• Identifying the `ulamā’ al-ḥaqq (the scholars on the path of truth) and the `ulamā’ al-sū’ (the scholars on the path of evil)

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    Question: Please explain and give a way to identify the `ulamā’ al-ḥaqq (the scholars on the path of truth) and the `ulamā’ al-sū’ (the scholars on the path of evil).

    بسم الله الرحمٰن الرحيم

    Answer: The `ulamā’ al-ḥaqq are differentiated from the `ulamā’ al-sū’ by their aversion to the dunyā and their concentration on implementing all their `ilm for the sake of Allah alone.

    Explanation: The `ulamā’ al-haqq are also called `ulamā al-khayr and `ulamā al-ākhirah. The `ulamā’ al-sū’ are also called the `ulamā al-dunyā. Sayyidunā `Ali narrated from Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, “A time will come when nothing will be left of Islam except its name. Nothing will remain of the Qur’an except its written form. Their masjids will be full while empty of guidance. Their scholars will be the worst of people under the sky. Fitnah will come from them and return to them.”[1]

    In this hadith is a mention of some of the signs of the Last Day. Among them is the description of the `ulamā’ al-sū’. They will be a source of misguidance and fitnah such that it will emanate from them to affect the people, and their harms will return to afflict them too. Their example is like the ayah:

    مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا التَّوْرَاةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ الْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًا ۚ بِئْسَ مَثَلُ الْقَوْمِ الَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِ اللَّـهِ ۚ وَاللَّـهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الظَّالِمِينَ

    The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah. And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people. 62:5

    In contrast, guidance and truth emanate from the `ulamā’ al-khayr. People’s connection with Allah and their obedience to His commands increase as does the connection and obedience of the `ulamā’.

    Imam al-Ghazālī goes into detail providing extensive supporting material for distinguishing between `ulamā al-dunyā and `ulamā al-ākhirah. One can read the details with references in his Iḥyā al-`Ulūm al-Dīn[2]. Below is a summary for the benefit of the reader.

    Imam al-Ghazali defines the `ulamā’ al-sū` or `ulamā’ al-dunyā as those whose purpose in `ilm is to obtain worldly benefits and positions and ranks with its people. Their knowledge is devoid of action, meaning, they do not implement what they have learned. Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “On the Day of Judgement, the severest punishment is for the ālim whose knowledge did not benefit him.” He ﷺ also said what he fears most for his ummah besides the Dajjāl are the `ulamā who will misguide people. It has been narrated, “A man will not become an `ālim until he practices on his knowledge.”

    Sayyidunā `Umar † said, “What I fear most for this ummah is the knowledgeable hypocrite.” His companions asked, “How can there be a knowledgeable hypocrite?” He replied, “He is knowledgeable of tongue, but ignorant in heart and practice.”

    Such `ulamā’ have much to fear as well. The punishment of the `ālim will be doubled for his sin because he sinned despite having knowledge. For this reason, Allah said, “Indeed, the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire.” The Jews were worse than the Christians even though they didn’t claim a son for Allah nor did they say that He is the third of three. However, they denied the Prophet ﷺ after having recognized him as Allah said, “They recognize him as they recognize their own sons.” and “When there came to them that which they recognized, they disbelieved in it; so the curse of Allah will be upon the disbelievers.”

    Imam al-Ghazāli gives twelve signs of the `ulamā’ al-khayr. Through them, we hope to gain clarity on which scholars to follow, and what characteristics to develop in ourselves.

    Signs of the `Ulamā’ al-Khayr

    1. They do not seek dunyā with their knowledge. Every knowledgeable person recognizes the filth of this dunyā and the purity of the ākhirah. He or she understands that the two are opposites and cannot be joined. He endeavors to move away from one and towards the other; debases one and elevates the other; engages in one out of necessity and the other out of desire.
      Sufyān al-Thawrī said, “The fitnah (of studying) hadith is greater than the fitnah of spouses, wealth, and children. How should its fitnah not be feared when it was said to the Master of the Messengers ﷺ, “And if We had not strengthened you, you would have almost inclined to them a little”? The Prophet ﷺ said, “If anyone acquires knowledge that should be sought for the sake of Allah, but he acquires it only to get some worldly advantage, he will not experience the the fragrance of Paradise.” Indeed, Allah described the ulamā’ al-sū` as those who consume dunyā through their `ilm, and He described the `ulamā’ al-ākhirah as possessing humility (al-khushū`) and indifference to the world (al-zuhd). Allah said about the `ulamā’ al-dunyā, “And remember, when Allah took a covenant from those who were given the Scripture: ‘You must make it clear to the people and not conceal it.’ But they threw it away behind their backs and exchanged it for a small price.” He said about the `ulamā’ al-ākhirah, “They have a reward with their Lord.” The Qur’an gives us a clear indication that the true people of knowledge prefer ākhirah over the dunyā. Allah said, “So he came out before his people in his adornment. Those who desired the worldly life said, ‘Oh, would that we had what was given to Qārūn. Indeed, he is one of great fortune.’ But those who had been given knowledge said, ‘Woe to you! The reward of Allah is better for he who believes and does righteousness.’
    2. Their actions do not contradict their statements. For Allah warned them, “Do you command people to do good while forgetting yourselves?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “The utterly destroyed from my ummah is the sinning `ālim and the ignorant worshiper. The worst of the worst are the evil `ulamā’. The best of the best are the good `ulamā’.” Malik ibn Dinār said, “If the `ālim does not act according to his knowledge, his advices run off the hearts just as rain runs off a smooth stone.”
    3. Their concern is obtaining knowledge that will benefit them in the ākhirah. Only the `ulamā’ al-ākhirah give importance to and collect this type of knowledge. As for the `ulamā’ al-dunyā, they are busy with what obtains wealth and position.
    4. They do not incline towards the luxuries of food and drink, the fineries of dress, and the beauties of nice dwellings. Rather, they incline towards what suffices in all of that. As their inclination goes more and more towards what suffices, their closeness to Allah increases.
    5. They close themselves off from people of power. For they only allow them to come when there is no way to avoid them. Mixing with people of power is a key to disaster. The path of the `ulamā’ al-ākhirah is one of caution.
    6. They are not quick to give a legal answer (fatwā). If they are confident in their answer, then they should give an answer. If they have any doubt, they simply say, “I don’t know.” Imam al-Sha`bī said, “(Saying) ‘I don’t know’ is half of knowledge.” It has been said, “If you see a man who is given to silence and indifference to the world, get close to him, because he has been given wisdom.”
    7. Most of their interest is on the sciences of self-rectification (al-`ilm al-bāṭin), observance of the heart (muraqabah al-qalb), and knowing the path of the ākhirah. This path entails taking oneself to account and striving in what has been commanded – the mandatory and the optional. The Prophet ﷺ said that Allah said, “And the most beloved thing with which My slave comes nearer to Me is what I have enjoined upon him; and My slave keeps on coming closer to Me through performing the nawāfil until I love him. When I love him, I become his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his leg with which he walks; and if he asks from Me, I give him, and if he asks My Protection, I protect him.”
    8. Their highest concern is in obtaining certainty (al-yaqīn). The Prophet ﷺ said, “Certainty is īmān – all of it.” As a result, the `ulamā’ al-ākhirah are recognized by their tranquility and humility.
    9. They appear sad, defeated, humbled, and quiet. This is the appearance of humility before Allah in all aspects of their being. When you look at them, you are reminded of Allah. The characteristics mentioned in the Qur’an are embodied within them, because they learned the Qur’an for the sake of implementation and not for fame or power.
    10. Most of their talks are on the knowledge of Islamic practice including what ruins it, confuses the heart, increases doubts, and leads to evil actions. As for the `ulamā’ al-dunyā, they instead run after rare and subsidiary rulings which rarely occur or are relevant.
    11. When it comes to their knowledge, their reliance is placed more in the insight and gains made through a pure a heart, rather than just what is in the books or what they’ve heard from others. They are eager to follow the Prophet ﷺ. The only person who is truly followed blindly is the Prophet ﷺ. The Companions are followed because their actions indicate to what they heard from the Prophet ﷺ. Those after them are followed only because of their knowledge of the actions of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions.
    12. They protect themselves from innovations even if the majority acts on them. The most knowledgeable of each time and the closest to the truth are those most similar to the Companions and most familiar with their ways. Religion is taken from them. For this reason, Sayyidunā `Alī said, “The best of us is the one who follows this dīn the most.”

    These twelve signs were found in their entirety in the `ulamā’ al-ākhirah before us. `Ulamā’ and non-`ulamā should strive for them. Make sure you are one of two people. Either, you are one who has all these characteristics or one who recognizes his falling short of them and does not claim the contrary. Do not be the third! Thus, deceiving yourself by calling the dunyā as dīn, comparing the path of the people of falsehood with the path of the firmly established `ulamā’, and joining through your ignorance and rejection the group of those destroyed and hopeless.

    In general, the `ulamā’ of today are not like those of the past. As we get closer and closer to the Day of Judgement, this trend will continue. Still, there are `ulamā’ that strive to the qualities listed above. They are aware of their shortcomings and make no claim to the opposite. Allah sends guidance through them and benefits people. Attach yourself to one of them to save yourself from being a lone sheep and easy prey for Shayṭān. Finally, if one finds an ālim al-sū’ in one’s vicinity, the best remedy for them is that they be ignored.[3] If they are truly seeking the dunyā, then this will deprive them of what they seek. If they are pure in their intentions, then it is best to keep our tongues safe from a servant of Allah.

    We seek Allah’s refuge from Shayṭān’s deception through which the majority are destroyed. We ask Allah – the Exalted – that He make us from those who are not deceived by the dunyā and those not deceived about Him by deceptions.

    والله أعلم بالصواب

    And Allah knows best,

    Mufti Sulaiman Yusufi

    Shaykh Mateen Khan


    [1] Shu`ab al-ömān lī al-Bayhaqī

    [2] Kitab al-`Ilm, al-Bāb al-Sādis

    [3] Fatāwa Maḥmūdiyyah 21:366