It has always been difficult for people to admit thet do not know something. In fact, the less secure a person is in his or her knowledge, the harder it becomes to utter these three little words. This was a trial faced by Islamic scholars of the past, and those who triumphed the easiest, were not only the most pious and God-fearing among them, but also the most knowledgeable.
Some of our pious predecessors used to say: so “Half of all knowledge is to say: ‘I don’t know’.” and: “Whoever abandons saying ‘I don’t know’ has put his knowledge in peril.”
There is no shame in not knowing something. In Islamic Law, there are an endless number of questions and it is impossible for anyone to have the answers for them all at hand.
We should all be acquainted with the famous story where a man travelled to Madinah a from a very far distance to ask Imam Mālik forty questions. However, Malik only answered four of them and for the rest of the 36 questions he replied: “I don’t know.”
The man was surprised and asked him: “What am I supposed to I tell the people about these 36 questions for which you said ‘I don’t know’?”
He replied: “Tell the people that Mālik says: ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I don’t know’.”
Imam Mālik was put on the spot, but he was secure in his knowledge and feared Allah.
It is imperative for a scholar or student of Islamic knowledge to make every effort to verify the facts, investigate all arguments, and pursue all lines of evidence before speaking. However, thanks to the explosion of mass media, social networks, and instant communication, people are put on the spot more often than before, and their audiences are larger and more widespread than at any time in the past. Saying “I don’t know” has become harder than ever.
This has become one of the crises of the present age. The need to be sure of what you say is no less important than it was in the past. If anything, it has become more important. An Islamic scholar should always keep in mind that other people are going to follow his or her opinion. A saying goes: “When a scholar slips up, the world stumbles.” This is why it is imperative for scholars to choose their words carefully and be precise in what they say. They should speak only after making a thorough investigation of the evidence.
Some students of religious knowledge, when they are taken by surprise with a question while giving a lecture or speaking on air, are incapable of saying: “I don’t know.” Instead, they try to escape embarrassment. In the absence of any evidence, sometimes they take the strict approach, since they feel this puts them on the safe side. They might add to this an indecisive wording. This is why you hear statements like: “It is better to avoid that.” or “It is more appropriate to consider it unlawful.”
This can lead them into other difficulties. One student was asked whether it was okay to leave off performance of the witr prayer. The student being asked was both hasty and emotional, so he said: “Neglecting this prayer is misguidance. Leaving off its observance is the type of thing that cast doubts on one’s character and makes one’s testimony in court invalid. Someone who neglects the witr prayer today will be neglecting the five obligatory prayers tomorrow.”
Much of this, or course, went beyond the question he was initially asked. After saying all this in public, this student did some research and was relieved to find that the scholars of Kufa did indeed hold the view that the witr prayer is obligatory. Henceforth, this became the opinion he adopted and promoted.
Some people are not so “fortunate”. In their haste to answer, they say something that is extreme or that goes against the binding consensus of the Muslims. If they had only hesitated, they would have been able to do what they initially set out to do, which is to call people to good deeds, instead of putting themselves on the spot.
Not all people in this situation answer with strict opinions. Some of them go the other way and volunteer lenient answers. Their intention is to avoid subjecting the people to difficulty. However, sometimes they end up advising people to do things that are clearly sinful in Islam.
A scholar should always wait until thoroughly researching a question before speaking. This includes referring to the opinions of other scholars and critically engaging with their arguments. It is also important to address the public in a way that they will understand. Many of the people being spoken to have no background in Islamic law and are unfamiliar with the legal terminology and the significance of the implications and subtle nuances in a scholar’s answer which would be understood by other scholars. When a scholar answers a question hastily, without being clear and precise, it can result in a lot of unnecessary confusion.
For instance, most Islamic scholars permit Muslims living in non-Muslim countries to deposit their savings in interest-bearing bank accounts. They also permit the Muslims withdraw the interest and give it away in charitable causes, rather than leave it in the bank for the bank to use in its own pursuits.
However, many people who hear this ruling do not understand that it is specific for certain locations where circumstances necessitate that a person opens an interest-bearing account and that the purpose of withdrawing the interest is simply to get rid of it, not to benefit from it. Instead, you hear people saying: “:Sheikh So-and-So says banking interest is lawful.”
This is why students and scholars of Islamic Law need to be take extra pains to make themselves clear. They need to explain the circumstances where the ruling applies and those where it is inapplicable.
Another tendency we see with some students of Islamic knowledge is how easily they use the word “unbelief”. It seems they feel this is a way to emphasise the seriousness of what they are saying or bully their listeners into compliance. If they are confronted about doing so, they then explain that they are describing the violation itself as unbelief, but not calling the perpetrator an unbeliever. They forget that they are talking to the general public who are unlikely to make the distinction.