Allah Most High says:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الْأَحْبَارِ وَالرُّهْبَانِ لَيَأْكُلُونَ أَمْوَالَ النَّاسِ بِالْبَاطِلِ وَيَصُدُّونَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّـهِ ۗ وَالَّذِينَ يَكْنِزُونَ الذَّهَبَ وَالْفِضَّةَ وَلَا يُنفِقُونَهَا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّـهِ فَبَشِّرْهُم بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ ﴿٣٤﴾ يَوْمَ يُحْمَىٰ عَلَيْهَا فِي نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ فَتُكْوَىٰ بِهَا جِبَاهُهُمْ وَجُنُوبُهُمْ وَظُهُورُهُمْ ۖ هَـٰذَا مَا كَنَزْتُمْ لِأَنفُسِكُمْ فَذُوقُوا مَا كُنتُمْ تَكْنِزُونَ ﴿٣٥﴾
O you who believe! Indeed, many of the ahbar [rabbis] and the ruhban [monks] surely eat the wealth of the people in falsehood, and hinder from the way of Allah. And those who hoard gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of Allah, give them tidings of a painful punishment.
The Day when it will be heated in the fire of Gehinnom, and their foreheads, their sides, and their backs will be branded with it: “This is what you hoarded for yourselves, so taste what you used to hoard.”
This critical passage in the holy Qur’an exposes the reality of most of the so-called religious leaders. At the outset, I would like to point out that although the terms ahbar and ruhban are usually translated to mean rabbis and monks, the religious leaders of influence among Jews and Christians respectively, these terms are not to be understood as restricted to those specific religious traditions. From a linguistic angle, the word hibr usually translated to mean “rabbi”, is derived from the triconsonantal root h-b-r which carries the connotation of “ink, writing; learned person, priest, rabbi, an authority in matters of faith” (Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage, p.187), with the word itself: “variously interpreted as a learned person, an authority in matters of faith, a priest, a rabbi” (ibid, p.188). In short, the application of the word hibr and its plural ahbar is not restricted to the rabbis or learned religious authorities of the Jewish tradition. When the Qur’an was revealed, the Muslim community was in its infancy and had not fully developed its own class of learned religious leaders, especially given the living presence of the Prophet himself. For this reason, the word ahbar has been used, but it is not restricted to the learned religious scholars of the Jewish tradition, but will also apply to their equivalents in the Islamic tradition. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:
وَإِنَّ حَبْرَ هَذِهِ الأُمَّةِ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ عَبَّاسٍ
“Indeed, the habr of this Umma is Abdullah ibni Abbas”, proving that the term may be applied even to those extremely learned authorities of the Islamic religion, including some of the Prophet’s own close companions. As for ruhban, usually translated to mean monk, linguistically it is derived from the root r-h-b, which connotes, among other things: “monk, the state of being a monk, monasticism” (Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage, p.384), and the word rahib and its plural ruhban “monk, ascetic” (ibid, p.385). Once again, while the word ruhban is mostly used in referring to the Christian monks specifically, it is not necessarily restricted to them, but may be used to describe the “ascetics” of the Muslim Umma also. While the Qur’an describes rahbaniyya (monasticism) as a religious innovation of the followers of Jesus son of Mary which Allah had not prescribed for them, and which they consequently could not appropriately observe (Sura 57:27), the ruhban of Islam, our own version of ascetics, are what are variously known as Sufis, faqirs and dervishes. Of course, many Muslims, especially the literalist Salafis and modernists, consider Sufism and its institution of faqr as a rejected religious innovation. However, the Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:
لِكُلِّ نَبِيٍّ رَهْبَانِيَّةٌ ، وَرَهْبَانِيَّةُ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ الْجِهَادُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ
“For every prophet there was a rahbaniyya and the rahbaniyya of this Umma is Jihad in the way of Allah” (Musnad Ahmad) Hence, the institution of rahbaniyya which should be acknowledged as existing in Islam is that of Jihad. The ascetic mujahid who forsakes the comfort of this world in preference of leading the harsh life of a warrior in the path of Allah is himself a kind of rahib, and this Hadith points to the fact that Islam wishes to create such an institution of influential religious leadership connected with those pious and ascetic individuals who are “warrior-saints” or “martial-ascetics”, which parallels the religious institution of the learned scholars or ahbar. I shall, in sha Allah, explore this deeper in my upcoming review of Thomas Sizgorich’s paper Sanctified Violence: Monotheist Militancy as the Tie That Bound Christian Rome and Islam.
Returning to the two verses I quoted (Sura 9:34-35), Allah says that “most” of the ahbar and ruhban, these two parallel kinds of religious leadership, academic and charismatic respectively, are corrupt because they “eat the wealth of the people in falsehood”. This is pointing to the fact that both the academic and charismatic kinds of religious leadership provide their services to the laity for money, and the reader should know that Islam considers money in religion as inevitably corrupting and compromising. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed his companion Uthman b. Abi al-AsRA as an imam for his people, he instructed him:
وَاتَّخِذْ مُؤَذِّنًا لاَ يَأْخُذُ عَلَى أَذَانِهِ أَجْرًا
“Take a mu’adhdhin who doesn’t take payment for his adhan” The general principle put forward by Islam is that payment is not to be taken for providing a religious service. Taking payment for providing religious services is what led to the moral corruption of the religious leaderships of the Jews and Christians, and the religious leadership of the Muslims, who were destined to emulate them, likewise became corrupt because of money. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, the ideal and supreme example of religious leadership is that of a prophet. The institution of Nubuwwa is the highest and supreme institution of religious authority, according to Islam, and the Nabi or prophet is one who doesn’t take even a penny for doing the work of his ministry:
قُل لَّا أَسْأَلُكُمْ عَلَيْهِ أَجْرًا إِلَّا الْمَوَدَّةَ فِي الْقُرْبَىٰ
Say [O My Prophet]: “I do not ask you for this any payment except love for [my] relatives.”
See also Sura 6:90 and 11:51, in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) is ordered to say to the people that he does not ask them for any payment for his deliverance of the message to them, as his payment is to be given to him only by his Maker. It is a great tragedy that the Ulama and other religious functionaries in the world of Islam today take stipends either directly or indirectly from the people (for example, through the ministry of awqaf, etc.). This dependence on salaries from the laity is what negatively compromises the integrity and independence of the Muslim religious leadership. This is what is meant when Allah the Exalted says that they “eat the wealth of the people in falsehood”. But when Allah goes on to say “and those who hoard gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of Allah, give them tidings of a painful punishment”, this is not restricted to the religious leaders, but is general in applying to anyone from among the people who pile up gold and silver without spending it in the way of Allah. This is certainly the well-known interpretation of the Prophet’s eminent companion sayyidina Abu Dharr al-GhifariRA, who initiated the first religious reform movement in the history of Islam since the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). During the caliphate of sayyidina UthmanRA, the doors of fitna and corruption were swung wide open and internal dissension began to appear within the Umma, among the Prophet’s companions themselves, for the first time. Sayyidina Abu Dharr al-GhifariRA witnessed a transformation in how the people had become greedy and gluttonous, piling up wealth, and the gap between the extremely rich and the extremely impoverished had widened greatly. Seeing this state of affairs, especially in the province of Syria, sayyidina Abu DharrRA began preaching against the corruption of the rich and powerful and started the first religious reform movement, which inevitably irked even some of the Prophet’s own companions who had not truly or fully understood the spirit of the Religion. Here I am referring, with all due respect, to men like Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan and even sayyidina UthmanRA himself:
وَقَامَ أَبُو ذَرٍّ بِالشَّامِ ، وَجَعَلَ يَقُولُ : يَا مَعْشَرَ الأَغْنِيَاءِ ، وَاسُوا الْفُقَرَاءَ ، بَشِّرِ الَّذِينَ يَكْنِزُونَ الذَّهَبَ وَالْفِضَّةَ وَلا يُنْفِقُونَهَا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بِمَكَاوٍ مِنْ نَارٍ ، تُكْوَى بِهَا جِبَاهُهُمْ ، وَجُنُوبُهُمْ ، وَظُهُورُهُمْ . فَمَا زَالَ حَتَّى وَلِعَ الْفُقَرَاءُ بِمِثْلِ ذَلِكَ ، وَأَوْجَبُوهُ عَلَى الأَغْنِيَاءِ ، وَحَتَّى شَكَا الأَغْنِيَاءُ مَا يَلْقَوْنَ مِنَ النَّاسِ ، فَكَتَبَ مُعَاوِيَةُ إِلَى عُثْمَانَ : أَنَّ أَبَا ذَرٍّ قَدْ أَعْضَلَ بِي ، وَقَدْ كَانَ مِنْ أَمْرِهِ كَيْتَ وَكَيْتَ ، فَكَتَبَ إِلَيْهِ عُثْمَانُ : أَنَّ الْفِتْنَةَ قَدْ أَخْرَجَتْ خَطْمَهَا وَعَيْنَيْهَا ، فَلَمْ يَبْقَ إِلا أَنْ تَثِبَ فَلا تَنْكَأ الْقَرْحَ ، وَجَهِّزْ أَبَا ذَرٍّ إِلَيَّ ، وَابْعَثْ مَعَهُ دَلِيلا ، وَزَوِّدْهُ وَارْفُقْ بِهِ ، وَكَفْكَفِ النَّاسَ وَنَفْسَكَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتَ ، فَإِنَّكَ تُمْسَكُ مَا اسْتَمْسَكْتَ . فَبَعَثَ بِأَبِي ذَرٍّ وَمَعَهُ دَلِيلٌ ، فَلَمَّا قَدِمَ الْمَدِينَةَ ، وَرَأَى الْمَجَالِسَ فِي أَصْلِ سَلْعٍ ، قَالَ : بَشِّرْ أَهْلَ الْمَدِينَةِ بِغَارَةٍ شَعْوَاءَ ، وَحَرْبٍ مِذْكَارٍ . وَدَخَلَ عَلَى عُثْمَانَ ، فَقَالَ : يَا أَبَا ذَرٍّ مَا لأَهْلِ الشَّامِ يَشْكُونَ ذَرَبَكَ ؟ فَأَخْبَرَهُ أَنَّهُ لا يَنْبَغِي أَنْ يُقَالَ مَالُ اللَّهِ ، وَلا يَنْبَغِي لِلأَغْنِيَاءِ أَنْ يَقْتَنُوا مَالا . فَقَالَ : يَا أَبَا ذَرٍّ عَلَيَّ أَنْ أَقْضِيَ مَا عَلَيَّ ، وَآخُذَ مَا عَلَى الرَّعِيَّةِ ، وَلا أُجْبِرُهُمْ عَلَى الزُّهْدِ ، وَأَنْ أَدْعُوهُمْ إِلَى الاجْتِهَادِ وَالاقْتِصَادِ . قَالَ : فَتَأْذَنْ لِي فِي الْخُرُوجِ ، فَإِنَّ الْمَدِينَةَ لَيْسَتْ لِي بِدَارٍ . فَقَالَ : أَوَتَسْتَبْدِلْ بِهَا إِلا شَرًّا مِنْهَا . قَالَ : أَمَرَنِي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ أَخْرُجَ مِنْهَا إِذَا بَلَغَ الْبِنَاءُ سَلْعًا . قَالَ : فَانْفِذْ لِمَا أَمَرَكَ بِهِ .
Now Abu Dharr rose up in Syria and began saying, “0 men of wealth, show charity to the poor. To ‘those who treasure up gold and silver and do not expend them in the way of God,’ declare [that there will be] branding irons from a fire, ‘and therewith their foreheads and their sides and their backs shall be branded .” He persisted in such (statements) until the poor were set aflame and compelled the rich to do this, and until the rich complained about (the behavior) that they were encountering from the people. Mu’awiyah wrote [as follows] to Uthman: “Abu Dharr has become a problem for me, and his case has involved such -and-such matters.” Uthman wrote him [in response]: “Verily dissension has protruded its snout and eyes and is poised to jump. Do not scrape the scab, but rather dispatch Abu Dharr to me. Send a guide along with him, give him adequate provisions, and treat him gently. Restrain the people and yourself as far as you can, for you will keep control [of affairs] only so long as you keep control of yourself.” So (Mu’awiyah) sent Abu Dharr away accompanied by a guide. When (Abu Dharr) reached Medina and saw the homes (majalis) at the foot of Sal, he said, “Declare to the Medinese [that they will suffer] a devastating attack and a terrible war.” Then he entered Uthman’s presence, and (Uthman) said, “Abu Dharr, why are the Syrians complaining about the wounds inflicted by you?” (Abu Dharr) informed him that it was improper to say, “God's property,” nor was it proper for the rich to grasp after wealth. (Uthman) responded, “Abu Dharr, I must carry out my own obligations and take what is owed by the subjects (ra’iyyah). I cannot compel them to be ascetics; rather, I am required to summon them to heed God’s commandments and to follow the path of moderation.” (Abu Dharr) said, “Then permit me to leave, for Medina is no home for me.” (Uthman) replied, “And will you replace it save with [someplace] worse?” (Abu Dharr) said, “The Messenger of God commanded me to leave (Medina) when the built-up area (al-bins) reached Sal.” “Well, do as he commanded you,” said Uthman. (Tarikh al-Tabari)