The Clerics and the Laymen

Sawt Al-Umma, Issue #99
October 21st  2002

Three Muslim clerics were sailing in a small boat which belonged to a poor and humble fisherman. As they sailed peacefully through the gentle and calm waters the first cleric asked the fisherman if he was knowledgeable about religious law (Ar: sharia’h] The fisherman said he wasn’t, to which the cleric responded disdainfully saying ‘Then, you’ve lost a third of your life’ The second cleric then asked him if he was knowledgeable about jurisprudence [Ar: fiqh] to which the fisherman also replied in the negative. “Then, you’ve lost a third of your life” came the haughty retort. The third cleric asked him if he was knowledgeable about the interpretation of religious texts [Ar: ejtihad] The fisherman said he wasn’t, to which the cleric also replied: “Then you’ve lost a third of your life”. A few minutes later a heavy storm blew up and was about to overturn the boat. As the boat violently tossed up and down in the water the fisherman shouted out to the three clerics ‘Are any of you knowledgeable about swimming?’ In fear and trepidation they all shook their heads to which the fisherman replied” Then you have all lost your lives!”

This comic parable conveys a simple and yet important truth. None of the three Muslim clerics made an effort to show compassion to the humble fisherman. Sayeda Aisha [r.a.a.] narrated that Allah’s Messenger [s.a.a.w.s.] said: ‘O’ Allah, whoever among my people has been entrusted with responsibility for something concerning my people and makes it easy for them, so make it easy for him, and whoever makes it difficult for them, make it difficult for him’ [Al-Mua’jam Al-Awsat, Part 10, Page 205] Just as those who see should show kindness to the blind, the strong should help the weak and the rich should support the poor, those who are blessed with knowledge should show compassion to those of limited understanding who only seek their forbearance. The Quran says: ‘A kind word and forgiveness is better than charity that is followed by injury’ [Al-Baqara: 263]

Today, some of the religious opinions or fatwas of the Muslim clerics slam the doors of compassion in our faces. Sayeda Aisha [r.a.a.] said: ‘Whenever Allah’s messenger was given the choice between two matters one of which was easier than the other, he always chose the easier of them, but if it was wrong he would be the last person to choose it’ [Sahih Muslim, Part 4, Page 1813, 78- No. 2327] When it is pointed out to the clerics that the door of the prophet [s.a.a.w.s.] was always open to believers and non-believers alike, their usual response is that some measure of harshness is necessary in order to properly preserve religion. They also use this as a justification to withhold knowledge from people who, they say, do not have the capacity to absorb it. The effect is to put up a barrier between themselves and the people when what they should be doing is trying to raise the level of peoples’ understanding. It is the duty of the clerics, if they do have knowledge, to share it with others. If they don’t have knowledge then they should admit they don’t according to a well known Arabic saying ‘Whoever admits he doesn’t know has issued a religious opinion or fatwa’

Ordinary Muslims are under siege, bombarded right, left and center with accusations of associating others with Allah [Ar: shirk] heresy [Ar: kufr] and innovation [Ar: bida’a] It is not right to make these accusations against people. It is narrated that Allah’s Messenger [s.a.a.w.s] said: ‘I am going before you, and I am a witness over you and, by Allah, I am looking now at my lake of abundance, and I was given the keys to the treasures of the earth and, by Allah, I am not afraid that you will associate others with Allah after me, but I am afraid you will compete with each other [for the mundane treasures of the earth]’ [Sahih Muslim, Volume 4, Page 1795, 30 No.2296] The so-called ‘ignorance’ of the people is the responsibility of the clerics. If a person doesn’t know but genuinely desires to learn, then he cannot in truth be described as ‘ignorant’. However, if a person doesn’t know but does not wish to learn claiming he already knows and denying that the one actually able to teach him has knowledge, then that is real ignorance. The prophet’s own uncle, Abu Jahl, whose name means  ‘father of ignorance’ proudly refused to learn and even tried to stop others learning from his nephew whom he used to insult and mock.  It is therefore not right to label those who don’t know as ‘ignorant’. Allah does not hold to account those who don’t know something and those who are not able to do something. If a person does not have knowledge or ability, then he is not accountable. If a person doesn’t know but desires to learn then he is not ignorant but a ‘seeker of knowledge

Those who seek knowledge are the ‘raw material’ of the clerics. Without that raw material, the clerics have no role. People are like the iron of the blacksmith whose job is to shape the iron using his skills and experience or the wood which the carpenter fashions into furniture. A good blacksmith will not throw away a piece of iron because it is twisted just as a carpenter will not discard a piece of wood that is not as smooth as he would like it to be. The opposite is true. A good craftsman will always want to show off his craftsmanship. He will try to turn faulty materials into fine products and achieve what others can’t. The presence of iron without a blacksmith or the presence of wood without a carpenter speaks of the weakness and inexperience of the craftsman just as the general and widespread lack of knowledge and proper understanding of religion among Muslims today points to the fact the clerics are not carrying out their role as they should.

The clerics claim the knowledge they have could be harmful to people. This is not true. The mission of the clerics is to make people more knowledgeable – to raise them from a state of ordinary awareness to a more advanced state of awareness. The Quran says: ‘We raise the degrees of whoever We will and above anyone who knows is one who knows more.’ [Yusuf: 76] If the management of a company is left as it is and not enabled to become more efficient by incorporating new management practices and tools it will remain stagnant. It will remain ordinary. Many times, when people learn about something new they tend to reject it simply because they haven’t heard about it before. Why are they so resistant? What are they afraid of? A person who refuses to accept anything other than what he thinks he knows; is losing an opportunity to raise his level of understanding. Knowledge is not haram even if it concerns something haram. If we are told alcohol is harmful to the liver, this knowledge is halal even though it concerns alcohol which is haram. If we are told adultery increases a person’s chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, this knowledge is halal even though it concerns adultery which is haram. That said, if it weren’t for the existence of people of limited understanding, there would be no role for clerics. It is narrated that Allah’s Messenger [s.a.a.w.s] said: ‘The best of you are those who learn the Quran then teach it’ [Al-Bukhary, Part 3, Pages 346-347 No. 5027]

If people of limited understanding and indeed those of more advanced understanding are left in their state the overall level of knowledge of Muslims will remain stagnant….. in a status quo. Indeed, the wealth of knowledge will decrease if the knowledge of those who know is lost. Before the advent of his mission, the prophet’s companions had limited understanding and probably less than that. The prophet did not leave them in that state. He taught them and raised their level of knowledge and understanding. This was the reason the Muslims were able to progress. Advancing the peoples’ state of awareness is a continuous and dynamic process. The responsibility of those who know is to enlighten those who don’t…. not to leave them as they are. It is to restore their vision by good counsel, wisdom and friendly persuasion, without being concerned that additional knowledge will be a threat to religion. The Quran says: ‘Allah will not allow your faith to be lost.’ [Al-Baqara: 143] If the clerics teach what they know clearly and simply to people they will have fulfilled their role. There will be less room for mistakes and misinterpretation. Muslims will be more confident about their religion and beliefs. If the clerics don’t fulfill this duty, it is they who will be held to account. Abu Musa narrated that ‘the prophet called for a bowl of water in which he washed his hands and face and rinsed his mouth, and then he said to them: drink from it and sprinkle it on your faces and your necks’  [Al-Bukhary, Part1, Pages 81-82. No.188]

A person having knowledge should not consider himself ‘learned’. This will prevent him from becoming more knowledgeable. Attacking peoples’ lack of knowledge is equally unacceptable. The role of the clerics is to enlighten people not to insult, injure or make fun of them. This is especially true since no-one has a monopoly on knowledge. A person having knowledge of certain matters is always ignorant in others. The truth is our ignorance is greater than our knowledge. If a person passes on his knowledge to others sincerely without ulterior motives then it will be transmitted as purely as honey or milk. Personal or ulterior motives are like poison in the honey.

Only Allah preserves from error and gives strength to do right.