The Collective Work of Scholarship

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2013 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu


So I felt the need to kind of elaborate the point in the previous post, specifically about the value of the collective work of scholarship. It is something I have been thinking about lately as my house is littered with academic articles and the clattering of my wife’s keyboard.

I am the son of academics, my mother and father both were and are historians. I have spent my life studying on and off, and my wife is something of an intellectual giant. So when I talk about this I guess I am relatively self interested. However I also speak from experience.

‘No man is an island’ goes the saying, similarly no academic is without a citation index! Scholarship, in any discipline, is a scattered but ultimately collective labour. This is something that I am only really now beginning to appreciate.

It is a given in Islamic scholarship, something emphasised in the chains of transmission, in the madahib, the colossal schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The compilation and authentication of the hadeeth, like the schools of law, was a collective work.

Similarly the great work of the sciences mimics this form, consciously and unconsciously (the modern sciences came from religious and philosophical academies and schools after all). A giant web of academics stretches across the globe, arguing, critiquing, confirming and testing knowledge. This vast, if flawed web, is devoted in no small part to knowledge.

This is the reason that when an individual not tapped into that work, not trained or related in any real way (except maybe in dissent) believes themselves to fundamentally know better, it seems ridiculous to those part of that work. I may seem very establishment minded in this respect, but I really feel that the way to express dissent is simple: tap into that network, get educated and be heard.

Someone who apparently has access to truths missed by the mainstream of such scholarship yet refuses to tap into it, to be tested by it and contribute, must be suspect to me. I remember reading an interesting historical hypothesis, it was contained in the book 1421: the Year China Discovered the World. In the book the author talks about how he has not been blinded by the academic eye, which is far too concerned with pre established assumptions, whereas his untrained eye sees truth clear.

It seems on the surface a persuasive assertion, but what it amounted to was a desire to be exempt from criticism. More than any qualifications, what defines an academic is peer review. I know history, and the narratives around history, and the historians who write it, the idea of historians as antiquarians wearing blinders could not be further from the truth.

History, like any other discipline is rather full of conflict, ideas are batted around the arena, and succeed through their evidences and the virtue of their arguments. Scholarship is a living thing, and evolves with time, through that tempering. Some ideas become widely accepted through this process, others remain hotly contested.

Now the idea that an individual has some special insight by having ideas that are not tested, not critiqued, strikes me as a particular type of delusion. Some would assert that academia is a way that people’s independence is neutered by the establishment. To those people I ask politely that they submit themselves to peer review and then get back to me.

Academia has its flaws, and collective scholarship makes mistakes. It is a system and there is always a danger that a flaw becomes part of the system. However the way to address these flaws is with knowledge. In many ways one can’t escape scholarship if one asserts any position on any discipline. What differs is the level of involvement, the accountability, the tapping into that collective work.

I feel like those who are unwilling to tap into that are necessarily afraid of critique… failing that they must have some aversion to a contribution to their field. If one has discovered some truth, the way to see it come to light is to bring it into the eyes of the world, integrate it into scholarship. 1421 was enough work for a PHD, that his claims on investigation were pretty suspect would seem to show why he did not seek one out.

And Allah Knows Best.

Note: I wrote this some time ago but because it was so repetitive of other points I’d made previously, I didn’t publish it. Figured I wrote it so I might as well publish it 🙂


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