Traversing Traditions From Medina to Yale
Channel: Yasir Qadhi
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Thank you very much for having me. So I was asked to give some reflections about the two different paradigms that I've studied from. And so my talk today is going to be somewhat more of a discussion or narrative rather than a deep academic paper. I'll begin with an anecdote. My master's dissertation theorist of Edina was entitled, in Arabic, obviously John Gibbons of one and his effects on the theological groups, and it was an 800 Page dissertation in Arabic That was awarded the highest honors. And I felt after four years of research in Medina, about Jehovah, so one, Surely nobody in the world would know more than I did about Jonathan so fun. And so I, as soon as I arrived
at Yale University, the first thing I did the first week is I walked into Sterling library, and I researched who else had written about Jim, in the Western tradition. And I came across an article written by Richard and Frank before I was born, actually, entitled The Neo Platonism of John Gibbons of one. And I rushed eagerly to go and read the article on the sixth floor where the Arabic selections were. And I remember I read that article, and I reread it and I reread it three times I read it. And it was my one of my first exposures to the two different worlds that we are now discussing today. The article of Richard and Frank hardly referenced most of the material that I had
put in my dissertation, it really seemed to ignore many of the sources that I was using. And yet, what he was talking about, really seemed completely foreign to my entire dissertation. Faculty that matters. And I don't mind confessing this at the time, this was almost 20 years ago, I really didn't understand Richard and Frank's article or his thesis or the entire like the the point of the the article itself, I had never studied Neo Platonism in Medina, and it didn't quite grasp what he was trying to convey. So the talk that I wanted to begin with this anecdote, because to me, it really, it really illustrates that's the two paradigms are operating from a time such different presumptions
and says different worldviews. And I want to of course, begin with the disclaimer that much of what I'm saying is anecdotal, and therefore there must always be exceptions to the rule. And also things have changed. I mean, I studied in Medina in the 90s. And I got accepted a deal in the early 2000s. And so I'm sure much has changed there were not that many Muslims in the academy back then. But I think that itself is changing. And along with that more madrasa students are coming so much of my talk might be hopefully outdated, I do hope so. But I'll begin with the most obvious paradigmatic difference, and then I'll mention three positives of the madrasa and then three positives with the
academy, and then mentioned some concluding thoughts. The obvious paradigmatic difference is that religious seminaries are faith based, whereas the academic study of Islam isn't. And of course, this need leads to an entirely different worldview, there are clear red lines that each of the two disciplines will not cross. And there are a set of assumptions that are tested amongst both seminaries begin with the very basic presumption in the truthfulness of the faith that they study, and the fact that this is a genuine path to come closer to God. Hence, the type of students that are attracted to seminaries are generally speaking, religiously motivated individuals who wish to live a
better life a morally superior life, a spiritually fulfilled life by drawing closer to God. Because of this, obviously, there is an extremely high reverence for what is perceived to be the revelation of God, the Quran, the persona of the Prophet, the teachings of the Prophet, and of course, it will be anathema to to challenge any of that from within the madrasa system. Not just that, not just the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet, every single Seminary in the world, every single Seminary is coming from a particular paradigm from within the faith. And the goal of that Seminary is to therefore produce
intellectuals or to produce researchers or to produce religious clerics that will further convey and support that particular understanding of Islam. And so if I talk about the University of Medina, it is understood by the
When I was studying there, I don't know what has happened since then, I think changes are going on. But when I was studying there in the 90s, it was understood and it was quite clear that you needed to subscribe to the theological underpinnings of that entire system, which of course means the doctrines of had been Tamia, Bahamas or the Wahab have the overall, you know, set a fee paradigm. And I remember clearly that a student was actually expelled when it was discovered that he was about to add, and that he wasn't sympathetic to, you know, the authority paradigm. And the goal, of course, is quite clear that this seminary wants to produce religious leadership that embodies its
values, and that exudes its version of orthopraxy and orthodoxy, and it will only achieve that goal by having this type of mindset. The Academy, on the other hand, has no such pretentious about itself, it has no concern regarding your personal beliefs, or your commitment or lack thereof to any faith. Rather, it aims to produce what it views are unbiased researchers. Hence, there is no claim of reverence for the text or the subject study. And generally speaking, one is much more freer to posit a wide variety of questions in a very different genre compared to the madrasa, the academy as an unspoken rule shiz away from asking questions that are deemed to be beyond the scope of study,
does God exist? Has he actually sent an Arabian Prophet is the Quran a divine revelation? These are questions that are viewed to be questions of faith, not academic research, and hence not in the purview of the academy. One small point though, can be pushed back here, and that is that while the assertion might be true, that the academy never discussed this explicitly, one must wonder the underlying presumptions that exists in the mind of the researchers as they talk about Near Eastern legends and Quranic passages and how much overlap there is the the the underlying understood notions of human influence and the sources of Quranic authorship are quite clearly being indicated, even if
they're not generally expressed in such explicit terms. So this is the obvious paradigmatic difference between the Madras and the Academy. Three strengths of the madrasa system that I personally think are definitely some of the strengths that we need to think about, number one, the encyclopedic in depth study that any madrasa training will give you. And it is both encyclopedic in its scope, and in depth in the covering of the material. You cannot graduate from any reputable madrasa without studying each and every discipline of the Islamic sciences to a level of familiarity that would allow you to read further on your own. Typically, you would even specialize in at least
one or two sub disciplines in my time in the University of Medina, before they made changes. Again, I got the old curriculum, thank God for that I didn't get the modern curriculum, I got the old curriculum that was based in the 70s. And I was the last batch. To get that, we took the equivalent of 25 credit hours every single semester for four years, we typically had between 13 to 15 different professors every semester to juggle at any given time. And even though my college at the undergraduate level was the College of Hadith, just because I studied Hadith, it had very little impact on 60% of their curriculum, which was across all colleges. We studied Arabic grammar, we
studied the Alfia turbidimetric cover to cover we studied sort of we studied the science of Tafseer of theology, I graduated from Hadith, and yet I had probably just as many hours in fifth as the College of Sharia did as well. And we studied these books cover to cover which is another positive of the madrasa. We actually read source books in Arabic, written 1000 or 800 years ago, and we went over them line by line in class to understand that particular science through the lens of a reputable authority. And I must say with pride, that I still have all of my worn out books, you know, much annotated and, you know, pages missing and whatnot, you know, from that from that period.
There is simply no equivalent of this training that any modern academic institution offers, it is neither the goal of the academy nor is it even feasible. Hence, it is extremely rare to find the breadth of understanding of all of the major sciences of Islam that one finds in a Madras graduate. And because of this, it is far easier for a researcher in the academy to make a very simple mistake, or an egregious mistake if they go beyond their particular area of expertise. The second strength of the madrasa system is the memorization of source material and much of the primary source data. The madrasa student is expected to know the material, at least the basics of it really from the top of
his head without opening up any books, quotations from the Quran. Definitely
They do not need to be looked up because the norm is to be a Hatfield of the entire Quran, traditions of the Prophet that deal with your discipline are expected to be memorized in the original. And you should know, you know, where the sources are the opinions of the legal schools and the famous scholars, they should be known to you at the tips of your finger without even looking them up. And I remember last week, actually, I was discussing with a researcher, modern academic research and the Tara. And I kind of like, you know, expressed, I felt sorry for him, that he had to look up every single verse and Jessie and Danny and what the authors say about the tenkara rod,
because I know for a fact my colleagues in the College of Quran would know the template from the top of their head, and they've memorized the shot tibia and the dura. And so the notion of knowing your material and having it, you know, memorized is something that the madrasa emphasis, I think it was self evident, is the level of grasp of the Arabic language. I, myself am not an Arab.
Ethnically speaking, I had to learn Arabic. But obviously, you cannot go to a madrasa without mastering the language to a level that I was actually shocked to discover it doesn't exist anywhere near as much as it should in the in the western Academy, an anecdote that I'll never forget him and I won't mention the professor's name. But he is a world renowned professor, world renowned. We were sitting in class and a passage comes in he's reading the passage. And
there's a phrase in Atlanta who who sing a tune while I know. And of course, even a child would know this is it, Corsi, and how to translate it. But this particular professor
Read It Later who do who soon tune what I known, and he translated it that neither does any habitual habit overtake God, nor does God go to sleep. And I said, Professor, no, actually, it's Siena, which means to fall asleep or to be sleepy or whatnot. But it to me, it was just shocking. To be honest, that's such a world renowned person. This is not even aware of the primary text and makes an error that would frankly be unforgivable at an even undergraduate level, but it is what it is the level of Arabic and familiarity of Arabic is obviously very different in the western Academy. So these are the three strengths that I feel every madrasa student would be able to exemplify. When you look at
the Academy, the academy definitely has its strengths as well, strength, number one, bringing in the political and social factors and the overall the context of the individuals that you're studying. situating the author in a greater narrative, linking the author to factors that might be relevant to understanding the text, or even the Ufa, or, or even the theology I mean,
even Taymiyah, for example, there's a common there's a common notion there that a number of people have expressed that the it was the invasion of the Mongols and the the the impeding defeat and the the fact that the the Muslims felt under attack that some what caused it and Tamia to become the figure that he was and to, if you'd like to take that anger out, or or maybe a better term would be to defend the faith against other sects, and what do you believe to be heresies? But of course, you know, with that also comes the caveat that how much psychoanalysis are we doing of our medieval authors based upon our understandings, our biases and inclinations, maybe how we would have reacted
in particular context is not necessarily how they would react. But nonetheless, it is the strength to bring in the political and social context. I remember again, when I first got accepted,
reading a paper with with the title, a Mum, look, the origins response to epicenter, maybe even Tamia is response. And I thought to myself at the time, who cares if he's under the mum loops? I mean, why would you refer to event EMEA as a mum, Luke theologian? And again, that's a mindset difference where we're looking at the because in Medina, frankly, we had never ever, it was never a factor. What era was he living in, you know, who was living under? What were the things going on at the time you look at the author in his book as if it's independent of anything going on. And I think that is definitely not a very nice thing to do a very positive thing to do. The western Academy
situates, the author and the political and social circumstances which is very relevant, but again, with the caveat, how relevant is something every person has to decide. A second strength of the academy is the
cross cultural and multilingual references. And I personally greatly appreciated this when I began my studies at Yale. So for example, for Richard and Frank to bring in the Neoplatonic influence on Jehovah himself one, I mean, again, most mantra says, and I know for a fact Medina is definitely like this. Would they're going to begin with the Arabic and end with the Arabic and they're going to begin with Islamic civilization and with Islamic civilization, even at the graduate level, there is no
Oh concern there is no care to worry about, you know, pre Islam and Neoplatonic thoughts and source material in Arabic And sorry, in in Latin or Greek or Hebrew or anything of this nature, you will concentrate on one culture as the Arab culture on one era, that is Islamic era. And the rest of it is really not relevant. Of course, the Academy will not allow you to do that. And you are expected to be aware of different, you know, civilizational impacts on Islam, different understandings of the same idea in different regions. And also to add to this as well, the academy emphasizes secondary source material, whereas the madrasa emphasizes primary source material. And so in the madrasa we
study a specialty, we study, Ibn Taymiyyah, we study and nowhere, we, we study these authors who are, you know, the movers and shakers of whatever tradition they're doing. And frankly, there's not much concern about the rest of the how modern authors have interpreted and no way for example, of course, in the academy, if you write anything, you must demonstrate that you are aware of how other people have interpreted your subject and your figure. And what that does and it's helped me do as well is to help shape my own worldviews by understanding how others have viewed the same matter. And so I think this is definitely a great positive of the academy as well. A third positive of the
academy is obviously source criticism. We in Medina would approach the texts even if they're not divine we know CLT is not divine we studied his book cover to cover line by line I mean, here of course, his book on masala have Hadith. We know, Iraq is not divine, he wrote a vat of demotic, and the shahada sorry of it, we know he's not divine, and yet we will approach it with a sense of reverence that okay, this is the this is the subjects master, and who are we and except minor disciples. So who are we to question the master. So there's a very, very market level of reference to the texts that we study, even as we acknowledge that, you know, the, the, the authors that we're
sending are not divinely inspired. Obviously, that is completely thrown out the window in the academy, perhaps too much. So but it is completely irrelevant who the author is, because you're looking at ideas and not personas. And so there's a much higher level of source criticism, being far more skeptical of something just because someone says it. And again, I remember this to my own my own personal anecdote here. And my first paper that I wrote at Yale,
it was about the alleged Morteza ism, but has no velocity. Right. And, you know, as you're probably aware, if you study theology issues in this regard, that the notion is has settled last year, there was an ocean now, it's been kind of debunked by modern researchers. But there was a notion as an imbecile, he was perhaps a NEO Morteza light. And of course, internally, I was fuming My God, how can they possibly say this? Right? There's my first year at Yale, obviously. So cut me some slack there. So I wrote an entire, you know, 20 page paper. And, you know, my professor at the time great friend of mine, Frank riffle, he simply quickly goes over it and it goes, this entire paper is
frankly worthless, I say, What do you mean, why? Because all of your references are eighth century Sunni scholars seventh century. So new scholars, of course, they're going to back project their ideas onto celibacy. You know, I thought I wrote a very good paper, very erudite paper, his basic point was, which is course valid, your sources, how can you trust sources written 500 600 800 years after, and not really go back to at least contemporaries or whatever else we can do. And of course, this caused me to think and research and the whole notion of source criticism, being more skeptical of the material that you read, of course, there's a healthy dosage of that in the western Academy.
So these are three positives of both the Western Academy and the madrasa. Before I finish off and conclude, I want to mention the elephant in the room, which really does need to be addressed head on. And that is the mutual suspicion that exists from each side against the other. The fact of the matter is that from the seminarian side from the, from the madrasa side, there is really an almost hostile view of the academy. Most students in Madras says, dare I say, most Muslims around the globe, they find it and I'm just telling you as it is, I mean, I'm not endorsing the different guys it is, they find it incomprehensible that someone can master the Arabic language and study the faith
and read the Quran in the original and read the life of the prophet in such an intensive manner, without seeing the veracity of the faith that they're studying without embracing the faith, I still get asked to this day, is that your professors actually knew all this and they learn Arabic and they're not Muslim. This is a type of presumption that most students and mothers would have that it boggles their mind. Why would these people want to study a faith that they don't believe in and study it in such an intimate manner?
And yet still not be personally committed to it. And the fact that there have they haven't embraced the faith in the eyes of these madrasa students, frankly, many Muslims, it automatically implies therefore, that they must have recognized the truth and willfully and arrogantly rejected it. That being the case in their eyes, the only option to conclude is that they must have an evil or sinister agenda. And that agenda is to create doubts and to spread the seeds of corruption. Shewhart is the Arabic term in the minds of the Muslims. Now, to be fair, the Academy also has to own up historically to its own roots and to the linkage of proselytizing Christian missionaries, or even
colonialist movements, or even in our times the Neo cons. So to be fair, there are certain segments of the academy that other segments have to dissociate from, but still, in the eyes of many conservative Muslims or many madrasa students. All that one needs to do in the mainstream Muslim circles to discredit a work, or an idea or an author is to simply point out that it comes and originates from the academy, you know, one of the cheapest ad homonyms constantly employed against me by my critics is the fact that they say my faith has been corrupted, because I've been to yield. That's it. If they don't agree with something I say all they need to do without engaging the idea.
Without critiquing what I've said, is to simply say, Oh, well, you know, he'll corrupted him. That's it QED, end of story. And so there is this notion there. And the reason why it's effective is really because it is inconceivable for many, many Muslims to actually believe there might be researchers who are not spiritually committed, nor are they arrogant, they just want to research the faith. It's not, it's not something they quite understand. And so because of this, it is easy to dismiss anything that comes out of the academy that is not from within our own tradition. Now, that having been said, I have to also be honest and point out the flip side, it's a two way street here. It is
all too common for research that is done by a Muslim academic, who happens to be a faithful Muslim, a research that might overall be in line with, let's say, mainstream values or mainstream understanding, but simply because it is done by a Muslim, it might be dismissed as apologetics as not worthy of genuine respect. And remember, I've studied also with the great mm as me, the one who wrote studies in early Hadith literature back in the 60s is basically from Cambridge. And I remember he remarked, this, as well as that. He felt that his research was not given the respect that he felt this way that it was not given the respect that it that it was due, even though he was academic
throughout his dissertation. But it was just dismissed as apologetics as Oh, he's simply proving that, you know, Hadith has been preserved. Now, when Matsui comes along and does something similar, even though in a very different manner, it is given far more credit. And to this day, I'm a Muslim whose work is really not considered to be a mainstream reference, even though it is a scalded dog, obviously, I don't agree with everything. But it is an interesting work here. But I have to say that I have faced this sentiment in the academy, right. And because I'm a cleric, and I'm a preacher, and because it's obvious that I am, you know, a faith based Muslim. It is, it is quite easy for people
in the academy to dismiss much of what I do or say, and point out that oh, well, he's basically a faith based cleric. And I have heard such sentiments multiple times over the last 20 years. And, frankly, on a personal note, it's also one of the reasons why I've really decided to spend more time in a seminary environment rather than the Academy because I felt it wasn't really conducive to to a long term goal. But anyway, that's my personal. That's my personal belief. Before I finish off, I want to finish off the anecdote of Richard M. Frank in his Neo Platonism article. So one of my last weeks at Yale, I decided, You know what, let me let me reread that article that I had read when I
was accepted. So many years ago, it was ideal for eight years. And so on a whim, I decided to go read the article Neoplatonism one more time. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was I was enjoying reading the article. I understood everything Richard and Frank was saying, At this time, I actually appreciated where he was coming from. And at the same time, I felt that there were many other things that he left out that could have been added. He was being simplistic at various places, but overall, I agreed with with his thesis and actually my dissertation at Yale, incorporate some of those ideas in chapter one and develops upon them. And so I've always wanted to go back to the topic
of Jehovah one, and write an article entitled The Neoplatonism of Jehovah one, part two by so called the and maybe one day, I'll do that. And with that, I hand the mic back to the host and thank you once again for having me.
me, Ms. Dahiya. Doll Seanie What does she mean a lot of we went to fifth
feels cool we took my journey