Tuesday, July 12, 2005



(Parts Two and Three to follow)

Kassim Ahmad

(First published in The New Straits Times in three parts: Jan 26, Feb2, and Feb 9, 2002)
I. Is the Door Open or Closed?

The question of contemporary ijtihad (the formulation of ideas and views consistent with the basic teachings of Islam to solve the problems of contemporary society), although very pressing, is still largely unsolved. There must be a reason for this. I shall discuss this and some of the more important related matters in these articles in the hope that they can be a basis for further discussions and, if agreed upon, actions. With this format of writing, I am unable to credit specific authors, but I draw heavily upon modern writers like Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad Iqbal, Ali Shariati, Hassan Hanafi, Muhammad Abduh, Malik Bennabi and many others, including those from our own country.

In 1994 Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka published a book in Malay edited by Mahmood Zuhdi of Akademi Islam, Universiti Malaya. He brought together several local scholars and writers including Mahfodz Mohamad, S. Othman Kelantan, A. Ghani Ismail and myself to write on this topic. It is clear from the volume that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the traditionalist and modernist schools. The former dogmatically adheres to Imam Shafi`e’s classical formulation of the bases of Muslim law, while the latter seeks a freer and more flexible approach. The major area of disagreement relates to the role of the so-called Prophetic traditions or Hadith/Sunnah. Although the book fails to bring the two groups closer, its publication is important in the sense that it brings two differing views in one place, thus enabling scholars and writers to weigh them and continue the debate.

Let us ask the question why Muslim thought has been frozen and stagnant since the end of the tenth century, only three hundred years after the death of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. In Muslim juristic literature, this is referred to as the “closing of the door of ijtihad. Although some dogmatic Muslims would deny this and blindly assert the contrary, there is no question that Muslim thought has been frozen after flourishing brilliantly for three centuries earlier. In its heyday, Islam produced such world-class scientists and philosophers as al-Khawarizmi (mathematician), al-Jahiz (zoologist), Jabbir ibni Hayyan (chemist), al-Battani (astronomer), al-Biruni (physicist), Ibni Sina, (philosopher, physician, musician) al-Farabi, al-Kindi (philosophers), al-Mas`udi, al-Tabari (historians) and many others.

The European Renaissance not only took off from there, it owed much to this Arab-Islamic renaissance. In referring to this period of Islamic history, the historian Phillip K. Hitti wrote:

If someone in the first third of the seventh Christian century had had the audacity to prophesy that within a decade some unheralded, unforseen power from the hitherto barbarous and little-known land of Arabia were to make its appearance, hurl itself against the only two world powers of the age, fall heir to the one? The Sasanid? And strip the other, the Byzantine, of its fairest provinces, he would undoubtedly have been declared a lunatic. Yet that was exactly what happened. After the death of the Prophet, sterile Arabia seems to have been converted as if by magic into a nursery of heroes the like of whom both in number and quality is hard to find anywhere ....”

The English social historian and philosopher, Robert Briffault, in his brilliant and profound book, The Making of Humanity, records the extreme debt modern European civilization owes to Islamic civilization. Quoting him:

…It is highly probable that but for the Arabs,” he wrote, “modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed the character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution. For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of the modern world and the supreme source of its victory, natural science and the scientific spirit.”

In an unusually honest tribute to Muslim science, famous science historian George Sarton said, “The main task of mankind was accomplished by Muslims. The greatest philosopher, al-Farabi, was a Muslim; the greatest mathematicians, Abu Kamil and Ibrahim ibn Sinan, were Muslims; the greatest geographer and encylopedist al-Mas`udi, was Muslim; the greatest historian, al-Tabari, was still a Muslim.”

Just as what happened earlier in Europe where the priestly class of the Catholic Church from the Pope down dominated the politics of the European Middle Ages, so three hundred years after the Prophet’s death, Muslim theologians surreptitiously took over the affairs of Islam and the afterlife of Muslims. The consequence of their teachings, Muslims neatly compartmentalized their life. One is the worldly life of generally miserable living, and the other, the imagined promised afterlife of Paradise that we hope to achieve through our barely comprehensible rituals. However, in the Islamic conception, religion is a way of life (comprehensive, dynamic and changing). These theologians made Islam static and fossilized, not amenable to change.

Europe broke from under its religious yoke with the Reformation of the 16th century, and the scientific revolutions that followed. The Muslim world tried to have its own religious reformation and legal reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This resulted in some changes, especially in personal and family law, but not deep and comprehensive enough to render the Muslim mind capable of facing up to the challenges of 21st century.

It is now obvious that the two major Western ideologies – Capitalist Liberalism and Marxist Communism – that have reigned supreme in the world for the last five decades have failed. It is not clear that another religious orientated ideology, a theocracy of the Iranian type, will succeed. As a result the world is now acutely feeling the necessity of a new ideology to replace the two, or rather three, failed ideologies. It is in this context of profound ideological and philosophical crisis of our time that our young Muslims are flocking to the banner of Islam. This “Islam” is being exclusively defined by the theological class, the ulama.

Life is evolutionary. It is enough for us to reflect on the development of a human being from the embryo in the mother’s womb all the way to old age and death. First is the newborn baby, born into a lighted world and knowing next to nothing. Then it slowly grows into a child, youth, and later, a mature human being capable of improving or destroying society and the world. With time comes old age and death.

It took several centuries for this historical evolutionary perspective to take root in Europe. In Muslim society, the absolutist, anti-historical, anti-evolutionary outlook is still the major impediment towards reopening the gates of ijtihad that remained wide open during the early centuries of Islam. Current critics of the anti-historical and evolutionary outlook of present-day Muslim society do not necessarily embrace a relativist worldview. The teachings of the Quran point to a unified world outlook wherein relativism exists as a pair to absolutism.

To break this impasse posed by static absolutism, Muslim leaders and intellectuals must re-open the debate on all problems of society. To put it in Kant’s phrase, they must dare to think. The fear that this debate may lead to confusion and chaos is baseless. There is more than enough confusion and chaos already! All these came about not because of free debate, but because of wrong policies and methods. We must return to the basic hypothesis that man is a rational creature, able to act rationally given favorable conditions. As the Quran has beautifully put it, “No one can believe except with God’s permission. However, He blocks those who do not use their reason.” (10:100) In other words, true faith and reason are not contradictions.

The orthodox or traditionalist school must defend its position in a free open debate. It is no longer acceptable to argue that such matters have been debated and settled. Every generation, because of its vital interests in contemporary culture and civilization, must review its heritage in order to retain and advance the good and discard the bad. This is how civilization and culture develops and progresses.

To follow:
Part II: Certain Methodological Inadequacies
Part III: The Way Ahead


Anonymous said...

Being a 40 something Muslim, I had been exposed to the ideologies of 'Fundamental Islam' namely the ideas of Sayd Qutb, Maududi, Hasan Al-Banna, and was interested with what happens to Iran after the revolution. In 1979, I had just finished secondary school. I was caught in the fervour and had until 1987 been interested in these ideas and what happened to Iran's theocracy. But I have parents who were the questioning types, so my brothers and I never took seriously all this jihad business.
Why do people still want to follow the idea of creating an Islamic state where we can see that Iran had failed to do so. (I have seen documentaries in the UK, recently, about what happened in Iran and the demonstrations by students and some of them were allegedly killed by the security forces.)
A majority of Muslims do not want to think for themselves. I am now very interested in the concept of ijtihad and as a woman, I am particular interested with the ideas of Irshad Manji and other Muslims based in the West who have done their homework and gave rational thoughts to the issue of Islam today. And now Mr Kassim Ahmad, you have touched upon 'ijtihad' and this is what I want to know more in the Malaysian context. When and how will the Muslim majority in Malaysia realise that the real reformation is to do with opening the gates of ijtihad? I have waited for so long for Muslims in Malaysia to start this process of self-criticism and introspection. Mr Kassim Ahmad, thanks for starting it.
[Sorry I have to remain anonymous for the time being, as I am a government servant.]

hero said...

as long as the muslim majority still sees that syariah law is divine, there will be not much changes in terms of ijtihad.... nothing is divine, the only and truly divine is the Quran itself. When we talk about ijtihad, they says that we do not believe in Islam and denying Quran and so on, but ijtihad should be dynamic and not static in order to progress. They are a lot of talks on new ijtihad or re-evaluate but it seems that no true action is taken.

Kassim Ahmad said...

Dear Honourable readers,

Many thanks for your appreciative comments. Muslims must regain their role in the world, that of being "the Middle Community". They cannot achieve this if they continue to be slaves to an illegal priesthoood who forbids them from thinking for themselves. They must remember God's order to them "to command good and forbid evil" Only in this way can they regain their God-given freedom and be masters of their own fate.
Kassim Ahmad