The NYTimes Magazine has a story about the transformation
of a hard-core Muslim cleric, into a more humble, open-minded one. A big part of his transformation was his exposure to the historical study of religion at the graduate level. (He had previously studied in Saudi Arabia with Wahhabis/Salafiyas, but his father convinced him to come back to America.) So going to graduate school becomes an element in the War on Terror.
Qadhi’s Saudi professors were aghast that he would switch to a Western university to study Islam. Yale’s professors were also surprised. The religious-studies department had never taken on a graduate of the Saudi educational system. “You admit someone from Saudi Arabia, you don’t know how much intolerance you let into an American university,” says Frank Griffel, a professor of Islamic studies.
But Qadhi impressed Griffel as “profoundly intelligent” and willing to engage in critical thinking. At Medina, Qadhi’s studies revolved around the search for an absolute religious truth. At Yale, the line of inquiry was markedly different. In Qadhi’s first class with Griffel in the fall of 2005, the subject was a 12th-century Sufi jurist. “You, Yasir, probably know more about this guy,” Griffel said. “But we’re going to study how to study him.” Qadhi was struck by this analytical approach. “The question is more historical in nature — it’s about where did this idea come from, how did it affect later ideas,” Qadhi said.
For Qadhi, the Koran remained the unequivocal word of God. But he began to think more critically about the “man-made” canon that informed Islamic theology. So much of Qadhi’s intransigence — especially toward other Muslim sects — was based on the view that his tradition was divinely ordained. He came to see Salafiya as yet another “human development” that was handed down over generations and therefore subject to imperfection. “I realized that, in many issues, only God knows the ultimate truth,” he says.