Quite some Christians, Quite Some Jews!
Young men quite often ask: Should we necessarily study the Qur’an and Sunnah under the guidance of a scholar, or is it allowed that we do it on our own?
The plain answer is, of course it is allowed. But it is allowed in the same sense as engineering and medicine are allowed for the common man to study at home. Who can take away a citizen’s right to read the books of his choice? So also, who can take away the right of a man to read the Qur’an and hadith by himself, without any guidance from anyone?
But the question is, is the reading of engineering or medical books all by oneself the right way to becoming an engineer or a doctor? Alright! Perhaps the question has to be modified: does the reading of engineering or medical books allow one to gain some practical, useful and error free knowledge of engineering or medicine? A step up: Will anyone trust a “self-made” engineer or doctor and seek his advice concerning an engineering or medical problem?
Let us say the self-made man claims: “Alright! I am not a degree-holding engineer or doctor, but sure enough I am not altogether ignorant. After all, I did not waste my time studying the books for so many years! Right here, at this moment, I can deliver a lecture on a current topic and challenge you to find fault with it!”
Will anyone accept his plea? Can anyone obtain engineering and medical knowledge by this process of self-study? If not, then how does one obtain the much more difficult knowledge of the religion of Islam, by reading the Qur’an and hadith all by himself, and be sure that what he has learnt is error free? Engineering and medicine are practical disciplines. Their notions can be tested in labs. But Islam? It is a system that leads to the Hereafter via a complete reorganization of life and society. In medicine you can try out a drug on a rat and watch the effects for seven generations. But in Islam, can you try out an idea on a community, and wait to see the effects on the next generation? Will any individual volunteer himself for trial of an idea by a “self-made” scholar, and risk his Hereafter?
The Qur’an is in Arabic. It is the language of those who were first addressed. Their Arabic was of a high order. It was of a kind that has not reappeared among the Arabs since then. The poetry they produced has remained the best ever up to modern times. Yet, when the Qur’an was revealed, they were not given the right to read and make the best of it. But instead, the revelation said,
لَقَدْ مَنَّ اللّهُ عَلَى الْمُؤمِنِينَ إِذْ بَعَثَ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِّنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُواْ مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلالٍ مُّبِينٍ – آل عمران: 164
i.e., “Allah did a favor to the believers when He sent among them a Messenger who recites upon them His revelations. He purifies them and teaches them the Book and wisdom. Surely, earlier they were in clear error.”
Thus, although the Arabs of the Prophet’s time were masters of their language, the Qur’an promised them that the Prophet would teach them the Book. That is, he would instruct them in the true meaning of the texts.
Accordingly, those who embraced Islam in areas surrounding Madinah were asked to report to Madinah, stay in the town for a while and learn their religion. The people of the tribes spoke a more eloquent and purer form of Arabic than the Madinans; but were not sent copies of the Qur’an to learn Islam on their own and become, so to say, “self-made” Muslims.
That there is much more behind the words, which needs transmission from heart to heart, soul to soul, is best expressed by a hadith of the Prophet. It is in Tirmidhi:
عَنْ أَبِي الدَّرْدَاءِ قَالَ كُنَّا مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَشَخَصَ بِبَصَرِهِ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ ثُمَّ قَالَ هَذَا أَوَانُ يُخْتَلَسُ الْعِلْمُ مِنْ النَّاسِ حَتَّى لا يَقْدِرُوا مِنْهُ عَلَى شَيْءٍ فَقَالَ زِيَادُ بْنُ لَبِيدٍ الأَنْصَارِيُّ كَيْفَ يُخْتَلَسُ مِنَّا وَقَدْ قَرَأْنَا الْقُرْآنَ فَوَاللَّهِ لَنَقْرَأَنَّهُ وَلَنُقْرِئَنَّهُ نِسَاءَنَا وَأَبْنَاءَنَا فَقَالَ ثَكِلَتْكَ أُمُّكَ يَا زِيَادُ إِنْ كُنْتُ لأَعُدُّكَ مِنْ فُقَهَاءِ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ هَذِهِ التَّوْرَاةُ وَالإِنْجِيلُ عِنْدَ الْيَهُودِ وَالنَّصَارَى فَمَاذَا تُغْنِي عَنْهُمْ؟
Abu Darda’ reports that they were with the Prophet when he raised his eyes towards the heaven and said, “This is the time (i.e., it is close) when knowledge will be withdrawn from the people, until they will have no power over it.” Ziyad b. Labid al-Ansari asked, “How could it ever be withdrawn from us when we have read the Qur’an, shall, by Allah, keep reading it and teach our women and children?” He answered, “I am surprised by you O Ziyad. I used to count you among the knowledgeable ones of Madinah. Here are Torah and Gospels with Jews and Christian. But how do they benefit them?”
Interestingly, there is another report in this connection whose context tells us that a Bedouin was actually made to ask the Prophet concerning withdrawal of knowledge through withdrawal of carriers. The report is in Ahmad and is as follows:
“هَذِهِ الْيَهُودُ وَالنَّصَارَى بَيْنَ أَظْهُرِهِمْ الْمَصَاحِفُ لَمْ يُصْبِحُوا يَتَعَلَّقُوا بِحَرْفٍ مِمَّا جَاءَتْهُمْ بِهِ أَنْبِيَاؤُهُمْ أَلا وَإِنَّ مِنْ ذَهَابِ الْعِلْمِ أَنْ يَذْهَبَ حَمَلَتُهُ” – ثَلاثَ مِرَارٍ.
When he asked, the Prophet replied, “These are Jews and Christians. They have Scriptures before them but who follow not a word of that which their Prophets brought them. Lo! One of the ways of loss of knowledge is that its carriers should leave.” He said that three times.
So, it is not merely knowledge (in the ordinary sense) that is transmitted through words and sentences. If that was possible, then those Jews and Christians, who study Islam in the Western universities, would have become great Islamic scholars. Apart from belief, there goes also some amount of spiritual transmission between the learner and the learned, student and the master, from lamp to lamp.
A man of common sense then, will seek the help of the learned not merely to select the right kind of material to read, (at various stages, as he moves forward over the years), but also sit before some of them in his effort to grasp what truly the texts mean. In this manner, he will enter into the environment of the learned. He will avoid making mistakes, escape wrong concepts establishing their place in his head, and build up his knowledge in a systematic manner, logically stacked and stored in proper areas.
This is the norm in even those disciplines where learning comes merely from the written texts. You cannot be self-reliant at any time of life. However much one might study, a point comes where he needs guidance from another: “And, above everyone knowing, there is another more knowing,” says the Qur’an. Even Islamic research involving plain data (and not profound knowledge) needs guidance just as a research scholar in a modern university attempting a Phd. needs a guide, a professor, to help him on. If it is inner Islamic truths, then such guidance is all the more necessary because of the complexities of life, civilization, and the ideas that rule their destinies.
Those who saw no need for guidance by the scholars, attempted research on their own, ended up with funny theories. Some of them realized their error at the end of their lives, while many others left behind ideas that ruined thousands of people and are still ruining them. Many others who apply to the Qur’an and Sunnah, all by themselves, are stuck up in stagnancy, unable to progress forward, and unable to make a short speech or write a few lines without making conceptual errors. If you look at the examples of the so-called “self-made” men, you will discover that they lack confidence in what they know, talk in contradictory terms, and, most notably, if asked to handle an institutional class, teaching a text book, they are found quite unfit.
Some of those (in our today’s chaotic society) who suggest, in their words, “a direct understanding of Islam, through personal study,” are not promoters of knowledge or religion. They are promoting their own cause, trying to enlarge their area of influence. They discover that the people are already bound to their scholars. They must, therefore, first cut them off their scholars to facilitate them cross the line and join their forces. To do this, they tell them, “Studying the source books does not need anyone’s help or supervision. You can read on your own.” Once they have succeeded in cutting their targeted men and women from their local scholars, they do not say, “Now you are free. You need not come to us anymore. Proceed with the study of the Qur’an and Sunnah all by yourself.” But rather, they start feeding them with another kind of literature, which they say has the Qur’an and Sunnah as the basis. These are works of scholars of their own school of thought. They never allow the newly-converted to read the Qur’an and Sunnah and interpret them in the light of their personal knowledge. The moment they see that the target/victim has become too free, too self-dependent, and refuses to register himself as a follower (muqallid) of their group-scholars, they write him off as a misfired case and abandon him.
Yet one must add in haste, that the Qur’an and Sunnah must necessarily be read by oneself, without the help of scholars, with moral knowledge as the end. To this end in fact, everyone should read the Qur’an and Sunnah on a regular basis. At best one might get their advice on the right type of books. But thereafter they can study on their own, without having to sit before the scholars. (If they do not seek the help of scholars in choosing books, then, they will have to go by the advice of the bookstore owner. When a customer sees several books of his topic on the shelf, he asks him: “which one is the best?”, and is told, “This one. It is moving very fast”)!
The Qur’an and Sunnah, but more particularly the Qur’an, have been made easy for those who wish to receive admonition and generate piety and moral power. The Qur’an says: “We have made this Qur’an easy for admonition.” In fact, moral knowledge is quite simple. It is the will to act by this knowledge that is the complex problem. The Qur’an and Sunnah create the will to live by the moral knowledge. For this end and purpose, neither should one wait for the help of the scholars, nor depend on the knowledge coming through them. Indeed, to be following them is a sign of intellectual slavery.
So, if the question is, “Should one read the Qur’an and Sunnah, without the help of scholars, and the purpose is to receive guidance of the admonitory nature?” then the answer is, “Start off right away.” But, one may not stop at that. That is, at moral admonitions. One should always aim for the higher. The Qur’an asks, “Are those who know, equal to those who do not know?” This pursuance of knowledge will take one to scholars who will guide him on, and suggest how he should proceed despite the primary weakness that he missed institutional studies and is in a natural disadvantageous situation. An Arabic proverb on common people’s tongue is:
ما لا يُدْرَكْ جُلَُّه لا يُتْرَكْ كُلُّه
“That of which the best part cannot be obtained, the whole of it may not be left out.”
But the brilliance is in the proverb as found in literary works. It says:
ما لا يُدْرَكْ كُلَُّه لا يُتْرَكْ كُلُّه
i.e., “That of which the whole cannot be had, may not be abandoned wholly.” That is, be smart enough to squeeze out of the whole what little which you can manage.
But it should remain clear that we are only emphasizing guidance of the scholars, and concurrence of one’s views with those that have been held by the majority of scholars throughout history, for which the scholars of the present are the carriers. We do not mean that one may wait for a green signal from the scholars at every turn, or wait to be taken forward, inch by inch, step by step. Most of the study work will have to be done by oneself. It is the guidance which should not be denied its proper role in the scheme of things. A minute in an environment of knowledge, teaches more than a whole book could.
This leads us to another issue. Who and what type of scholars are they who could be trusted for guidance? This question acquires importance because it requires five minutes talk with the run of the mill scholar that he needs some schooling himself. So, how to identify one? This is an issue that requires some discussion which we put off for some other moment.
Back to the main issue, at one extreme are those in our society who think (some of them hold high secular degrees) that a layman Muslim should never tinker with a book because it is the prerogative of the `Ulama, and, studying on by oneself, is a venture loaded with dangers. This is a notion antagonistic to Islam, which has done away with priesthood. Allah’s guidance does not come through the Church.
At the other extreme are no few Muslims who believe that Islamic institutions, schools and colleges offer small benefits because Allah revealed the Qur’an for everyone and not for specialists alone. A direct consequence of this is that today’s Da`wah workers send their children to Christian Missionary schools. Some of them are the last ones to send their children to Islamic studies for reasons that institutional study did not exist during the Prophet’s time.
The argument that Qur’an and Sunnah being open sources, available to anyone sufficiently interested, and that institutional study is an innovation, has led to the emptying of Madaaris (and Islamic Study Departments in universities) by the affluent Muslims. And the consequences are already manifest.
To take a single example, in the USA there are plenty of job vacancies for teaching Islam in prisons. (They offer facilities to every prisoner to learn a religion of his choice). Why are the positions going vacant? It is because the condition the authorities have placed – very sensibly – is that the teacher should be holder of a degree in Islamic Studies. So, who is teaching Islam in the prisons now? Well, obviously, those who qualify: quite some Muslims, quite some Christians, quite some Jews!