Friday, July 15, 2005

Kassim Ahmad

Part Two: Certain Methodological Inadequacies

[Note: Part One: Is the Door Open or Closed was posted on July 12, 2005;
Part Three: The Way Ahead will be posted on July 19, 2005]

There is no stopping the flow of history and life. This is, as the Quran puts it, God’s system. In secular language, it is natural law. Only the morally fit human society will survive the 21st century and the next millennium. Morally fit also means intellectually fit. Muslim leaders and intellectuals must resolve to overcome our society’s stagnation and decadence. Early Muslim jurists, especially Imam Shafi`e who laid the basis of Muslim classical jurisprudence, wanted unity to overcome what he saw was the prevailing chaos. He raised the status of precedents, the so-called Hadith/Sunnah, to equal or even rival the Quran. He may be right in his objective of wanting unity, but the method is surely wrong. Even if he was right, his methods and formulations cannot necessarily be for all times for Muslims. There must be periodic critical re-evaluation by every generation. Even Shafi`e said as much. Certain vested interests saw to it that this critical reexamination did not occur. This state of affairs, and the consequent stagnation and decay, has lasted for a thousand years!

To break out of this vicious trap, we have to revert to the Quranic refrain, one that Muslims have always used to nurture and develop our society, that is, “command good, and prevent evil” (3:104). The Quran describes Muslims as the best nation because “they command the right, prevent the evil, and believe in God” (3:110). A simple precept, yet difficult to achieve! Why? Because our theologians (a veritable priesthood, in spite of their denial) have made religion difficult and mystifying for us.

Consider the inconsistency and folly of the theologians’ propositions. On the one hand they urge us to recite the Quran because we will get the blessings from God from such recitals even though we may not understand a word of what we recite. Onth eother, they tell us not read the Quran, because it is beyond our comprehension. What a neat way of putting God’s teachings away from Muslims!

If we are to have a true Islamic reformation, the first prerequisite is the proper reading and studying of the Quran. It must be taught during as well outside of schools. The Quran is a guide to life; it must be understood in a comprehensive manner, covering all aspects and not just the so-called religious duties. It is the only divinely-protected scripture, claiming itself to offer the perfect and comprehensive teachings for all mankind and at all times. The Quran has proved to be a potent and successful guide and example for our Prophet Muhammad. He is the only spiritual teacher who achieved success in his lifetime. His immediate successors and companions were inspired by the lofty teachings of the Quran that he brought to them. He led his people back to life and beyond, to the peak of the then civilization.

The liberating teachings of the Quran were once the source of Muslim creativity. Once those teachings are renewed, then the creative flow will automatically resume. The classical jurists were restrictive on who could interpret the Quran, they claim that tobe their exclusive preserve. They were stingy about allowing others to formulate Muslim thought, in other words, to carry out ijtihad. They placed all manner of conditions and restrictions that had the effect of stifling creative intellectual activity. God teaches us in the Quran to obey only two sources: God and His Messenger, meaning, the Quran and our rightful (and just) leaders. (See Quran, 4:59 and 4:58)

The elite, always the active and the thinking part of the community, should rightfully do the intellectual formulations. We should also include the intelligentsia and others who are knowledgeable and able to think. They should study and analyze data, and formulates ideas and thoughts that are then discussed and debated openly before being adopted by the authorities. That is how it should be, and that was how it was with Islam in the beginning. To insist on arbitrary and even academic qualifications is irrelevant. Academic qualifications do not equal serious thought or concern for society.

Consider the following qualifications laid down by classical jurisprudence for anyone contemplating doing ijtihad. He must be a Muslim, conversant in Arabic and knowledgeable of the Quran and of the rules of classical exegesis. He must not only know the science of Hadith but also believe in Hadith as well. Then he must be familiar with the methodology of Qias (analogical deductions). Most of all, he must know what has been agreed upon by the classical theologians and agree not re-open discussions on what had been agreed upon by them.
Some of these requirements are obvious; there is no need to stipulate them, such as being a Muslim, conversant in the Arabic language, and knowledgeable in the related sciences. To insist on uncritical acceptance of the Hadith and all the interpretations and explanations that had been handed down for a thousand years is unreasonable.

Let free scientific debate weed out the false ideas. No authority can legislate the truth. Muslim society must dare to think freely (of course within the wide confines of Islam) and allow its ummah to think through the basic teachings of the faith. Muslims must be allowed to formulate new ideas and thoughts to enable us to cope with the problems of the modern world and win our rightful place in it.

One factor that contributed towards Muslim backwardness is our bifurcation of life into the worldly and the hereafter. The theologians look down upon the first and aim for the second. They misinterpret verses from the Quran and quote traditions to justify this false worldview. To my mind this is the greatest single cause for our present backwardness. We must overcome this quickly if we wish to survive in the 21st century.

Our religion of tauhid, or belief in One God, necessarily implies one life and one world with one law. There is no afterlife without this life. Islam teaches us to think in terms of the unity of life. Ijtihad must cover all aspects of life, not just the religious aspects. In the past, our theologians and jurists emphasized only the rituals of worship and certain aspects of the law. They left the so-called secular area (government, politics, commerce, economics and science) to the secular authorities. That spelt doom for Muslims.

Secularism is another bane in present-day Muslim thought. If we accept the unity of life, then we should not arbitrarily separate the secular from the sacred. The Quranic teachings as well as the example of the prophet Muhammad’s Medinah Charter point to a very important but little observed fact in Islam. That is, it is both a philosophy (or world-view and a code of life) as well as a method of worship. The philosophy is all embracing and universal. It is for all mankind. It stands for the principle of one sovereign, lawful and loving power legislating over the whole universe, with Man simultaneously a servant of the Lord and master of the Universe. Further, there are absolute values of goodness, unity, justice, peace, truth and mercy. The code is historically bound and therefore pluralistic, but linked to the absolute values. The method of worship is also historically bound, particular and pluralistic. Thus, if we adopt this correct perspective of Islamic teachings, many of our current problems we can better clarify the problems we currently face.

Last, we should not forget the intellectual and political environment in which many of our leaders and intellectuals were born and bred in. I am referring to Western colonialism and imperialism. As the Algerian thinker Malik Bennabi has pointed out, one of the lasting effects of Western colonialism is the colonizing of the Muslim mind. It has not only cut us away from our Islamic heritage and draw us to adopt Western ideologies, but also to make us feel inferior to the West. We know more of Adam Smith, Descartes, Bertrand Russell, Newton and Einstein than al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Khawarizmi, Ibn Khaldun, Mulla Sadra, Shah Waliullah and even Muhammad Iqbal.

The first independence is the independence of the mind. That is the basic meaning of tauhid, that we are free and equal to all other human beings and that we bow down to no one but God. We have to seek and follow the Right Path in this world taught to us by God. This is the first condition of Muslim revival.

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