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Last Updated: 2007/10/23
Summary of question
How can one become sure which of the ulema giving advice and lectures are worthy and qualified to so?
We live in a community of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and have many ulema--many of whom we do not believe are qualified. How can a person obtain assurance (or certification) that the ulema that are giving advice and lectures are supported and qualified according to the rules of the Shia faith?
Concise answer

Based on Islamic teachings, it is an obligation upon all, to either be of research in order to learn what their religion wants from them, or to refer to Islamic scholars in order to get familiar with it. Since most people aren’t able to do deep religious studies, they need to refer to Islamic scholars to obtain their religious information. Our imams (as) have mentioned some standards that can help us identify and distinguish worthy and qualified scholars. For instance, they have said: “The scholar who controls himself (when it comes to haram things) and protects his religion and opposes his desires and obeys Allah (swt), is one who must by followed by the laity.”

They have also said: “Wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer (that he searches for), he makes use of it wherever he can find it, even if it is to be found with the disbeliever.”

Detailed Answer

In order to get the answer to this question, a few points need to be mentioned:

1- The value of the knowledge of the scholar. Regarding the high degree and value of the scholar, Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike?”[1]

In another part of the Quran, He says: “Allah will raise in rank those of you who have faith and those who have been given knowledge, and Allah is well aware of what you do.”[2]

The importance and value of knowledge has been clearly pointed to in our hadiths. The Prophet of Islam (pbuh) has said: “Whosoever obtains knowledge from those who truly possess it and acts upon it, has truly reached salvation.”[3]

His Excellency has also stated: “Looking at the face of the (true) scholar is worship.”[4], and concerning the necessity of learning and collecting knowledge, he has said: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim man and woman.”[5]

2- Looking at Quranic verses and traditions as a whole, the conclusion can be drawn that the religion of Islam is an eternal one and its rules and laws must be carried out till the Day of Judgement. Thus, it is necessary for all Muslims to be aware of all of its rulings, and this task can be accomplished using one of two ways; the first being for one to refer to Islamic references and resources and drawing Islam’s laws from those resources, and the second being to ask those who know and are experts in this field if that person himself doesn’t have the required prerequisites for the first method.[6]

3- The Holy Prophet (pbuh) and the imams (as) have given us some standards for identifying worthy scholars. We will mention some of them:

In explanation of the verse: “Woe to those who write the Book with their hands and then say, “This is from Allah”, Imam Hasan Askari (as) says: “This verse was revealed concerning the Jews. A man asked Imam Sadiq (as): If that group of Jews were learning their book (the Tawrah) from their scholars, then why has (the Quran) scolded them for listening to their scholars (and in other words, isn’t it true that the laity has to follow the scholars and this is something that Allah (swt) himself has ordered, so what have the laity done wrong to deserve to be scolded by the Quran)? Weren’t the Jews like us in following their scholars? Imam Sadiq (as) replied: “There is one similarity between the Muslim and Jewish laity and one difference. As for the similarity, Allah (swt) has scolded both our laity and theirs as a result of them following (their scholars). And as for the difference, the Jewish laity followed their scholars despite the fact that they knew of their scholars’ clear lies, making haram money, accepting bribes and changing and falsifying Allah’s (swt) commands and rulings. They were also aware of the fact that whosoever does such things isn’t righteous and is a sinner and isn’t qualified to be the mediator between God and his servants or between a prophet and God’s servants.  Yet they still followed them. If the Muslim laity also continues to follow its scholars (like the scholars of the Jews) whom they know have explicitly sinned and shown a bias where they aren’t supposed to and have paid attention to this world (material desires) and haram matters, they will also, like the Jewish laity, be scolded for following their corrupt scholars. As for the scholar who guards himself (from haram), protects his religion, opposes his desire, and listens to Allah (swt), must be followed by the laity. Such a standard can only be found in some Shia faqihs and scholars, not all of them. So don’t accept the narrations of any of the scholars who commit bad and ugly acts, and go the way of other corrupt scholars, and don’t hold any respect for them either.”[7]

The Holy Prophet (pbuh) of Islam: “Don’t accompany any scholar that you wish, other than the one who invites you from five dangerous things to five beneficial ones; from doubt to certainty, from self-pride to humility, from showing off and riya’ to pure intentions, from enmity and holding a grudge to well-wishing and benevolence, and from having a tendency to this world (its pleasures) to not having any desire for it and zuhd.[8]

4- According to Islamic teachings, knowledge and wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer, making use of it whenever and wherever it is found[9], meaning that the believer is continuously in search of knowledge and wisdom and perfecting him/herself, accepting any saying whose source is the mind and intellect, and as Imam Ali (as) puts it, the believer looks at the words being said instead of looking at who is saying them.[10] Of course, there will be a very negative effect when one whose words don’t match his/her actions says something wise and of intellect, decreasing the positive effect those words could have had, yet the believer can still make good use of such words of wisdom.

[1] Zumar:9.

[2] Mujadalah:11.

[3] ‘Awalilla’ali

[4] Bihar, vol. 1,pg. 195.

[5] Tanbihul-Khawatir, vol. 2, pg. 176.

[6] Ayatullah Jafar Subhani, Rahnamaye Haqiqat, pg. 577.

[7] Al-Hayat translated by Ahmad Aram, vol. 2, pg. 571.

[8] Bihar, vol.1, pg. 38.

[9] Kafi, vol.8, pg. 167 (سَهْلُ بْنُ زِیَادٍ عَنْ بَکْرِ بْنِ صَالِحٍ عَنِ ابْنِ سِنَانٍ عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ شِمْرٍ عَنْ جَابِرٍ عَنْ أَبِی عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ الْحِکْمَةُ ضَالَّةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ فَحَیْثُمَا وَجَدَ أَحَدُکُمْ ضَالَّتَهُ فَلْیَأْخُذْهَا)

[10] Ghurarul-Hikam, pg. 58 خذ الحکمة ممن أتاک بها و انظر إلى ما قال و لا تنظره إلى من قال . غرر الحکم

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