The first component is for one to have a continuous and unbroken sanad (chain) with res- pect to transmission, cognitive understanding, and spiritual purification.
Amongst the special features of the Azhari approach is that its sciences and knowledge disciplines are passed down and transmitted from generation to generation, and which constitute a continuous and unbroken chain of religious scholars and practitioners. Every generation receives from the generation preceding it a continuous chain and uninterrup- ted understanding. None of the students who follow this approach will venture to take up leading positions except after receiving knowledge and keeping long company with scholars until they grant him permission or a formal license in transmitting (especially hadith narrations), teaching, writing, and imparting knowledge. Should you enquire from one of them as to his teachers, he will mention a number of them, and should you ask him how long he has spent in the company of his teacher or teachers, he will say that he has spent a long time in their company until he understood and comprehended from them the methodology of understanding and the entries to knowledge.
This is contrary to other approaches which are broken and interrupted and in which a student will take a leading position without keeping company with the scholars. And should you ask one of them how much time did he spend in the company of his teacher, he will tell you that he had only met him once, or that he has only spent a limited number of hours with him. How is it possible for him to have obtained knowledge, and how can his understanding be trusted?
The second component is giving due care and importance to obtaining a mastery of the auxiliary sciences.
Furthermore, it is an approach that is concerned with the education and training of its students on the basis of mastering and developing a firm grasp of the auxiliary sciences such as: nahw (syntax); sarf (morphology); ishtiqaq (etymology and derivation); balagha (rhetoric and eloquence) in its three parts; usul al-fiqh (principles of Islamic legal theory); ‘ulum al-hadith (sciences of hadith); as well as other auxilary sciences and disciplines that assist the learner, develop in him the relevant capacities, and enable him to engage in the understanding of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Tradition, the Sunna, on the basis of know- ledge, understanding and keen insight—while at the same time proceeding in the learning
of all these sciences and disciplines on an approved methodology through which the stu- dent is able to rise from preliminaries to finer and subtle details.
It is as if the first feature—spending a lengthy portion of time in the company of religious scholars—is that from which the second feature stems, since holding extended company with the ‘ulama will enhance the learning of the sciences.
The third feature is having a thorough understanding of the higher objectives and purposes of the Shari‘a.
One of the outcomes of keeping prolonged company with the ‘ulama and obtaining knowledge of the auxiliary sciences is the opening up of and the development of a keen insight into the understanding of the higher objectives and purposes of the Noble Shari‘a, and the understanding that the religion (din) came to realize the following objectives: worshipping God; spiritual purification and growth; proper habitation of the earth; gui- ding nations; inheriting knowledge from the Prophets; building the human being on god- liness; spiritual insight; turning towards the Final Abode; obtaining honourable character traits; building civilization; producing spiritual revival until the Umma of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is itself a mercy unto the worlds, just as the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is a mercy unto the worlds.
When a portion of the understanding of the Shari‘a’s higher objectives and purposes is made available to and placed within the reach of the student, his understanding of the reli- gion is thereby broadened and enhanced and his insight into Islamic legal matters is thereby illumined. Such training will enable him to avoid narrowness and harshness, teach those who lack knowledge or are erroneous with gentleness, and shape his character and perso- nality according to the noble Prophetic model.
Other modern approaches often do not demonstrate any knowledge of and acquain- tance with the higher objectives and purposes of the Shari‘a. There is no mention of higher objectives and purposes in their discourse, nor is it manifest in their understanding and application.
The fourth feature is the correct appropriation of the Holy Qur’an, i.e. using Qur’anic verses in their appropriate and proper contexts.
One very important effect that results from prolonged company with the ‘ulama, know- ledge of the auxiliary sciences, and understanding of the higher objectives and purposes of the Shari‘a is that the proponent and practitioner of this approach becomes grounded in the reading of the Qur’an, and is able to use and apply Qur’anic verses in their proper and appropriate contexts. He does not go to a verse that was revealed concerning unbelievers and then apply it to believers, nor a verse that was revealed concerning believers and then apply it to unbelievers. Likewise, he does not take a verse that has been revealed concerning a general issue and then apply it to a specific issue, nor a verse that has been revealed con- cerning a specific issue and then apply it to a general issue, and so on and so forth.
Rather, he ensures that he has a sound understanding of the Qur’an and is able to pro- perly apply the Qur’an to particular contexts without ambiguity or confusion, unlike many other methodologies in current fashion which delve into the Qur’an without the most basic of understandings and which often lead to distorted interpretations.
The fifth feature is critical importance of the affair of the Umma of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
One of the outcomes of all that has been explained before is that the student of know- ledge realizes how great the affair of the Umma of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is, and that it is the repository of Islam and that it is an Umma of knowledge, guidance, mercy and heirs of the Prophetic heritage. He also realizes that it is an Umma of conveying God’s Message; that it has been entrusted with the Noble Shari‘a; that it has a role to play amongst other nations; and that this role is to guide and convey the wisdom of the Shari‘a to people; that it is incumbent to participate and contribute to the production of the global culture and civilization in a way that is beneficial, effective and sophisticated. This is so that it can thereby direct others to God by way of its sciences, arts and crafts, values and reservoir of knowledge in the various fields of the human, empirical and ratio- nal sciences.
The sixth feature is carrying the concern of general guidance (i.e. guidance for all).
When the student has thoroughly acquainted himself with the above, his attention will be turned to the fact that addressing the world concerning the beautiful and excellent aspects of the Noble Shari‘a is amongst the strongest of obligations, and that the Prophetic methodology was filled to the maximum with the concern for guiding the entire creation, and conveying the radiant lights of guidance to each and every human being. At the same time, this is accompanied by complete eagerness, tenderness and compassion for all of God’s creation. Of the most significant features of the Azhari approach is that it cultivates this sublime meaning in the hearts of its students, unlike other approaches which do not have in their discourse any reference to the rights that other nations have over us.
The seventh feature concerns the wholeness of the elements of knowledge.
The Azhari approach maintained, throughout the ages as it engaged in the education of its students, that knowledge is composed of three elements: the first is sources and proofs in the form of the Qur’an, Sunnah (Prophetic Practice), scholarly consensus, and analogical reasoning; the second is the approved and rigorous method of understanding the religious texts, the manner of analyzing them and extrapolating their meaning and significance; and the third is qualifications, attributes, competencies, skills and intellectual endowments, which must be present in the person becoming knowledgeable, learned and grounded in the Islamic religious sciences. The sources alone do not constitute knowledge nor guidance unless it is accompanied by an approved and agreed upon method of interpretation and carried out by a competent and qualified individual.
Other approaches tend to tear knowledge apart and reduce it to fragments. Proponents of these methodologies do not understand what knowledge is but for the word ‘dalil’(proof or evidence). They demonstrate no knowledge of ‘wajh al-dalala’ (angle of signification), that is to say, how the dalil signifies what it signifies and how it makes the particular point that it makes; nor of the method of compiling the disparate proofs on each issue, and the method of integrating, interpreting and analyzing them, while taking into consideration the state or condition of the person engaged in the interpretive process and making sure that his intellectual capacities, skills and competencies are all suited for the task at hand.
Also, among the fullness of the elements of knowledge is that its bearer must be conversant with, and combine within himself, both the transmissional sciences (i.e. sciences that are primarily based on transmission and narration) and rational sciences (i.e. sciences that are primarily based on reason), such that he is able to interact with, understand and compre- hend epistemological models of which the current state of global knowledge is composed, and he is thereby in a position to convey the salient and characteristic features of our religion to the world at large.
The eighth feature is deriving benefit from the tradition of the Umma, opening oneself up to it, maintaining contact with it, and building on it.
Among the most salient features of the Azhari way is that it is an approach that embraces the tradition of the Umma (the Muslim world) with respect to the sciences and its fields, and interacts and engages with that tradition. It is an approach that acknowledges this tradition’s authentic nature and value and knows how to extrapolate and extract from it everything that is beneficial, meritorious and sublime. It also knows how to build on this tradition and how to add to it—contrary to other approaches that seek to abandon the tradition of the Muslim Umma and sever relations with it.
Towards a Grand Renewal
The Salient Features of the Azhari Approach
by Sheikh Usama Al-Sayyid Mahmud Al-azhari