The Pedagogy of “Dumbing Down”: Bane or Blessing
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
I. The Question of Utility
Muslim scholars seem increasingly to face the choice between explaining the depth of Islamic thought in the most precise and therefore clearest way and explaining it in the dumbed down language increasingly popular in both the media and academia today. Even grammar illiterates seem to have taken over some of our leading newspapers, such as The Washington Post, though the managers of the New York Times, following the superb example of the New Yorker, seem to have been able to find a few young editors who still know the English language.
It is only realistic to admit that languages naturally evolve over time, sometimes even for the better. But what is for the better? Translators of the Qur’an, like Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall and Abdullah Yusus Ali, deliberately use archaic language as part of poetic license allegedly to bring out the beauty or authenticity of Holy Scripture in the belief that the “King’s English” in a post-monarchical age still has some magic. Perhaps they are right, but not if this sacrifices understanding for external beauty.
Unfortunately, Pickthall and Yusuf Ali thought that they were being poetic by copying so-called “King’s English” in ways that no-one in one’s right mind would use for communication today. Why does Pickthall use the term “peradventure,” which once was understood as “perhaps” but today has no meaning at all. The only people who ever use words like “similitude” and “peradventure” are Muslims who see it in Pickthall’s and Yusuf Ali’s translations of the Qur’an. For non-Muslims this kind of language is counter-productive, because more than 99.999 percent of non-Muslims have never heard of these words and, in sha’a Allah, never will. These words are no more functional today than is the occasional eleventh tit on a mother hog.
An entirely different issue is whether “big words” by their very “bigness” are a bane or a blessing. As Muslim scholars become better acquainted with the terminology of classical scholars in the various world religions, they encounter terms like “ontological”, “epistemological”, and “axiological”. There is no way to find, use, or invent “smaller” words of equivalent content. These terms, all of Greek origin but developed by traditionalist scholars, are irreplaceable, because they represent an entirely new framework and perspective of thought, with which all college students should be thoroughly familiar, because, if they are not, there is no way that one could consider them to be educated.
The first two of these three constitute the core of any decent course in philosophy and has no equivalents, except in Arabic. The third one, axiology, was popularized in intelligent interfaith discussion by Shahid Isma’il Raji al Faruqi, who used it as a paradigm for ethics and for what Catholics call moral theology. Islamic normative law, known as the maqasid al shari’ah, is nothing but Islamic axiology.
According to the expert on the English language, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, who also has some competence in classical Arabic, the term “axiology” was first used by Paul Lapie in 1902 and E. von Hartmann in 1908, but it was the latter who tried to employ mathematical rigor to develop a “formal axiology”. Dr. Henzell-Thomas writes: “Isma’il al-Faruqi later used the notion of ‘axiological perception’ to question the assumption of objectivity in social and behavioral sciences. He argued that data of human behavior are not impervious to the attitudes and preferences of the observer. See Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, “Islamizing the Social Sciences,” in Social and Natural Sciences: Islamic Perspective, edited by I. R. al-Faruqi (Jeddah: King Abdul-Aziz University, 1977); also the article by Salisu Shehu, “Objectivity and Universality of Empirical Knowledge”, at http://www.readingislam.com/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1153698300147&pagename=Zone-English-Discover_Islam%2FDIELayout Both. ethics and aesthetics are aspects of axiology, which can also be described as meta-ethics or value theory, because they are concerned with the study of value”.
II. Meta-ethics and Meta-law
The problem with using these precision words in our college textbooks is not the inability of students to understand these holistic concepts, each of which is an entire discipline in itself. The challenge is how to overcome the limited understanding and the secular prejudices of professors who have been brainwashed by our superficial universities to think shallowly and therefore to remain locked in their relativistic cocoons isolated from humankind’s millennial-long history of intellectual accomplishments, such as in the paradigm of “natural law”.
As spelled out in my recent article, “Metalaw: The Ultimate Challenge,” posted on December 29, 2009, in the ezine, http://www.theamericanmuslim.org as we,ll as in my three recent books, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective, Scholar’s Chair, and my 550-page textbook co-authored with Muhammad Ali Chaudry, Islam and Muslims: Key Current Challenges, Center for Understanding Islam, and especially in my book, Rehabilitating the Role of Religion in America: Laying a New Foundation on Faith-Based Justice, I point out that in all traditions, natural law consists of answers to three questions: 1) ontology: what is truth; 2) epistemology: how can we access it; and 3) axiology: what is its moral purpose and how to we apply it.
In Islamic tradition, the three sources for answers are known as haqq al yaqin or divine revelation, haqq al ‘ain or scientific observation of the known universe, and haqq al ‘ilm or human reason to understand the first two. All three, not only the second one, constitute what is known in Islamic jurisprudence as the Sunnat Allah or ways of God. One of the greatest Islamic scholars, Morteza Mutahari, says that the opposite of the Sunnat Allah is taswib, which is the phenomenological concept that truth is relative and does not exist.
In the West, the concept of natural law began to be perverted in the 19th century as a means to justify positivist law, which denies any higher source of authority beyond human fiat and is based on “might makes right”. The Founders of the United States of America based their “great American experiment” on the traditional Christian concept of natural law, which is identical to that of classical Islam in its foundation on the conviction that “right makes might”.
The universally traditionalist concept of natural law has been rehabilitated by Russell Hittinger in his new book, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World. He writes that the purpose of natural law theory is to discover or assert the prior premises of law. He finds these in three foci: Order (metaphorically speaking) in the Divine Mind; Order in Nature; and Order in the Human Mind.
In Islamic thought the equally universal concept of natural law is being rehabilitated by recognizing four premises, namely, Tawhid, Beauty, Balance, and Purpose, and by further developing a set of resulting principles, known as the maqasid al shari’ah, to define justice as respect for divinely ordained human responsibilities and corresponding human rights. The first four, which serve as guiding spiritual principles are: 1) haqq al din, respect for freedom of religion; 2) haqq al nafs, respect for the sovereignty of the human person; 3) haqq al nasl, respect for human community, and 4) haqq al mahid, respect for the physical environment. The four social principles for implementation are: 1) haqq al hurriyah, political justice; 2) haqq al mal, economic justice; 3) haqq al karama, respect for human dignity, especially gender equity, and 4) haqq al ‘ilm or haqq al ‘aql, respect for knowledge.
III. Rehabilitating the Role of Religion in the Modern World
The universal and functionally Islamic perspective of Metalaw was borrowed by America’s Founders from Edmund Burke and the Scottish Renaissance and indirectly from classical Islamic thought as developed later by Russell Kirk in the American Revolutionary Party’s call for a Second American Revolution.
This epic development in trying to apply natural law is really America’s major claim to fame, even though its modern supporters may be regarded as aliens from outer space or at least from the ionosphere above a height of 100,000 feet. Unfortunately, the unnecessary American Revolution double-crossed Burke and led to the secularism that infected British life and thought in the 19th century and still exists today. It finally triumphed even in America as a result of the traumatic American Civil War from which Americans seem never to have recovered.
Once American intellectuals replaced the federalist concept of individual and community rights with the principle of centralized economic and political power enshrined psychologically by the bloody victory of the North against the colonized South, the perhaps inevitable result was the polytheism of worshipping one’s own global empire, which both Bush and Blair naively but enthusiastically and spectacularly pursued as their common, hyperbaric religion of religious, cultural, economic, political, and military triumphalism.
We should use simple language where it is appropriate, but we should not hesitate to use the best terms available for advanced thought. In grammar school one simply avoids confusing the students with higher thought. In textbooks, however, Muslims should not follow or contribute to the modern pedagogical myth that students must be dumbed down in order to learn. My preference always has been to challenge college and graduate students to recognize that there are levels of learning beyond anything they have encountered in American public education, so that they can understand “what they knew not” and that Islamic thinkers are at least equal to the best in the West.
Everything that Muslims do should set an example, especially in writing for college and graduate students. My models for Islamic da’wa or anything else Islamic at the university level are Isma’il al Faruqi and Shaykh Taha Jabir al-Alwani’s's wife, Muna Abul Fadl. They used “big words”, because they were not merely passive recipients of the English language. They created it.