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Islamology and the Making of Fake Islam, Part 1: Western Academics

Sacred knowledge is religion, so look to who you take your religion from.

Muhammad Ibn Sirīn (Sahih Muslim)

The American writer and philosopher Robert Pirsig (author of the cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) introduced the term “philosophology” in his book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. He defined it as:

Philosophology is to philosophy as musicology is to music, or as art history and art appreciation are to art, or as literary criticism is to creative writing. It’s a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host’s behavior.

Philosophologists, or any “ologist” for that matter, are not the real thing even though they claim to study and know a lot about the real thing. They write articles and books, philosophize at conferences, and are paraded around certain circles and government offices as experts. You might even find them on news programs commenting as the resident “expert.” However, real philosophers, artists, writers, poets, and creators despise the “ologists” of their field because they simply don’t get it. If the artist of any field represents the arete of that field, then the “ologist” of that field is its diametric opposite; its kakia. Of course, that might be an over extension, but the point to be made is that the “ologist” is, at their core, an odious creature that emerged sometime in the “modern world” to make us forget what is truly real and beautiful. Its genesis is the subject, perhaps, of a future piece.

I begin with Pirsig’s philosophology because I think it is a useful framework for understanding the dangers of Western academia and its study of Islam. There are many interesting theories, studies, and approaches that come from the Western academic study of Islam. The emphasis on knowing multiple languages, how to research, where to research, how to read sources, how to make and defend and argument, etc., are all fundamental tools for a scholar. I am blessed to have experienced this firsthand while doing my PhD work at Princeton University. Unfortunately, many centers of Islamic learning throughout the Muslim world, but certainly not all, are lagging in these skills and many students of these centers, but not all, emerge with a vast reservoir of memorized texts, but few analytical tools by which to make sense of them and apply them to the real world. For this reason, I still read Western academic books about Islam throughout the year. I try to stay up to date and connected to a world I occupied, if only for a brief moment.

One of the hallmarks of the Western study of religion is to learn certain methods and approaches to the study itself. A type of usul if you will for the academic approach. It was at Princeton that I was first exposed to these various methods and approaches. I didn’t care too much for this year-long seminar on the subject, but I did find many aspects of it interesting academically. Yet, I always saw this course and its subject matter as a theoretical exercise, the type that you would expect at an Ivy League graduate program to help exercise your mind and hone your analytical skills. It had/has little bearing on my personal relationship with Islam; an Islam that lives in the real world with real consequences; a world in which I am obligated to teach, preach, and guide those around me based on certain parameters established by the undisputed texts of Islam (revelation, sound hadith, and accepted books of specific disciplines), the paradigm of understanding these texts as established in the accepted epistemological discipline of Islam (usul al-fiqh), and the process of applying these deductions in the real world (the process of iftā’). The theories of the academy had/have no bearing whatsoever on this, and while they might produce interesting conclusions and notions that might have their place in a purely academic and philosophical conversation, they have no impact whatsoever on “real Islam” as practiced continually by actual Muslims.

While it is true that this is exactly the type of “ology” that Pirsig warns against, for the most part I saw it as benign and harmless. However, with the advent of the Arab Spring, and specifically the events of Egypt (the country of my ancestors) I began to see the great danger of this approach. I started to see academic after academic (especially Muslim academics) cross the line from the academy into the public square, trying to take on the role of an actual practitioner and scholar (i.e. ‘alim/’ulama’) by commenting on real events that have life or death consequences for real people. While the dangers of the philosopholigist might not be easily perceived because, as Pirsig states, there are so few true philosophers alive today, in other fields the distinction might be more easily discerned. For example, no one remembers the literary critic(s) that gave negative reviews of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) and even refused to publish the first volume. The fact remains, however, that his magnum opus is considered one of the most stunning and beautiful pieces of literature of the last century. Think about how often this scenario exists in our world and how many “ologists” poke holes in, cast doubt upon, and criticize ideas of artists, poets, novelists, and creators. Would you rather own a Picasso/Rembrandt, or would you rather have a framed clipping of those critics and historians (a.k.a “ologists”) who critiqued them as failures, unoriginal, and phonies on your wall?

Many academics of Islam today, but of course not all, are in fact Islamologists. They are simply not the real thing, nor do they even necessarily understand the real thing. They are backstreet drivers who have no skin in the game (to borrow from Nassim Nicholas Taleb) and use their theories, schemes, and frameworks – all concocted by other Islamolgoists and religionologists – to comment on real events and by so doing create fissures of doubt and skepticism in the minds of the non-expert, especially innocent everyday Muslims, many who see these academics as a smart version of Islam due to the coherence of their English as compared to their local Imam/Shaykh. The objects of this doubt are the institutes of real Islamic learning throughout the Muslim world and the scholars (‘ulamā’) who represent these institutes. These are argued to be “backward,” “ignorant,” “state-controlled,” “un-liberal,” etc. Since these Neanderthals of Islamic thinking cannot be relied upon, by process of elimination what is left are the Islamologists, especially the Muslim Islamologists. Can you imagine the art and mastery of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner being replaced by the lecture notes of your college literary critic professor? Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC robbed of its treasures only to be replaced by the art critics who have been relegated to the dustbin of history? Well, Islamologists are doing just that with real Islam.

The blunt instrument of relativity, a product of our institutes of higher education, is now in the business of creating a fake Islam; a parallel Islam in much the same way that ISIS and their ilk created a fake and parallel Islam. This is an edifice constructed on the Islamology of the Islamologist, bereft of any tangible, actionable guidance. Completely separate from and unrelated to real events, real people, and real consequences. Its original habitat is the deep recess of the academy, safe from criticism, guarded by “academic freedom,” tenured faculty positions, and the general acceptance and adoration of the establishment that gave birth to it in the first place. It might be harmless if they were kept in this cage, but they seem to be breaking loose and depositing their relativity and doubt over everything they touch and comment on.

The ‘Ulamā’

This does not mean that the scholars of Islam, and here I mean the real scholars, not the Islamogolists, are infallible or perfect. They get things right and they get things wrong. They hit and they miss. They struggle to make sense of it all amidst great social, political, and economic change. However, the main difference between the real scholars of Islam (the ‘ulamā’) and the Islamogolist is that the ulama are united by one constant fact: their paradigm of receiving, interpreting, and implementing Islam. Their usul is shared, even if there is great diversity within this usul. They stand on an edifice that is over 1400 years old. A structure that has stood the test of time, spanned the length of the globe, and dealt with almost every conceivable human phenomenon and contingency imaginable. Muslim scholars even posited what could and would happen in the future given the parameters of their eschatological believes. Furthermore, these ‘ulamā’ are fully involved not only with the theory and study of Islam, but its actual application and implementation today. Their opinions effect the lives of millions. They have the soft power to bring down governments, set up new ones, influence behavior, impact the viability of commercial products, and even pronounce rulings on capital crimes. The list goes on.

This is very important to understand for one fundamental fact: Islamologists will never have any real impact on the understanding or practice of Islam because their approach to Islam, or any religion for that matter, comes from a set of approaches and methods of study that are relative and based in doubt, not certainty. Islam’s methodology, however, is based on the absolute and Divine nature of the revelation and our partial, relative, never-ending attempt to understand it. An interpretation or understanding that comes from this approach is something that has the basis (usul) to be accepted as authoritative, even if controversial, and therefore has the ability to further the layers of commentary of Islam. Nils Jansen said it best in his book The Making of Legal Authority (a very important source I found in my own study of Sharia codification):

The abstract authority of a text giving expression to a legal norm consists in the legal profession accepting it as an ultimate source of the law, without requiring further legal reasons to do so.

The works, comments, and thoughts of Islamologists do not fit this requirement and are not even considered by the ‘ulamā’ in their deliberations. They are simply not art.

Who is this Article for?

I am not writing this article to provoke a conversation with Islamologists. The fact is, I don’t care for their opinion precisely because their opinion doesn’t mean anything in the real sense. They don’t inspire love, beauty, or belief. They cannot help me establish a personal relationship with God and His Messenger (God bless him and give him peace). Sure, they can be hurtful and spiteful. Especially the ones who tweet criticisms of the ‘ulama’ engaging with government while sitting in government offices themselves. I write these lines for the Muslim who yearns for a deeper connection with their faith; for the Muslim who is searching for meaning and connection; for the Muslim who is conflicted by their multiple identities; for the Muslim who is struggling with heartache and loss; for the Muslim struggling with forbidden love; for the Muslim who is in despair and contemplating taking their own life, etc. For all of you, and me included, it is important that we look to who we listen to and who we take our religion from (you might find this talk I gave on how to find a shaykh useful). Do not listen to the naysayers, the ones who create doubt, the ones who cancel, the ones who hate. Rather turn and come……

Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.

Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi