‘And do not become stuck, your entire life, on what is composed in books …perpetually being stuck on scholarly references (or quotations) is misguidance in the religion and ignorance towards the objectives of the scholars and past predecessors.’ (Al-Qarafi)
A common sentiment that is widely discussed is the unfavourable condition of Muslims today in contrast to the past, stirring many to hark back to the Islamic ‘golden age’ where we commemorate the ancient libraries and universities of Andalusia, the political achievements in Granada, or centres of learning, progression and science in medieval Baghdad. Yet lost in this captivating storytelling is a key point: the very methods and attitudes with which believers of the past achieved such heights are those which we, in an unwavering commitment to contemporary traditionalism, currently (and ironically) putdown; the approaches and methods they adopted in their thinking and recorded in those celebrated books, those which we evidently recognise as the source of their intellectual strength and productivity, are today the same attitudes towards religious understandings that many consider to be sacrilegious, or at least to be viewed suspiciously. Celebrating their triumphs smacks of hypocrisy if those who do so simultaneously hold the very intellectual methods that bore such accomplishments to be heretical ways of thinking.
Most of our contemporary narratives can be defined as strong reactions, whether it is in reference to science, society, politics, theology, Islamic law (fiqh) and ethics, legal theory (usul al-fiqh), or Quranic exegesis (tafsir). One difference in mind set between us and those whom we celebrate is that they proceeded with confidence, both in their own learning and abilities, and a spirit of open inquiry. It is only the insecure who go on about how something cannot be done, either out of a hollow claim that nobody today is able to do it, or because of some concocted moral impediment. To reiterate, as I initially explored in a previous article, confronting this phenomenon is not to reject the importance of tradition, a rich body of advanced thinking formed by godly and gifted scholars who remain a source of inspiration, nor to defame opinions formulated in another context. Rather, it is to be critical of the way tradition is used today, characterised by a one-dimensional way of dealing with scholarly methods and heritage of the past. For the sake of this discussion, I refer to advocates of this contemporary traditionalism as traditionalists.
As with most sectarian apologetics, the method of caricaturising sentiments, misrepresenting what is presented, conflating issues, or building up straw men only to pitifully rejoice in having knocked them down ends up being inescapable. But what ought to be kept in mind is that this is simply another one of those reactions; either to defend sectarian interests or born out of an ongoing inability to realise some sense of nuance and reflection, especially on anything that departs from the traditionalists’ ways of seeing things. Positing the near-infallibility and immutable quality of ‘classical’ scholarship has been one mechanism by which simplistic attitudes have been fostered. Past scholars are presented as intellectually super-human, or reasoning is arbitrarily reserved for specific thinkers. This is all seemingly legitimised through the irrational idea that mastery of anything in the religious intellectual realm can never be achieved or, alternatively, by redefining mastery as knowledge of historical scholarly contributions instead of extensive knowledge of the shar’i sources and a talent for shar’i reasoning. Resultantly, those in the realm of religious training embrace low aspirations, who then set a benchmark that nurtures low expectations from the masses. This culture gives rise to a toxic culture in which abstract (and consequently irrelevant) knowledge is then valued, and where Islamic academia that focuses on abstract textual study and debating legal or theological jargon supersedes real life problem-solving which was undisputedly the actual focus of early jurists, from the era of the Khulafa Rashidin (rightly guided caliphs) and onwards.
Today, the consequences of this regressive approach are resounding. Binary attitudes, superficial ascriptions to the ‘traditional’ and a dismissal of robust and applicable insights permeate our attitudes and conversations. Besides the few supposed clergymen themselves, it is predominantly their devotees or other laymen, cultishly devoted to a traditionalism that they prove unable to compellingly justify (or explain), who will attempt to make this out to be another episode of juvenile squabbling between sects and the primitive debates of the near past, such as the pro-madh’hab vs anti-taqlid bickering or the modern revisionists vs traditionalist disputes, all in a ploy to forestall any traction a legitimate interrogation may gain. In the end we must recognise that those who react in this way ultimately call us to turn off our cognitive functions, reject reason, pay little attention to revelation and the actual endeavours of past scholars, all the while ignoring the context of the real world we live in. This shows where they are currently at: unable to mature a conversation or engage with whatever departs from the rhetoric of their contemporary traditional ‘ulema’ (whether at home or abroad), they go into complete cognitive shutdown. In the meantime, and almost inevitably, a new generation has evolved, moving on from the crude debates of yesteryear that serve no meaningful purpose. Having been subject to the experiences that accompany such evolution, most have matured from simplistic thinking, and detractors would do well to catch up.
The notion of contemporary traditional ‘ulema’, particularly those resident in the UK, tends to refer to clergymen who encourage blind submission to their own rhetoric, mostly so that their ignorance or inability to explain the shariah and relate it to contemporary society remains undetected. What I would like to posit here in very simple terms is that labelling such ‘ulema’ as traditional is pointless and merely serves as a rhetorical device. Either someone is an alim or they are not; either they demonstrate the ability to apply revelatory guidance and principles to real life scenarios, or they don’t. The truth is that on most occasions traditional is posited in the cultural sense; those who dress and talk according to particular ethno-cultural norms and demand passive acquiescence, use superficial religious rhetoric and shallow arguments, and demonstrate an unfamiliarity with anything outside of their ethno-religious communities as well as the issues facing the younger lot within it, which inevitably means that a purposeful application of the faith is not even part of the discussion. Another key contention the traditionalists have is with ijtihad, or independent reasoning, across Islamic disciplines. They rail against anything religious that attempts to deal with the modern world or considers western norms, claiming that ijtihad is only the right of the ancients. Yet they themselves posit new opinions and novel solutions across the board, only to couch them in terms like ‘research’ or producing them in ‘commentary’ form for a medieval text. Whichever term is used and however they present it, the undertaking is the same and their rhetoric deeply disingenuous.
For the sincere, I sympathise with the personal challenge this presents, and the prospect of it being somewhat of a culture shock. How do we go from a simple subservience to one-dimensional Islam and essentialised religious practice, to appreciating the diversity and depth of the Islamic tradition and really engaging with revelation, seeking to find out its applicability to every aspect of modern western life? The effort sounds tremendous, the prospect daunting, and questions such as, ‘Who will inform us?’ inevitably arise. Whilst it is a journey, rather than being arduous it is edifying, and undertaking it leads one to realise how much of the faith is consistently unemployed. The fearmongering – that the shariah will be entirely unrecognisable – is plain silly. Focusing on tradition and the application of our faith principles to the modern world does not necessitate anything close to removing everything we know about our religion – it is about building on it. Claims that this attitude undermines classical scholarship or the destruction of our intellectual tradition is, for the best part, a knee-jerk reaction, symptomatic of the clergy-elite and their devotees afraid of losing relevance in an ever changing world.
Far from destruction, we should consider this a rescue mission, to liberate a methodology that freed humans from the shackles of parochialism, an obsessive preoccupation with minutiae, and binary attitudes that overlook the sophisticated nature of human life. This is not about “questioning the shariah” in that it is not a person that can be questioned or asked – the shariah is a construct formed by intellectual enquiry that employs reasonable methods of analysis to get to applicable and relevant conclusions which reflect God’s will and intent. An irrelevant shariah is no shariah at all. Speaking to this, the Hanbali legal philosopher Abu Bakr b. al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Whoever gives fatwas to the people merely from what has been related in books differing from the customs, habits, era, social/political circumstances and contextual variables, misguides others and is himself misguided. His injury to the faith is greater than that of a doctor who treats patients inconsiderate of their different customs, habits, era, circumstances and contextual variables, merely seeking to reflect what is in the general books of medicine. Such a doctor is an ignoramus, and such a mufti too is an ignoramus; both are the most harmful they could possibly be to the people’s religion and their bodies – may God help us!’
This strongly worded rebuke points out the results of simplistically clinging to specific things said by the great intellectuals of the past; not only is it considered harmful to the faith but also reveals the ignorance of those who take on such an attitude. The effect of this is that the attitude filters into a binary approach which they incorrectly consider to be godly, not only on individual issues but in their overarching approach to the shariah. Pointing out the importance of nuance rather than adopting an either/or tactic, Taqi al-Din b. Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Complete piety (wara’) is that a person can identify the better of two virtues and the worse of two evils, and knows that the edifice of the shariah is premised on securing advantages and amplifying them, and negating disadvantages or lessening them. Otherwise, one who does not weigh up between acting or refraining in a way that considers shar’i advantages and disadvantages consequently abandons obligations and engages in prohibited acts erroneously viewing it as piety, like the one who…abandons Friday and congregational prayer behind imams who have innovated beliefs (bid’ah) or engage in iniquities, viewing it as piety; and refuses to accept the testimony of the truthful or accept the knowledge of a scholar due to a minor invented view (bid’ah khafiyyah)…’ True religiosity and a consciousness of God is not in a binary or parochial attitude, or perpetual suspicion towards that which does not fall into predefined expectations but instead, as Ibn Tamiyyah points out, in nuanced perspectives, the ability to weigh up considerations, look for some balance and then proceed with positive action. Wara’, then, disqualifies the crude attitude of traditionalists.
Besides godliness, simply remaining stuck on opinions held in light of numerous variables that are no longer existent is logically absurd. Highlighting the illegitimate obsession with earlier texts, the distinguished Maliki legal philosopher al-Qarafi wrote: ‘And do not become stuck, your entire life, on what is composed in books …perpetually being stuck on scholarly references is misguidance in the religion and ignorance towards the objectives of the scholars and past predecessors.’ Al-Qarafi wrote this from the perspective of differing contexts, strongly acknowledging that one region is different to another, and so the texts written to address one region, let alone an entirely different epoch, cannot be taken as authoritative in a different place. Rather than speaking of an overhaul, al-Qarafi’s sentiments call for a recalibration in mind set and mentality, and shows that past scholars engendered an attitude that is antithetical to being stuck to what has been related in past writings, which he explicitly states to be a source of misguidance. What al-Qarafi clearly states is that those who cling to texts in the name of traditionalism have little to do with the actual tradition and completely disregard the ‘objectives of the scholars and past predecessors’ who wrote to contribute to the stock of Islamic knowledge so that it might be built upon, and not to appropriate authority and bizarrely demand rabbinical subservience.
The contempt with which both Ibn al-Qayyim and al-Qarafi would have held our status quo isn’t difficult to glean, and there are many other past luminaries, such as Abu Yusuf and Muhammad al-Shaibani, Ibn Abdil Barr, al-Juwaini, al-Ghazali, al-Jassas (and so on) that intimate much of what they did, if not through explicit critique then certainly through their scholastic endeavours. It also seems that criticisms like those of Ibn al-Qayyim and al-Qarafi were directed towards the low-level clergy and imams of their times who, like many of ours, exhibited closemindedness.
Evidently, over a millennium some things have changed little, and what the above sentiments reveal is that reactionary lay-clergy will have an insular and diehard attitude clinging to contextually written books as if they were timeless revelation, whilst it is the role of those who understand the role of tradition, cut from the same cloth as the scholars cited here and beyond, to highlight these shortcomings and raise the game. Of course, rather than the construction of false binaries, some nuance is required between clinging to historical works verbatim or rejecting them outright – in any scholarly undertaking such an attitude is simply counter-productive. In light of how entrenched such attitudes are in our current time, I have sought to preface any discussion of future possibilities by tackling the basic assumptions that we adopt as part of a current system of thinking that is dictated partly out of the self-interests of a clergy-elite, and partly out of ignorance towards our religious tradition including how to utilise it.
The challenge to contemporary traditionalism is not only found in the criticisms of the old, but also in their advice and clarification of what ought to happen. For example, the distinguished Andalusian Maliki scholar Abu Bakr b. al-Arabi demonstrated the constructive approach of past luminaries, criticising the clerics of his day for fanatically sticking to past writings in defence of his own madh’hab, the Maliki school of law, stating that their attitude also made them subjects of the verse, ‘And do not follow that of which you have little knowledge,’ since ‘he draws legal analogy and reasoning from that which is not a source of ijtihad, for ijtihad is in the speech of God and the Messenger and not in the statements of men. And whoever from the muqallidin (lay-clergy) protests that a response (fatwa) departs from the statement of Malik found in some text, is included in this verse. If it is said, ‘Well you put it like this and so have many scholars before you!’ We say: ‘Yes, we say it in cataloguing the school of Malik based on one of two opinions in order to codify the school through takhrij (investigative extraction), and not that it is a fatwa for a contemporary situation according to which issues may ensue. So if a questioner comes, the issue is presented to the core dalil (revelation) and not the extracted position of the madh’hab (takhrij madh’habi), and it is thus said to him, ‘The answer is this, so do this…’ On issues beyond fiqh (such as theology) the same rings true; there is a difference between abstract Islamic academia and real-life problem solving, yet many fail to identify this simple distinction.
A common retort from traditionalists, after having abandoned the frail argument that there exists a moral impediment to considering new interpretations, is usually about the (lack of) qualification to do so. There is much to be said on this topic which I will leave for elsewhere. In brief, however, the stark reality remains that no matter how much we obsess about the qualifications for ijtihad, situations will continue to arise that require relevant responses. To perpetually deny this or needlessly twist earlier fatwas in order to draw some analogy with the new simply means that either religion becomes detached from real life due to the failure to keep up, or that in keeping up the façade of traditionalism we accept sub-standard guidance that is born from a failure to prepare and train appropriately for developments because we deny that anyone can really qualify, all the while actually attempting to do it in the name of ‘research’ and ‘commentaries’.
Raising the notion of qualifications also suggests that much of what has been written here has little to do with the laity, although that is not necessarily the case. Yes, this is a brief article intended to incite general thoughts and challenge narrow-minded attitudes that have trickled down to the masses, so it certainly addresses the Muslim clergy and those in training to encourage further learning, a spirit of intellectual enquiry and broad-mindedness. But it also addresses the laity who are very much on the receiving end of all of this. It is only by understanding the stakes for their future as well as the difference between a healthy tradition to which contemporary scholars might contribute (as opposed to traditionalism) that the laity might also incite change from the bottom-up. I hope to encourage some introspection into the choices the laity make when determining scholastic authority, as well as develop critical thinking around the approaches that permeate the Muslim community. It is up to people to decide how they will move forward and what approach they will adopt, both for the future of Islam and the benefit of their children. Rather than hark back to a golden age, believers ought to look forward to the great things they can achieve. ‘Allah does not change the state of people until they change what is in themselves,’ and if the Islamic golden age is something to aspire to, then a good place to start might be in recognising that our condition will be greatly determined by the choices we make and the approaches we adopt.