What is Relevance?
By: Ustadh Ubaydullah evans
Relevance is an important factor when assessing authority within religious communities. However, in the case of Sunni Islam it possesses added significance: In the absence of centralized, religiously binding authority (e.g. the Catholic Church) relevance can quickly become the sine qua non of religious authority. For many, pedigree and certification become meaningless if the authority in question is deemed “out of touch.”
With no divinely sanctioned body to confer authority upon them; historically, the scholars of Islam won positions of influence through a combination of ascendance within institutions whose source of authority was meritocratic rather than divine and personal charisma and forcefulness. With regard to the latter, it was the endorsement of the ‘people’ that raised a scholar from obscurity and gave their words weight. Unsurprisingly, not being “out of touch” was key in earning that endorsement. That a scholar deployed the correct religious language, embodied an ethic of conscientiousness (marūwwa or futūwwa), and that he or she at least appeared to retain a popular religious outlook all presumably contributed to their relevance and by extension authority. As Dr. Umar Faruq Abd Allah brilliantly put it: “Ijtihād (critical and analytical deduction) from the texts (i.e the Qur’ān and ḥadīth) was reserved for the scholars but ijtihād of the scholars has always been for everyone.”
In a certain sense, the historical rapprochement between the ‘people’ and the scholars can be viewed as deeply democratic. However, like the concept of ‘urf (vernacular culture that becomes law in certain situations), it has precedent but doesn’t seem to fit our community as neatly. Both take for granted that culture or an understanding of relevance among a people is monolithic and univocal enough to be represented as a single entity. Within an American Muslim community constituted of perhaps an unprecedented mix of ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, religious persuasions, and most importantly, histories: Who are “the people?”
Popular endorsement and/or de facto disqualification of the scholars is one of the defining features of Sunni Islam and has persisted down to the present day. And while less sensational than allegations of sexual misconduct, a charge of irrelevance or being “out of touch” will have an impact on a scholar’s credibility. It’s important to remember, irrelevant, in our context, is not so much a judgment of the scholar’s knowledge or training, but rather a statement about the sensibilities and cultural values which ground that knowledge and training. In other words, a scholar’s views on issues of race, gender, sexual identity, politics, economics, current events, etc. form a kind of setting against which his/her religious scholarship can acquit itself and be taken seriously.
Given the diversity of our community, any claim of irrelevance or relevance—for that matter—is bound to be only partly accurate. Nonetheless, there are a few factors that shape the contours of the conversation as I imagine it. First, the idea of “relevance” in our current cultural moment resembles the concept of “cool” in that its real-time arbiters are young people. Second, the scholars, for the most part, as a guild of religious personnel lack the benefit of institutional supports like fully endowed positions. As a result, their engagement is almost exclusively with communities that have the infrastructure and resources to enlist their services. As much as these communities have similar demographic profiles, it should come as no surprise that there is some consistency in their critique of the scholars and ideas of relevance. The scholars lack of exposure to the Muslim community-at-large often creates the false impression of a consensus to which they must conform or respond. And lastly, the emergence of Islamic activism as a distinct social modality. For many Arab-American, Asian-American, and even African-American Muslims, social justice and political activism have replaced hip hop as the primary cultural arenas in which they can meaningfully engage the larger community. And like hip hop, which pressed Islam into the reclamation of Black cultural authenticity and identity, the social justice platform appears intent on pressing Islam into the service of inclusion, equity, and justice. To be sure, I’m inclined to view these cultural phenomena (hip hop + Islam and activism + Islam) as a confluence of agendas: Dignifying oppressed people by giving them new ways of seeing themselves and the world through sacred symbols and language and striving for justice are the noblest missions of our faith. However, our appreciation of the relevance of the tradition and its representatives (the scholars) will come down to whether we see Islamic tradition as a wellspring of Divine and human knowledge that not only affirms the correctness of these aims but also dictates and delimits how they should be pursued or do we simply seek the instrumentalization of Islam in pursuit of these aims in a manner dictated by something or someone else?
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