Islamic Studies Academics Must Know Arabic

Islamic Studies academics have recently taken to social media to critique certain aspects of their field. One major criticism was that Islamic Studies academics are constantly projecting various theories onto Islam without justifying why they are doing so. Although this assessment was ironically made by an academic that has fallen into the same trap via projecting Schuonian Perennialism onto Islam, the critique stands. The discussion has since taken a turn to focus on theory and its utility, and that is beyond the scope of this piece. Another major criticism was the lack of language skills among many Islamic Studies academics, which drastically limits their engagement with Muslim texts. In response, one Islamic Studies academic took to social media making poorly thought out responses to this, varying from accusations of sexism, racism, classism, to ignorance of the corpus of Muslim texts.

I have taken Islamic Studies courses at more than one university. At the time, I had my own critiques and skepticism of the capabilities of the professors in the Arabic language, but I would never have imagined that it would be considered unproblematic by some to have absolutely no engagement with Arabic. I spent many days in class correcting my professors when they misread or mistranslated an Arabic phrase. I was left in a state of confusion. How is it that these are tenured or tenure-track professors at top universities that are so incompetent in the primary language of the Muslim tradition of which they are purpotedly experts? 

One particular academic claimed that limiting Islamic Studies to people with knowledge of classical Arabic will make the field more white, male, and wealthy. This statement is loaded with problems and assumptions, but I will highlight just one. Assuming the statement is true, there seems to be an implicit prioritization of diversity over standards and quality. If there is a perceived limitation on access to classical Arabic, then the goal should be to expand the level of access rather than waiving Arabic off as some unnecessary perk. Unsurprisingly, proponents of cancel-culture and identity politics can’t seem to get this through their heads. Academia as a whole is characterized by inaccessibility, which is itself the problem. The issue is not a racial or gendered one, but a class one. There’s more to be said about this, but other questions arise. 

Does the academic who brandished the flag of anti-racism realize that her approach to Islamic Studies is completely reminiscent of standard orientalist white-washing of other fields of study? Coleman Barks ‘translated’ Mawlana Jalaluddin al-Rumi’s poetry without knowing a lick of Persian. The result was a whitewashing of a Muslim theologian’s love for Islam at the hands of Westerners ready to cite Mawlana Rumi to justify beliefs he would have rejected. It is true that there are many works about Mawlana Rumi written in various languages, but the core works are in Persian. Erasing the requirement of Persian to engage with Mawlana Rumi produces something repugnant to anyone who speaks Persian, anyone who values Mawlana Rumi as a Muslim figure, or anyone with a semblance of academic integrity. To suggest a similar route regarding Arabic in the field of Islamic Studies is asking to open the door to things that are an anathema to me, an Arabic-speaking, Muslim student of traditional Islamic Studies. 

Even if one were to make the argument that many Muslim texts are in Persian, Urdu, and Turkish (among other languages), this provides no recourse for the problem at hand. The core text that informs all other texts in the Muslim tradition, whether directly or indirectly, is the Qur’an. The Qur’an is in Arabic, and one will never be able to grasp it without having mastered Arabic. Translations are not considered the Qur’an by Muslims. An academic would never consider someone who has never read Shakespeare in his original early English (as opposed to a translation) an authority on Shakespearean literature, so why should anyone pay mind to a proclaimed authority on Islam who has never read the Qur’an, a text that is only in Arabic?

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Wassim Hassan is currently a medical student as well as a student of traditional Islamic disciplines. He has focused his traditional training on the study of Kalam. His general interests include Islam, Western Philosophy, Bioethics, Translation Studies, the Arabic Language, and science.

3 thoughts on “Islamic Studies Academics Must Know Arabic

  1. Needed discussion! It must be discussed at wide level!

    On Sun 24 May, 2020, 3:15 AM Traversing Tradition, wrote:

    > Wassim posted: “Islamic Studies academics have recently taken to social > media to critique certain aspects of their field. One major criticism was > that Islamic Studies academics are constantly projecting various theories > onto Islam without justifying why they are doing so” >

  2. Great post! Do you think the same standards should hold for the Bible, which was originally in Aramaic but is now popularly read in English?

    1. If someone is going to be a “scholar” in Biblical studies they should be able to access the Bible in its original language. The standards would be different to popular readings by laypeople.

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