Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states: “The path to scholarship is the same today as it was in the past. As Imam al-Bukhari said, “Knowledge is acquired by learning (from other scholars).” Imam Ibn al-Mubarak was asked how a person can learn fiqh. He replied, “It can only be learned by studying under scholars.” Unfortunately, today Islamic knowledge has been degraded to such an extent that everyone who has read one or two books on Islam poses as an expert. As both the late Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi have rightly said, the tragedy in North America today is that of engineers or people in such professions suddenly turned into `ulama’ (scholars) and experts in Islam, with the result we end up losing good engineers and getting stuck with poor scholars. The solution is to insist on specialization as it was the path of knowledge in the past.
When someone asked Imam ash-Shafi`i how a person could become a scholar, he replied, “My brother, it is possible to attain knowledge only if you fulfill six conditions. They are: intelligence, passion, perseverance, sustenance, guidance of a teacher and many years of dedicated studies.”
The scholars of the past were deeply aware of the dangers of false claimants to knowledge. In order to prevent this, they formalized the process by insisting on ijazah, a license or certificate that would be issued by a scholar or scholars to students stating that they had completed a prescribed course of studies or reading of certain texts. Not all ijazahs were the same. Some were merely licenses restricted to learning a particular book or two, while others were licenses that indicated more intensive training. It was understood by them that only such people who had passed rigorous training in all of the auxiliary sciences and then devoted themselves to the exclusive study of fiqh were considered eligible to issue fatwas or discourse on matters of Shari`ah or fiqh. Thus, all of the great imams underwent many years of training under scholars before they were recognized as authorities and experts in fiqh.
The ijazah and the university system were Islam’s contributions to humanity. It is therefore wrong to distinguish between a degree and an ijazah.
Since no ijazahs are identical, likewise, not all degrees related to the field of Islamic studies are of the same level or nature. A person who is trained in Arabic language is a scholar of the language, and not considered an authority in fiqh. Likewise, a scholar who has studied Hadith is simply a muhaddith (a scholar of Hadith) and he cannot be called upon to issue a ruling. Even more importantly, a first degree is simply an introduction to the field, while specialization, which involves many years of dedicated study and research, is really what makes a scholar. It is unfortunate that many people are simply ignorant of the need for specialization.
It is clear from what we said that a scholar is a scholar not because of what common people think of him or what he has made himself to be, but by virtue of his intensive training at the hands of recognized scholars in the field. Degrees or ijazahs are considered as attestations of this fact, provided they have been granted by accredited universities or institutions of higher learning.
In conclusion, let me state: The path to knowledge is still open for those who have the ambition, even as it was open to the scholars of the past. Once a person has acquired the necessary training, the enormous treasures of the Islamic heritage in fiqh as well as in related fields are wide open before him/her. He/she is thus empowered to converse freely with the most trusted authorities in the field and arrive at his/her own conclusions. So never limit Allah’s mercy to one generation or another. It is still open for those who are ready to jump into the ocean. But remember, one who jumps into the ocean without mastering the art of swimming will only drown and perish!”