EditorMay June 2007

Rethinking Ijtihad

Future Islam

For too long we Muslims have been pinning all our hopes on the revival of ijtihad. There is a widespread feeling that ijtihad or the process of reinterpreting the canon text that was put on hold after the sack of Baghdad in 1258, if reinvigorated, can redeem the ummah from the present impasse. Revival of ijtihad has been the rallying cry for the entire intellectual activity of the ummah during the last three hundred years or so. From Waliullah of Delhi and his Arabian counterpart Muhammed bin Abdulwahab to Jamaluddun Afghani and his Egyptian disciples and then to Muhmmed Iqbal, the list is impressive. Yet it is a fact that the door of ijtihad still remains closed and no major intellectual breakthrough is in sight.

Ijtihad is basically a fiqhi concept. The idea that a new ijtihad can redeem our ills is mainly due to our misgivings about the nature of the crisis which in essence is an intellectual one. So far we have been conveniently ignoring the fact that the traditional institution of ijtihad that we so vociferously call for to revive is, in reality, an extension of the same fiqhi closed mindset, as it demands any fresh thinking to be in conformity with the conclusions drawn by our predecessors.

Let us explain. Many centuries have elapsed since Wasil bin Ata, the great Mutazali, laid out a rationalist methodology wherein he placed three other pivots along with the revelation as the basic tools of intellectual enquiry. In Wasil’s quest for truth revelation was not the ultimate authority rather it was one of the four pillars, the other three being hadeeth (the reportage), ijma (consensus) and qayas (analogical reasoning). Ijtihad which falls under the broader category of qayas is in a way an essential component of the traditional worldview. If the new interpreters of Islam failed in the past in igniting a new thinking, it was mainly because they had taken the four pillars of fiqh as given and hence they never dared challenge this canon. The methodological ambiguities that they encountered were on two counts; firstly, traditions or extra information spanning on centuries of fiqhi canonization became an impregnable fence around the revelation, secondly, elevation of hadeeth, ijma and qayas  to the level of revelation created a hallow of sacredness around the fiqhi methodology which was basically a rationalist human construct of the time. As the four pillars of fiqh were viewed as given nobody ever bothered to challenge the basic principles on which the fiqhi mind rests. The orthodox Muslim mind, of which ijtihad is just a part, has been shaped over the centuries. Besides the four principles of fiqh, there were many other infusions to it from divergent sources.

It goes without saying that the traditional Islam is a mix of message and history. The universal message of Islam is still available within the covers of the Quran. But the Quran is no longer the only source. Instead we have many compendiums of fiqh, writings of the mystics and volumes of exegetical writings that shape and control our vision of Islam. Ijtihad, as the traditional understanding goes, has to work within the confines of what has been canonized in course of history. No wonder then that the very idea of a Mujtahid Mutlaq (original interpreter) is so abhorring for the exponents of ijtihad.

The early history of Islam that we so proudly glorify as the age of Pious Elders (salf saleheen) was also marred by internecine conflicts, the fitnah. The War of Riddah, the murder of Othman, the battle of Jamal and of Siffin took place during the very first generation of Muslims. Those who founded the Ummide and Abbasid empires thereby altering the roots of Islamic polity lived also during the same canon period. Our historians have made us believe that despite the changing Muslim polity the dynasties were upholders of Islamic mission. They were afraid lest any critical evaluation of the early Muslim society should depict pure Islam as a short lived phenomenon. It was mainly for this reason that they projected the Ummids, the Abbasids, the Fatmides, the Mughals in India and the Ottoman Turks as the guardians of Islamic mission. This created serious methodological problems for Muslim historiographers as they considered it their religious obligation to depict the early Muslims as super-humans nay, rather angels. Had the Muslim historiographers done their job properly it would have been easier for us to realize that each generation of believers had its own strength and weakness and that the purpose of the prophetic mission was to create a society of humans and not of angels. The early Muslims whom we eulogize as pious elders were also humans like us. If we look at them as humans it may be possible for us to appreciate how they understood the divine intent for their own specific settings. Their shortcomings may not appear to us then as intellectual detours and we will be in a position to rectify their mistakes in the light of revelation. In short, we can lay a similar claim on revelation as the early Muslims did. But unfortunately this is no longer possible for the orthodox mind as the history itself has been subject to canonization. Historical Islam that has given the Muslim orthodoxy a shape demands from us to accept along with the prophetic mission a full load of historical baggage. To accept the four caliphs as rightly guided, the four schools of fiqh as part of the divine scheme and among the Shias, the twelve or seven imams as divinely ordained are viewed as expressions of orthodoxy. Historiography has left little choice for us to readjust our vision of orthodoxy. One glaring example is the omission in our canonized history books of Abdullah bin Zubair’s khilafa who ruled a major part of the Islamic empire almost a decade and who enjoyed much more political legitimacy than Abdul Malik, the Ummide caliph. Any rethinking within the orthodox ambit then can be fatal.

Wasil’s four principles that were instrumental in shaping the orthodoxy had also a social context. Wasil was a known Mu’tazli, a rationalist per se – a typical product of an age when Greek philosophy and logic had created havoc in the Muslim mind. Hairsplitting theological debates about Muslim creed had given birth to many divergent sects; marjaeiyyah, jabriyyah, qadriyyah, mutaezelah etc. Even the Quran, the very epitome of revelation, was not spared from this discussion. Was the Quran ‘created’ words or ‘eternal’? How the ‘divine intent’ gets transformed into a human language? What relation the ‘word of God’ has with logos as used in the Christian context? Such questions only hampered the supremacy of revelation over other sources of knowledge. In Wasil’s weltanschauung one encounters, probably for the first time, a Muslim rationalist arguing that the truth can be ascertained not by the Quran alone, but equally so by Sunnah, ijma and qiyas. Very soon Wasil’s four principles of ascertaining the truth came in vogue. So much so, when the great fuqaha started writing books on principles of jurisprudence they found the ‘four principles’ so natural that they incorporated them as such, little realising that this rationalist methodology had placed revelation at par with other humanly derived sources. In Wasil’s weltanschauung revelation had to make sense not on its own but under strict guidance of Sunnah, ijma and qayas. The ‘four principles’ that have been controlling the fiqhi discourse from day one are inherently problematic. Firstly, among the fuqaha, the Book of God is not the one definitive Quran that we find in every Muslim home today but it also includes variant readings which provide enough scope for exegetical maneuvering. Secondly, Sunnah has been an ever-changing concept, a loosely defined term which sometimes also includes practices of the early Muslims. Thirdly, ijma is a false metaphor as no ijma has ever taken place on any single issue and it has been debatable among the scholars whether ijma of the past scholars can be taken as sacred. Fourthly, as for qayas which is a broader term for istehsan, istislah, masaleh mursala and under which also comes ijtihad, it has always been a bone of contention among fuqaha of conflicting schools. These then are the four principles of fiqh that have imprisoned the fiqhi mind for centuries.

In our intellectual history there were many instances when our reformers tried to break away from ijma and qayas. But the zaheri and the salafi schools despite their insistence on the text, their rejection of ijma and qayas and their distaste for the fuqaha could not make any significant headway. Their failure was partly due to their heavy reliance on historical reportage (hadeeth) and partly due to the lack of courage to breakaway from the orthodox fiqhi mould. True, they abhorred the idea of following an Abu Haneefa or a Shafei but willingly submitted themselves to the reporters of Sehah Sitta. Probably they had the delusion that their reliance on the reportage of the prophetic era had made them closer to the true understanding of the text. But in the books of hadeeth they also encountered traditions which appeared in direct contravention to the ‘text’ and which were deemed unfit for practice. For example, in Sahih Muslim one encounters a reportage about muta’ and prayer tablets, both still being practiced by the Shias. Had the compilers of the traditions unwittingly given undue importance to the transmitters of these traditions, they quipped. Then there were other equally disturbing reports which by no counts could be considered practicable in any civilized society. For example, there were traditions telling us that if a person wants to allow a ghair mahram male an easy access to his home, he should ask his wife or his mother-in-law to allow him to have five sucks of her milk. This action, we were told, will convert him into a close relative thus enabling him to drop by into the house as a family member. Imam Ahmed and Imam Muslim have reported a similar incident about Abu Huzaifa. Once Abu Huzaifa’s wife asked the prophet: O prophet of Allah! Salim is a regular visitor to our house. He is an adult and Abu Huzaifa does not like his frequent coming. To this the prophet is reported to have said: ‘feed him your milk so as to enable him to enter your house with all ease.’ It is also said that when Ayiasha wanted someone to frequent her house she would usually ask her sister Umme Kulsoom or any of her nieces to feed him five sucks.

Those who had taken the books of traditions at par with the revelation and their transmitters as Gabriel, it was not easy for them to reject such absurd traditions altogether. Despite their rejection of ijma and qayas the Ahl-al-Hadeeth movement could not make headway as it found itself trapped in the web of irreconcilable and conflicting traditions. Ibn Taymia, Ibn Hazm and lately Ibn Abdulwahab and Waliullah, all of them though rebelled against the traditional mindset, none of them was able to break the fiqhi mould. No doubt, they downplayed fiqhi ijma to some extent and strongly condemned qayas but dared not question interpretative role of the traditions. History, as it has come down to us through the transmitters of hadeeth, remained a sacred zone for them. Believing in the history was essential if they were to follow in the footsteps of the pious elders, the salaf. The salafi reformers in a way conveniently ignored the basic perplexing question: if being so faithful to the salaf was a precondition to faith, where was the room for any ijtihad then?

Breaking the fiqhi mould or making a dent on traditional thinking, in effect, is the first step to ijtihad. And if we are aware that the fiqhi mould is not God-ordained rather it is more a product of history, it may be easier for us to do so. The formative period of fiqh was an age when the Greek inquisitive methodology was in vogue. Intellectual centers in the Muslim lands were also exposed to Christian theological and ontological issues. The very debate about the supposed ‘createdness of the Quran’ was basically a byproduct of Muslim response to the ‘logos’. For the new converts to Islam it was natural to make sense of the new religion through their familiar terminologies and institutions. Later when the Islamic seminaries sprang up throughout the Muslim world and, the private ulema assumed the role of interpretaters of Islam, it became customary for them to grant their students ijazah, much like semikha of the Jews. The emergence of clergy in Islam, to a great extent, owes to the Jewish rabbinic tradition where a responsa (fatwa) was seen as a divine intent. As the later day rulers, the ulul amr, were no longer in spiritual command, the masses had no other option but to turn to the private ulema for matters religious. This provided an encouraging atmosphere for many divergent and often conflicting pictures of Islam to emerge. Within less than two centuries we hear of people talking about the supposed 72 heretical sects in Islam. The situation became so chaotic that a commonly agreed definition of Islam became need of the hour. Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari who among many others tried to work out a synthesis of many prevailing trends successfully checked the onslaughts of the Mutazela movement. Nevertheless, Ash’arims which was purely a contextual response of the time, thank to the efforts of Gazzali (d.505 AH) and Razi (d.606 AH), gradually assumed so much prestige that the latter day ulema took it almost as the Nicene Creed of Islam. In Kitab al-Ibana un Usool ad-Deyanah Ash’ari has specifically made mention of – along with the Book of God, the Sunnah of the Prophet, the precedents of his companions and the insights of the scholars of Hadeeth – Ahmed bin Hambal whom, as he tells us, God has given the true understanding of religion to guide the people and undo the innovations and schism. Ash’ari’s reliance on Ibn Hambal makes at least one thing clear; that even the ulema of formative period who played a key role in shaping the fiqhi mould were averse to any critical evaluation of the great masters. The triumph of Ash’arism over Mutazelite and other shades of Islam was not because in it one found the pristine purity of prophetic message but simply because it got influential advocates like Ghazzali and Razi. As it happens in every battle of ideas, both Ash’ari and Gazzali faced strong opposition in their own times; the former received condemnation from the pulpit of the mosques and latter’s books were burnt across the world of Islam. But today Ash’ari is generally seen as the guardian of faith and Ghazzali is reverently called Hujjatul Islam.

Pure philosophy, other than the Kalam, was yet another element in shaping the orthodoxy. During the Abbasid era, a Lebanese Christian published an Arabic translation of Enneads that soon became a point of reference to prove one’s intellectual sophistication. Historians have recorded that the book was held in such a high esteem as if it were another Qur’an. For almost four hundred years philosophy and kalam operated in two different spheres; the former was the domain of secular intellectuals while the latter was popular among the traditional ulema. However, in the latter centuries this dividing line got blurred as philosophy became the defender of faith as well as its destroyer. Philosophy which was on the margin of intellectual discourse during the time of Al-Kindi (d.870) and Al-Farabi (873-950) assumed the center stage thanks to the efforts of Ibn Sina whose explanation of the ‘first cause’ accorded it some sort of legitimacy. Ibn Hazm (965-995) and Ghazzali (1057-1111) successfully employed it to the service of faith. Ibn Rushd went a step further as he argued that as compared to others, the philosophers were more qualified to interpret the Quran.

No analysis of the traditional mould can be comprehensive without mentioning the mystics of Islam whose influence is enormous. To elaborate the point here we will mention just two names; Shahabuddin Suharwardi (1155-1191) and Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). The former was greatly influenced by Zoroaster, Plato and Ibn Rushd while the latter is known for a pluralist religious outlook. Mystical works such as Quwatul Quloob, Ahyaul Uloom, Awareful Ma’arif and Masnavi Ma’nvi played a key role in shaping the Muslim mind. Same as the writings of Ibn Taymia, Shawkani and Ibn Abdulwahab are considered today as effective tools for creating a salafi mind, or that of Maudoodi and Qutub taken as a vital source for an Islamist worldview, or the books of fadhael to shape naïve religious outlook of the Tabligis, much the same way, the traditional Muslim mould is a product of various conflicting trends throughout history.

To redeem the Muslim mind from the traditional orthodox mould we need no less than breaking the mould itself. No ijtihad within the established fiqhi framework can bear fruits unless we change the rules of the game. So far orthodoxy has been closely guarding and controlling the ijtihad discourse. Within the established norms and as one of the four principles of fiqh, the very idea of ijtihad would be a non-starter. What is needed is not a mere ijtihad in the traditional sense of the term rather an ijtihad about the notion of ijtihad itself.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 May 2007

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