Having a Healthy Appreciation for Islamic Scholars


Dawud Walid on 27 March 2017

Many American Muslims have been recently engaged in conversations about the relationship between activists and traditionally trained Islamic scholars. Though there have been stellar individuals who fall into the camp of qualified activist-scholars or shuyookh, these have historically been exceptions more so than what has been predominant. In dealing with the reality in which we currently live in today, there are some fundamental aspects relating to adab (etiquettes) of engagement and critique in which laymen, including activists, should have with scholars.
Scholars Have a Particular Rank

Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him & his family) stated, “Surely the scholars are the heirs of the prophets.” (at-Tirmidhi, ibn Majah, Malik and ibn Hibban)

The understanding and application of Islam has been passed down to us through scholars. It is in this tradition that certain core principles and fundamental interpretations of religion maintain their fidelity through transmission from scholars. The hadith above of course does not mean that scholars in their individual ijithad (critical thinking) when making specific opinions on matters have ‘ismah (protection from error) as prophets did. It is to say, however, that the position of those who struggled to learn Islam through qualified teachers is a lofty position which should command respect from the generality that did not commit itself to the rigor and discipline to do so. Traditionally in Islamic history, those scholars who maintained their independence from the control of political authorities have always received special honor and a level of deference not given to laymen. If one were to travel today to Kaolack or Touba in Senegal for instance, the living practice of this adab can be seen in vibrant display on the community level.

Islam Is Not Void of Social Hierarchy

Western notions of socio-political egalitarianism have a degree of foreignness within Islamic civilization going back to the times of the first three generations of Muslims following the path of Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him & his followers). As it is true that there is moral equality which can exist irrespective of profession or bloodline, there are certain hierarchies in our social and political relationships that should influence our deportment with different people. For instance, all women should be treated in a cordial manner, but the respect and manners one should have with their mother is higher than with a female co-worker or schoolmate. The Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him & his family) made it forbidden for his family and descendants to accept Zakah and Sadaqah, yet they are the collectors of Khums and the distributors of it. Moreover, Muslims were instructed to pray for them a minimum of 5 times a day in daily prayers saying, “Oh Allah! Send Salah upon Muhammad and the Family of Muhammad.” Hence his family has a type of virtue in Islam over other families.

There are more examples that could be given of days, nights and physical locations which command more reverence and different comportment than others. The point is that scholars, due to their rank, should not be interacted with or addressed like an “Average Joe” — even when they make missteps and gaffes. The way in which they are addressed and even critiqued demands a heightened level of adab out of respect of their positions held in Islamic society which carries with them a particular meaning within tradition. This in no way equates to giving scholars passes who are involved in criminal activities or clear oppression.

All Scholars Are Not Meant to Be ‘in the Streets’

It is not for the believers that they all go forth together. From every contingent among them, a group should stay behind and gain sound knowledge of the religion that they may warn the contingent upon their return in order that they beware. (Surah at-Tawbah, Ayah 122)

It is a tradition going back to the era of the Sahabah that when a group went out on an expedition or campaign that people of knowledge from among them stayed behind and taught the understanding and application of Islam. When those who went out on a campaign returned, they had knowledge transferred to them so that it could be passed along to others and preserved. For instance, when Imam Zayd bin Ali bin al-Husayn bin Ali bin Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with them) and others from the Hashimites and their followers revolted against the sultan Hisham bin Abdil Malik al-Umawi, his nephew Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (may Allah be pleased with him) did not go out but stayed behind and taught students who themselves became transmitters of sacred knowledge. This is no way translated into Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq being complacent or giving tacit approval to the oppression of Hisham Abdil Malik.

Scholars have the primary role of teaching the creed and sciences of the religion which includes enjoining the good and forbidding the evil in society. Just because scholars or shuyookh are not all out “in the streets” protesting or practicing civil disobedience by getting arrested does not make them illegitimate nor should take away from the deference given to them. Abu Hanifah (may Allah have mercy upon him) and Malik bin Anas (may Allah have mercy upon him) were not out “in the streets” but gave moral support to those “in the streets.” They served their role, and there are scholars serving this role today in America. Scholars not being “in the streets” in no way equates to lack of relevancy.

There is definitely a gap that needs to be bridged between scholars and the generality of the American Muslim community. More specifically, there needs to be more engagement and conversations between scholars and shuyookh with activists, both groups containing well-meaning souls. In the meantime as conversations need to take place, it is important for the community to give Islamic scholars their proper due respect in accordance with the rank which we were informed that they have per the Prophetic tradition, “Surely the scholars are the heirs of the prophets.”


Dawud Walid is currently the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), which is a chapter of America's largest advocacy and civil liberties organization for American Muslims and is a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) Imams Committee. Walid has been interviewed and quoted in approximately 150 media outlets ranging from the New York Times, Wall St Journal, National Public Radio, CNN, BBC, FOX News and Al-Jazeera. Furthermore, Walid was a political blogger for the Detroit News from January 2014 to January 2016, has had essays published in the 2012 book All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim, the 2014 book Qur'an in Conversation and was quoted as an expert in 13 additional books and academic dissertations. He was also a featured character in the 2013 HBO documentary "The Education of Mohammad Hussein." Walid has lectured at over 50 institutions of higher learning about Islam, interfaith dialogue and social justice including at Harvard University, DePaul University and the University of the Virgin Islands - St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses as well as spoken at the 2008 and 2011 Congressional Black Caucus Conventions alongside prominent speakers such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Congressman Keith Ellison. In 2008, Walid delivered the closing benediction at the historic 52nd Michigan Electoral College in the Michigan State Senate chambers and gave the Baccalaureate speech for graduates of the prestigious Cranbrook-Kingswood Academy located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Walid was also a featured speaker at the 2009 and 2010 Malian Peace and Tolerance Conferences at the University of Bamako in Mali, West Africa. He has also given testimony at hearings and briefings in front of Michigan state legislators and U.S. congressional representatives, including speaking before members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Washington, D.C. Walid has studied under qualified scholars the disciplines of Arabic grammar and morphology, foundations of Islamic jurisprudence, sciences of the exegesis of the Qur’an, and Islamic history during the era of Prophet Muhammad through the governments of the first 5 caliphs. He previously served as an imam at Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit and the Bosnian American Islamic Center in Hamtramck, Michigan, and continues to deliver sermons and lectures at Islamic centers across the United States and Canada. Walid was a 2011 - 2012 fellow of the University of Southern California (USC) American Muslim Civil Leadership Institute (AMCLI) and a 2014 - 2015 fellow of the Wayne State Law School Detroit Action Equity Lab (DEAL). Walid served in the United States Navy under honorable conditions earning two United States Navy & Marine Corp Achievement medals while deployed abroad. He has also received awards of recognition from the city councils of Detroit and Hamtramck and from the Mayor of Lansing as well as a number of other religious and community organizations.

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