Schooled in Islam

February 27, 1998

Shabbir Akhtar is wrong to generalise that the ulama are mere "slaves of the Book" (THES, February 13). For over a year, until last August, I worked in the Library of Congress's Cairo field office, selecting from thousands of monographs received from all over the Arab world.

While I can vouch that there is evidence to support Akhtar's claim in the intellectual output of the ulama, there is is also a good deal of interesting and original work being published. For example, one of the last titles I selected, from a batch of Syrian imprints, used Koran and Hadith quotations to criticise the ongoing phenomenon of suicide bombings from a traditional religious perspective.

Yet beyond these two opposing tendencies of originality and slavishness, there is a third which, because it is cloaked in the language of democracy, goes largely unnoticed in this society, and which Akhtar himself appears to overlook.

Far from having "gang-raped" the text, members of the high-profile campaign for state funding of Muslim schools in England and Wales, it would seem, adopted an approach to the Koran and Sunnah which could best be described as Platonic.

Roderic Vassie. Editor, the Classified Handlist of Arabic Manuscripts Acquired since 1912 (vol.1: Islamic law; vol.2: Koranic sciences and Hadith), British Library 1995.

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