What makes somebody an Aalim?

Some institutions require students to complete an eight-year course, and upon graduation, they are referred to as Aalims. Others require a four-year weekend course, and upon completion, they are also referred to as Aalims. However, when you consider the biographies of prior scholars, some studied for 20 years before preaching or teaching. What is the minimum requirement for someone to become an Aalim?

The term ‘Aalim’ means ‘knower’ and is derived from the Arabic root ع ل م, which means ‘to know’. However, the Islamic scholarly or learned community has used this term to refer to an individual who has attained a certain level of knowledge.

In early Islam, there was no concept or title as ‘Aalim’. You dedicated your life to learning Islam, eventually becoming knowledgeable enough to teach others and render verdicts.

Following this, as more people sought Islamic knowledge, Islamic seminaries began to spring up. A curriculum and syllabus were required. The idea was to create a system in which students would need to learn X, Y, Z knowledge in X, Y, Z order. When they finish the entire course, they graduate and are licensed to teach others.

This confirmed to the public that the individual has sound Aqida’ and knowledge of the deen. And that they were educated by such and such teachers.

Each seminary had their own curriculum which included core subjects and specialisations. Core subjects include:

  1. Arabic Language: Arabic grammar, vocabulary, and syntax.
  2. Quranic Studies: Tajweed, Memorisation, Principles of Qur’anic study and Tafsir
  3. Hadith Sciences: Principles of Hadith, Seerah and Hadith studies
  4. Fiqh (Jurisprudence): Practical application of Islamic laws and from which sources they originate.
  5. Usul al-Fiqh (Principles of Jurisprudence): Sources of Islamic Law, how rulings are derived, interpretation and legal reasoning.
  6. Aqidah (Creed): Islamic theology and Kalaam
  7. Islamic History: History of Islam, history of the past Prophets, major Islamic events
  8. Logic and Philosophy: Logic, Philosophy, Epistemology, and Critical thinking
  9. Arabic Literature and Poetry: Arabic literature, poetry, and eloquence
  10. Spirituality: Spiritual Purification

In addition to this some may have required students to learn Persian, maths or astrology.

These curricula were established by institutes themselves. It was their method of ensuring their students were well-rounded, knowledgeable scholars. Is such a curriculum, however, required to be called knowledgeable (an Aalim)?

Allah says, “Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know” Qur’an 16:43. This verse points to a particular group in society who have specific knowledge of matters, sometimes deemed excessive, but making them the knowledgeable ones or experts. Based on this verse, it is actually Fardh ul Kifaya, a communal obligation, to be knowledgeable in all of the subjects mentioned above. After identifying the Fardh, seminaries incorporated them into their curriculum to ensure that the next generation of scholars were well-versed in Islamic knowledge.

Another way institutes and seminaries differ is in their mode of delivery, which may include the books they use and how the classes are structured. Some will begin with primers and work their way up, while others will dive right in. Some will concentrate on key sciences before moving on to the remaining sciences.

Traditionally, students of knowledge dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of knowledge, which meant they studied full-time. They were sponsored by others with food, clothing, books and shelter, or they received scholarships from institutes or donations. Because they could devote their time to studying, the bar for what one needed to study in X amount of time was raised.

People nowadays work full-time because they need to support their mortgage, wife, children, and so on. Scholars must consider how to educate the next generation of Muslims in the religious sciences. As a result, some institutes decide to teach students the fundamentals/essentials of each Islamic subject and then have them study further on an as-needed basis. They graduate after completing the essentials course. Because they only need a basic understanding to teach others. Students who wish to continue their education may do so. The intention is not to call a four-year graduate an Aalim, but to meet the needs of people who cannot commit to a six-year program. Persian, Math, and Astrology are also dropped because they are unnecessary. From the individual’s point of view, he is never an alim, but rather a student of knowledge who has reached a certain milestone and will now go on to learn even more. He could begin teaching, collaborate with other scholars, advance in some sciences, or conduct some self-study.

From another perspective, despite only four years of study, he is an Aalim. For the layperson who knows nothing but Fardh ul Ayn. The gap in knowledge between the two is enormous. This person is an Aalim in the eyes of this layperson. However, when compared to someone who has studied far more, who is a leader in science or a leader of an Institute, or who has far more experience, this person is still a student and not a scholar. As a result, the term Aalim becomes relative.

Another instance where the title is incumbent is when, due to his humility, a person would not be taken seriously if he was not known to be an Aalim.

But I believe there is a risk that some institutes make it very easy to graduate from their college by only teaching very basic Sciences and then telling their students they have graduated in Aalimiyya studies. And then at least 60% of these students will drop out, believing themselves to be Aalims with a false sense of pride. Worse, arrogance in believing they know everything.

Another question is whether it is necessary to study abroad for a number of years in order to complete an official Aalim course. The truth is that knowledge gained in another country or in the UK is the same. They teach the same fundamental books and sciences. A student who studied abroad may have an advantage in that they have all the time in the world to not only study their course, but also spend free time studying and attending private classes.As a result, they absorb a vast array of knowledge and interpretation from the scholars. In addition to this such scholars and teachers may have illustrious sanads that one would like to be part of.

Furthermore, another term often used to describe Islamic scholars is Allaamah – علامة – which means erudite, learned person. This term has a specific meaning and is only applied to scholars who are known to specialize in Islamic sciences, have taught for many years, or are authorities. However, because many hosts/speakers confuse Allaamah and Aalim, they may refer to recent graduates as Allaamah!

Madina university

Sample curriculum from Madina university. There are five faculties. They all learn the essentials but specialise in a subject. You can also see Dars Nizami Curriculum – The Wise Word as another example. Other known Islamic schools around the world are:

  • Dar al-Mustafa, Tehrim, Yemen
  • Al-Azhar University, Cairo Egypt
  • Jamih Al Fatih, Damascus, Syria
  • Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, Türkiye
  • Qarawiyyen university, Fez, Morocco

Faculty of Shariah

Faculty of Dawah

Faculty of Hadith

Faculty of Quran

Faculty of Language

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.