What responsibility does the sheikh have to those that listen to him? All across the web — on YouTube, Facebook and numerous blogs — ordinary folk celebrate the impressive insight of the learned one. Beneath repackaged lectures on YouTube, hundreds of people respond in awe, amazed by a hadith narrated by the sage, so detailed and accurate in its depiction of future events. It is the truth, the people declare, revelling in the apparent wealth of their tradition.
But if you care about these things, you will search in vain for this hadith, for it is not one narration, but a concoction of several narrations from diverse sources mixed together with his own interpretations, mashed up for oratory effect. In these cropped clips made easily digestible for viral consumption, you will find no sources, no chains of narration, no references to the books he first read them in, or the names of the scholars who taught them to him, before they made it into the wild to be passed off as certain knowledge.
For years I have asked people where I can find these narrations, written down and collected into a themed volume. In this pursuit, I ask in vain. Sometimes the students of knowledge respond: there are works in the Arabic language, but there the conversations end. They have not delved into them, know not their name and have no idea what they contain.
It is left to us ordinary folk to simply have faith in the sheikh, believing him to be truthful, learned and wise. Without a doubt he is a better man than I, a thousand fold and more… but doubts creep in. Where is his responsibility for this wisdom he imparts, now circulated all over as the unquestionable inheritance of the ancients? Where does he pause for breath, as he lists the remarkable prophecies attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, to indicate that he has now switched to a different narrator, a different isnad, a different collection of hadith? To those that listen, especially to edited snippets repackaged for dawah, it is but a single narration, presumed authentic because the matn as elucidated by the sheikh stands as evidently true on its own merits, according to what we witness in the world around us.
If we are lucky, we may eventually find part of this narration cited by Al-Tabarani in his collection of hadith classified as authentic, weak and fabricated. If we are lucky, we may find part of it in the work of a little-known Zaydi scholar. We may then learn that one of the narrators of this part of the presumed hadith was an unknown and another a known fabricator. But that is only the start, for now we must look for all of the other paraphrased narrations, combined by the sheikh into his thread of claims, as if they were all one narration. Some may be easy to find; the more obscure, who knows? I ask learned men to help me, but they see no reason to investigate the received wisdom of the esteemed one.
For my part — the wise would call me a miskeen in deen — I am troubled by these so-called Signs of the Hour, so popular with the masses, because they seem to contradict the Quran completely. According to the sheikh, to people of dawah, to students of knowledge and to common folk, the Prophet, peace be upon him, furnished his followers with intimate details of all that would come to pass immediately before the hour — and if you listen to the sheikh and his interpretations, then this certainly seems to be the case. Yet in the Quran, Allah explicitly tells the Prophet, when asked by the people, to deny any knowledge of its timing at all.
How do we reconcile the two positions? On the one hand the Lord of the Universe explicitly instructs the Prophet to respond: ‘Its knowledge is only with my Lord. None will reveal its time except Him.’ On the other hand, the sheikh narrates apparently ancient hadith, passed down the centuries, albeit through weak narrators.
Last night as I lay down in my bed, resting my head on my pillow, unable to sleep, I pondered on all of this. I prayed for guidance and forgiveness, promising to return to the Book that had brought me here in the first place. To read and meditate on His signs anew, recalling that He is the Lord of the heavens and earth, of interstellar nebulae, mitochondria and quarks. Far above the deficiencies we attribute to Him is He; those deficiencies are our own, as we mangle the way in our attempt to explain the little we understand.
Before sleep took me away until morning, I recalled verses warning about the priests and rabbis of old, who unjustly devoured the wealth of the people and averted them from the way of God. I remembered that the people before us were censured for taking their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah. I recalled too words attributed to Jesus, in the gospels I was raised on, when he warned of the teachers of the law who liked to walk around in flowing robes and loved to be greeted with respect…
No, it is not that I begrudge the sheikh at all. He is a million times the man I am. He is more learned than I could ever hope to be, and he has benefitted hundreds of thousands, from the commoner to the elite, while I have barely touched a soul. It is just that, right now, I prefer the verses of the Book which brought me here, to the dizzying speech of men which for two decades set me on another path, nearly walking in the path of the people of Moses who objected to being asked to sacrifice a cow. In pursuit of this thing we call sacred knowledge, we are just like his people, seeking ever finer details for a general rule, until it is nearly impossible to perform.
In truth, the sheikh does have a responsibility for the words he utters in public, just as I have. If I were him, I might hunt down every one of those video clips that have repurposed his lectures and talks before diverse audiences over decades, demanding that they be withdrawn, or else supplemented with a clear exposition of his sources. In place of videos which pull on the emotions — ever so apparently true as they are — I would write an article or a book, detailing every single narration he used, exactly as he found it, with its source and the critical evaluation of the narrators, exactly as given in the original work. Having done that, then he could pontificate on its meaning and its relevance or otherwise to our own time, analysing and evaluating his own interpretations against all of the historical data available. Might there be reason, for example, to query the narration of a 17th-century Yemeni scholar if he happened to mention bare-footed bedouin competing in building tall buildings?
The path that many of us have been set upon by populist narrations certainly looks like Islam and sounds like Islam. Perhaps I worry too much. But the way of the Book feels much simpler, much lighter on the soul. In our circles we are lambasted with critical expectations, commanded to believe in special men, conspiracies and the utter degeneracy of our own age — and if ever you should decide to ponder on the Book for yourself, a learned one, who studied for years at the feet of scholars in every field, will lambast you again, prohibiting you to ponder on its verses for yourself, lest you be misguided and misguide others. But as sleep finally took hold of me last night and I began to drift away, I decided to place my trust in the Lord of the worlds, the Lord of 100 billion light-years of space, the Lord of cytoplasmic organelles, the Lord of my soul.
“And strive for God with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. It is the religion of your father, Abraham. God named you Muslims before and in this revelation that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakah and hold fast to God. He is your protector; and excellent is the protector, and excellent is the helper.” — Qur’an 22:78