(Disclaimer: This piece makes no reference to any one particular sheikh or individual. Rather it is a critical examination of the way in which communities treat certain shuyookh, what they expect from them, and the mindset that this creates)
The past couple of decades have seen a surge in the development of Muslim communities outside Muslim majority countries. From our increased number, and the increased number of visible Muslims, to the emergence of Muslim specific industries; food, finance and clothing, today there are many avenues by which the Muslim identity is expressed. Scholarship is another area that has seen much progression, with the rise of famous Islamic speakers and imams, and numerous institutions set up across the Western world to facilitate the rise in Islamic learning. And it is within this context that the phenomenon of the celebrity sheikh arises.
Some people object to the use of this term. Just because a scholar is famous, does not mean he is a “celebrity” per se. But, aside from that, this label is not necessarily acquired because of a scholar’s own desires to be in the public eye, but rather because its what their communities and followers expect of them.
From attending star studded conferences and live online broadcasts, to exclusive retreats or trips abroad, there are many ways in which we can interact with shuyookh and learn from them. But many times, the self-promotion shuyookh engage in, of only their own, or own organisation’s material, leads to the illusion of their work being the most important, and so their ideas being beyond reproach. Coupled with the attitude they are met with; where people queue for autographs of famous speakers, selfies or even just a few brief words, it leaves little doubt that this is celebrity culture; when the name becomes greater than the actions.
And there has also been a growing focus on the lives of shuyookh outside their realms of Islamic studies. I have attended events advertised as “intimate conversations” with certain scholars, where they were questioned on their background and their personal lives. The increasing number of public figures using social media to spread their message means some often share personal photos, sometimes including pictures from holidays, meals or pictures with their spouses. From snapchat to instagram, the cool, relatable and personal lives of many scholars are readily available, alongside Islamic reminders of course.
But what is the problem with having well-known shuyookh people argue? Don’t our youth need role models? Better these individuals to guide and mentor them, but also show their fun/non scholarship related side, than they look to other mainstream celebrities?
This argument ignores a lot of the reality that comes with the celebrity sheikh, first and foremost being that it promotes blind following. I cannot count the infinitesimal number of times that I have spoken about a particular scholar’s opinion on an issue, a topic that perhaps is not spoken about as much by more popular shuyookh, and that piece of information is met by others with scepticism or denial. This knowledge is pushed to the side, ignored because “their sheikh” did not authenticate it. Not only is this excluding vast amounts of knowledge, but it also plays into a mentality of reliance on one individual, something Islam discourages as seen by the constant references to ijmaa’ (consensus) of scholars and groups as a source of fiqh.
Which brings us onto the second issue. Many shuyookh today have one area of expertise, namely Islamic studies, and sometimes just one specific set of Islamic studies. To then take these shuyookh’s contributions on issues, on which they have less knowledge than other Islamic experts, purely because they are better known, is misleading and dangerous. Many shuyookh, and increasingly so in the past few years, regularly comment on political issues and current affairs. That is not to say that their contributions are automatically wrong or useless, but we have many in our community who have dedicated their lives and studies to examining such topics from an Islamic perspective, and their work should also be given due attention, and not disregarded due to the lack of a name.
But bringing us onto the third concern, we must nevertheless admit that sometimes shuyookh are wrong. Sometimes they don’t have expertise, particularly on current realities, for them to adequately comment. I recall videos of students of Quranic sciences commenting on hadith, shuyookh in the Middle East commenting on realities in the West (and vice versa!) and shuyookh commenting on complex, sensitive issues such as race and gender; and completely missing the mark.
But when they are wrong, this must be recognised and then the community move on, and not engage in the continual criticism of a certain scholar. It is because we hold them to such a high standard, that when they are wrong, we find it so unthinkable that we must bring them down even harder. If we had a more balanced approach towards scholarship, we wouldn’t feel the need to distance ourselves from them on a particular issue so vehemently. But at the same time, when a certain scholar is put on a pedestal such that no one can envisage them saying any wrong, it frustrates people to the extent that they will keep addressing an issue until people recognise their critique.
Allah (swt) warns us in the Quran about the ways of the People of the Book before us, who elevated their priests and scholars to the position of lords instead of God. By extension, this is a warning against elevating any individual, other than Muhammad (saws), such that their opinion cannot be challenged. We must resist “islamisising” the celebrity culture that runs the world today, and instead appreciate the beauty of our Deen wherever it is to be found, whether the speaker is well known or not. Our approach to seeking knowledge must not be confined to one individual for every topic, but rather to take from those who sincere experts that are on the right path.
 Surah Tawbah, verse 31