Grand titles

I used to be frustrated by a teacher’s understatement of his extensive studies with many a scholar over many years in many lands, and his refusal of honorific titles. But now I am amazed by the grand titles the new generation of teachers assign themselves on their carefully curated social media pages, with all their profound posts accidentally boasting of their knowledge, years of study, great teachers and learning. I think I now understand the humility of that self-effacing teacher, with his tiny circle and concealed reputation.

Boy Bands

Another nationwide tour of celebrity scholars? I think I’ll give it a miss.

Too many at these events behave like off-balance teenage girls worshipping their boy-band pop idol. Except the adoring fans are mostly bearded men in thobes, and the boy-band, middle-aged male academics (yes, the organisers forgot to invite female scholars again).

Meanwhile, the scholars in our communities continue to attract an audience of one, because we really just crave edutainment and the opportunity to shower our idols in exaggerated praise, which must surely make them cringe and run for cover.

‘Oh yea of little faith,’ retort their disciples, reminding me to have respect for our scholars — the protectors of our religion.

And it’s true: I struggle with the personality worship in our community. We call these men giants, putting them on a pedestal we minions have little hope of nearing, and even when they speak of things about which they have no real knowledge, we stifle our own intellect, because clearly they know better, because we know nothing.

And so these bizarre spectacles unfold before us. Grown men grabbing hold of their hero’s coat tails. Groups of men forming constrictive circles around a man attempting to hold a private conversation, suffocating him. Selfies, autographs, copycat attar. Possession: claims of ownership, and exclusive intellectual rights. The weirdness is unending.

Surely you can respect your teacher and their knowledge without behaving like an infatuated teenager with a crush. Surely we can build balanced relationships with our teachers without the melodramatic adulation which turns a circle into a circus.

And, just maybe, if we’re really in search of sacred knowledge, perhaps we could go and sit at the feet of that humble sage in our community, who everyone shuns because, well, they’re not a celebrity.

Or is the pull of your darling dearest beloved just too magnetic to ignore? Is he a giant too colossal to neglect? Is his piety so contagious that only a swift sharp fervid dose will see you through until the next nationwide tour? Is this why we take our scholars and monks as lords?1

Have respect: of course, absolutely, no problem. But recall that praise belongs to Allah. Make room for contemplation and introspection, and take a step back. Is the frenzy surrounding the superstar scholar really the way it was meant to be? Or are we called to something greater?

  1. Qur’an 9:31

Moral arguments

It is occasionally worth recalling that the concept of “terror bombing” was not dreamed up in a cave in Afghanistan, but by a celebrated British statesman, who legitimised the mass killing of civilians as a means to defeat the enemy (37,000 in Hamburg and 25,000 in Dresden).

Collective amnesia forces us to wash our hands of these unpalatable truths, but painful introspection is necessary if we are to understand our modern afflictions. Terrorism and the targeting of civilians is always odious, and we should be able to condemn it in all its forms, not excuse and venerate some practitioners simply because they are or were on our side.

The moral argument does not work like that.