Sunday, October 02, 2005

COMMENT: Al-Ghazali and Billygoats

At the inaugural Deen Intensive organised by the Forum of Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR), Gary Edwards (also known as Naeem Abdul Wali) spent some 10 hours speaking about the meanings of 7 verses of the Qur’an.

At the conclusion of the workshop, Mr Edwards took questions from participants. One question involved scholarship and the means by which Islamic scholarship is passed on. The question was directly relevant to why Mr Edwards was in Australia.

Edwards is director of the al-Kawthar Institute in Arizona, and is part of the growing “Traditional Islam” (TI) movement. TI seeks to revive the orthodox and traditional method of transmitting Islamic sciences by means of chains of narration.

Under the TI model, a person’s knowledge of Islamic sciences derives its legitimacy from the person holding a published ijaza or authorisation from someone who themselves has ijaza and is part of a chain of ijaza going all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings of God be upon him and his household).

The chain of ijaza is known as a silsila. Apart from being the name of an old and highly unsuccessful Bollywood movie, the term is used to define a chain of narration and transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. The student is in fact a possible future teacher who will in turn transmit the knowledge to other students.

The TI model has been vilified in recent times by the neo-Conservative salafi movement which seeks to discredit the twin-poles of ijaza and silsila around which all traditional Islamic sciences rotate. The Islamic neo-Cons have themselves been discredited for generating terrorist movements responsible for a spate of attacks on civilian targets, the brunt of which all innocent Muslims have felt in one way or another.

TI is exemplified in Sydney by a variety of practitioners. Each Friday night, a retired academic and economist Dr Mohsin Labban leads a session of young couples and families on a spiritual journey firmly rooted in the TI movement as taught in al-Azhar University in Cairo.

Other TI practitioners include Sheik Shady Soliman who teaches students at the UMA Centre in Lakemba. Then there is the Daar Aishah Sharia College in Punchbowl, an institution which focuses on transmitting traditional Islamic sciences to women.

In recent times, and under the influence of Gary Edwards and Dr Tariq Ramadan, groups like Daar Aisha Sharia College and Islamic Realm have championed the cause of TI. The Andalus Bookstore has become almost soul distributor of popular TI works by writers such as Hamza Yusuf, Haddad and Esack (though some TI practitioners frown on Esack’s liberation theology).

Some local institutions flirt with TI, but have some reluctance to embrace the TI cause fully. Amongst them is the al-Ghazali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development (I will refer to it as “AGC”).

The AGC is directed by Mr Afroz Ali, an Australian architect of Fiji-Indian origin. Mr Ali is a charismatic speaker and has been involved with a variety of excellent initiatives under the auspices of the AGC. Amongst them has been a joint venture with the group Just Enough Faith to feed the homeless of Sydney.

Mr Ali has also been holding classes in Sydney. Many of these classes involve topics not specific to theology but more to do with personal development. The Marriage Courses have been particularly popular and have filled a huge gap which has been left by the inability of most local imams to communicate Islam’s sexual values without bogging students down in cultural irrelevancies.

However, in recent times, Mr Ali has commenced teaching courses in specialised schools of law and jurisprudence. As part of the promotional drive for these courses, Mr Ali has made a number of claims.

Firstly, Mr Ali claims to hold an undergraduate degree in Sharia Law from the Islamic University of Madeena in Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, Mr Ali claims to have a number of ijaza’s from qualified teachers in a number of subjects. These include ijaza in aqeeda (expression of creed), hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence of the school of Imam Abu Hanifa and his students) and other topics.

Thirdly, Mr Ali has claimed in the past that his courses will enable a graduate to be awarded a Diploma in Sharia that will be recognised by various institutions including al-Azhar in Egypt.

From time to time, Mr Ali has engaged scholars and lay persons in open debates on various theological issues. He has frequently criticised the qualifications of others, and has even gone to the extent of using disparaging language regarding established scholars such as Professor Abdullah Saeed.

Yet when asked to produce his own qualifications, Mr Ali has been reluctant if not extremely hostile to the suggestion. In this regard, he is not the best exemplar of TI.

Returning to the Deen Intensive referred to at the beginning of this piece, Gary Edwards was most surprised to hear of persons claiming qualifications to teach specialised Islamic sciences yet not being prepared to produce their qualifications when asked.

For Edwards, the mere wearing of a beard and turban is not enough to make one a scholar. “You can put a beard and turban on a billygoat”, Edwards remarked.

Further, Edwards suggested that anyone not prepared to show their ijaza before teaching was engaging in deception. Such refusal showed a fundamental character flaw, and people learning religious sciences from such persons were risking their own souls.

Edwards likened the refusal to show one’s ijaza to getting married to someone whilst hiding one’s true matrimonial status or refusing to show one’s drivers license when requested by a police officer.

In light of Mr Edwards’ comments, it would be most helpful if Mr Ali and indeed all teachers of Islamic sciences were prepared to show the precise nature and extent of their qualifications in those sciences.

Any teacher who charges money for teaching Islamic sciences and claims to be qualified yet refuses to show their qualifications should be reported to the NSW Police. Such teaching could, in my opinion, constitute an offence of obtaining benefit by deception. Further, they should also be reported to the NSW Department of Fair Trading for breaches of relevant provisions of the Fair Trading Act.

I have no problem with unqualified persons teaching Islamic sciences. If people are stupid enough to learn their faith from unqualified people, that is their problem. But those who claim the mantle of TI yet refuse to follow a simple precept of TI practitioners (i.e. disclosing and showing one’s qualifications) should be exposed.

I certainly hope that Mr Ali is in fact qualified as he claims. I hope he is prepared to show and publish his qualifications, especially now that I have made my request public on at least 3 occasions. And I certainly am not the first to do so.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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