Part III: The Way Ahead
(Last of Three Parts)
I shall now consider the last question, the areas of contemporary ijtihad. Let me break it into two principal categories: the theoretical and the practical. In spite of al-Ghazzali’s famous refutation of philosophy in the 12th century, the Muslim world, in spite of going through a period of decadence after the fall of Baghdad, did not lack for philosophers and thinkers in the rationalist tradition of the Mu’tazilites. We had the 14th century Arab historical philosopher Ibn Khaldun with his incomparable Muqaddimah, ironically made known to us only recently by a European scholar. Then there was the profound works of the 17th century Iranian philosopher, Mulla Sadra, the 18th century highly modern Indian thinker, Shah Waliullah, the widely-traveled modern political thinker, Jamaluddin al-Afghani, that of his equally famous Egyptian disciple and social reformer Muhammad Abduh, and the important works of the Indian poet-philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal. Then there are the contemporary invigorating lectures of the Iranian thinker, Ali Shari`ati, to mention one prominent name.
Their works definitely compare with their Western counterparts. The question is why they are not studied in the Muslim world itself. I do not know how many universities in the Muslim world teach philosophy, in particular Muslim philosophy. In Malaysia, after forty-four years of independence, no university has a full-fledged philosophy department. Yet the teaching of philosophy is extremely important for the development and growth of the mind. Our educational system is too utility-orientated. It must be reformed to bring in knowledge for the sake of truth, since truth is the ground rule of this lawful universe.
Are Muslims clear about the right Islamic attitude towards the various Western ideologies? We are divided. Some adopt Western liberal democracy; others socialism; and yet others, even communism. Almost all the Muslim philosophers and writers I mentioned earlier had ably criticized Western philosophies and ideologies, but since their works have not been read and studied by the Muslim elite in recent times, their ideas remain buried and dormant in the libraries!
In this respect, Muslim traditions and backward ideologies have played an important role in suppressing the rationalist tradition in Muslim thought, and preventing it from spreading and growing. Why should al-Ghazzali, Ibn Taymiyah, Sayyed Qutub, Maududi and Yusuf Khardawi be more read in our country than Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, Ibn Khaldun, Shah Waliullah and Ali Shariati?
Muslim societies must be honest and brave enough to admit that they have not afforded intellectual freedom for their inquisitive and thoughtful citizens. In recent times, some of the best Muslim intellects, including the Pakistani Nobel laureate, the physicist Abdus Salam and the able Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman, had to migrate to Europe and the United States to pursue their work.
Muslim societies do not lack philosophical minds. What we must resolve to do is give those minds their requisite freedom. We should not fear error because, being believers in truth, error will be weeded out in a free, open, scientific debate. On the other hand, piling error upon error in the absence of free debate has led us to nowhere except doom and destruction. Muslim societies must remedy this situation quickly. Critical philosophical thinking must be encouraged and supported, as it is the basis for the development of true knowledge, the only sure way to progress.
The practical category means the political economy and government. Between communism (which has now failed) and capitalism (whose failure, though certain, is perhaps not yet clear), what is the Islamic concept of development? Does Islam teach a particular form of government, or does it leave the form free, within the limits of certain principles? Many Muslim writers have tried to answer these questions, especially during the last three decades. There seems to be consensus that Muslim political economy and government are neither of the Eastern Marxist type nor the Western liberal capitalist variety. Muslims should aim to achieve justice and general welfare for the population. The Muslim experiments of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran however, have not produced the results expected from an Islamic system. On the other hand, modern Turkey is an example of the dangers of wholesale Westernization.
To solve this problem, we have to resort to the standards of the teachings of the Quran and the example of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. The Quran advocates three basic changes: ideological, moral, and material. The Meccan revelations of the Quran sought to change the ideological outlook of the people, from one of disbelief to belief in One God and one universal law. They were also to change the moral outlook of bestial life of the Jahilliah period to one consistent with human dignity, equality and brotherhood, with man’s God-given role as master of the Universe. The latter Medina revelations of the Quran laid down the general laws and principles of governance.
Once he was in control of Medina, Muhammad promulgated the city’s famous compact, known as the Medina Charter. Some writers claim that to be the first written constitution in the world, five hundred years before the English Magna Carta of 1215. That Charter provides for a consultative government, with the prophet s.a.w. as the head, and a federal power structure with security, economy and justice under central control, and religious rites and customs under the various clans or religious community’s jurisdiction. The Charter provided a common citizenship to all who owed loyalty to the state, and to whom the state in turn gave protection. One could call the Medina Charter as Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.’s ijtihad based on the teachings of the Quran. That is what we should also emulate, with scientific aids to help, not block, us as had happened in the past.
This consultative form of government initiated by Muhammad s.a.w. continued in one form or another by his four successors, the so-called righteous caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar Ibn Khattab (by whose time the lighting moves of the Arab-Islamic armies had established a Muslim empire), Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali Abi Talib. Muawiyyah who wrested power from Ali began the Muawiyyah Dynasty, putting an end to Muhammad’s s.a.w. legacy of consultative government.
The Muawiyyah Dynasty was succeeded by the intellectually illustrious Abbasiyyah Dynasty, during which luminaries whose names we have mentioned flourished in Baghdad. It was during the Abbasiyyah Dynasty that Baghdad fell under the Mongol hordes in 1258 A.D. Even before that, decline and decay had set in the dynasty, ending the Arab-Islamic Renaissance. The ensuing European Renaissance owed much debt to this earlier Arabic enlightenment.
We must ask why the so-called Islamic experiments in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran have failed. The commonality is that while they don the garb of Islam, in actuality it is the Islam defined by the traditional clergy, both Sunni and Shiah. These were the classes that have always, directly or indirectly, collaborated with the imperialists. That is the reason for their failure. Islam is a revolutionary ideology and ethic. It can never compromise with imperialism; compromising with imperialism means compromising with error.
Let us examine two specific cases: Iraq, the seat of Islamic civilization, and Malaysia, a non-Arab country on the periphery of the Islamic heartland.
After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and its division among the European powers, Iraq was a monarchy aligned to British imperialism. The anti-feudal revolution of July 1958 put an end to the old regime and further the Ba’ath revolution of July 1968. That in turn put the revolutionary Republican Party in power. Ba’ath ideology ably combined Arabism, socialism and Islam. Under its leadership, Iraq nationalized the British oil company and developed Iraq, within twenty years, into a modern, strong, progressive Arab country, capable of uniting the Arabs and of challenging the Zionist state of Israel. After Iraq’s victory in the imperialist-instigated Iran-Iraq War of 1981-88, Anglo-American imperialism immediately recognized Iraq’s danger to imperial interests. This was the real reason for the Anglo-American imperialist-manipulated U.N-sanctioned Gulf War against Iraq.
Although its constitution states that Islam is the state religion, Iraq is secular in the sense that it separates religion (defined in the narrow sense) from state policy. Contrary to popular opinion, this is quite in line with the teachings of the Quran (see Quran, 22:67 and 2:62) and with the formulation of Muhammad’s s.a.w. Medina Charter. Its revolutionary philosophy is entirely in accord with the teachings of Islam. This is precisely why Anglo-American imperialism wishes to destroy Iraq.
An Islamic-orientated government can take many forms, depending on the history and culture of its people. As long as the government satisfies the basic conditions that it governs justly, is based on consultation with the people, and is led by morally upright and professionally competent people, it can be described as Islamic. Iraq’s population consists mainly of Muslims, with some Christians and Jews. The Muslims are equally divided into Sunni and Shiah, yet they live and work in perfect harmony. Mr. Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, for example, is a Christian. This co-operation and harmony among the various religious sects in Iraq is unique. Such peace and harmony between religions is the essence of Islamic teachings. Yet many Muslims do not see Iraq as an Islamic state. This is in part due to the intrigues of imperialism and to the great influence of the Muslim clergy.
Like Iraq, the Malaysian constitution also stipulates Islam as the official religion while allowing other religions to be practiced freely. Is Malaysia secular? No, not when Muslims are not free to renounce their religion even though the Quran clearly gives them that freedom. The Muslim clergy represented by the political party (PAS) now rules two states. PAS ulamas have made known their intention to implement what they call Muslim law. What they call Muslim law is simply what classical Muslim jurists stipulated to be so a thousand years ago!
Laws evolve, and Muslim laws too should, to suit prevailing circumstances. What do not change are the basic principles of the law. The Quran clearly states two basic principles, that of justice and mercy. Some forms of punishments mentioned in the Quran, like amputating the hand of thieves, reflect the principle of justice of a certain specific era. In England in the 19th century, one of the punishments for theft was death! Such punishments are not applicable to all times and all places. Earlier I alluded to the weakness of historical thinking among Muslims.
Unlike Iraq, Malaysia took over the political and economic systems of its erstwhile colonial ruler, Britain. Of course, changes were made over the years to suit the requirements of the Malaysian people. One was the New Economic Policy to help the disadvantaged Malay community. Liberal capitalism that Malaysia embraces suffers from the weaknesses of philosophical liberalism that led to the unfettered freedom of individuals to make money and own property. This in turn leads to the elite controlling the economic and political power. The famous “money politics” that still bedevils UMNO is one ugly consequence. That is why the Islamic Party is challenging the liberal UMNO-led ruling coalition, the National Front. Will UMNO now try to outdo PAS in its Islamization drive? Such a path cannot solve the problems of modernizing the Muslim society of Malaysia.
The way ahead is to modify the present system to bring it closer to the Islamic politico-economic principles of justice; a government of consultation and led by upright and competent leaders who care for the general welfare. As for law, we should apply the principles of justice and mercy that are the essence of Islam. Women must be treated as equal to men. Historically, women depended on men. This explains the historically-bound laws in some passages of the Quran. As for rites of worship, they are pluralistic and particular, and should be under autonomous jurisdiction of each religious community.
The religious reactions posed by PAS can only be fought by thoroughly exposing its false ideology and through building a just society.
Contemporary ijtihad in Muslim society should be based on the universal principles taught in the Quran. Other sources may help, but not hinder, this necessary work. This ijtihad will lead to practical solutions. We must find a way to quickly release Muslim society from the clutches of hide-bound traditions that have weighed it down for so long.
Islam will triumph, for this is God’s promise in the Quran. (See 9:33 repeated three times.) Muslims and other believers must strive hard to bring it about quicker, as God bids us to do.