I was recently privy to the beginnings of a project to establish a scholarship fund for seekers of knowledge. In particular, there was the sentiment of financially facilitating the path of study for those who have the potential to make relevant the eternal religious truths in a contemporary manner, which is practical as well as intellectual. This project was heart-warming because it acknowledged, and sought to rectify, the gaping challenge facing the Muslims in England with regards to proficient and engaging knowledge. On the other hand, it was also lamentable that the Muslims of England had as yet not produced one comprehensive and productive scholarship fund, despite being quite active in being present, producing well furnished masjids with almost continuous extensions (usually only applicable to the two Eid celebrations) and publishing a wide variety of well produced works since the 1970’s. Now understanding the general vacuum is different to then specifying the details of a programme that will correct the problem as well as some of the failings of previous attempts, insha’Allah.
The need to establish a new scholarship fund is because we have, in England, underestimated scholarly excellence and its necessity for the flowering of a vibrant and true Islamic culture. This has led to us not establishing enriched and focused schemes of funding. Moreover, our failure with regards to knowledge has been to confuse ‘signs of scholarship’ with ‘great scholarship’; thus exaggerating returning students and neglecting leading scholars.
To initiate a new direction in this regard, we must layout clear principles for achieving our objective. The pure Islamic ‘philosophy’ of usul al-fiqh, or legal methodology, should provide the framework in which we can set targets and judge cases. Indeed, the application of sound jurisprudential principles is what allows us to arrive at the ‘fiqh of scholarship funds’, after passing through the valleys – to borrow from Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi – of the ‘fiqh of balances (muwazanat)’ and the ‘fiqh of priorities (awlawiyyat)’. Shaykh Qaradawi details this path in his Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase. Yet we can summarise the path as the ‘putting of everything in its right place according to the Sacred Law’. Consequently – again using Qaradawi – we can arrive at placing virtuous, as opposed to ambivalent or rejected, cases in various categories: 1) daruriyya (necessary); 2) hajiyya (needed); or 3) tahsiniyya(dignifying).
The following can be rightly considered necessary pursuits of learning:
- Seeking comprehensive obligatory knowledge for disseminating, through translations and verbal class-based instruction, in one’s community where there is a lack thereof. This can include the pursuit of theological, legal and spiritual sciences.
- After mastering the legal sciences, seeking extensive training at the hands of those skilled to issue legal rulings (muftis), so that one can perform the same task for one’s community after attaining similar mastery that is recognized by one’s teachers. [Here I mean, ideally, much more than just a mere customary one or two year takhassus, or Masters level specialisation, so popular in dar al-ulums at present – and surprisingly called ‘mufti’ courses. Nevertheless, a takhassus scholarship could be necessary in order to improve a community towards the desired end state.]
- It might even mean providing the funding means for a seasoned scholar from the Muslim world to learn English.
The needed category would include those pursuits similar to the above but to a degree less than necessary, perhaps due to some people already performing such obligatory tasks, but their instruction would be better served through competent support.
The dignifying category would be one that includes the praiseworthy pursuit of Islamic knowledge, but in an instance where the duty that one wants to accomplish for one’s community is already being fulfilled. For instance, someone living in a community with teachers competent to teach the four pillars of the law would not be a necessary or needed case to go and study Nur al-idah. Likewise, it would not be necessary or needed for someone to want to learn and then translate Umdat as-salik (reliance of the traveller). Furthermore, a community that has numerous people teaching something like the Madina Arabic books does not need to provide a scholarship for someone to study Arabic for a year abroad in order to then return and just teach these same books.
Now we should consider the qualities that a prospective scholarship student should have, and the following is a guide:
- Now, of course, potential does not necessarily lead to fulfillment of that potential. Success (tawfiq) is only from God, so achievement of a goal cannot be stipulated prior to the undertaking of a task.
- One can have potential but not have the attitude to succeed.
Exhausted Local Means
- This means that someone wanting to study Arabic or the Islamic sciences should have drained all the benefit they can from those means accessible to them. This will obviously differ for each person. However, national resources should perhaps be explored before travels abroad. Moreover, the internet has opened up further means towards gaining knowledge before seeking to travel abroad. The importance of this criteria is to ensure that the seeker has a maturity that has outgrown a wholly romantic attitude towards knowledge. In addition, a person who exemplifies this experience is one who will be better placed to benefit from the journey abroad, which can be very expensive and challenging.
A Focused Outlook and Goal
- Any applicant must display a penetrative vision that allows them to be able to take a scholarship and do more than just accomplish some formal study. With all due respect, since the 1990’s many groups have stressed the importance of authentic knowledge and have had many journey for study, but have we really built upon the foundations of the early 1990’s? To answer, it really is a mixed affair. In the realm of law – despite differing with certain legal pronouncements – one would be severely constrained to say that the Reliance of the Traveller has even been equalled by Hanafis, Malikis or Salafis (whether ‘Egyptian light’ or ‘Saudi heavy’) in terms of comprehensiveness and professionalism, and the Reliance received its revised edition in 1994! However, the Shafi’is, at the same time, haven’t progressed the essentialist nature of the Reliance. Nevertheless, there are numerous successes and furthering of literature since then. However, the neglect of law is indicative of a lack of prioritization, which does not make superfluous the strides made in presenting history (such as Ali Sallabi’s works or Ramadan Buti’s Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography) or works of ethics (such as Ibn Rajab’s Compendium, Taqi ‘Uthmani’s Discourses on the Islamic Way of Life or Jamaal Zarabozo’s Commentary on the Forty Hadith) or the monumental exegesis works of the Qur’an (such as Muhammad Shafi’i’s Ma’ariful-Qur’an and Muhammad Aashiq Illahi’s Illuminating Discourses on the Noble Qur’an). Ultimately, these scholarships will, for the foreseeable future, operate under constrained finances, therefore students seeking aid would be expected to show a little more than the rest, so as to push their application further ahead.
The fund will need the gathering of funds through publicity and events. These events should be about the importance of knowledge and why it is crucial to contribute generously. In Priorities, Shaykh Qaradawi bemoans the lack of prioritization in ‘many groups of the Islamic Awakening’ and the ‘Muslims in general’. He then makes the startling point that he sees
“Millions going to ‘Umra every year in Ramadan and other months, and others making Hajj for the tenth or even twentieth time. If they saved the money they spent on these nawafil [optional acts of worship], they would accumulate thousands of millions of dollars. We have been running around for many years trying to collect one thousand million dollars for an Islamic philanthropic institution, but have not collected a tenth, even one twentieth or one thirtieth of that amount.”
Therefore we must question where we send our charitable money, and distinguish between the ‘virtuous’ and the ‘better’. We must also realise the need to bequeath people to posterity and not largely empty buildings. Now to start towards rearing great individuals, one must lay the foundations of producing great teachers before one lavishly adorns a prayer hall. Ali Sallabi – in Sultan Muhammad al-Fatih after discussing the crucial relationship between the teacher Shaykh Shamsuddin upon his student Muhammad al-Fatih – states that there has been no ‘godly leader’ nor ‘brave liberator’ except ‘there is a group of pious scholars around him to teach and guide him’, including Qadi Fadil with Salahuddin Ayyubi. Without seeking to produce a scholarly class to provide profound religious instruction, one can only wonder at the future plight of the general Muslim populace in England. One sad reflection upon a negative future is that Muslims in England have a woeful civil record when they have been far from Islamic teachings – and the prisons bear testimony to this.
In conclusion, a scholarship fund should be well resourced by the community, and the fund itself should be responsible in delivering funds in order of the most worthy applicants. Moreover, students and scholars should be allowed to freely seek knowledge, and follow its paths as they are guided. How tragic that a student only intend to ever imitate his teachers, without having the high aspiration (himma) to become men as they see their teachers as men. The only boundaries set for an applicant must be that they are advised – like any believer – to adhere to the orthodox path of Ahl as-Sunnah; and not that they are required to strengthen any little grouping that seeks to monopolize the wide-expanse of this group whose blessing has been pronounced upon the tongue of the best of all creation, our Master Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him). Our teacher Shaykh Akram Nadwi – may God bless him and his family – mentioned how he ‘studied very hard’ and ‘would debate’ his ‘teachers and classmates’; and this advice is important. However, I would caution a student to know their place, i.e. not to parrot some ‘methodology’ gained in their university days and then blindly debate on that basis with their teachers; and then to just return as a more Arabised version of their original case; rather, their debating should be tempered by well informed gradualism (i.e. being true to one’s self and knowing one’s rank), sincerity and the principles of the Sunni method. The door has been presented to us – how many seek to open it, by the grace of God?
May God bless Abdullah al-Hasan and the Spring Foundation, and make the latter scholarship fund a source of guidance and success. Amin.