Is America ready to embrace Islamic education?
This year saw the founding and opening of the Zaytuna College – a spin-off from Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson’s Zaytuna Institute, which is an excellent initiative.
Islamic scholars like the famed Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and the Chair in Islamic and Arabic Studies at Cambridge University Sheikh Timothy Winter (aka Abdul Hakim Murad) are an incredible source of pride for the current generation of Muslims.They are intellectual, articulate and ooze a certain spirituality in their rational approach to solving contemporary Muslim problems. The latter launched the Cambridge Muslim College last year with a similar vision of enlightening educated but deeply devout Muslims in the West by grounding them firmly in traditional Islamic sciences. They also opened their horizons by teaching courses in government, Western political philosophy and economics et al.
The idea is simple – to create a group of traditional Muslim scholars who are well equipped to handle the challenges of the modern world, have a nuanced understanding of it and are positive contributors to society.
What’s wrong with Muslim leadership?
A major problem that Muslim society faces today is that its traditional religious leadership cadre draws itself from the most underprivileged and intellectually weakest segments of society, which limits understanding of religion and the role in nation-building. At the Ivy Muslim conference in Yale this year, I was fortunate enough to meet Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, a dynamic American engineer of Pakistani origin pursuing his PHD in Islamic Studies at Yale after spending years in Saudi Arabia studying at the Islamic University of Madinah. He brought this point up multiple times instigating young, intelligent and educated Muslims to take up the leadership mantle and bring a balance to the office of the Khateeb, who doesn’t just wait for the mosque’s neighborhood to bring him qorma but is actually at the cutting edge of his worldly field.
This was certainly true of Muslim societies in yesteryears.
What happened to the Madressah?
Madressahs were once houses of great scientific discovery, at the cusp of innovation in fields as diverse as philosophy and alchemy. One such institute was the famed the Uluq Beg Madrassah in Central Asia, which housed a unique observatory, and was named after a ruler who embodied Plato’s vision of the “Philosopher King”. Similarly, Ibrahim Müteferrika – a Hungarian convert to Islam was an Islamic scholar, polymath par excellence and an inventor who brought the first printing press to the Muslim world by convincing the then Ottoman Caliph against the wishes of his Şeyhülislam (Chief Mufti of the empire).
Many Islamic scholars of the time were peeved by the mistake-ridden attempt to print the Holy Quran made by Catherine the Great in Russia. However, it was Müteferrika’s superior education and subsequent sagacious mindset that finally convinced the Sultan Ahmet III to bring Guttenberg’s printing press to the Islamic world a good 300 years after Europe (by which time the Muslims had fallen significantly behind). Interestingly enough the Ottoman times were still better off in many ways than the current state of the Ummah. Many officials were both religious scholars and held other prominent positions in various facets of professional life – for instance Mohamed-Sayd Halet Effendi was both scholar and the Sultan’s Ambassador to Napoleon’s court.
Why is this reality important for us to understand?
The New York “Park-51 community-center/mosque” imbroglio has once again put Muslims on an already hot seat. In fact, Gallup polls show that more than half of America has a negative view of Islam with a large majority (63 percent) saying they have very little or no knowledge of Islam at all.
It is, therefore, imperative for a new educated breed of Muslim scholars to rise up to the challenge and change the dialectic in favor of Muslims. Sheikhs Yusuf, Murad and Qadhi are trying their best, but there is a chronic need for many more. I am certain that Zaytuna College is an august step in this very direction!
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