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Islam, Christianity, Modernity: Losses and Gains

August 10, 2010

Zaytuna College, America’s first Islamic institution of higher education, recently opened in Berkeley, California. Although as a Muslim college it is in an obvious sense unique, it also shares something fundamental with such schools as Christendom College (founded 1977) and Thomas Aquinas College (1971), both founded by conservative Catholics. All three of these schools are attempts to offer postsecondary educations that fully adhere to specific spiritual and intellectual traditions in the face of an apparently hostile modern educational program.

All three of these schools are attempts at pushing back against a modern educational program that each views as antithetical and even hostile to the integral visions of humanity presented by a faith and its intellectual tradition. They are a result of diagnosing the general education establishment as presenting students with a false vision of human identity, and thus also an attempt to correct these falsehoods, at least for those students who attend.

Thus Zaytuna College envisions itself as a new link in a longstanding chain of transmission of the Islamic tradition. This is clear from the following paragraphs on the college’s web site, which emphasizes the conservatism inherent in the college’s mission:

This duality, of encouraging adherence to guidance while discouraging innovation, is buttressed by the authentic chains of transmission, which have served as the principal means of conveying religious knowledge. These chains of transmission have safeguarded both the foundational texts of Islam and scholarly writings from the earliest centuries of the religion, facilitating an intellectual stability that has prevailed in the Islamic realm. They have also helped to establish a tradition of qualified scholarship that is essential for the preservation and perpetuation of the prophetic guidance.

Herein lies one of the distinctive features of Islam: each generation of scholars received knowledge from those preceding them, establishing verifiable chains of transmission extending back to the source of the knowledge they related. Abu Ali al-Jayyani (d. 498/1105) said, “God has distinguished this community with three things: Verifiable chains of narration; meticulous documentation of lineages; and desinential inflection in our language” (Siraj al-Din, Sharh al-manzumah al-bayquniyyah, 153). Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak (d. 181/797), one of the greatest scholars of the second century AH (eighth century CE), said, “Verifiable chains of transmission are an integral part of this religion. Were it not for those chains, anyone could have said anything he wished [and attributed it to Islam]” (Sahih Muslim, 51).

The primacy of chains of transmission places central importance on the human element in relating proper Islamic knowledge. And this knowledge is as much of the head as of the heart. In the Islamic tradition, conveying knowledge does not involve the mere transfer of information from the lines of books or the screens of computers to the student. It also involves human hearts connecting with one another, and the transfer of states of being. A sincere student benefits most from a teacher who is an active practitioner of the knowledge he or she conveys. Hence, the chains of transmission have always involved both the outward transferral of information from the teacher to the student and the inner transferral of the secrets of a teacher’s state. The importance of the inner transferal cannot be overemphasized; it results in a successful student implementing the teacher’s knowledge with etiquette, mercy, and nuanced understanding.

Note the emphasis upon “discouraging innovation”! This phrase alone indicates how far the school is from the Western educational mainstream, where the word innovation is invariably used in unthinkingly positive ways. But this quotation indicates a  very real difference (beyond the obvious credal one) as well from the Thomas Aquinas College founding document (see below) in its conservatism, its emphasis upon an almost mechanical transmission. This difference is not the subject matter of this post; but perhaps it is worthy of a future one. Suffice it to say that I know that when Thomas Aquinas College graduates go on to graduate study at, say, Notre Dame, they often gain a simultaneous reputation knowing their Aristotle and Aquinas startlingly well, while also being astonishingly narrow intellectually.

Thomas Aquinas College’s founding document, much more detailed and fully developed, is more nuanced, and is dependent upon a view of human nature that is simultaneously natural and supernatural, based upon a clear hierarchy of knowledge and subjects, with theology the queen of these sciences. Yet despite the real differences–Zaytuna’s statement emphasizes much more starkly  submission to tradition, as is appropriate for an Islamic school–both turn their back upon modernity’s smorgasbord and job training approaches to education. To each of these schools, education is ultimately not about paychecks and job skills; rather, it is about the perfection of the human within a certain tradition; and of course each sees its tradition as the tradition.

The rise of schools such as these in Catholic circles is a result of most Catholic schools deliberately downplaying their religious identity. Patrick Deneen, a professor at Georgetown and author of a thought provoking blog, has this to say about his school’s Catholic identity in an Advent 2009 post:

Georgetown, aspiring to mimic its religiously disaffiliated peers, today shies away from firm identification with its faith tradition. But, by dint of drift, it finds itself increasingly unable – much like its academic peers – to address the pervasive utilitarianism and materialism of our day. Today, we increasingly treat the world, its resources, and fellow humans as means to our individual ends – whether in economics, politics, sexuality or biotechnology. Our main political alignments are no great help in stemming this tendency, with the Right endorsing unfettered economic utilitarianism and the Left defending reproductive and bio-technological utilitarianism. Today, it is increasingly only the firmly grounded religious traditions – and above all, Catholicism – that resists this great and nearly unstoppable philosophic trajectory of modernity. Far from being ashamed of our grounding in this great tradition, we should embrace and commend it for a broken world. Putting Christ back into Christmas is to commend His presence one day a year; putting Christ back into Georgetown is to exemplify a year-round commitment and life-long devotion by a community of witnesses.

In this passage Deneen identifies the incoherence behind Georgetown University’s approach to education, and presents the antidote: an adherence to the Catholic philosophical and religious tradition. Here, he is guided by his own habits of thought: his intellectual work is defined by his adherence to principles that are premodern, even while teaching at an elite modern research university. Modern education is incoherent except in one regard: its only coherence lies in its desire to exact total control over the external world in an effort to live without any limits, something hubristic for any human culture or individual.

But there is something imperfect about the premodern option in higher education as well. I suggest that in a comparison between Thomas Aquinas College and Georgetown University we can learn something more generally true about the attempt to fit a premodern educational program into contemporary higher education. First of all, in the case of Georgetown, we cannot expect anything resembling coherence in intellectual approach. In general, the modern research university is an immense smorgasbord of subjects, research techniques, and assumptions; and to develop this metaphor further, much on offer on these buffet tables is–at least to premodern hybrids– genetically modified junk food, not heirloom produce and grass fed beef.

But the Thomas Aquinas College  (TAC) approach has its own issues. It tends to reify what is a means (the synthetic thought of Aquinas and secondarily Aristotle’s philosophy) and forget that these are a means to the ineffable truth, not that truth itself. I am quite aware that many of the tutors, students, and graduates of TAC would take issue with my claim; but the very vehemence with which they would do so further establishes the point.

To push this same idea further: human formulations of truth always contain a human element. In a healthy intellectual environment, we are always looking past the means of expression to what lies beyond. After all, Aquinas himself wrote that all he had said was “as straw,” which indicates he had seen this beyond, had seen the naked truth in some more ineffable way. This is not to say that we can dispense with specific formulations; only that we must learn to be humble in the face of their limitations, and even more so as we approach what these providential means help us enunciate.

Now to return to Zaytuna College: from its self description in the above quotation, I am afraid that it will not be the place where Islam can formulate its modern identity. It seems to have very little sense that the traditional theological and credal formulations exist to point beyond themselves. Instead their words indicate a likely reification of means, a (to fall into Freudian psychospeak) fetishization of formulation that ignores the telos of all such enunciations. Perhaps we need an Islamic college with a Sufi approach (an al-Ghazali College perhaps), and in this new school, Islam will approach modernity with neither a slavish desire to appease progressive westerners, nor a rote recitational approach to what has already been said and thought. Only the somewhat ambiguous section in the third paragraph quoted above from the Zaytuna web site, with its mention of “hearts connecting with one another” that in turn leads to a “student implementing the teacher’s knowledge with etiquette, mercy, and nuanced understanding” could possibly suggest something beyond this rote approach; but the emphasis upon the student’s “implementing the teacher’s knowledge” seems to return us to tradition as recitation.

The tentative general rule that I take from all of this: holding onto a spiritual–intellectual tradition in the modern world is at very least an extremely difficult task, and possibly even an impossible one. For while individuals are arguably capable of the balancing act between the specific expressions of truth and the truth itself, it is less clear that institutions can find this same balance. Instead, we seem to have the options of narrowness on one side, and on the other–in the modern university– an incoherent smorgasbord based upon an ethos of limitless domination. While I of course appreciate the first of these much more than the latter–a limited approach to the truth is still the truth, while a lie is always a lie (or to be fairer, a hodge-podge of truth and lies is just a confused mess)– I also recognize the limitations. Reacting to modernity seems to help push traditional expressions of truth into confessional cul-de-sacs, which while understandable are nonetheless unfortunate.

One last caveat: I do believe that there are ways of reading and reflecting on premodern texts that both respects them but sees them as part of a larger whole. In an earlier post, I suggested that reading Thomas Aquinas in a more meditative way allows us to appreciate scholastic theology in a way that transcends the narrowly philosophical. I believe this is true; but it also seems as if in part the pressures of modern thought push premodern adherents into defining their beliefs in narrower ways than they otherwise might. But from another and deeper perspective, perhaps there are other realities at work as well. For example perhaps a Hindu might see this devolution as a sign of the kali yuga, or a Muslim as simply a reflection of that hadith that states “he who breaks one tenth of the law at the beginning of the revelation will be condemned; he who keeps one tenth at the end will be saved.”

Religions exist within time, even for those of us who believe that the timeless, or that eternity and the eternal, exists. This, as Newman’s essay on the development of doctrine, can be something positive. It can also lead to ossification, paralysis, and an inertial dependence upon tradition as a dead weight even as it is also a fountain of life and truth.

August 10, 2010

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