How can the Imam fulfill his responsibility of being murabbi to his community as his voice continues to fade in this digital age? What transformations and adaptations will he have to make to reclaim the authority and influence that he historically enjoyed over the centuries? Historically, the ulama were at the center of the creation of culture within the Muslim community. They were the trendsetters. This is no longer the case. The various sciences used to be the domain of the ulama. Traditionally, memorization of the Qur'an and the hadeeth was a basic prerequisite for pursuing a career in the natural and social sciences. This led to ulama who were also doctors, engineers and philosophers. It was these kinds of people who interpreted the world for the Muslim masses based on the principles of the Qur'an and the Sunnah.
The Muslim world has succumbed to the separation of science and religion so diligently followed in the secular West. As a consequence, on the one hand, we have Muslim doctors, scientists, and engineers that are ignorant in the basic prerequisite knowledge of the Qur'an and Sunnah. On the other hand, we have ulama that are divorced from expertise in the social and the natural sciences. This has created a seemingly unbridgeable rift within the Muslim ummah between those who have been educated in the secular schools and those educated in the traditional madrasahs. Neither understands the other and all are unable to provide that comprehensive and holistic guidance that was the legacy of the ulama of old. Few Muslim scholars exist in the ummah that are proficient in both the religious studies and the sciences.
Additionally, there has been a slow and steady brain drain from the madrasahs over the centuries. Due to the tremendous career opportunities available for those graduating from secular institutions as opposed to those graduating from madrasahs, Muslims have tended to enroll their smartest and their brightest in secular schools. As a matter of fact, schooling in a madrasah is a last option for many Muslims and is usually considered for those who have failed the secular educational system. This has created a concentration of critical thinkers in the secular camp and a vacuum of critical thinkers amongst the ulama.
The evidence for this is quite apparent in the tremendous amount of literature produced by Muslim scientists and engineers, as opposed to the meager production of contemporary Islamic literature by our ulama. The result is that the intellectual leadership within the Muslim ummah is now lead by the secular camp. The voice of the ulama of today has been pushed to the sidelines and no longer commands the same attention that it commanded over the Muslim masses prior to the colonization of the Muslim world. The reason the ulama still seem to play a central role even now in many parts of the Muslim world is because the illiteracy rate amongst Muslims remains woefully high and it is much easier for our ulama to influence the mindset of such people as opposed to that of the educated. However, the political leadership in many Muslim countries is led by the secular camp and the ulama primarily play a cosmetic role providing an "Islamic" covering to the secular policies of our Muslim leaders.
Coming back to our question, how can we re-centralize the role of the imam within the Muslim community? This requires long-term and short-term interventions.
For the long-term we should observe a three-pronged approach:
1. The Muslim scientists, engineers, etc. and those currently being educated in secular institutions should study the Qur'an and hadeeth and foundational classics of Islamic literature in order to attain a certain level of competency in their understanding of Islam.
2. The ulama should attain a certain level of competency in the natural and social sciences by studying foundational classics and contemporary literature in those areas.
3. Schools that focus on integrating both the Islamic studies and the natural and social sciences should be established to produce a new breed of Muslim scholars (not unlike those of old) that have expertise in at least one of the Islamic studies areas and one of the sciences.
4. This will allow for the Muslim ummah to again create scholarly literature that seamlessly integrates the Islamic and the social and natural sciences thereby providing the holistic and comprehensive guidance that the Muslim ummah has been deprived of over the last four centuries. The suggested interventions outlined above require Muslim scholars on both sides of the camp (religious and secular) to start a dialogue with each other where both parties are seen as equal collaborators in weaving a vision for the Muslim ummah. However, this is easier said than done. The good news is that such dialogue has been started by some scholars but it is sporadic in nature and not a widespread phenomenon. Also, Islamic schools that focus on integrating the Islamic studies and the natural and social sciences are being established throughout the Muslim world. These schools are still in their infancy, but they promise a brighter future for the Muslim ummah.
For the short-term, imams can do the following:
1. Become tech and media savvy: The role of the imam is conservative by nature and discourages acquisition of new skills and technology. This is not so dissimilar from the teaching profession that faces the same dilemma irrespective of faith. Imams should gain proficiency and competency in technology and media skills to a level that will not only enable them to be critical consumers of contemporary media but also enable them to become active producers of media and literature. This will allow them to expand their dawah efforts to the virtual world by providing authentic Islamic knowledge at a global scale.
2. Become culture savvy: Unfortunately, the majority of the imams operate from a very particularistic school of religious thought and methodology and are unable to reach out to anyone beyond their cultural boundary. As part of the globalization trend, today's imams are serving communities that are becoming increasingly diverse in many ways. As cultural translators, they need to undergo a rigorous cross-cultural training in order to navigate the cultural minefields present within their local community.
3. English language proficiency: Though Arabic must remain the prima facie language of Islam as ordained by Allah, it is necessary for today's imams to gain proficiency in the English language as well. Madrasahs have done a commendable job in developing Arabic proficiency amongst the ulama. As a result, most ulama have at least reading proficiency in Arabic and are also proficient in their mother tongue, the primary language of their respective local community. This has enabled imams to function in their local community as long as their community was homogenous in nature. However, as mentioned above, Muslim communities are becoming more and more diverse requiring imams to acquire other language skills. The highest rate of increase in other language proficiency amongst Muslims, irrespective of national boundaries, is in the English language due to the ubiquity of the English language and its dominance in many professional fields. Therefore, proficiency in English will not only empower imams to reach out to their diverse Muslim congregations but will also grant them access to the intellectual developments taking place in various areas of the social and natural sciences.
I have briefly highlighted some of the impact of the Internet technology on Muslims and the subsequent challenges faced by the traditional role of the imam and the masjid. I have also outlined some strategies masajid and imams can use to re-centralize their roles within the Muslim community. The entire world and the Muslim ummah is at a critical crossroad as globalization and the technology revolution continue to seamlessly connect the world into a global village. Allah sent Islam as a global force long before any of these globalization trends took shape. Islam has within it a unique vision for a unified humanity. It remains to be seen whether the Muslims and their scholars and leaders are able to translate that vision into reality by providing in authentic and meaningful ways that vision of guidance and hope for the average Abdullah or Aisha in this digital age.
- Cook, B. J. (1999). Islamic versus western conceptions of education: Reflections on Egypt. International Review of Education, 45(3/4), 339-357.
Collins, A. & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology. Teacher's College Press, New York, NY.
- Robinson, F. (1993). Technology and religious change: Islam and the impact of print. Modern Asian Studies, 27(1, Special Issue: How Social, Political and Cultural Information Is Collected, Defined, Used and Analyzed), 229-251.
- Saleem, M. (2009). An exploratory study of the implementation of computer technology in an American Islamic private school. (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin).
- Murrabi : like priest in Christianity
- Ulama: Muslim scholar / Muslim Leader
- Ummah: Muslim community
- Masajid: mosques
- Madrasah: Islamic school
- Sunnah (= Hadith) : Prophet Muhammad's tradition or saying
- Dawah: outreach
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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