What if someone asks you: ‘Have you seen anyone like yourself?’ what should our response be? The humility of the Imams of the past who were asked this very question and were acknowledged experts in their fields during their own liftetimes should be a reminder for all of us. Not least in these days when titles are thrown around with ease. Just take a look at an Indo-Pak jalsa poster, people are now competing with each other over inventing ever increasingly ‘exotic’ titles.
No longer is ‘Allamah’ or ‘Mawlana’ enough, you have the various combinations of a prefix such as: Muhaddith followed by anyone one of: al-Kabir, Adham, al-Asr, al-Islam. These are then combined as per scholar with the other prefixes such as Faqih, Mufassir, Shaykh et al. Then to top it all off we have at the end ‘Damat Barakathum’ which now is no longer enough so it has been further lengthened by some to ‘Al- Aaliyah al-Qudsiyyah’.
I await to see how these titles will evolve further in the coming years. What someone should point out is that they have now lost their effect, many people no longer fall for a title suggesting one of the greatest scholars walking the face of the earth has turned up in town, only to depart after attending the said scholars speech disappointed and disheartened.
I don’t have a problem with titles for our scholars who deserve them, the blatant abuse of them in this age is something which I and others find unfortunate. If we were to look up the meanings of the words ‘Allamah’ and ‘Mawlana’ we would realise that both of these denote immense respect for those individuals whom are fortunate enough to have them affixed to their names. And yes, we will find lengthy titles for scholars in the books of the past, I don’t think many of us would disagree that those scholars fully deserved such titles.
Imam al-Dhahabi mentions something related to this. He said in the entry for Imam al-Darqutni in ‘al-Siyar’ (16/449-461):
“Raja’ bin Muhammad al-Muaddal said: I said to al-Darqutni: Have you seen anyone like yourself? He replied: Allah said: So ascribe not purity to yourselves
I persisted with him so he said: I have not seen anyone who has compiled what I have compiled.
Abul Dhar said: I said to Abu Abdullah al-Hakim: Have you seen the like of al-Darqutni? He replied: He did not see the like of himself, so how can I?”
Imam al-Dhahabi mentioned in the entry for Ibn Asakir in ‘al-Siyar’ (20/554-571):
“Abu al-Mawahib said regarding him: I was discussing with him in private the hadith masters (Huffadh) he had met. He replied: As for Baghdad then Abu Amir al-Abdari, as for Isfahan then Abu Nasr ak-Yunarti, however Ismaeel al-Hafidh was more famous than him.
I said to him: Based on this has our Master seen anyone like himself?
He replied: Do not say this, Allah (the Most High) said: So ascribe not purity to yourselves
I said: He has also said: And proclaim the blessings of your Lord
He replied: Yes, If a person said ‘My eyes have not seen the likes of myself they will have told the truth’.”