By: Ulil Abshar Abdalla
A Muslim adage has it that whoever studies science without guidance from a credible teacher will end up being misled by the devil.
As a result, many Muslims have maintained a strong educational and scholarly tradition based on direct contact between students and teachers.
As students completed their studies in certain fields of science, they would be granted a diploma called an ijaza by their master. Muslim scholars in the classical age based their authority on the quality of masters they studied with.
The names of the masters are normally listed in the ijaza, similar to the modern practice of granting diplomas to students after their completion of certain level of study.
The only difference is that a modern ijaza does not include names of professors, only the name of issuing institution or university.
However, the basic idea remains the same in both classic and modern ijaza — it is a certificate that indicates the proper level of expertise and scholarship mastered by the student.
The role of master or teacher in the transfer of religious sciences is even more important. There is a strong sense among Muslims, particularly in more traditional communities, that religious sciences, given their status as the guidance for Muslims towards salvation, cannot be learned from an un-authoritative source or teacher.
Muslim scholars of yore always advised, “Be judicious in choosing teachers from whom you study, lest you are misled by the devil”.
A teacher-dependent society is a feature that characterizes both pre-modern and traditional societies. Obviously it is not a feature that is peculiar to Muslim societies.
Printing technology was not as advanced as it is today, and books were not available to all, making teachers or religious elites the only sources of scientific information for people.
With spectacular developments in modern printing technology, access to books and other printed materials is now open to all people of various social strata.
The role of a master or teacher in the transfer of knowledge, including religious knowledge, has diminished, at least from its pre-modern context.
The role of teachers certainly remains indispensable, but students and people in general have more autonomy and independence in the pursuit of knowledge.
We may say that advanced printing technology in modern times has brought about a democratization of knowledge. Knowledge is no longer in the hands of certain social classes, but distributed among the larger public.
The onset of the Internet age even further increased this process of the democratization of knowledge. And, voila!, we have now a magic tool that tells us about virtually everything that concerns us, from trivial and mundane matters such as food, toys for our kids, movies we want to watch, or music concerts, to serious topics such as philosophy, theology and other complex matters.
Yes, it is called Google.
Now as Internet use is increasing throughout the globe, particularly with the invention of the smart phone that makes access to Internet even more fun, people tend to turn to Google for all kinds of information.
Wikipedia also stands out as the easiest source to go for any inquiries people have. In the beginning, Wikipedia was seen with skepticism by people working in academia.
But now things have shifted, as many professors in schools and colleges increasingly reference it, albeit still with some reservations and skepticism.
At least Wikipedia is very useful as a “rough” map, guiding us to basic and elementary information for further research.
In other words, Google is now assuming honorary status that used to be occupied by the “sheikh” or masters in traditional society. Google is now acting like a new “sheikh” who may help Muslims with knowledge and information about Islam. Even religious edicts or fatwas are now abundantly available on the Internet, and Sheikh Google can help us locate them in a split second.
It is literally possible now to be a self-taught Muslim “scholar” with the aid of Sheikh Google. There is no ijaza or diploma, of course, if one decides to pursue a self-taught education.
However, if a student cares only about the “content”, not the ijaza, Google can be of great assistance to help modern Muslims to become a self-appointed alim (knowledgeable person in religious sciences).
And this is not a hypothetical statement. Now, as traditional Islamic scholarship is in a period of decline, and modern scholarship seems unable to offer a better alternative, there is a new type of Muslim “scholar” emerging who depends primarily on self-teaching methods in acquiring Islamic knowledge rather than depending on teachers as it had been in previous generations.
This seemingly “anarchic” situation has within it several conflicting results. On one hand, it brings positive impacts in democratizing the religious culture, allowing people to challenge and question the existing orthodoxy of Islam. But on the other hand, it may result in the abuse of Islamic doctrine by “fundamentalist”-minded new “clerics” such as Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the former lieutenant of Osama bin Laden.
There is sense of deep mistrust among fundamentalist Muslim activists and “clerics” towards traditional ulema, owing to the fact that they see the latter as complicit in the political and social status quo they despise so strongly.
Turning to Indonesian context, this trend of the new “ulema”, whose training in traditional Islamic sciences seems to be completely obscure, is now looming on the horizon.
Its vulgar form can be seen on televised sermons and lectures on TV screens presented in the language of pop-culture by newly self-appointed “ulema”.
If strict practices of religious education as we had seen in traditional societies remained intact, such “anarchic” trends would not have emerged.
Now, how should we judge the role played by our new sheikh called Google? Is it positive in the furtherance of an Islamic democratic culture, or negative for its perceived role in the emergence of new “ulema” who espouse a fundamentalist vision of Islam?
Of course, we cannot put the blame on our sheikh. Google is a neutral tool whose benefit is not limited to certain group. It opens the space, a democratic one certainly, for all people.
What is good about this new space is to enable Muslims of various backgrounds to engage in an open dialogue, conversation and discursive negotiation.
This open and democratic conversation, we hope, will eventually result in the birth of more civil and democratic Islamic discourse — a discourse that is crucial to underpinning a strong democratic culture in Muslim society, including Indonesia.
Notice: This opinion article was quoted in an online newspaper The Jakarta Post in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 20 January 2012. It is also able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 24 January 2012].
Ulil Abshar Abdalla is a Muslim scholar and associate researcher at Freedom Institute, Jakarta, Indonesia; and head of Policy and Strategy Development at the Democrat Party.