By Usaama al-Azami
The Role of Muslims in Islamic Scholarship in Britain over the Next Ten Years
Medieval Islamic societies were, in their heyday, the most bibliophilic societies in pre-modern times. Of course, with the advent of printing, and the rise of Europe out of the Dark Ages, the Western world embarked on the quest for knowledge in its own right, leading, in the modern era, to the Library of Congress in Washington comfortably ranking first in the league tables of ‘library size’.
All the while, the Muslim world, despite being afflicted by the evils of colonisation, corruption, and poverty, has maintained, into the new millennium, a respectable degree of bibliomania. From the booksellers in Cairo to the authors of Madina, this trade shows no sign of abating. And so it should be, for isn’t Islam the very religion whose first revealed words were the command: “Read!”? Indeed, no culture in the era before printing was quite so obsessed with books, and of this culture, that has undoubtedly seen some decline in recent centuries, one may find its delightful, if mildly eccentric, presence in the English language in the poetic reflections of Khaled Abou El Fadl in his, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books.
Sadly, however, Muslims in the UK, for reasons that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be attributed to their religion—though perhaps it may be imputed to a lack of religion—tend to perform among the poorest among their peers in the public education system. That is, however, a separate discussion to the one at hand. Here I am concerned with the study of Islam by Muslims in the West.
Muslims began coming in large numbers to this part of the world towards the middle of the last century, and certain communities among them were quick to establish institutions of learning that would help preserve their tradition and culture in a very foreign land– I’m speaking here primarily about the Gujarati community in the Midlands and the North of England. Other communities were less systematic, but were also very keen to preserve a sense of Muslim identity in posterity; and still others, who were a minority, made no effort to preserve their tradition, and consequently have been completely assimilated into British society, becoming almost indistinguishable from non-Muslims.
Of the first to communities, the study of Islam at a university level appears to have been negligible. The Gujarati communities have, since the 60s, been hard at work to establish seminaries that mirror the seminaries that they were accustomed to in India. Undoubtedly a lot of the study that takes place at such institutions is, by some measure, at university level, but unfortunately most of these institutions do not grant degrees that are recognised in mainstream British society. The other communities, although not excluding members of the Gujarati community, did often tend to enter higher education, but would rarely study Islamic studies in the Western university setting. This may have been due to a suspicion on the part of Muslims towards westerners studying their tradition in a way that distorted it—perhaps not altogether paranoid an observation, given Edwards Said’ book, Orientalism.
Still, even from this more paranoid perspective, I find it curious that those who subscribed to it did not make an effort to study Islam in Western universities, in order to counter what they deemed a ‘distorted’ perspective of their tradition. Surely if they were to stand by and do nothing, such a ‘distorted’ perspective of Islam would continue to be taught at these institutions.
More than this, however, I believe the lack of Muslim interest in Islamic studies at a university level is the result of a Muslim obsession with sending their best and brightest youths to stereotypically ‘respectable’ subjects like medicine, engineering, and law—a tendency that seems to show no sign of waning.
But I am writing this piece to call on Muslims, young and old, to rethink their roles in the West, and reconsider the question of what the younger generation should be doing and studying. I think there is a very clear need for having among our ranks people who may be described as scholars both within the Islamic tradition, and the Western tradition, for new circumstances need fresh perspectives, and only a blend of the traditional and the modern can suffice in producing these perspectives. If we are to produce such people, we must certainly consider encouraging some of our best and brightest to study our great tradition. Those of us who will devote our lives and careers to this area will of course be few in number, but not everyone who studies Classics at university goes on to become a teacher of Greek or Latin. Many such people will enter the conventional job market, and so they should. Rather, I believe that Muslims need to develop Islamic literacy so that they are in better position to confront the challenges of the modern world, and be better citizens of our country. Only then will we be able to do justice to our illustrious tradition, while joining hands with our fellow compatriots in dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.
Usaama al-Azami read Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. He has had extensive traditional Islamic training with scholars in the Middle East and Europe. Currently he is pursuing a doctorate at Princeton University, USA.
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