How to Identify Authorities in Islamic Knowledge

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

A Muslim must ensure that they are learning their religion or taking fatwa from those who are qualified to do so. Especially in today’s social media and online landscape where amateurs can barely be distinguished from experts, this has become a priority more than ever before.1

Whenever I have written or spoken about the need for Muslims to ensure that those they are learning Islamic knowledge or taking fatwa from are qualified to be doing so, the question I am usually asked after is: How can we tell who is qualified and who isn’t?

This is a difficult question to answer. For me it is quite easy. I can tell when someone is teaching fiqh, hadith or tafsir and probably shouldn’t be doing so. All I need to look for is whether key concepts or references are being utilized. For example, if someone is teaching tafsir but cannot break down a verse of the Qur’an in to its linguistic and rhetorical components, or is talking about a fiqh issue but cannot identify the relied-upon and most authoritative works of the madhhab(s) they are discussing, it takes me a few seconds to figure it out. All that is left is to determine if the speaker or teacher made an innocent mistake or really does not know what they are talking about.2

But then how do we help the average Muslim do this? I have thought long and hard about this question and I have found it difficult to express the answer.3 After my own list I have also included Ustadh Abdul Sattar’s attempt at such a guide as I thought it was quite profound and well thought out mashaAllah.

My List

I’ve managed to boil it down to a few key pedagogical indicators. What this means is that these indicate a problem in the process of formative learning and study that impacts overall understanding and thus eventual teaching. Please note that these are general rules and there will always be rare exceptions and smaller details to general rules.

  1. A loose indicator (as it can often be meaningless or abused) are the formal qualifications of a scholar. What ijazahs do they have? Do they have a degree in the subject? Have they studied abroad? These indicators are quite often not reliable, although there is one that is: the Ijazatul-Ilmiyyah, or the permission by their teachers for them to teach the text or subject themselves. This is different of an Ijazatul-Riwayah, which is a permission to transmit that usually assesses memorization and reading but not understanding or skill.

  2. Another thing to look for is where the person has studied (or where their teachers are from). Is it a place known for a strong legacy of producing exceptional high-level scholarship that has a positive global impact like Al-Azhar University or Nadwatul-Ulema? Or is it a place known for producing sectarian drones and angry preachers? And no, I am not only talking about Madinah University, but many of the smaller Darul-Ulums around the world as well. Of course, there will always be exceptions. For example, there will be graduates from Madinah University who are exceptional and not everyone who graduated from Azhar took the time to benefit from the mentorship of its greatest legends.

  3. Who are their teachers? Avoid self-taught individuals like the plague. Look for the qualifications of their teachers, and then equally as important: how long did they spend with those teachers? Spending years with qualified teachers, being under their mentorship and studying daily with them is hugely different from stopping by in a public lecture that a famous scholar once gave and calling him a ‘teacher’. Unfortunately, this form of deception is not uncommon. Whether their teacher is famous or popular is not a barometer of qualification.4

  4. Who can verify their level of study, knowledge and understanding? Usually more senior seekers of knowledge and scholars will network with each other, collaborate, and engage in discussion. If you know of an individual in your community who is reputedly well-learned, ask them who are the most knowledgeable people they know of and whether person X is reliable in their learning and teaching. If the only person available for verification are amateurs themselves then that recommendation is mostly useless except perhaps as a character reference.

  5. What is the skill level of the teacher or speaker in the Arabic language? Are they familiar with pre-Islamic Arabic poetry?  How strong is their Arabic syntax (Nahw), morphology (Sarf), or rhetoric (Balaghah)? You might not be able to tell what is an acceptable level of capability but there are some key things to look for: how much does this person emphasize the intensive study of the Arabic language for understanding Islam and sacred texts? How long did the person spend studying Arabic grammar and literature texts? If they are dismissive or don’t think its ‘THAT important’, that is a red flag. My teachers said to me that if someone is weak in the Arabic language, they will never amount to much in Islamic knowledge. And so far I have found that to be incredibly true regardless of whether we are talking about a scholar in the past or the present.

  6. This point was inspired by Sh. Uthman Khan from Critical Loyalty. Although I was aware of it, I would not have thought to emphasize this as a separate point were it not for him. The point is: Does the person know their references? A lot of Islamic knowledge is about knowing your references and knowing which books are authorities in their subjects. If a person is not able to identify authoritative classical texts and the scholastic/textual genealogies of the subjects they are speaking about or teaching, it’s quite obvious they’re not using them and thus the knowledge you are receiving from them is not authentic in the first place.

  7. Have they studied one of the four madhhabs in fiqh?5 Or at the very least do they rely on the madhhabs for their fiqh? Some might find this pedantic, but I am very firm and strict on this point. I am one hundred percent convinced on a pedagogical and methodological level that someone who has not studied a madhhab and does not spend time with classical fiqh texts and encyclopedias from the four madhhabs is intellectually bankrupt in the subject. They will not have a structured understanding of the subject, they will not be able to be able to give a fatwa that is true to the standards and scholarship of the fuqaha and they will misunderstand how our scholars interpreted and implemented the Qur’an and Sunnah. How can someone who has not engaged with 1400 year-old repositories of scholarly knowledge claim to speak on behalf of scholars and say, “The scholars said…”? I am not of the view that ‘Ahlul-Hadith’ is a valid madhhab, and I believe that anyone who says so has not understood fiqh to be honest. Pardon me for being blunt but I think it needs to be said explicitly.6

  8. Another key indicator to look for is knowledge production. Can this individual produce Islamic knowledge in the form of research, structured classes, books etc? Although this is often an indicator of a higher-level seeker of knowledge, it is still important. A ‘sheikh’ whose chief role in the community is to be a counselor, marriage advice expert, speaker in da’wah lectures or give khutbahs is not a teacher or a scholar, they are better identified as pastor or a preacher. They are most likely not intellectual authorities, although they are still vital for the community.

  9. Another indicator that may be contentious with some is: does this person demonstrate a respect for the Islamic intellectual tradition and traditional scholarship as a whole? This does not mean that they don’t engage in internal criticism of traditional scholarship, but it means that they overall respect issues of consensus, traditional scholarly adab, ethics, method and training, and the overall traditional ethos of Islamic knowledge. Some Muslim intellectuals are modernists in disguise as representatives of tradition, and although some of them may be reliable for some issues, I cannot in my good conscience recommend such individuals. Those who spend much of their time dismantling and bashing traditional authorities and methods are modernists even if they claim to be representing ‘authentic Islam’.

  10. An indicator that is important, although sometimes overemphasized or misunderstood, is taqwa and tasawwuf. As much of our sacred texts, scholarly history and repository of traditional knowledge indicate, true Islamic scholarship cannot be divorced from a higher-than-average level of spiritual engagement with the Creator. A teacher or scholar who is openly doing disliked actions or demonstrates an overall disregard for recommended acts of worship is at risk of being an unreliable source of knowledge, although not always in absolute terms. For example, some scholars like Imam al-Suyuti were so busied with reading, research and writing that they were not able to attend prayers in the mosque, and this has become an advice for students among some senior scholars today, like Sh. Muhammad Awwamah.  As for those who openly sin or do not even carry out basic religious obligations, then this is more likely a Shaytan. May Allah save us from being the first to be thrown into the fire of Hell. You are the most Merciful my Lord, do not take me from this world except that you are pleased with me.

  11. Lastly, does this person understand your context (or the context of the issue they are speaking of)? Some scholars of Islam are experts in their fields, but unfortunately reckless or lazy when it comes to connecting traditional knowledge and the Islamic sciences with modern ideas, contemporary knowledge, or the circumstances of the people. Although I would personally be okay with relying on such a teacher or scholar for reading study texts with, I would not be comfortable with accepting their fatwas or perspectives on modern issues. I would rather depend on someone who has combined a rigorous traditional Islamic education with a modern academic one, as they are much more likely to present a perspective that is accurate in its representation of both the traditional Islamic perspective and the modern one. It is also important to understand that scholars are often specialists in different subjects. A more advanced fiqh question may require a teacher who is specialized in fiqh. A more advanced hadith question may require a teacher who is specialized in hadith. A more advanced theological question may require a teacher who is specialized in theology etc. So a scholar may not seem to be able to answer your question in one subject very well, but they may be able to offer a lot more detail in the subject they have specialized in.

  12. In my previous attempt years ago to write an article of this type, I included a footnote at the end that I was particularly pleased with. Here it is again:

    Note: What is not from the conditions of being a scholar in Islam:
    – a B.A., M.A. or Ph.D. in Islamic Studies
    – study with a certain group of scholars in a certain region of the world.
    – a preference for certain opinions in theology or law over others.
    – being male, of a certain ethnicity, older in age, dressing a certain way, having a long beard, wearing a turban or shemagh or thobe or bisht
    – fame or the title of Ustadh, Shaykh, Mufti, or Allaamah before the name
    – being of the Prophet’s

What I have presented here is the best I can come up with at the moment. I may edit or add to it in the future. And Allah knows better.

Ustadh Abdul Sattar’s List

There was another list put together by Ustadh Abdul Sattar7 that I wish to share here as well, as he took on a different, more tarbiyah-centric approach as opposed to my dry and rigid educator’s one. I consider his equally if not more valuable than my own, as I would not be able to come up with many of these points myself:

Identifying Senior ‘Ulama Who Can Serve As Our Guides. A Personal List Of Criteria.

I found all of these qualities in Shaykh Amin [Kholwadia] at Darul Qasim alhamdulillah, may Allah preserve him and protect him. I hope that others are able to find similar institutions and individuals inshAllah.

1. Other scholars who have finished complete curricula from *other* Islamic seminaries, universities, and with *other* teachers, learn from this person and see this person as *their* teacher.

2. This person’s students have healthy family lives, good careers, and are generally well-placed in life relative to the environment/community they are in. One would not think that they have given up on fulfilling any of their worldly responsibilities in order to learn from the ‘alim. The student body includes those who are well-educated in other fields, indicating that what is being provided truly has the intellectual and academic capacity to benefit everyone.

3. This person maintains an absolutely uncompromising ethic on gender interactions and etiquette between students and teachers. There are no secrets, no “closed-doors”, no private matters that anyone is asked to keep for them.

4. This person’s teachers and peers agree on their ability to understand, teach, and lead. They also endorse their character.

5. This person’s institutional and community work revolves around *other* people being trained and equipped to carry the work after him. They are not clamoring to be the star of the show themselves but seek to empower other ‘ulama and students.

6. This person’s adab and manners in public are impeccable. They are not emotionally driven to outbursts due to current events and do not create public spectacles of conflict and virtue-signaling to demonstrate that he has taken the “correct” position.

7. Their reformative efforts are done to change, not to show. Reformative advice is given to people and in a way that can actually change them, rather than shame them.

8. Their critiques of those who they disagree with are about the issues and arguments. They are not personal or biting in nature.

9. Their behavior in private or one-on-one may be more frank or direct, but they do not cross the line of decency and decorum that they present in public. More or less, they are the same person.

10. They do not self-promote or discuss their own achievements. They do the work, and qualified, capable, educated students find so much value in their work that THEY do the promotion to push the work forward.

11. Their opinions are firm on the Shari’ah and they are consistent in their methodology – but they are understanding and adaptive to the social-emotional needs of others.

12. They are not insular when it comes to the non-Muslim society and community. They openly engage and can address other communities with manners and intellect.

13. They do not advocate cultural retreat but advocate benefiting society as a whole through honest service, exchange, and engagement.

14. Their knowledge is not limited to the Islamic sciences, but they are well-read on the intellectual foundations of other worldviews, civilizational systems, and the modern world.

15. Their scope of discourse is comprehensive. They have the ability to bring the Quran, the Sunnah, and the scholarly tradition to bear on the context at hand without being obsessed with a singular issue. Instead, they are able to transmit the legacy of the Prophet (s) in a comprehensive manner that addresses the full-scope of Islamic discourse.

They exist and they are out there. Seek them out and benefit from them as much as you can.

My Footnotes:

  1. I prioritize this issue because besides the fact that it was a concern for our scholars throughout our history, I believe it is vital in protecting the intellectual culture and habits of the Muslim ummah. A civilization and community that cannot identify its experts, teachers, and scholars is on that is undergoing an intellectual crisis. Although I have noticed more coming to appreciate what I am saying, a few have implicitly or explicitly expressed concern that my persistence on this issue is either unnecessary, pretentious or some form of gatekeeping to preserve an archaic meritocratic understanding of scholarship in Islam. But as someone whose profession is to educate young Muslims; I increasingly find this to be a critical issue as many are legitimately confused by what they are hearing and seeing from public figures. As for the claim of preserving some archaic meritocracy, then I believe the emphasis on differentiating between the learned and unlearned is well-grounded in sacred text, Islamic intellectual tradition and our scholastic culture since the time of the Companions – it is not just a bureaucratic artifact that endured throughout our history.  As for the claim of pretentiousness then I could easily counter with an ad hominem claim of my own in that most people I have seen who make that argument are trying to maintain their false reputations of being qualified to speak on behalf of Islam from being exposed.

  2. Whether it’s a supposed ‘Sheikh’ in the community who doesn’t know how to read Arabic, someone giving fatwa who hasn’t studied nahw, balaghah, fiqh or usul, or someone teaching tafsir after a 2 year Qur’an program in the community, the casualty list is long. And for someone who has studied, it is at first depressing to realize that those we hold up high in the community are not who we thought they were, and eventually frustrating when you have to deal with the ignorance and harm they spread in the community.

  3. My intended audience is often young people – students in high school and university who are usually just starting their journey into Islamic learning and are yet exposed since childhood to an unfiltered, spasmodic glut of raw data on the internet, so I don’t always have the luxury of being able to employ technical verbiage or the Arabic language.

  4. Fame in general tells us quite little about the knowledge and qualifications of a person. Someone might be famous and called a ‘scholar’ because they know how to speak, they know how to market and draw a crowd, they dress a certain way, speak with an air of religious authority, lead prayers, give khutbahs or can quote sacred texts to you at will. But that does not tell us much about what they’ve studied, who they’ve studied with and what they’ve understood.

  5. A complete study of a madhhab is more than just the fiqh study texts and their rulings. Rather it includes the fiqh rulings, the usul (interpretive principles) upon which that madhhab is based, the qawa’id (general principles) in its implementation, and it’s evidences from the Qur’an and Sunnah upon which it is based, which involves some degree of study in tafsir and hadith.

  6. Two related points to be considered: Firstly, how much fiqh have they studied? Someone who has studied one or two texts in a madhhab is not reliable except for teaching the basics to everyday Muslims. Someone should not be giving fatwa according to their school unless they have either studied advanced texts in their school or have been given permission to do so by their teachers or scholars. Secondly, have they studied this madhhab with traditional scholarship? It is not uncommon to see researchers and academics misquote or misunderstand fiqh texts and references that anyone who has studied the madhhab to an advanced level would realize is not true to the usul or qawa’id of that madhhab.


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