So you want to be a scholar? Things to consider

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Traditionally, Arabic books published on this topic tend to be titled talab al-‘ilm (Seeking knowledge) or kitab al-ilm (book of knowledge), and focus on some sort of general curriculum reflecting the legal (fiqh) and theological (i’tiqād) inclinations of the author. I don’t think it necessary to reproduce that here. Instead, I offer some considerations (by way of questions) that aren’t so often discussed.

People who want to study to become scholars very rarely determine:

  • why they want to be scholars, or
  • what a scholar is (or even what the word means).

On the first point, I don’t mean the usual “for the sake of Allah” sentiment, nor general aspirations to teach and spread the faith – there are many things far easier/quicker that they could do ‘for the sake of Allah’ but are not done, and teaching the masses will inevitably mean teaching the basics which doesn’t require scholarly training. By why, I mean what do they intend to do as scholars? Most answers to this question tend to carry a number of assumptions as to what specifically ‘scholarly activities’ are, usually based on what they’ve seen a ‘shaikh’ doing. Yet deeper analysis will reveal that such activities do not really require scholarly qualifications, and thus, there tends to be the conflation between a teacher and a scholar. (To use western standards as an analogy, you can be a teacher without having a PhD and conducting research, and likewise you can be a scholar but not teach).

Additionally, if we decide on a career there are various factors involved: How will I pay the bills – what are rates of pay? Where will I work and what tend to be the hours? How will it affect my family, spousal relationship, and general quality of life? What skills might I need beyond merely reading books and honing abilities to regurgitate them (which is assumed to be scholarship!)? How will I make sense of medieval legal/theological doctrines in light of modern western life? How will I ensure I’m not caught in a social or cultural bubble? Many assume that hadiths pertaining to the virtues of the learned worshippers over the non-learned worshipper render the above considerations void. However, the hadiths use the term alim which contextually refer to the learned or informed, and many remain unable to spell out or demonstrate exactly how becoming a career scholar makes one a better worshipper.

On the second point, I’m yet to meet two who agree on what a scholar is, in fact, even those who study themselves tend to be in the dark. Most know it has something to do with knowledge, but they’re unsure as to what exactly. What are appropriate qualifications? What are suitable standards? Some will say an ijazah – but in an era when ijazas have become meaningless and handed out like flyers, how do we discern what is meaningful? Others will say a degree from an Islamic university, but where academic standards are abysmally low, and the general cohort of graduates generally ineffectual at dealing with societal issues, how effective is a degree certificate beyond perhaps garnering recognition amongst certain groups?

People hold very arbitrary notions, and usually resort to telling you who a scholar is as opposed to what, but even then they’re unable to tell you how they’ve determined thus beyond the testimony of a friend – “x told me”, or because they appreciate someone’s style of delivery – “s/he’s a good speaker!”

Furthermore, what type of scholar do you want to be? A jurist differs from a historian, who differs from a theologian, who differs from an Arabic grammarian. What are the appropriate qualifications for these varying types of scholarship, and what is regarded as scholarship in their respective contexts? Do you know of the differences, both in the processes to achieve scholarly competence, and in what they respectively do?

The reason I haven’t given answers to the above is because I’d like people to think about these things deeply. Becoming an Islamic scholar isn’t something you decide to do at the age of 18 whilst ‘finding yourself’ and with a student loan at your disposal. It is arduous, challenging, (at times) boring and monotonous, and those who travel abroad can be placed in precarious situations. At the same time, for those who enjoy philosophic enquiry (which ironically aren’t many in the realm of religion) it is extremely enlightening and enjoyable.

In my own experience, those who think they want to be scholars, having answered the above questions (as well as others), quickly realise that they never actually wanted to! They simply sought to be informed and educated believers, and perhaps even be able to engage with scholars alongside a basic understanding of some technicalities, realising that juristic and theological training is entirely something else!

1 comment

Abdus-Samad March 31, 2020 - 2:10 am

Good points.
Question: What of those who perhaps don’t want to be scholars per say but nor do they want to be simply informed and educated believers (ideally, we should all belong in this category), what if they want to be, for lack of a better term, ‘students of shari’ah’ i.e. having an intermediate understanding of some key Islamic sciences? That seems like a level somewhere in between and perhaps you’re alluding to it in your last paragraph where you mention “perhaps even be able to engage with scholars alongside a basic understanding of some technicalities”. I’d be interested to get your thoughts on a ‘so you want to be a student of shari’ah?’ topic.

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