Painful Nostalgia for a Past Research Agenda
An aspiring graduate student daydreamt about finishing the project of Sanhuri Pasha (d. 1971), the father of Egypt’s civil law. In 1949, Sanhuri’s civil code became the law of the Egyptian land, merging modern Franco-Egyptian jurisprudence with Egypt’s deeper, millennium-long tradition of Islamic law that is embedded in its populations’ social and market standards, and allowing a limited measure of forum shopping that involved Russian, German, and Chinese legal institutions. No similar, comprehensive code was devised in the areas of criminal, administrative, personal status, or commercial law. The unrealistic dream haunted the student as he took a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Islamic studies, followed by 3 years of study of modern Egyptian law, and a master’s degree culminating in a 388 page thesis that attempted to answer the question “why didn’t medieval Islamic law accept normalized judicial review?” This student ended up leaving Egypt for good, twenty years ago, to settle for an academic career as an Islamic law scholar in the United States.
The American University Effect
For this student, the old research agenda would only be a source of painful nostalgia. A course on ‘Islam in America’ (which, incidentally, took a lot of effort to prepare) would attract requests for enrolment twice the size allotted to the class, but a course on the Sharia Clause (article 2) in Egypt’s constitution would only draw a befuddled stare. Besides, there was the September 11 effect. This meant that some discussion of the laws of war and international dealings (what Muslim jurists call the laws of the abodes) would make much more sense as a contribution to the curriculum in an American liberal arts college or a research university than any discussion of the niceties of modern Egypt’s legal split-personality.
“A recurring theme in the Pitfalls of Scholarship is that taking the ‘scholar’ out of scholarship is neither doable nor desirable.”
Having in a sense forgotten the full extent of his own story, this student now writes to speak of today and the crises and opportunities of teaching general courses on Islam and specialized courses on Islamic legal reasoning in the United States today. The title of this short essay replicates the title of a collection of essays I published in 2016 (NYC: Palgrave, 188 pp.), which tells a fuller version of the story of how I relate to my adopted academy and environment.
Taking the ‘Scholar’ out of ‘Scholarship?’
A recurring theme in the Pitfalls of Scholarship is that taking the ‘scholar’ out of scholarship is neither doable nor desirable. The illusive hope to separate ‘scholar’ from ‘scholarship’ may have been the fault of scientists, who were placed, by an honest mistake, on a pedestal around the time of the Second World War in the United States, and who confusedly assumed that human knowledge was something other than partial discoveries and limited interpretations of these discoveries by limited (albeit extraordinary) human minds. There is no reason this old view should be binding to us today.
“…those who don’t like today’s universities are obliged, at a minimum, to provide an equal or superior alternative that fulfills the universities’ functions.”But does an acknowledgement of this kind leave the university vulnerable to attacks from enemies who are only able to read half sentences and come up with half-understanding of what they read? I hope not. I argued in Pitfalls that those who don’t like today’s universities are obliged, at a minimum, to provide an equal or superior alternative that fulfills the universities’ functions: educating somewhere between 25-30 percent of today’s youthful (and sometimes not so youthful) population and pushing the limits of human knowledge above their reach at any given point in time.
Teaching Islam and Modern University’s Challenges
Teaching Islamic history and the institutions of the Islamic civilization is a privilege any scholar should boast as part of her or his profession’s ‘terms of reference.’ The profession’s challenges, from students’ attention deficit, to occasional know-it-all young minds and hearts, to the excitable crowds who prefer to attend ‘social justice’ university (and not ‘truth’ university), still promise significant reward.
“Teaching Islamic history and the institutions of the Islamic civilization is a privilege any scholar should boast as part of her or his profession’s ‘terms of reference.’”The educators in this field get to learn about themselves and their world as much as they allow their students to learn about themselves and their world. They also have the option of maintaining a simultaneous and equal distance from politics, from simple prejudices, and from the concerns of urgent debates whose resolutions don’t stand the test of time. These educators can be a resource for those who ask questions that expose the cracks in google and Wikipedia knowledge, questions that don’t take for granted the prejudices embedded in political decisions, social developments, arbitrary convictions, or an ill-scrutinized consensus.
By exposing the full breadth of Arabic sources unnoticed or deliberately marginalized by the Orientalist project, teachers of Islam’s history and civilization can allow their students to rethink concepts such as ‘science,’ ‘medicine,’ ‘history,’ ‘politics,’ and certainly ‘law.’ They can open the doors of their inquiry to areas such as the sociology of knowledge and have only a measured enthusiasm about calls for the revival of old ideas. Understandably, this high level of inquiry and analysis may be reserved to graduate students, and it will be done only to a limited extent (subject-wise) and taken to each graduate student on a case-by-case basis.
“By exposing the full breadth of Arabic sources unnoticed or deliberately marginalized by the Orientalist project, teachers of Islam’s history and civilization can allow their students to rethink concepts such as ‘science,’ ‘medicine,’ ‘history,’ ‘politics,’ and certainly ‘law.’”On a broader scale, these teachers can push (the willing among) their students to read in translation some of the classics of Islamic politics and human geography, learn (to a lesser extent) about poetry and rhetoric, art and architecture, and see how these ostensibly disparate and unconnected fields did converge at the hands of law, philosophy, and education. Outside the scope of primary sources, teachers of Islamic history can also, as I do, invite their freshmen and sophomores to read, for example, Thomas E. Burman’s Reading the Qur’an in Latin Christendom and John Tolan’s Saracens. Texts like these allow students to learn about sides of the history of European perceptions of Islam that were available only to a select few among those who read medieval Latin a generation or two ago. Teachers of the Islamic civilization in the modern academy, depending on their individual capacity, have an opportunity to experiment in ways that may have been available, rather paradoxically, only to top minds within this same Islamic civilization they study. Let me also note that this is happening in a world where 1.4 million scholars of affiliation with a higher education institution in the United States alone live and work, according to Derek Bok’s 2012 study.
Pitfalls is not unqualifiedly optimistic. In it, I, in fact, complain quite a bit about the persistence of old-fashioned assumptions about the nature of human society, civilization, law, progress, development, borrowing, among a long list. I criticize the lay nature of our culture, the willingness to attack authorities based on a partial understanding of what is at issue, and academics’ participation in what I call ‘scholarship of negation’—occupying critical worlds that see no room for an experiment or risking a suggestion.
“Pitfalls is not unqualifiedly optimistic. In it, I, in fact, complain quite a bit about the persistence of old-fashioned assumptions about the nature of human society, civilization, law, progress, development, borrowing, among a long list.”
The Journey in “Pitfalls”
In the introduction to Pitfalls, I introduce myself thus: “This writer is a humanities scholar, who frequently peeks into, and borrows from, areas that are far-off and remote from his academic realm. I cannot claim to be always on top of all the materials I investigate (what else do you expect?) but I could not stop the influence of these excursions” ( 4). I do refer to myself as a scholar with hesitation and caveats. My sense of what kind of scholar I had wanted to be changed considerably, and with it my sense of what it means to be a scholar. After this statement, I move, in a first long chapter, to address how one may sincerely offer a partial defense of the defenseless ‘humanities’ in its/their broad environments of nations and national knowledge, the global and its woes and opportunities, and the irking borders of academic turfs.
“My sense of what kind of scholar I had wanted to be changed considerably, and with it my sense of what it means to be a scholar.”
In Chapter 2, I look at the frustrations of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) with academic knowledge in his time. Ghazali is not usually a companion I take as a guide. What makes him appropriate for this journey is that I hold his experience to be instructive in the sense that it provides a tale of caution. I take Ghazali’s skepticism of all available human knowledge to be a reasonable position, his daring of philosophy to be excessive and undisciplined, and his mystical turn to be only something for watching and entertainment, rather than a serious position to consider. The process is more important than the results in this case, however. I could not have written this chapter, titled ‘The First Personal Singular: Personal and Social Knowledge in Conflict’ even as recently as six or even five years ago. I started to see Ghazali, often read as a late Augustine (d. 430) or an early Descartes (d. 1651), to be a scholar with problems both with society and with the academy in his time only after I fully understood from personal experience what it meant to be reluctant about the legacy one must employ to teach. The Euro-American humanities is/are still the standard of all conversations in the American academy, flawed and defective as the standard may be, and a participant in academic life has no option but to employ this standard.
In Chapter 3, I focus on research and discovery, without forgetting the impossibility of removing the scholar out of scholarship, as I indicated earlier. The trip back and forth from the personal to the general or global is my object of focus. The opening statements cover this posture reasonably accurately.
There are scholars who find themselves at the center of their scholarship. Think of historians who search for themselves, with the full baggage of their context, commitments, and interests, when they set out to investigate distant centuries. Or, think of political theorists who express, within the most abstract and the most universal of their thoughts, desires they themselves have had for a long time. Come to think of it, the insertion of the personal into the scholarly is extreme in some cases: some “scholars” employ their work to get back at people who’d bothered them at an early stage in their life; in essence, they go through their intellectual careers with the same chip on their shoulder, a chip that becomes, in some cases, more prominent not less over time. Against this image, the subject of an author may be her/himself, but the author still asks large questions. I mean questions, not only about the meaning, or more modestly the implications, of an event or a development in one’s life, but about this life’s most central themes and mutations. The “implications” naturally transcend the very life that is the subject of writing. The self then becomes less and more than a self. 85)
“The Euro-American humanities is/are still the standard of all conversations in the American academy, flawed and defective as the standard may be, and a participant in academic life has no option but to employ this standard.”The subject of Chapter 4 is the impact of group and nationalist thinking, equipped with strange arguments that democracy is a safe bet for generating secure knowledge in an age that comes close to worshipping technology and engineering. I take this topic in vertical and horizontal directions. Take democracy as a guarantor for justice (equal votes, equal power, equal members of a population), a basis for generating a stable and flexible character for a society, or a foundation for supporting knowledge and discovery, and it effortlessly fails on all fronts. Take national religions that leave no room for individuals to breathe, and you will also find freeriding, revolts and disorder, and take the latter all the way, and you get ‘destruction’ and ‘reasonable resistance’ mixed together. In democratic, nationalist, and disorderly societies all the same, the space allotted to the institution of the university, I maintain, must be protected.
The last, much shorter, chapter reiterates my sense of the limits of any contribution I make to these broad debates. I speak of my story and the limitations it bequeathed me until the moment of writing. I reflect on how the teachers of suspicion, from Rousseau to Freud to Sartre to Foucault, can restrict, rather than, illuminate academics and make it much harder for them to do their work. ‘Use with caution and care’ must be the final advice. The ‘Conclusion’ is another unvarnished and enthusiastic defense of the university and a call to protect its independence from both mob and market mentality.