Posts Tagged ‘Scholarship’

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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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Anti-Intellectualism as a Pillar of the Tinfoil Turbanist

In General Discussion on March 10, 2013 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Bareketahu,

I hope this finds you all well 😀

I have been noticing lately than an antipathy towards intellectual endeavour forms a central foundation of the understandings that we have been talking about in this blog. In my interactions with my brothers and sisters in Islam I have found that in general there is a large degree of respect paid towards the Ulema; the scholars. The religious reasons behind this are a multitude and I won’t go into them here but the central point is that for the average believer, the instinctual response to a question about the religion is to seek out a scholar.

This is not simply a trait of the lay Muslim, but also the scholars themselves. In one class the Sheikh was asked a question that was pertinent to a particular topic to which he did not claim extensive knowledge, his reply was an unhesitating ‘I don’t know, but you should ask fulan fulan’.

Being the sons and daughters of Adam, we naturally live in a state of varied and vast ignorance. We may know one or two things, we may even know a large amount of things, but we will never Know, as He does. We must then, by absolute necessity, be willing to admit the gaps in our knowledge. This is not simply a sign that one is intellectually consistent, but to do otherwise seems to me as something of a rebellion against the reality of the religion itself.

The wearer of the Tinfoil Turban, even if never stooping to such outright rebellion, rides a unicycle around the edges. Be it medicine, science, politics, history or any other subject which has its scholars, the Tinfoil Turbanist will reject the possibility that those scholars know something they don’t. There is the keen assertion that the intellectual endeavour of not only an individual but often an entire discipline, is second to their own knowledge of the topic at hand, however cursory their education in it.

There are a number of different ways that this anti-Intellectualism manifests itself;

1. The home grown theorist. This individual’s Tinfoil headgear is wholly self constructed. A home grown theorist decides that the scholars in whatever discipline have gotten it wrong. Perhaps they believe that the whole system of scholarship is rotten, root to branch. Maybe they believe that if they educate themselves within the system, it will corrupt them. They may even believe that a conspiracy exists to silence anything but their incoherent YouTube manifestos…

Regardless, they feel that the best way to respond is to start from scratch. Whether they have to hand a perpetual motion machine or have discovered the real history of the world, they know for certain that those who possibly dedicated their life to study of a subject have missed what their layman’s enquiry has laid bare.

2. The fringe follower. The fringe follower is not themselves the one taking the fight to the scholars, it is another whom they follow. Be they a discredited doctor with fraudulent studies or a conspiracy theorist sans research, their ‘expert’ will be the only one they accept. This is, I guess, a step up from the home grown theorist, for this person at least attributes authority to someone other than themselves. The contempt for ‘experts’ is now given an exception in the form of a single expert, whose claims they likely will not have independently verified.

3. The ancient wisdom. Scholarship may have moved on long ago, but to the wearer of this Tinfoil headwrap, you wouldn’t know. It is possible they think Freud had it right, and ‘new’ Psychology is jibber jabber. Maybe they think the real medicine was with Aristotle, Francis Bacon’s last name is haraam! The contempt for intellectual endeavour now moves from an individual expert to a bunch of former, probably long dead, experts. This happens in a range of different disciplines, from farming to medicine, where the changes in the understandings of the scholars are frozen at a specific point and taken as gospel. This kind of Tinfoil Turbanist must completely ignore the critiques of the New School, in order to maintain the coherence of the Old.

4. Fight the Power/to the people. This type of Tinfoil Turbanist reverses the trend, it isn’t dead theorists now, nor is it a fringe expert, rather the scholarship they take faith in is that of those who are not scholars. This is a common tactic in Australian politics, the most blatant appeal to anti-intellectualism. Essentially the authority lays with the lay people, for the scholars are too educated, too removed from the real world (whatever that means). This could manifest itself as a privileging of ‘a mother’s wisdom’ over a medical professional, or an appeal to the ‘common sense of the people’ in contrast to academics in their Ivory Towers. It is an interesting appeal to populism and one that I have been coming across relatively frequently.

These four are the main characters, and, despite being relatively mutually exclusive, may well be found in the same individual.

Of course these classifications come with some caveats. To start with there is a distinction between following a minority opinion within scholarship and privileging a fringe position. Difference amongst scholars is the norm in any discipline, and thus schools with mutually exclusive claims arise. There is a gaping chasm between following the Shafii madhab and following some brother that had a dream he was the Mahdi and has come to abrogate the Sacred Law. The former retains a respect for scholarship, a respect for ones ignorance, the latter much less so.

The Mahdi analogy certainly follows though. One finds within these movements a kind of Messianic quality, that sense of an abrogation of established authority, of the norms of the world. One can certainly understand the appeal! Indeed we know well that once in a while there have been those whose revolutionary claims have rung true, and they have come and become the law themselves. However ‘once in a while’ remains the operative term.

Importantly, the authority of Prophethood was backed up with a range of things. It was not simply an appeal to authority and neither is this argument. At the core of a respect for scholarship is the acceptance that the collective work of learned individuals has fundamental value, and that challenging such a thing requires at least a comparable level of knowledge. This collective scholarship can and is wrong, but that in itself lends no credibility to a challenger who has even less weight behind them. Galileo was right because he was right, not because he challenged authority.

When challenged on fringe beliefs you will find yourself constantly confronted with a claim that the person presenting them has intellectual courage, that they are a free thinker, someone who looks outside the box. However when a person unlearned in any particular field is unable to accept their lack of knowledge, and, from that position of ignorance makes wild claims, it speaks to something else. An inability to accept one’s ignorance does not speak to intellectual courage, it rather points towards arrogance at worst and deep ignorance at best, usually it seems an unpleasant combination of the two.

Scholarship may be flawed, but forced to choose between that and the above, I’ll usually go with ‘those who know’ over those who think they know better!

And Allah Knows Best.