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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UPDATE: From "qualified imam" in Sydney to "Islamic scholar" in Christchurch ...

"imam" Afroz Ali has joined the ranks of the big league, sharing a stage with actual former politicians (Bob Carr and Andrew Bartlett) and an actual sitting MP Pru Goward, as well as other actually qualified people. You can read their biographies here. Here is what "imam" sahib says about himself:


Afroz Ali is the Founder and President of Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development, based in Lakemba in south-western Sydney and a founding and executive member of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. Afroz is a qualified Imam in the Islamic Tradition. He has studied in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United States, Mauritania and Egypt and his worldwide work involves presenting workshops and training programs on Islamic Jurisprudence, Spirituality, Ecological Wellbeing, Ethical Rights and Responsibilities, and Personal and Corporate Citizenship. He mentors and trains community organisations in sustainability and personal development and advocates peace, acceptance, justice and interpersonal rights. Imam Afroz is the recipient of the International Ambassador for Peace award.
So Afroz founded this climate change group. That's a good thing. It's an issue that affects us all. Actual trained and qualified imams seem to be ignoring the issue. At least, we don't see actual imams involved in climate change activism.

But who gave him this Ambassador of Peace award? When did he start training people on "Islamic ... Spirituality" (i.e. irfan or tasawwuf)? Is he part of a tariqa (sufi order) and authorised by a murshid to do so? And what is this clumsy expression "interpersonal rights"? Is it the same as human rights? And who awarded Afroz the "International Ambassador for Peace" award? What is this award?

Afroz is no longer saying he has graduated or received degrees from Saudia, Yemen, the US, Mauritania or Egypt. Instead, he has merely studied in these countries. Afroz has learned to be relatively more honest in Australia, though such honesty doesn't extend to New Zealand.

In an upcoming session in Christchurch, hosted by the Nawawi Centre (and which I found on the University of Canterbury website), Afroz has this said about himself:

Islam and Muslim cultures: A primer for service providers
10am-4pm, 15 and 16 December — Refugee and Migrant Service Centre, 201 Peterborough St

Join Islamic scholar Imam Afroz Ali, from Sydney, for a two-day workshop seminar aimed at those in educational, health and legal sectors, as well as other service provider sectors, who work with Muslim clients. The workshop will provide a detailed workbook, and comprise of strategies, insights and effective tools to work with Muslims in light of their faith, Islam. The programme will highlight Muslim cultural matters that may affect your effectiveness as a service provider and how to develop a successful working relationship through sound knowledge of the practices.

Imam Afroz Ali provides such training to service and corporate sectors in Australia, and his insights and expertise will be highly valuable for your organization ...

Cost is $90 per person.
Islamic scholar? When did that happen? Is Afroz qualified as an Islamic acholar in the same manner as I am a qualified lawyer? Or as scholars like Bill Shepard or Anthony Johns are scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies?

So in Australia, Afroz is a mere "qualified imam", while in New Zealand (and at a cost of $90 a pop) he becomes an "Islamic scholar". Go figure.

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