إِنَّ هَذَا العِلْمَ دِيْنٌ؛ فَانْظُرُواْ عَمَّنْ تَأخُذُوْنَ دِيْنَكُمْ
“Indeed this knowledge is the religion, so be careful about whom you take your religion from.” – Muhammad ibn Sirin, one of the great tabi`in.
Towards the end of my studies at Harvard, I briefly considered pursuing Islamic Studies. I had taken nearly enough Islamic Studies courses to major in it. I had taken classes and interacted with many of the major academics in that field who were at Harvard at the time, from old school Orientalists like Baber Johansen to Saidian decolonialists like Leila Ahmed.
Problem was, I hated it. I was constantly butting heads with the professors and graduate students. The highlight was probably when I told Leila Ahmed to her face that, despite her illusions to the contrary, her approach to Islam contributed directly to the Western chauvinism that drove violent intervention in Muslim societies. She wasn’t too happy to hear that, as you can imagine.
Belly of the Beast
The source of these conflicts was the fact that I was also studying traditionally with a number of scholars in Boston. And the differences between traditional study of Islam versus Western academic study of Islam were clear as day.
Studying Islam in academia begins from a number of key assumptions, the most important of which are:
1. Islamic Studies as a Western academic discipline is objective. Or (if “objective” is too reductive of a term, then) Islamic Studies transcends the Islamic tradition insofar as the former is able to dissect, analyze, and critique the latter from an external epistemic basis.
2. Islam, on the other hand, is a man-made tradition. This is not necessarily to make a strong claim like, “God did not reveal the Quran.” Islamic Studies as a field is agnostic on that, and there are plenty of believing Muslims in Islamic Studies, as well as Christians, Jews, atheists, etc. BUT what the field is not agnostic on and what is NOT negotiable is the fact that everything that is known as the “Islamic tradition,” past and present, is the product of men competing with each other to champion their subjective interpretation of Revelation over others. Another way to say this is that Islam is irreducibly sectarian., i.e., blindly prejudiced sects fighting with each other.
These two assumptions are embedded in academic Islamic Studies and they are predicated on the belief that the academic way of knowing, i.e., the academic epistemology, is superior. If it weren’t, why would anyone bother studying Islam at the university instead of the masjid or madrasa? The only Islam that can be learned at the masjid or the madrasa is sectarian, subjective, man-made Islam, and the academic, in his quest for knowledge and understanding, doesn’t care about that. He has to “go beyond” that.
What we are seeing now is that these core academic assumptions are being advocated by supposedly “traditional” Islamic figures and institutions. I’m sure you have noticed it.
For example, you might have noticed some faux-traditionalists pushing these lines:
– Fiqh is a man-made, human interpretation of the Divine Sharia, which cannot be accessed, but can only be inferred through a fallible human process, i.e., fiqh.
– The schools of aqida were sectarian groups advancing certain interpretations over others.
– The classical scholars interpreted Revelation according to the limited resources at their disposal, but now we are able to revisit based on our greater access to nusus.
Here you see the academic modernism in these statements. It is subtle but absolutely deadly.
This might help clarify.
The scholars of Islam NEVER thought of themselves as giving a subjective, personal interpretation of the Sharia and correct belief (aqida). Imam Abu Hanifa did not think of himself as “developing the Hanafi madhhab.” Imam Ahmad did not think of his work as “formulating Hanbali aqida.” Imam al-Tahawi wasn’t thinking of himself as writing and teaching a personal take on aqida.
They all understood themselves as expressing the actual Sharia, the actually correct aqida of RasulAllah ﷺ. They understood their work as fully representative of the singular Truth.
Now, of course, they didn’t view themselves as infallible! This is where the subtlety lies. They recognized that they might be wrong. But they DID believe that they were right!
In other words, there is a difference between:
1. Recognizing that a position in fiqh or aqida might be mistaken, but ultimately there IS a singular true position that the scholar strives to identify and establish.
2. Thinking of the positions of fiqh and aqida as subjective interpretations that are all valid opinions, and insisting on one opinion being the only correct one is base sectarianism.
The Irrational Animal
Here you see how the academic and the faux-traditionalist converge on the same fundamental point, though they come at it from two directions.
The bottom line for the academic is: To understand Islam, we must transcend the classical tradition because that tradition is just a bunch of medieval men obsessively reading their biases into 7th century religious texts.
The bottom line for the faux-traditionalist is: To understand Islam, we must transcend the classical tradition because that tradition is sectarian, i.e., everyone thinks he has the singular truth. (Some faux-traditionalists are more direct and plainly admit that they don’t trust the classical tradition because all scholars were wrong about X, Y, or Z, e.g., slavery or some women’s issue.)
Both the academic and the faux-traditionalist suffer from the same intellectual error. They uncritically see themselves as transcending it all and occupying a privileged, objective position that allows them to evaluate the subjective, sectarian Islamic tradition.
But their position is hardly objective. Just the opposite! They are the most biased and their analyses of the tradition are superficial schlock at best. They consider the classical ulama as biased and sectarian, but the ulama painstakingly strived to avoid even the smallest cognitive blind spot. How? Through making sure their positions were all internally self-consistent, down to the last detail, down to even the grammatical level. The reasoning used to justify Position A had better be consistent with the reasoning used to justify Position B, etc. For fiqh, this hyper-concern with self-consistency was formalized in the subject of usul al-fiqh. Application of usul, after all, helps ensure consistency.
In contrast, both the academic and the faux-traditionalist have no formal usul and they have absolutely zero consistency. Some faux-traditionalists in fiqh, for example, will take all the positions of the madhahib on an issue and then will “look at the adilla” and then choose the “strongest” position. This tarjih, however, is based on what? What principles are guiding this selection of the strongest position, from one mas’ala to the next?
In contrast, when the fuqaha arrived at a position, they were not analyzing the issue at hand in isolation. What was also important was the reasoning process used to arrive at other positions, too. In Western legal practice, this amounts to appealing to precedent, i.e., past cases and judgments. Those past cases might not seem relevant to the case at hand, but the reasoning used to arrive at judgments in those cases ARE relevant, and logical consistency demands bringing those cases into consideration. Without that consistency, the entire enterprise would be ad hoc, inconsistent, bias-laden, etc. In fact, this is precisely how to characterize so much of the modernist tarjih in fiqh in its opposition to the madhahib.
The madhahib in the Islamic tradition were concerned with this internal consistency on a massive scale and with attention to the smallest details. This was clear proof of their intellectual superiority AND their spiritual superiority, because they were operating with the sincere conviction that there is a singular truth from Allah that is rational and rationally attainable, and they were putting their utmost effort to realize it and abide by it. (On a related note, the fastest way to become a star in academic Islamic Studies is to pick out inconsistencies and supposed “logical gaps” in the work of classical scholars and madhahib. This serves to justify the key assumptions above, and faux-traditionalists often dabble in this as well with superficial quote-mining.)
Truth with a Capital T
Important to the scholarly understanding of there being a single true Islam is the statement of the Prophet ﷺ: “If a judge makes a ruling, making ijtihad and he is correct, he will have two rewards. If a judge makes a ruling, making ijtihad and he is mistaken, he will have one reward.”
This means that there IS a correct position. This does NOT mean that “All scholars have their own interpretation, and all fiqh and aqida are man-made anyway, and since there is no way to tell definitively either way, we should just consider them all correct and valid opinions and then just pick and choose whatever seems right to us from among them and correct what seems wrong to us.”
This is a modern deviance and innovation. And you can see how this attitude is espoused by reformists (faux-traditionalists are reformists at heart): If classical fiqh and aqida are “just man-made interpretations,” we can feel safe discarding them whenever they conflict with modern sensibilities. Such-and-such Hanafi position is contrary to liberal human rights? Trash it! Such-and-such Maliki position makes social justice warriors squeamish? Chuck it! Such-and-such Shafi`i position makes the woke hijabis sad? Into the garbage bin it goes! It’s all human interpretation anyway, right?
This maneuver allows the faux-traditionalists to cleverly maintain plausible deniability. We are not anti-Sharia, they insist. We are simply, opposed to man-made fiqh.
This is the very essence of modernism!
By the way, here we also see the wisdom of studying one school of thought completely, immersing one’s self in it, progressing through the traditional learning path within one school up to mastery, and seeing oneself as LEARNING ISLAM, LEARNING THE TRUTH, not “learning the hanafi madhab,” “learning athari aqida,” per se, etc.
But doesn’t this lead to blameworthy intra-Sunni sectarianism? Not at all! The traditional scholars discussed at length that on subsidiary issues (furu`), one operates on the conviction that he is correct with the possibility of being wrong and opposing positions are wrong with the possibility of being correct. On primary issues in deen (usul), one has conviction that he is on truth and opposing positions are false.
Every intellectual tradition concerned with truth operates in this same fashion. Let me give an example from my studies in theoretical physics. In physics, there are schools of thought. The string theorists think of themselves as being on the truth and they consider the quantum loop gravity folks as mistaken. And vice versa. But none of them thinks, this is all just human interpretation and there is no way to know what the universe is really like. If that’s what they believed, they wouldn’t be physicists (they would be philosophers). These physicists are, nonetheless, able to work in the same departments and generally get along. Does this mean that any and all positions in physics are acceptable? Absolutely not! Physicists have drawn a line dividing acceptable from unacceptable disagreement in their field. If there is too much divergence in the realm of physics “usul,” there will be swift “tabdi`” or even “takfir.” An astrologer, for example, is NOT a physicist. But, again, none of this detracts from the conviction in a singular truth that can be discovered. (Obviously, I don’t have that conviction in physics, but that’s another story.)
Ultimately, we cannot “academize” the learning of Islam. This is because it leads to confusion. We see this with the faux-traditionalists themselves and many of the Muslims who go into Islamic Studies. They become disillusioned with Islam. They fall into all kinds of doubts. They think of the tradition as a subjective joke, even if they don’t always admit it (but it always eventually comes out because they love cracking jokes and insulting traditional scholars and students).
And for those who want to say, “Some good comes out of academic Islam,” that’s not saying much. The enemies of Islam, whether the outright Islamophobe or the decolonial reformist, both know a lot about Islam and one can learn a lot about Islam from them. But it is knowledge meant to destroy and unravel. The most dangerous lies are those mixed with truth.
In writing this, I would like us to become more sensitive to the faux-traditionalist project so that we can recognize it, resist it, and ultimately dismantle it. This is becoming a major fitna because figures with big followings are starting to spread this poison under the guise of traditional, orthodox Islam. May Allah protect us.