How to define a “Scholar”? Scholar is an English or western terminology which generally means “someone who is a learned person, who has profound knowledge of a particular subject or certain fields of knowledge”. The Islamic equivalent term for Scholars is “’Ulama”, which a plural word for “”Alim”, which means “someone who is a learned person, who has profound knowledge of the Islamic Sciences”. So far we have defined both terms quite generally, which is insufficient. Let us go a bit deeper.
In the case of “western fields of knowledge”, we could divide them generally into “natural sciences and social sciences”. Example of natural sciences are fields like the basic sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, or the technical sciences such as engineering, computing, etc., or the technological fields such as bio-medical, quantum mechanics, and others. The examples of social sciences are philosophy, sociology, anthropology, arts and literature, economics and finance, and many other sub-branches of these sciences.
How is someone to be recognized as scholars in the western sciences? Generally, the person must obtained PhD or its equivalent from some reputable institutions of learning, normally of well known universities. By definition, a PhD holder must have proven that he or she had acquired the skills of the methodologies to carry out research work (this is the necessary requirement), and had established scholarly works in form of a thesis which had been reviewed and accepted by other scholars (normally the thesis supervisors and committees, as the peers) as works of genuine and high scholarly quality (this is the sufficiency requirement). After that, normally, the person has to publish scholarly works in “peer reviewed” journals of reputable standing. With that, a person who are in academic establishments would get the titles of professors and alike. He or she is then is generally accepted as a scholar in his or her field of knowledge.
PhD is one possible path to Scholarship, and is not to guarantee any status of scholarship, except as one of the preparatory step. For example, Isaac Newton never obtained any PhD from anywhere. His fame to scholarship was through his works which earned him to be “admitted” into the Trinity College (of Cambridge University). Similarly Albert Einstein never enrolled in any PhD program anywhere; he went right into presenting his thesis in theoretical physics and was awarded for his PhD. Everyone accepts these two men as among the greatest scholars of science the world ever witness.
Therefore for Scholars, there is the path to Scholarship – either through PhD or not; but most importantly, great scholars leave body of works that will be referred to others (during their lifetime), and well beyond their time. In terms of bodies of works, it could be discoveries, theories, conjectures, path breaking methodologies, and so on – which becomes the body of knowledge, used by other scholars as well as future generations. That, in a nutshell is the Western Scholarship, as defined in the modern world today.
Now let us turn to the question of “scholarship” or “’Ulama” in the Islamic tradition.
As a start we could use the same criterion of the western notion of scholarship – that is for someone to earn PhD (being the highest degree) in Islamic sciences. Which implies that he had acquired the necessary skills of Islamic sciences methodologies, had produced thesis in the field concerns, and finally had established himself through publications of his works. This is one of the possible paths. And off course, PhD is not the only path (as the case of Newton before), but through scholarly works that are accepted by others as important “discoveries”, exploration into subjects that “significantly” expand the matter into a much wider or deeper state, and so on. Except now, we are talking about the Islamic sciences – which require further explanation.
First is in regard to methodology: what are the required methods to be mastered as the necessary requirement. In Islamic science, the first mastery is the Arabic language; then the mastery of the Quran (possibly must be a hafiz or to some degree of memorization) and ‘Ulum Al Quran and Tafsir; after that the mastery of Al Hadith and its related ‘Ulum (as well as significant memorization of it). On top and above these three basics, then the person must also be well versed in Theology (‘Aqidah), Usul Fiqh, and to some degree Islamic history (Sirah and Tarikh Al-Islami). I imagine that it would take at least 10 years of serious and intense study to be able to master these skills. And when I say intense, the Islamic primary and secondary would not even be counted in, which means 10 years of serious university level works. And of particular concern as the most basic requirement for all of the methods is the Arabic language. For those who understand this issue knows that it is the hardest of all, to begin with; but it forms the as the entry to all the other areas, as Islamic knowledge is possible ONLY through the Arabic language.
Furthermore, beyond the mastery of these “methods” as described above, a person must then be able to demonstrate he is capable in dealing with high level of Islamic knowledge and scholarship, through his teachings, publications, and establishment of works of Islamic knowleddge. Beside these, Islamic scholars have to pass one more important criterion, namely of impeccable character (Akhlak) and ethics ( Adab). As had been established for a long time in Islamic tradition, that Islamic scholars could not be a person of unworthy behavior (i.e. Fasiq), or someone who earns his living through dubious means (i.e. Syubhah), and lead his life on the path of Islamic shari’ah. These are the sufficient conditions.
As examples of distant past, both Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Shafi’e, at the age of about 16, were already Hafiz, mastered the Arabic language to the fullest (note that Imam Abu Hanifah is not an Arab, but of Persian parenthood and born and lived in “Persian Iraq”, and hence Arabic was not his “mother” tongue), mastered the field of Al Quran and it’s exegesis, and already studied and memorized many thousands of Hadith. Hence, the basic methods were already mastered by the age of 16. Then afterwards, they established their scholarly works during the rest of their adult life, into what we know today as Fiqh Hanafi and Shafi’e. What they had achieved is for them to be accepted by their peers at the time, by rising above and far beyond many other contemporary scholars of their time (many of them that we do not hear much of, despite they also contributed greatly to the Islamic knowledge).
The question that I would like to pose today is what “minimum level of criterion” then we must set for someone to be an Islamic Scholar and hence could carry the title of an ‘Alim (or ‘Ulama)? For example, will someone having a Bachelor’s Degree from Al Azhar or equivalent suffices to be one? Or even for that matter, someone holding a PhD in Islamic Studies from an established university (such as University of Chicago or Harvard)? Or let say, someone who had studied for 5 years at the Madrasah in Deoband, India in the Islamic field? It seems to me that none of the above is satisfactory, for two reasons: first, I doubt that most that possess these “qualifications” would even have the most basic mastery of the Arabic language (save a few). This is evident from the interactions that I have with many of them, and I can see their uncomfortable stance when it comes to Arabic language, and more importantly, I do not see them to be at ease with many subject matter (even with the most basic notion of memorization of Al Quran). Please bear that Hafiz as I would define it, is not the “train version” of Hafiz (who could read fast like a train), but someone who could read the Quran and understand its meaning at the same time. And when comes to matters of higher Islamic sciences, such as Tafsir or Hadith, it becomes much more obvious. Secondly as what I have alluded to before, the character of Akhlaq, ethics, as well as the source of their livelihoods that are of doubtful manner. I would say that not too many could stand above others in terms of their Akhlaq, and when comes to livelihood – most are earning from someone else mercy. So would we accept these people to be ‘Ulama? Or shall they limit themselves with the titles of Ustazs? It is for you to answer.
Since I am trained in the Western Science of Statistics, Actuarial Science, Finance and Economics; I could say quite comfortably that I am quite well versed with the “language of my subject matter”, and I could dealt with almost any major issues in my field with ease and could explain them to the laymen in most simple and concise manner, as well as argue with any other experts in the field with confidence. I got deeply involved in the practice, and worked some of the most complex subjects within my area. And yet, I never had any feeling that I am clearly qualified as a Scholar in my field, as I never published any major works in any forms of academic publications; furthermore, I never hold myself out to be recognized as a Scholar in my field. In short: despite my easiness and comfort to deal with my subject matter, and my deep practice in the field (i.e. similar to the Akhlaq criterion for Islam), I still couldn’t claim the Scholarship status.
I hope by now, I had made my argument clear that the title of ‘Ulama, in Islam, should be a reserve word, that will be bestowed to people who truly qualified for such lofty and worthy of title. And let us not degrade Islam, by calling anyone with such title (such as Dewan Ulama’, Persatuan ‘Ulama) without having understood what it meant for anyone to carry such title.
What I am also calling for is to raise the standards and criterion for anyone who would profess to be knowledgeable in Islam, and we have to be more demanding when come to asking any religious teachers in terms of what are their qualifications (not necessarily university degrees or such), and it is also extremely important that they publish their works in writing (i.e. budaya menulis kitab) as it had been the customs of our forefathers (i.e. ‘Ulama dahulu). I am also calling for higher demand in terms of the Akhlaq, of which the most basic is to be non-fasiq; which what I could see and hear, seems to be of less concern among the Ustazs and us. For example, in many ceramah, the jokes that were used, as well as “budaya caci mencaci”, are characters of a “fasiq”.
And also very importantly is the source of income and livelihood; my maternal grandfather (who was in 1960’s) used to be “Ketua Dewan Ulama Kelantan”, among his ethics is not to take anything from anyone for his livelihood. He would farm himself for the basic things he needs (rice in particular), and he never asks for any donations from anyone, lest he will be bonded to any donor, as well as to be linked to the source of such income (which may involves forms of Syubhah). This is a far cry from today’s paid lectures, working with salary, and the culture of “meminta sedekah/donations” and total disregard of the source of those monies. Islam demands a higher standard from all of us, and we should abide by it. Anyone who wishes to be proclaimed as Islamic Scholars must first live by that examples, as our earlier scholars had done.