Understanding Scholar’s Financial Incentives

Understanding Scholar’s Financial Incentives


As-salam alaikum brother, I was late to your khutba… can you please explain your statement that to understand scholars you have to understand the money involved?

Wa alykum as salaam,

I just want to clarify, I did not say that money is directly involved, as if the scholars that we read today are paid proponents of some sinister ideology and we’ve all been suckered into believing them.

I said that in order to understand the decisions and opinions issued by various scholars, we must contextualize them in order to understand not only why they were writing what they did, but also, to be able to differentiate between their opinion and the opinion of other scholars.

While the way that they made their money is an important consideration, since it illustrates their concerns and what practical issues they had to deal with when writing opinions, this should just be one aspect of the way we evaluate scholars’ opinion. Other considerations to consider: was there a state of war? Did the scholar feel Islam was ‘under attack?’ What was the scholar’s social status within his society, was he a minority or persecuted person? What were the political structures of their society?

Without asking questions like these (and others), we will be unable to understand the background to these decisions, and most importantly, since Muslims in the West have a particular desire for authoritative sources for their religious choices, they tend to go to scholars with far more regularity than Muslims in other countries.

So when people quote Ibn Taymiyyah, which has become increasingly common, they are not factoring in what he was surrounded by. Not only was he under the rule of Mameluk Sultans in Damascus, but they were being attacked by renewed Mongol invasions. Therefore, in order to properly contextualize and subsequently evaluate the choices and decisions made by Ibn Taymiyyah, we must ask the following questions: “how much did his job, if at all, did being a scholar under the Mameluk Sultan change his opinions? And how did this position affect his famous fatawa of declaring people who considered themselves Muslims (the Mongols) non-Muslim in order to conduct warfare against them?”

These questions address his most famous fatawa (plural of fatwa), but if we are to go even further, then we should generally question his rejection of ijma (consensus-based decision making) and his odd and very selective view of qiyas (analogical reasoning) that he combined with taqlid (imitation) in a way that should give us pause. Not because Ibn Taymiyyah was a particularly bad person, but, when you remove his history from him, and you then evaluate his arguments, there’s a good chance he’ll sound extreme.

It’s also a problem because, in my opinion, the problems he was facing (death, destruction, and Mongol hordes) meant that he was overly concerned with preserving what he felt was the “core” of Islam, and he was genuinely afraid that what he viewed as “pure Islam” would be destroyed. We’re not talking metaphorically here, he literally was afraid that real Islam would be destroyed, knowing this brings his choices into greater focus. Not factoring that into your mind when you read him, means you’re eliminating his rationale, and thus if you apply Ibn Taymiyyah without that, you are not only doing a disservice to yourself, but you are not applying Ibn Taymiyyah properly, either.

Now, when I spoke of money, I wanted people to understand that scholars had to make money somehow. They wanted families, they wanted a house, etc. So with these new scholars that are starting various Islamic organizations, whether its Bayyinah Institute, Al Maghrib, or Zaytuna, my question becomes: do these people have to cater to their students (customers) or do they have enough of an infrastructure to provide information to us, as Muslims, without being concerned about their revenue.

That was my point, that as Muslims, we should strive to create independent organizations, that can be financially stable enough so that they are able to do their research and provide Muslims with information that we need to hear, without being concerned over whether we’ll attend their classes or not. That is my major problem, because now, they are dependent upon people attending their classes, and therefore, have to create promotional material and/or coursework that would cater to their students.

I want to be very clear, I am not doubting their sincerity or their abilities, but I feel that whether they are “liberal” or “conservative” organizations, I feel that they cater to Muslims who simply seek a “conservative” or a “liberal” approach to Islam. These positions are solidified by these scholars’ need for money, because they don’t have institutions with endowments like a university. They don’t have “tenure” like a professor does. They are dependent on speaking to Muslims, or leading a Mosque that would have enough funds for them to begin with.

I hope that we can eventually have institutions that can provide us with the information on Islam that does not cater to what “we want to hear” but simply provides us with the academic range of opinions, and thus, we as a community would determine what is most appropriate for ourselves.

Insha Allah, I hope I answered your question, and if you, or anyone else, has any other questions, I would be more than happy to answer them.

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