We generally use two kinds of terms for scholars, one is ʿālim and the other is faqīh, these terms usually refer to the same thing and are used interchangeably.
For someone who is not too familiar with our hadīths, it may be confusing as to what an ʿālim/faqīh is. Is an ʿālim (or faqīh) simply an expert in Islam, or is he something more? Is he necessarily a good person?
According to the traditions of the Prophet and his Ahl al-Bayt (as), it really depends on the context we read the terms.
In some contexts, the terms are used positively. The ʿulamā and fuqahā, as people who are learned in Islam; they are good servants of God. More importantly, they function as educated guides for the lay (Shīʿī) Muslim community. Yet in other contexts, the Prophetic hadīths are not too flattering.
According to one tradition, the Prophet (s) is reported to have said: “Such a time will come to people that only the name of Islam and the image of the Qur’an will remain. Mosques will be prosperous on the outside, but will have no salvation in them. Their scholars will be the most evil under the sky. Corruption emerged from them and will return to them.”
Muḥammad b. Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, 15 vols., ed. Dār al-Ḥadīth/Mūsā Shubayrī Zanjānī (Qum: Dār al-Ḥadīth, 1429/2008), XV, 690.
On the one hand, they may be useful vehicles for guidance on earth, yet on the other, they can also be the evilest of God’s creation and thus the Devil’s henchmen in clerical robes. Why so evil? Because they flatter the masses with their pretentious piety, yet by their very actions and corrupt intentions they subvert communal piety and faith in God’s moral order on earth. As mid-twentieth sociologists of religion once taught us, the destruction of a religion (as a discursive tradition) begins when its clerical class lose the respect and reverence of their lay followers.
For those experts in Islam, namely the faithful clerics who are good, what is their basic function? That is, the kind of people whom we call shaykhs (Arabs), moulanas (South Asians), or akhoonds (Persians?). According to the founder of modern Shīʿī Islamic legal theory, Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Anṣārī (d. 1864), what we call a faqīh and ʿālim in technical terms mostly finds its role, perhaps even limits itself, to the realm of the law. Al-Anṣārī bases his understanding on a number of traditions, one of which bears special significance for him. The tradition is as follows:
Imam Ali (as) once said: “the matters of the law are in the hands of the scholars (ʿulamā’) of God who are the guardians of his ḥalāl and ḥarām (ʾumanāʾ ʿalā ḥalālihi wa ḥarāmihi)”
Source: Ḥasan b. ʿAlī al-Ḥarrānī, Tuḥaf al-ʿUqūl (Qum: Jāmiʿ-yi Mudarrisīn, 1404/[1983-1984]), 238.
The people whom we call shaykhs, moulanas and akhoons, that is, the experts and clerics of Islam, are otherwise characterized in the above hadīth as the guardians of the halal and the haram.
But is there another kind of ʿālim, one that is not necessarily characterized by scholasticism? The Ahl al-Bayt (as) speak of this one kind of ʿālim, who although rare, is the jewel of the world. This kind of ʿālim is known as the al-ʿālim al-rabbānī, that is, the Godly knower of God who is characterized by his (or her) intimate knowledge of God as the Sustainer and Lord of this world – yaʿrifūna billāhi bi-maʿrifat rubūbīyat Allāh – they know God through their intimate grasp of God’s graceful lordship of the world.
This kind of knowledge, as we are taught, is derived through a healthy spiritual intellect (ʿaql). The ʿaql is the perceptive mechanism of the metaphysical heart, it is the center point through which we experience and grasp God. It is the channel through which we receive knowledge of God, namely ʿilm and maʿrifah.
Although a basic knowledge and understanding of Islam is always needed, this kind of ʿālim does not necessarily have to be a cleric or scholar. He is not necessarily a guardian of the halāl and harām, and nor is the guardian of the halal and haram necessarily an ʿalim rabbānī. In other words, the moulanas we speak of are not necessarily an ʿalim rabbānī, but can even be evil at times according to the Prophet (s). But a lay person whose heart is pure enough to witness and submit to the lordship of God, and thereby be inspired by divine knowledge may indeed be an ʿālim rabbānī even if he or she is illiterate.
So knowledge of the halal and haram does not necessarily make a person an ʿālim rabbānī.