The Perils of DIY Exegesis

Newsweek has a fascinating essay by Ed Husain, the author of the recently released The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. Unlike some other commentators, Husain is not at all surprised that physicians were involved in the recent attacks in Britain. He notes that the ranks of radical Islamic organizations are filled with activists with a technical education. He offers some speculative thoughts on how this background has affected their approach to Islam:

In the past, Muslims did not pronounce on religious matters without the endorsement of trained theologians, the ulama. The ulama were the bastion of religious knowledge that operated in an informal yet consensual method of intellectual plurality, interpretational elasticity, and maintained a centuries-old chain of transmission of sacred knowledge, known as the ijaza. Before modern-day terrorists turned to destroying buildings and killing innocents, they violently rejected this millennium-old Muslim tradition of learning. The founder of the Wahhabi school killed scholars who disagreed with him in Najd, and as late as the 1980s Islamists assassinated leading ulama in Egypt and Syria. Free from the constraints of traditional learning and the learned, Wahhabi-Islamists developed their theology of terror: those who disagree must be killed. What started as intolerance, ended up as justification for mass killing.

Islamists and jihadist networks lack the support of the ulama. Just as their bombing techniques are amateur and desperate, often destined to failure, so is their reading of scripture and warped justification for suicide bombings and killing humans. They approach the Qu'ran as though it were an engineering manual, with instructions for right and wrong conduct. Literalism and ignorance dominates their readings. This flaw is deepened by the haughty mindset of the engineer or medical doctor that academic achievement, a place at a university, now qualifies him to approach ancient scripture without the guidance of the ulama. To the Islamist engineer, centuries of context, nuance, history, grammar, lexicon, scholarship, and tradition are all lost and redundant. The do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude to religious texts, fostered by doctors and engineers of secular colleges, produces desperate, angry suicide bombers devoid of spiritual guidance.

Reading this, I was reminded of Pope Benedict's comments at Regensberg about the importance of the relationship between faith and reason. It also reminded me that there are those within my own religious tradition who sometimes try to interpret our texts in the way that Husain describes.

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