Deciding to study Islam was a pretty easy decision for me to make when I began applying for Masters programs. I applied to programs in development, gender, sexuality, Islam, sociology - and in the end very easily chose the one about Islam. Since becoming religious, I feel like more moderate Muslims need to speak out and I wanted to be part of that. Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi - all these authors had the guts to challenge mainstream conservative Islam that takes the Qur'an and Hadith very literally. They had the guts to say "no, we need to re-interpret Islam because we live in a different context." Something that would seem quite logical but actually offends many Muslims, who are probably worried that doing this will change the religion. Before these we had Muhammad Abduh and Al-Afghani, who also argued that Islam needs to change in order to apply to modern times. And the barrier they saw to this process was, of course, the ulama.
The history of the ulama in Islam is definitely something I would love to study. It seems to me that at some point they got very powerful and began to misuse this power. They also became very rigid and conservative, not allowing ANY form of Islam except theirs - hence they would often persecute Sufis, Shia's, liberal Muslims. I think a big point was when the doors of ijtihad were closed. I mean doesn't anyone find that troubling?! Why did that happen and WHO decided it should happen? Couldn't power have played a role in that? Al-Afghani writes:
"What does it mean that the door of ijtihad is closed? By what text was it closed? Which imam said that, after him, no Muslim should use his personal judgment to understand religion, be guided by the Qur'an and the true prophetic traditions and endeavor to widen his understanding of them and deduce, through analogy what applies to the modern sciences and the needs and requirements of the present?"
It's also interesting that Shi'as never closed the door to ijtihad. I've also read that they believe in an uncreated Qur'an, meaning that it is okay to reinterpret it according to the modern situation. This seems to me a much more progressive viewpoint than that of the Sunni ulama (and therefore most Sunnis).
Back to Al-Afghani's quote: it's funny how if a writer said something like that today, he/she would probably get attacked relentlessly, whereas Al-Afghani was one of the foremost Islamic scholars of his time. And that brings me to my point: is studying Islam and going into the field worth it? Will people listen? Or will I just get attacked and labeled an infidel, as we have seen happen countless times, especially with women scholars? It just seems to me that Islam today is dominated by conservative elements who do not want to listen to any views other than their own. Considering that I want to study gender and Islam, a topic that's already pretty controversial, is it worth even putting my view out there?