Originally posted in March 2011.
The term ‘Sheikh Google’ generally refers to an amateurish approach of studying Islam, more specifically to the study of Islamic Law (fiqh) and theology (‘aqīda). Yet of course, this does not imply a wholesale negative judgment on studying Islam online, but instead highlights a pitfall which some may fall into whilst reading on Islamic law or theology by themselves: equating basic literacy with scholarship. In other words, to simply ‘Google’ a topic (hence using it as one’s Sheikh) one may then think of oneself as an expert, or at least act like one.
One aspect that has plagued so many of the websites online providing knowledge on Islam is polemics; even when article(s) are written by a single author, there are straw-man attacks on other valid Islamic perspectives. For someone who wants a balanced and nuanced understanding, such sites are best avoided, or they can be used as a spring-board to generate questions, which can then be presented and discussed with a teacher. This is because when embarking on learning something new, it is dangerous to let someone’s deep held views have an unrestrained influence on your understanding, without you engaging the material critically.
The Exclusivist Approach
Another aspect of polemical material is the fact that usually one side is trying to ‘win’ the argument by trying their best to discredit the views of others. It is thus an exclusivist approach. This exclusivist approach ultimately leads to narrow-mindedness and an inability to appreciate or even listen to the views of others. This is further compounded by the fact that arguments are sometimes presented on the basis of “piety,” thus one view is presented as “more pious” than the other. Not fully understanding what could be meant by this, one not only becomes intolerant of those that differ with him/her, but also holds themselves more pious than the others. All this helps to create a very inflated ego, which gives the false guarantee of “you are on the truth” and ultimately becomes another manifestation of “Sheikh Google.” In this regard imām al-Dhahabī (d. 748 AH) says knowledge is: “Not the profusion of narration, but a light which God casts into the heart. Its condition is followership and the flight away from egotism and innovation.”1
This should serve as a helpful yardstick of differentiating when one is honestly seeking knowledge or just accumulating information: when it starts to feed our egos instead of helping us overcome it. When this happens, we should sound the spiritual alarm.
Hence, it is this very involved approach, where ideas that are swallowed wholesale can be damaging to one’s spiritual and intellectual development. Here, Edmund Husserl’s notion of epoché may be useful, which means ‘bracketing out’ one’s own views and subjectivities to the best of one’s abilities in order to appreciate ‘the object’2 or phenomenon as it is, which is the main purpose of phenomenology. This seems to echo what our Prophet ﷺ supplicated for by saying “Oh God, show the truth as the truth and grant us the ability to follow it, and show falsehood as falsehood and grant us the ability to refrain from it.”
True and correct perceptions are thus a gift from God. Yet gifts are usually bestowed on those that deserve it, and so it behooves a student seeking knowledge to keep this in mind particularly when studying Islam, especially controversial issues related to fiqh and ‘aqīda. Though this may be difficult, it can be made even more difficult by the group mentality that exists on some online forums. This can easily lead to issues of fiqh and ‘aqīda becoming more than issues of knowledge, but becoming polarities that define us. We fail to see that by becoming emotionally attached to certain positions, we bring detriment to our learning. At that almost irretrievable stage, we engage in mindless polemics to defend those positions, which destroys nearly all the blessings that knowledge brings.
Engaging The Text
Avoiding websites that offer partial information is perhaps easier said than done. Sometimes we may need an immediate answer to a pressing question, or can sometimes be shy to ask the local imam etc. In such scenarios the usefulness of being critical cannot be over emphasized. What do we mean by being critical? One thing for sure: it certainly does not mean being rude and difficult; rather, it simply means asking questions to clarify what is being said or to inquire for further information. However, this can be difficult to achieve online. This is because the process of reading involves reading what the author has to say, and then processing the information, and ultimately making a judgment on whether to accept or reject the information. Usually, one cannot engage in critical dialogue with the online author, and ask questions to seek clarification, all of which help to refine our understandings. And even if we do have this opportunity, it is usually limited in the form of comments. This fact should humble us if we get overzealous about an issue, and seek to engage in polemics or act as if we ‘know it all.’
Imām Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150 AH) used to sit with several of his students, engage in long discussions over points of fiqh, and only after listening to all of what his students had to say, he used to state his opinion. Thus the understanding of his pupils was in a sense validated by their teacher. Although that is not to suggest he dictated his opinion to them, as this is proven by the fact that his two most famous students Abū Yūsuf (d.189 AH) and Muhammad (d.189 AH) frequently differed with him. Nonetheless it at least made sure they did not misunderstand him. It is this vital aspect that can be missing when we read online. What we take from a text might not be what was intended by the author, and although authorial intent has been dismissed by some modern literary theorists, as far as I am aware, it still has its importance when studying Islam.
When Facing Contradictions
The above also helps to highlight another challenge in learning from what ‘Sheikh Google’ and similar websites may present. One frequently comes across conflicting information and doesn’t know which to accept, so while one website says “xyz is permissible,” another not only says it is prohibited but is from the major sins! Without recourse to a teacher for further clarification, one has to inevitably decide independently on which opinion to give preference. This can be loosely identified as “tarjīḥ.” Tarjīḥ usually refers to the scientific process of a jurist giving preference to one view over another, which can be a complex process, and hence usually it is the activity of scholars. For example, the Mālikī practice of accepting the (historical) practice of the people of Medina as authoritative was not accepted by the other schools of fiqh. However, Sheikh Ibn Taymiyya (d.728 AH), though a Hanbalī, wrote a whole treatise supporting this doctrine. He thus engaged in a scholarly tarjīḥ. More importantly this usually enables a scholar to then offer scholarly criticism on why an opinion is weak in his view, as he bases his critique on an objective criteria, not his emotions.
In a similar manner, every Muslim engages in tarjīḥ when faced with conflicting opinions, although this is based on different criteria than the scholar – which is usually based on the argument’s persuasiveness, or which scholar one holds to be more knowledgeable and pious, or whether or not one goes for the difficult opinion or easier opinion, etc. This latter type of tarjīḥ is primarily geared to facilitate practice rather than be an intellectual scholarly engagement. Hence it does not befit someone who, after having read some answers to specific questions (fatāwā. [sing. Fatwa]) to then go on about how every other opinion is weak or misguided, simply based on the fatwa they read. For then, one acts as a scholar, as if to suggest one has read books upon books on the matter, when in fact, one has only read a few fatāwā. This does not mean belittling fatāwā issued by qualified scholars online but rather acknowledging the purpose of such sites, which is primarily to inform and facilitate practice, not produce scholars.
It is not difficult to recognize the fact that the Internet has facilitated access to the knowledge of many great scholars, without which many people would have been deprived of such knowledge. And for this we should be grateful. This has obviously seen the rise of sites offering fatāwā. Again, whilst it is undoubtedly useful to seek answers to questions one may have, it is important to remember that whilst specific answers can be helpful for immediate practice, it should not be used as the main source or the only source of one’s education at the cost of a holistic approach. Ad-hoc answers can form scattered knowledge, which without proper guidance, can lead to confusion and or an imbalance in one‘s attitude.
Being critical also involves making sure a fatwa does actually apply to one’s situation. Indeed this can be a difficult task at times, and indeed as part of the training of a Mufti, certain institutions offer specific training on how to apply fatāwā to different contexts. If in doubt, it is best to seek clarification before acting upon the fatwa. It is also important to check the credentials of the person issuing the fatwa, especially if they follow an exclusivist approach e.g. ‘every other opinion is weak or wrong.’ If however someone is merely narrating the opinions of other scholars, than they need not be Muftis themselves.
In terms of the actual topics of fatāwā, edicts can be found given on everything under the sun. Though this can be seen as something positive, it also is worrying due to the possible implications of misapplying a fatwa. Therefore, a good criterion to follow is to discuss beforehand with a Mufti the issues related to the rights of others such as in marriage and divorce, as well as inheritance. This also includes contract law. Such issues have immense social implications, and it is best to tread carefully. Another issue that really should not be our concern, yet it does come up, is the issue of takfīr, or calling others disbelievers. Any website that deems a Muslim known for their knowledge as a heretic or disbeliever, should be flagged and avoided, and if one is left in doubt, then it is again best to discuss it with a scholar, and not the nearest Muslim online.
Scanning Your Teachers
While Imām al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204 A.H) was sitting in a mosque, a man came to him and asked him to provide the proof for the legal doctrine of Ijmā’ (consensus). If he was unable do this, then the man suggested the imām refrain from issuing fatāwā. The humble person that he was, the imām sought respite. When after a few days later the imām provided the proof, the man asked if the imām would teach him. He then became one of the imām’s leading students, whom we know as al-Muzānī (d. 264 A.H.).
The importance of a real life teacher who is balanced and firmly grounded in knowledge is indispensable when it comes to learning. This is because when we learn from real people, we learn knowledge as well as learn manners (ādāb). The right teacher may rebuke us if we raise our voices and discipline us if we act haughty and arrogant, which helps refine our character and ultimately become a better person, which is perhaps one of the most important goals of learning. And it is the absence of such a teacher when it comes to online learning, or when the Internet becomes our only source of learning, when we may become self-deluded into qualifying ourselves with attributes not befitting a student, ranging from adopting the attitude of a judge instead of a seeker, to always looking for evidences to back up our opinions and rejecting all others. This is reflected in the saying “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Discussing the origins of this saying, Gary Martin identifies a 17th century writer who notes: “Twas well observed by my Lord Bacon, That a little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.”3
Yet learning ‘a greater share of it’ requires finding a teacher that not only is able to impart such knowledge, but one who also embodies the ethics of differing (ikhtilāf), and who is balanced. Al-Muzānī knew this very well, thus he made sure al-Shāfi’ī was someone worth studying under. However, in the absence of such a teacher, it seems fair to concede to the fact that the harms that can result from a sectarian-minded teacher can far outweigh the shortfalls of learning from balanced, well-researched websites online. In such instances, we all acknowledge the usefulness of ‘Sheikh Google’ when used correctly, whilst recognizing that ‘Sheikh Google’ should never replace the real balanced Shuyūkh.
- Shams al-Din al-Dhahabī. Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā. 25 Vols. (Cairo: Mu’assasa al-Risāla, 1985). Vol. 3 Pg. 323. Translation adopted from Zaytuna College. ↩
- I use the term ‘object’ with hesitation, since it also seems plausible that what is referred to as the object may indeed also be the subject in a sense, and here I’m referring to the Gadamer’s notion of ‘Play’. ↩
- A. B. The mystery of phanaticism (1968). Quoted in: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing.html. ↩