i s m i l l a a h i r R a h m a a n i r R a
h e e m
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)
Sheikh, Your Sheikh
Go Have a Milkshake
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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:
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)
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
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.
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.
Knowledge, So Much Ignorance
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Husain is a social worker in the United States and
has been a contributing writer to Islam Online since 1998. He
be contacted at email@example.com