Muslim Celebrity Scholars


This article was originally published at:

Today, a new set of Muslim scholars have emerged—on the red carpet. They are decorated in traditional pious garb: long flowing gowns and trendsetting scarves. They stride elegantly down the crimson walkway where they are met by follower-fans who eagerly praise and lionize them. In this Hollywood reality, celebrity scholars are exalted for their religious knowledge.

In his account of America’s first Muslim college Scott Korb observes that “celebrity follows knowledge in American Islam.” Korb is surprised by Muslim students’ fervent veneration of their religious teachers. In Islam sacred knowledge demands reverence, a concept best reflected in one’s adab or respectful comportment towards his or her teacher. Here, however, Korb hits on the more peculiar phenomenon of Muslim celebrity culture.

This culture is most prevalent in the social media realm where Muslim scholars maintain carefully crafted public profiles on sites like Facebook and Twitter. These scholars diligently offer 140-character smidgens of religious wisdom. They also post personal anecdotes, self-help advice, and the occasional political grievance. Sometimes, they even share scholarly “selfies,” oblivious to the narcissism inherent in such a practice. Although many of their posts are vague, if not shallow in nature, thousands of followers evince gushing admiration through “likes,” “favorites,” and “retweets.” The lionization of scholars for their down-to-earth religious swag is reminiscent of the devotion of millions of followers to popular personalities like Oprah or the Kardashians. The game is the same. The names are different.

A troubling symptom of this increasing online phenomenon is the perpetuation of an identity politics. “My shaykh is better than your shaykh” is the motto in contemporary American Islam. Many celebrity scholars hail from different popular Islamic institutions like AlMaghrib, Bayyinah, Zaytuna, and SeekersGuidance. Posting in tandem with their institutions, these scholars act as plugs for their specific brand of Islam. Muslims, in turn, identify themselves with one or more of these institutions. They adopt their ideologies and characteristics. A wholly modern form of identity is fashioned characterized by one’s dogmatic attachment to his or her own Muslim camp. Critical thinking and engagement fall out the window as each Muslim camp claims monopoly over the “true” meaning of Islam. We would do well to heed the warning of Shabbir Akhtar, who wisely states that dogmatism in any camp is the common enemy.

In my use of dogmatism, I am not referring to the notion of submitting to authority and the precedent of the past. There is a significant place for this in our tradition. Rather, I am speaking of a “servile conformism,” a specific form of dogmatism that even al-Ghazali criticized during his time, which is anti-intellectual and overtly ideological rather than truth-seeking.

Perhaps one of the biggest threats celebrity scholar culture poses to the Muslim community is a dramatic rise in anti-intellectualism. Scholars peddling a feel-good Islam post short cookie-cutter comments on religious matters (see Fig. 1). Instead of reading a book, followers can learn all they need to know about Islam by merely scrolling through a string of instructive “tweets.” In reality, no actual learning takes place. The unique engagement one has with a book invites one into a unique dialogue with the author. It inspires critical thinking skills and sustained learning. This is radically different from reading a brief “tweet” or Facebook post, which are more often than not, simplistic fleeting thoughts. These Islamic sound bites in no way sufficiently explain complex religious issues that scholars of the past discussed over the course of centuries.

Even more unsettling is the fact that social media induces a strange form of complacency within Muslim religiosity. A scholar may request a du’a for a specific occasion, but rather than immediately dropping technology to make supplication, Muslims hasten to “like,” or “favorite” the post. By acknowledging a scholar’s pious comment, Muslims feel they have completed their religious duty for the day (though they’ve failed to make the journey from the computer screen to the prayer mat).

This same culture of complacency characterizes celebrity scholars’ social and political posts. To take a more recent example, the Boko Haram scandal produced no shortage of scholars joining the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Though they were certainly well-intentioned, their posts were ineffective insofar as they merely accumulated a few hundred “likes” and did not in any way galvanize practical action. It seems that Muslim scholars simply wanted to show the world that they too were aware of an issue that everyone else was talking about. In condemning the Boko Haram, they felt they’d made a difference. This is emblematic of a larger online phenomenon wherein everyone shows solidarity for one single issue (one they were probably ignorant of before) and subsequently feels satiated by their noble social activism. Celebrity scholars and follower-fans must challenge the superficial satisfaction gained by the click of a button in both religious and sociopolitical matters. Instead, scholars can use international events to comment on related taboo issues in their own communities.

Diving deeper into the psychology, it would not be absurd to suggest that online followership may lead to toxic levels of self-conceit. In his blog “Muslimology,” Dawud Israel questions the febrile adulation of religious scholars. After Muslim followers heap piles of praise on their shuyukh after a khutba, Dawud wonders, “Who wouldn’t go on an ego trip?” It is no different in the social media world where Muslims engage in unrelenting flattery of their scholars’ posts and pictures. Are scholars immune to inordinate dosages of flattery? It may well be that none of us are. Promotion of the self is not a regrettable byproduct of social media, it is inherent to the institution itself! We seek validation and praise by publicizing our lives, careers, goals, interests, and talents. We all teeter on the brink of hubris. Should scholars be held to a different standard?

On a flight to San Francisco I ran into Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, arguably one of the most influential Muslim scholars in the West. In a classy black suit and round horn-rimmed glasses, he addressed the flight attendant with an air of gravitas. Resisting the pestilent urge to pull out my phone and Snapchat him, I asked for his thoughts on Muslim celebrity scholar culture. Yusuf had an overall pessimistic outlook on social media. “People tell me to get a Twitter,” he said, “but you know I won’t do it.” While skeptical of the intellectually nullifying reality of social media including the concept of blogging, Yusuf took a conciliatory tone. He conceded that at least Muslims were following religious scholars instead of frivolous famous personalities. “It’s human nature,” he admitted, “to follow who you love.”

It’s true. We love our Muslim scholars so much so that we jump at the first chance to follow their lives; and they indubitably mean well in their efforts to reach and relate to a tech-savvy generation. But we must question the psychological and sociological impact of this culture on our collective Muslim ethos. Out of this very human and sincere love, celebrity scholars and follower-fans must ask themselves these hard-hitting questions.


A’isha bint Abi-Bakr: A Legacy Partially Told

Tradition has it that once the Prophet Muhammad had intended to marry a beautiful tribal woman. A’isha along with Hafsa prepared the bride for her wedding night, combing her hair and reddening her hands with henna. A’isha was consumed with jealousy. Her beloved husband was about to marry another woman, whose beauty threatened her intimate and privileged connection with him. Thus, A’isha hatched a plan to sabotage the marriage. She advised the unknowing bride to proclaim, “I seek refuge with God from thee,” on her wedding night. This, A’isha explained, would win the Prophet’s favor.

When the Prophet approached his new bride to consummate the marriage, she quickly uttered this formula of refuge, but to her surprise, the Prophet turned away. He interpreted her words as request for divorce. The next morning she was quietly sent back to her tribe.

This anecdote captures more than just the domestic intrigues of the Prophet’s wives. It demonstrates the relevance of A’isha, Mother of the Believers, for all ages. A’isha, although a woman of unparalleled piety, was not above the jealous vagaries of the human heart. Neither was she submissive to the customs of her time like polygamy which she often struggled to accept. Of all her co-wives, A’isha is arguably the most fascinating to the modern mind for she fails to fit the popular Western caricature of the docile Muslim wife. Her various interests spanned the domestic, social, political, and religious realms. She was a wife, mother, friend, teacher, politician, and military leader.

This portrait of A’isha’s complex and colorful nature, however, is strikingly different from the one consistently painted by contemporary Islamic piety. Today A’isha is known only in relation to the great men in her life—her father, Abu Bakr, and her husband, the Prophet Muhammad. In a recent online video Shaykh Omar Suleiman attempts to deliver a 14-minute account of A’isha’s life. Unsurprisingly, he ends A’isha’s saga with the iconic story of the Prophet’s head in her lap, breathing his last. Though A’isha outlived the Prophet by 46 years—indeed she lived more than half of her life without her husband—Suleiman makes no mention of her activities during this time. We only know she was a wellspring of hadith, transmitting over 2,210 narrations. So what else did A’isha do besides narrate hadith?

The Prophet is reported to have said, “Draw a part of your religion from little al-humayra.Al-humayra or “the radiant one” was the Prophet’s pet name for A’isha, given to her because of her fair skin. The Prophet never specified which segment of A’isha’s life was worth learning. That said, selectively remembering her life to omit her human frailties does little al-humayra a grave disservice.

After the Prophet’s death and her father’s two years later, A’isha saw to the financial affairs of her family. She narrated hadith and disputed other companions on their narrations. Her contribution as a source of prophetic knowledge was so great that the 14th century scholar, Imam Zarkashi, decided to devote an entire book to her hadith criticism. His book, aptly titled Collection of A’isha’s Corrections to the Statements of the Companions, explored the points on which she disagreed with religious scholars of her time.

A’isha was witty and articulate and used these talents to further her goals. She was an outspoken social critic: when she observed the third caliph of Islam, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, appointing corrupt family members to public office, she took to the streets, brandishing the Prophet’s sandal and reproaching ‘Uthman for his misconduct so soon after the Prophet’s death. Her move was politically astute and awakened a beleaguered population to rebellion. A’isha bypassed the sedition by going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. ‘Uthman is known to have said of her before his death, “And Qais set the country afire against me, and then, when it was ablaze, he ran away.”

A’isha would go on to challenge the fourth caliph’s claim to power in the infamous Battle of the Camel. Here she played a central role not only as political agitator but also as shrewd military leader soliciting political alliances in her cause against ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. She rode her camel in the thick of battle screaming customary war cries and inspiring her men to acts of bravery. At last A’isha’s camel was shot down; she had lost the war. ‘Ali gallantly strove to help her from her mount and offer her reprieve.

Some of these stories are buried under heaps of Sunni shame. To disinter them, to hold them up to the light for reflection and even closure, is to stir the pot of controversy. But A’isha, best beloved of the Prophet, demands we look at her whole life, from her mundane jealousies to her political engagements. Her tale is one of imperfections and strength of character—a tale perhaps we can all relate to. Most importantly, her tale is one of profound piety and love for God and His Prophet. Indeed A’isha spent the remainder of her days teaching the men and women of Islam the Prophet’s sunnah.

On her deathbed, fearful as anyone might be of their impending fate, she mournfully wished she had been, “a grass, a leaf, a tree, a stone, a clump of mud…not a thing remembered.” Unfortunately for A’isha, this was at least one request God would not grant. Her memory is firmly anchored in popular Muslim imagination. Even as politics blot out specific scenes of her life, her complete legacy persists intact for those who dare to submerge themselves in her sea of stories.

*For more detailed accounts on the life of A’isha including her romantic history with the Prophet and her camaraderie with her co-wives, see Nabia Abbott, Aisha: The Beloved of Mohammed. Also see Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam and Barbara Stowasser, Women in the Quran, Traditions, and Interpretation.

**I do not attach the honorifics sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam and radi allahu ‘anha/hu/hum for continuity in reading. I hope Muslim readers will say the appropriate titles of respect.