Al-Salam Institute and the Question of the Part-time ‘Alim Course

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.










Certification of Halal Meat in the UK

The final version of my research on certification of halal meat in the UK has been published and is available for download from the CIS website here:

As well as some revision in content and an improved format that can be referred to by other researchers, this published version also contains the full transcriptions of the interviews conducted with the heads of the HFA and HMC within the appendices.

I hope it can be of some benefit in advancing the condition of the meat industry generally and the ‘halal’ portion of it specifically.

Al-Sarakhsi’s Interpretation of Apostasy in Islam

Following an online discussion, I found it useful to go to al-Sarakhsi’s al-Mabsut and extract a more nuanced reading of his position on apostasy. All references are from the edition published by Dar al-Ma’rifah in 1989, vol X. These are research notes and not a developed thesis:

1) The idea, put forward by some scholars, that al-Sarakhsi did not hold the death penalty for the murtadd (apostate) is refuted by the opening lines of Bab al-Murtaddin (Chapter of the Apostates) on p. 98. He here repeats the standard Hanafi position that when a Muslim apostates, Islam is presented to him. He either enters into Islam or is killed on the spot, unless he asks for a delay, in which case he is given three days. What is very interesting about al-Sarakhsi’s discussion in al-Mabsut, however, is how he understands and explains the received rulings, and the legal reasoning that he demonstrates whilst doing so.

2) It is interesting to see where Bab al-Murtaddin is situated in his work. It is part of his Kitab al-Siyar (Book of Foreign Relations) and is followed by Bab al-Khawarij. It is not within Kitab al-Hudud. Also the plural title (al-Murtaddin) as opposed to the singular al-Murtadd gives an advance indication of the kind of understanding he will employ in this issue, one which distinguishes a political element to the rulings.

3) As part of his opening remarks in the chapter, al-Sarakhsi alludes to the following verse of the Qur’an in regard to the basis of obligation in the killing of apostates:

‘Tell the desert Arabs who stayed behind, ‘You will be called to face a people of great might in war and to fight them, unless they surrender: if you obey, God will reward you well, but if you turn away, as you have done before, He will punish you heavily.’ (al-Fath, 16)

However, he implicitly recognises that this is not clear evidence for the ruling by using the phrase ‘qila’ (it is said), which normally acknowledges a weaker opinion. He thereafter moves straight on to the evidences from the Sunnah. It can also be noted that the context of Surah al-Fath is one with a lot of emphasis on loyalty to God and His Messenger (saw), but punishment for failing in this is related to the Hereafter only (see verse 13).

4) Al-Sarakhsi quotes the ruling of Imam Abu Hanifah, recorded by Muhammad al-Hasan al-Shaybani, that female apostates are not to be killed but imprisoned until repenting or dying (p. 108). In putting forward his defence against the opinion of al-Shafi’i, who holds that the ruling is the same for a woman as for a man, he quotes narrations that suggest female apostates were only killed when they were combatants, or were encouraging fighting against the Muslims (p. 110).

5) The key passage follows:
‘It is probable that this [ruling of killing a certain female apostate] was from [Abu Bakr] al-Siddiq, may Allah be pleased with him, in the way of general welfare (maslahah) and politics, like he ordered the chopping of the hands of the women that beat the drum at the death of the Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in order to convey their malicious joy. The meaning of it [the example of such a woman] is that she is a rejector of faith so is not killed – just like one who is initially a non-believer. This is because killing is not the punishment for apostasy, but is deserved on account of [violent] perseverance in rejecting faith. Do you not see that if such a person embraced Islam the punishment would be lifted on account of the absence of this perseverance? What is deserved as a punishment is not lifted by repentance – like the hudud. Once the cause of them is clear to the Imam, they are not lifted by repentance…Indeed, changing of one’s religion [away from Islam] and the initial state of disbelief are from the gravest crimes, but they are between a servant and his Lord, so the punishment for them is delayed until the the Abode of Requital. What is put forward in this world is of the nature of political legislation for the general benefit of humanity, like qisas (retaliation) for the preservation of life…in regard to the one persevering in rejecting faith, he is a belligerent to the Muslims, so he is killed to ward off warfare.’ (p. 110)

Thus we can see that al-Sarakhsi’s understanding of the issue is very much tied up with the political situation of the Muslim community and the meaning of apostasy as a political act and – in early Islamic history – one of hostility and war.

6) A final point relates to the terminology used by al-Sarakhsi. An interesting issue that has come up in discussion is the definition or meaning of ‘apostasy simpliciter’ and whether classical jurists would use such a term. On p. 109 al-Sarakhsi writes that ‘Women are not killed because they do not fight and in this there is no distinction between the initial and contingent states of disbelief (bayna al-kufr al-asli wa bayna al-kufri al-tari’). Here and elsewhere, al-Sarakhsi uses ‘al-kufr al-tari’ as a term to refer to apostasy as opposed to ‘al-kufr al-asli’ – the initial state of disbelief. His usage would suggest that al-kufr al-tari’ could be fairly well equated to ‘apostasy simpliciter’ (apostasy without qualification, usually understood in this discourse as apostasy in faith without necessarily comprising other further actions against the community), while ‘irtadd’ (apostasy) and ‘al-israr ‘ala al-kufr’ ([violent] perseverance in rejecting faith) refer to apostasy with a distinct political connotation. In al-Sarakhsi’s view, it seems it is this political element on which the death penalty is ultimately to be predicated, on the basis of maslahah (general welfare). Wa allahu a’lam.