EditorJanuary February 2006

Undoing the Church in Islam

Future Islam

Undoing the Church in Islam

In earlier times, Islam was marked by simplicity and spontaneity. When Abraham, the archetypal Muslim and the role model for all submitters to come, was asked to submit (his will to God), he did it with utmost spontaneity; he said: ‘I submit to the Lord and Cherisher of the universe’ (Qur’an, 2:131). And similar was the case with the Queen of Sheba who wasted no time in accepting the truth once it became clear to her that Solomon was no ordinary king but a messenger of God. She made a simple confession: ‘O my Lord! I have indeed wronged my soul, now I do submit, like Solomon, to the Lord of the universe (Qur’an, 27:44).  Submitting to God then was a simple affair till the organized religions arrived on the scene.

In the history of mankind religion has never been defeated by irreligion or atheism. Rather, its worst enemy has always been the organized or institutionalized religion. In the New Testament we find Jesus bitterly criticizing the Pharisees (Rabbis and Shaukh of Jesus time) for ignoring the most important things; justice, mercy and faith. The leaders of organized religion though pretend to be pious men, they are in fact hypocrites who ‘strain out a gnat and swallow a camel’. Again, to quote Jesus: ‘they are like beautiful mausoleums full of dead men’s bones, and of foulness and corruption’ (Matthew, 24-27). And in the Qur’an we are told that one of the main objectives of the Meccan Prophet (an-nabi al-ummi) was to relieve mankind of the yoke of religious formalism: ‘from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them’ (Qur’an, 7:157).

Islam recognizes no church and authorizes no specific group of people to perform religious rites. Rather it empowers each individual to be his own Pope and his own intermediary to God. However, despite this very clear ideological stand, it is an unfortunate fact that gradually, in course of time, a church-like phenomenon stealthily cropped up in the body polity of Islam and a group of religious bandits, the ulema monopolized the right to interpret God’s words. This did not happen in one day. We need to pin-point the major digressions in our intellectual history, a point that I will latter return to.

The first generation of Muslims looked at the Qur’an as a book of guidance for the commoner and the elite alike, hudallil muttaqeen or bayanul-lin-nas, to use the Qur’anic expressions. As for those issues that were not explicitly mentioned in the Book, it was not difficult for this generation of Muslims to reach an agreement given the basic Qur’anic guidelines to maintaining a balance between justice and mercy. These judgments, however, despite engaging the best minds of the time were not static or eternal truths that would deliver the same standard of justice even when the circumstances had completely changed. When Omer, the second caliph, felt compelled to modify some of the accepted norms that were in force during the tenure of Abu Bakr or even the Prophet himself, he was simply asserting that one should look into the spirit behind the norm and not the norm itself. Omer made many radical changes to the norms (sunan) that his predecessors had set in. For example, he took a radically different stand on moallefatul quloob – the financial help usually offered to pacify potential enemies or to win the heart of neo-converts. He also introduced major changes in the way booty was distributed and took a firm stand on the nature of the conquered lands. Yet he was sure that his measures were better suited to ensure justice in the changed situation.

In the early era of Islam when the caliph or their governors, before making a decision on the issue in question, considered it necessary to look into the accepted norms — or the sunan as they called it, they were mainly culling from the cumulative wisdom of generations. Justice was their main concern and given the basic Qur’anic guidelines it was always wise to draw on many minds to evaluate if the specific sunan or maruf still held promise of delivering justice. Employing one’s mind then was also part of the accepted norm. Those engaged in this intellectual activity were held in high esteem. They were called as ahl-ar-ray, the men of sound opinion. However, drawing on the cumulative wisdom is one thing and the search for legitimacy is something else. Till the end of first century hijra to be an ahl-ar-ray was an honour, a social recognition that the individual’s counsel can be trusted. But with the beginning of the second century, owing to the state patronage extended to the collectors of Hadeeth, the intellectual scene gradually changed. If the sunan can be looked into to draw on cumulative wisdom, they argued, the prophet’s Hadeeth even if its chain of transmission is doubtful stands a better chance of enriching our understanding. By the end of the second century, advocates of this view who called themselves ahl-al-Hadeeth gained upper-hand. They dubbed the ahl-ar-ray as ahl-al-hawa wal-bid’a. This new trend to seek legitimacy in the Hadeeth literature for each and every action eventually culminated in the production of numerous books on Hadeeth, a better example of which was Musnad Ahmaed, a compendium of some forty thousand Hadeeth. Abu Hanifa, who was one of the most towering figures among ahl-ar-ray, it is said, had come across only seventeen Ahadeeth and therefore he felt obliged to apply his own mind on the issues that confronted him.

The new quest for legitimacy beyond the Qur’an and in the historical material filtered through individual perception of the narrators had a devastating impact on the Muslim mind.  Now it was generally assumed that the key to the Qur’anic understanding lay in the historical material, the aqwal-o-aasar, that were preserved in numerous volumes and only the specialist were in a position to say something about it. The access to the Qur’an then, was effectively denied to the common man. Later, more stringent conditions were laid down for those willing to speak on ‘religious’ issues. Some declared that the memorization of at least some 300, 000 ahadeeth was necessary to qualify one to issue religious edicts. Yet another group considered that mere committing the al-Mabsoot to memory was equally sufficient for qualifying him to be a mufti. As for the Qur’anic revelation, it was generally assumed that only those experts should approach the text who have a through knowledge of the Hadeeth corpus, of the historical context as well as sufficient insight into the naasikh and mansookh – the so called abrogated verses. In short, they came to believe that the Book of God was meant for the learned elite alone. According to Shafei it was only the prerogative of the learned elite, the arrasikhoon fil ilm. In his famous treatise al-Risalah while arguing in support of ijma and the rationale behind it, he went to the extent of arguing that other than the scholars or the specialists the common man was under no obligation to be familiar with such issues.

The Qur’an as it was revealed on Mohammed is available to us, even today. But the religious leadership among Muslims, the hidden church, or the invisible Vatican does not allow us to engage with the revelation on our own. We are free to recite but not to interpret. Instead of solely relying on the revealed text, for centuries, we Muslims have been continuously told that Islamic Law, the Shariah, draws from four main sources; the Qur’an, the Hadeeth, the ijma and the qiyas. By placing the Revelation at par with historical constructs and rational tools we made no ordinary mistake. While the revelation can assure us where to go, the analogical reasoning — may we call it istehsaan, istislaah or masaleh mursela, based on a specific historical construct — is bound to lead us in diametrically opposing directions. Yet there is no dearth of nice people who would believe that the ijma is a conclusive judgement for all time to come, and that the issue in question is sealed for ever. Some would even dare to place the ijma a level above the revelation. As the famed Hambli scholar Ibn Aqeel argues that the text despite being infallible can be abrogated by another verse. But, according to him, the same is not true with the ijma. Once it is taken place nothing can annul it. This mode of thinking that there are many issues on which a consensus has been reached and that they cannot be reopened for discussion, has put barriers right inside the Muslim mind. And as we are not supposed to make our own reading of the text, the sum total of our Qur’anic insight remains what our elders have drawn centuries ago and for their own social context. Being humans, as they were, for sure they have erred, but we are forced to carry their errors on our shoulders. For it is generally upheld that any departure from the conventional exegesis of the Qur’an, if not supported by any great masters of the past will fall under tafseer bir-ray and hence shall not be acceptable.

Can we muster enough courage then, to re-open the book of God?  We live in a society that believes that the religious debate has come to a close, and for ever. There are people amongst us who sincerely believe that human mind is not capable any more of directly inferring guidance from the text and that the great fuqaha of the past have settled the issues once and for all. Some even have gone to the extent of believing that any verse of the Qur’an that does not go hand in hand with the opinions of the great masters is either an inconclusive command or an abrogated one, as al-Karkhi the famous Hanafite faqeeh would make us believe. Then there is a widespread fallacy among Muslims that the emergence of the four orthodox schools of fiqh in Sunni Islam is a God ordained scheme and therefore it never occurs to us that we can conceive an Islamic living without them. Amidst the great masters of the past we often encounter a medieval feel as their fiqh was mainly a response to the Abbasid milieu and despite our clear-headedness that as compared to the corpus of fiqh the book of God can deliver us more, we are afraid of a fresh start. We are in fact afraid of the great intellectual revolution that a fresh reading of the text holds promise of.

Opening the book of God, yet again, will be an epoch-making event. It will change the very course of human history. No doubt, opening the book in the absence of the prophet has its own risks. But this is what God wants us to do as he is not going to send any other messenger. The book alone has to suffice in the absence of the prophet. The re-opening of the book involves some basic questions to be sorted out. Who should really command the sole authority to interpret God’s words; the religious elite, the ulema, the learned members of the fiqhi assemblies, the supreme councils of ulema that enjoy state patronage or the ministries of Islamic and waqf affairs? Who is the legitimate spokesman of God on this earth? Can the Qur’an be studied in its own light and in contemporary milieu or it can only be studied in a chosen fiqhi paradigm? These questions deserve to be passionately debated before we embark on a re-opening.

Some eleven centuries have elapsed since the term mazhab in the given sense surfaced on the scene, at the end of the first century hijra. A derivative of zahaba uazhebo, initially it was meant to denote that certain scholar of repute went this way or held that opinion. Then the term mazhab, that has split us today into many factions, was expressive of a mere methodology. And that was that. It was not in their wildest imagination that one day this academic tool of analysis will result into such a deep division within the body polity of Islam and the future generation of Muslims will feel compelled to wear one of the fiqhi identities. Can there be a greater intellectual oppression than this that the people with sound mind and responsive heart feel compelled to align their understanding of the text with one of the great fuqaha of the past and take refuge in one of the fiqhi camps despite the fact that these fiqhi divisions are product of history and certainly not God-ordained by any stretch of imagination. There were dozens of fiqhi schools and their masters who were lost in history.  The four or five mazahib that survived mainly due to the state patronage accorded to them, have been in conflicting terms with each other since their inception. It remains yet to be decided who is ahl-al-hawa and who rightly deserve to called ahl-al-Hadeeth, who is ahl-aladl and who can rightly claim the mantle of ah-as-sunnah-wal-jama’ah.

It is generally assumed that without the help of great fuqaha an Islamic living is unthinkable. Probably there is no greater fallacy than this under this sky that has kept the Muslim mind mesmerized for centuries. Be it the details involving obligatory prayers or who is liable to pay zakat or wherefrom one should embark on his journey for Haj, which of the issues our fuqaha have really sorted out? None. The fact is that in practical life despite being dubbed as the follower of a mazhab no body minutely follows his faqeeh. I have yet to come across a Hanafi who observes 40 sunnah of salah as lay down by Hanafi school or a Hambali who makes it a point to observe some 68 sunnah of salah as lay down by the Hambali fuqaha. The books of fiqh read like compendiums of differences on each single issue. There is virtually nothing of which the fuqaha can claim to have achieved consensus. But the general misconception that it is the fiqh that runs our religious machine has made us totally dependent on humans like us. When a faqeeh or a mufti suggests us to take out 40 buckets of water in order to clean a well of the foul smell of a dead stinking dog or when a hanafi faqeeh tells us to wash simply either corner of the cloth if it is dry and we do not know which part of the cloth was wet with urine, he does not say so under any heavenly guidance. Instead, he draws from the books of his masters or at times, though rarely, employs his own mind. The same mind that God has endowed with each of us. There is no point then that instead of applying our own minds we solely rely on other humans like us. If the Shafei school provides us with tall menu and if the Hanafite has a relatively small list of the kind of meat that one should consume, it is a matter of personal preference influenced by spatio-temporal realities and has no divine origin whatsoever. The lawful and the prohibited are explicitly told in the Qur’an. Other than that, be it how to fly a wasp sitting right on our nose or how to deal with a small but irritating fly, we must fend for ourselves employing the best method suitable for our specific situations.

An effective re-opening of the book demands no less than the ending of the church-like situation in the Muslim society. As this invisible church, despite the elapse of some eleven centuries, has not manifested itself in any concrete single institution, it is beyond any Luther or Calvin to stand to this challenge. It needs no less than the charisma of the divine revelation to put an end to this vaguely felt and clandestinely organized institution. At most what we can do is to let the word of God speak for itself. We must convince every thinking mind amongst us that the methodology of Qur’anic understanding employed by our predecessors was most suited to their time. It was their way of being sure that justice is delivered and the Qur’anic intent is met. In a changed situation, unmindfully implementing the same may not meet the same standard of justice and at times can be counter productive. When Omer, the second caliph, temporarily suspended the Qur’anic punishment of amputation of one’s hand for theft, he was sure that this was the right measure to ensure justice in the days of famine. Similarly when he discouraged Muslims to marry with the women of ahl-al-kitab or when the latter fuqaha made it a point not to let Muslim men marry with the women of ahl-al-kitab despite explicit Qur’anic sanction to do so, they were ensuring, in their own way, a social harmony where justice and peace reign supreme. Our historians also talk of Omerian stipulations that imposed on ahl-adhdhimmah (the non-Muslims) to wear al-ghiar, a long coat, so that they might be easily identified. They were not allowed to horse riding or purchasing property or building churches in the Muslim lands. These stipulations were suited to their context. They may not produce the same social harmony in our radically changed world where reciprocation is the rule of diplomatic conduct.

Let us take some other examples. Taking a cue from the Qur’anic verse — ‘if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, three, or four…’ (Qur’an, 4:3) – when our fuqaha preferred to generalize this specific context for marrying up to four women one and the same time probably they thought that making legitimate room for war widows was more in tune with achieving social justice. This situation may not last for ever. Then, in the Qur’an we encounter verses such as: ‘Had God willed He would have made you a single nation but it is His scheme to test you in what He has given you, so keep competing in goodness’…(Qur’an, 5:48). Such and other similar verses indicate that salvation is no single nation’s monopoly, as we come across the verse: ‘those who believe and those of the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians and whosoever believes in God and the day of judgment and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (Qur’an, 2:62). Our mufassiroon and fuqaha have made us believe that such and other similar verses stand abrogated. This is a pure nonsense to believe that any verse of the Qur’an is not to taken for guidance any more or putting any verse to practice will invoke God’s wrath or will amount to sinning. In an ever-shrinking world where the boundaries between dar-al-Islam and dar-al-kufr have simply evaporated and where it is no more possible for any group to live in isolation, forging a united front of the faith communities based on kalimatun siwa is more needed than ever. Ignoring the Qur’anic charter of common programme and mindlessly insisting on the traditional interpretation that in the verse ghar al-maghdhoob alaihim wa-la-dhallin the nation on whom God’s wrath fell and those who went astray are the Jewish and Christian nations respectively, will not take us anywhere. In a nut-shell, the re-opening of the book will mean that we are mature enough to read the text on our own and are willing, if need be, to take a course different from our predecessors. As long as we are not willing to absorb this psychological shock all our claims of re-opening will amount to putting further seal on it.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 January 2006

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