- Tarek Elgawhary
Direct, unbroken chains of transmissions are the hallmarks of the Islamic sciences. While the early generations of Muslims used these chains of transmissions largely to verify hadith, they became norms in every science and discipline to establish veracity and human-human interaction. Imam Muslim (d. 261/875) records in the introduction of his Ṣaḥīḥ that ‘Abdullah Ibn Mubārak (d. 181/797) said, “chains of transmissions are part of this religion (dīn), and where it not for the chains of transmission, anyone could say anything they wanted.” Whether in hadith sciences, Quranic recitation, Islamic law, or the spiritual science, chains of transmissions demonstrate the inherited nature of our faith tradition as well as the importance of taking knowledge from living, qualified scholars. The sanad is therefore first and foremost a tool of verification, not a tool of ceremony. The fact that the ulamā catalogued not only sound transmissions, but also weak and even forged ones, is a proof that the entire institution of isnād is to verify sound evidence from that which is dubious. Even though Ibn Ṣalāḥ argues that the use of the sanad as a verification tool seized and became ceremonial in relations to hadith, it continued its original use as a way to pass authority in law, theology, and Sufism.
One thinker/jurist from the 20th century whose time was no less chaotic and controversial than ours, was Egypt’s Grand Mufti Bakhīt al-Muṭī-‘ī (d. 1936). Overseeing the creation of Egypt’s first constitution and needing to reconcile many political realities to normative Islam, Muṭī‘ī was in need of defining legal authority. Muṭī‘ī believed that classical, normative sunnī Islam was, for the most part, summarized within the confines of the four sunnī schools of law. These four schools represented not necessarily the best legal opinions or jurisprudence, but rather schools of legal thought that have been “effectively preserved” throughout history. Effective preservation for al-Muṭī‘ī was a specific historic and scholastic occurrence. It meant that a particular mujtahid imām’s legal opinions were copied by his students, catalogued in books that survived the ages, and that these books have been transmitted from one generation of jurists to the next generation in an unbroken chain adding legal discussion and ratio legis (‘illa) at each step. The act of transmission is also itself a specific act, likened to the transmission of ḥadīth texts in the early generations of Islam. For al-Muṭī‘ī, this reflected an important point in his legal thinking. Namely that law, as a body of knowledge and way of life, must be learnt from a living teacher and cannot be learnt from books alone. Without a chain of transmission, implying that one has not learned law from a living teacher who himself is part of this chain of transmission, legal opinions could be invalid and heretical.
Therefore, chains of transmission and permissions to teach, what we refer to asijāza fi’l dirāyaorijāza fi’l tadrīs, are the basis upon which legal, theological, and spiritual authority are expressed, maintained, and continued. They are not, however, special powers that prevent one from doing this or that, or automatically make one holy. The ijāza, to be exact, is a license, and like any license, it can be revoked. For those who violate the ethics of the trade, or overstep their authority, their license is not only revoked, but they are memorialized as liars, hypocrites, and charlatans in much the same way as the forgers of hadith are remembered.
Within the sanad/ijāza system, one is accepted as part of the ongoing intellectual/juristic conversation. One’s scholarly output in this regard adds layers to the body of knowledge, helps redact schools of thought, and answers pressing questions facing each generation of Muslims. It is this precise function of juristic discussion, or, as I like to call it, intellectual footprint, that creates authority in matters of religion.
Types of Muslim Learned People (Muslim Personalities)
Although this is the overall approach to knowledge in normative Sunni Islam, it is also a fact that not everyone who studies and is properly trained ends up equal in their abilities, skills, and qualifications. One can think of the resultant “Muslim personalities” of this type of study approach to be:‘ālim – ‘ābid – da‘ī. While these are generally defined terms, they are also porous and one person is most likely a combination of all three.
‘Alim – someone who spends the majority of their time (70% or more) in one or more fields of study and therefore considered an expert in this field. This person is not necessarily well versed in other fields, nor particularly astute with the details of current events. One often turns to such a person for detailed answers to complex questions in various fields of Islamic studies. This is not to be confused with the role of a Mufti whose job it is to link specific legal knowledge to current events and therefore is in need of knowing about current events equal to his/her knowledge of Islamic law and legal methodology for the issue that is the subject of theirfatwa.
‘Dā ‘ī – Someone who spends the majority of their time (70% or more) calling people to Islam and is highly skilled in understanding the current condition of people and current events. They usually have a good understanding of the broad strokes of the Sharī‘a sciences, but are not considered experts in one particularly field. One learns general Islamic knowledge from them, and in some cases detailed knowledge in particular areas. Their main goal is help people be morally upright, understand the meta-principles of the religion, and dispel any false understanding they may have.
‘Ābid – Someone who has been gifted with great spiritual insight, adept at acts of worship, and has vast amounts of outward and inward piety. One usually benefits from such people spiritual guidance, and if such a person is to be qualified as a spiritual guide (murshid), they must have a cursory knowledge of necessarily known obligations of religion (al-m‘alūm min al-dīn bi’l ḍarūra).
One of the main problems I have observed with people trying to decipher the perspectives of Muslim scholars towards the events of the Arab Spring, and particularly the case of Egypt, is that they equate the above three as being equal. The fact of the matter is that while there is a general approach to knowledge in Sunni Islam that unties those who have studied, Muslim personalities are not equal in their knowledge or their understanding of current events and can not and should not be called on to define the “Islamic” answer to this event or that. For example, one cannot expect a dā‘ī or an ‘ābid to provide a fatwa on revolution and arresting a political ruler who has been deemed to go astray. They can, however, call for calm, peaceful demonstration, protection of the disenfranchised, etc. In searching for what Muslim scholars have said regarding the events of the Arab Spring, and the events of Egypt specifically, there are indeed differences, but these differences are between the ‘ulamā’ one to another, and not necessarily the differences aired by any and every Muslim personality.