Islamic Perspective on Veneration of Scholars and Pious People
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
الحمد لله رب العالمين
وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين
I received a letter from a dear brother of mine asking about the respect shown towards scholars and whether people’s reverence for them was bordering on an unhealthy obsession. Most of my response is below. I thought I would share it with my brothers and sisters to try to shed some light on a very important topic that needs clarification today. I pray this is of benefit.
Jazak Allah khayr for bringing your concerns forward - I pray my answers are of some use in clarifying the issue of respecting and venerating pious scholars and righteous people (salihin).
Firstly, I’d like to focus on some verses of the Qur’an that speak about the veneration of the pious and the importance of seeking out their company and learning from them.
- “Those who honor God’s rites show the piety of their hearts.” (22:32).
- “Moses said to his servant, ‘I will not rest until I reach the place where the two seas meet, even if it takes me years!’…so the two turned back, retraced their footsteps, and found one of Our servants—a man to whom We had granted Our mercy and whom We had given knowledge of Our own. Moses said to him, ‘May I follow you so that you can teach me some of the right guidance you have been taught?’ (18:60-66).
- The scholars of tafsir say that Prophet Musa, peace be upon him, was asked who the most knowledgeable person on earth was - and him being a Prophet and Messenger, he naturally answered, “I am.” God then revealed to him that there was another man (most scholars say he was not a prophet, just a righteous man—a wali—whom God inspired with knowledge) who had certain knowledge that Prophet Musa did not have. Prophet Musa then went out to seek this man to learn from him - a Prophet learning from a Righteous man (wali). Prophet Musa, peace be upon him, was so avid in seeking out this knowledge and learning from this man, that he said he would continue looking for him, even it took him years.
- This also shows the importance of seeking knowledge and the effort one should take in order to gain it. Prophet Musa also showed great respect to the man (who is known as Al-Khidr) by first asking him if he would even be willing to teach Prophet Musa (as opposed to initially asking him what he knows, this is a very high level of adab and respect). It also shows that even a Prophet humbles himself in the pursuit of knowledge and in seeking righteous company.
- “Content yourself with those who pray to their Lord morning and evening, seeking His approval, and do not let your eyes turn away from them out of desire for the attractions of this worldly life.” (18:28).
- “You who believe, be mindful of God: stand with those who are true.” (9:119).
Now to take a look at a few hadith that also highlight the importance of honoring scholars, seeking knowledge, and maintaining righteous company:
- The Messenger of God, peace and mercy of God be upon him, said, “Honor scholars, as they are the inheritors of the prophets. Anyone who honors them has honored God and His Messenger.” [Al-Khatib].
- The Messenger of God, peace and mercy of God be upon him, said, “Pursue knowledge even to China, for its pursuance is the sacred duty of every Muslim.” [Ibn ‘Abdal-Barr].
- This and other hadiths highlight the importance of traveling out to seek knowledge.
- The Prophet, peace and mercy be upon him said, “Indeed the likeness of a pious companion and an evil companion is like the seller of musk and a blacksmith. The seller of musk will either give you musk to wear, or you can buy some from him, or you will at least find from him a fragrant smell. The blacksmith will either burn your clothes, or you will find from him a repugnant smell.” [Bukhari and Muslim].
- The Prophet, peace and mercy be upon him, said, “Do not become friends except with a believer, and only a God-fearing person should eat of your food.” [Abu Dawud & Tirmidhi].
- The Prophet, peace and mercy of Allah be upon him, said, “A person’s spiritual practice (deen) is only as good as that of his close friends; so consider well whom you befriend.” [Tirmidhi].
- If one believes that they are with a righteous scholar who is both an example in words and actions, then they should make a great effort to become close with that person, so that their deen will become more like that person’s.
- The Messenger of God, may the peace and mercy of God be upon him, said, “To acquire some useful knowledge is of greater merit than to perform a hundred devotional prayer units (rak’ah) voluntarily.” [Ibn Majah].
- In a lengthier hadith, the Messenger of God describes that one will be safe from damnation in keeping the company of those who remember God, even if the one if their midst is not pure of intention:
The Messenger of God, may the peace and mercy of God be upon him, said, “Indeed God has angels that travel the roads looking for the people of remembrance (dhikr). So if they find a group remembering God they call out: ‘Come together for what you were looking for!’ They then cover them [i.e. the group remembering God] with their wings [reaching] the lower heavens.
Their lord then asks them [i.e. the angels]—and He is more knowledgeable of [their affairs]—‘What are My servants saying?’ The [angels] say, ‘They glorify You [i.e. saying ‘Subhan Allah’], exalt You [i.e. saying ‘Allahu Akbar’], praise You [i.e. saying ‘Al-hamdu lillah’], and [remember] Your Majesty.’ [God] asks, ‘Have they seen Me?’ The [angels] say, ‘No, by God they have not seen You.’ [God] says, ‘How would they be if they had seen Me?’ The [angels] say, ‘If they saw You, they would be even more fervent in their worship, and more fervent in [remembering] Your Majesty, and they would glorify You more.’
[God] says, ‘What are they asking of Me?’ The [angels] say, ‘They are asking You for Paradise.’ [God] says, ‘Have they seen it?’ The [angels] say, ‘No, by God they have not seen it.’ [God] asks, ‘So how would it be if they had seen it?’ The [angels] say, ‘If they had seen it they would be more zealous about it, and more fervent in seeking it, and have a greater desire for it!’
[God] says, ‘What are they seeking refuge from?’ The [angels] say, ‘From the Fire.’ [God] says, ‘Have they seen it?’ The [angels] say, ‘No, by God they have not seen it.’ [God] asks, ‘So how would it be if they had seen it?’ The [angels] say, ‘If they had seen it, they would be more intense in their fleeing from it, and more intense if their fear of it.’
[God] then says, ‘I make you witnesses that I have forgiven them [all].’ An angel from amongst them says, ‘[But] so-and-so is with them, who is not [truly] one of them, he has only come for some other purpose.’ [God] says, ‘They are the people [that] whoever sits with them will not be [of the] damned.’
[Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Ahmad].
Way of the Righteous Predecessors
- Imam Ali (May Allah ennoble his face and be pleased with him) said: “Whoever teaches me even a word, he is my master. If he so desires, he may free me and if he wishes, he may take service from me.” (Ta’lim al-Muta’allim).
- Sha’bi narrates that, “Zayd ibn Thabit (may God be pleased with him) prayed at someone’s funeral so I brought him his mule to ride, then our master Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (may God be pleased with them both) took the [mule’s] reins [to bring the mule to Zayd], so Zayd ibn Thabit (may God be pleased with him) said, ‘You don’t need to do that, O cousin of the Messenger of God (may the peace and mercy of God be upon him)!’ So our master Ibn ‘Abbas (may God be pleased with him), said, ‘This is how we have been commanded to treat our scholars and elders.’ Then Zayd ibn Thabit kissed Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas’ hand and said, ‘This is how we have been commanded to treat the family of the Messenger of God (peace and mercy be upon him).’” [Al-Hakim].
- “I love the righteous, though one of them I am not /That haply intercession through them I may gain./And I dislike he who trades in sins/Even though his merchandise is exactly like mine.” - Imam al-Shafi’i in his Diwan.
- Imam al-Shafi’i, one of the greatest scholars of our history, and here he writes about the love of the righteous (salihin) and how he hopes for intercession through it.
- Historically people would travel very far just to learn one hadith from a scholar - and nowadays the scholars are coming to the people to teach them. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those who have access to scholars to do their best to benefit and learn from them. Especially in today’s world it is not common to have access to scholars.
One should also realize that our understanding and expression of love and respect in the U.S. and the West is unlike other places. In most Muslim countries (especially looking back 50 years or so) scholars were highly revered and given great respect. Sometimes people are weirded out at the level of respect people show scholars nowadays - this isn’t because those who are showing them respect are “overdoing it” - but rather our general understanding of love and respect of people of this deen has fallen to such a low standard that when we do see it, we sometimes find it to be something unfamiliar.
I pray this is of some use. Finally, we should all make the supplication that the Prophet peace and mercy of Allah be upon him taught us to say, “O Allah show us truth as truth, and provide for us to follow it; and show us falsehood as falsehood, and provide for us to avoid it.”
والحمد لله رب العالمين