My husband Marc informed me that on a Salafi forum a local Philly Muslim warned people about attending any of lectures at the Islamic Literacy Series. The brother basically said that we were a bunch of latte drinking*, homosexual loving, elitist, Obama loving Muslims. In another email, someone criticized us by saying that we were not scholars of Islam, have never lived in Saudi Arabia (although I have lived in Kuwait and Egypt), there was no such thing as tasawwuf, and were going to commit shirk in these lectures.
These are some major accusations meant to discredit each one of us with a stereotype of a liberal Muslim who is lax about his/her moral stances. The effete and elitist stereotype is also used to try to emasculate any of the male speakers in the lecture series. It is a rather facile attempt to argue, “If you’re a real man, you won’t attend these lectures.” I will admit that it is not even worth engaging this type of drivel. Still, it is important to consider how these stances are detrimental to the Muslim community in America. The most important accusation is: none of us are qualified to teach because we are not “real scholars.” Not one of the lecturers claim to be amongst the ‘ulema. I have never claimed to be a faqiha, nor do I give fatwa. However, all of us have spent over a decade dedicated to studying subjects related to Islam. We all hope to share our knowledge with the broader public and inspire others to continue their intellectual quests informally and formally. Also, what qualifies this individual to say that I am not qualified to teach adults? I am a historian by training with a masters in history, I am qualified to teach college and private high schools. I have taught dozens of Muslim and non-Muslim students various subjects from English to African, Middle East, and Islamic history. I have taught elementary, high school, university, and adult education classes. The institutions and community leaders that brought me on to teach deemed me qualified. They didn’t bring me on to teach tajweed or give tafsir, I am not qualified to teach either.
Anti-intellectual Muslim have so much disdain for their degree holding brothers and sisters. I think it is a bit ironic. If we are going to have Muslim schools to develop a new generation, we need people who are qualified to teach and that requires having the training that comes with a degree. We need people who can make connections, and that often requires a different type of training. Azhar is not known for producing historians, let alone scholars who can challenge the intellectual nihilism that is predominating Western thought. This really struck home when taught my students a lesson about Othello. In one part of the mini-lecture, I began to explain several terms Europeans used for Muslims: Moor, Turk, Saracens. Many of my students did not know much about the history of Muslim and European interactions in Andalusia, the Crusades, and the Ottomans as a formidable Sea power and major threat to Europe.That meant they didn’t really know about the about the Moors, the Ayyubids, or the Ottoman Empire. I could see their eyes light up as I told them about the rich history of Muslims, the diversity of Muslim societies in North Africa and predominance of the Ottoman Empire at their height. I swear I could have seen their back straighten up with a bit of pride. Now, many Muslim adults don’t know a great deal of their own history either. Instead, they either wallow in despair about colonialism and the current occupation of Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan or they dream of utopias with no understanding how Muslim states played out in history.
One of my goals is to provide education opportunities so that Muslims of all ages so that they can critically engage with their own intellectual traditions. Our future will be shaky if we build it on the foundation of reactionary thought. In order to understand the direction we should be going, I think it is important to understand the sunnah and the ways of the pious predecessors. I still see the important lessons from the time of the salaf, but we should know what happened in the 1400 years between then and now.
Note: This post is not to discredit salafis, as we do have friends and associates who identify as salafis. I believe it is important for us Muslims to be respectful of our differences.
* I know a big bearded salafi who drink lattes, he has an imposing in their physical stature. I have also spied a few salafis at the Starbucks across from Penn’s campus. Also, we frequently drink tea and serve it to our guests. I’m avoiding caffeine for health reasons, but I prefer Dunkin Donuts coffee to any trendy cafe coffee.