Islam places emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God. The framework for this relationship follows the guidelines set out by the Qur’an and Sunnah. This relationship, in turn, defines a Muslim’s relations with everyone, which brings about justice, organization, and social harmony.
The Qur’an says, “Verily the most honorable of you with God are the most pious among you.” [Qur’an 49:13] The wise, the pious, the knowledgeable in Islam, and the true in practice are Islam’s natural leaders.
Islam is not specific as to who can become a scholar. Anyone with enough intelligence, study, and determination can strive to become a scholar, but not everyone will have the time and resources to do so. All people should strive to learn as much as possible, while recognizing that God is The One, The Bestower of knowledge and understanding.
The scholar plays a critical role in Muslim society. He or she devotes years to the study of Islam. Scholars cannot forgive sins, bless people, or change the law of God. They impart the information they have acquired by reference to the Qur’an and Sunnah; by the nobility of their character they inspire others to be better.
Some have used the word “cleric” to describe a Muslim scholar. This is a misnomer. There is no formal clergy, no ordaining body, and no hierarchy. The relationship between the individual and God is a direct one. No one besides God can declare what is lawful and what is sinful. No created being can bless another. Each individual is directly accountable to his or her Lord and Creator.
One visiting a mosque may see a person leading the congregational prayers. Whenever Muslims pray together, they must select one individual to stand in front and lead the others in prayer so that all might pray in unity and harmony. It is best to select a person who has the most knowledge of the Qur’an and Islam. This person is called Imam, which literally means “the one who is leading.” At midday on Fridays there is a special congregational prayer. All Muslim men are required to attend; it is voluntary for women. This weekly prayer is preceded by a short sermon. The one who gives this sermon should be the best available in terms of his deep understanding of Islamic principles.