I saw a clip on Facebook where Mufti Menk is speaking about Sonny Bill Williams (the New Zealand Rugby player) and what a good Muslim he is. He also explains that Williams (whose Muslim name is Hamza) did not give away his world cup medal as a publicity stunt but that is just the type of person he is, generous.
[Unrelated side note: I saw other Facebook posts about Sonny Bill: many Muslims praise him, while some others were asking why he has tattoos – people are so strange, wondering about a revert’s tattoos of all things – get a life!]
Anyways, that story got me thinking about Muslims in the media. I was once asked by a colleague about how the soccer and rugby players manage to play in Ramadan, do they fast etc – this guy was genuinely interested and concerned about how they do it. It’s good to see that Muslim celebs and sportspeople create some positive discussion around Islamic practice.
I wonder how much the internet and quick spread of information has affected our ability to properly learn about Islam. It’s probably a good thing that information is so accessible, but also a dangerous thing that so much of this information may go unchecked, and that false information spreads as quickly (if not quicker) than the truth).
There is an interesting article by Shaykha Zaynab Ansari Abdul-Razacq called Blurred Lines: Women, “Celebrity” Shaykhs, and Spiritual Abuse where the author says that the “combination of electronic delivery of Islamic content and personal interaction with scholars and teachers at onsite venues has led to a revolution in ‘classical’ Islamic learning”.
She talks about the rise of the “celebrity Shaykh” and the pitfalls of that. While most Muslim scholars probably do not set out to become famous, it seems that they sometimes become “victims of their own success” and fall into the web of “likes” and “shares” on social media, with huge numbers of followers who put them on a pedestal, leading the boundary between student and teacher to become blurred. She also mentions sad situations where some unscrupulous scholars use their position of authority to lure women into marriage, often without much formality and without the knowledge or consent of their first wives.
As I’ve become more interested in Islamic teachings, I am becoming more and more aware of how some local scholars are spoken about as celebrities, discussed and judged, liked or disliked, some bizarre aunties even seeming to be infatuated with certain celeb Shaykhs, hoping to one day be their second wife maybe.
I guess I’ve watched all of this with a quiet amusement, often oblivious to the religious celeb scene, just sometimes catching a glimpse of the strangeness of human nature, and our odd need to put people on pedestals. We do need to respect our ulama – but we must not deify them.
I’ll try to remember (if I ever get caught up in any celeb fan culture) that the best mentors are the Ambiyaa and the Sahaba, and try to keep a grip on those great figures of history.