As much as some may behave to the contrary, there is no priestly or rabbinical order that is textually sanctioned in Islam. The Qur’ānic text is replete with examples of censure given to the previous nations that descended into an abyss through their scholarship [e.g. 5: 44, 63; 9: 31, 34]. Whether that was altering the rulings for a miserly price, to taking the diktats of the priestly order above and beyond the revealed law.
Scholarship underpinned by piety is neither conferred by virtue of holding any particular office, the mere presence upon a state-sanctioned committee, nor even by means that are inherited. Enchantment with or outright sycophancy towards those despotically holding political office is also not a sign of scholarship, let alone scholarly conduct. Indeed, as we move inexorably towards the end of days, it is worth reminding ourselves of the words that the Prophet peace be upon him furnished us with concerning the ‘deceitful jurists.’ In al-Mu’jam al-Ṣaghir, al-Ṭabarāni cites the following tradition narrated upon the authority of Abu Hurayrah:
حدثنا علي بن محمد بن علي الثقفي البغدادي حدثنا معاوية بن الهيثم بن الريان الخراساني حدثنا داود بن سليمان الخراساني حدثنا عبد الله بن المبارك عن سعيد بن أبي عروبة عن قتادة عن سعيد بن المسيب عن أبي هريرة رضي الله تعالى عنه قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: يكون في آخر الزمان أمراء ظلمة، ووزراء فسقة، وقضاة خونة، وفقهاء كذبة، فمن أدرك منكم ذلك الزمن فلا يكونن لهم جابياً ولا عريفاً ولا شرطياً
Ali ibn Muḥammad ibn Ali al-Thaqafi al-Baghdādi narrated to us Mu’āwiya ibn al-Haytham ibn al-Rayyān al-Khurasāni narrated to us Dāwud ibn Sulaymān al-Khurasāni narrated to us Abdullah ibn al-Mubārak narrated to us from Sa’eed ibn Abi Aruba from Qatādah from Sa’eed ibn al Musayib from Abu Hurayrah may Allah be pleased with him, he said, the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said:
In the end times, there will be oppressive rulers, immoral ministers, treacherous judges, and deceitful jurists. Whosoever among you is present then: do not be for them (tax)collector, nor a consultant, nor a police officer.
An increasing modern tendency among many circles has been to push the idea of ‘the scholars have spoken’ or that they, as a largely unknown collective, have concurred upon or decreed a matter. One is often struck by the use of the definite article attached to the word ‘scholars,’ as if to suggest that this is indicative of a wide-ranging consensus nearing certitude. What is never explained, is that reference to ‘the’ scholars, is almost always a small strand, very often that is state-sanctioned. But disagreement should be prompting reference to the ultimate determiner, the revelation, as Ibn Ḥazm lucidly argues [al-Nubtha al-Kāfiya, p. 47]:
If one scholar disagrees with the rest, there is no proof in numbers because Allah the exalted says, having mentioned the righteous, ‘very few are they’ [38:24]. He, may He be exalted, said: ‘And if you should differ on anything, refer it to Allah and his Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day’ [4:59]. One person’s disagreement is a sufficient quarrel to oblige referring the matter to the Qurʾān and Sunnah. Allah the exalted never commanded one to refer it to the majority.
It is worth outlining a short reminder to delineate where the term scholars, or ‘ulamā’ stems from and what should underpin scholarship more generally. The term ‘ulamā’ (العلماء) is the plural of ‘alim, meaning the learned, the knowledgeable. This appears in two verses of the Qur’ān, the first of which dealing with the Children of Israel:
أولم يكن لهم آية أن يعلمه علماء بني إسرائيل
Is it not a Sign to them that the learned of the Children of Israel knew it? [26: 197]
The second verse is to be found in Surah al-Fāţir, and it provides further qualification to the term ulamā’, being directly linked to the conscious reverential fear of Allah:
كذلك إنما يخشى الله من عباده العلماء إن الله عزيز غفور
Likewise, it is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in fear of Allah. Allah is almighty, most forgiving. [35: 28]
Yet not everyone with knowledge necessarily has the fear of Allah that is spoken of. As Ibn Taymiyyah poignantly observed while remarking upon this verse: ‘This indicates that everyone who fears Allah has knowledge, which is true; it does not indicate that everyone who has knowledge fears him’ [Majmu’ al-Fatāwah, Vol. 7, p. 539]. In his seminal work, Ranks of the Divine Seekers (Madārij al-Sālikīn), Ibn Qayyim outlines some important comments regarding this verse, he writes:
The station of fear combines the station of the gnosis of Allah, and the knowledge of Allah’s sole right of being worshipped, and when he knows Allah and His right, His trepidation is enhanced, as the Exalted has said: Likewise, it is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in fear of Allah [35:28]. Thus, those who know Him and His command are the people of fear and trepidation [trans. Vol. 1, p. 318].
The terms wajal, khawf, khashya, and rahba have similar meanings without being synonyms. Abu al-Qāsim al-Junayd said: ‘Khawf is the anticipation of punishment with every passing breath.’ It has been said: ‘Khawf is the disruption and movement of the heart upon the cognisance of that which is feared.’ It has also been said: ‘Khawf is the strength of the knowledge of the path of destiny;’ this, however, is the cause of fear, not its definition. It has also been said, ‘Khawf is the fleeing of the heart from the occurrence of what is disliked upon its cognisance.’ Khashya (reverential fear) is more specific than khawf, for it is specific to the true knowers of Allah – as Allah the Exalted has said: Likewise, it is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in fear of Allah [35:28]. Hence, khashya is fear associated with the intimate knowledge of Allah [trans. Vol. 2, p. 160].
Writing in his acclaimed Tafsir [Vol. 8, p. 544], Ibn Kathir makes the following comment in relation to the verse [35:28]:
‘Meaning, only those who have knowledge truly fear him as he should be feared, because the more they know about the al-‘Azeem (Almighty), al-Qadir (All-powerful), al-‘Aleem (All-knowing) who has the most perfect attributes and is described with the most beautiful names, the more they will fear him.’
After this Ibn Kathir proceeds to detail some very important narratives from the companions and successors to them in order to bolster these points [Vol. 8, pp. 544/545]:
Ibn Lahiya said from Ibn Abi ‘Umara from ‘Ikrima from Ibn ‘Abbās, that he said: ‘The one among His servants who knows about al-Raḥman, is the one who does not associate a partner with Him; the one who accepts as lawful that which He has permitted and accepts as unlawful that which He has prohibited. He obeys His commands and is certain that he will meet Him and be brought to account for his deeds.’
Sa’eed ibn Jubayr said: ‘Reverential fear (al-Khashya) is what stands between you and disobeying Allah, may He be glorified.’
al-Ḥasan al-Baṣri said: ‘The knowledgeable person is the one who fears al-Raḥman with regard to the unseen, who likes that which Allah wants him to like and who shuns that which angers Allah.’
And from Ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, that he said: ‘Knowledge is not knowing many aḥādith. But knowledge is from the great fear (of Allah).’
Aḥmad ibn Ṣāliḥ al-Maṣri said from Ibn Wahb from Mālik that he said: ‘Indeed, knowledge is not possessing a great many narrations, but knowledge is the light of Allah made in the heart.’
In the Tafsir of al-Qurţubi similar narratives are also cited [Vol. 19, pp. 375/376]. Notable among these is the statement, albeit without an isnād, purported to be from the noble companion, Ali ibn Abi Ṭālib, may Allah send peace upon him:
The true jurist (faqih) does not make people despair from the mercy of Allah, yet who does not make concessions for them in the disobedience of their Lord; he, who does not make them feel safe from the punishment of Allah; who is not inclined towards anything other than the Qur’ān. Verily, there is no good in worship that is not governed by knowledge; and nothing useful in knowledge that has no understanding; and not [much] use in recitation that is not accompanied by contemplation.
The statement reported from Umar bin al-Khaṭṭāb, as recorded in the Sunan of al-Dārimi, is also worth considering:
أخبرنا محمد بن عيينة انا علي هو ابن مسهر عن أبي إسحاق عن الشعبي عن زياد بن حدير قال قال لي عمر هل تعرف ما يهدم الاسلام قال قلت لا قال يهدمه زلة العالم وجدال المنافق بالكتاب وحكم الأئمة المضلين
Muḥammad ibn ‘Uyaynah reported to us Ali, he is Ibn Mishar, reported to us from Abu Isḥāq from al-Sha’bi from Ziyād ibn Ḥudayr, he said: Umar bin al-Khaṭṭāb said to me: Do you know what will ruin Islam? No, I replied. Umar said: Islam will be ruined by the faults of scholars, the arguments of hypocrites over the Book and the judgment of misguided leaders.
قال ابن رجب فليس العلم بكثرة الرواية ولا بكثرة المقال ولكنه نور يقذف في القلب يفهم به العبد الحق ويميز به بينه وبين الباطل
Ibn Rajab said: Knowledge is not memorising many narrations or sayings, but rather it is a light that Allah places in the heart by which a servant understands the truth and he distinguishes it from falsehood.
In al-Jāmi al-Ṣaḥīḥ al-Mukhtaṣr, Bukhāri records several traditions upon the authority of the companion Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aāṣ, may Allah be pleased with him, relating to this subject matter more broadly. These are noteworthy in conveying the Prophetic message as to how knowledge is taken away and where the ignorant are appointed to misguide.
حدثنا قتيبة بن سعيد حدثنا جرير عن هشام بن عروة عن أبيه سمعت عبد الله بن عمرو بن العاص يقول سمعت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يقول إن الله لا يقبض العلم انتزاعا ينتزعه من الناس ولكن يقبض العلم بقبض العلماء حتى إذا لم يترك عالما اتخذ الناس رءوسا جهالا فسئلوا فأفتوا بغير علم فضلوا وأضلوا
Qutayba ibn Sa’eed narrated to us Jarir narrated to us from Hishām ibn ‘Urwa from his father, I heard Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aāṣ saying he heard the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him saying:
Verily, Allah does not take away knowledge by snatching it from the people but He takes away knowledge by taking away the ulamā’, so that when He leaves no ‘alim, people turn to the ignorant as their leaders; then they are asked to deliver fatwa and they deliver them without knowledge, they go astray, and lead others astray.
Many are often perplexed when they come to learn that famous revered ‘scholars’ or scholarly figures issue outlandish statements or provide cover to the crimes of others. Whether that be sanctioning ‘peace’ with the oppressive enemies of Islam, misrepresenting the legal edicts of the revelation, or justifying the outrageous crimes of political tyrannies, the required reverential fear of Allah of those associated with scholarly conduct seems to dissipate entirely. Perhaps that shows such individuals do not genuinely come within the terms that are spoken of above.
Maybe it is worth providing a reminder during these turbulent times that true scholarship underpinned by piety, making a serious contribution to knowledge, holding power to account, calling to the revival of Islam, will stand brightly distinct from those who would debase it to a state-sanctioned clericalism akin to a priestly or rabbinical order.