Speaker or Scholar?

How many of us choose to attend an Islamic event based solely on the person speaking? Big names draw big crowds at lectures, seminars, and discussions. It doesn’t even matter how many times we’ve heard that same lecture about unity or Hijab, if a certain speaker is there, so are we. It’s important to mention now rather than later there are many benefits to having popular speakers at our events, but at what cost? How much longer will our community collectively decide to throw caution to the wind and book speakers whose Islamic knowledge and training can be quantified using only one hand?
How many of us will ask for medical advice from an undergraduate student volunteering at the hospital? Would you trust your legal matters in the hands of a first year law student? Naturally we seek experts in our worldly matters because they are significant to us. When it comes to Islamic knowledge and matters however, we have set the standard so low the only good news is that it can’t get much lower than this. We see month long Ramadan lectures led by people who have never stepped foot inside an Islamic learning institution. Unfortunately, this sends an alarming message across that implies anyone can sit and discuss Islam because it’s that easy.
In addition to watering down our religion, we are insulting the individuals who have dedicated their lives to studying the Holy Quran, Hadiths, and the biographies of esteemed Islamic personalities such as our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) and our 12 Imams. Unfortunately, many misconceptions are promoted in our community regarding what type of speakers and scholars will help our community move forward.  While it may be a novelty to hold an event where a teenager holds a lecture with other teenagers, it undermines the authority of those with well, the authority to lead discourse and answer questions about Islam. Unless we are speaking to the exception here, the knowledge of laymen regarding Islam is limited while the questions and misconceptions of their audience is limitless. Even if the speaker at an event can lead us towards basic information about Islam, their knowledge is unable to answer deeper and more meaningful questions.
In order to justify the conscious and unconscious campaign to market only certain kinds of speakers in our community, organizations and even audience members make various claims. Below are the most commonly held misconceptions regarding scholars in our community and simple answers to each:
1. “Not All Scholars Speak “Good” English”
Actually, a great number of our scholars and highly educated speakers speak fluent English. It’s just no one books them for events or they are always given the last 10 minutes to speak as the audience is busying filing into the parking lot or grabbing dinner from the back table. The hawza offers various avenues for scholars to learn English and many students enter Hawza already speaking the language because they came from the West to start with. However, where is the great burden and trouble in providing a translator for a scholar during a question and answer session? Someone’s ability to speak English should never supersede the fact they have never stepped inside a Hawza and probably don’t plan on.
2. “We need scholars that can relate to us.”
This isn’t completely illogical but how many of us seek out doctors, lawyers, and accountants who have been faced with the same problems as us? Exactly. We look for the individuals with the most who have done notable research and achievements in the field we need assistance in and often we spend extra money just to make sure we are getting the best. Why does this thinking stop when it comes to our religious affairs? Most scholars and speakers present a variety experiences and Islamic knowledge on a variety of topic. Remember, you’re not shopping for a new best friend. You’re trying to learn from the person that has the most to offer you for both this life and the hereafter.
3. “Some lectures are too deep”
Yes and instead of avoiding situations where you may actually have to challenge yourself, why not consider it a blessing from God that you are in the presence of someone with so much knowledge and who is willing to share it with you? Typically the speakers who need to make 6 jokes about I-phones and 5 more about MTV are trying to compensate for their lack of depth in a topic. Being relevant to your audience is one thing, but putting the blinds over people’s eyes is another.
4. “Islamic lectures should be fun!”
Should Islamic lectures and events be beneficial? Yes. Should they be fun? Not really. Again, we are running into the problem of people not understanding the purpose of Islamic lectures and gatherings. While there is a consensus that Islamic lectures should be pleasant and enjoyable, they also need to maintain a high standard of sacredness and seriousness. After all, when speaking of holy matters, one is expected to respect the speaker, setting, and topic. Islamic events can be more relaxed in terms of seriousness with the appropriate guidelines, however, lectures should be treated with respect and attention.
Our community is blessed with many scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying and teaching our religion. It is imperative that we do not oppress them by not allowing them to share their knowledge with us. In addition, if we are going to attract more youth to enter Islamic institutions of education, we must show them that we value, appreciate, and respect our scholars and have a place for them in our communities and at our events.

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