EditorJanuary February 2007

Reinventing the Muslim Mind

Future Islam

Ever since I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac I am wondering if Prozac, Ritalin, Zoloft and the like wonder drugs that help millions of people regain their self-esteem can also be employed in infusing a creative confidence in the Muslim mind. As Prozac or fluoxetine works as a neurotransmitter, it effectively increases the level of Serotonin in the brain, the low level of which is said to be the main cause of depression, anger and even suicide. Today some 28 million Americans, almost ten per cent of the total population, live on such psychotropic drugs. No wonder then if America is outperforming as a nation and if the Americans are known for their exuberance and arrogance.

Today the Muslims lack confidence not because the entire world is at war with them more so because they find their main source of intellectual and spiritual inspirations locked on them. For so long they have been subject to misguided indoctrination about the potential of their brain that now they are aghast by any suggestion of applying their minds in matters religious. It is almost a matter of creed for them that the Elders have exhausted and perfected the process of thinking on all issues once and for all. This attitude has virtually suspended the entire corpus of revelation and has effectively locked the Ummah in pre-Islamic mindset of wajadna aba’ana kazalik yafaloon or ‘thus we found our forefathers doing it’, as the Qur’an aptly puts it.

Given the fragility of the Muslim mind, some of the great luminaries of Islam who devoted their entire life to reviving the Ummah eventually gave up. Abul Kalam Azad who started his career as a revivalist and who created furore in the early 20th century India by making public the blue-print of Hizbullah – the party of God that were to alter the course of history – soon came to realize that nothing could be achieved with the traditional Muslim mind. In a letter to Muhiuddin Kasuri he declared: ‘the Ulema are a hopeless lot. To believe that the traditional mind can still give way to regeneration is to believe against the laws of nature. We have no alternative but to ignore the rigid thinking altogether focusing on the creation of a new mind which requires a radically different variety of literature and apprenticeship’. Muhammad Iqbal, one of the most prominent ideologues of modern Islam, was voicing a similar concern when he opined that after the termination of the khilafah and in the absence of a central controlling authority it was an opportune moment for ‘the birth of an international ideal’ which, in his opinion, ‘has been hitherto overshadowed or rather displaced by the Arabian imperialism of the earlier centuries of Islam’. He fully endorsed the attempt of Muslim liberals ‘to reinterpret the foundational legal principles, in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life’. (Reconstruction, p.134). In much similar vain, Jamaluddin Al-Afghani and his pupils, known for their penchant for ijtihad or rethinking, also called for giving the Muslim mind its due. In his famous treatise Risalah Al-Tawhid, Abdahu argued that, as the divine revelation was a guiding light for all generations, it was not fair to deprive the present generation of the right to interpret while allowing the past generations to have a monopoly of the same. In principle, the traditional mind was not averse to rereading the text. Nonetheless, it made it a precondition that all such rereading must confirm to the understanding of the pious elders. It does not require a lot of intelligence to realise that a re-reading, by any humble definition of the term, must produce a radically different understanding though.

The last few centuries have witnessed an upsurge of revivalist movements calling for a return to the Qur’an. But despite so much ho-ha if all our efforts ended up in mere creating an illusion of revival it was mainly because we fail to distinguish between the bare text of revelation and the exegetical literature that, in course of time, had built an impregnable fence around it. We in fact do not allow the present generation of humans to approach the text on their own. In the early twentieth century, in the wake of the termination of Khilafa, the revivalist movements laid special emphasis on understanding the text. In Egypt, Syed Qutub’s Fi Dhilal Al-Qur’an and in the sub-continent Maudoodi’s Tafheemul Al-Qur’an and Islahi’s Tadabbur Al-Qur’an was focus of Islamist’s attention. These exegeses, accompanied by the party literature, had a great impact on the global Islamic movement. Written in beautiful contemporary prose as they were, the new exegetical literature, however, failed to produce the desired result as in their approach to the text they remained prisoners of the classical understanding. Maudoodi took some thirty years to write his Tafheem and Islahi claimed to spend almost half a century to complete his magnum opus Tadabbur, yet at the end of their magnificent intellectual journey they emerged as mere hanafite, the followers of the great jurist of the second century Hijra. If 30 or 50 years of systematic Quranic study failed to empower them to approach the text on their own, for their own specific setting, such academic ventures howsoever impressive they may appear to be, can only be termed as intellectual luxury. It may be justified for a layman to call himself a Hanafite or a Shafeite solely relying on the understanding of an imam but for the scholars who devote their entire life to a systematic study of the text, clinging to the great masters of the past speaks of an ailing mind. Unless we are aware of our unique position in history and are confident enough to devise a specific approach to the revelation suited to our specific situation, the way great masters of the past did for theirs, a return to the Qur’an will only be a farfetched reality. We certainly know more of the 21st century social reality than the great luminaries of past. Seeking solace in the corpus of fiqh canonised in the Abbasid Baghdad then will serve no purpose. The classical fuqaha measured the journey by a manzil, i.e., the maximum distance that a caravan could travel in one go. Based on this measure they would tell us when to shorten the prayer. They never travelled in space jet nor did they ever confront a situation where owing to the internet chat rooms strange men and women could meet in privacy or where due to globalising effects classical terminologies such as dar-ul-Islam and dar-ul-Kufr would become redundant.

The call to return to the book of God that, in essence, was an invitation to the blind imitation of the pious elders of the past, failed to revive the Ummah. We often overlooked the fact that the pious elders, despite their extraordinary devotion to faith, were also humans like us and hence liable to err. Had we taken their theological and fiqhi compendiums as mere pioneering works in academia and not the last word on the topic, there would have always been a possibility of redressing their mistakes. Nevertheless, partly owing to the intellectual anarchy caused by the weakening of the political system and partly due to the sense of sacredness associated with the early centuries of Islam, it was assumed that independent thinking was not everybody’s prerogative. This attitude of looking at the past as canonised might have been helpful in curbing the intellectual anarchy of the time but later this in itself became a source of intellectual barrenness for all time to come. As times went by, the canonised past kept us haunting. Things came to such a pass that on any issue of potential controversy, our scholars claimed of achieving consensus sometime back in history and hence, they declared, the issue in question was no more open for discussion. In Qur’anic weltanshuuang, the claim to achieve consensus once and for all is a false metaphor. If Muslim scholars of a particular period in history had achieved consensus on a specific issue it was their collective understanding of the revelation prompted by the societal demands of their time. Their decisions cannot be binding for us. We have to come forward with our own response to the revelation suited to our own temporal and spatial settings. This is exactly what God wants us to do: afala yatadabbarun alquran am ala qulubin aqfaluha.

Does God speak to the 21st century man? Does he speak to him directly or through the dead of the past? Is Quran a dead book for us that made sense only to some pious elders in the early centuries? Such questions have direct bearing on any creative approach to the text. Salaf worship or the attitude of wajadna aba’ana kazalik yaf’aloon (thus we found our forefathers doing) was instrumental in calling people to the worship of Lat and Uzzah — national idols of pre-Islamic Arabs. Today it is again out to convince us of the infallibility of the pious elders, holding us back from any direct access to the text lest it is problematic. The new age idols are not the Lat and Uzzah but those pious elders who otherwise have done great jobs in their own times. As the creative mind has not been in operation for quite long, there has been a continuous piling up of unresolved issues. Let me take a few examples to elaborate this point.

The Palestine Question: For almost half a century Palestine has been a mega issue for the Ummah. The traditional Jewry believes that walking four cubic feet in the holy land of Canaan can ensure them a place in heaven. On the other, Muslims strongly feel that Palestine is their homeland not simply because they lived there for centuries but more so because, technically speaking, it is a wakf land and hence not negotiable. As both the parties in the conflict claim to have a rock-like stand, the ‘holy’ land has been turned into a butchering ground and there is no solution in sight. Those who are only emotionally involved with the Palestine problem, watching the conflict boiled out from a safe distance, can easily eulogise the valour and courage of Palestinian brothers and sisters, but ask the Palestinian mothers, sisters and daughters who lose their dear ones on a daily basis how do they really feel. Recently, as a rethinking measure when we asked a number of scholars to come out with a possible solution, a dominant majority of them said that they foresee no solution at all. Shall we then let the things pass by watching them as insensitive and mute spectators?

The history of Islam is not only a history of great conquests; it is also a history of strategic retreats. If peace can be achieved through temporary retreats and if the interest of Islam can better be served by such measures, there is no point in insisting on a head on collision. The Prophet’s strategic retreat in hudaibia, which the Qur’an terms a clear victory, is a clear signpost for all those who feel trapped in a blind alley. Today, unfortunately, the Ummah is not in a position to take on the state of Israel and the Muslim rulers, due to their own territorial and dynastic interests, are not willing to play a decisive role. Does it serve any purpose then that some unorganised, unarmed smaller groups just keep on feeding the struggle? Is the wakf land a holy cow for us? Or, given the enormous loss of human life we can reconsider the traditional fiqhi stand on the issue? I believe the least we can do is to activate our minds drawing on wisdom in the Qur’an.

The Shia-Sunni Split: Among the many internal contradictions that Muslims have canonised in course of their history, the Shia-Sunni divide remains to be the most fatal and problematic. Initially a political dispute on succession, it took almost three centuries for both the sects to take a shape different from the other. Now the divide is generally seen as part of the divine scheme and hence unbridgeable. The development of Shia and Sunni Islam as distinct from the real Islam owe much to the heritage literature of polemical nature that though originated in the early second century took their distinctive ideological moorings in the 4th century hijra. Whereas the four great masters of fiqh have mainly shaped the Sunni Islam, the Shia Islam believes in the divine origin of their imams. The two forms of Islam that have pitched against each other since their inception draw their legitimacy not from the book of God or his prophet but from ordinary humans such as Abu Hanifa, Shafei and Jafer Al-Sadiq etc. who in their own time did great jobs but due to our flawed perception of history have become idols for us. If Islam was perfected during the Prophet’s time when the Qur’an was the only foundational document and Muslims fared well in the early era without pioneers of Shia or Sunni Islam, it is very much possible to achieve that unison again provided we are willing to put aside the framers of Shia and Sunni Islam. So far history has been let free to determine the context and import of revelation. To know where we went wrong as also to rollback our deviations we need to give the revelation an upper hand. Rolling back of the Shia and Sunni Islam will not only redeem the Ummah of its perpetual malaise it will also usher in a big bang of ideas, a natural corollary of unadulterated Prophetic voice.

Aemmah Arba’or the four stumbling blocks to thinking: The framers of Sunni Islam have also uncannily divided it into at least four divergent, at times conflicting, schools of fiqh. The hay days of Muslim empire had often witnessed a pitched battle among divergent fiqhi factions. Ibne Batuta has recorded in great details how the Shafeite and the Hambalite mobs had often collided in the streets of Baghdad.  In fact the very canonisation of the four schools of fiqh in the 7th century hijra Egypt owe much to the fiqhi riots. The fiqhi division of Sunni Islam haunts us even today. In modern times, wherever the Muslims get an opportunity to establish an Islamic state it is difficult to resolve which fiqhi school should get the official status. In modern Pakistan, the internal feuds of various warring sects paved the way for secular elite to take control of the state apparatus. Recently, in the Taliban’s Afghanistan where the narrow deobandi version of the Hanafi School was the only valid religion, Muslims of other fiqhi variety lived almost a life of dhimmitude. The fiqhi divide is very deep, ingrained in the traditional Muslim psyche. It has the potential to jeopardise any future Islamic revival. To say that the future Islamic state shall be ruled by majority fiqh is to ignore the sensitivity of the issue. The fiqhi identity is based on the assumption that the specific fiqhi school alone epitomises the essence of Islam. How can a believer then forego his fiqhi identity simply for the convenience of ‘lesser Muslim’ majority?

To achieve unity among our ranks as also to refurbish the broken fabric of Islam we urgently need to go back to the early era where Islam was conceivable without the four great fuqaha. In principle, the learned amongst us agree that the four fuqaha were not God-ordained. If Islam was available to the masses before their arrival on the scene, it is logical to conceive today the essence Islam, if not the codex, without them. This is a revolutionary idea and has the potential of putting to the track our centuries long ideological digressions. It has not been long when four simultaneous prayers plagued the holy Harem in Makkah, each fiqhi sect praying in isolation confirming to the fiqhi norms of an specific imam. It was left for the Najdi reformers of the early 20th century to wrap up simultaneous prayers and unite the Muslims under one prayer leader.  If the Bedouin reformers of Najd, with their sheer political will, can undo a long established convention, why not the 21st century reformers who have amazing media at their command can rescue us from the fiqhi quagmire?

Common Agenda & other faith communities: The early generation of Muslims were open to other faith communities and considered them as their natural ally. The Qur’an had approvingly called them as people of the book and at times even ‘people of faith’ while inviting them to accept the divine mission in toto: ya aiyuhallazina aamanudkhulu fissilmi kaffah. The remnants of earlier prophetic traditions, despite their ideological dilution, were considered so close to neo-Muslims of the prophet’s time that Quran sanctioned to have close social relations with them. Socialising with them was encouraged as their food was declared halaal and Muslim men were allowed to marry their women. The Quranic verses allowing social mixing with the people of the book still exist but they are no longer in practice owing to their virtual annulment by the fuqaha of the past. There has been a gradual shift in our perception of the other. Instead of considering the other faith communities as our allies, today we insist on condemning them as kuffar. We do not want to allow other faith communities to flourish right within the boundaries of an Islamic state. Contrary to this, in the hey days of Islamic Dawah when Islam was generally seen as a liberating mission and the progressive Islamic ideology was conquering hearts and minds beyond the frontiers, the major cities of dar-al-Islam were not only the abodes of sizable non-Muslim population, in many cities they even constituted majority, and their houses of worship were buzzing with the praise of God. Those were momentous times when we considered ourselves as the leader of all faith communities and sought their support for establishing a Godly society. This attitude however gradually changed during the Abbasid period partly due to the emergence of Arab asabiyyah – the new cohesive force, and partly due to the psychological impact of the crusades. The fuqaha of the time felt compelled to review their relations with ‘the other’. What otherwise was a temporary measure to safeguard the empire, later came to be regarded as orthodox Islamic dictates for all time to come.

We also need to readjust the orthodox image of shibh ahle kitab – faith communities not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Our scholars are not ignorant of the theological arguments put forward by Al-Bairuni and Shahristani who advocated that Hindus of India, by virtue of their canon of faith, deserve to be treated as ‘people of the book’. If some God-conscious sects among the Hindus fulfil the criteria of ahle kitab; belief in God, in the hereafter, in His books and the prophets and an emphasis on doing good – there is no point in denying what God has decreed for them. As people of faith, they are our allies and should be warmly welcomed to join us in our prophetic struggle. Socialising with them, which includes dining with them and taking their women in marriage, is more in fulfilment of the Qur’anic decree than a practical necessity. But for all this to happen we need to have a critical look at the long established fiqhi tradition which has virtually made the Qur’anic injunctions redundant.

The fiqhi mind that blossomed to its full during the Abbasid era later became an anti-thesis of the mind itself as the process of thinking stopped and blind imitation of the past scholars became the norm. Hence onward all our efforts to revive the Ummah has, in effect, been an exercise in reviving a medieval outlook and setting. The upholders of the last revelation who were to lead the world till end time feel shy of the modern world and are struggling to recreate a medieval utopia to which they emotionally belong to. A complete stop on the process of thinking has been disastrous. It has virtually turned some very basic and powerful institutions of Islam into mock-plays.

Let me elaborate. Friday sermons have played a key role in the collective life of Muslims since the very beginning. In non-Arab countries, which today constitute dominant majority of Muslims, our insistence on Arabic as official language of the sermon has reduced this lively institution into a mere ritual. Neither the speaker understands what he utters nor does the audience find any rationale for this orchestrated waste of time. In a modern mosque when the muezzin stand up before the pulpit calling the faithful to sermon and during the adhan he slightly turns towards the right and then to the left, few realise that these actions have outlived their relevance. In the Prophet’s Medina turning to the right and the left helped the message echo in different directions. Today, digital amplifiers more effectively do the same. With the growth of Medina into a township, we are told, when it was no longer convenient for the believers to gather immediately, especially those who lived in new settlements a little far from the Prophet’s mosque, Caliph Omer responded to this new situation by adding one more azan before the sermon allowing everybody enough time to get ready for Friday event. If caliph Omer can institute another azan to keep this institution in tune with the time and safeguard its efficacy, do we still need to turn to the right and the left during the azan when the amplifiers are well in use? And can we allow Friday sermons in local languages in places where neither the speaker nor the listener has an ear to appreciate this poetry in prose.

Yet another reflection of the frozen mindset can be seen in our insistence on visibility of the moon to determine a lunar month. For many amongst us it is a matter of creed. In a world where days and nights are measured in seconds and where we have comprehensive tables giving us the exact date and time of the visibility of moon, of the break of dawn and sunset with utmost precision, our insistence on traditional modes only speak of our unspoken belief that probably a medieval feel is necessary to live an authentic religious life. No better is the situation in the salafi world which otherwise is supposed to be the abode of pure, creative Islam. Every year, prior to Eid-ul-Fitr, the Saudi street witnesses an extraordinary display of heaps of wheat grains in small plastic bags. Devout Muslims consider it obligatory to pay off the Eid charity in grains as laid out by Hambali fuqaha of the past. In a consumer society, where baked bread is available even to the most poor, offering so little amount of wheat to the needy is more an embarrassment than the charity. Such actions only enhance one’s awkward feeling that to be a Muslim means to live emotionally in the medieval times.

Envisioning Islam in essentially a medieval garb has kept us far removed and for so long from the modern day realities that now our internal discourses show no inkling of the great global responsibility that we as the last Ummah were supposed to shoulder. The issues that we have been debating for centuries are communitarian in nature and bear little significance for the global community. While other nations are passionately involved in futuristic discourses such as future source of energy, the possibility of hydrogen fuel, the future of stem cell research, the likely impact of DNA Revolution, ecological imbalance and the menace of globalisation etc., we Muslims are still debating whether it is lawful to pronounce three talaq in one sitting, whether Muslim women are allowed to expose their face, whether there is a room for digital photography in Islam. Even today, some traditional circles are seriously involved in finding a fiqhi ratio legis for allowing the TV in Muslim homes. They argue that the image on a TV screen is not a photo but an image and hence be allowed. Irrespective of the seeming religiosity of these arguments, it is not difficult to conclude that the Muslim discourse does not resonate with their claimed status of being the Ummah of the last prophet, a mercy to all mankind. As Muslim discourse became a battleground for trivial polemics having no bearing on the world around us it was natural for them to recede to the trashcan of history from the once celebrated position of world leadership. Those eager to make a new beginning must accept beforehand that the traditional mind will lead them to nowhere. A new Muslim mind is the minimum to start with. Without reactivating our brains we would even fall short of realising in full the nature and magnitude of our malaise. The Quranic exhortations to look, think, reflect and visualise (nazar, tafakkur, ta’aqqul and tadabbur) can empower us with a confident and enlightened mind which may accede to the fact that the 21st century issues have not been settled by the fuqaha of the past and the eternal light of revelation can guide us the same way as it did the great fuqaha of the past.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 Jan 2007

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