On Being an Islamic Scholar

In my post on traditionalist vs. reformist Islam, Sara posted an interesting comment:

Whether these people are anyhow influenced by Western ideas or accused of being so is another question, but many of them have traditional Islamic schooling.

She was referring to “modernist” scholars such as Nasr Abu Zayd, Fatima Mernissi, and Abdolkarim Soroush.  This question is something that has fascinated me for a long time.

When looking at scholars such as those mentioned above, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, Amina Wadud, Layla Ahmed, and other reformists, it is interesting to note that they are rejected by many Muslims for being too “Western” in their education and approach. However, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that most of them have had a traditional Islamic training, including Arabic language, Qur’anic tafseer, hadith methodology, grammar, etc.  Abou El-Fadl and Wadud, for example, both studied at al-Azhar, yet are often accused of having a purely Western education.  What is also interesting is that they often use the same methodology as the ‘ulama but are still criticized.

The only difference I can see is that they come to different conclusions, even though they are using the same sources, techniques and methodology.  So what makes their conclusions less authoritative than those of the ‘ulama?

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12 thoughts on “On Being an Islamic Scholar

  1. I have a very interesting story to share but I can only do it privately. I can’t mention it on a public forum. But I understand what you mean.

    I think you are spot on; most people don’t agree with their conclusions.

  2. What do you mean by “the ‘ulama”? El-Fadl is part of it so I’m not quite sure I get your final question.

    I can see why people claim that Wadud is “too Western,” since she’s American and her Islamic education came late in life (though I don’t personally think that diminishes her work). However, it’s ridiculous in the case of El-Fadl, who was raised and trained in Egypt. I guess simply living in the West invalidates his work in the eyes of those who condemn the West. I love his work precisely because he uses rigorous methodology but comes to progressive conclusions. Ironically, I’ve seen some progressives reject his work because of his reliance on traditional methodology.

    • Good point, I guess I’m so used to hearing traditionalist Muslims discount Abou El-Fadl that I don’t think of him as a member of the ‘ulama, even though he is, if one considers training and education.
      I think what invalidates him is not necessarily living in the West but his ideas in general, for example that he argues that the hijab is not mandated by the Qur’an, or his views on gender in general. Do you think maybe it’s the ideas and conclusions these reformists scholars reach that are the problem, rather than their training/nationality?

      • Absolutely, but since often the conclusions they reach are well-proved (at least El-Fadl, I still haven’t read Wadud except in her current blog for Religion Dispatches), the only way to debunk them is to question their motives.

  3. As a curiosity have you read of why scholars reject her conclusions? While she might have gotten a traditional education she certainly doesn’t understand it.

    “According to an analysis by Dr. Kaukab Siddique, Amina Wadud made the
    following public statements and she has not claimed that she was
    misreported:

    1. She claimed that she can decide which texts of the Qur’an are
    acceptable within the realm of “civilization” and which are not. For
    instance, she finds that the cutting off of the hand of a thief is not
    acceptable for a civilized person like her. For a Muslim, there can only be
    acceptance of Allah’s word. There can’t be any rejection. The Qur’an is
    open to interpretation and the Prophet, PBUH, and his Companions (r.a.)implemented the Qur’an according to the needs of society. However, Dr.
    Wadud. was not talking of interpretation but of acceptance and
    rejection.”

    But it doesn’t take that much analysis to realize that some of her actions are in direct contradiction to the Qur’an and Sunnah, hence she is shunned by traditional scholars.

    As to the other person i haven’t heard of him or read of him, but if his conclusions are the same as wadud’s then in all honesty then ….

  4. A Muslim (or even a non Muslim for that matter) can sit right along beside the most accepted scholar in the mulsim world…learn everything that scholar has learned…graduate right beside him (or her) and yet at the end of the day…if his (or her) conclusions go against the “established concensus” then it matters little what the educational background is.

    Dont rock the boat…that should be Islams motto.

    • That is a very interesting point. I was watching Yasir Qadi on Doha Debates and he must have used the words “unanimous concensus” some 10 times (mild exaggeration here!). In the end, if someone has something new to say then they are the Perceived Other.

  5. In my world i view a scholar not only depending on his or her studies and her diplomas or what he or she says but on how long they have studied.
    In the shia world you have a lot of scholars who claim things (for instance muqtada al sadr) but what he says has no bearing on me, because i prefer to follow those who have studied longer. For instance a man like Fadhallah has studied a lot longer then those you mentioned, and he is even hated by many shias but he said stuff that are and were progressive, when it comes to womens rights, view on history and view on politics. He is the opposite to other scholars, but even if i didnt follow him or agree with him, i still respect him because of the length of his studying.
    What those moderate persons you mentioned say isnt the issue but in my view most of them are not enough educated in the muslim sciences.
    As usual i say it again and again, there are some issues in islam that you can re interpret, but there are issues you cant, unless you wish to leave islam or change islam all together.
    Fadhallah says a woman can lead a muslim nation and muslims, while other scholars say its not allowed, he allows playing cards and dices, while others forbid it all together and so forth.
    How long have these persons studied the quran and hadith? Men like Fadhallah studied for 30-40 years under some of the biggest scholars of their time, when those moderate persons study that long then i would view them as “scholars”..

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