Al-Salam Institute, co-founded by one of my teachers, Shaykh Akram Nadwi, recently asked me to teach a module of ‘ulum al-qur’an on the foundation year of their new 5 year part-time ‘alim course and I was happy to accept. The module has not started yet, as it will be in Term 3, taking place in 2015. I was also asked to give a short talk on Imam Abu Hanifa as part of the Al-Salam Open Day and ‘Agree to Disagree’ Event. Here I am in the middle of the talk, which took place at Queen Mary, University of London.
Recently I have noticed something of a backlash on social media (ie Twitter, where I tweet as @ibrahimharvey) and through email of people questioning, or even criticising the idea of ‘part-time ‘alimiyya’. The general line of critique being that Islamic knowledge is not a part-time matter, or that it is impossible to adequately cover the required texts in comparison to full-time courses (the reference here is basically to Hanafi Dars Nizami courses). I gave quite a lengthy email response to someone on this subject this week and I thought it would be useful to post an edited version of some of that message here (of course keeping the individual anonymous) for hopefully general benefit.
My personal view is that looking at a certain type of ‘alim course’ and then setting a standard of hours of instruction that other courses should follow is not that helpful in terms of the reality of Islamic knowledge and its acquisition. No-one becomes an alim in truth, by completing even the 6 year (or more) full-time courses. To become an ‘alim is a lifetime commitment and journey. The programmes that exist impart certain training as part of that journey. The question should rather be: how does the training of course A differ from that of course B? What is covered and what is left out, and why?
In these terms, I think it is valuable to compare Al-Salam’s offering (2 yrs advanced curriculum here) with that of your standard 6 year full-time dar al-‘ulum. So, what are the features of most of the Dars Nizami ‘alim courses? Arabic and foundational ‘ulum. A strong emphasis on fiqh and usul through different books of the Hanafi madhhab, a mixture of other disciplines, though usually fairly basic tafsir. Either no extensive focus on hadith (if lacking dawra year), or a year (or two) of pure hadith, however with the emphasis on a) covering all books with sama’ (listening to the hadiths), even if not in depth; and b) defending Hanafi positions.
Ok, that is quite a critical take, so let me make myself clear. I do not think these courses are bad, far from it: my first fiqh teacher who I deeply respect (and value as a friend) is a graduate from Dar al-‘Ulum Bury. They give a solid grounding in the shari’ah disciplines and particularly train students to be strong in fiqh. However, having met many graduates from these courses over the last 10 years, there is often an inability to apply their knowledge, as well as a lack of academic literacy and critical thinking. Thus, such students need additional years of training to become real scholars. Of course, all these courses are not the same and inevitably my comments are generalisations. However, the curriculum that is followed reflects the priorities of a particular time and place (18th century India) and should not be taken as an immutable ahistorical entity. Informally, many of the younger graduates and scholars accept that changes can, and perhaps should, be made. However, institutional change is usually a fairly slow process. Moreover, there is also a backlash against change in the name of preserving the ‘authentic Dars Nizami’.
Al-Salam’s course is different in a number of ways. It is part-time, only one day a week in university time, which opens it up to a much wider range of students of all ages, than one will typically find at a dar al-‘ulum. I should also point out that there is a 10 day ‘umrah and separate summer residential, which although auxiliary, are meant to slightly address the lesser amount of time, both in terms of suhbah and the inculcation of piety (an important objective of any serious Islamic education), as well as ‘ilm.
The focus at Al-Salam, especially in the last 2 years which is exclusively taught by Shaykh Akram (rather than mainly his senior students as for the first 3 years), is on critical thinking and developing academic ability, as well as covering texts. The idea is that students will spend the time they are not being instructed studying the issues, researching or reading the texts, or other works. Thus, the course is somewhere between a traditional ‘alim course and say a Masters university degree. In terms of content, there is a big focus on in-depth study of hadith through al-Bukhari and al-Tirmidhi and study of tafsir, comparative early fiqh and usul, as well as history. A final point is that the whole course revolves around the thinking and approach of Shaykh Akram and so is only suitable for those who appreciate his areas of focus and approach to the disciplines. In my opinion he is a great scholar who tirelessly gives of himself for the community and for the serious student there is much to be gained.
Finally, it is useful to think about the potential outcomes of the generalised ‘traditional ‘alim course’ I have been writing about and the Al-Salam course. The former is focused first and foremost on training the student to be able to understand in detail all parts of Hanafi fiqh and to be able to provide evidences and arguments for the positions. They would also have a good general knowledge of Islamic disciplines and be grounded in reading texts within the different genres. This training is particularly helpful for someone becoming a mosque imam, mufti, or fiqh teacher, although particularly in the case of imams, desperately needs to be coupled with vocational training in community issues, as well as supplementary studies (e.g. of the type offered by Cambridge Muslim College, where I am currently employed as a Research Fellow).
The Al-Salam graduate would probably not be as strong in pure Hanafi fiqh, due to the comparative nature of the course and the lesser time for instruction. However, they would have, I think, a broader view of the different approaches that exist to interpreting the shari’ah and a better understanding of the history and genesis of the different madhahib. They would also have a superior appreciation of the mechanics of hadith criticism and would be better able to answer Western academia’s criticisms of this system, as well as take the first steps towards making their own judgements about hadith grading and interpretation, or at least be able to understand the arguments of the masters of the past. Finally, they would have better research and academic skills. Therefore, I think this training is particularly helpful for someone becoming an academic, researcher or intellectual.
The final caveat is this: to become an Islamic scholar in the true sense would take many more years after this, so deficiencies in either course could be rectified with attention to particular areas. Although one may earn an accreditation of ‘alimiyya after these courses, no-one should think that they are now the finished article. In traditional dar al-‘ulums there is a process of takhassus, or specialisation, into fields such as hadith, tafsir and ifta’ (giving fatwa). In Al-Salam, Shaykh Akram’s senior students continue to study with him, as well as other teachers. In fact, it was the Shaykh and the Institute who encouraged (and forced!) his students to start teaching, rather than them asking for it. More generally, we should strive not to be bogged down in the egotistical business of forging our ‘identity’ through our association with any particular approach or school, but rather realise that many things are open to a difference of opinion and likewise there are many ways to gain knowledge. We should also encourage the widening of benefit to all in the community through the different means that Allah makes available for us, wa Allahu a’lam.