Fatwas and the Responsibility of Muslim Scholars in America, by Shaykh Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad


Islamic scholars occupy an important place in Muslim society. They are the guardians of sacred law and are often considered to be amongst the elite of our faith. In one tradition, the Prophet (SAWS) stated; “The Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets[1]. The preservation and transmission of sound Islamic knowledge and guidance is compromised without the works and efforts of our scholars. Without them, people are destined to being misinformed about their religion, and to be misled by Iblis in handling their affairs. In another tradition, the Prophet (SAWS) said: “One Scholar is harder against the devil than a thousand worshippers[2]. The Quran states that people are elevated by their religious knowledge “Allah will rise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted (mystic) Knowledge. And Allah is well- acquainted with all ye do.” Quran 58:11. As teachers, guardians and interpreters of sacred law, Islamic scholars deserve our respect, support, and our gratitude.

Scholars of Islam are responsible for upholding the sacred trust that accompanies the acquisition of religious knowledge; which is to explain the religion clearly and concisely and not cover up any part of it; “Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah’s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse” 2:159. In today’s turbulent times, the role of Muslim religious scholars and qualified[3] teachers takes on a special significance for  at least three reasons;

  1. The first being; the scarcity of people who possess sound and accurate islamic knowledge; It was related in the hadith of Anas ibn Malik that the Prophet (SAWS) said: “From among the portents of the Hour are (the following): 1. Religious knowledge will be taken away (by the death of Religious learned men). 2. (Religious) ignorance will prevail. 3. Drinking of Alcoholic drinks (will be very common). 4. There will be prevalence of open illegal sexual intercourse[4]. We      are living during times of pervasive ignorance of religion, and in the United States, we are the only major religious group where our political and advocacy groups eclipse religious groups as the de-facto leaders of the Muslim community.  Additionally, we routinely take upon ourselves religious edicts (fataawa) from scholars in faraway lands who have limited knowledge of our domestic customs, our history and our condition.
  2. The second reason is that religious scholars have the responsibility to stand as barriers between ignorant Islamic leadership and the Muslim people themselves; “Verily, Allah does not take away knowledge by snatching it from the people but He takes away knowledge by taking away the scholars, so that when He leaves no learned person, people, turn to ignorant as their leaders; then they are asked to deliver religious verdicts and they deliver them without knowledge, they go astray, and lead others astray[5]. Scholars of today need to not only address the condition of the general public; they must also be willing to address those who are in authority,   and those who make decisions for and on behalf of Muslims.
  3. The third reason is that the world has changed, and in today’s globalized environment, Muslim people are mixing cultures, ideas, ethnic tendencies, and beliefs into one big melting pot in America.  Muslim scholars are tasked not only with helping to help break down the obvious and sometimes intractable barriers between the diverse Muslim peoples living here in the United States, they are also (the ones who make our business, their business), charged in helping to maintain the religious and spiritual nature of the American Muslim trajectory, and making sure that our politics do not trump our morality. That means that they have to understand Islam in a morally applicative sense, understand what’s going on in the land in which we live and work, and understand the people upon whom they deliver critical rulings of law. Scholars of Islam have to take the added step whenever and wherever  possible, to familiarize themselves with the common people, and the intricacies of American life and culture, about which they render judgments and opinions. The Prophet (SAWS) said, “The Muslim who mixes with the people and is patient with their ills is better than the Muslim who does not mix with the people and is not patient with their ills.[6]

Some Islamic scholars residing in the Muslim world, find themselves either woefully unfamiliar, or subtlety indifferent to America in general, and towards American people specifically, and in the process, issue unfair and unrealistic rulings towards Muslims Americans who are socially integrated into our country’s fabric. For example, the fatwa ruling that it is not permissible for any Muslim to even reside in the United States. Some, scholars, due to their ignorance, and or bias towards American culture and her people, and often operating from abroad, have managed to demonize virtually every aspect of American culture and way of life. Sports, birthdays, Thanksgiving, family photos, decorating homes, designer clothing, thikr beads, wearing jeans, baby showers, attending graduation ceremonies, saying ‘what’s up brother’ to a stranger on the street, being in a good mood during Christmas season, wedding rings, visiting graves of relatives, bereavement practices, women entering Masaajid, loving one’s country, and a host of other things have ended up on the prohibition list of one scholar or another. Other scholars have done great disservice to Muslims and to Islam by issuing verdicts that allow the sale of intoxicants in our cities, despite the Quranic ruling against it.

Some Muslim Americans find themselves apologizing for being born in this country of ours as if it were a curse. Other Muslims argue back and forth with each other over rulings rendered by scholars regarding what’s permissible and what is not. Because of irresponsible law rendering, the average Muslim, especially the convert, who simply wants to worship his or her Lord, and live an Islamic lifestyle, is often left in an almost perpetual state of confusion. Because of the multitude of conflicting and sometimes nonsensical religious rulings, such as the fatwa that American Muslims wage military jihad upon our own neighbors, or the fatwa that selling intoxicants in American is permissible as long as the buyers are not Muslim, many Muslims are resigned to a state of moral dysfunction. Scholars, as they learn more about American society alternately prohibit things in one instance and then make them permissible according to their own evolutionary knowledge of our country, our culture and our way of life.

Anti American oratory has surreptitiously made its way into the modern canonical dialogue of Islam. Many American Muslims have been morally blackmailed into having to repudiate American culture in order to find acceptance as Muslims by immigrant scholars. Even today, rhetoric from a minority of Muslim scholars and some imams are replete with anti-American invectives or rallying cries against so called ‘western culture’ or values. It is ironic however, that from an Islamic theological perspective, morality has no hemispheric basis; “to Allah belongs the east and the west, wherever thou turnest, you shall find His (God’s) Face”.

Thus, Islam for many Muslim Americans has become too complicated to be user friendly. The dozen or so, often conflicting spheres of scholarly influence has created a virtual merry-go-round of Islamic thought in America, and we need to do something about it. Understanding how to apply Islamic law and morality, in the United States, require a thorough understanding of the shariah, the culture norms of the people, as well as the inclusion and consultation of bother indigenous American Muslim imams, laymen and intelligentsia and their immigrant counterparts. This is why it’s so important to address sectarianism as well.

The famous 14th century jurist, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya[7] alluded to this issue very succinctly; when commenting of the necessity of understanding people’s cultural practices, he said: “This is a major foundation that every mufti (legist) or ruler needs; he must be both well-versed (in peoples traditions) as well as matters of command and prohibition and then apply them both simultaneously. Otherwise he will do more harm than good. If he is not intimately aware of an issue in which people have particular understanding, a transgressor will appear to him as the transgressed and the truth will appear to him as falsehood and vice versa.

Ibn Qayyim went on to say: “Because of his ignorance of the people, their traditions, their conditions and their habits, he will not be able to distinguish (between truth and falsehood), Thus, it is imperative that (the scholar) understands the machinations of the people, their deceptions, their cultural traditions and their habits because fatwa (religious rulings) change with the changing of time, place culture and condition, and all of this is part of the religion of Allah.”[8]– Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (D. 751 A.H.) quoted from: “Ii’laan al-Muwaqqi’een an Rabbil aalameen” vol. 4, p. 157

There’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional scholarly interpretations of our religious texts and there is no pressing need to reinterpret the Quran or hadith of the Prophet (SAWS) to fit modern times.  Our scholars (and there have been tens of thousands of them) have done a pretty exquisite job at maintaining the integrity of our texts, and explaining them to both lay people and other scholars. Its less a matter of reinterpreting texts than it is having contemporary scholars using the our sacred texts contextually to fit the reality in which we live.

There is a false assumption by some, including some scholars, that people who were born and raised in the West, or more specifically, the United States do not have the ability to understand Islam, our religious texts or the associated sciences to any degree that someone coming from the Muslim world can. This misconception alone has a tremendous impact upon or national conversation about the challenges facing Muslim America. Then there is the issue of racism, marginalization of Blacks, and the influence of geo-political realities that taints and sometimes tends to prostitute modern day scholarship. Marginalization of ant part of the American Muslim demographic is a big deal.  You can’t ignore and marginalize an entire people and then expect to apply scholarly rulings and analysis to them when the very basis of fiqh application is to know the subject,  and their condition. The fluidity and hence, value of Muslim scholarship is connected to situational relevance. This is something that I have written about elsewhere.

Nevertheless, American Muslims need to realize that this is our country, and our homeland. If we want to make it better then we have to be better. So we need to be certain that Islamic rulings for and about American Muslims  are not tainted by anyone’s political prejudices, cultural sensitivities, racial or ethnic biases, or ignorance about America and our way of life. Granted, this is a difficult topic. Nevertheless, it is one that must be addressed if we have any hope from curbing the undercurrent of sectarianism and religious extremism that still germinates in Muslim America. As Muslims, our first duty is to our Lord, and our number one priority is our own salvation. As American Muslims, we have the god given right to look out after our own spiritual self-interests, and it starts at home.

Imam Luqman Ahmad

Shaykh Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism in the United States. He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at imamabulaith@yahoo.com.

 


[1] Collected by at-Tirmithi, Ahmad, Abu Dawood and others.

[2] Collected by at-Tirmithi and Ibn Majah.

[3] We mention qualified teachers because unqualified teachers should refrain from teaching religion.

[4] Collected by Bukhaari.

[5] Collected by Muslim.

[6] Mish’kaat al-Masaa’bih.

[7] Died 751 A.H.

[8] I’laan al-Muwaqqi’even an Rabbil Aaalameen, vol. 1. P. 157.

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