Question of the Week: Pastors or Scholars?

Asalamu alaykum,

While both play important roles in the community. There is no denying their differences. In many cases, the injection of pre-pubescent scholarship into the veins of Western communities has done very little but import complexes that foster classical theological wars that were never settled, creating identities shaped around hatred and differences. The outcome of which was an ideological fanaticism related to utopic ideals or, what are seen as, almost Superman personalities. Thus, loyalties were shifted and the community, in the name of creed, tariqh, group or sheikh, was left homeless.

Why is it that some Muslims are leaving those articulations and seeking solace in people like Joel Olsteen? If you had the choice would your rather have a scholar with little pasturing skills, or a pastor with enough knowledge to keep the community safe? What are the horizons for community leaders in the West? Are we in need of Dr. Phill more than Sh. Abu Qadir Enchassi? Is there a difference between pasturing and scholarship? Which quality, at this stage, is most important for an Imam to have?

Your turn. The mics in your hands. The issue, “Pastors, scholars, or a fusion?”

Suhaib Webb

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.

Add Comment

  • In my opinion you must have both….but living in the West imams in general lack two important qualities, vision and being able to understand the West and how we find difficulty applying Islam. So you constantly hear in sermons that we should be united and live for the cause of Islam, etc, but there is no idea of how that unity should be and how it would be formed, in which fields do we need to focus on to become united, how do we collectively protest our refusal of certain policies. We constantly listen to fluffy sermons that are really not tangible.

    As for vision, imams should take management classes from reputable universities if they really want to be able to manage and organize a community and become visionaries. The masajid and imams lack managerial capabilities and you see this in the masjid not being able to pay gas bills, fights in the masjid about who runs what, and the list goes on. For beginners imams should read material written by Stephen Covey, this will give at least an intro to management. Add to that classes to be taken by imams on how to run an NGO, how to be an effective public speaker, how to motivate others, how to negotiate,etc.

    Jazakom ALLAH kheiran ya Sheikh Suhaib and may ALLAH bless you and your family and efforts, this blog and its material is very admirable.

  • Assalamu alaikum,
    I had an experience with our Islamic teacher once, when I was at school. We asked our teacher about the verses saying about skies, but actually there is no sky at all, but an illusion of our eyes. The teacher had not heard of the theory that there is no sky!
    In south India, I think people go to Islamic colleges to become Islamic teachers because they are not good in their studies and won’t get admission for a better course. So, they will be a big zero in science and other related subjects. How can anyone learn Islam by staying away from rest of the subjects? As Br. Hatem says, our Imams are always fighting over petty matters which makes people loss their respect for the Imams.
    Don’t you feel yourself listening more attentively to an Imam, if he is a Professor or Doctor or any highly qualified person along with being an Imam?

  • I feel that both are needed. Scholarship is very important so that misinformation is not disseminated and ignorant behavior is not displayed to those being guided. Ignorant leaders that insist they are the ones that can lead people, do far more damage than good. For example an imam who called himself a sheikh and insisted that hanafi girls were allowed to come to him at any age to be married to whoever they wished without family approval. This is tactless, unintelligent and does not take into account all the factors of our time and place and Islamic law.
    However, when it gets too academic, these scholars lose touch with the common people and do not know how to assist them in common problems. They may not have time for problems such as marital discord and they may believe that they are above traditional methods such as counseling.
    Spouting hadith and spiritual abstract knowledge does not always help everyone in the immediate situation. I know of married couples who sought help from several scholars yet not a single one recommended sitting down together and having joint counseling.
    Some age-old problems can be solved with simple ways that require time and hard work and common sense.

  • al-Salaamu alaikum, one and all…

    I think perhaps both are needed. As I have observed myself, there is a great deal of disconnection in our communities – in social and psychological terms just as much as theological or otherwise. We need people who can help others to connect with themselves, with the wider community and thus ultimately, with Allah. We also need our scholars to be more generally familiar with this kind of work.

    I do feel that the newly emerging Muslim presences in the western world will necessarily create new adaptations of Islam. That is, they will seek to use the strength and mercy of Islam in this newly emerging situation – and I see that as a positive thing.

    Jazak Allah for an interesting question.

    Abdur Rahman

  • Wa ‘alaykum salam wa rahmatullah

    I personally would not trust a Muslim’s advice, unless I knew that it was based on authentic teachings – I don’t mean they need to quote hadith references, and such – but at least to trust that they know what they’re talking about. So, having a solid foundation of knowledge is important. However, interpersonal skills are a MUST.

    I think in this day and age, it is difficult to ask for “super”people who are brilliant scholars, and amazing pastors as well. Perhaps it would be better to have a pastoral team consisting of counsellors, students of knowledge, and fully-fledged scholars. The counsellors would be given sufficient training in the basic principles of Islam, to make sure their advice is sound. When they come across a particularly tricky situation that needs a new fatwa, they would consult the SoKs/shayookh in the team to help them out. The team should also meet on a regular basis to ensure that everyone is informed of new developments, and to perfect their strategy. This way you could have multiple counsellors working under one or two knowledgable people, thus allowing for more people to be helped at a time, insha’Allah.

    Wa Allahu ‘alam.


    P.S., did you receive my e-mail, Imam Webb? Please respond asap, just so I know that you’re on board, insha’Allah.

  • We need teachers who will elevate and inspire us to be the best that we can be in the sight of Allah subhaana wa ta’aala in terms of our personal practice, family practice, work practice, and community practice.

    Islamic knowledge is the needed foundation, but after that, we need our teachers to fill in the gaps in interpersonal skills with good resources. The 7 Habits by Covey are a good start.

    To answer your question, I prefer the latter choice over the former. As you noted, the community is left with no one as the religious bicker over theological disputes. The ship is sinking, and no one is informing the people at the bottom to stop making holes for drinking water because the ones at the top are too busy keeping the other from getting down there.


  • As’salaamu ‘alaykum,

    Bismillaher Rahmaner Raheem

    Even though I think your first question was rhetorical I will just answer because its so important. I think it would be more beneficial to have an “Imam with enough knowledge to protect the community.” This is the case because we have very learned people who come from over seas or even people raised here, but have no bearings in society or have adopted an isolationist and unrealistic mentality and what we see is that we are losing our Muslim youth because there is no connection.

    What we need is a fusion, in which we have renaissance men and women who can combine their ability to lead and protect/connect with the community and society while at the same time having a deep understanding of the sciences of this Deen and other vital knowledge. I hope that doesnt sound like a tall order.

  • Asalamulaikum wrt,

    As the saying goes, when the students are ready, the teacher will come. People ought to listen to the Imams, and not the other way around.

    True, there are some Islamic leaders who do not live up to the ideal, but at the same time we should avoid throwing the responsibility on others when we ourselves are deficient. Being an Imam in the West is not an easy job, and we cannot expect our Imams to magically fix our problematic communities overnight, and I certainly do not think it is their job to change to religion to suit our interests.

    But I think Imam Suhaib’s question was not restricted to Imams only, but more general. I agree that we need more Tarrbiyyah, people willing to put in the time and effort to raise our new generation with Islamic ideals, character, morals, and strong Imaan. We cannot expect the imam alone to bear this burden. Parents and teachers from the community have to step in and spend time with our youth and nurture them in the right direction.

    I hope no one feels offended by what I posted 🙂 And Allah knows best.

  • ASAK,

    We need proper training facilities in America which have a multi-faceted tarbiyyah program which will be free of the stumbling blocks that we see in the institutions in the east. I love Sh. Hamza in the sake of Allah and look up to him, but Zaytoonah comprises only a couple angles of the tarbiyyah I’m talking about. Similarly, I love the mashayikh al-kiram at al-maghrib, but that too is only covering another couple angles. On the full Acedemic levels both Islamic American U. and American open should combine and work togther yet still are coming up way short. We need homegrown leaders to come together and unite upon one vision seeking to provide Muslims with the best tarbiyyah and leadership and building regional centers for raising leaders and giving an oppurtunity for others to build upon their knowledge and ability to take part in Da’wa. We are divided, disorganized, and without cooperative leadership and that is our failure. We are the minority here and that carries a lot of implications that haven’t completely been addressed in a comprehensive manner. About 70% of Imams in America are very good brothers with a common eastern outlook about how Islam is taught. To be fair many of them are perceptive and realize that they are dealing with something completely and try to adjust, but is it possible? In all due respect to those no doubt sincere brothers and their communities, is Islam flourishing with that teaching methodology in its own birthplace? and will taking that methodology to a place like the west be smart? We have to breed our own scholarship/leadership/orators who will be fully prepared from day one to truly build upon and nurture the Muslim American identity.

    Wallahu A’lam

  • We need a fusion. People need tarbiyyah in this country but they need it from someone who has a solid background in knowledge. My reasoning for this is because there are so many doubts that enter a persons mind learning in an American school system that only an Imam with strength in knowledge can help diffuse those doubts and deal with the situations that arise in this society.

    If we only have scholars then we won’t see a significant impact, we’ll see a few students of knowledge here and there but no actual change in communities and the nation.

  • Mic Check 1-2-1-2…

    If have to choose between the 2….we need scholarship. Pasturing or a hype man gets you so far…and then you see through it…and need more. Is there difference? Please believe there is (unless I’m reading this wrong)! Pasturing = Hype Man, Scholarship = Lyrical Ability.

    With the scholarship, we could get a bridge so that people could take a jug of water from the pool, and then use that jug of water to give drinks to the lil segments/demographics of our society. Only issue we’re having with that is that there’s nobody taking those jugs of water.

    As an Azhari grad asked me… “is the problem that there is no scholarship in America, or that people aren’t just going to get it [knowledge]” Answer is people aren’t getting it b/c we suck. There are mass people with ijaazas in Kitab As-Sittah (just learned of a Senegalese one in my city that nobody knew about), quran, and you name it. But who’s running to them? Nobody.

    He also told me a Muslim leader needs 3 qualities:
    1. Knowledge of Classical texts of Islam
    2. Fiqh of Prioritizing
    3. Knowledge of the situation at hand (meaning what’s happenin in your spot globalization, racism, new problems not addressed before, etc.)


  • As-salamu 'alaikum shaykh Suhaib,

    If you look at some of the most successful 'muslim communities' in the west, you will notice a single resonating factor:

    The impact of leaders that resonate their knowledge through their actions.

    Shaykh 'Abdullah ibn Al Amin Ash Shanqiti said something that I find prevalent to the topic,

    “العلم هو – الإعتقاد الجازم المطابق للواقع”- شيخ عبد الله بن محمد الأمين

    Knowledge is – The Definitive Belief that is consistent, in harmony, corresponding with, reality/the state of affairs.

    Shaykh 'Abdullah Ash-Shanqiti referred to constantly those whom come to realize the state of themselves as a precondition to understanding the state of the people. He highlights that the true belief of the muslim is one that is presently-congruent with the conditions of the society. Meaning knowledge is in itself… implementable and practical to the here, the now, the today.

    And if you contemplate and reflect the people who truly were effective were:

    1. those who had unnerving sincerity
    2. gave themselves to the people, and therefore the people gave themselves to them.

    If only we set a higher standard for ourselves rather than cultivating the constant need to evolve our tradition. And past concepts such as “differences in ideology, fiqh cannot be resolved,” but rather toward the fact Allah revealed Guidance that is rooted in clarity and a truth that one is guided to if Sincere to His Religion and obedience and surrender to His Will and the way of His Prophet.

    Only then can we understand the relationship between the need for pasturing and scholarship.

    From this we can derive a principle, that

    one cannot Pastor without scholarship
    and a scholar cannot be named such if he does not Pastor'

    And in final note, we need to realize what is measured in the scale of Allah is multiplicity of reward and true guidance is granted what is set in knowledge that is practical and obtainable – not a false notion of multiplicity of truth. Once we internalize this we can begin to be practical in terms of addressing our communities needs

    Which leads us to… What exactly are the horizons for leaders in the west?

    For those who are ‘in the game,’ so to speak, to step up and start mentoring those who are to come.

    This is the tradition of the anbiya, passed down to their companions, down through our fathers – the scholars, and this is what those fledgling students of knowledge need.

    A living example – a guideline of tarbiyyah that we all know is a tradition that cannot be taught simply through books.

    Wallahu ‘alam

Leave a Reply to Hatem X