EditorSeptember October 2006

Not without an intellectual breakthrough

Prof. Rashid Shaz

In historical parlance we know of ups and downs and of turning points. The two, however, may not be confused. While the former denotes a continuity of the status quo, the latter is indicative of a break away with the past. The recent victory of Hizbullah though a positive development should not be seen as a turning point. Nor should we let this event hijack the intellectual discourse in the Muslim world.

That Hizbullah has astutely exposed, probably for the first time in recent history, the supposed invincibility of Israel and many in the Arab world are expressing their disgust for the long cherished Arab inaction, is no doubt indicative of the birth of new emotions. If a small militia of motivated individuals can confront the most sophisticated army, why not the 56 Muslim states, with so much of resources at their command, can take control of their own destiny? The analogy is simple though highly misleading.

Having been prisoners of rhetoric for so long, we prefer to live with fallacies. If every Muslim simply throws a bucket of water on Israel, so we are told, the Israeli state will be eradicated. This could be a marvellous poetic idea but it fails to enlighten us why the Muslims have not been able to act it out? Emotionally charged rhetoric and worn out pompous terminologies that we are so fond of using have in fact made our intellectual discourse futile as they no longer refer to the real world but stem from an imaginary world of our own making.

Not only is the intellectual discourse in the Muslim world devoid of vital issues, in fact the entire Ummah today is living in a fake world. Let me explain! On the surface it appears as if the Muslim world is bubbling with zest of life, the rulers are sovereign in their policy-making and the religious life is in full swing. But a close look at the situation tells us altogether a different story. True, they have an army and a semblance of state apparatus, but they are merely to uphold that illusion, that pomp without power. The same is true of the religious hemisphere where a host of tarbush-clad ulema and ghotra-laden shauykh are ever willing to lay out minute details of ritual worship. But here too things are more theatrical than the real. Many amongst them claim to be the faqeeh-ul-asr or the grand mufti, thereby creating an illusion that in this age they are the epitome of religious understanding while in reality if they can do anything they can only copiously quote from the wisdom of the dead. Be they religious scholars or the ruling elite, they live in a fake world, as characters of an orchestrated drama, as shadows of the real self.

As an Ummah our predicament is two-fold; we are unable to see the things as they are, and secondly, we often take an ordinary event as a turning point. The high pitch of optimism during the recent Lebanon crisis had better explain this point. The recent ‘victory’ of Hizbollah in Lebanon was a strange victory where the victor had no say in stipulating the conditions for a ceasefire. Hizbullah has been successful, no doubt, in maintaining her psychological and emotional self intact. Given the military prowess of Israel, this in itself is a great achievement. But calling it an outright victory is not only disastrous for our future, it also leaves many vital questions unanswered. Why despite our willingness to do everything possible we fail to confront the enemy on equal technological footing? Why despite the paucity of human and material resources at out command today we have access to some crude and far less effective zilzal missiles and not a laser-guided precision bomb or an F-16 or a B-52 bomber? Resistance can create hurdles and even it can successfully bring down a mighty empire but it cannot build in its place an alternative system. A revival of the Ummah then, certainly has to come from somewhere else.

Removing the intellectual detours:

The language of resistance can be no match for language of mercy. At a point of history when the language of resistance has created some intellectuals detour for us, an intellectual breakthrough leading to reconstructing the prophetic metaphor requires a critical look at our heritage literature spanning some thirteen centuries. As it has been the norm to look at the early centuries as our golden age, it became difficult to distinguish the pious elders from the rotten ones, the latter being known as fabricators. Once an alien thought stealthily made its way in early writings, it was unmindfully quoted by the later writers so much so that they became the very part and parcel of our intellectual self. Take for example the Tafseer literature which will simply cease to exist if we remove the folktales or the Israeliyat as we call it, and where one is never sure which historical context really served as prelude to the revelation. The same is true of the Hadith compendiums that were mainly compiled to drive the fabricators away. Mysticism has a strong penchant for Christian monastic tradition and the much celebrated issues in Muslim theology such as free-will and determinism speak of Greek influences. And finally, the very transformation of Islamic polity into dynastic rule owe much to the local tribal ethos and the kingship pattern prevalent during the time. Needless to emphasise, the intellectual heritage in Islam is yet to be purged out of the alien notions that infiltrated in early years, more precisely during the second century of Islam.

The emergence of dynastic rule in Islam which dates back as early as the first century Hijra was not in consonance with the Quranic worldview yet it was generally tolerated to avoid the internal feuds that had gripped the early Muslim society after the murder of the third caliph. And after the failed attempt of Omer II who wanted to restore the prophetic model of governance it was assumed that political reformation may not yield positive results and hence Muslim should accept the status quo for the sake of unity and peace. From Omer II to the last Ottoman caliph, a period spanning some twelve centuries, an official version of Islam was mainly controlled by the political system. The shaikhul Islam or the chief religious authority played a key role in shaping the Muslim mind. History records many a great luminaries of Islam who in their own times were considered as great scholars but as they did not enjoy state patronage they were marginalised in their time and their great works did not survive. Out of some 50 great fuqaha of the first two centuries only four could survive and that too due to the canonization of the four schools of sunni Islam during the reign of Malik-az-zahir Sultan Bibars. We also hear of many collections of Hadith and many compendiums of authenticated traditions (sahih) that are no more available to us.

The official Islam however was no monolithic version as it had to cope with the changing political equations. We had the Umvi Islam against the Alwides and also the Khawarij’s who maintained an equal distance from both of them. The Abbasid had their own version of Islam and so had the Fatmides of Egypt and those who founded the Spanish Khilafah away from the central control. As the ruling elite monopolised Islamic interpretation the un-official versions were to find a space only on the margins. Their exponents were either crushed by ruthless political power or they were to keep their mouths shut — a process that latter came to be known as taqyyia, a well thought out philosophy of political pacifism. The exponent of official Islam maintained that accepting the waliul-amr, no matter even he acquired power by brute force, was in the greater interest of Islam and Muslims. Changing the political set-up by armed struggle was openly discouraged and the rebels were dubbed as khawarij. The official Islam thus came to be known as the sabilul-momeneen, enjoying the blessings of God. Controlling the interpretation of Islam and twisting it to their own agenda, the system left almost no room to reconstruct the original Quranic paradigm without dismantling the system itself. Today any attempt to reconstructing the Quranic paradigm once again or reinventing the language of mercy cannot be successful unless we have insight into the social and political history of the early two centuries that were instrumental in shaping Islam of the status quo.

Alien influences on the Muslim mind:

Have you ever thought that the uloom sharei or the religious sciences which Muslims regard today as the highest branch of knowledge have their roots not in the Quranic worldview alone rather, a number of other factors had key role in their development. If the supposedly Islamic sciences are the sum total of knowledge why it is so that the upholders of sharei sciences fail to produce a better technology for our defence? As for those who devote themselves to exploring the signs of God the religious scholars look down upon them; for according to them they are involved in lesser sciences often associated with some sort of secularity and irreligiosity. The contempt for non-sharei sciences drove many of our best minds away from explorations and inventions thereby reducing the entire Ummah into a group of consumers. The so-called religious sciences that comprise today an incomprehensible amount of fiqhi literature where revelatory intent is often lost in hair-splitting debates and where for centuries an open-ended discussions about the authenticity of transmitters remains unabated, one wonders weather they really serve any purpose. The first generation of Muslim had certainly no access to the compendiums of fiqh or the books of rijal, nor were they aware of exegetical manoeuvring, or dreamt of getting to the hidden meanings of the text. For them Quran was a book of guidance in plain and simple language. God had conveyed to them what He wanted to, leaving nothing for the clergy to interpret. The first generation of Muslims hardly knew of alien terminologies such as fardh, wajib, nafil, sunnah, mubah, mustahab etc. The Quran created a rational mind urging the faithful to reflect on the cosmic wonders. The natural world was declared a subject of study for all those seeking knowledge. And those astounded by the signs of God were called as real scholars. This was the original Quranic paradigm of knowledge and signposts for future revolution. Had the Muslim mind operated within this paradigm the study of natural sciences would certainly have come to us as a religious obligation. But unfortunately owing to the political instability and the infiltration of alien ideologies the Quranic worldview could not remain intact for long.

How it all happened needs serious investigation. The civil strife that had engulfed the entire world of Islam after the murder of the third Caliph was a congenial atmosphere for all those who wanted to dilute the divine message. From this period onward, we see the sudden emergence of a host of public entertaining intellectuals, the qassas and pseudo-scholars of prophetic traditions who wanted to change Islam from within. Such an attack was more dangerous than the arm rebellions of the Bedouin tribes. Omer II was aware of the sensitivity of Hadith literature and hence he made a concerted effort to compile the authentic traditions to distinguish them from the fabricated ones. But the short span of Omer’s rule did not allow him to accomplish this great intellectual project. The ideological infiltration through the backdoors of history continued and it was entirely on the individual scholars of the time to address this issue. Much has been written about how to distinguish the true traditions from the false ones, however, almost none of our great scholars have realised that the very development of sharei sciences owe much to social milieu, much less the product of a planned activity. This abrupt and unplanned development of knowledge in Islam later had a devastating impact on the Muslim mind. The division of knowledge into sharei and non-sharei sciences, or into Islamic and secular, not only created a social role for the clergy it also blocked the emergence of scientific and rational thinking among Muslims. It was a major paradigm shift, changing the direction of the Ummah forever.

A religion for all time and place as Islam claims to be, nevertheless, it had to make its beginning in a tribal set-up. The early generation of Muslims were aware of the limitations of a tribal polity as they tirelessly worked to transform their political set-up to suit the demands of the divine message. In their efforts to broaden their socio-political horizon they did not hesitate to learn from the existing models. As the empire went on expanding, at times their own previously held positions came under scrutiny. Omer I is reported to have altered many a previously held decisions of the prophet’s time. At times this resulted in a blatant moratorium of some of the nass explicitly mentioned in the Quran. Suspension of the Quranic hadd of amputating one’s hand for theft, or denying goodwill amount (mu’allifatun quloob) to the neo-converts, or confiscating conquered land in favour of the state are some of the well-known decision of Omer I. When Omer I was taking a stance different from the one stipulated in the text or when he was altering a prophetic precedent on an specific issue, he knew it well that sanctity is not for any specific judgement or a period of history, rather it is for the ‘intent’ and spirit of the message. This creative approach to the text made it possible for the early generation of Muslim to benefit from other existing models of statecraft. They would hardly reject anything simply because it had its roots in alien civilization. Take for example the war of trench on which depended the very survival of the Ummah. Digging a trench for the protection of the city was alien to the Arab mind. But they showed no reservation in accepting this Persian technique. As long as Muslims displayed a creative openness towards other nations and their collective heritage they greatly benefited from them. However, the early centuries of Islam had also witnessed a large-scale conversion of the Jewish and Christian ulema who had an established tradition of religious studies and who had brought along with them an entire methodology of religious interpretation. As long as the creative minds and great visionaries of Islam remained in command, the simplicity of Islamic interpretation was maintained. Omer I openly discouraged the birth of a Mishnah or compilation of any apocryphal material. However, in later years, especially in the days of fitna things changed drastically. And it was here that the things went wrong.

By the end of the first century hijra, a new breed of Islamically oriented public entertainers known as the story-tellers (qassas), the transmitters of traditions (huffaz) and the popular preachers (wae’z) appeared on the scene. As the days went by, memoirs of the prophet’s time became serious concern for historiographers. Initially, these memoirs had emotional and historical import but gradually they were also taken as sources for religious legislation. By the mid of the second century hijra they were taken as rather authentic expose of the Quranic intent. The early qassas and huffaz, in their efforts to recreate the prophetic era in detail, employed all available sources, from the text to popular anecdotes, and from the authentic traditions to the less authentic reports. A proper methodology to this effect was underway as often the role of huffaz and the qassas, the mufassirun and the mutasawwefin overlapped. Muhammed bin Idris al-Shafei was the first scholar who through his methodical writings on fiqh paved the way for a future generation of specialist and it was mainly due to his efforts that Islamic interpretation became the monopoly of the learned few. Shahab Zahri who appears at the close of the first century as the towering personality was no legist. It took almost another hundred years to look at simple memories of the prophet’s time as the sources of Shariah. The publication of Al-Risala was a turning point in the intellectual history of Islam. Hence on ward interpretation of Islam had to become monopoly of the clergy. The new clergy would not have claimed the sole right to interpret God’s intent had the latter scholars not conceived knowledge divided into two distinct categories, the sharei and non-sharei sciences, the former being the sole prerogative of the ulema. Thus began the Vaticanization of Islam. Lending credence to some susceptible reports the ulema of Islam even claimed to be the deputies of the prophet and repositories of all prophetic knowledge. The idea that some knowledge were Islamic and some non-Islamic or some were useful while the others had little utility was bone of contention in the Abbasid Baghdad when Greek logic and philosophy had created a stir in the intellectual capital of Islam. While this division helped curb the influence of Greek sciences, nevertheless, it also sent the rational thinking to a permanent exile outside the boundaries of sharei knowledge. Even a major portion of the Quran that urges Muslims to explore and take command of the natural world went beyond the scope of sharei sciences. The upholders of sharei knowledge or supposedly the super sciences were guilty of suspending a major part of the revelation as their focus lay on the verses of ahkam alone. This brought the Muslim mind to a blind ally from where it has yet to be rescued despite the elapse of some twelve centuries.

In Islam the development of sharei sciences had an abrupt start. They were more products of a chaos than a proper planning. The main reason for this intellectual anarchy was the political instability or the internal feuds that had plagued the Muslim world since Caliph Osman’s murder. As the institution of khilafa had collapsed and a dynasty had taken control of the situation, the priority of the new rulers was to seek legitimacy for their governance rather than safeguarding Islamic ideology. The exponents of sharei sciences and the transmitters of prophetic traditions were willing to lend their support to the new dynasty. They would often relate that the prophet had asked to obey the ruler even if he was a tyrant. The system that sought legitimacy from the new emerging clergy was certainly not in a position to hold them in check.

By the mid of the second century the huffaz attained such a social prominence that an entire populace would come to greet them when they visit another town. Such honours of mammoth public receptions were not available even to the rulers. Reminiscing the days of the prophet had an emotional appeal. It is said when these huffaz held their majlis, thousands of people joined them noting down each and every word they uttered. By the third century Hijra, Hadith emerged as the main discipline of knowledge and one’s scholarship was judged by the number of traditions that he had committed to memory. Scholars of Hadith openly vied each other claiming to have more thulathi (traditions with a chain of three transmitters) and ruba’ei (a chain of four transmitters) than anyone else did. Later, when compilation of knowledge became the norm and book writing came in vogue, number of volumes became the criteria of scholarship rather than the quality. A certain scholar claimed that he could write volumes after volumes just to enlighten the various shades of meaning in bismillah. While yet another scholar claimed that he could produce as much as seven camel’s load just to explain the dot of the letter ba of bismillah. What became important was the number of volumes one produced and not the quality of the content. Tabari, whose major writings have survived to our time, proudly tells that the thirty volume of his tafseer is in fact a summery of the original that he wrote in 300 volumes. And Bukhari, who lists some more than 4000 traditions under various headings, claims that he has selected them out of 0.6 million traditions known to him. Abuzar’a is yet another example who is said to have memorised 0.7 million traditions. Today, we have neither access to the 300 volumes of Tabari nor have we any means to verify the tall claims of Bukhari and Abuzar’a. But the fact that amount of writing was the criteria of judging one’s scholarship can easily be discerned from even a cursory look at our heritage literature. Sayuti (849-911), the famous author of Al-Itqan, claims in his preface that his encyclopaedia of the Quran has incorporated everything thing on the topic and that he has extracted all useful material from all available sources. Extracting everything from the past masters and incorporating each available information without a proper evaluation was the norm of religious writing that can be seen from Tabari down to our time. The ummahat-ul kutub, or the heritage literature as we call them today, soon became sources of religious disputes. As critical evaluation of the past masters was not the norm, the ulema felt content on writing their commentary to justify their respective schools of thought. Soon writings on the margins or adding copious notes to a text itself became a criterion of scholarship. We have great scholars down the ages writing margins on the margins or further elaborating these explanatory notes. Then, we witness a reversal of the trend, great scholars preparing summaries of great works. Some of these summaries became so puzzling that a host of latter scholars took the task of elaborating them further. This never-ending cycle went on and on because there was a general consensus, rather un-mindfulness, among Muslims that the great masters of the past had perfected the process of thinking for us and that we were too humble to engage with the revelation on our own.

The sharei sciences that abruptly began and chaotically developed have been the root cause of intellectual anarchy and internecine conflicts. Not only the very nomenclature of ilm sharei speaks of a flawed vision, the way these sharei uloom developed into major disciplines is greatly flawed. Let us briefly summarise:

Islamic sciences as we know them today as tafseer wa ta’weel, jirh wa tadeel, rawayat wa dirayat, usool al-fiqh, mantiq wa falsafa, urooz wa balaghat  etc were not found in their present form during the prophet’s time.

The political instability emanating from the murder of third caliph and the internecine conflicts provided a congenial atmosphere for the popular preachers and story-tellers. As the system drew its legitimacy from less authentic reportage, the qassas culture flourished. In this intellectually volatile situation it was easy for the pretenders and fabricators to get mixed with the genuine scholars. We should not lose sight of the fact that early centuries were not only the time when the pious elders lived amongst us. The same period is also notorious for fake ulema and fabricators.

The sudden emergence of huffaz on the social and intellectual scene was mainly due to the socio-political situation of the time. For the ruling elite huffaz (scholars of traditions) were more relevant than the qurra (scholars of the Quran) as they can put forward a supporting tradition from the vastly unknown amount of historic material. Latter scholars who came under the delusion that historic material or reportage constituted the core of Islamic knowledge failed to notice the blatant political factors that surrounded its development.

The encyclopaedic collection of hadith and their thematic listing — as we find in Bukhari, or preserving the history of first generation of Muslims as a model for future — as we find in Mua’tta of Malik, or laying down some basic principles to draw inference from the text — as we find in Abu Hanifa, or formulating a well thought out methodology to reach an agreeable consensus within the ambit of text and tradition — as we find in Shafei, all such efforts were the personal inititatives of these great scholars. They were not commanded by God to do so, nor can their individual efforts form as the intellectual basis of Islam. The great scholars or imam whose works have come down to us were not the only people involved in intellectual activity. History records many a great luminaries of Islam whose works were lost in course of time. But it never occurs to us that without them our knowledge of Islam is incomplete. Why do we believe then that the great masters of the past whose works have somehow come down to us are indispensable sources of Islamic knowledge and without them we cannot envision an authentic Islamic living?

the canonization of four fiqhi schools in sunni Islam and that of the imamate in sh’ie Islam which many of us have come to believe as God-ordained were in fact products of political situations of the time. Had Sultan Bibars (658-676 AH) not accorded state patronage to these four schools, the four imams and their followers would have met the same fate as the followers of Sufian Sauri and imam Auza’ei. In their time, Sauri and Auza’ei enjoyed mass following, probably more than any of the four, but now we find their names mentioned only in history books. Bibars’ decision to accord official status to these four schools was basically to quell the internal feuds and it was his personal initiative. A sultan’s whim should not let control our destiny.

The uloom sharei as we conceive them today is a false metaphor as they have no foundation whatsoever in the Quranic text. They in fact do not appear sharei if we put them under strict Quranic scrutiny. Intellectual blurredness of the past should not block our vision for the future.

The narrow conception of ilm sharei has been the main factor in driving the Muslims away from scientific knowledge. Those who remained involved in scientific investigations were not only viewed as satellites of alien civilizations they even themselves came to believe that instead of opting for the holy sciences they had chosen a branch of little salvafic value. As the exponents of uloom sharei claimed monopoly on Islamic understanding, it was difficult for a less pious scholar to challenge their pious whims in the light of revelation and reason.

The sharei scholars consider some 500 verses of the Quran as ayat ahkam, which according to them are the bedrock of uloom sharei. This fragmented approach to the text has virtually placed most part of the Quran outside the boundaries of sharei studies. Considering the verses of exploration and invention as not so essential for salvation was a fatal mistake on the part of scholars of the time and hence it need not be held sacred by future generations.

These are some of the facts that point to our ideological dilution through the ages and which though have their roots in socio-political conditions of the time are now generally taken as the authentic face of orthodoxy. This ideological waywardness has been instrumental in changing our worldview — from inquisitive to ritualistic, and in holding back a prospective movement for scientific exploration in Islam. It was mainly due to this ritualistic mindset that the social sciences which otherwise should have flourished as para-Quranic disciplines remain underdeveloped. Many a reformers in the past who had only some vague sense of our intellectual rottenness vociferously called for a return to the Quran. But so strong was the pressure of orthodoxy that even those who tried hard to make a dent in traditional thinking or throw out the yoke of canonized fiqh, ended up only as extensions of their respective fiqhi schools. Today it is possible to have a fresh and independent reading of the Quran, more than ever before, as we no more have a central religious authority to guard the orthodoxy. In the past, it was possible for a shaikhul Islam to close down the Darul Funoon – a modern university in Ottoman Turkey, as in his opinion it fell outside the purview of uloom sharei. Today the yoke of traditional mind is not so oppressive.

The time for a new start has eventually arrived. But before we move ahead we need to think hard why we lived content with our self-orchestrated delusions about uloom sharei, and for so long. The Quran is an open invitation to think, ponder and reflect on the signs of God found everywhere in the natural world. Igniting the rational faculty is the first step of getting connected. Reason and revelation together constitute a perfect equilibrium, an organic whole. This is the essence of Quranic message which enjoins upon the believers to look at the entire book as one single whole. On the contrary, a fragmented approach to the text that picks us only some versus as the commanding verses (ayate ahkam) can often make us guilty of upholding half-truths, so explicitly condemned in the Quran: afatumenoona bi badhul kitab wa yakfuroona bi badh.

As the development of knowledge, which has a direct bearing on our worldview, has been abrupt, unplanned and flawed we need to move through our heritage literature with utmost care and if possible get rid of them as quickly as we can. This intellectual breakthrough alone can herald a new beginning and ensure us a return to the seat of authority and guidance.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 Sep 2006

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