What’s in a name? Some thoughts on ‘scholars’

May 15, 2017

In the West, Sheikh Nuh Ha Meem Keller would be recognized as a religious figure but he’d also be recognized as a scholar of philosophy. Despite the fact that I solely know Sheikh Nuh as a religious scholar and have only occasionally heard him mention anything about philosophy, he has a Ph.D. in the subject and in the West that makes him a scholar of that subject. Dr. Amina Wadud is considered a scholar of Islam in the West because she has a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, in Western Academia that is the requirement.

Yet in the Muslim community, Sheikh Nuh is considered an Islamic scholar whereas Dr. Amina Wadud, though no one would deny her Ph.D., would be considered as no more than a Muslim public figure. But why? And is that fair?

Scholarship is an interesting concept and obviously an English word which makes it difficult to understand how to use it and who it should be used for when religion and modernity cross paths.

The West has a very different method of learning and a very different road on the path to scholarship. It would be very possible to get through the American school system without reading a single book from beginning to end. Not that we don’t read books, but often we read a section from this book and a section from that book and American students are notorious for just wanting the quickest route that will get them the best grade, meaning they have no problem reading Spark Notes. That wouldn’t be possible in a traditional Islamic learning environment where the first thing you have to do with any book, is memorize it.

But that isn’t to denigrate Western scholarship and uplift traditional Islamic scholarship, it’s to point out that the methods, paths, as well as the goals, are different. In Western scholarship, the highest goal of learning is to learn, analyze and propose a new theory of one’s own. If you can successfully critic a foundational theory in any subject you’ll receive great accolades and be looked upon as a great intellectual in the field. That is not the goal of traditional Islamic scholarship. The goal of traditional Islamic scholarship is to learn firstly in order to practice. No sincere seeker studies Islamic knowledge in order to create their own rulings. And if one does it’s not celebrated, it’s shunned.

So is it shocking that Dr. Amina Wadud cursed a prophet or that Reza Aslan feels fine to practice other people’s religions as the world watches? Well, once you understand their educational background, it’s not surprising at all. In fact, if neither of them prayed or even believed in God for that matter it would not be shocking. Western academia does not care if you practice what you study. Whereas a religious scholar within the Islamic framework would rightly be called a hypocrite or an apostate if they did not practice what they studied.

We’ve been blessed in the Muslim community to not have an abundance of religious scholars (or practitioners) who are blatant hypocrites. If you look over to the other religious communities you’ll see how abundant it is for them to question and disregard even the most foundational beliefs of their religion.

It is safe to say that despite the common word, ‘scholar’, these two types of scholars can offer very different types of knowledge. I resolve that we begin to make it clear what kind of scholar we’re talking about (Traditional vs Academic) in order to clearly know the framework they are coming out of and clearly understand what we can hope to gain from them.

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