Q. I am aware that the ulema (scholars) of today preach messages of violence and extremism, and a lot of ulema also differ with each other in opinions. Therefore, when the Qur'an tells us to follow those in authority, is this implying that we follow the ulema? And if so, which ulema do we follow as there are so many and they all differ in opinions? The so called ulema whom I watch on the Islamic channels discuss very trivial things from hadith rather than important guidance from the Qur'an.

A. There are two aspects to your question. In the first instance, obeying those in authority can mean following the rules of a civil society so that we have law and order. Since political and religious leaders are usually elected by consensus in a democratic society, in cases where these elected officials pass laws (religious or secular) that affect how we behave, then we have to follow the rules or there will be chaos. For example, if we disagree with a ban on abortion or the speed limit of 55mph, we have to obey these laws anyway or there are consequences.

In the second case (which I think is more applicable to your question), in instances where we are unsure or do not have enough knowledge to answer certain questions, we seek the answers from those who know or are an authority on the subject matter in question. These can be scholars and leaders who are elected or entrusted by the masses to provide guidance, and usually known to be in good standing with the community. Given that these are typically matters of personal belief (not the law of the land) and we have a choice, then it is up to us to follow what we feel is right or makes sense. For example, the majority of "scholars" (and by extension most Muslims) believe in punishment in the grave, stoning to death for adultery, the second coming of Jesus, etc. At forpeoplewhothink.org, we do not subscribe to such beliefs, and we have the option to reject these notions as they are matters of personal choice. Remember too that regardless of what the scholars say (and as you correctly surmised, different scholars do have varying positions on the same issues), it is up to us to follow what we feel is correct as we are all individually accountable to God. Having said that, you also have to take the circumstances into account when making your decision. For example, even if you disagree with the day selected to celebrate the Eid, you should go with the consensus of your community so as not to create discord. Islam promotes harmony and stability at the societal level, what you believe personally is a private matter between you and God.

Given that the overall message of the Qur’an is peace above everything else, the ulema who preach violence and extremism are obviously misguided. As you correctly observed, the majority of Muslim scholars do focus on trivia and create a lot of confusion, thus misleading their followers. When the Qur'an uses the term "ilm" and all of the words that are derived thereof, it really means "knowledge", and that is quite different from the mass of transmitted traditional rulings. The scholars do realize that the rulings reached by ijtihad are theory and open to discussion, but it would seem that during the late ninth century, the tremendous scholarship gave way to a rigid legalism and reliance on prior rulings that have since become the cornerstone of what passes as "Islamic law", regardless of any consideration for time, place, and circumstances. The result is that the majority of Muslims today tend to follow the so called "scholars" who are trained in just memorizing centuries old rulings and passing them down from generation to generation. In order words, today’s "scholars" prefer not to think as they feel that they do not have the intellectual capacity to question previous decisions or beliefs and practices, as these scholars somehow cannot measure up to the scholars of old. This is an erroneous notion, and compounding the problem is that today’s scholars who are academically trained are for the most part unknown to the Muslim masses. Hopefully this will change in the near future. And Allah knows best.

Posted October 8, 2008