Technology & Religious Change

PrintingpressIn his article Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print, Francis Robinson analyzes the relatively late use of the printing press by Muslims, who only utilized en masse about four hundred years after it had been well established in the Christian world.[1]

This is not because Muslims were unaware of the technology. Rather, Robinson states that the use of transmission, via person-to-person, has been understood by Muslims to be at the very essence of Islamic learning and held in greater esteem than the written word. Moreover, learning directly from a teacher gave the student the necessary tools and authority to transmit and interpret Islamic texts.

Printing Islamic scholarly works for general public consumption posed a threat to the authority of those who received their knowledge at the feet of scholars (i.e., transmitted person-to-person); as anyone who could afford the book may assume they can speak of it with the same authority as one who had studied it beneath a teacher.

However, this general hesitation to print Islamic scholarly works shifted during the period of Western colonization. At that time, the ᶜulama (particularly those in the subcontinent) feared that the Muslim community might slip into unbelief (kufr) due to the corroding Islamic religious infrastructure and the efforts of Christian missionaries. And, to address this challenge,they decided the risk of the community losing access to Islamic knowledge was greater than the risk of their authority being challenged.

The impact of the printing press has had both positive and negative effects. Islamic material was now being transmitted in large numbers to the masses, allowing the ᶜulama to publish works they considered critical in their time. Yet, by making material more widely available to the public the ᶜulama jeopardized their own role in the community. That is, if people could seek knowledge from a book, why did they need to turn to a scholar?

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A Struggle For Authority

For Sunni Muslims, authority to speak on behalf of the religion, and to command from it the obedience of the religion’s adherents, is not derived from a divinely established religious hierarchy. Rather, authority is derived from a divinely revealed text- the Qur’ān- and the authenticated sayings and actions of a divinely influenced messenger- the Sunnah. In The Authoritative and the Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses: A Contemporary Case Study Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl argues that Islamic scholars who, while citing the Qur’ān and Sunnah believe only their interpretation to be authoritative, are diminishing the complex approaches classical Islamic jurists have developed in interpreting these texts and, in doing so, are making themselves out to be authoritarian. El Fadl’s education makes his perspective on this issue a unique one, having received an education in law at Yale, Pennsylvania Law School, and Princeton University and formal training in Islamic Jurisprudence both in Egypt and Kuwait.

Though his work has received a wide readership among non-Muslim and Muslim academics, including those who are students of classical Islamic jurisprudence, he has remained a controversial figure among traditional and reformist Sunni scholars. None-the-less his arguments against a rising authoritarian and puritanical Islam has earned him sympathy, if not respect, from those who feel that Sunni Islam is being threatened by this same anti-scholastic trend. In this Contemporary Case Study El Fadl analyzes a fatwa (religious edict) said to “illustrate the tension between the authoritative and the authoritarian and the process by which the authoritative is used to produce the authoritarian” (20). Through this analysis El Fadl contrasts with portions of the fatwa classical Islamic legal approaches that do not seem to have been followed by the fatwa’s original author and discusses possible damage to Islamic scholarship if one follows the author’s approach.

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