I received a question on my Facebook page recently about what the difference between a Shaykh and an Ustādh is. This is a question that I remember being confused about over a decade ago. I remember growing up as a child wondering, “Who is a Shaykh? What defines an `Ālim? Why do we call some speakers ‘brother’ and others ‘Shaykh’?” I began searching for an answer at a very young age by asking people in whose knowledge I felt confident. My search led me to a brother who was studying at the Islamic University of Madīna and was back for the summer. He gave me a response which temporarily quenched my thirst for an answer. For the next couple of years I thought I had finally figured out the riddle.
Who is Shaykh?
I asked him, “Who is a Shaykh?” He replied, “A Shaykh is an `Ālim and Allāh says in the Qur’ān describing the `Ulamā’, ‘It is only the scholars among the slaves of Allah who have true fear of Him.’ And Allāh knows best.” This was truly the most profound answer I had heard yet, only to find out later that it wasn’t entirely accurate. The verse is not exactly defining who `Ulamā’ are; rather, it merely states that the quality of true fear of Allāh is particular to those who know, i.e. `Ulamā’. I would suggest that “those who know” provides both a verb and a subject but lacks an object. The object in the sentence could be the word Allāh which has been omitted because of how evident it is. The sentence would then come out to mean something like this, “Only those who know [Allāh], from among His slaves, have true fear of Him.”
A few years down the road, I found myself rethinking this question as I was in a different environment. The word Shaykh no longer had the same meanings I was used to ascribing to it in Canada. “Shaykh” was commonly thrown around for numerous different reasons such as respect, age, Islamic activism and sometimes even money. However, now I was able to do some basic research work in Arabic. The excited young Abdul Wahab Saleem started looking into the Arabic lexicons to see if he could find a true definition for the word, Shaykh. Sadly, I came to the realization that the word Shaykh has an entirely different linguistic meaning which doesn’t provide the answer for which I long searched. The word Shaykh linguistically means “the one who has become clearly old and grey hair has started to appear on his face.” Other lexicographers suggest that the word Shaykh refers to an individual above the age of 50. However, it seems that an uncommon usage of the verbal noun in the following verbal sentence, “shayyakhat-hu da`watu-hu shaykh-aN” (his call transformed him into a noble person) indicates meanings such as glory and reverence. Now that the word Shaykh didn’t seem very useful to me, neither in its linguistic meaning nor the way it was used by the Arabs in the Arab world, I tried to search for another term which holds the same meanings I often ascribed to the word Shaykh in Canada. I recalled the term `Ālim used in the famous `Ālim course. It seemed that the modern usage of the word `Ālim in Arabia went hand in hand with its usage in the Indian subcontinent. This usage of the word `Ālim is a popular synonym for the word Shaykh, at least in certain denominations of western Muslims.
My new endeavor became to unfold the definition and the mysterious process of preparing an `Ālim which would in turn give me a lead to defining the word Shaykh. I began to ask scholars who I expected would be able to solve the riddle. Sadly, I normally received answers which I can now bravely proclaim to either have been incomplete or inaccurate. One day, as I sat through an early morning Usūl al-Fiqh class in one of my teachers houses he spoke about the word `Ālim saying, “Al-`Ālim is the one who has `ilm (knowledge) of the Islamic sciences.” Suddenly, light bulbs started going on in my head and the puzzle started to come together. I thought to myself, “the Arabic article Al holds three primary meanings and only one of the three fits well with this word!? You should’ve known all along!”
There it was. I had finally figured out the first part of the riddle. When the article Al is used with an active particle it transforms the word into a sentence. Al-`Ālim, the knower, really means “the one knows.” As explained earlier in this article, “the one who knows” is not a complete sentence rather it requires an object. Quite clearly this object should be defined as the one who knows “the Islamic sciences.”
This led me to the second part of the riddle, “what exactly are the Islamic sciences?” At this point in my life I already had a general idea of what the Islamic sciences are. I had even acquired an intermediate understanding of some of the Islamic sciences by now, but I still didn’t really know what the primary and supporting sciences were. Having solved the first part of the riddle, I restructured my question to scholarly figures from, “Who is an `Ālim?” to “What does one have to study?” This question stemmed from my observation that some scholars teach books which they have never studied themselves, yet they produce extraordinary commentaries on these works. Multiple opinions were thrown at me in my quest to define what must be studied. After much consideration, consultation and experience in both learning and teaching I produced a small list of sciences which I believe are standard subjects taught globally as core sciences of Sharī`ah which must be studied at an advanced level in order for someone to be considered a Shaykh.
Islamic sciences are divided into two categories; al-Ālāt and al-Ghāyāt. Al-Ālāt, which literally means the tools, are tools which allow an individual to be able to comprehend accurately and comfortably al-Ghāyāt. Al-Ghāyāt, which literally means the goals, are subjects which a person aims to accurately understand through the assistance of the tools. With this remedy in your mind you can literally develop scholarly talents without actually going overseas for a 6-10 year study term.
What are these mysterious sciences?
Al-Ālāt, which should be studied prior to dedicating ones time to al-Ghāyāt, are 6 sciences in total:
- Naḥw (Grammar)
- Ṣarf (Morphology)
- Balāghah (Arabic rhetoric) which is further divided in three sciences (Ma`āni, Bayān, Badī’).
- Adab (Arabic literature)
- Usūl al-Fiqh (Islamic legal thought)
- Muṣtalaḥ al-Ḥadīth (Sciences of Ḥadīth)
Note: Some scholars add Manṭiq (Logic) to this list, others submit that there is no reason to study this science and another group deems the study of Manṭiq impermissible.
Al-Ghāyāt can be summed up into the following 5 core sciences:
- Qur’ān: which includes recitation, tafsīr and Ulūm al-Qur’ān (sciences of the Qur’ān).
- Hadīth (Prophetic traditions)
- `Aqīdah (Islamic creed)
- Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence)
- Sīrah (Biography of the Prophet Muḥammadﷺ )
This is the ideal course of study that every student of knowledge should complete at an advanced level. But considering the reality of affairs, most Shaykhs haven’t actually completed the study of all of these sciences at an advanced level. Based on observation, I have divided those who are normally entitled Shaykhs in the western context into three categories:
- Those who have actually completed all the studies related to the aforementioned subjects.
- Those who have a working knowledge of all of these sciences and have mastery of at least one.
- Those who have shown considerable involvement in Da`wah work, who are not scholars nor do they aspire to be, but have either grey in their beards or have reached a significant age, achieving the linguistic version of the title, “Shaykh.” The western Muslim usage of terms such as, Sīdī, Shaykh, and `Ālim renders them synonymous. However, each is normally affiliated with a different faction of Islamic scholarship.
The term Ustadh
In my years away from Canada, a term that I wasn’t very familiar with upon leaving Canada began to gain popularity. The term Ustādh finds it’s etymological routes in the Persian word Ostâd. The Persian term “Ostâd” originally refers to someone with profound expertise in a certain subject. Consequently, the term Ustādh in Arabic is coined for an adept scholar. A common usage for the word Ustādh in modern standard Arabic is for professors on a tenure-track appointment. An assistant professor is known as Ustādh Musā’id, an associate professor as an Ustādh Mushārik and a full professor as an Ustādh.
This etymological definition and modern Arabic usage of the term is of course quite different from our usage of it in the west. The word Ustādh is normally used in the west for a budding scholar showing evident signs of an intermediate level of study. In the east, this term is used in many different ways including the one mentioned above.
I can expect some of you to look at this article and say, “What is the ultimate purpose of writing an article on this subject whilst the Ummah is in need of greater issues to be discussed?” My answer to that is in two ways. Firstly, a purpose behind this article is to define who an `Ālim is so that people approach their endeavors in a directed manner. I have tried asking numerous students of knowledge what they are studying or wish to study in the near future and found that the bulk of us don’t have ample direction in our endeavor to study Islam. In a more practical sense, studying Tafsīr ibn Kathīr whilst one hasn’t sought al-Ālāt is not the best approach to Tafsīr. In addition, likely the teacher who has taken up the mantle of teaching you Tafsīr ibn Kathīr hasn’t studied it himself. What made him qualified to teach and not you? It’s the mastery of these sciences that I have listed above.
In my humble opinion, if someone adapts sincerity and approaches knowledge with dedication through the aforementioned sciences he will begin to show clear signs of scholarly thought within 5-10 years. I have shared this remedy with numerous fellow students during my days in Riyāḍ and saw profound development over a course of 2-4 years.
Secondly, the Prophetﷺ commanded us to treat people with due respect, especially those with knowledge. Each individual should only be given the amount of respect he truly deserves. Imam Muslim writes at the beginning of his masterpiece, Saḥīḥ Muslim, “The man of high status should be given the respect to which he is entitled and the one who has a low level of knowledge should not be elevated above his status. Every person should be given his due [of respect] and should be honoured in accordance with his status. It was narrated from `Ā’ishah that she said: The Messenger of Allāhﷺ commanded us to place all people in their due stations (i.e., give people due respect).”
Lastly, it’s of paramount importance to recognize that these titles are in no way an indication of piety. In the religious circles, too often do we associate piety with popularity and titles. Those who do acquire knowledge of the Islamic sciences should make a sincere effort to recognize their inadequacy. A sincere quest for knowledge is bound to lead to the recognition of one’s own ignorance. I ask Allāh to grant us the understanding of knowledge which guides us through the transitory life to prosperity in the hereafter.
And Allāh knows best.
For more details and answers to common questions on this subject please check out the lecture on this subject: