The Parameters of Being a Layman “Scholar”


This is not a definitive set of parameters. Not in the least. However, what is attempted is to begin an inquiry of sorts into the following challenge I’ve encountered as a Muslim: to purport to apply Islam for oneself or to explain Islam to Non-Muslims and Muslims, in the midst of primarily trying to learn, understand the said-knowledge myself, first, and at-the-same-time.

الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله
All praise is due to ALLAH and peace and blessing upon His Messenger
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful


We know that to truly speak with authority on a subject (and know what you’re talking about) you should ideally be an expert in that field. There are broadly speaking, three types of ‘experts’:

a) Academically: To be an expert in an academic field, you’d need a qualification. You need to obtain Ijaaza (authorisation, licence) from a teacher to certify the fact that 1) you know something valuable in that field and 2) you are qualified to teach it.

b) Professionally: To be an expert in the world of work, you’d need to be appropriately trained. This could take the form of formal training, which parallels the academic, above, or it might be a matter of shadowing a mentor – like one’s supervisor or boss, to acquire the authorisation more informally from one’s manager.

c) Life: Or if you are a graduate from the university of life, you need to gain sufficient  experience to becomes an expert in life. You won’t obtain any official Ijaaza, but time will tell when you’re ripe enough to disseminate your acquired wisdom of life. Who judges whether you know what you’re talking about is a good question. Whether proficiency in this category makes you a scholar or layman-‘scholar’ or neither is another debatable point.

2. The Challenge of Explaining and Applying Islam Whilst Learning Islam.

Why is this a challenge? Notwithstanding the fact that I’m learning, applying, explaining, reviewing, deliberating, critiquing, re-assessing, back-tracking, forward-planning, puzzling – the fact that this is all happening at the same time, speaks for itself, I guess.

But the real trick is to speak for Islam, as a Muslim, not as a Master of the subject (an expert, a scholar, a learned-person) – but as a learner, an inquisitor, a living-it traveller. How does one do that? What are the ‘rules’ concerning this? And what is the value of the words spoken by (what I am calling) a layman-‘scholar’? Is this ‘knowledge’ or simply ‘what has been learned, thus far’? Yes, it is clearly the latter. But what is ‘that’ called? ‘Learning-knowledge’? ‘Learnedge’? ‘Knowledge-as-you-go’…?


3. The Two Ways of Valuing Religious Learning

There are two ways we might think about the value of religious learning. One is that it is ‘Recreational’ and comparable to acquiring a skill/pastime akin to a hobby. In this sense, we train ourselves as merely a lifestyle choice, like riding a bike, learning how to swim, how to cook. Yes, we might be formally taught, but we don’t need to be.

The other is that it is ‘Fundamental’, natural and necessary – but also that is it structural and systematic – not like a machine but organic and integral. In this sense it is similar to acquiring a more professional skill. For instance, one cannot become a doctor without the appropriately full, official training. One cannot become an electrician without the appropriately full, official training. The implications are serious. No one would trust us to operate on their children if we acquired medical skills on our own – i.e from watching youtube videos. It is a matter of permanent impairment or death if you get it wrong. Similarly, if religious learning is similarly significant – that our soul is at risk of permanent impairment or death, then such learning ought to be gained seriously, professionally and certainly not to be approached like a hobby.

The issue here is to do with perspective. That is, from followers of Atheism, and for Secular Humanists, they would regard religious learning as redundant (by the former) and optional (by the latter) but entirely recreational. For practicing theists, they would certainly see the importance of religious learning and its value to be fundamental. The analysis here, then, seems to demonstrate the dire need for those with a dynamic interest in religious learning to be Fundamentally taught in an Academic or Professional sense.


4.The Problems of Learnedge in the Real-Politik of our Contemporary World

The conflict arises in the following scenarios:

A) The traditional institutions to acquire such knowledge formally has been/ or are being dismantled ever since the colonial experience in the Muslim world. A pending post will look into this topic in due course. The institutions in the non-Muslim world offering such knowledge is few and far between. The issue is there is a dearth of scholars in authentic Islam. Coupled to this is the fact that there is a gap with many scholar’s knowledge between bridging religious knowledge with the current climate’s sociological context (in a meaningful and powerful way). This needs to be rectified immediately. Many of those that try and bridge the gap right now might in fact be Laymen-‘scholars’.

B) Another factor is in the age of the internet and with greater literacy, i) more people have greater access to whatever Islamic texts are ‘out there’, but not with the formal training (as in point A) in terms of the range (and nuances) of approaches to that tradition; ii) more people have greater access to other texts  and the increased means of making judgments known about many issues under the sun. Together, this leads to iii) greater amounts of people in a position to make claims but without the rigour of the scholar (i.e lots of Laymen-‘scholars’ – or perhaps having pretensions of being one – or indeed believing themselves to be fully-fledged ‘scholars’ which results in iv) the proliferation of information, many – if not most – are incorrect, misleading, problematic, ambiguous or dangerous. There is a need therefore of v) engaging in ‘disinformation’ – where we must ‘clear our way through the rubbish’, navigating our way through so much information trying to ascertain what is true-knowledge and what is false. We need to be careful and considered.

C) Person A (the Learner) is learning his subject. He knows more about the field or subject area than Person B (the Ignorant one) but not as much as Person C (the Expert or Scholar). But Person C is so busy he will not be able to supply any specific queries that affect Person A and B. Person C may have provided a lecture where he attempted to give as much of an overview to the query and a series of guidelines that was to be utilised over a long time-span – that is, till his next lecture on the same or similar topic (whenever that might be); or a book he wrote two years ago; or an article two months ago. This is likely to be useful, but may not address the specific issue at hand, when the time to respond is imminent. We find ourselves by and large on our own from time to time. Person A acts, therefore, as the Layman-‘Scholar’.

D) You might be an expert in Field A, but are a novice in Field B. Whilst trying to acquire knowledge in Field B, you are in fact a Layman-‘Scholar’ in the mean time.

E) There is a Prophetic tradition that says, if you have nothing good to say, remain silent.

“Abû Hurayrah relates that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent.” (Bukhari and Muslim) (Source).

Your (lack of) knowledge may cause more problems than you know. So remain silent when speaking about matters you know little about.

And do not follow [say] that of which you have no knowledge.” (Qur’an, Surah Al-Israa: 36). Taken from Manners of Talking.

The assumption here is ‘knowing little’ is not ‘good’ and so speaking from a lack of knowledge can quite easily be ‘bad’. We ought to refer, instead, to the one who does know – that is to say, the expert/ scholar/ master. This is good advice. Except if the expert is unavailable due to the thousand people seeking his/her advice (as in example C, above). What do you do then? Stop living? Ignore the question? A vow of silence?

E) There is another tradition that says if you know a hadith (a report of the Prophet, peace be upon him) or if you possess any valuable pieces of knowledge, you should spread it.

It is narrated from ‘Abd-Allah ibn ‘Amr (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Convey from me, even if it is a verse.” (Bukhari, 3461), and

Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “He who calls others to follow the Right Guidance will have a reward equal to the reward of those who follow him, without their reward being diminished in any respect on that account.” (Muslim). (Both reports taken from Spread the Word of Allah.)

There is a hassanah (a reward) for spreading the word of Allah, be He glorified in the highest. But if we know little about the said-hadith (the level of its authenticity, or its contextual utterance and history, or its appropriate relevance to the situation it is mentioned in order to explain, because of a wider lack of knowledge about context) are we doing more harm than good? The same can be said of any thing we pass off as knowledge.  Go back to point D, above.

F) So what is the solution to some of these issues in how we respond? I believe, given everything I’ve said above, certain conclusions could be drawn.


5. Conclusions:

1. Commitment to Study: We ought to commit to learning professionally so that we become actual scholars – and not Laymen-‘Scholars’. Anyone with a genuine interest in the meaning of life, spirituality, religion and Truth, must attempt in their lifetimes to commit to formal study in shaa Allah (God Willing). And this, on a Fundamental level. They must pair that with ensuring they acquire knowledge about what is the current cultural context and engage in social activism, so their thoughts are based on real-life and not some idealist abstraction.

2. Silence is better than ugly speech: Don’t talk if you are going to be abusive, rude or you feel too emotionally involved (anger, despair, melancholy). You are likely to talk less logically and more caustically. Silence is better.

3. Make an Admission: In the event that we aren’t able to engage formally in gaining knowledge or if we are in the process of learning, but not yet experts/ scholars/ masters, when discussing the knowledge we’ve acquired thus far, we should preface our words to people with: a) “I am not an expert,” b) “This is merely my opinion, perspective, effort to reason given what I’ve learned/know so far,” or c) “Don’t quote me,” and d) “For a fuller/ better/ correct explanation, talk to an expert, like … (and insert the name of an appropriate/genuine scholar, here.)”

4. Engage in Positive Discussions: If you are acquiring knowledge, you may want to test the parameters of your thought-processes in your ‘getting-to-know’. This might be assisted through discursive means. In which case, it is worth conversing. I would suggest that this is a good practice in our current climate where there is a lack of Islamic knowledge. But note: we ought not to engage in such debates simply for the sake of argument.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “A people did not get misguided after Allah had guided them, but they were aimlessly argumentative.” (Tirmidhi)

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “I guarantee a house in the surroundings of Paradise for the one who stopped being aimlessly argumentative even if he is right.” (Abu Dawud)

You need to ensure you make explicit your lack of knowledge (as in point 3, above). Feel confident that you can handle the negativity that might begin to pursue you when engaging in such discussions. Please ensure you read ‘Discussing the Truth… How?‘ If you realise you can’t, then, please revert back to point 2, above.


For further ideas on ‘How to Deal with Differences‘ consider the idea of ‘Workable Theories’.

6. Afterword: A Warning

The prophet (peace be upon him) said: “You must speak the truth for the truth leads to virtue and virtue leads to Paradise . One, who always speaks the truth and means the truth, is recorded as truthful with Allah. Keep away from the lie for the lie leads to evil and evil leads to the Hell Fire and one who continually tells a lie and intends to lie is recorded with Allah as a liar.”(Bukhari and Muslim)


سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين

Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.

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