The semester started and by the end of the first week we still had not met for the first lesson in Islamic Jurisprudential Principles. As a student I recall the excitement involved with coming back to school, but in this case the excitement was all mine as a teacher. The reason is that it was this semester that I would decide to adopt all-Arabic instruction for at least one of my courses at Zaytuna College. The fact that my students were juniors meant to me that it was now time to test how useful nearly 4 years of the study of Arabic alongside other courses would pay off. It would be a real test, not only for me as a teacher and for my students. It would also be a big test for the College overall as a way of knowing just how effective our curriculum and pedagogy have been.After my introductory session, the worry of some students was very clear. This was only natural since until now they had been studying Arabic. Now they would have to study in Arabic. What made the matter so difficult was that—as students explained—they could not comprehend every word or phrase of mine. I reassured them that with time comprehending would become much easier as long as they were taking the time to try to read the required texts outside of class, look up words they don’t know, and ask questions when they are confused. By the second class, the complaints were over. Better yet, students spoke of noticing a marked improvement in their ability to follow. Comparing one’s self to other students is often the source of this sort of frustration. However, it usually doesn’t take long for students to note similar challenges faced by even heritage speakers.
I chose to inaugurate the semester with the famous introductory text on juristic principles, known as al-Waraqat (The Papers), written by the esteemed scholar Imam al-Haramayn ‘Abd Al-Malik al-Jawayni (478 AH/1085 CE), mentor of the Proof of Islam, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (505 AH/1111 CE). The book is accompanied by the famous commentary of Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli (835 AH/1431 CE), coauthor of the superbly adapted Qur’anic gloss, Tafsir al-Jalalayn. The book offers a very good overview of Islamic jurisprudential principles and sources even though some issues apply specifically to the Shafi’i School of law, as the author and commentator were both Shafi’is.
Once we complete Sharh al-Waraqat, we will move onto Al-Mahsul fi Usul al-Fiqh of the Maliki judge from Seville, Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi. I chose this work after Sharh al-Waraqat, because it adds more nuance and detail to the first book, and also covers topics not mentioned in the former work.
Upon completion of Al-Mahsul, our aim will then be to complete Miftah al-Wusul ila Bina’ al-Furu’ ‘ala al-Usul of the Maliki scholar of Tlmecen, Algeria, Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Tilmasani. This work is a fitting end to the semester, since it incorporates applications of the jurisprudential principles to selected rulings found in the Four Schools of Sunnism.
I must say that I am a proud teacher, not only because I am able to help students to access these works in their original language. It is also because I firmly believe that by approaching the study of Islam in America in the way that Zaytuna College is will make it the envy of both undergraduate and graduate programs in the West. Students will now know that a firm grounding in Islam can be achieved here in America, not only in the Muslim world.