By Ustadha Shazia Ahmad
In the last few years there has been an increasing focus in the American Muslim community on Islamic literacy. Classes, intensive programs and workshops by a wide array of institutes are readily available for any Muslim who wishes to learn more about their religion, the Quran, or classical Arabic, not to mention the prolific number of online classes, livestreams, videos, blogs etc that can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone or a laptop and an internet connection. Many of our youth are also turning towards an academic course of study, seeking out degrees in Islamic Studies or Comparative Religion to learn more about their faith.
The sincere drive many people have to learn more about Islamic teachings is commendable, and new avenues for learning should be seen as a natural and healthy part of our development as a community. However, with this new trend, new challenges and concerns emerge that we must consider and seek to address.
The First Concern: Studying Without Soul
As studying becomes increasingly popular, we must consider the very real consequences of learning technical or theoretical aspects of our faith without grounding in one’s spiritual development and without actual practice. Many young people who begin this intellectual journey hoping to find themselves closer to God and to a more spiritual life instead find themselves lost in the minutia of centuries-old philosophical disputes, or worse yet, internalizing a cynicism which precludes them from finding meaning or joy in the very teachings they wished to appreciate. Without making Islam a spiritual and practical reality in one’s life, it becomes an abstract concept to be dissected and debated for mere intellectual exercise, “intellectualized into non-existence.” How far is this from what Islam is meant to be – its essential teachings about one’s own self and one’s heart and their connection with the Divine, which is then suppose to manifest outwardly on one’s limbs and in one’s relationships with others.
Studying from an incessantly critical approach can also ingrain an irreverent and mistrustful attitude in a person towards scholars and our scholarly tradition – the very source from which one’s misgivings can be allayed, spirit inspired, and from whom one’s pressing questions can be answered.
The Wider Issue: Self-Licensed Experts
While this disconnect between real practice and religious study is harmful on an individual level, a larger issue with a far-reaching impact on our community is in the self-appointed roles some take on after studying. Armed with a false sense of mastery in the Islamic sciences, we find some people declaring themselves authoritative voices on Islam, within the community and in the public eye, and putting themselves on equal footing with scholars, prepared to reject their views in favor of their own. All the while, such individuals’ actual understanding of Islam is often flawed; limited, unbalanced, containing huge gaps in subjects that were not studied properly if at all, and lacking the comprehensiveness of learning – tempered with spiritual discipline and religious practice – that many of the scholars past and present possess.
An increasing number of articles, blogs, books and videos can be found produced by people who carry a semblance of being learned – either by using technical terminology or quoting the names of scholars – all to popularize one movement or another, or to promote a group’s latest idea for social or political change. Yet the assertions they make, couched in scholarly language or ‘proven’ through scholarly-sounding arguments or logic, have no sound basis in religious tradition.
The dangers of ‘DIY Islam’ – that is, making religious rulings based on one’s own accord, without proper knowledge and real reference to scholarship – are obvious. It is ironic that the extremists on both ends of the spectrum –the radicals of the likes of ISIS and others who scorn traditional understanding of our religious texts for a videogame cult-like practice- and the Progressives on the other, ready to selectively pick and choose texts that fit their latest post-modern adaptation of religion – have the same core value that shapes their rhetoric and their methodology: a disdain for and rejection of the scholarly tradition, in favor of their own interpretations.
Methodology: A Key Missing Component
A common thread among self-branded experts and self-appointed representatives of Islam is not only a lack of appreciation for our scholars, but a lack of basic understanding of the sophisticated nature of scholarly methodology, usually revolving around an ignorance of Usul al-Fiqh. Usul al-Fiqh is a science among the subjects of Islamic studies that delves into the legal process of deriving fatawa, or Islamic rulings. There is a sophisticated process or system to issuing a religious ruling, that includes weighing the strengths of various evidences, considering the wider agreed upon principles and values of Islam, along with in-depth textual analysis on many levels. It is one of the most beautiful and also one of the most incredibly complex topics a student can study. All that goes into the process a scholar undergoes to derive a religious ruling on an issue is included in this science – and yet, it is often overlooked in its entirety by those claiming to speak authoritatively about our religious tradition, with many of their opinions made in complete contradiction to its basic precepts. (I feel so strongly about this widespread ignorance that I have written a six part series on it, which can be found here.)
A clear example of how painfully ignorant some would-be representatives of the faith are to this topic can be seen in Progressive pundit Asra Nomani’s latest piece about hijab in the Washington Post (1). Putting aside many of the problematic half-truths mentioned in the article, Nomani’s legal ‘reasoning’ for disputing the obligation of hijab fails a very basic premise of Islamic legal theory. Namely, that an act does not have to be mentioned explicitly in the Quran for it to be considered a religious obligation. In actuality there are other ‘evidences’ that can be used to assign something the ruling of obligatory (2). This is a blatant example of how people confidently dispute about scholarly matters while clearly having no basic understanding of it, and in so doing make huge blunders. More disconcertingly, such blunders are accepted by some in the Muslim community as legitimate scholarly opinions, and then championed for their own objectives.
Remembrance and Reconnection
These issues require us, as a community and in our personal practice of faith, to take certain important steps.
- We must realize the key distinction between religious information and beneficial knowledge; one is mere data, while the other requires engagement of the heart and spirit, beginning with the proper intention of learning for the sake of spiritual benefit. The Prophet ﷺ taught us to seek refuge in God from knowledge that does not benefit (3).
- We must know the serious harms of studying religion abstractly, without being paired with spiritual development and actual implementation and practice. Spiritual development (tarbiyyah) often requires the personal guidance and mentorship of a trusted shaykh or scholar.
- We must be watchful of the spiritual ailments that come with seeking knowledge that have been discussed in great detail by the luminaries of our past, such as arrogance, showing off, and hastiness and a rush to judgment. One of the most serious of these diseases is love of one’s own opinion and the desire to opine on everything. A prophetic tradition states that among the muhlikaat – the most destructive and deathly vices a person may possess – is to be impressed and amazed by one’s self and opinions (4).
- We must have a realistic understanding of the extent of our knowledge and level of Islamic literacy, and not over-extend our abilities that may lead us into making mistakes and rejecting sound scholarship. We should have a working relationship with people of knowledge, who can help us on this path as we grown in our studies, think creatively and develop our own ideas, and guide us as we move into more influential positions when we are ready.
- We must be wary of those who wish to disconnect us from scholars by casting aspersions on our scholarly tradition and labeling it wholesale as archaic, misogynistic, etc. Without fail, such people call to extremes in faith. We have an incredibly deep and robust scholarly tradition, with much room for legitimate differences of opinion and varying perspectives, all within the structured bounds of orthodox Islamic legal theory and law.
As a community, we must acknowledge the tremendous harms that come from DIY-Islam and work to combat it from many directions:
- Reconnecting: Many who turn to DIY-Islam have been disillusioned or frustrated with what they perceive as normative Islam. There must be concerted efforts to reconnect them with the community and mainstream scholarship through not only intellectual responses, but emotional healing through mentorship and pastorship.
- Reconstructing: Islamic institutions that focus on Islamic literacy and religious studies should work on developing a more holistic methodology, that would include in-depth spiritual development and continued engagement with scholarship, instead of leaving students quasi-qualified at program’s end.
- Respecting: Knowing the increasingly influential role academics and other various pundits have on Islamic discourse, we must give ample opportunity to those who have proper grounding in sound knowledge to teach, engage, and represent our community on many levels. This includes deferring to scholars on relevant matters in the community, supporting and popularizing their work, and showing care and reverence to our local imams and teachers.
May Allah help us attain knowledge that enlivens our hearts and enlightens our minds and draws us close to Him. May He grant us and our community refuge from ignorance and the proponents of ignorance, and grant us leaders and teachers of sound knowledge and wisdom. May He increase our love for the scholars, the righteous and all those who love Him, and help us follow their footsteps towards His closeness. Ameen.
- See any book on the subject of Usul al-Fiqh, the section on Adillatul Ahkam
- Sahih Muslim. The full text is as follows “O Allah, I seek refuge in You from knowledge which does not benefit, from a heart that does not entertain the fear (of Allah), from a soul that is not satisfied and the supplication that is not answered.”
- Narrated by at-Tabarani.