When is a student of knowledge referred to as ‘Shaykh’?

Our Shaykh, The Muhaddith, the sincere adviser, Abu Abdirrahmaan, Yahya ibn Ali Al hajoori – may Allah preserve him – was asked the following question:

Question: The term ‘Shaykh’ is commonly used amongst many of us youths, so when is it correct to refer to a person as ‘Shaykh’?

Firstly, it’s important for Muslims to be cautious from falling into exaggeration in praise, for indeed it has been authentically reported that the prophet ﷺ said “praise is slaughter”, reported by Ibn Abi Shaybah from Ibn Umar. And he ﷺ also said “whoever is going to praise his brother then let him say I think of him such & such, and Allah knows his reality”.

Secondly the term ‘Shaykh’ carries several meanings; from them is old age, and proof is statement of Allah the most high in Surah Al-Qasas, Verse 23:

قَالَتَا لَا نَسْقِي حَتَّىٰ يُصْدِرَ الرِّعَاءُ وَأَبُونَا شَيْخٌ كَبِيرٌ

They said: “We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take (their flocks). And our father is a very old man.”

Likewise, it’s a term used to describe narrators who are not weak, yet they are not relied upon (in narrations).

Imam Adh-Dhaahabi said in the introduction of his book ‘Al- Meezan’ “and I have not included anyone mentioned or referred to as ‘Shaykh’, for verily this (word) and it’s like indicates a lack of complete weakness, & it could be the case that Ibn Qattaan (Yahya bin Saeed) called people shaykh who weren’t considered people of knowledge nor students, even if his narrations matched up. Taalib Bin hujayr is mentioned in the book ‘Bayaan Al-Waham wal- Eyhaam – (Ibn Qataans book) and it was reported about him that he wasn’t from the students of knowledge nor from those who were precise (narrators) but rather he was someone who his narrations were agreed upon & Ahmed Bin Hanbal called Zakariyah Bin Mandhoor “shaykhun layyin” (has a slight weaknes) as it’s mentioned in ‘Tarteebul madaarik’ by Qaadhi Iyaad and in this same book he quoted the statement of Ibn Abu Haatim concerning Uthman Bin Al-Hakam ” a Shaykh who’s not precise”.

So it’s possible to summarize this by saying that the word ‘Shaykh’ is from the least forms of praise & from the highest forms of disparagement.

As for calling a leader of his people shaykh then this was not known amongst those who came before us rather that which was common was they would be called ‘Sayid’ as the prophet ﷺ said “who is your Sayid (leader) Oh Bani Salamah?, they said the grandfather Ibn Qays, except that we find him being stingy, then he ﷺ said “and which illness is worse then stinginess ?, rather you’re leader is Amr Bin Jumooh”. (reported in Bukhari adabul Mufrad no.111).

And there has come in another narration ” the leader of that particular area has been stung, so they searched for him a cure through all many means but to of no avail, so some of them (people of the area) said go to those group of people who have arrived as guests perhaps they might have a cure, so they went to them and said oh group of visitors verily our leader has been stung and we strove hard to cure him through every means but to no avail, is there amongst you anyone that can benefit? And then some of them said ‘verily indeed we perform ruqiyah…’.

And there has come in the Sunnah using the term urafaa عرفاء which is the plural of Aarif عارف upon that which is commonly known today as mashaayikh of the tribesmen.

And all praise belongs to Allah

Translated by : Abu Nu’aim Abduraheem ibn Ali As-Somali