Teachers are obviously necessary. Ask any university philosophy student to do away with his professors or any non-math geek to learn multivariable calculus by simply reading the textbook and you would get blank stares in return. For millennia, humans recognized the importance of teachers to guide their students' efforts, to monitor, assess, and correct their learning, to offer explanations, to answer questions, and to serve as an object of emulation in the discipline they teach. Even in the modern age, with its prevalence of textual, audio, and video instruction, few have dared to claim that the time of human instructors have passed. In fact, we see to this day that what makes a good school system is not its textbooks or other materials, but its teachers.
Somehow we forget all of this when it comes to Islam. If we were to ask every Muslim in this country who their Islamic teacher is, how many would be able to name any person? Yet out of those individuals without a teacher, how many still consider themselves to be students of the deen? More and more we see overzealous youth piling up every possible hadith collection on top of another, every tafsir ever written, every book on fiqh and aqeeda, despite the fact that half of the material is far beyond their reach of understanding.
There is a modern notion which I strongly resent that treats intelligence as a knowledge of facts. TV contests that seem to reward people for “being smart”, such as “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” are actually rewarding people for knowing a lot of random information. It's interesting that among one's peers, a person is usually called “smart” if he can bring up a lot of different facts. Yet among teachers, a smart student is entirely different – it is an individual who learns quickly and asks good questions. For many of us, however, knowledge is a matter of impressing others (even if it is not a conscious attempt at doing so). Hence the citing of various hadith from obscure collections, relating opinions of scholars, and spewing of other random Islamic facts. This does its job of wowing the intended audience, but how much does this really benefit the student himself?
The pitfall that many of those seeking knowledge encounter is that they learn the facts, but not the adab of practicing those facts. So we then see individuals that angrily scold masjid-goers for not rolling up their pants or tell non-hijabis to forget praying if they can't even keep their headscarf on. Qur'an and Sunna become tools of arrogance and looking down on those who know less, rather than a means of purification of one's heart. Even if the results of misunderstanding what one reads are not as dramatic, often enough they are bad enough. The sad thing is, a moment with a true scholar of Islam would fix all of this.
The reason that Islamic teachers are so important today is because they carry their knowledge not only in their heads, but also in their hearts. Just like the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was a “living Qur'an,” so are the scholars the living Sunna. And if our intent is indeed to please Allah the Exalted by learning His religion and bettering ourselves as Muslims through this process, then it only makes sense to seek their guidance.
The issue today is that many of our scholars are hardly accessible. Yes, you can come see Shaykh Yasir Qadhi at an AlMaghrib event, but you would be very lucky to be able to speak to him for even one minute, much less form a personal relationship with him. Yet such scholars are available, if we seek them out. Perhaps their names may be not as widely recognized as those of the foremost North-American speakers, but this does not in any way indicate their lower status. In a culture of making scholars of the deen into celebrities, who can say whether those who stay out of the limelight are less endowed with wisdom and knowledge of the deen?
At the end of the day, we should always ask Allah the Most High to help us in our search for knowledge and truth, to help us please Him, and to not lead us astray. Surely, a heart that strives to worship Him would never be sent down the wrong path.
Anton is a 22 year old Russian-American convert to Islam. He has studied at the University of Toronto for the past two years, but will be returning home to America in September. He has been heavily involved both with interfaith and Muslim communities, serving as an exec at the University of Toronto St. George MSA over the past year. He occasionally writes for his own blog and has recently begun video blogs under the name of El Musafir (http://elmusafir.wordpress.com and http://www.facebook.com/pages/El-Musafir/124559040888113). His interests include learning about Islam, reading, and tea.