The Tweeting Ayatullah

As any medical student will tell you, becoming a doctor is an incredibly tough process. Six years of medical school, years of being overworked as a junior doctor, sitting exams well your 40’s…the list of challenges goes on. Society rightly expects high standards from doctors: when it comes to protecting the fragile human anatomy, we are justified in expecting those responsible to be highly qualified and able.

The same goes for lawyers, dentists, accountants etc. Whenever we depend on another’s expertise, we want to make sure the person we depend on is qualified for the task. So why do we not apply the same rigour in religious affairs?

An Islamic scholar can be termed a ‘spiritual doctor’. He is a role model to a Muslim community; he preaches a way of life and holds an influence over the lives of followers that few other professions can claim. In the YouTube generation, the mere words of a scholar can literally mean life or death for millions of people. It should stand to reason that the field of Islamic scholarship would be limited to just that – scholars.

Yet a quick glance over social networks will reveal this is patently not the case. Theology is a field in which every believer thinks him or herself equipped to offer an opinion, often based on flaky and inconsistent knowledge of the subject. The famous phrase holds true: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In some ways this is a good thing. It provides evidence that religion is as alive as ever in the hearts of followers and demonstrates believers’ passions and devotion to their faith. But on a practical level, it is not only foolish but dangerous. Not long ago a university Islamic society had their prayer room confiscated because their Friday sermons (given by a layman president) appeared to endorse jihadist attacks.

When a layman quotes a verse of the Qur’an, he has little knowledge of the context of the verse or its interpretation. When he (or, to be gender neutral, or she) narrates a saying of a holy figure, he has even less knowledge of the source, chain of narrators, or of scholarly debates on the subject that have spanned for over a thousand years.

That’s not to say laymen aren’t entitled to an opinion or a comment – on the contrary, the involvement of ordinary people when making theological verdicts is crucial. But Muslims need to be careful about to whom they give a platform to represent their faith. They also need to be careful about the sources of their theology: is Twitter really the appropriate forum to be discussing the efficacy of chest beating, or public cursing, or forms of marriage? After all, a discussion is only as fruitful as those partaking in it are qualified to do so. That doesn’t mean such discussions shouldn’t take place – just that they shouldn’t have any influence on the way society functions.

Neither am I suggesting that all those who claim the title of Islamic scholarship deserve that title (that’s a different issue entirely). Nor am I denying that current society lacks an effective barometer for distinguishing who or what a scholar is (But that’s a different issue too). I’m just saying that your religion is too important for you to allow it to become a free-for-all. If you wouldn’t take a layman’s opinion on whether Parliament is constitutionally sovereign seriously, why should you take a layman’s opinion of the permissibility of chest-beating seriously? Both issues require a high level of expertise to provide an effective answer.

As such, it’s probably a good idea that laymen (so far as it is possible to do so) avoid giving religious sermons, or offering firm opinions on complex theological issues without qualifying their answers as being of little academic worth. Muslims need a balance between allowing non-scholars to feel engaged with their faith without allowing them too much influence over theological issues. Concomitant with the rise of social networking has been the emergence of self-styled Ayatullahs that actually spend most of their day as (for example) bus drivers. That, quite, patently, is not right.