Necessary disciplines for a religious scholar

Necessary disciplines for a religious scholar

2) Necessary disciplines for a religious scholar

Having explained his viewpoint in distinguishing fiqh according to the QurÞÁn from formal fiqh, and fiqh in its QurÞÁnic sense from fiqh in its formal one, Sayyid KamÁl discusses those necessary qualities a religious scholar must possess according to him. He asks: ‘What are the most important disciplines and fields in religious learning? This is what I adopted in my book, al-Tafaqquh fÐ al-dÐn – namely a delineation of the scope of learning – what must a person possess in order for us to call him a religious scholar or religious authority?’

In response to this question, he says: ‘There are three major fields one must become learned in if we are to call him a religious scholar, an inheritor of the prophets, a fortress of Islam and a guardian of the religion and religious thought; a religious scholar must be fully acquainted with three major disciplines, they are: the study of Allah’s speech (kalÁm Allah), which is QurÞÁnic exegesis (tafsÐr). In other words, he must have studied the discipline of tafsÐr in its entirety, including any prerequisites it may have. Pay attention well because I am not talking about preliminaries here; every one of these topics has preliminaries…’

To elaborate upon this he says: ‘Look, for someone to be a jurist in matters of the permissible and prohibited – meaning in the contents of a practical legal manual – what does he need? It is not enough for him to pick up a copy of WasÁÞil al-shÐÝah [and read]; no, he must also know Arabic well; he must know morphology (Òarf), he must know rhetoric (balÁghah), he must know the principles of jurisprudence (uÒÙl al-fiqh), he must know the science of narrators (Ýilm al-rijÁl). These are all prerequisites, but if someone delves deeply into language, into syntax (naÎw), morphology and rhetoric, in the principles of jurisprudence or the science of narrators… but he does not exert himself in the discipline of fiqh, we cannot rightly call him a scholar of fiqh, no matter how deeply he studies its preliminaries.

Therefore, when I am speaking about these three fields, I am not talking on the level of preliminary studies (muqaddimÁt), because every field of these has its own special preliminaries.’

He adds: ‘Therefore, a scholar must have thoroughly familiarized himself with tafsÐr, just as he must have thoroughly familiarized himself with the contents of WasÁÞil al-shÐÝah. How can he not when if you asked a jurist about the source of a legal ruling (fatwÁ) he has given, he will tell you ‘Based on such-and-such an authentic narration, or such-and-such an acceptable narration.’ Just as fiqh is like putty in the hands of a jurist – according to the words of ShahÐd MuÎammad BÁqir al-Ñadr – so too must tafsÐr and its study be like putty in the hands of a religious scholar.’

Sayyid KamÁl asks: ‘Why is tafsÐr counted amongst the important disciplines that a scholar must learn?’ He answers this question as follows: ‘Because the Imams of the Prophet’s Household [a3] have informed us that their words have suffered contamination, distortion and fabrication, to the extent that they cursed many of the fabricators openly. All of this reveals that the practice of fabrication was widespread indeed at that time. We must not assume that fabrication is a problem faced only by the other side – fabrication has always existed in the ShÐÝÐ world…’

He continues: ‘They also told us that many of their companions would relate narrations according to their meaning [rather than their actual words]. They told us that some parts of their narrations were separated from the whole – as was the practice of the compiler of WasÁÞil – and they told us to speak to people according to the capacity of their intellects. They told us that there were instances of taqiyyah in their statements…

Good. So if this was the situation, how can we distinguish the authentic narrations from the corrupt ones in this voluminous collection of them?

The answer is that they gave us a single criterion. They said: ‘Compare our words to [Allah’s] Book; if you find some evidence for them therein then we uttered them, otherwise they are some superfluity which we did not utter – cast them against the wall.’ Here I ask you – by Allah – if someone does not study the QurÞÁn and its sciences, does not know the abrogating verses or the abrogated ones, nor the clear and ambiguous ones, nor that some parts of the QurÞÁn explain other parts, then how can they compare the words of the Imams to the QurÞÁn?

Therefore, the first fundamental qualification is: the scholar of religion must have his own tafsÐr, not in the sense that he must write one, rather that he must be fully familiar with the discipline of tafsÐr. The only reason I don’t say that he must be a mujtahid[1] in tafsÐr is because I believe that tafsÐr is one of the higher preliminaries (muqaddimÁt qarÐbah) rather than the basic ones (muqaddimÁt baÝÐdah), so it is possible to rely on other experts in this field.’

As for the second field of expertise, Sayyid al-ÍaydarÐ says it is doctrines (ÝaqÁÞid): ‘How can a scholar protect the religion of Islam, guard its boundaries and repel intellectual, cultural and doctrinal attacks [without having thoroughly studied Islamic doctrines]? How great it is, how great are the attacks to which the school of Ahl al-Bayt (a3) is exposed to!’

The third and final field of expertise that a scholar must have is knowledge of the permissible and the prohibited, but this too is not restricted to the topics presently laid out in a practical legal manual; it is much broader than this. Sayyid KamÁl says: ‘Here I must say this clearly and explicitly: Know that time has effaced some practical legal manuals, in the sense that they have lost their benefit. For example, many issues in the discussion of Íajj in al-ÝUrwah al-wuthqÁ are no longer applicable. In all truth and fairness, the author of al-ÝUrwah, Sayyid KÁÛim al-YazdÐ (qs) himself, when he dealt with matters of Íajj was looking at the issues of his own time. But we today, unfortunately, still comment on the discussions in al-ÝUrwah al-wuthqÁ which were intended to address the situation prevailing at that time. Now there are new issues connected to Íajj which we must discuss, and if we want to write a manual of Íajj then we must write about those – if we want to [be scholars] of the calibre of the author of al-ÝUrwah al-wuthqÁ

Some imagine that when I say that the issues the author of al-ÝUrwah dealt with are no longer relevant today, that this is belittling or disrespectful. Not at all! All I wanted to say was that scholar was familiar with the affairs of his day, while we ourselves do not pay attention to the practical needs and requirements of our own! Many issues dealt with in our practical legal manuals are never acted upon, while the name of the book they are written in is a practical manual (risÁlah Ýamaliyyah). For this reason, you find that many books are written from questions that have been submitted to us (istiftÁÞÁt). Has anyone asked himself: ‘Why are there so many questions of religious law today, and why are the books compiled from the answers given to these questions bigger than the practical manuals themselves?’ The answer is clear: The faithful need to know the answer to a question but, when they refer to the practical manual, they cannot find what they are looking for! This means they are compelled to ask the question from a marjaÝ while the legal manual was supposed to have been written according to people’s practical needs. This is first of all.

Secondly, there is a false idea out there, namely that by the permissible and prohibited, I mean the permissible and prohibited with regards to the issues of the individual person – prayer, fasting, Íajj, zakÁt – while this is just one part of the permissible and prohibited. Where have the permissible and prohibited gone in international relations? There are tens of companies who trade with the Zionist enemy who desire to dominate us, is it permissible for us to go to these companies and cooperate with them while by doing so we are clearly strengthening them? This is like supporting someone else in committing a sin, and not just an individual sin – does anyone ask about this? Has a marjaÝ written in his practical legal manual when this is permissible and when it is not?’

Then Sayyid al-ÍaydarÐ says: ‘I say again: I am not talking about particular individuals. Someone might say: Ayatullah so-and-so is an expert (mujtahid) in all religious sciences. OK. I’m not interested in speaking about individual instances; it is the responsibility of each individual believer to make up his own mind about particular persons. I am only explaining the theory, concept and system which I am constructing, which I believe in and which I am defending.’

He adds: ‘Therefore we have an absolute expert (mujahid muÔlaq), who carries out ijtihÁd in all religious sciences, and we have an expert specialist (mujtahid mutajazzÐ) who is an expert in one field, for example doctrines, but not another, such as fiqh. There are scholars who are experts in all matters of religious law, whether individual, societal, international, war or peace, but are still specialized in a particular field. If a jurist only practises ijtihÁd in some fields of fiqh then he is further specialized still.’

Then Sayyid KamÁl speaks about philosophy and ÝirfÁn and poses the following question: ‘One might ask: You didn’t mention anything about philosophy? Or: You didn’t mention anything about ÝirfÁn? The answer is that I am someone who believes that philosophy and ÝirfÁn are two of the fundamental tools available to us for understanding religious texts, just as anyone who wishes to know fiqh must know the principles of jurisprudence (uÒÙl al-fiqh), Arabic syntax and morphology, so too do philosophy and ÝirfÁn have an important role to play in interpreting texts, but they are not a replacement for those texts. The same is true about the principles of jurisprudence; as a subject, it is a preliminary to understanding jurisprudence itself. For this reason I have said we must also have a study of the principles of doctrines (Ýilm uÒÙl al-ÝaqÁÞid).


Sayyid al-ÍaydarÐ spoke about the qualifications needed for anyone to claim a position of religious authority; namely full familiarity with the science of tafsÐr – the reason for its importance being ‘so that he can compare the narrations to the QurÞÁn, if they conform to it [they can be accepted] otherwise they are discarded.’

The second field of expertise he mentioned was that of doctrines (ÝaqÁÞid), because this is necessary ‘for him to protect Islam against the intellectual attacks of its enemies.’

Thirdly, he spoke about fiqh, saying: ‘I do not mean by fiqh the kind you find in a practical legal manual… this doesn’t mean only those matters of permissibility or prohibition connected to individuals, rather it includes all those legal matters connected to society as well.’

After that he mentioned philosophy and ÝirfÁn, saying: ‘They are both necessary to understand religious texts…’ This is a summary of what the Sayyid has said in this regard.

In truth there are many ideas presented by Sayyid KamÁl here which have already been raised by others amongst our leading scholars. These ideas are not innovations that he is presenting for the first time in the history of ShÐÝism, especially those ideas which he has advanced with regards to the science of fiqh; we find similar ideas expressed by the late Ayatullah KhumaynÐ, ShahÐd al-Ñadr, Shaykh MuÎammad MahdÐ Shams al-DÐn, Sayyid MuÎammad Íusayn FaÃl Allah and others. We shall mention examples of this below.

Ayatullah KhumaynÐ’s view of fiqh

Ayatullah KhumaynÐ clarifies his view of fiqh in some of his lectures, saying: ‘As for the lessons and studies which take place within the hawzahs, I believe firmly in fiqh based on taqlÐd[2] and ijtihÁd in the style of JawÁhir [al-kalÁm].[3] We cannot stray from this. The practise of ijtihÁd with this method is correct, but this does not mean that Islamic law lacks flexibility. No, time and place are two fundamental elements in the process of ijtihÁd; it is possible that a ruling may have previously been derived for a particular issue, but that same issue is given a new ruling in light of changes in prevailing relations in politics, society and economics in a particular system. In other words, from a detailed knowledge of economic, social and political relations that surround the first subject which, although it may not appear to differ from the past, in truth has become a new subject which needs a new ruling in a new age. The youth today – or people in general, for that matter – will not accept a marjaÝ or jurist who abstains from giving his opinion in political matters…

Being well-versed in the ways of combatting distortion and misguidance in the prevalent global culture, having an insight into and views about economics and being informed on how the global economic system works, knowing the policies, budgets and aims of politicians, understanding the two poles of Capitalism and Marxism (as well as their relative strengths and weaknesses), in that these dictate the global strategic balance; all of these are qualities and qualifications that a comprehensive jurist (al-mujtahid al-jÁmiÝ) must possess…

A mujtahid must demonstrate practical ability, cleverness and the charisma to guide the great Islamic society and even non-Islamic society. He must be a real manager and planner, as well as having the qualities of sincerity, piety and asceticism which befit a scholar.’[4]

We can see a clear similarity between the words of Ayatullah KhumaynÐ (qs) and those of Sayyid KamÁl al-ÍaydarÐ, when the latter says that by fiqh he does not mean only those matters of the permissible and prohibited that concern the individual, which can be found in practical legal manuals. He poses the rhetorical question: ‘Where are the Islamic laws which detail what is right and wrong in societal matters? Where are the Islamic laws about international relations?’ At the same time, Ayatullah KhumaynÐ says: ‘The mujtahid must be well-versed in the issues of his day. The youth – or people in general – will not accept a marjaÝ or jurist who abstains from giving his opinion in political matters.’

ShahÐd MuÎammad BÁqir al-Ñadr’s views on fiqh

Criticizing the view of traditionally-minded jurists who restrict fiqh to individual matters and do not pay attention to society – which is the same point that Sayyid KamÁl discussed – ShahÐd al-Ñadr says: ‘This mentality in a scholar not only causes fiqh to shrink with regards to its subject, but gradually causes an individualistic attitude to creep into the SharÐÝah itself. In other words, the jurist, because he is mentally accustomed to dealing with individual matters when applying the theories of Islam to everyday life and used to looking at the individual and his problems, will have this position reflected in his view of the SharÐÝah, which will in turn take on an individualistic imprint. It is as though the SharÐÝah itself will be operating in the limits of a greatly reduced set of goals, and this is all the jurist will concern himself with, namely the individual aspects of applying Islam to everyday life.’

In the process of commenting on understanding religious texts, ShahÐd al-Ñadr also alludes to the individualistic mentality and the shrinking of the societal aspects of Islam, to the extent that some do not believe that the word ‘lion’ can be used as a metaphor on the basis of its social behaviour, and must be completely limited to its individual aspect. This means that only the idea of Islam as a personal relationship between man and his Creator. He says: ‘The word could be used to express a number of meanings, but its apparent meaning remains just one particular meaning of those. For example, the word ‘lion’ could be used to mean a wild animal: ‘The lion is the king of the jungle.’ But it could also be used to describe a person’s bravery: ‘This man is a lion!’

He adds: ‘If the religious texts are only connected to worship, then we must understand them on a literal linguistic basis alone; we cannot understand them in their social context… the role of a societal understanding of the text begins where the literal linguistic understanding of it ends. At the first level of interpreting the text, a jurist must determine what linguistic and literal meanings it yields, then once he has understood the meaning of the words, he places this in the social context and studies the common meaning given to them in the minds of the society. This allows him to see new things appearing from the text, which were not that at the first stage of understanding it. In other words: ‘When we understand the text in its societal context, we will be closer to the probable boundaries of those rulings.’[5]

ShahÐd ÑÁdiq al-Ñadr’s view of fiqh

The term ‘the silent Îawzah’ echoes in the words of ShahÐd ÑÁdiq al-Ñadr when the latter refers to those scholars who remained quiet. This can be found in the audio recordings of his lectures. This is also the case in his description of those who claimed membership of the Îawzah as those whom had been overcome by ‘selfishness, generation after generation’ according to his expressions, and those whom he referred to as ‘scholars of istikhÁrah’ and ‘marjaÝs [for collecting] religious taxes’ who are only good for four things: Leading prayers, giving lessons, collecting taxes and issuing legal opinions, which are usually concerned with individual matters, rulings of doubts [occurring in prayers], using the bathroom, and ritual purity and impurity.[6]

This view generally accords with the opinions expressed by Sayyid KamÁl al-ÍaydarÐ.

Shaykh MuÎammad MahdÐ Shams al-DÐn’s view of fiqh

Shaykh MuÎammad MahdÐ Shams al-DÐn writes about his view of fiqh in his book, al-TajdÐd fÐ al-fikr al-islÁmÐ (The Renewal of Islamic Thought). His view agrees in some parts with the theories of Sayyid KamÁl al-ÍaydarÐ, especially with regards to the restriction of fiqh to personal issues and the general neglect of social ones. About this, he says: ‘The jurist must be well-versed in the issues of his time, the problems of his own society and the problems affecting mankind in his age. A widespread example in our present time is to speak about the environment, even though it is not discussed, generally speaking, in Islamic law – meaning the traditional conception of Islamic law. There is no fiqh of the environment – if this is the right term for it – and this matter has many problems surrounding it. If an entrepreneur or company (foreign or native) comes and builds a factory which pollutes the environment with its waste, there are those jurists who say – according to the traditional mind set – yes, this is acceptable under the SharÐÝah because mankind have complete authority to dispose of their property as they wish and we have no right to prevent them. While another religious view of human actions in society is to say that whatever they are, we can – by virtue of an opposing ijtihÁd – prevent them from doing so, in which case people do not have absolute authority to dispose of their wealth as they please.’[7]

As for methodology, Shaykh Shams al-DÐn (qs) says: ‘The rank of ijtihÁd needs re-evaluating. To me, it seems that there is a methodological flaw – I do not say a methodological failure – but there is a methodological flaw. A very serious example of this is the usual assertion of the jurists that the legal verses of the QurÞÁn number a little over five hundred. This, while we notice first that the relation of these five hundred verses to all the verses in the Book of Allah is less than one-tenth; this is something interesting to ponder upon – more than nine-tenths of the QurÞÁn is admonishment, parables and doctrines, while the legal verses are less than one-tenth. This is something interesting, is it not? Knowing that the verses directly concerned with doctrines are also much less than one-tenth, leaving more than eight-tenths of the QurÞÁn containing parables and admonishments. This needs further study and careful examination. I believe – and Allah knows best – that the legal verses of the QurÞÁn are much more than what our jurists and jurisprudents commonly claim.’

Speaking about the issue of individualism, he says: ‘The classical jurists and jurisprudents – may Allah be pleased with them and grant them good from us – began their interaction with the QurÞÁn by considering relevant only those verses directly concerned with laws, which they would occupy themselves with. And this is usually concerned with the fiqh of individuals; the worship of individuals, the trade of individuals, the crimes of individuals, and family matters. I do not know why they neglected the legislation about societies, nations, politics, management, internal relations of a society and its external relations with other non-Muslim societies…’[8]

Shaykh Shams al-DÐn speaks about legal opinions: ‘A fatwÁ by itself lays out the higher legal responsibility, the abstract legal duty, not the practical duty. A practical fatwÁ must focus on issues happening in real life and the impact of events that take place in the real world.’[9] This is the same statement as that of Sayyid KamÁl al-ÍaydarÐ, only using different expressions and styles.

As for philosophy, we find Shaykh MuÎammad MahdÐ Shams al-DÐn disagrees with Sayyid KamÁl al-ÍaydarÐ. While Sayyid KamÁl says: ‘ÝirfÁn is necessary for understanding religious texts’ Shaykh Shams al-DÐn says that philosophy has influenced the discipline of uÒÙl al-fiqh and is something which has infected Islamic law from many angles. He says: ‘A fault has occurred in the principles of jurisprudence. In my opinion, the study of these principles was influenced at an early stage by kalÁm[10] and philosophy, little-by-little becoming a discipline for its own sake, when it is really a tool, a method and a means. This led it to become more complicated with the entry of philosophical terminology and philosophical methods of discussion. It is as though we are discussing the primacy of existence or the primacy of quiddity, for example, in the midst of a discussion of legal principles in which we are dealing with a scripture that has been spoken or revealed in the QurÞÁn or Sunnah…’

He continues: ‘In the study of the principles of jurisprudence, in many circumstances, we have stopped seeing it as a means to arriving at a goal, and changed it to a goal in of itself. This is very dangerous; I believe this has affected Islamic law from many angles and it is reflected in the state of the Ummah and the Muslim mind…’[11]

Before this, Shaykh Shams al-DÐn said of the principles of jurisprudence: ‘The principles of jurisprudence were arranged according to this view. I do not mean that they are flawed from their inception, as this is another very important study, but [what I mean is that] the principles of jurisprudence – taken as a fundamental pillar of ijtihÁd – must respond to a view of fiqh which is much broader than the one that currently predominates. This requires the ShÐÝÐ jurists and jurisprudents to examine the last two centuries as an important development from the angle of depth, which caused many subjects to depart from their original field of inquiry – namely, the SharÐÝah – in order to make them into a philosophical inquiry – an abstract, theological one with no connection to matters of deriving a meaning from the QurÞÁn and Sunnah, but this liberation of the principles of jurisprudence from immediate concerns has not played any role in extending the scope of jurisprudence and deriving laws.’[12]

This view belongs not only to Shaykh Shams al-DÐn, in that we find Sayyid MuÎsin AmÐn (qs) expressing similar views. He says: ‘The mujtahids in Najaf absorb themselves in the study of jurisprudence and its principles to the level of excess (ifrÁÔ)’ He draws an example with MirzÁ ÍabÐb Allah al-RashtÐ (d. 1312) who was the greatest teacher of his time. Al-RashtÐ would take an inordinate amount of time in teaching his classes, such that it was said he spent many months just discussing the definition of sale (bayÝ). This was common in his time, but Sayyid MuÎsin al-AmÐn says that this is a waste of one’s years: ‘Tens of thick volumes have been written on the principles of jurisprudence; this [needlessly] complicates the discipline, increasing one’s distance [to Allah] rather than nearness. Had they only refined those books and summarized them, a tenth of them would have been sufficient.’[13]

Sayyid MuÎammad Íusayn FaÃl Allah expressed the same view when he said: ‘The preoccupation with abstract intellectual discussions found in the principles of jurisprudence, especially amongst the ShÐÝah, after the development of the UÒÙlÐ school amongst them, might actually divert the jurist from a clear and learned reading of scripture. We know that scripture rests fundamentally upon the principles of a learned reading, but you find some people treating scriptures as though they were rigid architectural drawings, while the text is in a constant state of motion as it interacts with life… this is something which has opened up a breach within uÒÙlÐ thought and amongst the horizons in which the Divine Law appears and through which it moves. This is what has led many jurists to become far removed from an objective mind set with which they can understand the text in a natural way. Perhaps some of them think that complicated words are the basis of knowledge, such that if a person writes a theory of jurisprudence in an understandable style they do not consider it “scholarly” enough. The same is true when they see someone who understands a text in a rational manner; they say his knowledge is superficial and not deep. This is because they interact with the texts and study them in a mechanical way, centimetre by centimetre.’

He also says: ‘Ideas play a major role in understanding sacred texts, because they constitute an intellectual basis for various acts of legislation. The problem is that jurists approach the body of the text without approaching its spirit, on the basis of a very narrow scope of interaction with ideas.’[14]

Concerning the matter Sayyid FaÃl Allah raises, I want to highlight an important point Sayyid al-ÍaydarÐ has not touched upon, but which both Sayyid FaÃl Allah and ShahÐd MuÎammad BÁqir al-Ñadr have mentioned, namely that the study jurisprudence and its principles are not sufficient. It is not sufficient because, in the words of Sayyid FaÃl Allah, these subjects do not deal with the spirit of the text. In the words of ShahÐd al-Ñadr, they fill the mind but not the conscience; when speaking about the goals of fiqh, he says: ‘The goals of fiqh and uÒÙl fill Man’s mind, but they do not fill his conscience or his consciousness. In other words, if a scholar devotes himself entirely to jurisprudence and its principles alone, he will fill his mind with knowledge, but his conscience and consciousness will both remain empty.’[15]


[1] i.e. Capable of independently forming his own opinions

[2] i.e. Following the opinion of an expert

[3] The famous commentary on al-ÍillÐ’s SharÁiÝ al-islÁm written by al-NajafÐ

[4] See ÑaÎÐfat al-imÁm, 22/21

[5] See Azmat al-Ýaql al-shÐÝÐ, citing al-ÍasanÐ, 164-166

[6] See the previous source, citing RaÞÙf, ÝÀdil, MarjaÝiyyat al-maydÁn; al-Shaykh ÝAlÐ, FÁ’iq, IghtiyÁl shaÝb and Rajul al-fikr wa al-maydÁn.

[7] Shams al-DÐn, Shaykh MuÎammad MahdÐ, Al-TajdÐd fÐ al-fikr al-islÁmÐ, 17

[8] Ibid., 18

[9] Ibid., p39

[10] Scholastic theology

[11] Ibid., p22

[12] Ibid., p19

[13] See Azimat al-Ýaql al-shÐÝÐ, citing AÝyÁn al-shÐÝah, 5/421

[14] See Ibid., p102

[15] See Ibid., citing al-Ñadr, MuÎammad BÁqir, KarrÁs al-miÎnah