I get asked a lot of questions on a weekly basis mostly about Islam’s expression and practice in the modern world. I have often sought to catalog all the questions I have received (an overview of these questions can be found here), but perhaps the number one most frequently asked question is: “what Muslim personality should I listen to and follow?” This question speaks a lot to our condition and comes largely from the great deal of confusion and contradiction that exists in the space of religious discourse amongst Muslims. The fact that we have great tools to leverage different types of communications means that one of the by-products of this technology is that various sects/opinions of Islam have equal communicating powers, theoretically, that is. From an internal point of view, Islam sees that without some sort of criteria, anyone could/would say whatever they want and everyone who speaks like this will no doubt find at least one person to listen to them.
However, while I can go on and on about the source of the problem, I am much more interested in solutions to the problem. I answered a version of this question before (here), but I want to come at it from another perspective in this post. Through my various years of study, travel, conversations, meetings, projects, etc., I was able to develop a set of criteria to help me vet who I was getting information from. Rather than tell you who to listen to, let me provide you with some guidelines and rules to apply to those you listen to already or are considering, including me!
I call these The Three Rules of Three.
- The texts of Islam: Quranic verse, Hadith, or statements of a particular scholar.
- The understanding and meaning of this particular text in its linguistic, historical context, etc.
- Applying this text to the here and now.
When we receive a piece of information regarding Islam, it is helpful to ask ourselves where in the above three it falls. Am I hearing the restatement of a text, or is it the application of the text that is being offered? Or, is the text being explained? If you think about it, these are not the same and can produce very different outcomes.
This first rule helps you as the consumer of this piece of information understand what exactly you are consuming. As it relates to the manufacturer of this product, they too need to be clear what they are making and selling. Too often this distinction is not made and if you encounter such a situation you should stay away completely because the above distinction is literally the difference between life and death.
- Understanding the text (in the way outlined above), which comes from the realm of the Divine and therefore the Absolute. I mean, it’s revelation after all.
- Understanding the current contemporary moment, which is the exact opposite; very temporal, partial, and fleeting.
- The actual application of 1 to 2, which means that the process of application will never be the same because the temporal moment is constantly changing and the way Divine texts are applied will change likewise.
The message of Islam’s primary texts is meant to be received by us and implemented, yet every act that is implemented has its own conditions and rules. To do this, we need to understand the link between the message and reality. However, and as stated above, the message and reality come from two very different places. This means that a great deal of care needs to take place to implement the message of Islam in the here and now.
Again, if you think about it, this means that much of what we know about Islam is actually dynamic, not static. This is not because Islam necessarily changes, but rather we change and so does our day-to-day condition and reality.
- Scholar – spends most of their time in an area of specialty and expertise.
- Preacher – motivates you, like a coach, and does not have necessarily deep insight or knowledge of particulars.
- Worshiper – the pious amongst us whose dominant feature is worship and acts of devotion.
The above three are not the same or equal. If you want guidance and insight on a particular issue, you need a scholar. If you’re feeling down and need motivation, listen to the preacher. And if you want a model of piety and practice, look at the worshiper. Often times these personalities are assumed to be the same, and indeed these qualities might be within the same person, but typically one of these traits is more dominant than the others. However, all of them need to be circulating within the first two rules to demonstrate a broad and thorough understanding of Islam.
There are a lot of voices out there speaking to Muslims and offering them interpretations of Islam for their implementation. The above three rules are not only highly important to help protect us from falling prey to false experts, they also teach us how to approach our own journey and relationship with Islam. It is very common to come across stories, Hadith, verses that we simply don’t understand and cause us great confusion and maybe even doubt. When this happens, go back to the 3 rules above and follow the criteria to establish what exactly it is you are reading. This will help about 80% of the time. When it doesn’t, seek help and use the same criteria to help you find the true expert from the pretender. A hint, there are a lot of pretenders, but they can easily be sniffed out!