Academic Dean of Critical Loyalty on Progressive Islam

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Shaykh Uthman Khan completed his ʻĀlimiyyah degree from Madrasah Taleemul Islam from the United Kingdom. He received a traditional Master’s Degree in Arabic and Islamic Sciences and Specialized in traditionalism and the traditional sciences. He also received an Academic Master’s Degree from the Hartford Seminary in Muslim and Christian Relations and specialized in Theology, Philosophy, Religious Scripture, Historiography, and Textual Criticism and Analysis.

His other academic achievements include certificates in Adult Psychology, Accounting, Phonetics, Phonics, and Phonology.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, to begin: what was family background – culture, language, geography, and religion, or irreligion?

Shaykh Uthman Khan: I was born in Canada and grew up in Canada. My father’s from Pakistan. My mom is from India. I was born Muslim and was raised as a traditional Muslims

Jacobsen: You completed a degree at Madrasa Taleem al-Islam in the UK for a master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic Sciences.

Khan: Yes.

Jacobsen: Also, a master’s at the Hartford Seminary in Muslim and Christian Relations. How have those professional qualifications helped you in personal and professional life? What was the main motivation for pursuing them?

Khan: As far as motivation, my motivation for pursuing Islamic studies was that right from a young age my parents wanted me to focus on religious education. So, even when I was about 10 years old or maybe about 12, I memorized the entire Quran in Arabic.

Right from a young age, my parents were building this interest in me to pursue religious training and education. Thus I completed my traditional degree and started working in the same traditional realm.

The traditional realm meaning in mosques, Islamic schools etc. Then I decided that I needed to increase knowledge because of the challenges that I was facing academically. I was trying to bridge the gap between traditional and academic perspectives in Islamic Studies. So, I needed to pursue Islamic studies from an academic lenses.

There’s difference in traditional and academic education. So, I went to study academic Islamic studies at The Hartford Seminary studying with well known Islamic Academics which helped me gain academic perspective.

Jacobsen: Now, you’re the academic dean of Critical Loyalty. What is it? What tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Khan: Yes, I am the Academic Dean of Critical Loyalty. “Critical Loyalty” portrays the history of my education. So, Loyalty, being in reference to being a loyal Muslim, but Critical, is basically not blind following but being a critical thinker.

The main point I notice within the traditional style education or even within conservative Muslims is that there’s not much effort made to ask questions or to understand the reasons behind why we’re doing, everything and anything, which is the case in every religion, I believe.

Many of my traditional Christian friends also say, “We can’t ask questions and have to listen to what they tell us. We have to listen to what the scholars or the priests or the pastors tell us.” I personally didn’t like that approach as it was subjective and monopolized.

So, Critical Loyalty, after studying Academic Islam, was to bridge the gap between traditional and academic Islamic studies. At Critical Loyalty, for example, I will teach traditional sciences the way it’s taught in regular traditional institutes but I will then infuse all of the courses with critical thinking.

This is the academic approach, I’m trying to bridge the traditional and academic gap. Many Muslims will look at the Quran or the prophet’s sayings and blindly apply them without contextualizing it or viewing it from the perspectives of their cultures or preconceived ideas, I tend to look at the context: What is the back story? Why was is revealed or said? When did it happen?”

It gives the whole new perspective and this is very rare to find.

Jacobsen: If you take the historical contextualization through an academic setting and education for students, what bigger messages tend to come out in a positive light from pupils?

Khan: I’m trying to implement this perspective through this thought process because I find that religion is becoming an old concept for the older generation. Concerning young adults in the 21st century, I find that people are only following a religion because they’re a part of it or they were born in it, but many don’t know the reason why.

Islam is stigmatized because people don’t understand it. And if we’re going to constantly keep on pushing for a blind following approach, it won’t help the situation

A lot of people are questioning or leaving religion because of that. I’ve seen many people coming to Islam but also have seen many people leave Islam simply based on this.

I was an example of this, where I started to question religion because I couldn’t justify doing things when someone told me to do it. For this reason, the message I try to get my students to understand is, “Don’t believe everything and anything people tell you.”

As I historically look at it, religion, or traditional rigidity, is something which is very common probably in the last 100 to 200 years. Perhaps to monopolize and to promote a message, one for religion itself is the structure of religion that is codified.

The scholars of scripture or the medieval ages were very great academics; they rejected thousands of narrations that people claimed Prophet Muhammad said compared to the ones they brought into their books.

But I find now people will accept anything and everything, whatever someone tells them. It’s a very distorted ideology. and it is being promoted now in the name of religion. People will then end up assuming, “Oh, that IS the religion.”

But this is not anywhere religion. People use the same verses of the Quran to kill while others use the same for peace.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Khan: That’s why I’m trying to instill critical thinking in the students. Think about why you’re doing and why you don’t do things.

A person should know why they are doing it anything and be able to justify it critically, which technically singles me out of every traditionalist. I’m the black sheep in the middle of the entire traditionalist segment. But I’m ok with that because I feel I understand religion.

Jacobsen: Within a traditionalist framework, what is the importance of a progressive voice, a progressive tendency of voice?

Khan: The reason it’s important is because of the direction society is moving in, because of the amount of academic learning and philosophy that’s been taught in schools. A lot of people are questioning everything.

So, in my own experience, if I bring 100 people in front of me who claim to be Muslims, one hundred people are going to have one hundred questions that are not answered.

That’s a huge motivation for me to understand those questions, not judge the questioner, and to look at the situation that’s in front of me, and to talk about it, especially when people are doing unethical things in the name of religion.

Most people resort to unethical acts because either they don’t have any answers or they are following the wrong people/monopoly.

Jacobsen: Within a Canadian context, as you noted living in Ontario, what do you see as some of the more positive directions? What do you see as some of the more negative directions that things seem to be moving in that could use some help?

Khan: Positive… man! That’s a hard question. Are there any positives in a distorted religion? Every religion has a few good aspects. You have to believe in one God, in the angels, in the books, the rituals, praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and so on.

Every religion has some rituals. Then you have the ethics of it. When it comes to the beliefs and the rituals it doesn’t impact anyone because anyone can believe in anything or do any rituals.

But when it comes to the ethics of it – if we’re not taking an academic approach in religion, and if we’re going to be strictly following on age-old tradition at this point – then what we’ve done is we haven’t progressed.

We’re bringing to the table an ethic, 1300- to 1400-years-old ethic. That was perhaps applicable at that time, but we are living in another era. We’ve moved forward in time and space, and scenarios and situations have changed and everyone understands that.

Even UP 100 years ago the concept of modesty or how people dressed was different from 15-20 years ago. So, the time has changed, and if we’re going to stick within the mentality or an ideology that’s 1400-years-old it won’t make any sense in regards to our ethics, and this is a prime example of failing to see the bigger picture.

That’s the biggest problem in sticking with a traditional approach and not being willing to be open to question why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] What’s your favourite course to teach?

Khan: It’s called The Evolution of Islamic Thought and Theology. The name of the course was switched from “The Introduction to Islamic Theology” because I realized that theology is very large.

Then based on a recommendation, one of my students said, “You should change the name to The Evolution of Islamic Thought and Theology,” because there is an evolution.

In that particular course, I teach how a person is a Muslim living in 2017. Why do you think or believe what you’re believing in right now? I basically take you through a history of theology from the time of Prophet Muhammad all the way until now.

So, what’s the belief in God? What’s the belief in the concept of sin, predestination, or predeterminism vs free will? How an individual’s mindset has changed in a span of 1400. So, this is an evolution of a thought process. That’s my favourite course.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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