Recently, I was surprised to learn that my name had been included in a launch publication which sets out a number of recommendations to combat terrorism. Released in an air of anticipated controversy, it listed a number of emerging progressive, British Muslim voices; of whom I was one. I wasn’t sure if I should feel concerned, bemused, privileged or bewildered by such an inclusion. Given I have no links with the ‘counter extremism think tank’ headed by two former ‘Islamists’ that published the paper,1 I’ve not yet understood what I’ve done to merit an inclusion. Truth be told, bemused or privileged I feel not; bewildered and concerned I most certainly am.
Being associated with a discourse against terrorism is definitely not my worry here. In fact, combating violent extremism, and exposing its false theological underpinnings, has been a core aspect of my outreach programme ever since the early nineties – for which I first thank God for His grace, and thereafter my teachers in Sacred Law for alerting me to its evils. No, my unease, among other things, concerns the idea of progress and being progressive. What does it mean? And what are we meant to be progressing towards?
At first blush, these questions may sound strange; particularly from someone who is supposed to be a progressive, British Muslim voice. But that’s my point. We’ve become so used to using such terms, that more often than not, we seem to have lost the sense of what is being intended by them. Standard dictionary definitions explain the word progress as ‘a movement forward towards a given direction’; or ‘a development towards a more advanced state’. More often than not, it is employed to mean ‘favouring new ideas and social reform’. Here, for many Muslims, the questions that immediately come to mind are: Does Islam need development? Is the Islamic faith crude; primitive – barbaric, even – that it needs to be made more advanced? Who has the right to decide such issues, and who does the task then fall upon to ‘update’ this age-old faith? Some will even ask how such proposed changes square with the Quranic declaration about the religion being ‘complete’ and ‘perfect’: This day have I perfected your religion for you, and completed My favour upon you, and chosen Islam for you as religion.2 The more theologically grounded will assert that believing any established, clear-cut injunction3 of Islam to be primitive or outdated – let alone claiming it to be barbaric – is nothing short of disbelief; kufr. After all, doesn’t the Qur’an insist about God and His judgements: Is not God the best of Judges?4 Moreover: Is it a judgement of [idolatrous] ignorance that they are seeking? Who is a better judge than God for a people who have certainty of faith?5 So faith requires, not just accepting that God’s judgement is good; but that it is, in fact, the best!
What follows, I suppose, are some reflections about the nature of progress and the social changes we find ourselves in, and the responses we as Muslims are beginning to adopt in order to adapt; keep our faith relevant; and offer healing to a world deeply wounded – wa bihi nasta‘in. For the sake of convenience, I’ve divided these reflections into six headings:
1. Divine Law, Human Efforts, Tools for Adaption
What I’d like to touch upon first is the nature of ‘Islamic Law’ or shari‘ah. The words shari‘ah means ‘path’ or ‘track’, with its origins referring to the path by which wild animals would come down to drink at their watering place. In the religious vernacular, shari‘ah refers to Islam’s Sacred Law: a road, so to speak, that leads to where the waters of life flow abundantly.
The science that evolved so as to understand the shari‘ah is called fiqh, usually translated as ‘jurisprudence’, and is culled from the word faqiha; which means ‘to understand’. Fiqh, therefore, is about understanding the divine commands and the way they shape the life-pattern of the believers. Strictly speaking, then, shari’ah refers to the actual body of revealed laws, whereas fiqh is the science of understanding these laws – and this involves human effort.
This ‘effort’ to understand, expound, and adapt the law so as to keep it relevant to the age and place Muslims may find themselves in, is known as ijtihad, and it is the prerogative of mujtahids – those judged to be qualified and capable of such efforts, but only after receiving prolonged theological, legal, grammatical and hermeneutical training. Fathoming the intent of the Lawgiver, or inferring new rulings from the primary sources, is always an uphill task. Oftentimes the jurist has to struggle through long days and nights before reaching an opinion. The Arabic terminology used to signify this is badhl al-juhd, or istifragh al-wus‘, which basically means expending all possible effort to evaluate the proof-texts so as to reach a ruling. The mujtahid, in other words, leaves no stone unturned in order to uncover the divine intent. The significance is that ijtihad is not just one of juristic effort or exertion; but of exhaustion! Needless to say, a mujtahid’s ijtihad must not contradict any categorical stipulation in the revealed texts, nor contravene an established point of scholarly consensus (ijma‘).
Shaykh al-Shalabi, addressing the charge that Islam seeks to “turn the clock back”, states: “As for that phenomenon questionably termed progress, it has never impaired Islam’s relevance and effectiveness. Islam, as the Prophet taught it, works well in the technological age; indeed it seems to be the only religion which has retained its dynamism and character intact in the modern world.” He goes on to write: “Islam was forbidden to create a priestly class. Rather, it developed a tradition of religious scholars (‘ulema), who, although they were possessed of no special sacramental function, nevertheless provided the intellectual re-articulation of eternal truths to a world in constant flux. It was the religious scholars who assessed new legal situations, new doctrinal challenges, and who suggested ways in which an adaption to novel circum-stances could be effected while remaining loyal to the revelation of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet. This process of adaption is termed ijtihad, a technical and highly sophisticated science of jurisprudence which, while affirming the timeless efficacy of the social teachings set down in revelation, provides a means for the systematic extension of these guidelines when circumstance demands. … This capacity, not for change, but for expansion, undoubtedly constitutes a key factor in Islam’s continuing dynamism.”6
A closing thought to the section. For close to a thousand years, Islam’s juristic enterprise has been a key factor in the stability of Muslim societies. Every now and then, though, there have been those who have claimed the right to exercise ijtihad; and, as Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote, “Among them were those allowed to do so, given that the truth of their claim had become clear. Others, however, had their words hurled back at them, and were deemed to have been false in their claim.”7 Separating the wheat from the chaff is essential if the integrity of our legal culture is to be retained. Islam, without sounding too conspiratorial, has shrewd opponents and intelligent foes who realise this fact only too well. It is sad to see, then, many enthusiastic lay folk now being taught that their faith obliges them to ‘evaluate’ and ‘weigh-up’ the evidences, and to then follow the ‘strongest’ view as per the proofs. Their unqualified dabbling in the fine art of ijtihad – for that is what they are attempting – has not only led to chaos, bitter conflict and social mayhem, it has also served to weaken the juristic tradition which has so lent itself to Islam’s durability. This is not suggesting such people have ‘sided with the enemy’; they have, nonetheless, become unwitting pawns in the attempted dismantling of Islam’s legal tradition. Having strayed this far, others will drift further still.
2. Remembering Our Journey’s End
Progress, as noted before, signifies a movement forward; but it tells us nothing about the direction of this movement. Is it uphill or downhill? Is it an ascent or a descent? Is it a lifting of the Spirit or a fall from Grace? There are many things that march progressively forward. Even cancer is progressive. What I’m trying to say is: how do we know if progress is good for us, and by what standard is it measured? One of Islam’s arbab al-qulub – “spiritual masters” or “masters of the inward life” – once uttered the remark: fi’l-harakah barakah – “in movement there is blessings.” Clearly, though, not every movement is blessed.
Even the point of how far we’ve advanced in terms of science and technology is something of a red herring when evaluating the idea of change and progress. The Qur’an relates a number of narratives about former civilisations and their ‘technological’ achievements of the day. Yet when put side by side with their intransigence and heedlessness of the divine Reality, such progress is seen for what it really is: folly, delusion and civilisational arrogance. Says the Qur’an: Have they not travelled in the earth and seen the end of those before them. They were stronger than they in power, and they dug the earth and built upon it more than they have built. Their Messengers came to them with clear proofs. God wronged them not, but they wronged themselves. Evil was the end of those who dealt in evil, because they denied the signs of God and mocked them.8
Early Muslim pietists were at pains to instil in us the vital Quranic lesson, that material progress – ‘digging the earth and building upon it’ – can never be the measure of any true or meaningful success. Islamic sources relate to us that in 649AD the first Muslim navel expedition was sent against the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which was under the control of a Byzantine empire; now in its twilight years. The Muslim army was quick to overrun the small Byzantine garrison and the Cypriots were soon paying tribute to the Muslims. On seeing the ease with which the people of this once powerful empire lay defeated and subdued, the famous Companion of the Prophet, Abu’l-Darda, began to weep. On being asked why he wept on the day God had granted victory to Islam and the Muslims, he answered: “Woe to you! How insignificant creation become to God when they neglect His commands. Here is a nation that was once mighty and strong, and had dominion. But they abandoned the commands of God, so look what’s become of them.”9
In judging the contemporary world’s unrelenting drive for progress, believers need not concur with all the orthodoxies and popular assumptions of the age. Civilisational greatness and technological progress for their own sake, as can be seen, count for very little in the Quranic scheme of things. We are not to be mesmerised by “the barefooted, scantly-clad, destitute herdsmen competing in constructing lofty buildings,” as the Prophet forewarned.10 Digging the earth is one thing; burying the path to the soul’s salvation is another thing altogether. Hence let us pose that all-important question again: How should change and progress be appraised?
“For Muslims,” wrote Gai Eaton, “there can be only one test by which to assess change. Does it promote piety – awareness of the divine presence – or diminish it? Does it lead to an increasing number of men and women to the gates of Paradise or does it encourage them to stray from God’s path? Does it reinforce the divinely revealed Law or does it blur the distinction between what is commanded and what is forbidden? There are, of course, other considerations but they must take a lower place in a fixed order of priorities. An increase in life expectancy is, obviously, a good thing, but it is worthless if these additional years do not lead to an increasing awareness of the divine Reality which we are soon to meet. There is nothing inherently wrong with the comforts provided by the modern world, better hygiene, better drainage, more convenient means of transport, but these count for nothing if their soft embrace encourages us to forget our origin and our end.”11
3. Muslim Responses to Social Change
I suppose there are a few ways of depicting how we as Muslims are currently trying to square loyalty to the shari‘ah with our rapidly-changing social context. Any such description, though, will be a generalisation; an approximation of a fairly complex set of dynamics. Yet to make such subtleties indecently simple, we can say that two orientations towards change are discernible. The first is often referred to as ‘traditionalist’; the second, ‘modernist’. Although these two methods represent the two ends of the spectrum for change, nonetheless there is some overlap as one moves from the poles down to the middle. To add some sense of nuance, I’d like to sub-divide the traditionalists into two groups, thus giving us three broad responses to change:
I. THE ULTRA CONSERVATIVES
The traditionalist position, which is that of the mainstream ‘ulema, or scholars, is conservative; emphasises classical formulations of Islam; and is cautious of innovation and change. At its extreme are the ultra-conservatives; those who believe that Islam has been sufficiently expressed in classical tomes of fiqh, and that it is not the pre-modern formulations of Islam that need changing, but the society that has drifted away from its guidance. When they do permit change, it is seen as something temporary; a sort of weathering the storm.
II. NUANCED TRADITIONALISTS
The second group of traditionalists take a much more nuanced approach. They are careful to distinguish between those aspects of the shari’ah which are fixed and unchanging, and those open to adaption and expansion. In other words, they recognise that some religious rulings are immutable, whereas others are contingent and cultural. They also distinguish between the ‘illah – the rationale which gives rise to a legal ruling, and hikmah – the actual wisdom behind the given ruling. They also draw on the rich body of legal philosophy which deals with the aims of the Sacred Law (maqasid al-shari‘ah), as well as give credence to customs and norms – as per the legal maxim: al-‘adah muhakkamah – “cultural norms have the weight of law”, or “custom determines what is law”. There is also the rule which dictates that: taghayyur al-fatwa bi taghayyur al-azman – “the fatwa changes with the changing of time”. Additionally, jurists have at their disposal a large body of fatwas and legal precedents which go under the rubric of: ma ta‘ummu bihi al-balwah – “problematic issues that are of general concern to the community”. This refers to those circumstances for which, when certain afflictions become rampant and widespread, and begin to affect many people, allowances must then be made for them due to the legal concept of darurah: “neccessity/vital interest”. It goes without saying that knowing how and when to employ such complex legal devices is the art and craft of the jurist-mujtahid; and none other.
Al-Qarafi, a prominent sixth century jurist, wrote: “Those handing down legal judgements while clinging blindly to the texts in their books, without regard for the cultural realities of their people, are in gross error. They are in opposition to established legal consensus as well as being guilty of sin and disobedience before God … Their blind adherence to what is written in the legal compendia is misguidance in the religion of Islam and utter ignorance of the ultimate aims behind the rulings of the past scholars and great personages of the past whom they claim to be imitating.”12
About a century later Ibn al-Qayyim endorsed al-Qarafi’s approach, affirming: “This is pure understanding of the Sacred Law. Whoever issues legal rulings to the people based merely upon what is transmitted in the compendia – despite differences in their customs, usages, times, places, conditions, as well a special circumstances of their situation – has strayed and leads others astray.”13
Applying the law to new and evolving situations is, without doubt, a difficult task, and at times there may be a fine line between adaption and adulteration: but a line there nevertheless is. The traditional ‘ulema have, during the last few centuries, seen a rising number of charlatans – far removed from fulfilling the requisites of ijtihad – calling for reform of the shari‘ah, and claiming the right to do so for themselves. Hence in the eyes of those learned in Sacred Law, talk of change, or of adapting to the times, has more to do with hawa: caprice; whims; desires, than it does huda: divine guidance.
To sum-up: for such traditionalists, change (or rather, adaptation) occurs under the guidance of jurists and mujtahids, and in a way that is accepting, yet critical and selective of what the West has to offers in terms of science, technology and intellectual thought. Along with this, there must be a realisation that it is in the very nature of the modern, secular world to erode all that is sacred, and that its offerings are seldom neutral or value-free, but are instead enmeshed in profane western values and philosophies: secularism, individualism, materialism. For traditionalists, the issue isn’t about whether the law needs to adapt to change; instead it is about how much and by whom. For traditionalists, also, at the heart of any adaption must lie the preservation of faith, sacred norms, and obedience to the Divine Will.
As for the modernists, it is difficult to pigeon-hole them into a single unified narrative. Modernism is more of a rubric for a number of diverse ideas, trends and peoples: reformists, liberals, progressivists, secularists. What may be said to characterise them all is their jettisoning of tradition which, in Islam’s case, refers to an unbroken chain of learning and received wisdoms reaching all the way back to our Prophet, peace be upon him. Tradition is backward looking; it suffocates progress; it’s a relic of the past, the modernists would have us believe. Hence the mantra of modernism: “Islam needs a reformation.” After all, they argue, Christianity underwent a Reformation, and look what happened there. Look indeed!
The second part of this blog (to be posted shortly, God willing) will discuss the modernists’ assertion that Islam is in desperate need of reformation. It will also consider their claim that the traditional ‘ulema are an obstacle to reform, as they are still stuck in some sort of nostalgic ‘Madinah’.
SURKHEEL (ABU AALIYAH) SHARIF
- 1. Cf. Quilliam Foundation, Pulling Together to Defeat Terror, 8. The actual document was released during the Foundation’s inaugural launch, 22/4/2008, and may be read at: www.quilliamfoundation.org
- 2. Qur’an 5:3.
- 3. By “established, clear-cut injunction,” I mean those rulings of the faith stemming from proofs that are univocal and categorical in their content and transmission (qat‘i al-dalalah wa’l-riwayah).
- 4. Qur’an 95:8.
- 5. Qur’an 5:50.
- 6. Islam: Religion of Life (USA: Starlatch Press, 2001), 23-4.
- 7. Al-Radd ‘ala Man Ittaba‘ Ghayra’l-Madhahib al-Arba‘ah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 1998), 29.
- 8. Qur’an 30:9-10. Also cf. 6:6, 8:54, 22:45.
- 9. Ibn Hanbal, al-Zuhd, 1:86 – as cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Da‘ wa’l-Dawa‘ (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1998), 67.
- 10. Muslim, Sahih, no.8.
- 11. Gai Eaton, Remembering God: Reflections on Islam (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2000), 25-6.
- 12. Cited in Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Islam & the Cultural Imperative, 6-7; at www.nawawi.org/downloads/article3.pdf
- 13. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 4:470.