It is fair to say that the challenges confronting the Muslim community in Britain today are perhaps greater than ever. When one considers issues as far ranging as religious extremism, sectarianism, misappropriations of foreign cultural values as being somehow religious, to the more mundane issues of prayer times and moonsightings, it becomes abundantly clear that a massive vacuum exists in the area of Islamic scholarship in Britain.
For the layperson like myself, trying to make sense of my faith and how to practise it diligently within the society that I live in, I am often faced with a sense of dejection when these fundamental issues are allowed to fester, with little attempt at anyone trying to address them in an authoritative manner. Those with political aspirations do jump on the bandwagon and enter these discussion points as a means of furthering their own political objectives. If anything, rubbing further salt into the wounds; they have turned this great Abrahamic faith into a political football. What we need are religious answers to the religious issues that we face.
Last year, I wrote on the issue of whether we should have a ‘Grand Mufti’ figure, on the back of Fiyaz Mughal’s article for the Huffington Post. Whilst I still believe appointing one person to be our religious representative is marred with its problems, I do believe that most lay Muslims would agree with the dire need we have for a council of British Muslim Scholars. To clarify, I do not mean ‘scholars’ who in reality are glorified imams, with a superficial understanding of Islamic Law and little knowledge of its application. Rather a cohort of individuals who are of the same calibre of the classical scholars who we often reminisce about. Scholars who deeply understood the sources of Islamic law, and how to apply its principles within the societies that they lived in, providing solutions to the issues of their day. They were individuals who were so closely connected to the Qur’an and Hadith that they had pretty much memorised the words of God and His final messenger in entirety, purely because they were constantly using the sources of law in their daily lives, through reading them, digesting them, and applying them in their scholastic works. In the past, such individuals were not only seen as authoritative by the faithful, but were also respected for their intellectual abilities by those who perhaps disagreed with them the most.
Over the last decade there were indeed some encouraging signs that such a cohort might emerge. Many young Muslims from the West had a desire to enter into the realm of Islamic scholarship, and made the difficult decision to undertake many sacrifices in order to go to the Muslim world to learn the Islamic sciences from well-known institutions. The hope was that they would come back to Britain and take the religious mantle, helping laymen like myself understand the faith and its application here in Britain, by addressing the issues of the day with the necessary authority. However, despite their efforts, the void continues to frustratingly exist. Some of them came back and created their own organisations and a speaker circuit, whilst others opted to teach the most basics aspects of the faith within the confines of the local mosque. I have already written about the many concerns that exist with the incorporation of corporate capitalism into the Islamic organisations that many of these individuals have busied themselves with. Their time spent in establishing these organisations might have been more wisely spent had they used their studies as a platform to further their studies once they returned back to the Western World, pursuing a full-time career in academic Islamic scholarship through researching the vast array of Islamic literature and carving out potential solutions to the issues we face. I am equally perplexed by those who spent years of sacrifice studying in the Muslim world purely for the sake of teaching the basics of purification and prayer in a small mosque. A similar analogy might be the medical student, who upon completing 5 years of a gruelling medical degree opts not to work as a doctor, and leaves the practice of medicine to teach basic first aid in their local community centre; a job that is usually done by anyone in the community who has completed an advanced first aid course. Why acquire such a prestigious qualification, only to do something that doesn’t necessitate it?
At this juncture, it is worth pausing for a moment, and asking ourselves why is this the case? Why do those who have chosen the path of Islamic learning end up creating a large organisation, or teaching the odd basic text in the local mosque and barely scratching the surface of it, whilst keeping a day-job completely unrelated from their Islamic credentials? Perhaps the reality of the situation hits home, that the root cause of the problem lies amongst us as the religious laity, that in fact we as laymen don’t truly value our scholars. We are not prepared to support them financially in their long-term development into authoritative religious voices. We don’t see the importance of investing in our scholars, such that they can make a living out of thinking about the faith, and proposing ideas for our future. One of the reasons behind the success of societies in the Western world lies in the fact that we as taxpayers are happy for a significant proportion of our taxes to go towards the funding of talented intellectuals within our society, so that they can think of novel ideas that allow society to progress and strengthen. For all the criticism that many British Muslims hold of their American counterparts, this is one point they have realised that we in Britain are yet to. The concept of a ‘Resident Scholar’ amongst American Muslims is commonplace; an individual separate from the local Imam who is employed by the local community to be their religious guide; an individual who essentially earns a living by being a thinker who can add value to their community through the dissemination of their thoughts and ideas rooted in their continuous study and research, to address the issues facing them. Perhaps if we had similar foresight in Britain, those who embark upon the journey of seeking Islamic knowledge would be more willing to remain within that realm and undertake the scholastic work that we so desperately are in need of.
The situation is indeed quite acute, and the magnitude of this gaping hole in Islamic scholarship that confronts us becomes more apparent when we realise that the handful of learned people in Britain whom we go to today for religious injunctions are either entering old age or would themselves be classed as elderly. Given that a time will come when these individuals will be with us no more (which may reach us sooner than we think), who will we then turn to for our religious injunctions? If the status quo continues, we will merely be left with a group of learned people who have morphed into entertainers, or we will find ourselves going to people who have been severely deskilled since their days of learning, purely because they weren’t able to stay within the realm of the Islamic sciences to push the boundaries of Islamic scholarship. Even the basic public service duties of an Islamic jurist, such as marital arbitration and inheritance disputes will be needs unmet.
But perhaps the greatest worry we face is the impact this situation has on our personal faith. If well thought-out religious solutions are not presented for the many religious problems we face, then our faith community on Britain will most certainly weaken. Everything we do as Muslims requires insight and guidance from talented religious scholars, from the minor issues within local communities, to activism that takes place on a national scale. We are told that one of the signs of the end of days is that people of learning will be taken away from the masses, and perhaps one of the ways in which this will happen is that Muslims cease to value their scholars. I pray to God this doesn’t happen in our lifetime.