Our name reflects our uncompromising commitment to the way of Sunni Islam, or Ahl al-Sunna wa'l-Jama`ah, the way of the sunna of the Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) and the mainstream of the Islamic community throughout history. We have conviction that any reading of our religion that wavers from the balanced approach of Sunni Islam—whether the liberalism of modernists or the extremism of fundamentalists—is a departure from the sublime guidance of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) and results in God withholding His assistance in this world and His acceptance in the next.
The word "Sunni" is an ascription to the "sunna"-or "way"-of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). The mark of Sunni Islam is to cling to the sunna of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) as it has been passed down to us through unbroken chains of transmission from teacher to student all the way back to the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). The sunna of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) is the living embodiment of our religion, and he explained in the famous hadith of Gabriel that our religion is composed three fundamentals: Islam, or external compliance with what Allah asks of us; Iman, or the belief in the unseen that the prophets have informed us of; and Ihsan, or to worship Allah as though one sees Him. The way of Sunni Islam is to take the branch of Islam from living jurists who follow one of the four Sunni schools of fiqh: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i, and Hanbali schools; the branch of Iman from living scholars belonging to one of the two Sunni schools of 'aqida: the Ash'ari and Maturidi schools; and the branch of Ihsan from living masters of spirituality, such as those of the many Sufi orders that have emerged over the centuries, including the Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Ba `Alawi, Shadhili, Chishti, and Rifa`i tariqas.
Knowledge is beneficial when draws one closer to God. Imam Ghazali (Allah have mercy on him) said,
"Beneficial knowledge is [knowledge] that increases your fear of God Most High, improves your ability to discern the faults of your ego, makes you more cognizant of how to worship your Lord, reduces your desire for this world, increases your longing for the next world, and opens your spiritual insight to the disastrous defects of your actions so you can avoid them. It discloses to you the plots and delusions of the Devil and how he misleads the scholars who have gone astray until he exposes them to the hatred and anger of God Most High, for they have used religion to purchase this world, taken knowledge as a means to gain the wealth of sultans, to consume the wealth of religious endowments, the poor, and the needy, and turned their energies throughout the day to the acquisition of prestige and high standing in the hearts of people, which forces them to show off their good deeds, to argue, and to be quarrelsome and ostentatious when they speak " (Bidayat al-Hidaya, 50).<
Although innovation is critical for scientific advancement, the central concern of religion is emulation. The word "traditional" reflects an overriding concern for preservation, and stands in contrast to our modern preoccupation with novelty. Traditional Islamic education is the means by which Muslims have preserved their religion. Its core is the student-teacher relationship.
Since the time of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace), sacred knowledge has been transmitted directly from teacher to student, never acquired solely by turning the pages of books. Students seeking sacred knowledge traditionally spend long years studying intricate texts with teachers who have taken their knowledge from their teachers, and so on all the way back to the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). The teachers transmit sacred knowledge exactly as they inherited it from their teachers and when they judge the student to be their worthy heir, they authorize him or her to go forth and transmit sacred knowledge to others. This metaphor of "inheriting" sacred knowledge from teachers is taken from the hadith of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace),
"Verily, the prophets do not bequeath dinars nor dirhams, but rather, they bequeath knowledge." [Abu Dawud, 3641; Tirmidhi, 2682; Ibn Maja, 223; a rigorously authentic hadith].
This traditional model of education ensures that students have respect for their teacher, their teacher's teachers, and so on all the way back to the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). Iconoclastic tendencies in the modern Muslim mindset that have filled our homes with disrespect, our mosques with argumentation, and our societies with intolerance are a direct result of our departure from traditional methods of education.
Direct aural instruction from a teacher also ensures that sacred knowledge is properly understood and applied: unlike books, teachers bring sacred knowledge to life by interacting with their students and providing living examples that can be emulated.
Although there is little difference of opinion about major points of sacred law, Muslims from the earliest times have differed about its details. Disagreement regarding detailed prescriptions of sacred law is not blameworthy. Hadiths such as, "A judge who exercises legal judgment and reaches the correct conclusion is rewarded twice; a judge who exercises legal judgment and reaches the incorrect conclusion is rewarded once," anticipate and accept differences of opinion.
Each of the four Sunni schools of law represents the scholarly effort of hundreds of top-notch experts in a variety of religious disciplines. Between them, they fill all the valid interpretive possibilities of the Qur'an and sunna, their differences invariably tracing back to the Companions themselves (God be pleased with them all). Muslims have accepted these differences as a manifestation of divine mercy, for God "has not placed hardship" (Qur'an, 22.78) in their religion. The flexibility to follow one of a range of possibilities on a particular issue can be useful when following the position of one's own school entails extreme hardship.
Not every scholarly position, however, is permissible to follow. Succeeding generations of scholars checked the positions of previous generations, and the late works of each school explain which positions are strong enough to be followed and which ones are too weak to merit consideration. Any position that is not accepted as a valid interpretation of the sacred law by at least one of the four schools is considered by Sunni scholarship to be a scholarly mistake and impermissible to follow.
What do you mean when you say that you are sensitive to the needs of Muslims living in the modern world?
Our world has changed more in the last century than it did in the previous millennium. Although traditional texts passed down from teacher to student over the generations are our link to the letter and spirit of our religion, their words must be understood in the context in which they were written. Most of our teachers were raised and educated in the West and only studied with teachers in the Muslim heartlands later in their lives. They are therefore uniquely positioned to join between the classical and modern by remaining faithful to traditional knowledge as recorded in books and taught by scholars without misapplying words that addressed different realities.
The essence of traditional education is the student-teacher relationship. In a time when scholars are rare and difficult to find, modern means of direct communication such as the telephone and internet are a blessing. Although sitting in the physical presence of one's teacher results in a more complete transfer of sacred knowledge, interacting with a teacher through such modern means is an alternative method of taking knowledge directly from a teacher. From the earliest of times, female scholars have traditionally taught sacred knowledge to male students from behind a curtain, a scenario analogous in many ways to internet learning.
Muslims in the second and third Islamic centuries recognized that codifying sacred knowledge and recording it in books was critical for preserving the guidance of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). Subsequent generations of scholars built on what earlier generations had written, and today's treasure of refined and intricate books are a testament to the quality of Islamic scholarship.
Books have, however, always played an auxiliary role in the transmission of sacred knowledge. Without a teacher to explain the technical terminology and fine points in the books of particular religious disciplines, the door of understanding will normally remain closed to students. The great Andalusian Maliki scholar of legal methodology and philosophy, Shatibi, summarized the role of books and teachers, saying,
“Among the most beneficial ways of [gaining] sacred knowledge that takes one to the limits of mastery is acquiring it from those of its people who are completely and perfectly realized in it â€¦ People have differed whether it is possible to acquire sacred knowledge without a teacher. Although we admit that it is theoretically possible, what is actually the case in normal affairs is that teachers are indispensable. This is generally agreed upon, although people differ regarding certain details â€¦ People's agreement that this is what actually happens and that it is conventionally necessary is enough to establish that it is not possible to do without [a teacher]. They have said that sacred knowledge used to be in the breasts of people, after which it came to reside in books and its keys were placed in the hands of people. This implies that it is absolutely necessary to attain it from people, for there is no way to attain it aside from [books and people]. The religious basis for this is the rigorously authenticated hadith, "Verily, God does not take away sacred knowledge by plucking it out of people, but He takes it away by taking away those who possess it." If the matter is such, then there can be no doubt that people are its keys (al-Muwafaqat, 1.92, Beirut: Dar al-Ma`rifa, ed. Darraz).»
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