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What Does it Take for a Non-Traditional Scholar of Islam to be Open Minded and Academic
Dr Farhad Shafti


One of the privileges afforded to us today is having access to scholars who try to engage Islam rationally and who depart from the traditional approach to understanding Islam. These scholars bring a fresh premise and analysis to understand Islam: its concepts, and rules. The new-age scholars are fond of open-mindedness and academic inquiry so much so that they advocate and attempt to adopt it in their works. In this article, I argue that open-minded and academic takes more than just departing from the traditional approach to Islam. In 2015, after more than 15 years of working in academia, and with experience of both classical and academic approaches in researching Islam, I feel it is my duty to humbly share my thoughts on the subject with our respected non-traditional scholars and their students.

In reference to “non-traditional,” I mean those scholars who do not follow any of the classical schools of fiqh (ie. jurisprudence) or theology. These scholars are a minority group of our time who have endeavoured to revisit their understanding of Islamic subjects while benefiting from but not copying traditional scholarship. While this article is aimed at our non-traditional scholars it does not mean that it is irrelevant to our traditional scholars. I am hoping that the points that are raised in this article will be of interest for some of the traditional scholars as well.

I am summarizing my thoughts on what it takes to actually be open-minded and academic in seven points:


I. The Importance of the Null Hypothesis

In statistics the concept of null hypothesis means that by default there is no relationship between two measured phenomena. In less technical wording, null hypothesis means “lack of meaningful relationship or pattern.” Null hypothesis assumes that there is no specific relationship or pattern in the case under study and that whatever relationship or pattern that is observed is only a result of randomness.

The way the null hypothesis concept works is that in order to prove the hypothesis (ie. existence of a relationship or pattern) first the null hypothesis “lack of meaningful relationship or pattern” has to be proven incorrect. In layman’s terms, it is not enough to prove that the relationship or pattern that you have observed exists; you also need to prove that the observed relationship or pattern is not the product of chance.

Although null hypothesis is originally a statistical term, its general concept is applicable in any aspect of life. For example, a person is innocent unless proved otherwise; a food is healthy unless proved otherwise; two people have no problems with each other unless proved otherwise, etc are all on the basis of taking the null hypothesis as default.

Null hypothesis in particular becomes very important when it comes to the understanding of religious texts. The human mind is a very creative one. At times, however, this creativity betrays us as it can also result in false imagination. We look at scripture, and then based on some assumptions and specific perspectives, we imagine a pattern or a relationship in it. We sometimes tend to pay no attention to the possibility that with the same degree of strength of reasoning, one may argue for other relationships and patterns in the text as well. This means that our observed relationship or pattern may not really be a meaningful one. In other words, we are ignoring the null hypothesis.

One of the best examples of this is the doctrine of the Qur’anic mathematical code as illustrated by Rashid Khalifa (d. 1990). Khalifa had found what he considered to be a very clear pattern in the Qur’an based on the number 19. Despite his claims, academia never took his assertions seriously. One of the reasons was the same issue, ie. ignoring the null hypothesis. Khalifa had shown some patterns based on the number 19 in the Qur’an. However, he seemed to become so excited by this that he never considered whether this pattern was a meaningful one or if it was a pure coincident. Later, Bilal Philips (b. 1947) showed that similar patterns could be found with the number eight in the Qur’an as well. This points to the fact that these patterns are coincidental and can be found in other texts as well (ie. it is possible to find a numerical pattern in a book by Shakespeare as well!).

Another example is when scholars try to find coherence in the Qur’an. I strongly believe that the Qur’an is a coherent book; however, a brief review of how different Muslim scholars see this coherence is evidence of how ignoring the null hypothesis can lead to assuming or in fact imagining a variety of cohesive structures in the Qur’an.

One common mistake among the students of Islam is the phrase: “it makes sense …” when they hear these kinds of theories from their teachers. What they often do not pay enough attention to is that “there are other theories that also make sense!”


II. Systematic Revision of Thought

One of the main differences between the academic approach and an approach that may be rational but not academic is about a constant critical review of assumptions and conclusions. While in the academic world this critical review takes place systematically and from within a school of thought, in many religious schools of thought such critical review is only taking place from outside.

One of the common excuses of these religious schools is that “we do not do critical review only for the sake of it, but only when it is needed.” The problem; however, is such “need” normally will never be felt within these schools of thought, come what may. The already assumed patterns, relationships, and concepts are normally so tightly woven within the framework of these schools of thought and the mindset of their followers that they gradually consider them unchallengeable facts. Once this happens, very seldom do any members of the school of thought even see any need for revision, let alone taking it seriously. Any criticism will be attributed to confusion in the mind of the critic, and pointing out of any weaknesses in the established arguments are brushed off as merely not grasping the argument properly. This is exactly what happened to those traditional schools of thought that are today being criticized by some of our non-traditional scholars. It will be a pity to see that the same happening to the latter.

Academic circles – in a variety of disciplines – that wish to remain at the top of their game, share their views through academic articles and other methods for peer review. Discussions proceed regarding the current findings and understandings in a critical way and suggestions for revision are made where needed. In fact, some individuals go a step further and even question the very foundations of their disciplines.

I do not see why the same cannot be done among religious scholars. There is a thinking that since the subject is religion, we need to settle on a fixed understanding of religion otherwise we will not be able to follow it seriously. This excuse, as innocent as it seems, shares a very similar attitude of “following our forefathers” mentality, which the Qur’an rebukes. Critical assessment of our understanding of religion does not mean loosening of our relationship with the Almighty, but means trying to understand better His guidance and our religious duties.

It is important to note that systematic revision does not mean to necessarily opt to continuously change our understanding of religion. It only means to regularly revise our understanding with an open mind and with the benefit of new criticisms that have been received and new arguments that are made by other scholars and students of Islam. This may or may not result in changing of an understanding. Systematic revision is therefore more about having a reflective and dynamic mindset rather than necessarily being keen to change our understanding. In fact, revision may even help to grasp richer reasons and evidence for the long held beliefs and understandings.


III. The Borderline between Questioning a Concept and Assuming Exceptions

In religious scholarship we deal with concepts/rules and application of those concepts/rules. This is very similar to many academic disciplines. In any particular academic discipline when it is seen that many applications of the developed concepts/rules are problematic the academicians begin to develop suspicions about the concepts/rules itself, rather than questioning the application or considering a case to be an exceptional one.

It is certainly true that many times when there are difficulties with applying religious concepts/rules in a particular case, it is the very case that may be problematic and may therefore need exceptional treatment. However, once the number of these problematic cases begin to grow, the policy of “let’s look at this on case to case basis” may not hold much ground any more. It does not seem illogical to expect that a religious concept/rule should be easily applicable in almost all cases with only a few exceptions. The reverse implication of this statement is that once application of a religious concept/rule becomes problematic in more than “only exceptional cases” then there is a good chance that the concept/rule is not fully and accurately understood.

To illustrate this consider the following examples:

Imagine that a school of thought develops a specific meaning for the word nafs in the Qur’an. Now imagine that a curious student of Islam shows an instance of the use of the word that apparently has a different meaning. The common answer here is that in that verse exceptionally the meaning of the word nafs is different. This is of course perfectly possible since like any other language, even within a single text (like the Qur’an) a word may be used in different meanings.

Now imagine that this curious student finds a few more verses that have a different meaning for nafs. These again may be seen as exceptions by that school of thought. The question is, logically, how much conflicting evidences is needed in order to conclude that maybe these are not exceptions, rather, the problem is with our definition of the word nafs?

The above was an example for a religious concept. As for rules, consider for instance the common traditional understanding that after divorce, the mother’s right to take custody of the child is forfeited if she marries another man. Understandably, the scholars who hold this ruling consider it to be to the benefit of the child and the mother and ultimately to help with their spiritual purification. Now imagine there are proven cases emerging where implementing such rulings have resulted in disaster for the child and the mother, even damaging their spirituality, while there have been cases where those who did not observe this rule ended up in a much better situation and apparently a better spiritual status. Obviously, such cases will be seen as exceptions. Again, the question is how many conflicting cases need to be in place in order to appreciate that maybe it is the ruling that needs revision?


IV. The Opportunity of Receiving Questions

In religious scholarship circles one of the most exciting activities is answering the questions of live, online or offline audience. Typically, many religious questions are repeated ones and about very simple concepts or are simply asking about a ruling and these can normally be answered with not much thinking.

There are, however, questions that are critical ones and many of these come from the younger generation. What normally happens is that answering such critical questions has become so much of a routine for an experienced scholar that it seems like the scholar’s mind is neatly classified and preoccupied with all the answers. When such critical questions are asked, with no hesitation the scholar simply restores the default answer in his brain.

A typical mindset of many scholars, when they answer a question, is that they are helping less knowledgeable people to know their religion better. There seems to be not much realization that some of these critical questions are in fact opportunities for the scholar him/herself to notice a flaw in his/her system of thinking and to seek to fix it before trying to find an answer to the question.

Answering a question sharply and strongly is attractive and is seen as a sign of strength. Deliberation and thinking gives the impression of hesitation and doubt. This is what the public does not expect to see in a religious scholar. A religious scholar, however, can make his/her audience get used to a thoughtful hesitation rather than a prejudiced confidence. For an academically oriented scholar, receiving a question is not necessarily an opportunity to teach the audience, it may well be an opportunity to learn from it.

This of course does not mean that every sharp and straightforward answer is unwise. Most of the times, a sharp and straightforward answer is due to the vast experience, knowledge and analytical strength of the scholar. Likewise, not every hesitant and doubtful answer is due to the open-mindedness of the scholar involved. I am not questioning the highly valued routine of providing sharp and strong answers to questions; I am only worried about possible missed opportunities in these routines.


V. The Importance of Literature Review

Any research claiming to be comprehensive and convincing has to benefit from contemporary work on the subject. This includes contemporary work by research intellectuals (not necessarily known as scholars, and not necessarily Muslims).

In academia this is known as literature review. The importance of literature review is that it assures the researcher that he/she has not missed any points, is not re-inventing the wheel, and is aware of all significant contesting views.

Reviewing contemporary works of those researchers who are not conventionally known as scholars is particularly very important. It is understandable that the works of those who are conventionally known as scholars in Islam can easily be limited to a very conventional perspective where some blunt research and hypothesis may not even occur to them. Similarly, there are many traditional assumptions that are held as facts in the typical scholarship of Islam. Questioning some of these assumptions may never come to mind as a possibility by a typical scholar.

An academic researcher in Islam (who is not conventionally known as a scholar, or is not a Muslim) has the advantage that he/she is less bound by assumptions and is keen to examine everything and imagine many alternative explanations.

Many times these alternative explanations may end up being weak and many of the assumptions that these academic researchers are questioning could be indeed facts and therefore not questionable. However, the sheer attempt to “attack” a frontline that has never been “attacked” before, provides ample opportunities to explore more and shape our understandings better.

It is a losing opportunity if a Muslim scholar who writes on Islamic penal law does not know much about the works of John Burton for instance. The works of researchers like Leila Ahmad and Nikki Keddie are definitely capable of helping a scholar of Islam in his/her work on issues related to women in Islam. Gabriel Said Reynolds has produced a very helpful review of the research works on possible influence of heretic Christianity on early interpretations of some of the verses of the Qur’an. Knowing these can definitely help a scholar who is analyzing religious texts on Jesus (sws) and Christianity.

A Muslim scholar can benefit from the vast amount of work that has existed and is increasingly produced in academia. Unfortunately, it seems like for some scholars, using these works and referencing them is deemed not only unnecessary but also humiliating.

It is of course understandable that a high calibre Muslim scholar may not have enough time to go through all this work and refer to it in his/her work. In particular, this may not be the best way to spend time when the public is in much need of guidance. The fact, however, remains that no scholarly work without benefiting from academic work can be called academic. Therefore, such works will not share the normal strengths of academic works. This is one of the reasons why many of the writings of our scholars, though very insightful and research based, are not publishable in any refereed journals.

If it is beyond the scope and time capacity of a Muslim scholar to benefit from this literature, it will then become his/her students’ duty to blend the work of their teacher with the academic work and to re-examine it, further enrich it, and if necessary revise it, accordingly.


VI. Impossibility of Approaching the Text Free of One’s Mindset

While the Qur’an and Sunnah are the two sources of understanding Islam, intellect precedes both. This is because it is our intellect that guides us to determine that the Qur’an and Sunnah deserve reverence. In other words, it is not wrong to say that the primary source of understanding Islam is intellect, which then brings us to the realization that the Qur’an and Sunnah are the practical sources of understanding Islam. Admittedly, our intellect cannot fully understand all the aspects of the divine scheme and we may hold some views on the basis of faith. However, even this reliance on faith is caused by our intellect. In fact, even the one who argues that his beliefs are only on the basis of faith rather than intellect has held this stance based on intellect, as it is his/her intellect that tells him to choose this approach.

One of the implications of the above is that we cannot read and interpret the text in isolation. Our understanding of the text is always under the influence of our intellect and our intellect is always based on a preformed perspective. It is essential to understand that this perspective is not entirely formed by the text itself, rather it is, at least partially, formed by our personal, cultural, social, and even genetic makeup as well as our knowledge about the world that we are living in.

The meaning of this is that it is impossible to approach a religious text with a blank mind. We are always imposing our mindset and its assumptions upon the text. Appreciating this leads to accepting that if another scholar understands the text differently, this may not necessarily be due to him/her having any bias or shortcomings in his/her approach to the text. This may simply be due to the fact that the two scholars have approached the text with different mindsets.

This also implies that revisiting our general understanding about a subject may be prerequisite for our understanding of the text related to that subject. The argument that “let’s first see what the text says” may not always be a meaningful argument given that our perception of “what the text says” is under the influence of our mindset, which itself is affected by our knowledge about the subject of the text. This will be similar to what is known as circular logic, where we are trying to understand B by A, while our understanding of A is depending on B!

I do not advocate the view of some of the students of the science of hermeneutics who believe that text can have multiple meanings once it is distant from its author and that it is impossible to know the real intended meaning. I do believe that a religious text like the Qur’an does have only one meaning and that it is possible to understand that meaning. However, in our path of understanding, we often undermine the huge effect of our own mind-set in our thinking. The pride of “we are loyal to the text” is therefore often only a mirage. Taking a rational and academic approach, including the points raised in this article, can help in minimising the effect of our own subjective mindset in understanding the text.

(As a side note, one of the implications of the above, as many contemporary Muslim researchers have also pointed out, is that our understanding of Islam is heavily biased towards a male mindset and lacks contribution of the female mindset. Unless we believe that the Qur’an was revealed primarily for men and not for women, it will be interesting as well as illuminating to see how female scholars of Islam would interpret the Qur’an. That is, of course, if she can protect her mindset from the influence of the long male dominated mindset in the scholarship of Islam. I have intentionally written “his/her” when referring to a scholar in this article.)


VIII. Importance of Benefiting From Other Relevant Disciplines

Disciplines (body of knowledge) relate to each other. No discipline is isolated. Psychology benefits from sociology and benefits it as well, just as chemistry benefits from physics and vice versa. Today, psychology benefits from chemistry and it may be that in near future chemistry benefiting from psychology as well.

The discipline of religious studies is no exception. The effect of science in our understanding of religious text is already well established. The verse of the Qur’an (18:86) literally says that Dhu al-Qarnayn saw the sun setting in a dark fountain. It is only by appreciating that the sun does not set in such fountains that our scholars came to understand that the word wajada here simply meant Dhu al-Qarnayn perceived such a scene. It is not difficult to imagine that without such knowledge, our scholars had no reason to believe that the word wajada in the verse simply referred to a natural fact. Similarly, the scholars of the past probably never needed to elaborate much on verse 86:6-7 where it literally says that semen comes from between the back and the ribs. It is only today, and with appreciation of where exactly semen is produced in the body, that our scholars have started to provide alternative interpretations for the verse. The argument by some scholars that even if the theory of evolution is true it is still possible to interpret the verses of the Qur’an accordingly, is another example.

The above are perhaps the clearest examples as they pertain to science. The academic disciplines under the category of humanities are even more related to the discipline of religious study although their effects at times can be less obvious due to the nature of these disciplines. Scholars of the past did not have much work to do in order to prove that Islam did not discriminate against women. Today this is among the most addressed issues by our scholars. No doubt the advances in better understanding of humans and social structures have influenced the thought of our scholars on this issue.

Religion is about relationship between God and the human being. While God is one of the subjects of philosophy, the human being is the subject of many other disciplines. To name a few: psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, etc. It is naïve to think that while findings of science can so obviously affect our understanding of religion and religious texts, other even more relevant disciplines cannot do the same.

I don’t think that I am making any exaggeration by writing that typically our scholars (and I am not just referring to traditional ones) have no awareness and no open channels of information with the disciplines that can benefit them in their analysis to understand religious concepts and rules. The problem is our scholars normally do not see themselves in need of any help from other disciplines. If there are any apparent conflicts between their understanding and the findings of other disciplines, they normally expect those from other disciplines to approach them and discuss their questions. In fact sometimes they even go as far as commenting on subjects related to other disciplines. Psychological and social comments are easily given and even history is easily re-written based on a religious perspective.

I argue that this mindset needs to be changed. Unfortunately, at our time many of the experts on the subjects related to science and humanities do not bother much about God and religion. It is our religious scholars or their associates and students who need to be aware of the findings of related disciplines and if required, to approach their experts with their questions. This is vital if we do not want to end up in the same position that the church found itself at the time of Galileo. 

Like the case of the importance of literature review (point five above), again, given the heavy schedule and public duties of our scholars, it may be the duty of their students to make the above happen.


Final Thoughts

The above should not in any way be interpreted as undermining the great work that our non-traditional scholars are doing today. Just as we have tremendously benefited from the works of our traditional scholars, we are also indeed blessed by so many ground breaking works of our non-traditional scholars that have helped us come up with a more rational and sensible understanding of our religion. These works have been particularly instrumental in an era where materialization seems to be prevailing and harsh and unfair criticisms of religion, in general, and, Islam in particular, questions the faith of those who are not equipped enough with knowledge and reason.

The core message of this article is not “how to do it well” but is about “how to do it better.” This writing was motivated by the longing of many of our non-traditional scholars to be – deservedly – perceived as open-minded and academic scholars in Islam. This indeed could be the most important factor in preventing our non-traditional scholars to be seen as “traditional” in a few centuries from now.

I should also point out that part of this is also dependent on the attitude and expectations of the audiences of such scholars. The scholars and their audiences both contribute in making and changing the attitude of the other side. The above article could have been written by emphasizing the other side of this equation, that is, the audience. Such an article would then arrive at the same seven points as above but by deliberating on how the audience’s attitude should change, to allow a scholar to observe these points. This may be a subject of a follow up article in future!

In a nutshell, this article calls for a fundamental revolution in the attitude to learning and research in Islam, among our non-traditional scholars and their students. All the modern scholars who I have had privilege to meet or know about seem to be very welcoming to constructive criticism and helpful suggestions. I am hoping that this humble attempt too will be received with the same degree of receptiveness and tolerance.




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