The Arabic word “sayyed”, translated as “master”, has the root meaning supervising or teaching. It was the title used by a slave to his/her owner, and is a title used for a teacher or one who excels in something. For example, the Companion Hamzah ibn `Abd Al-Muttalib was known as the Master of Martyrs.
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states: In Islam we must use our words carefully. The word “master” in the Islamic context can only mean a teacher, for Islam shuns servile obedience to anyone other than Allah. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “There is no obedience to anyone in disobedience to Allah.”
Our relationship with our teacher should be that of genuine respect. However, we must never confuse respect with blind obedience. There was an interesting incident during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Once he sent a group of Companions on an expedition. The leader of the expedition, in the course of the journey, ordered his companions to make a fire pit. When it was complete, he ordered them to jump into it, but this they refused, saying, “The only reason we followed the Prophet (peace and blessings be on him) was to escape from fire!” The leader then said, “I only wanted to test you.” Later on, when the incident was reported to the Prophet (peace and blessings be on him) he told them that if they had obeyed him and jumped into the fire, they would certainly not have come out of it! In other words, if they had obeyed him they would have been guilty of shirk (associating partners with Allah), and a mushrik (pagan) dwells in fire eternally. The moral of the story is that in Islam, no one is allowed to obey anyone blindly.
The above concept was clear during the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. Thus we find even an ordinary woman standing up to question the Caliph `Umar, and the Caliph accepting her criticism by admitting publicly, “The woman is right and `Umar is wrong!”