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"We relate to thee their story in truth: they were youths who believed in their Lord, and We advanced them in guidance: We gave strength to their hearts: Behold, they stood up and said: "Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and of the earth: never shall we call upon any god other than Him: if we did, we should indeed have uttered an enormity!" (Al-Kahf 18:13-14)


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My Sheikh, Your Sheikh

Let's Go Have a Milkshake

By Altaf Husain   

You know the drama all too well. Perhaps you have been an actor in the drama or a silent observer or, dare we say, the instigator. With variations in the actual script of the drama, the all-too-familiar scene could unfold like this: A group of sincere Muslims have gathered to worship Allaah Almighty. They are preparing to pray and then, after prayer, they will head out to a restaurant for dinner.

Scene 1

Sincere Muslim #1: Wait, did I just see you put water on your socks?

Sincere Muslim #2: Yes, I'm perfoming wudoo', as if that was not obvious enough.

Sincere Muslim #1: But you didn't wash your feet!

Sincere Muslim #2: Wiping my socks is just like washing my feet! My sheikh says it is.

Sincere Muslim #1: Your sheikh? What does your performing wudoo' have to do with your sheikh?

Sincere Muslim #2: My sheikh has taught me everything I know, including how to perform wudoo'. Who is your teacher?

Sincere Muslim #1: Well, I am a very independent-minded person and I am self-taught. I do not need a sheikh to tell me how to perform wudoo' or how to interpret Islamic teachings. I can do it myself.

Sincere Muslim #2: Suit yourself. I just feel it is much easier to have a reference point, a person who is learned and who can facilitate the learning process. That's why I like to refer to my sheikh.

Meanwhile, a few other members of the group are chatting before prayers about where they might like to go and eat dinner. The following scene unfolds.

Scene 2

Sincere Muslim #3: Hey, what about dinner? Where are we going to eat?

Sincere Muslim #4: It doesn't really matter. I just want lots of food, cheap.

Sincere Muslim #3: It does matter where we eat. The place better serve halaal food.

Sincere Muslim #4: Chill, sister! No one is thinking about eating pork tonight.

Sincere Muslim #3: I didn't mean pork when I said it better be halaal; I meant we should find a place that serves halaal meat � what's so difficult about this?

Sincere Muslim #4: Well, first of all, my sheikh says all the meat in America is essentially halaal, except of course pork. So we can eat meat at any restaurant.

Sincere Muslim #3: How's that possible? My sheikh says we are allowed to eat meat prepared by the People of the Book (Christians/Jews) but he says meat consumed in most restaurants can hardly be considered as prepared by the People of the Book!

Sincere Muslim #4: So where do we eat? As I said, I want lots of food, cheap. But most of your halaal restaurants are so expensive.

Sincere Muslim #5: Listen, you guys, between eating meat allowed by your sheikh and my sheikh, we're not going to eat anything tonight. Can we just go have a milkshake instead?

The Debrief

You might have related to the characters in both of the scenes above. Let's look at each scene carefully. The conversation in the first scene ends with one young person advocating for learning from a trustworthy, learned person � in this essay, we refer to such a learned person as a sheikh. The other young person finds it difficult to have to listen to and learn from a sheikh and prefers teaching herself. She characterizes herself as being an open-minded person as well. In the second scene, one young person insists on following her sheikh's interpretation that only meat slaughtered and prepared by Muslims is permissible or halaal to eat; and her friend insists that, according to her sheikh, allowable meat is just that, allowable meat, which is all meat except pork regardless of who slaughtered it or prepared it.

Everyday Challenges, Real Solutions
During the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam, the Companions turned to him with all of their inquiries, ranging from questions about activities of daily living, such as what happens if you forget and eat while fasting, to questions of a more transcendental nature, such as how you can assure that you will enter Paradise. In response to their everyday challenges, Prophet Muhammad Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam provided real solutions, real responses, revealed and reaffirmed by divine inspiration from Allaah Almighty through the angel Jibreel. The Qur`aan offers a clear approach, addressing believers as follows:
"O you who believe! Obey Allaah, and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allaah and His Messenger, if you do believe in Allaah and the Last Day: That is best and most suitable for final determination. " (An-Nisaa' 4:59)
In fact, as the verse delineates, believers are instructed on two matters: obedience and conflict resolution. Believers must, in this order, obey Allaah Subhanahu wa Ta`ala, the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam, and then those in legitimate authority over us. Essentially, those placed in authority over us derive their power from Allaah Almighty, and if they ever tell us to do something that contradicts Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala's commands, then we should disregard them and obey Allaah Almighty, and similarly we obey them as long as what they expect of us is in agreement with what the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam has instructed us. With regard to differences in religious interpretation between individuals or groups, the above verse instructs us to refer the matter back to Allaah Almighty (through the Qur`aan) and the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam (through the Sunnah).
After the death of Prophet Muhammad Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam, trustworthy and learned scholars emerged from among the righteous Companions and the same transition occurred in subsequent generations, with more and more scholars available to facilitate understanding of the religion for the common people. Inevitably, differences in interpretation and understanding emerged among the scholars. When the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam was alive, there was no difference in opinion with regard to religion. The believers of the time accepted the Qur`aan and the guidance of the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam without question, as he was their imaam, their guide with an authentic connection to the Divine.
In the physical absence of the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam among us today, the established time-honoured, authentic process for decision making on religious matters is to refer matters to the Qur`aan, the Sunnah, and then to the ijtihad or the independent interpretation of the Qur`aan and Sunnah by trustworthy, learned scholars. The beautiful simplicity of this hierarchy of sources and the time-honored tradition of mutual respect and collegiality among renowned Muslim scholars have combined to produce the most comprehensive guides to all spheres of Muslim life.

So Much Knowledge, So Much Ignorance
Today, the Qur`aan, the Sunnah, and the ijtihad of our righteous predecessors are accessible at the click of a mouse button. In the blink of an eye, one can conduct a keyword search of any of these sources in their electronic forms. Then how do we explain the conversations captured in the two scenes above? How is it that in this day and age, a young person can actually claim to have the capacity for self-interpretation of Islamic teachings, indeed to think of themselves as a cyber sheikh? How is it that two young friends, compatible in every way imaginable, can end up having disagreements on religious matters because each adheres to the interpretation of her own sheikh? How does one choose a sheikh? Is it necessary to have a sheikh?
Today, in the midst of all this knowledge, there seems to be so much more ignorance than ever before. For young people, there are so many risks and pitfalls between trying to learn more about Islam, practicing what they learn, and coming to terms with the differences between what they know and practice, what they see practiced by other Muslims, and what they are being told by Muslim scholars as "your religion; don't ask any questions, just accept it." Two potential risks we must take note of are the cyber Muslim and the cyber sheikh. 

The Cyber Muslim
Our present-day reality is that there are far too many Muslims who are disconnected from a vibrant Muslim community and therefore the risk exists that a young person growing up in this day and age could actually end up going through life being raised by parents who have a weak knowledge of Islam, without ever going to a mosque or having close Muslim friends. The risk is that this young person could literally think that they could access all they need to know about Islam via the Internet. The cyber Muslim could learn how to perform wudoo' by watching a Google video, learn how to pray from YouTube, learn how to read the Qur`aan and even memorize it from Qur`aan Reciter, use the online zakaah calculator when they start to earn an income, join the live video streaming of the Taraweeh Prayer in Makkah, and even perhaps perform Hajj online without ever leaving the comfort of their home.
All this sounds absurd, right? Of course it does. But you must know of people in your own circle of friends who are learning their religion from online resources and not from the sheikh at the local masjid. Why do you think this is happening? One possibility is that young people feel that religion is presented in a very dogmatic way, as a set of dos and don'ts. Frustrated by this perceived harshness at the mosque, young people could, and in some cases do, escape to a cyber masjid, where they enjoy uninhibited opportunities for growth, learning, and socialization, all without ever leaving their home. The risk here is that the more the young people resort to a cyber existence, the more likely they will be to have little or no respect for tradition and the authority of scholars and, worst of all, they will miss out on the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood which would attach them to the local and global Muslim community. They are more likely to have a rejectionist outlook, resisting any attempts from scholars to teach them or guide them. While learning from online sources can supplement learning opportunities, it is clear that a solely cyber existence is neither recommended nor desirable. 

The Cyber Sheikh
The information technology revolution has served the Muslim community well in ways unimaginable. It is truly a blessing from Allaah Almighty that so many well-meaning and well-intentioned Muslims have sacrificed uncountable hours of their time to transfer to the Internet the Qur`aan, volumes of collections of the Prophet Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam's authentic traditions, and untold texts from hundreds of scholars among our righteous predecessors. For serious students of Islam, it has never been easier to engage in structured learning, with instantaneous access to our rich tradition and legacy.
Unfortunately, the same ease of access is also available to the not-so-serious students, whose focus is less on personal advancement and enrichment and more on attempting to bypass the traditional teacher-student transmission of knowledge and become a cyber sheikh overnight. What a tragedy indeed that we have reached a point of existence where young people do not value the time-honored process of learning from a sheikh, internalizing and comprehending the knowledge, and then being certified by that sheikh to impart that knowledge to others. What is even worse is that, armed with this cyber knowledge only, many young people spend countless hours arguing, debating, and attempting to influence one another on the interpretation of highly complex concepts in Islamic theology.
Indeed, in an authentic hadeeth narrated by Abdullah ibn`Amr ibn Al-`Aas radhiallaahu`anhu, our beloved Prophet Muhammad Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam warned us, saying, "Allaah does not take away the knowledge by taking it away from (the hearts of) the people, but takes it away by the death of the scholars till when none of them remain, people will take as their leaders ignorant persons, who when consulted will give their verdict without knowledge. So they will go astray and will lead the people astray." (Al-Bukhaari, Book 3, Hadeeth 100.) If we are not careful, what seems to be an absurd concept � that of the cyber sheikh � will become a reality.

Final Thoughts
If you review the two scenes described above, you might relate either to one or to both. The important lesson for all of us to remember is that we must be conscious of our limitations with regard to knowledge about our religion but we should strive ceaselessly to gain more knowledge and to practice what we know. It is critical that we remain connected with a local Muslim community and seek audience with a trustworthy, local sheikh if one is available on a regular basis.

Whenever available, we should take advantage of opportunities to learn in person with a qualified sheikh and then supplement our learning with online resources from trustworthy organizations. We must resist the temptation to become arrogant, and the idea that we are not in need of assistance to comprehend our religion; because even though we might think we know and understand a certain concept in Islam, our understanding is limited at best, unless it has been acquired through the help of a sheikh.

Of course, this is not to say that sheikhs are infallible; of course not. However, there is little value to excessive argumentation among friends, especially leading to arguments on my sheikh versus your sheikh. In the end, we must remember that, as family and friends, we must coexist and engender mutual respect among one another. Scholars have legitimate differences in understanding and interpretation but we should neither resort to rejecting their opinions outright nor deceive ourselves into thinking that we can speak in a particular scholar's voice. Let's learn, let's grow, and let's not argue about my sheikh and your sheikh; let's instead go have a milkshake

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Altaf Husain is a social worker in the United States and has been a contributing writer to Islam Online since 1998. He

can be contacted at youth_campaign@iolteam.com