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The challenge to a stagnant tradition

If you haven't already noticed it, a debate is raging in streets, homes, mosques and universities across the western world, writes Aftab A Malik. It’s about the identity of Islam, what that actually means and who speaks for Islam. If you look for it, you will find young Muslims fully engaged, self-reflective and asking piercing questions. The discourse has moved beyond halal-meat and the length of one’s beard, to tackling issues ranging from ethics, social responsibility, understanding the aims of the Shariah (maqasid) and how Muslims can live fully as western citizens without having to forfeit their religious identity. The discussions are impressive, as is the sincerity and zeal that propels the young to address these crucial issues. Unfortunately, it has taken a succession of tragic events for this process to get underway.

From these discussions, it is inevitable that at some point, the question will arise: who provides leadership? Is it the “traditionalists,” “liberals” or the “reformists”? While these terms are problematic in themselves they do broadly describe the general viewpoints of those attempting to make sense of the multiple crisis and challenges confronting Muslims. The debate over the question of leadership is often engulfed in suspicion and skepticism. Some consider “tradition” as having contributed to the malaise that Muslims find themselves in and therefore it is part of the problem. Others perceive the liberals to be calling for an Islam stripped of scholarly authority, in which the individual decides for himself what Islam is. The reformers are seen as having capitulated to western demands to “reform” or “modernize” aspects of Islam that it finds unacceptable and overturn much of the agreed-upon practices of Muslims.

What these differences of perspective reveal is something deeper: something has gone terribly wrong with the contemporary Islam project. The last time the Muslims as a whole were confronted with a crisis of this dimension, the question was how to respond to growing western power in Muslims lands. Muslim intellectuals adopted various strategies. Some called for modernization, reform and others clung to a literal understanding of the Qur’an, ever fearful of the contaminating elements of modernity. Having seen the failure of these orientations to regain the “dignity” of Islam, a new generation of Muslims emerged during the twentieth century in the Muslim heartlands. They viewed Muslim leaders as mere puppets of the West and so they were to be fought and opposed. European anarchism—in vogue among intellectuals battling the “decadence” of the west—provided a fresh perspective in framing their method and manner in which opposition should be established.

It was in this mix that we witnessed the emergence of a synthesis of religious zealotry and modern ideology. The common thread that these intellectual currents shared was their opposition to the west. Their reading of the Islamic texts was one which was filtered through a siege mentality. Muslims, as they understood it, were under attack. In their zeal to make sacred that which was profane, they readily excommunicated other Muslims en masse for emulating the “unbelievers” and for abandoning the implementation of the rule of God. Their rebellion against God made killing them a religious duty, so they concluded.

Today, we can quite clearly see that the decisions of the last two hundred years or so have left Muslims today reeling in a state of confusion. Rather than bringing clarity, these steps to bolster Muslim power simply created bloodshed as Islam fell victim to the ill-equipped interpreters who had little or no training in the Islamic sciences. The reformation that engulfed the Muslim world in the nineteenth century was meant to “modernize” Islam and bring it on par with the superiority of the west, but it backfired: Muslim intellectuals did away with established legal principles and demonized Islam’s system of spirituality. That laid the path for the decentralization of religious authority which in turn gave birth to the phenomenon of the amateur mujtahid, or the autodidact. Thus, the democratization of ijtihad ensured a further crisis: anyone could say almost anything about what Islam is and what it isn’t and choose to live by their own understanding of the faith. They are not bound by an established methodology nor do they give credence to any. 

And herein lays the concerns of many Muslims today: we are opening Pandora’s Box. History shows us that attempts at “reforming” and “modernizing” Islam by non-specialists have met with disastrous consequences. This isn’t to say that the solution is to simply cling to the past. There is a tendency to treat medieval legal precedents as sacrosanct rather than seeing them as the intellectual outcomes of great scholars who exerted themselves to make sense of the world that they were living in. Tradition is the living faith of the dead and not the dead faith of the living: it is about accessing the collective wisdom of past communities and articulating and living by it in the context of the present. While progressive in outlook, it is rooted within the established traditions of Islamic law, philosophy, theology and spirituality. The system for extrapolating legal rulings makes dissent unavoidable, and the classical epoch of Islamic legal thought bears witness to this dynamic process, where creativity was the hallmark of the most brilliant minds.

The inherent moderation and pragmatism of the Islamic tradition is something which offers a balanced and dynamic alternative to either puritanical or ideological versions of Islam that have been competing for the souls of Muslims. However, unless scholars boldly start to discern between “historical Islam” and “trans-historical Islam”, the “tradition” will be held hostage to the past—static and time locked—leaving others to try to grapple with the very real challenges without the expertise required in the Islamic sciences. We only need to review the last two hundred years to see what havoc the Islamic reformation caused as a result of this.