Islam gives great emphasis to learning and creates an atmosphere of natural respect for those who are learned and even those that are seekers of knowledge, after all learning is a never-ending process. The Prophet (s) emphasised that the search for knowledge is incumbent upon every person, male and female.
But that emphasis on learning (and the learned) is framed within a wider picture of contemplation and reflection where individuals have a responsibility to think for themselves.
The Qur’an mentions those who (suspend their own thought process and) elevate their religious leaders to the level of gods. A person once asked the Prophet how that could be, when they did not literally worship them. The Prophet responded that they obeyed them blindly when they made things that were lawful into unlawful and vice-versa. This shows that even for the one that follows others in matters of fiqh (muqallid), there is a need for vigilance and one cannot merely abdicate the responsibility to think for oneself.
It is of course true that specialist tasks such as deriving a law in fiqh, offering a fatwa, giving insight into what is halal and what is haram, require expertise and a recognised standard of learning. But putting those specialist functions aside, to read the texts, to think, consider, question and challenge is not only the right of every Muslim, but in fact a duty for those capable.
One could draw a distinction here between those (historically or today) living in climates where the level of education is very poor, where illiteracy is widespread and there is no real chance for people to read the texts, let alone question their meaning, and those (such as Muslims growing up in Britain today) that live in a highly educated society where many have gone on to study at graduate and post-graduate levels.
Consider that billions of pounds are pumped into modern education systems to promote learning and critical thinking, to prepare people for pressured careers such as medicine and law where they hold peoples lives and welfare in their hands. The skills of research and fact finding, sifting through evidence and analysis are taught. Yet in such a climate (as in a British University), to press the pause button in your mind when it comes to thinking about your faith, often the most important thing in your life, risks not only creating a schizophrenic mentality but is also a travesty of epic proportions.
Yet all too often that is precisely what seems to happen. Some people want ‘the scholars’ (Ulama) to do all the thinking when it comes to Islam – they have no opinion or view of their own – even when the Qur’an reminds: “do they not ponder the meaning of the Qur’an?” (4:82). Some even dislike that people should read the Qur’an in English and ask that it should be taught by a scholar, in case it is misunderstood. How can one ponder upon the meaning of the Qur’an if one is not allowed to read it openly and self-critically with a reasoned sense of reflection and contemplation? Or in fact, read it at all?!
The call for reasoned reflection here does not even refer to questioning the nature of God or trying to understand something we may not fully grasp like divine decree (qadr). Nor is about lay people offering fatwas, deciding what is halal or haram. In fact, that is a small (albeit important) aspect of Islam – when one looks at the Qur’an perhaps less than 10% is about law, fiqh. The rest is about how we live in the presence of God, with our fellow humanity, about who we are and what is our role in this life.
The degree of deference to scholars also raises the important questions of how well they are equipped to deal with modern day life and to answer such questions? I would argue that the Ulama are largely called to perform three functions: i) represent and reproduce a tradition; ii) demonstrate a high calibre of personality, integrity and spirituality; and iii) deal with the everyday challenges that people face and therefore bring to them.
Have we trained our scholars sufficiently to take on such burdens, especially the latter? What analytical tools do we provide for them to understand the challenges that people face, in the time that we live in?
My point is not against scholarship, on the contrary it is precisely the opposite. I am arguing that we need more scholarship, a higher calibre of expertise, especially in understanding the context. And especially because of this, while we wait for those lofty ideals to be met, the role of individual, creative thought – questioning and challenging, raising the level of debates – among the masses is even more important.