From Confused to More Confused, the Case for the PhD

December 16, 2009

“…because Islamic Legal Theory, at least to me, is not remote, not obscure, not arcane. Nothing related to Islam is. I am, after all, a 24/7 Muslim, 365 days a year. No vacation, no exception… And not only is Islam alive within me, but also projected unto my life from a rage of wanted and unwanted directions…”

Dear Papaito,

As my classmate gives his presentation, I think to myself, ‘These issues are alive. My classmate sought to capture them in his paper, but unlike other academic fish, these ones are eager to jump out of my classmate’s fishing net into an ocean where people fight and live for them, divide, unite and consolidate around them…”

It is a world not too far removed from my reality. I have heard many times people debate precisely these same issues. Islamic Legal Theory is not remote, not obscure, not arcane. My classmate is absolutely aware of this fact, and he has his own preferences and inclinations. Others in class possibly find them interesting, but don’t seem to experience them with the same sense of urgency. And I am the drop that tiptoes cautiously between the two.

I can see how the past year in particular has shaped my thinking in unexpected ways, and how it has affected my attitude towards acquired knowledge. Yet, this may very well be a process that began during my undergraduate years, when I was a Junior or Senior at the American University in Cairo. Sometime during those two years, I decided to reclaim my right to declare ignorance, and to refrain from becoming an advocate of any one position before I understood exactly what I was talking about, or the implications of my actions. I took this decision aware of my own passionate nature and persistent inclination to get into heated arguments about my beliefs. Not that one should not speak up to injustice, heavens no! but ‘what we believe is right,’ may fall into a range of different realms, and when the religious one is involved some caution is in order.

When I was a Junior or Senior in college, a good friend of mine joined an Islamist-leaning political organization (of a political yet peaceful nature, chill). He was someone I had known for a long time, particularly in the classroom context. And at the time, I sympathized with various projects the organization carried out, and enjoyed listening to Mostafa defend it, particularly because it meant simultaneously attacking the abhorred Egyptian regime, and the old man. But everyone attacked the Egyptian regime. Mostafa offered an alternative, and he quoted verses from the Qur’an to back it up. How cool was that?

Yet, when I learned that Mostafa had officially declared his allegiance to the organization, I was disappointed. Did my classmate understand what he was getting into? Surely, I sympathized with it, but weren’t we a bit too young to grasp the implications of such an action? I believed that Mostafa had just killed his freedom to think and speak critically -not about the ruling regime, he’d do plenty of that- but about the organization itself.

I, on the other hand, strongly felt that I wanted to preserve that prerogative in an unlimited fashion, for a long, long time. I was as politically engaged as I could be within my limited horizons (and non-national status), and I was passionately involved in some of the pressing political debates at the time (it was 2005, and the Egyptian regime had allowed some freedom in the presidential and parliamentary elections), but still, Mostafa’s action seemed premature, if not downright wrong.

And now, listening to my classmate discuss these Islamic legal, theological and epistemological questions, I am reminded of how these do not seem about to recede to the backstage any time soon. If anything, the religious realm has continued to expand around us – often between us. In the process, we are required to provide coherent and informed answers to many of these questions. The cautious attitude I chose for myself during my Junior and Senior years is comfortable, and in more than one way, important: It continues to afford me the time I need to listen, learn, and engage with ideas that pull me out of my comfort zone, without being immediately asked to decide how much I believe/disbelieve in them, or how relevant they are to my life.

But I need to continue learning, because Islamic Legal Theory, at least to me, is not remote, not obscure, not arcane. Nothing related to Islam is. I am, after all, a 24/7 Muslim, 365 days a year. No vacation, no exception… And not only is Islam alive within me, but also projected unto my life from a rage of wanted and unwanted directions. Thus, while I hope never to lose a listening, probing, and critical attitude to knowledge, the other end side of the equation, production, is imperative. Too many questions cannot be postponed for long.

And this is all to say, Papaito, that I am confused again about not staying in academia next year (thought by now I only have time to apply to one or two schools). Maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe I don’t need to be in love with academia to go for my PhD (I am still sure I am not in love with academia, nor do I wish to be married to it)…but maybe I could still go for it, as a means to something larger that makes sense to me, and that I love…

Oh how I hate being confused… Well, thank you for putting up with me during this confused-to-more confused process. I do appreciate your patience. Maybe next time you can tell me how you always knew what you wanted to do in life. Did you, really?

J.

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