Speech: The role of religious scholars in society
A meeting of religious scholars held in Jalalabad, Afghanistan – January 29th 2013
Raising the profile of religious scholars in society: the role of the Islamic Vocational Academy
The following keynote address was given by the founder of the Islamic Vocational Academy, J.M.Butt
Some of you may remember that in March 2009, we held a meeting in this very hall. The theme of the meeting was Religious Madrassahs in the Modern Age. There were a lot of resolutions at the end of that three-day meeting. One of them was:”Besides being Imams in mosques, and teachers in madrassahs, religious scholars should be able to take up other legitimate professions.”
This resolution is completely in accordance with a saying of the Holy Prophet: ”The best provision that you can possibly partake of is that which you have earned with the labour of your own hand.”
And in another Hadith, the Holy Prophet is reported as saying: “It is better that one should carry firewood on his back, as opposed to begging off others, who will either give one something or refuse one.”
These sayings of the Holy Prophet, embodied in this resolution of our March 2009 conference, are the basic principles – the main thrust – behind the Islamic Vocational Academy, which was established soon after the March 2009 conference. We felt that if Islamic scholars could be given the expertise to work in various walks of life, for one thing they would be able to improve their own livelihood – in the words of the Hadith they would be free of dependance on others. Furthermore, they would be able to work for spiritual and moral uplift in every walk of society. The benefits of Islamic scholars working in the mainstream of society would accrue to society in general, and to Islamic scholars themselves.
The resolution of the March 2009 conference mentioned “legitimate professions”. There are lots of legitimate professions – indeed most professions are legitimate – but I would like to say a word or two now about how the Islamic Vocational Academy has interpreted the phrase. We see legitimate professions particularly as being those professions that are close to Islamic academic and spiritual traditions. In particular, we have concentrated on three professions: media, business and herbal medicine.
Why are these professions particularly close to Islamic traditions, and particularly suitable for Islamic scholars? Being a media man myself, and seeing that the media is not generally perceived as a profession that is either suitable or common for Islamic scholars to pursue, I would like to give a detailed explanation of why, not only is the media a suitable profession for Islamic scholars, but they also have a lot to offer in this field.
We might as well start with the terminology of journalism. To a startling degree, this terminology is almost identical to the terminology of the principles that guided the collection of collation of Hadith – the sayings of the Holy Prophet. I say sayings of the Holy Prophet, since that is generally how the word Hadith is translated. In fact, literally the word means something new. So a more accurate translation of the word Hadith might be “news-stories” from the life of the Holy Prophet. Due to the specificity of the word Hadith to reports of sayings and events from the life of the Holy Prophet, we do not use the word Hadith in a journalistic sense – that is purely out of respect for the Hadiths of the Holy Prophet – in the same way as we do not use the word Quran – literally meaning a recitation – for any other book but the Book of Allah.
This does not apply to the word khabar. The word is also used as an alternative to Hadith, referring to reports of sayings and events from the Holy Prophet’s life. That is what the word khabar means – a report. It is used in exactly the same sense in journalism also. The third key term – common to both journalism and the principles that guided the collection of Hadith – is the word for source. Again, the word for source in a Hadith context – rawi – is specific for Hadith, but the concept of the “source” of a report is the same in journalism as it is for a news-story – a Hadith or a khabar – from the Holy Prophet’s life. The more reliable a source, the more reliable the report will be, whether it is a report from the life of the Prophet, or a journalistic report. As with Hadith, journalistic reports that come from several sources are cross-checked, to see which is the most reliable, with the strength of the source being one of the criteria for ascertaining the most reliable version.
But it is not only in terminology and methodology that modern journalism bears resemblance to Islamic tradition, and provides a suitable career for Islamic scholars. The Islamic Vocational Academy has also introduced a module that we call Storytelling in a Contemporary Context. This module looks at how the oldest form of entertainment and education – storytelling – has been adapted in modern times to reflect current issues in an illuminative and instructive way: while the story draws attention to a problem, the moral of the story seeks to rectify that problem. It is in this way that we are trying to improve modern journalism, by making it more oriented towards solving problems, instead of just drawing attention to problems, which can often have the adverse effect of exacerbating the problem. This is the attitude that the Islamic Vocational Academy is seeking to instill in Islamic scholars: a sense that they have something positive to contribute to the world – that they can do something to make the world a better place – in every walk of life. But in order to be able to do this, Islamic scholars must be worldly-wise. They must know about the principles that guide modern life – democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, women’s rights, ecumenism, freedom of religion. This is what the Islamic Academy teaches in its Islamic Outreach Department, in a series of modules for which it seeks sponsorship from particular organizations.
This module sponsorship scheme is just one way in which the Islamic Academy is attempting to raise funds. Another method is by introducing a distance education component to its teaching methodology. Not only will distance education enable the Islamic Vocational Academy to extend its reach to the rest of Afghanistan: it will also enable us to introduce our innovative modules in the rest of the Muslim world. While students in Afghanistan are not able to pay fees for enrollment in the Islamic Academy, students in other parts of the world are able to do so. So extending the reach of the Islamic Academy through distance education, like module sponsorship, will be a source of income generation for the Islamic Academy.
But more than anything we are seeking funding from Afghans themselves – both at home and in diaspora. The Islamic Vocational Academy is making a meaningful move to bring religious scholars more into the mainstream of modern life, gearing them to make a positive and telling contribution, both to national life and to humanity in general. We hope there will be Afghans who believe in this cause enough, from an Afghan perspective, to support it. We also reach out to other Muslims who believe in this cause from an Islamic point of view. We are seeking their support, also.