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Epistemic Responsibility in Da’wah

So it should be no secret that I’m not fond of du’āt overstepping their abilities and authority. Some people interpret this as me trying to discourage people from doing da’wah. I can understand why it comes across that way, and that might be my fault as I keep trying to hammer in the point of epistemic authority.

But I don’t want to discourage da’wah at all. Not only is there the hadith of “Convey from me even if a verse.” I know du’āt can get into spaces that more serious tullab-ul-ilm can’t. I’d rather read a book than record a YouTube video or deal with a bunch of screaming kids… Although as a high school teacher I do the latter anyway

So what is the middle ground? Instead of describing it in long form, I think it would be easier to understand with some principles the average Muslim should know when doing da’wah (regardless of format). Many of these I apply to myself as well. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list:

1) Firstly, it should be clear that in the hadith the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is speaking to the Companions. This was a generation that spoke the language of the Qur’an, witnessed the Sirah, and was in the Companionship of the beloved صلى الله عليه وسلم. ‘Conveying a verse’ for them has a different connotation than it does for us. At the very least it shows that conveying knowledge entails knowing more than just the translation of a verse.

2) Knowledge makes a more effective da’ī. The person with the most potential for being an effective da’ī is the senior student of knowledge or scholar. I know many prefer reading, research, writing or teaching dedicated students, but if they don’t interact with the public, then the public will never see or hear what real knowledge looks like.

3) If you are a senior student of knowledge or scholar and want to do da’wah, then you have to recognize the importance of studying and reading on extra-Islamic skills and knowledge. Read up on speaking and self-help skills. Research contemporary issues like those of mental health, gender, politics, atheism, science, philosophy etc. Connect with experts in these fields who can support you. The problems of the everyday Muslim cannot be solved with a Fatwa or reading a matn.

But even then, extensive reading and research in the tradition is also important, especially if you want to stay true to it in light of convoluted modern issues.

3) You do not need any credentials to call people to the core fundamentals of Islam. God is one? God exists? The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is the true Prophet of God? He lived in Makkah/Medinah? Islam is the culmination of countless millennia of Prophets? No one needs qualifications for this. If you don’t know this and believe in it with conviction, you’re not Muslim anyway.

4) Even the core fundamentals are severely questioned in society today. One of the reasons The Usuli exists, and why I insist so much on everyone in general studying Islam more is because many Muslims have begun to question even the fundamentals. Anti-Islamic rhetoric had evolved to target foundational issues of belief.

We are much more educated than ever before. It doesn’t make sense to have 20 years of math/English/science education under your belt but only 1 weekly halaqah you attend. The average Muslim today (especially in the West) needs to be more aware of contemporary theological issues, more aware of the epistemological roots of their dīn. The only way you can survive without this is isolate yourself from the real world or succumb to societal pressure. Neither are acceptable.

5) Beyond the core fundamentals, you need to have knowledge. Do not speak about or teach issues you haven’t studied with a teacher or at the very least have read something on and then verified the understanding of with a scholar. It is best to get an ijāzah for teaching before you consider yourself ready.

Anyone who wants to do da’wah on a more public level beyond just their immediate family, co-workers and friends needs to be at the minimum a student of knowledge studying with a scholar in some capacity. Maintain a link to true ulema, not just other du’āt. Acknowledge epistemic authority.

Too many people are reading a book or two (or sometimes even just watching a couple of YouTube videos), and then taking the podium or minbar to speak about things they don’t fully understand. There is a reason why this page is mostly concerned with things like pedagogy and social commentary. I don’t post fiqh rulings or tafsir lessons here for a reason.

6) Do not ascribe knowledge to yourself that you do not possess in status. Don’t let yourself be called ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Ustadh’ if you are not a student of knowledge. Don’t just do it for your humility and protection from arrogance. Do it for the people listening to you. Muslims deserve to know their true scholars and who they should refer to.

I am blessed in that I work in a building with a senior scholar (Sh. Abdullah Idris Ali). I refer to him whenever I can and tell my students that if you want an authoritative answer or want to assess what I said go ask him. His word is more authoritative than mine. Incidentally it is also a useful way to brush off fiqh questions I don’t want the burden of answering.

7) Do not ascribe knowledge to yourself that you do not possess in word. Unless you are a mujtahid, faqih, mufassir or some sort of Islamic scholar, do not ascribe positions to yourself.

The easy way out of this is to ascribe positions to those who hold them. For short form in khutbahs etc you don’t even have to say their names, you can just say, scholars say, some scholars say etc. But don’t look in a book of fiqh or tafsir and then act and speak like it’s your work.

Remember that you will be taken to account for your words. Let the scholars take the brunt of the blame if they are wrong and keep yourself safe. One only needs to look at the works of our scholars to see how much they tried to ensure that they were referring points back to their original authors.

8) Do not ascribe knowledge to yourself internally. Know your limits. If you don’t know classical Arabic, you have no business doing tafsir or explaining what a Hadith means. Again like before, you can explain what a particular scholar said, or if multiple scholars mentioned it you can ascribe it to a plural.

But internal humility is important, and it can’t just be a feeling, it has to be a critical intellectual process. Recognize the need for learning and studying with others. Stop making internal judgements on issues without study and deliberation. Above all recognize epistemic authority. There are people who are experts and those who are not. If you are honest with yourself you will know where you are. The right to have an opinion is earned, not a default right that every random person has.

Note: often for those who do not have access to primary Arabic sources it is difficult for them to self-assess their level because they are not aware of traditional pedagogical structures.

Is this asking a lot? Is it placing unreasonable barriers to doing da’wah. I don’t think so. It’s asking for da’wah to be done properly.

I’m sure that many people reading this have a university degree or at least a high school diploma. How many years did you spend in class to earn that distinction? Would you be allowed to teach in a school without a bachelors degree? Would you be allowed to teach in a university without at least a masters degree? Then why not expect the same importance of epistemic authority here?

And it is not difficult. There are more than enough excellent online programs now. Even al-Azhar has an online degree program. If a VP of SpaceX can do Sh. Akram Nadwi’s online Alim program and get ijazah for all 10 recitations online while working there (as a VP!) And also having a family and 3 kids, you can do it too.

It’s just a matter of you realizing the importance of what is being said here and not treating the dīn like a casual dinner table topic that has no specialized knowledge structure in it, and thinking you can explain what is otherwise a rich intellectual tradition and a massive storehouse of knowledge (the Qur’an and Sunnah) without due diligence in preparation.

3 replies »

  1. I read through this slowly with a low and sad tone.
    It’s very true we need more than once a week halaqa.
    Sad because we’ve chased diplomas and degrees enough.
    A must read for our generation.
    Jazāk’Allāhu Khayran.

    Like

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