at least challenge that one and that somewhat destroys the tradition that the Holy Prophet (may Peace and Blessings be upon him) established.

    -Saifuddin

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