Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
University Islam & The Destruction of Islamic Learning
I don’t have the intellectual energy to debate with Harvard students, and probably could not hold my own if I did, but:
The point of traditional education is not the ijaza system. Our critique of modern university-level “Islamic studies” is not that they take place at universities. Rather, the point of traditional education is its methodology, which centers on the student-teacher relationship and close contact between the two, and makes the student an “inheritor” of a scholarly methodology and way. Its basis is transmission, continuity, and reverence. Following the footsteps of one’s teachers is virtue. Change for its own sake is blameworthy. One starts with small texts in the key Islamic subjects, which must be mastered (and often memorized). Then, one builds on these, step-by-step, with progressively larger and more sophisticated texts. The goal is mastery of the knowledge, and to become an inheritor of the understanding, wisdom, and way of one’s teachers and predecessors. The point of the knowledge is inherently practical: one’s own practice, and serving the real-life needs of the community.
University-style “Islamic studies” is based on the modern academic system. Right from the beginning, one studies big fat books, in a “comparative” style where every imam, sheikh and mulla’s opinion seems to be considered, as if they carry the same weight. The system of teaching is lectures and examination. The student’s goal is passing the exam, and getting to the next year of study. There is no imperative to master anything. It is like university studies. I graduated with a specialist in Economics, but am now unable to remember the simplest of economic concepts. After forgetting what I crammed for exams, I have little knowledge of economics, and certainly no mastery. University-style Islamic studies is no different.
With this, the student does not identify with his professors. He does not see himself as having the sacred role of being an inheritor to their knowledge, understanding, and way. He does not imbue their taqwa and character. He does not interact closely with them, to intimately understand how they thing and respond to issues that come up. Instead of being a link in a strong chain, he is a mere individual. He is cut off from his tradition. He is a modern man.
At higher levels of study, the point at Shariah Colleges is “academic research”, where the point is to say something new: what you say is only of worth if it is new and different. Continuity is stale and pointless. Change is the way. This may be fine for Western knowledge, where there are no absolute sources of knowledge, but it does not work for Islam, for obvious reasons.
In Fowler’s, the following entry is of interest:
“The serious uses of this word (first recorded in the late 16c.) remain firm, but a little more than a century ago (first noted 1886) it developed a depreciatory range of meanings as well, ‘unpractical, merely theoretical, having no practical applications’ , e.g. All the discussion, Sirs, is-academic. The war has begun already-H. G. Wells, 1929; The strike vote…was dismissed as ‘largely academic’ by Merseyside Health Authority-Times, 1990.” (The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, © Oxford University Press 1968)
Similarly, I would dismiss the knowledge of your typical Shariah college student as ‘largely academic.’ Having spent time in Damascus and Amman with dozens of such students, I can safely say that someone with similar intelligence but even very limited traditional study (e.g. 2 years) has more knowledge than a graduate student. Yes, the latter may have more Islamic information, but he usually cannot benefit himself or others with it…
Of course, there are exceptions. There are Shariah college students whose brilliance or study with traditional scholars on the side makes them exemplars. But this is the exception, and exceptions are ultimately of no consequence.
Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, in the early part of the 20th Century, warned against the dangers of non-madhhabism, writing a seminal article titled, Non-madhhabism is the bridge to non-religion. In a similar way, we can safely say that University Islam is the Way to Destroy Islamic Learning.
To close, Sidi Nazim Baksh wrote an excellent article on traditional learning: http://18.104.22.168/ISLAM/misc/tradition.htm