Who is an Alim ?

Who is an Alim ?

(above pic : Palestinians perform a funeral prayer at Nasser Hospital after their relatives lost their lives in Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza, on December 17, 2023)


By Shaykh Mohammed Amin

Shaykh Mohammed Amin is a Muslim scholar, mentor, and the founder of Darul Qasim, an institute of traditional Islamic higher learning headquartered in the Glendale Heights suburb of Chicago. Shaykh Amin is an active advocate of the classical Sunni tradition of Islamic scholarship and a passionate promoter of traditional Islamic sciences and methodologies of teaching and learning. He is regarded internationally as an expert theologian and an authority in the fields of Islamic philosophy and theosophy.


Shaykh Amin Situates the ‘Ālim in Contemporary Times

In contemporary times, answering “Who is an ʿālim?” requires more than just a cursory definition. Presently, the term is often loosely applied to people of various levels of Islamic scholarly training, at times even to the novice student of knowledge. However, historically, the term ʿālim had a very precise definition. To be amongst the ʿulamāʾ, one was required to meet a high standard of expertise in the Islamic sciences. Additionally, the historical role of an ʿālim was profoundly different from the contemporary one, whose domain rarely extends beyond the masjid pulpit and is frequently dictated by laypersons on a dysfunctional board.

In order to understand who an ʿālim is, one must first understand the role he historically played. During the times of flourishing Islamic empires, the ʿulamāʾ were amongst the most esteemed classes of society and worked in important and well-paid government positions. They served as judges, muftīs, ambassadors, advisors, and more. For instance, Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muḥammad b. Ḥasan al-Shaybānī, the two students of Imam Abu Ḥanīfa, were high-ranking employees of the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid.

Muslim leaders during these times were keenly aware of the fact that the ʿulamāʾ wielded authority and influence over the masses and garnered significant public support. Thus, in order to rule effectively, these leaders sought to work in collaboration with the ʿulamāʾ and made earnest efforts to take care of their needs and secure them as close allies. Accordingly, during the Mughal and Ottoman empires, the curriculum for the traditional madrasa system was designed with these aims in mind. For Muslim rulers, the institutional goal of the madrasa was not the creation of teachers for their masājid; instead, it was the creation and development of scholars par excellence. These scholars had comprehensive knowledge of the Islamic sciences and were thus capable of running the empire.

The content of the madrasa curriculum consisted of four core subjects: Qur’an, ḥadīth, fiqh (Islamic law) and usul (legal theory), and ʿaqīdah or kalām (theology). The first, Qur’an, is waḥy matlu, or recited revelation, the exact words of God. Ḥadīth is waḥy ġayr matlu, or revelation that is not recited; God’s speech is encompassed in its meanings, but it is not His exact words. Fiqh and usul cover the legal rulings governing every aspect of a Muslim’s life and are extracted from the two aforementioned forms of waḥy. ʿAqīdah makes up the Islamic belief system.

An ʿālim, then, was someone who studied these four core subjects for at least four years and attained a reasonable level of training in a structured academic program. Theʿālim had to be able to research these subjects proficiently and independently at any level. Thus, the ʿālim was not only capable of reading and recalling, but also was able to investigate and synthesize.

Additionally, because the ʿulamāʾ had such important government positions, their training included other salient features. In addition to his expertise in the four core Islamic sciences, the ʿālim was required to know how to fight in battle, use a sword, and ride a horse. Some also had to be proficient in Latin, for they served as the government’s ambassador to the Vatican of the neighboring Roman Empire. Upon completion of this curriculum, the graduate was then promised a high paying, prestigious government position.

With regards to the specifics of the curriculum, in the Mughal empire (1526-1857), Mullah Nizam created what is known as the Dars-e Nizāmi curriculum. In it, he emphasized the liberal arts with a focus on philosophy, grammar, logic, and Islamic law. He had a well-defined metric for all four core subjects. For Qur’an, students had to master Tafsīr Jalālayn and had to understand every word contained in the book. For ḥadīth, students had to learn the text Mishkāt al-Masābiḥ and be able to locate each ḥadīth’s corresponding chapter in the book. For Islamic law, students had to master up to the level of Hidāyah, which is a four-volume Ḥanafi fiqh text covering the legality of every aspect of a Muslim’s life. Finally, for ʿaqīdah, students had to study Ṭahāwiyyah and Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid an-Nasafiyya by Imam Taftazani, which was a commentary on all of the primary tenets of Islamic creed.

Subsequently, in the 18th century AD (12th century hijri), Shah Waliullāh Dehlawi completed his Dars-e-Nizāmi studies, but believed the curriculum to be incomplete. He contended that in order to be a trueʿālim, one must know the sihah sita, or six authenticated books of ḥadīth. He believed that anʿālim must also procure a sanad, or permission to narrate ḥadīth from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. The sanad is an academic link or chain that connects every ʿālim back to the Prophet ,صلى الله عليه وسلم including the name of everyʿālim that transmitted the Prophetic knowledge over the course of time. The sanad is the hallmark of Islamic scholarship, and no civilization can boast of an unbroken identifiable sanad that is traced back to its founding father. Thus, an ʿālim with a sanad has religious and academic permission, or ijāzah, to narrate from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. Shah Waliullāh thus added what is known as dawrah ḥadīth to the curriculum, which was an additional year in which the six books of ḥadīth were covered. This was officially added and codified into the curriculum. One could complete the Dars-e-Nizāmi without dawrah and still become an ʿālim; however, according to Shah Waliullāh, his studies were deemed mawquf or incomplete.

In the 19th century AD (13th century hijri), Muḥammad Qāsim Nanautavi, an Indian Hanafi Islamic scholar also known as Mawlāna Qāsim, became one of the main founders of the Deobandi movement in India. He created Darul Uloom Deoband, which inherited the curriculum of Shah Waliullāh; it consisted of Dars-e-Nizāmi plus the sihah sita. The Deobandi ʿulamāʾ also emphasized refinement of ethics and morals for theʿālim. They all but mandated that anʿālim should stay in the company of an accomplished Sufi shaykh and develop familiarity with methods of self reform, piety, dhikr (recitation of spiritual litanies), and supererogatory acts of worship. In fact, Mawlana Thanwi is known to have said that noʿālim should be given a sanad until he has spent two years with a Sufi shaykh.

However, the political milieu during the time of Mawlāna Qāsim created a very distinct aim for the graduates of Darul Uloom Deoband. During his time, the Mughals were no longer in power. The Muslims were being governed by the British Empire. As a colonizing power, the British Empire had a strategic interest in summarily subjugating its colonized people; this included administrative, economic, and intellectual domains. Thus, when the British Empire identified the importance of the ʿulamāʾ, it rolled out a calculated campaign to destroy the honor, prestige, and integrity of every ʿālim. They sabotaged the madrasa system and eroded popular support and love for it. They forbade the ʿulamāʾ from taking any part in the government. Their influence upon society then was severely truncated. Without access to government funding, the ʿulamāʾ were now at the mercy of donations. After undermining the madrasa system, the British Empire then raised the economic value of a secular education by guaranteeing anyone who learned English a well-paying office job. The overall result was a systemic subversion of ʿulamāʾ. It was in this milieu that Mawlāna Qāsim was compelled to establish Darul Uloom Deoband. His vision for his graduates was transformed from running the Muslim empire to preserving and propagating Islam in non-Muslim lands.

As such, it is Mawlāna Qāsim’s curriculum, philosophy, and aims that Darul Qasim has inherited. The mission of Darul Qasim is to create ʿulamāʾ who have mastered the four core Islamic sciences. While serving the masājid and Muslim community is a noble and admirable task, graduates of Darul Qasim are encouraged to extend their spheres of influence even further, coherently presenting Islam in an academic and scholarly fashion to Muslim professionals and non-Muslim colleagues and neighbors. They serve roles in the higher echelons of society, commanding influence in informing governmental and international policies. An ‘ālim is someone who knows how revelation relates to reality, providing guidance not only for worship, but for all aspects of life and society. The goal at Darul Qasim is to restore the meaning of ‘alim, in its original, comprehensive and true sense.

This paper was originally a lecture that Shaykh Amin gave at the Darul Qasim Chapter in Dallas, Texas. It was transcribed by Nida Ahmed and edited by Abid Hasseeb and Dr. Muhammed Stodolsky.


Brief bio of Shaykh Amin

Shaykh Mohammed Amin was born April 2nd, 1959 in Gujarat, India. He is the son of Ḥaḍrat Mawlānā Musa ibn Ibrahim Kholwadia and one of eight children: three daughters and five sons. His father, Ḥaḍrat Mawlānā Musa was the spiritual and intellectual disciple of the illustrious polymath and academic-activist Shaykh al-Islām Ḥusayn Ahmad al-Madanī (may Allah have mercy on him).  He graduated from the celebrated Islamic college, or Dār al-ʿUlūm, in Deoband, India, having also studied there under erudite scholarly giants such as Muftī Mahdī Ḥasan al-Shāhjahānpūrī, Mawlānā Ibrāhīm al-Balyāwī, and Muftī Maḥmūd al-Ḥasan al-Gangohī, may Allah have mercy on them all.

Ḥaḍrat Mawlānā Musa’s intense love for the scholars of the sacred sciences was universal. He loved all the ʿulamā and propagators of the faith. Like Mawlānā Amin’s mother, his father was incredibly hospitable, inviting guests to his house even when there was practically nothing available to serve. Ḥaḍrat was deeply enthusiastic about the practice of spiritual retreat (iʿtikāf) in the month of Ramaḍān. Like his teacher, Shaykh al-Islam Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-Madanī, Ḥaḍrat would perform the iʿtikāf every year without fail. He had similarly fallen in love with the Ḥajj pilgrimage later in life and was blessed by Allah to perform the pilgrimage every year for twelve consecutive years. A poor childhood and an educational journey full of hardship meant that Haḍrat had an incredible appreciation for sacred knowledge, its bearers, and those who spent their lives in the service of Islam. To him, collaborative organizations and political platforms were not as meaningful as serious and tireless service of the community and Islam. After his migration to the United Kingdom, Ḥaḍrat would be the catalyst for the UK tours of some of the great spiritual and intellectual figures of India, such as Qārī Muḥammad Ṭayyib al-Qāsimī and Mawlānā Masīḥ Allāh Khān al-Shirwānī, may Allah have mercy on them. Having roomed with Qāḍī Mujāhid al-Islām al-Qāsimī and Mawlānā Asʿad al-Madanī (the son of Shaykh al-Islam al-Madanī) in Deoband, Ḥaḍrat Mawlānā Musa was very close to Mawlānā Asʿad and maintained an intimate relationship with him throughout his life.

Academic and Spiritual Background

Shaykh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia began his formal Islamic educational journey shortly after having completed his O-level studies in Gloucester, England. He traveled to Gujarat, India in 1975 at the age of 16 where he attended a school in the small village of Taraj (some 12km outside of Dabhel) and completed there the memorization of the noble Qurʾān.

For higher Islamic studies he traveled to the southern Indian city of Bangalore where he enrolled in Dār al-ʿUlūm Sabīl al-Rashād and received his theosophical initiation and instruction from the venerated Mine of Divine Knowledge and master of the spiritual path, Mawlānā Muḥammad Mīrān (may Allah have mercy on him). There Shaykh Amīn was first introduced to the Akbarī path of Islamic spirituality, and during his three years there he explored the philosophy and spiritual teachings of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Muḥy al-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī, and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī, may Allah have mercy on them. He also received certification (ijāzah) in the recitation (qirāʾah) of Ḥafṣ from Qārī Riyāḍ al-Raḥmān who taught him al-Muqaddamah al-Jazariyyah and listened to his entire Qurʾān recitation in Ḥafṣ before granting certification.

Later, Shaykh Amīn traveled to Karachi and enrolled in the Jāmiʿat al-ʿUlūm al-Islāmiyyah in Binnori Town where, due to his intellectual acuity, was able to condense several years of study. There, he studied the Ḥanafī fiqh manual al-Hidāyah with Dr. ʿAbd al-Razzāq Iskandar and Tafsīr al-Jalālayn with Mawlānā Idrīs Mīrathī and Muftī Riḍā al-Ḥaqq, the latter who mentioned to him that the knowledge of Shāh Wālī Allāh al-Dihlawī and Mawlānā Muḥammad Qāsim al-Nānotwī can now be found in the person of Qārī Muḥammad Ṭayyib al-Qāsimī. A newfound desire to study under this greatest theologian as well as poor health drove Shaykh Amin to Deoband in 1979 at the age of 20. There, his health improved and his learning flourished. He studied the Mishkāt al-Maṣābīḥ under Muftī Saʿīd Aḥmad al-Pālanpūrī and Mawlānā Hāshim al-Bukhārī, the third portion of al-Hidāyāh with the uṣūlī jurist Mawlānā Miʿrāj al-Ḥaqq, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim under Mawlānā Muḥammad Naʿīm, and Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī under Mawlānā Anẓar Shāh al-Kashmīrī, Mawlānā Naṣīr Aḥmad Khān al-Barnī, and Mawlānā Muḥammad Sālim al-Qāsimī, the latter under whom he also studied Sharḥ ʿAqāʾid al-Nasafiyyah. During his stay in Deoband, Shaykh Amin was fortunate to enjoy the spiritual lessons and company of Qārī Muḥammad Ṭayyib al-Qāsimī, the grandson of Dār al-ʿUlūm’s founder, Mawlānā Muḥammad Qāsim al-Nānotwī, from whom he also received formal ijāzah in ḥadith.

After Deoband, Shaykh Amin continued his educational journey, traveling to Jalālabād, India, where he studied Ṣāḥīḥ al-Bukhārī again for some months, then to Bihār where he began iftāʾ and qaḍāʾ training under the acclaimed scholar of Islamic law, Qāḍī Mujāhid al-Islām al-Qāṣimī, and received ijāzah in iftāʾ from him.

Later, Shaykh Amīn returned to Bangalore where he received certification (ijāzah) and deputyship (khilāfah) in taṣawwuf from his shaykh Mawlānā Muḥammad Mīrān. Upon returning to the UK, Shaykh Amin met ʿAllāmah Khālid Maḥmūd, who reintroduced him to the rich thought of Abū Ḥanīfah and Ḥanafī fiqh and trained him in the legal theory and methodology of the madhhab. ʿAllāmah Khālid Maḥmūd’s confidence in his student can be best summarized by his public statement, “I have written a book of knowledge. If you would like to read it, it is Mawlānā Amin.”

Career and Service

After completing his studies and returning to his home in England, Shaykh Amin worked as a professional translator and book reviewer. He relocated to Chicago in 1984 and since his arrival has served as a Muslim scholar in various capacities: as a community leader, teacher, and as an advisor for Muslim schools, organizations, and the Council of Religious Leaders of Greater Chicagoland.

Among his well-known published works are Islamic Finance: What it is and what it could be, co-authored and published in England, a translation of Muftī Muḥammad Taqī Usmānī’s Taqlīd kī Sharʿī Ḥaythiyyat entitled The Legal Status of Following a Madhab, and a book on Qur’anic exegesis entitled A Spark From the Dynamo of Prophethood. He has also translated the first volume and a half of Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, and is currently working on a book on Ghazalian eschatology (al-Ḥikmah fi Khalq al-Insān).

Amongst his published and co-authored articles in the field of Islamic bioethics are Wilāyah and its Implications for Islamic Bioethics (published in March 2013 in the Journal of Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics), Dire Necessity and Transformation: Entry-Points for Modern Science in Islamic Bioethical Assessment of Porcine Products in VaccinesUsing Fatawa within Islamic and Muslim Bioethical Discourse: the Role of Doctrinal and Theological Considerations – A Case Study of Surrogate Motherhood (from the book, Islam and Bioethics by Vardit Rispler-Chaim Berna Arda), and the encyclopedic entry Physician’s Juristic Role (Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Oxford University Press).

Shaykh Amin’s methodical treatment of contemporary issues is unique – in-depth and comprehensive in analysis, yet concise and simple in explication and prescription. It is an approach that marks all of his discourse and exegeses. It is a process that compels professionals from various disciplines and walks of life to reassess their perception of traditional Islamic knowledge and refocus their objectives through the lens of the sunnah. Such professionals are drawn to the person of Shaykh Amin and many among them make their way into the halls of Darul Qasim, an Islamic institution of higher academic studies founded by the Shaykh in 1998. At Darul Qasim, Shaykh Amin presently serves as Director with a trained faculty studying under and serving alongside him.

Alongside his teaching at Darul Qasim, Shaykh Amin serves in an advisory capacity to academic think tanks and universities such as the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, and the Initiative on Islam and Medicine. His advice and instruction have been sought in disciplines ranging from Islamic legal theory to Islamic financial theory, and most notably Islamic bioethics. He has also advised many Muslim schools in the United States on the formulation and execution of an Islamic curriculum.

Through all of this, Shaykh Amin is continually engaged at the individual level with a growing following of mentees. He is often found on any given day of the week at the Darul Qasim premises or at surrounding community centers, dispensing spiritual knowledge or offering counsel.

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