I am often asked why I do not actively pursue a doctorate in Islamic studies. After my experience at UCLA in the '90s, I have since come to believe that a Ph.D is only a culturally constructed validation specific to a Western context of knowledge production. In other words, Ph.Ds are a perpetuation of the Western knowledge industry and everything connected with it. A Ph.D does not necessarily gauge what someone knows or their actual abilities. In itself, it is merely the bestowal of a right of passage that is culturally bound. A Western Ph.D as such is no more and no less a gauge of knowledge and knowledge production than, say, someone with an ʿijāza who has studied at a traditional Islamic madrasa (say, Qom or Najaf) for 10-20 years. Only a consensus reality privileges one over the other.
Some believe that there is no place for "non-credentialed" independent scholars in our society. While begging to differ, such a belief in itself merely highlights the hegemonic and discriminatory narratives undergirding views about what constitutes valid modes of knowledge production, which in itself raises other problematic questions.
While I deeply cherish and respect the actual persons and the intellects of my many friends who possess a doctorate, for myself I believe the issue is that at this stage, at least, I do not need one -- and the moral qualms I have about becoming an extension (even if unintentionally) of the Western capitalist knowledge industries, their attempt to taxonomize every form of knowledge, not to mention their connection to the military-industrial complex, far outweighs anything else. Moreover, as a Ph.D I believe I would also have to compromise on both my political beliefs as well as my personal ontology and deeply held spiritual views, which the secular Western Ivory Tower by definition is either outright hostile to or would otherwise trivialize and find problematic.
Now a few years ago a left-wing friend of mine formally rejected their Ph.D upon qualifying for it. I reproduce their letter to their Thesis Examination Coordinator below while taking out names and particulars. The reasons articulated in this letter also echo some of my own concerns about the Ph.D idol and the knowledge industry it represents.
Dear Thesis Examinations Coordinator
Since January 2005 I have been enrolled as a Doctoral candidate at X University, and in July 2008 I submitted a Thesis manuscript to the University for external examination. During the course of this period of study my political beliefs have substantially evolved, and I now consider myself a radical scholar.
The study I produced, titled “XXX,” critically examines how elite power-brokers, especially those assuming the guise of impartial progressive philanthropists, work to manipulate civil society to promote and sustain plutocratic political arrangements. In the final stages of this research, I examined how elite manipulation operates within academia – which led to my presenting a peer-review paper titled, “XXX,” at the XXX Political Science Association conference that was held last year at the University of X (July 6-9, 2008). This paper demonstrated how powerful liberal individuals and their philanthropic foundations have manipulated the university system to help bolster a capitalist political status quo. I concluded that:
Sustaining useful autonomous activist research within universities requires that radical scholars who choose to remain within the system fight to retain vital connections with one another and with activists working outside of the university environs. However, in my view, undertaking such scholarship only lends a fig leaf of respectability to what are at root capitalist enterprises; consequently a purist and more sustainable solution requires that radical intellectuals step out of the university world and work to create alternative, people-powered institutions that can seriously challenge the status quo.
As my research and learning has imparted this world view within me, I now find myself in a position where accepting this PhD is not possible. With this in mind I wish to inform you that I will not be handing in the revised PhD manuscript, titled “XXX.” My decision is consistent with the views expressed above.
I wish to emphasize that the research and analyses that informed this decision were undertaken in the closing months of my candidature, and even upon handing in my manuscript I was still unsure as to how I should proceed with regard to accepting the PhD. Rather than simply resign my candidature prior to handing in my thesis, I determined that a more powerful political statement could be made by rejecting the concept of receiving a PhD after it was accepted by the external examiners. In this way, detractors could not assert that I was incapable of completing a PhD, only that I had decided not to accept it. The difference is critical given my view of the political role that universities fulfill in justifying plutocracy.
Critically, I wish to demonstrate that I am rejecting the formal academic institution and not the reverse. For this reason, I have waited for the Chair’s final decision, which required only minor changes to the thesis, before informing X University that I would not be making the suggested corrections.