Aalim or Scholar
An Aalim is generally referred to a Scholar who has studied the Islamic Sciences.
The words ‘aalim (scholar), faqeeh and mujtahid all carry the same meaning: they refer to one who strive to reach the shar‘i ruling and who has the ability to derive shar‘i rulings from the evidence.
This means that he has to acquire the tools (pre-requisites) of ijtihaad. No one can be described in these terms (‘aalim, mujtahid or faqeeh) except one who meets the pre-requisites of ijtihaad.
The scholars paid attention to these pre-requisites so that the door is not open to just anyone, old or young, to say about the religion of Allah that of which he has no knowledge.
1. He should have knowledge of the texts of the Qur’aan and Sunnah. This does not necessarily mean that he should have memorized the Sunnah; rather it is sufficient for him to be able to find reports in their places and be familiar with the contents of the books of Sunnah, foremost among which are the well-known compilations of the Sunnah (Saheeh al-Bukhaari, Saheeh Muslim, Sunan Abi Dawood, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Nasaa’i and Sunan Ibn Maajah), and so on. He should also know what is saheeh (sound) and what is da‘eef (weak) in the texts of the Sunnah.
2. He should have knowledge of the issues of consensus (ijmaa‘)
3. He should be well versed in the Arabic language. It is not stipulated that he should have learned it by heart; rather he should be able to understand the meanings and structure of the language.
4. He should have knowledge of Usool al-Fiqh (basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence), including analogy (qiyaas), because usool al-fiqh is the foundation for deriving rulings.
5. He should have knowledge of what abrogates and what is abrogated (al-naasikh wa’l-mansookh).
The one who fulfils these conditions is a scholar (‘aalim) who can derive shar‘i rulings from the evidence. Anyone who does not fit this description cannot be described as a ‘aalim, faqeeh or mujtahid.
It should also be noted that these words (‘aalim, mujtahid and faqeeh) are technical terms, as it were; according to the scholars they have specific meanings and pre-requisites. So it is not permissible to use them readily about anyone who speaks about Islamic rulings or teaches Islamic material in schools and universities, or who works in the field of da‘wah (calling people to Allah). A man may be a daa‘iyah, calling people to Allah, and putting a great deal of effort into that, without having reached the level of being a scholar (‘aalim).
The sign of the scholar and faqeeh who is qualified to issue fatwas is that he is able to use as evidence the aayaath of the Qur’an and the hadiths of the Prophet ﷺ, distinguishing what is sound from what is not, what abrogates and what is abrogated, what is specific in meaning and what is general in meaning, and who understands the meaning and the context of revelation. That is because the true scholar is the one who gives precedence to the Holy Qur’an in his list of priorities, because it is the source of knowledge and fiqh, and is the basis of sharee‘ah and rulings.
Another sign of the scholars is that they are very religiously committed and have a good attitude, and they are also keen to follow the example of the righteous of the early generations, namely the Sahaabah and Taabi‘een, and the leading scholars. So in general they do not drift away from their path, and every fatwa or word that they utter they attribute to one of the earlier leading scholars such as Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Sufyaan, al-Awzaa‘i, Abu Haneefah, Maalik, ash-Shaafa‘i, Ahmad, al-Ghazaali, al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd as-Salaam, an-Nawawi, Ibn Taymiyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Katheer, Ibn Hajar and other scholars of Islam concerning whose prominence in knowledge, devotion and sincerity the Muslims do not differ.
But if it is found that anyone nowadays who does not refer to these scholars or show any pride in them, and does not follow their general methodology in understanding the Islamic texts, then it should be realized that he is not one of those who follow (the earlier generations) in truth; rather he is one of those who drifted away from their path and chose innovation.
What is referred to here is following the proper methodology in seeking knowledge, not blind imitation in every matter, major or minor, for the words of anyone may be accepted or rejected, except the Prophet ﷺ.
The correct way to greet scholars is to greet them with salaam and shake their hand. Many ahaadeeth have been narrated concerning the virtue of these actions. It is also permissible to kiss their heads or hands sometimes, but that should not be taken as a habit or custom, especially if it is done instead of shaking hands.
With regard to embracing, that is permissible when someone comes from a journey or after a long absence, or to express one's deep love for the sake of Allaah and so on.
If the Muslim has enough knowledge to enable him to compare the views of the scholars based on the evidence and to decide which is more likely to be correct, and he can tell what is more correct and more likely to be correct, then he must do that, because Allaah has commanded us to refer disputed matters to the Qur’an and Sunnah, as He says (interpretation of the meaning): “(And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allaah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allaah and in the Last Day. That is better and more suitable for final determination” Surah al-Nisa’ 4:59
So he should refer the disputed matter to the Qur’aan and Sunnah, and whatever appears to him to be more correct, based on the evidence, is what he should follow, because what is obligatory is to follow the evidence, and he may refer to the words of the scholars to help him understand the evidence.
But if the Muslim does not have sufficient knowledge to enable him to decide which of the scholarly opinions is more likely to be correct, then he should ask the people of knowledge whose knowledge and religious commitment he trusts and then follow the advice or fatwas they give. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “So ask the people of the Reminder if you do not know” Surah al-Anbiya’ 21:43
The scholars have stated that the madhhab of the common man is the madhhab of his mufti.
If their opinions differ, then he should follow the one who is most trustworthy and most knowledgeable. This is like when a person falls sick – may Allaah give us all good health – and he looks for the most trustworthy and knowledgeable doctor so that he can go to him, because he is most likely to give him the right treatment than anyone else. It is more important to be on the safe side in religious matters than in worldly ones.
It is not permissible for the Muslim to follow whatever scholarly opinion suits his desires if it goes against the evidence, or to seek fatwas from those who he thinks are going to be lenient in their fatwas.
Rather he has to be on the safe side when it comes to his religion, and ask the scholars who have the most knowledge and are most fearing of Allaah.