Friday, June 1, 2012

My Interest in Islamic Studies - Part II: why Islamic Studies in the West

I promised to continue with my series of my Islamic Studies pursuit, including why I’m settled on doing it in the west (as opposed to in a Muslim country) and what the reactions of many Muslims (friends, families, relatives, people I meet on the plane, etc.) have been. So in this post, I’ll explain why I prefer to study Islamic Studies in the west, in the U.S., and why it’s more beneficial than harmful. And in the next post in the series, I'll discus the reactions and problems and all.

“So, what do they teach you?” people often ask me when they know that I’m doing Islamic Studies. They’ll say this with a … rather mocking tone. After all, what COULD anyone living in the U.S., the ever-infidel country that hates Islam and Muslims to the core, “teach” me about Islam, right? At least, what “good” things could they possibly say about Islam, right? Wrong. For many reasons.

Islamic Studies has many objectives, and *teaching* someone to be a good Muslim may or may not be one of them. In fact, I’ll say it’s NOT one of them. Why? Because not everyone pursuing Islamic Studies is a Muslim, so to expect our Islamic Studies teachers to “teach” us to be “good Muslims” is unfair and wrong.
Moreover, Islamic Studies teachers realize that there’s no “one” way of being a good Muslim. Sure, guidelines like don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t hurt people, pray regularly, remember God constantly, etc. are all there, and we all agree that these are some of the basic teachings of Islam. BUT it’s in the details that all Muslims themselves disagree. Besides, are they gonna teach me Shi’ Islam or Sunni Islam? Then there are the hundreds of sub-sects we’ve created within Shi’ and Sunni Islams.

What I want to make clear is that it is NOT my teachers’ jobs to teach me how to be a good Muslim. Their job is to introduce me to the sources where I can learn this stuff on my own if I’m interested. Their job is to make them available to me and discus them with me, make me think about them, make me evaluate them, make me question them, make me value them, make me understand them. Okay, “make” isn’t the correct word here, but you get the point, ya?

Also, not all of Islamic Studies teachers are Muslims. To my traditional Muslim readers who find this problematic, don’t panic! There’s nothing wrong with that. They have to be experts in the field in order to teach it, so it’s not like they were chosen randomly to teach their courses. They have a PhD in Islamic Studies or a related field (e.g., Arabic) and they are internationally recognized for their contributions to Islamic Studies, such as by having written books on Islam generally (e.g., Introduction to Islam) or books specific to a topic within Islam (e.g., Hadith history, gender issues in Islam, etc.). Also, they all have their own focuses. Islamic Studies is a broad field, and each scholar has her/his own focuses and interests. Not all of my teachers are, for example, experts in gender issues in Islamic law, just like not all of them are scholars of Islamic historiography, and just like not all are experts on Hadith Studies. So we students have some basic Islamic Studies courses to take together, and then each one moves on to her/his own specific fields. And some of the courses we take may overlap with students from other departments/fields as well. For instance, in an Islamic historiography course, some of our classmates may not be from Islamic Studies but from the History department. In a “Women and Gender in Islam” course, most students are likely to be from Women/Gender Studies rather or Middle Eastern Studies than Islamic Studies.
You get the drift.

How my classes work
How the class is conducted depends on the course and the instructor, but let me use the example of a class I took last semester called Introduction to Islamic Studies, a graduate seminar. I liked the way the teacher designed the class. It was a rich experience.
a) The class was divided into five units: Introductory Texts (texts that all scholars and students of Islamic Studies should know well and read); Qur’an and Tafsir Studies; Hadith Studies; Legal Theory & Development; Legal Institutions & Practice; Ethics & Gender
b) For each unit, the first two weeks (approximately) of class were dedicated to readings from the above units. Then we’d discuss the readings in class.
c) For each unit, also, we were provided a list of books to choose from that we would read individually and present on them to the class. Each student read and presented on one book; students could not share a book. Approximately a week (often more, inevitably so) was reserved for these book presentations. I loved this part even more since, again, you got to know of some of the core texts and influential scholars in the field.
d) Move on to the next unit and repeat
e) We had a final paper, due sort of in stages.
I’ve taken courses on Hadiths, Shi’ Islam, and Gender/Sexuality in Islam, and the instructors handled all of them differently. One of my favorite teachers, for example, had us write unit papers (like every 3-4 weeks), but most others have had us write term papers (one paper due at the end of the semester).

As I said above, Islamic Studies is a very general field. You can’t say you’re doing Islamic Studies and not have a stronger focus (or maybe you can, but that’d be like, What? You mean you know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING that falls under Islamic Studies?) One of my focuses is gender relations in Islamic law. (GRIN! But y’all knew that already, of course.) Another: Islamic hermeneutics.

Now, for why exactly I love doing this in the west and not in a Muslim country :) I don’t need to apologize for this preference.
  • We read books, articles, anything written by scholars with varying approaches and different perspectives. We are free to read “controversial” texts—not to anger anyone but to let us know that this perspective exists and it is no less or more important than the majority  viewpoint. This can be frustrating, since we’ve had to read some of Maududi’s works, and, giirrrrrl, I tell you he’s SO offensive to women … but leave that for now.
  • Our teachers aren’t allowed to share their opinions with us. I’m sure many manage to find a way to do that, but my own teachers have always discouraged us from allowing our opinion to be enforced anywhere by anyone and to listen to multiple views before exerting our own or before taking a stand. Of course, I’ve had discussions with my teachers outside of the classroom setting, and I do get to hear their personal opinions on certain issues. After all, as Aristotle is reported to have said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
  • On the issue of law and law formation, we get to read what various scholars’ opinion on something is and how the majority opinion came to be that way and why.  (This means there’s still room for disagreement, even in issues of law. Yay for Ijtihad!)
  • When covering Hadith Studies, we get to know why some Muslims don’t believe in hadiths—and whether or not rejecting hadiths really is a sin and all. I get to write papers supporting of the views (rejecting all hadiths, accepting all hadiths, rejecting some and accepting others, etc.), rather than being told what to believe and being required to dismiss all Hadith-rejecters as un-Muslim or non-Muslims or apostates or heretics.
  • Any time I have made a statement in a class that is out of the blue or is too different, I have been asked to explain further and, if possible, prove it. What I mean is, you can’t just say something and get away with it. You’re expected to know better than that. One of my favorite teachers in undergrad would often tell me, “I’m not convinced.” But he also made it clear that our objective never was to convince another person. Present an intelligent perspective and know how to support it. Be aware also of other perspectives on the same matter.
BASICALLY … I get to have an opinion and not be punished for it. I’m not told what to believe and what to reject. Differences of opinions, even differences with the major scholars, are not deemed heresy, certainly not punishable. In Pakistan and most other Muslim country, I wouldn’t have this privilege.

And just an FYI note: In 1959, al-Azhar, a prominent Islamic institution (where you have to have studied in order to claim to be a “scholar” of Islam today), declared that the Shi’ school of thought, Ja’fari, was a legitimate and Islamic school and that Sunnis were allowed to follow it as well.  (You know, Shi’s aren’t real Muslims, so their school of thought isn’t real either. Some Muslims even dismiss it as a “myth.” Google “the myth of the Ja’fari school” for proof.) Yeah, well, guess what. Saudi offered al-Azhar grands of money to retract its statement and to issue a fatwa, a legal opinion, that the Ja’fari school was in fact NOT a valid Islamic school. And al-Azhar agreed :) Ironically enough, al-Azhar was founded by Shi’ Muslims, the Fatimids, a sub-branch of Shi’ Islam, in 922 CE. And, today, it is this institution that has to grant you the “certificate” of scholarship. Can you imagine?

So you see how religion actually works even in perhaps the most prominent Islamic institution in the world? And my Muslim buddies would rather I obtain my knowledge from these oh-so honest institutions? Never. But I guess being in a Muslim country and being led by a Muslim group of scholars is plenty a reason for me to study there, eh. Sigh.

Oh, and I'm reminded of this classmate from a few years ago who asked me which classes I was taking. That semester, I was taking a Qur'an class among some others, and so I told her. She goes, "Yeah, I once wanted to take the Qur'an class, but my mom was like you can learn about the Qur'an any time on your own; why waste your time on it at the uni?" :D Why? Because then you'll be *told* what to believe, you'll be told what is "wrong" and what's "right," and you're not allowed to disagree or be critical of the status quo. I can't claim to know what all other people would want, but I need my space to disagree, and I WILL suffocate with it. The last thing I need in life is someone telling me what to believe and what to reject -- or that I can't disagree with people who are acclaimed scholars. Understand that those disagreements are there, always have been there, and always will be there (inshaAllah), and my disagreement with them is not akin to my disrespecting or insulting them or rejecting their significance. Let's for once grow a thicker skin and tolerate differences and not attack people just because they disagree with us or the majority.


  1. very convincing argument. We need scholars with a more broader perspective on Islam and can challenge the Al Azhar type of scholars. Good wishes

  2. "the space to disagree" yes! keep going girl :D can't wait for the next blog!

    PS: I'm still jealous of ya :P You've awesome teachers! Masha'Allah!

  3. Theoretical study and innovation in general will never bear fruit in a country or a region that does not allow intellectual freedom. The ability to think, read and write about whatsoever may interest you is what gives an institute of higher education its title. (Even if this material is blasphemous, sinful and perverse - the intellect should know no bounds).

    Education in the Muslim world will always fall short of that which goes on elsewhere because of the inbred reservations that stagnate and stifle any cause for debate.

    Religious studies is a rather general field, many people advocate its removal and instead want its constituents to be delegated into other disciplines - Philosophy - Sociology - Anthropolgy etc. Personally I agree with this view, I don't think religion itself can be anything more than a superficial amalgamation of expertise that is better placed in other subjects.

  4. interesting knowing about what you study and how you study it (the how always being more important than what me thinks!). Didnt know the bit about Al-Azhar's founders and the controversial fatwa. Googling it now!

    PS: Loved the Aristotle quote.


Dare to opine :)

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