Wednesday, December 10, 2008

COMMENT: What does it mean to be an Islamic scholar?

Last week I joined a panel of speakers at a round-table seminar organised by a security-related thinktank in Canberra that has a rather scary (if you find "homeland security" scary) name but is about as far away from Guantanamo Bay as Canberra could be now that John Howard is no longer Prime Minister.

The promotional material that was sent out originally described me as a “Muslim scholar”. It must have been an oversight on their part. I certainly never told them I was a Muslim scholar, hence I was a little surprised by the title. I don’t have a PhD, so I cannot be described as a scholar in a conventional sense. I haven’t completed a degree from an Islamic university and/or have a few ijaza’s up my sleeve, so I can’t really claim to be an Aalim or Shaykh or Maulana or Hoca or Kiai or even an Ayatullah. I’m just a humble suburban solicitor who isn’t doing a huge amount of soliciting these days.

There are various titles used to describe a Muslim scholar. Or, if you will, an Islamic scholar. Some people differentiate between things that are “Muslim” and things that are “Islamic”. The late Sayyid Maududi, a Pakistani journalist and prominent ideologue of 20th century political Islam, differentiated between Muslim states (which were largely secular nation-states that happened to have a majority of their population who were nominally or culturally Muslim) and Islamic states (which were ideological states that strove to run their affairs in the manner laid down by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors in the city of Medina during the 7th century).

So being Muslim means you have some association with Islam sufficient enough that, when handed a census form, you feel inclined to tick the “Muslim” box. However, being “Islamic” means that you try your best to live as Koranically (if such a world exists) as possible.

Not many religious scholars (call them Muslim or Islamic if you wish) of the classical tradition seem to have alot of time for Maududi. Then again, not alot of classically trained Muslim/Islamic scholars regard political Islam as terribly Islamic (in a Maududian sense).

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Indeed, many classically trained scholars who condemn Maududi and other writers of his ilk still see the world through this Muslim –v- Islamic lens.

Anyway, returning to the issue of whether I am a scholar or not, the point is that there is some kind of education and accreditation process that people need to go through before they become religious scholars. Once you go through this process, you can then apply any number of exotic labels to yourself.

The problem we have in Australia is that we don’t have a set system of accreditation of people we refer to as “imams”. We also don’t have any consensus on exactly what roles imams are supposed to play.

There are people who take advantage of this situation. However, I chose not to. I immediately informed my hosts that I was in no way a Muslim (or Islamic) scholar. Here’s what I wrote to the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre in Canberra ...

I'm not actually a Muslim scholar, either in the traditional or modern sense. I don't have a PhD, nor do I have a degree from any seminary. It would be inaccurate to describe me as a "Muslim scholar.
They changed the promotional flyer to reflect this. I'm glad they did. Because on the panel were numerous scholars - as in university academics with doctorates - who might have wondered what I was doing calling myself a scholar. In the audience was at least one Muslim who would have wondered what on earth I was doing pretending to be a Muslim/Islamic scholar.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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