I. Reform of Education
The first speaker, Dr. Ebrahim Moosa, provided passionate provocations that challenged Islamic institutions to move beyond the anxiety and fear of exploring secular sources of knowledge. In his view, a hyper-cautions fixation on questions of the ‘Islamic’ paradigm and methodology has kept such institutions from making mistakes and engaging in the innovative experimentation required to achieve the desired level of excellence (ihsan). Dr. Moosa especially focused on the idea of Muslim identity formation and preservation, for he argued that this anxiety has gone so far as to become “…a trap for censorship” that prevents us from the openness to all sources of knowledge required to ask deeper questions about the role of ethics in our educational models.
The next panelist, Imam Zaid Shakir, provided a critical reflection on the state of secondary school education in America. As part of his diagnosis, Imam Shakir highlighted a lack of discipline found in many American high schools which have “…become places teenagers hang out but are not particularly challenged.” He then went on to describe how Zaytuna College works to equip their students with tools to become lifelong learners by building upon traditional tools of Islamic learning. Zaytuna students are taught to reflect upon the objectives, interdisciplinary relationships, benefits, and the social relevance in terms of the Sharia for everything they study. He also argued for greater emphasis on memorization which in his view, “…provides the substance from which you can be creative.” Finally, Imam Shakir reiterated the need for ethical integration and stressed the imperative to have diversity in faculty background and pedigree.
The third panelist, Dr. Mahan Mirza, presented his thoughts on a global perspective of educational reform. He began his presentation quoting Plato, Aristotle and Bacon and illustrated that the common thread that links humanity together is the gift of reason. Rather than focusing mainly on vocational training, Dr. Mirza urged educational institutions to focus on a core mission to create moral human beings. His recommendation is to center reform on human rights principles: 1) that everyone has the right to an education; 2) that education should develop the full development of the human possibility. Dr. Mirza concluded by emphasizing Zaytuna College’s liberal arts model where both the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions are being engaged. He stated that the two intellectual traditions are not distinct at their core and instead, both work to answer the same humanistic questions.
Expanding further, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, centered her discussion on building the intellectual capacity of our students. She began by posing the question "Where are Muslims in the United States being educated?" and illustrated that they first engage Islamic Studies in their Sunday schools, rhetorically infused Friday sermons, and even more so, through social and traditional media. Dr. Mattson argued that the misconceptions produced by these pathways of information leave a kind of neurological imprint that requires tremendous effort to change and deconstruct. She also warned that our need for false security in charismatic leaders is due to a lack of confidence which can make us susceptible to authoritarianism. Furthermore, Dr. Mattson reminded the audience that what students ultimately seek in their teachers is a positive mentor, someone that provides formation, a safe environment for discussion, growth and debate. She ended her presentation by demonstrating how storytelling is an effective and underutilized tool which connects us to the wisdom of the past and diversifies the voices that are heard in our discourses.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic ended the presentation by articulating IIIT's mission and focus to reform Islamic education. He illustrated how IIIT brings scholars together from different contexts and traditions to address the questions of Islamic education in contemporary times.
II. Reflections on the Post Arab Spring Era
Dr. Emad Shahin, explained how instead of being driven by classical revolutionary models with an overarching political ideology and a vanguard party, protesters during the Arab Spring took pride in the movements’ transcendent nature and pluralistic leadership. Dr. Shahin argued that what we witnessed were mass political movements where some managed to topple leaders without entirely dismantling their regimes (i.e. Egypt and Tunisia), a few that were crushed, and others which turned into civil wars (i.e. Libya and Syria). In his view, these uprisings are still relevant since they were able to harness an unprecedented amount of people power, youth organization, public space, and the breakdown of political fear. Dr. Shahin also noted that the Arab Spring radically challenges problematic notions of Arab exceptionalism. On the question of where we are now, Dr. Shahin cited the backlash of authoritarianism currently underway where regimes either “upgrade” by adapting to pressure or they become more repressive by moving closer towards the violent eradication of dissent. Contemplating about the future, Dr. Shahin concluded that the underlying causes for the Arab Spring are still brewing and all of these state structures are ruling over a volcano that can erupt at any time.
In his response, Dr. Ermin Sinanovic began by outlining how the post Arab-Spring landscape shows that single party authoritarian regimes collapsed while monarchical regimes seemed to stay in power. He warned against taking an Arab exceptionalist view of the Arab Spring and reminded the audience not to idealize the street and the human being. "Who are the people?" Dr. Sinanovic asked. He stated that the best and the worst of humankind took to the streets and were on display. He also questioned whether the large number of protesters illustrates a collective will or simply imitation. Dr. Sinanovic argued that we must also look at the international constellation of power and the survival of the nation-state system as being at the crux of how political unrest is managed in the region. He concluded by emphasizing that because methodologies of Islamic Thought tend to be opportunistic and underdeveloped when utilized in such contexts, they must be infused with an ethical dimension.
III. Ifta’ and Fatwa in the Muslim World and the West
Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah opened the discussion by articulating how Ifta’ and Fatawa are in a chaotic situation in both the Islamic and Western world. He pointed out that unlike classical jurists who possessed both disciplinary and societal knowledge, contemporary Muslim jurists “…seldom enroll in secular universities to equip themselves with sophisticated scientific and social scientific research methods.” Dr. Shah stated that since a fatwa in the attempt to “apply the Sharia to the realities of daily life,” this bifurcation leads to a kind of idealization disconnected from reality. Furthermore, jurists must contend with the proliferation of fatawa on the internet and questions of religious authority. Dr. Shah then went on to outline what he argued were problems with the original legal methodologies which can at times reflect their own political realities as in the case of rulings on apostasy. According to him, there is a trend to generalize specific texts and specialize general ones, causing matters that may have degrees of ambiguity to be established as the “…original Islamic ideology.” In order to better contextualize Islamic sources for interpretation, Dr. Shah concluded by asking whether the ulama can exert an effort in the hadith tradition similar to the asbab al-nuzul literature of the Qur’an.
The first discussant, Dr. Jamal Badawi, echoed Dr. Shah’s call for better contextualization and went on further to discuss the need for the collectivization of fatawa. He said that current efforts to meet this challenge by organizations such as the Fiqh Council of North America and The European Council for Fatwa and Research are a point of hope moving forward. Dr. Badawi also cautioned against over generalizing the malaise of contemporary Muslims jurists.Shaykh Muhammad Nur Abdullah contributed to the discussion by emphasizing the need for collective ijtihad because in his view, sources of knowledge have become so specialized no one person could possibly replicate the scholars of the past. Finally, Dr. Ihsan Bagby synthesized the previous panelists and focused on how important Ifta’ remains in Muslim culture, especially as a tool of argumentation. He also pointed out that since there has always been a marketplace of fatawa, a fixation on pedigree among Muslim jurists should be superseded by efforts to produce better quality arguments.
IV. IIIT Distinguished Scholar Award
Dr. Emad Shahin was honored for his prolific academic and intellectual life. He is currently on leave from the American University of Cairo and serving as a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, as well as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. IIIT honored him for his political courage, public engagement and scholarly work. His commentary in media and numerous forums are a testimony to his honesty and deep engagement and commitment to the principles of justice, freedom and human rights. He has also made personal sacrifices in his journey to uphold these key virtues. This honor is a small contribution to say thank you to Dr. Shahin for his lifetime academic achievement and public engagement.
Dr. Shahin thanked IIIT and discussed how his relationship with IIIT started nearly 30 years ago. IIIT influenced him in his subsequent writings, for the reform of Islamic Thought was at the core of his research. Dr. Shahin reminded us that the challenges of today and the direction where the Muslim World is heading require us to shift our examination of the state, to instead, examine the human being. This would thereby make the human being, and not the state, the core of Islamic intellectual activity and for this effort we need a creative framework. Muslim society needs courage, moral activists to go against the hegemonic powers in society.
V. IIIT Legacy Documentary
Documentary producer, Alex Kronemer, stated that he believes in the power of stories. Particularly, he stressed that Muslims need to tell their stories. Kronemer was inspired by Dr. Altalib, Dr. Barzinji and Dr. Mirza. His documentary film tells the story of the founding of IIIT through the voices of its founding members. The founders shared stories of their personal and professional lives in order to illustrate the challenges the institute and they themselves went through in their pursuit to reform Islamic Thought.
VI. Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt
Dr. Abdullah al-Arian led a much needed discussion on the history of Islamic political activism in Egypt. He stated that beyond fiery preachers and militants, we rarely see images of Islamic activism where people are responding to communal impulses. Thus, it is not surprising that the deep state in Egypt succeeded in reinstalling an authoritarian political order. Tracing the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. al-Arian asks how a movement that all but disappeared by the 1960s was able to come back? He argued that this question required more nuance then usually offered. His research found that it was the generation of secondary and university students who took up the cause in an environment informed by the 1967 defeat, a Nasserite tradition of anti-imperialist and social justice minded discourse, and a multiplicity of views within Islamic activism from religious militancy to modernism. A particularly relevant example of this generation’s model of activism was how their affinity towards intuitional engagement as leaders in university student unions and later, professional syndicates, is in sharp contrast to their predecessors. In Dr. al-Arian’s view, while the rigid structure of the elders kept the younger generation from radicalization, it also hindered their ability to navigate post-revolutionary Egypt more effectively. As their organizational leadership shifts, Dr. al-Arian concluded that these generational dynamics are essential for understanding the trajectory of the movement.
Reflecting on Dr. al-Arian’s presentation, Dr. Ermin Sinanovic emphasized how important of a corrective his research provides to the literature which seems to imply that Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood focus too much on Israel, the West, the role of Women, etc. In fact, Dr. Sinanovic argues that this conclusion may be more a reflection of the fixation in the Western academy. As Dr. al-Arian’s work demonstrates, these issues are minor considerations when analyzing the volumes of publications such groups produced. Dr. Sinanovic also provided some comparative remarks where he again asked, “What is it about the international order and global politics that enabled similar outcomes in Muslim majority societies around the world during the same period?” Dr. Emad Shahin’s comments echoed Dr. Sinanovic’s praise of how much this book contributes to contemporary discourse, especially since this period in Egypt is quite understudied. He states that the humanistic style of this book allows the reader to connect with the struggle of the individuals involved in Islamic activism.
VII. Five Pillars to Prosperity
Dr. Yaqub Mirza began discussing his book by sharing a simple principle that has guided his financial philosophy, an aversion to debt. It was his effort to find ways of accomplishing financial goals without incurring interest that led him to write a book that could help guide others in their endeavor to do the same. His book discussed the five pillars of earning, investing, spending, saving, and giving. Dr. Mirza shared that his motto for earning is that “If anyone can do my job, then I am not going to do my job” to discuss how we should make sure we are always doing the best that we can do. He also emphasized tracking our spending, his preference for delaying immediate gratification for future fulfillment, and security. He then moved onto investing which he argued is most advantageous when started earlier. He argued that since we now have Islamic Mutual funds, there are more comfortable opportunities to begin investing early. Although most discussions on building financial prosperity focus on the self, Dr. Mirza spent most of his time discussing the giving pillar of his approach where he recommends giving while living. For Dr. Mirza, since the purpose of Zakah is to eradicate poverty we can conclude that it is not being collected and distributed adequately. Finally, Dr. Mirza discussed the need for the better utilization of wills and the benefits of setting up limited family partnerships to distribute income among children more equitably.
In his comments, Dr. Miles Davis pointed out that since Business schools do not teach personal finance, Dr. Mirza’s work is imperative not only for Muslims but also for most Americans. He went on to discuss that because people do not change their behavior by function of more information, actually acting out some of the recommendations from Dr. Mirza’s book will instill the desired changes. He finished by stating that Islam allows Muslims to “do good while doing well” due to its emphasis on intention. Therefore, this book provides a financial plan for society that is predicated upon getting so that you can give. Afterwards, Mr. Imrana Umar concluded the session by discussing how he would call the book “The Five Pillars of Living” because it captures how to move out of a state of dependency. Some of Mr. Umar’s critical feedback included placing the chapter on spending earlier in the book and translating this book to digital platforms to engage with younger generations.
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