Below is a foreword from a book that was partially translated recently. Details about the translation can be read in the PDF file itself.
Download Book: Lu’Lu wa Marjaan (Pearls and Corals): Treatise on the Condition of Sincerity Required by Religious Speakers, by Mirza Husain Noori (d. 1902).
The Shi’i communities in the Western world face numerous challenges, often times strikingly inconsistent with those faced by Shi’i Muslim communities of the East. Aggression against religious philosophies, ideologies, traditions and rituals is carried out in order to belittle them, but are more often than not, presented under the guise of intellectual discourse. These attacks are generally geared to create questions and doubts, and to leave one with a strong desire for answers. Given that the masses of all religious communities are imitators – more or less – in religion, they are therefore highly dependent on the opinions of their religious authorities. Thus, the masses look towards them as a source of guidance and turn to them for answers to their doubts and queries. However, some of these individuals may not always be able to get satisfactory answers to their questions. This may be due to an inability to research the question properly, or at times it is because the expertise of a scholar may be in an area other than that of the question.
Subsequently, in recent years particularly, this quest for seeking answers and explanations has created a popular trend amongst the Shi’i Muslim communities of the West, where individuals who are not scholars in the truest sense of the word, take it upon themselves to address these issues and answer such questions from an authoritative position. Although this trend may be seen as positive by some, many indicators signify that it is truly dangerous and the communities need to be cautious of it.
We have seen in the last decade or two, the growing rise of non-scholarly speakers comfortably sitting on pulpits in order to deliver sermons, presentations and address question and answer sessions for live audiences. These – typically young – speakers generally commence on a very limited scale, perhaps at their local mosque or religious schools. Nonetheless, as they begin to gain popularity, it is not uncommon to begin seeing them recite complete sets of lecture series in the months of Muḥarram, Ramadhān or other seasons. They begin receiving invitations to different religious institutions, different cities and even different countries. What is seen on the opposite end are masses of young men and women, youth in particular, mesmerized by these speakers and we often witness alongside it a complete devaluation of knowledge. More often than not, what becomes associated with these speakers is a celebrity-like status, and many times a cult develops around them. Symptoms of narcissism begin to show themselves on social media and mistakes or incorrect conclusions made by these speakers get over shadowed by the justification done for them by the hordes of their fans.
The issue is definitely a tough one to tackle, not only because there is the issue of these speakers per say, but also because many times the initial gap between the community and true-scholars indeed does exist. Furthermore, one would be hard pressed to obtain a religious legal justification to prevent a person from merely speaking or delivering a lecture in and of itself. Arguments can be made supporting this permissibility by the communities themselves, based on different variables, such as lack of scholars in a given area, the crowd-pulling factor that a certain speaker brings, which speaker is admired and liked by the audience, and so on. Thus, this issue needs to be seen more in light of ethical jurisprudence and in terms of what knowledge truly is meant to be and who it should be attained from.
The response that is generally provided is a simple and straightforward one. A religious speaker, or a speaker who wishes to deliver religious knowledge, should generally be someone who has studied in an Islamic seminary, be it in Qom, Najaf or elsewhere. They should be someone who would generally have a thorough understanding of religious matters – at least in one or two subjects within it, while understanding the depths that exists in other streams. Like with every field, there are institutions where individuals go and study and subsequently become experts in a specific subject. These institutions are where an individual spends a decent number of years studying the intricate details pertaining to that subject and then after meeting certain criteria is considered reliable enough to be able to comment as an authority.
Which circle of academia would take an individual, who has barely studied a little science or engineering, albeit it be through some of the very same books that the experts have used to study from, to come and lecture on that subject at an academic conference without having any verifiable and credible credentials? Which conscious audience would generally pay any heed to the opinions of such a person? The practice is extremely rare and reserved for perhaps a few gems that can be found in any given industry and many times they are linked to a higher authority from whom they get this sense of acceptance amongst an audience. Perhaps an argument can be made that this individual may simply be providing a summary of their readings of different views on a given matter and is thus not stating their own views, rather quoting experts. The slight difference there would be that a person is in reality not presenting his or her own opinions on a subject matter nor behaving as an authority. Regardless, the common practice is that one would need to have some verifiable credibility to convince an audience that they are reliable enough in their research and analysis to be able to give a presentation.
In a narration pertaining to a verse of the Holy Qur’ān, Zayd al-Shaḥḥām asks Imam Bāqir (as) about the words “his food” in the Qur’ānic verse: Then let mankind look at his food (80:24). The Imam (as) responds to him saying: It is his knowledge which he takes, and he should look into who he is taking it from.
If one travels on a lengthy road trip and is informed that all the restaurants that come on the way have a real risk of giving the person a disease, would this person rather hold his hunger for a few hours or risk attaining that disease? It seems obvious that a sane person would not risk it when it is possible to control their hunger, though they may have to struggle and wait an extra few hours to fulfill their desire for food.
If the same parable can be made with certain speakers, who are not qualified or trained in the proper institutions, neither are they connected to a higher authority, and it is realized that there is a valid and serious risk in them causing harm or damage to the souls of the audience members, why then would the audience not avoid them or at the very least be cautious of what they have to say? Why then do our communities so easily permit individuals who have close to no scholarly credibility, occupy the pulpits and allow their tongues to mesmerize the often young and naive audience when it comes to religious knowledge? This is not to say that all scholars who have studied formally are infallible in their speech, or are even capable of delivering a decent lecture at all – however that is a topic on its own and it is something that needs to be re-evaluated; i.e. how important is lecturing and propagating (tablīgh) as it is commonly practiced today, opposed to building communities based on formal teaching and education (tadrīs), and what role does mere lecturing itself play in the development and progress of a community. What is important here is a connection – whether physical or spiritual – that a scholar has or should have with a higher body of knowledge. This itself requires spiritual cleansing and elimination of self-conceit and worship of one’s ego.
A second issue is that while a speaker or even a scholar may be very well versed in Islamic subjects, their persona does not represent that of a man of piety, or of those who are generally considered to be Islamic scholars. When one wants their words to hold any weight, one of the conditions for it to be effective is summarized by the notion of practice what you preach. This notion has been referred to in the narrations as well, and it will be referred to in the translation of the book that follows.
When a speaker develops into a celebrity, and their conduct does not align with what the religious teachings consider to be acts of piety, humbleness, modesty etc., then there is a severe danger to the audience. They, and society at large can – or rather will – suffer from negative effects that can last for an eternity. The masses unfortunately, more often than not will be aloof to this even while partaking in the celebrity-cult, and only an outsider would generally be able to witness it.
One purpose of Islamic lecturing and lecturers, especially those who stay within their communities, is to not only be a mere orator, but a spiritual guide. They should be someone who the rest can look up to and learn the value of religion through seeing them practice it to the best of their abilities. This cannot be done unless the person is sincere in its most complete sense. Going out of their way to promote themselves, turning religious lecturing into pure business deals, not practicing what they preach, etc., are examples of scenarios that do not represent sincerity in any way whatsoever.
Sincerity is one of the most primary conditions of a religious speaker and the instantiations of sincerity are determined, and often clearly defined, by the Qur’ān, and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and his progeny (as). Furthermore, an educated and well-versed community understands that certain actions and certain types of behaviour or a persona undermines the intention and sincerity of an individual and brings it under doubt.
The discussion on this subject can definitely be further opened up and various aspects and scenarios can be evaluated independently. However, the general overall trend is nevertheless something that should not be encouraged or promoted. With these recent conditions of our societies, I wished to partially translate this gem of a book titled, Lu’lu wa Marjān by Muḥaddith Mirza Ḥusayn Nūri (d. 1902), for both those who speak (scholars and non-scholars) and for those who attend the gatherings where scholars or non-scholars are lecturing.
 al-Maḥāsin of al-Barqi, Volume 1, Chapter 11, Page 220, #127
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.