Idolising Imams – An interview with Dr Shadee Elmasry

Nura S. interviews Dr Shadee Al-Masry, the Director of Religious Programming at New Brunswick Islamic Center and founder of Safina Society, on the celebratisation of scholars in the Muslim community, and how we can ensure that we benefit from learned individuals, without placing them on a pedestal.

1) The issue of celebrity imams and how the public should not idolise them is often discussed within the Muslim community in the West. While this argument holds certain merits, it leaves us confused. We are told that we should take whatever is good from a scholar or a preacher and leave the rest. Is that really possible? Especially given that in our tradition, our righteous predecessors did not even eat the food made by those who speak too much kalamud-dunya (worldly talk)? How do we reconcile this modern attitude with our tradition?

The best way to go about this is to be connected to a network of scholars. I don’t like self-taught, lone-wolf speakers that have no colleagues, no teachers, no connections. If someone is teaching, then logically at one point they were students, so they must have met other students, and then they grow to become colleagues and associates that support each other, keep each other on the right track and keep each other humble. From the students’ perspective, it allows them to rest their confidence on a group of scholars not just one man.

The other issue is about listening. I’ve written about the fallacy of open-mindedness before. The reason people get confused and even go astray is that they open their ears to everything. You don’t let everything in your stomach, do you? You don’t let any person just enter your house, right? So why be so liberal with your mind?

You have to check the source first. If it’s an open profligate then your listening will only cloud your mind or fill it with nonsense. It’s different for scholars who ae doing studies and refutations. The point is to be selective of what you open your ears to.  

2) Coming back to the issue of celebrity imams, it is obvious why we are not supposed to idealize any human being. However, is it wrong that scholars, imams, dae’s, students of knowledge or Muslims in general are subjected to higher moral standards? Do you think the overuse of “scholars are human beings too” argument is an extension of “Dont-judge-me” culture that normalises islamically incompatible behaviors?

When someone becomes a surgeon, there are aot of things he or she can’t do anymore. They cannot play any sport that might injure their hands, which is their livelihood. If someone becomes a judge, they forgo a lot of things, like membership in clubs or social media accounts. It’s no different with da’wa or Sacred Knowledge. Actually it’s deeper. Suddenly, a lot of things that are normal for everyone are not for you.

The person in this field must amend their behavior and be an example. They should be far from anything that would even cast doubt on their morals. Young imams may stumble at first, but by age forty they should be adjusted.   

3) The opportunity to access the lectures of scholars and take classes online is a blessing for many Muslims. However, those online platforms do not give an opportunity for Muslim youth to sit with and learn the manners of scholars. Thus, knowledge is reduced to information. Would it be possible to call this type of knowledge or information ilm?

If they act upon it and it’s making them more scrupulous and more aware of Allah, then it’s ilm. The greatest knowledge is tawhid (oneness of Allah), and I have met three people who became Muslim just from reading about Islam, having never met a Muslim, let alone a scholar. So it’s all about how that knowledge affects us.

A person can be at the feet of the best of scholars, yet their heart is chasing dunya. So even those lessons become information and not ilm.

4) What is your opinion on online ijazat (Islamic qualification to teach a topic)? Given that today the world population reached an exorbitant number, it sounds like a viable option. I am wondering, how has the ijaza system worked in the past? Was it this easy to obtain? Do you think the credentials needed to earn an ijazah have changed?

The way I was taught, these names and titles and certificates are not what’s important. Rather, it’s putting in the time and effort and keeping the company of the learned and pious, and over the years, your teachers, colleagues and associates vouch for your general understanding of things. And their confidence has to be maintained for a lifetime. The trusted scholar is the one whom other trusted scholars hold to be a scholar.

A person can have all the ijazas and praises in the world, and still go astray.

As for a technical degree, that a masjid or school would use as an objective measure, I do believe that some form of face to face meeting is necessary. Multiple meetings between the student and scholar before issuing a statement of confidence. A degree is none other than a statement of confidence, and I don’t think merely online interaction is sufficient for that. But Allah knows best.  


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