The Arabic word ‘aalim’, which means one who possesses knowledge, is often used, particularly in the subcontinent, for only those who profess to have studied at some madressah. There is a proliferation of mostly men and a few women who may have learned the Quran and books of ahadith and are deemed capable of preaching their version of religion and offering fatwas (decrees) on any issue.
However, the scholarly credentials of many of these people could be questioned. Thus, the real ulemawho may be truly learned in Islamic sciences tend to be hidden from the public eye.
Seeking knowledge and developing an understanding through rational thought is an oft-repeated theme in the Quran and ahadith. The basic characteristics of scholarship have remained unchanged over centuries. It requires a deeply inquiring mind; the capacity and patience to read extensively and deliberate upon varying and even opposing hypotheses and theories and then formulate views that can be argued rationally and with evidence.
A scholar seeks truth and this journey is never-ending — hence s/he always remains a student as well. A true scholar will never expound her/his opinion as the final word and will preface it by saying that these views are subject to change when faced with convincing arguments. Scientific facts can be discovered and hypotheses proved through experiments and deductive logic, but in the realm of religion and faith, that involves interpretation of the word of God and application of ahadith and Sunnah, scholars owe it not only to themselves but also to the Muslim community to remain true to the spirit of scholarship, by constantly reviewing, questioning and analysing their conclusions.
Humility is one of the requirements of being an Islamic scholar. It is absolutely essential to be able to express doubt or lack of one’s own clarity about a particular issue, and not appear to know everything there is to know about religion or even the Quran. There are innumerable mufassirs (exegetes) who have written interpretations of the Quran, but rare is the one who may have referred to an interpretation differing from his or who may have suggested that a particular verse could possess more than the meaning s/he is inclined to see.
To be honest to truth also means accepting the rigour of and giving credit to others even if one might disagree with their views. It is common to find people who ridicule and use disparaging language when mentioning others who may have affronted their religious opinions. Attacking personalities and not taking an intellectually honest path to understanding the other’s arguments is dishonesty and lack of integrity towards that most precious asset of the human mind — rational knowledge.
Islamic scholarship demands assessment of an issue from as many perspectives as possible, particularly those that might be in opposition to what the scholar is inclined to believe. In fact, a scholar should approach an issue without pre-formed beliefs and opinions. S/he should play the devil’s advocate and attempt to look at a situation objectively. Of course, it is impossible to be completely neutral, but a conscious effort needs to be made to dilute one’s biases.
With knowledge comes responsibility to share, carefully and consistently. Unfortunately, this sharing sometimes takes the form of preaching in strong and emotionally charged language. It leaves the audience no opportunity to question or to disagree or to research on its own. Listeners become eager to follow the preaching of their teachers. This tends to close one’s mind to question any statement of the preacher, however irrational. Taqleed (emulation) in itself is not condemnable, but people may need to consider what other scholars think, and scholars need to be less categorical when providing their views. Blind followership may create a curtailing of one’s own thinking abilities.
Scholars in a truly Islamic society should lead the process of creation of knowledge and its dissemination for training and raising awareness, and, simultaneously, opening new pathways for further research and knowledge growth. Their role should not be to dictate, rule and control the minds of people. They should also not attempt to close lines of intellectual inquiry and debate. Their role is to encourage asking of questions though not always to supply readymade answers which the questioner may take for a decree but which may require deeper assessment and recourse to other forms of human knowledge.