Studying Islam: Traditional vs. Modern Academic methods

It is understandable why some Muslims view the modern/Western academic study of Islam with faithful suspicion, while others look down on traditional study as some bygone relic of the past.

Both mindsets are at some level justified, yet it is important to realize they are also reductionist. I think it is inaccurate to assert that it must be one or the other. Both methods have immediate and future advantages and disadvantages.

Traditional study is the bread and butter of a Muslim’s Islamic Education. Rigorous training in the Arabic language, connecting with fiqh and usūl tradition by studying a madhhab, learning orthodox Islamic theology and then moving on to Hadith studies (I.e. like a Nizamiyyah curriculum) cannot be beat for understanding Islam at a fundamental level. I don’t consider a Muslim to know Islam well unless they have completed a solid traditional curriculum.

However there are limitations. The texts studied are often pre-modern, some ancient. Although you will acquire a strong traditional understanding of discplines, most traditional seminaries and curriculums are largely silent or at the least amateur in their teaching of how to effectively apply traditional knowledge in a modern setting.

For example, classical theology and usūl texts are often centered around discussions of classical logic and textual formalism. Factors like a priori empirical and scientific knowledge as well as logical plurality are often missing. The concept of coherence in epistemology as opposed to strict formalism is not thoroughly discussed and applied to arguments. When you present classical theology with weak empirical and scientific justification or in a strict formalist way (e.g. focusing on epistemic regress to buttress arguments) you will disconnect from global intellectual culture that is usually scientifically and technologically literate (or over-literate), used to relativistic, non-formalist constructions of knowledge, and study in universities where classical logic is now outdated and mostly replaced by inferential knowledge.

Many seminaries also have problems in educational culture, where pre-colonial understandings of Islamic subjects are presented as epistemically and socially authoritative. This might sound like a minor problem, but interact with and teach the average Muslim outside of your little religious circle and it becomes quite evident that you are missing a conceptual and sociological ‘bridge’ connecting traditional knowledge to people’s current concerns and circumstances.

Traditional knowledge progressed as time went on. al-Razi advanced on the ideas of al-Ghazzali, Izz-ul-Din Ibn Abdis-Salām and al-Qarafi launched a whole new discpline of Qawa’id-ul-Fiqh, Imam al-Nawawi reformatted the Shafii school and Shah Waliullah al-Dehlawi attempted to synthesize aqli and naqli, Hanafi and Shafii perspectives. Tradition was not a static immovable entity. To follow the traditional path does not mean to be stuck in the past.

Studying Islam via the modern academic method also has its advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages are clear. For example in history, methods of studying history are much more rigorous. A greater emphasis on primary evidence for example has yielded tremendous insight into Islamic History that was previously either unknown or overlooked.

Authors like Frank Griffel have attempted to analyze the biography of Imam al-Ghazzali not just through atypical secondary sources like Ibn Asakir and Shafii tabaqāt literature, yet additionally took into account his personal letters which were written in Persian, lending a more detailed inspection of the Imam’s life. Others like Halil Incalik have inspected Ottoman trade and government documents to learn more about what exactly caused the Ottoman Empire to weaken post-1700s, rather than just repeating the stories of pre-modern Ottoman historians. Some of these works are rich in detail and comprehensiveness. For example I don’t think it is possible to find a historical treatment of Islamic theology as rich and detailed as the Oxford Handbook on it.

Critical approaches like these yield new insights, and not just in history. Consider how profoundly manuscript study using modern archaeological techniques has contributed to our understanding of the Qur’an’s preservation. Sh. Muhammad Mustafa al-A’zami’s classic ‘History of the Qur’anic Text’ is timeless not just because of his traditional background but also because of tools of critical analysis and historical method acquired from Western academia. The same goes for other important works like Jonathan Brown’s ‘Canonization of Bukhari and Muslim’ and Ahmed El-Shamsy’s ‘Canonization of Islamic Law’

One of the greatest strengths of Western academia is its curiosity and openness to novelty. It’s not enough to settle for what is known, there is always something unknown to discover. Upon reflection, new understanding and knowledge cannot be produced without such an approach. This openness combined with a critical attitude can be very helpful in expanding Islamic knowledge and it’s applicability.

Of course this does not mean that modern and especially Western academic study is without error. Far from it. For starters no Muslim should consider a Western academic study of Islam the foundation of their Islamic knowledge. A Muslim has no business practicing a critical attitude towards tradition and traditional understandings of Islam without having studied tradition and lived it with scholars and ulema. Adab and respect for traditional scholarship and consensus (if at least theoretically) is key before embarking on any attempt to form ‘new’ understandings. I always recommend young students to have a strong traditional education before they commit to a graduate Islamic Studies program in a Western university.

Also the intensely secular character of Western academic study neuters the native spritiuality of Islamic learning. Constantly being exposed to an environment in which discussion of religious concepts is not rooted in God-consciousness or spiritual adab is poisonous to a Muslim’s ontology and religious psychology.

One can get lost in novelty, looking for answers in concepts and discussions where submission to Allah and the apparent meaning of texts is both Islamically and rationally the better answer. One can also be deceived into critiquing ideas around which scholarly consensus has continuously persisted since the earliest days of Islam and are either better left alone or treated with the respect and caution they deserve.

Because of my perspective of both traditional and modern academic study here, I highly value Muslim institutions that attempt to combine the strengths of each and eliminate their drawbacks as much as possible. To date, few such institutions exist, but prominent examples are Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul and the International Islamic Universities in Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur. Some institutions in the West, like Darul-Qasim and Zaytuna in the USA and Ebrahim College in the UK are also putting in effort to bring the best of both worlds together.

It is easy to think that traditional study is outdated, or that modern academic study is the path to harmful innovation and liberalist Islam, but those who are engaged in intense study and research in Islamic knowledge and have accessed resources and methods from both angles know that such a point of view is unnecessary, reductionist and worst of all: harmful to the development and enrichment of Islamic knowledge and civilization itself. Revival will not occur by going back in time, rather by holding on to the tradition and tracing a route into the future.

One Reply to “Studying Islam: Traditional vs. Modern Academic methods”

  1. I benefited a lot from the balance you had in this post. Jazakum Allahu khairan!
    Have you written anything on internal and external perspective of knowledge or more specifically of knowing (epistemology)? The western method seems to be obsessed with external forms of validity, as if every part of knowledge is like proving something in a court of law. But I feel that in islam due importance is given to internal experience for knowing the truth.
    Would love to read your view on this.
    Thank you!


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