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Reinterpreting Islam

By Rashid Shaz

Editorial Sept '07


A post-era feeling has gripped the world of Islam. It appears to many of us that we are living in an age of agonizing boredom when history is wrapping itself up and when momentous events are not taking place any more. Our allurement of the past – when our history was at its zenith and when we enjoyed the Golden Age wherein the pious elders perfected the process of thinking, leaves almost no role for us in any future scheme of things. In short, the future history, as we conceive it today, is no more than an empty shell of a used cartridge.

We Muslims alone are not guilty of eulogizing the past, however, if the past has a deadening effect on us it is mainly because as compared to other nations we look at it as sacrosanct and not as a process of enlightening experimentations. This I shall elaborate. Terminologies such as ta'bein and tabe'ta'bein that we once coined to express a historical phenomenon soon became a stumbling block in the very process of historical analysis. Such is the bane of terminologies. Instead of picking up the essence of a phenomenon at times they come to control our perception and thinking. Western historiographers usually classify different periods of their history as Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution etc. These words may represent the dominant mood of the time nonetheless they do not capture the sum total of the intellectual activity of a given period. Looking at history through these labels would amount to looking at the past essentially through someone else's eyes. In our times however terminologies are breaking apart. They are no more able to capture the essence of an age. For example, what we call today as post-modern is a highly complex phenomenon; a jumble of conflicting trends leading to unknown destinations. In a word, post-modernism is like pulling down the carpet from beneath the civilization. Take for example the long cherished ideals of chivalry, courage and manliness. Not long ago revolutionary leaders, spiritual seers, sportsmen and soldiers were seen as almost super human for their extraordinary valour and courage. But now the invention of wonder drugs and performance enhancing pills has robbed them of their romantic appeal. Technology has brought us to a complete mess. As compared to the world of crumbling values of a ' Waste Land' where a Proofrock may not express his love, today we are confronted with a cold-eyed world infested with divorced women and hook-ups. The post-modern self, as expressed in western street poetry, may celebrate the independence and autonomy of what it calls 'iPod Lone Rangers' but it can hardly mask the anxiety and boredom and the total confusion when it comes to relationships. I-Pod and cell-phones are no more symbols of individual freedom rather they have become the albatross of the directionless civilizational voyage.

In the West, prefixing the word 'post' to anything meaningful, from post-Christianity to post-Modernism, is a strange way of depriving a concept of its meaning. If the main events of history are over and we are born at the twilight of the last day, there is no way to enjoy life at its full. It is the residue of life that surrounds a post-modern self. A life devoid of natural flavour, as it has come down to us, turns the individual into a mere consumer where he hardly finds any meaning in life. The mad Monday, as they call it, keeps us chasing to get ready to do the same thing again and yet again. Doing a life that we do not want to do makes at least one thing clear; that it is too late to look for a meaningful living.

Unlike the West where post-era murmurings and End of history fears are a natural corollary of a directionless rush, in the Muslim world this feeling emanates from a wrong perception of history. In the hey day of Islamic empire when the great fuqaha and theologians were debating about the canons of Islamic faith, they thought it natural to turn to the early generation of scholars known for their knowledge of the prophetic time. In their search for a commonly acceptable version of the faith they heavily relied on the interpretative methodology of the elders. Had they relied solely on the revelation and the prophetic model ( uswah), it would have been possible for the later generations to approach the text on their own. In that case they would have been a stepping stone for us and not a stumbling block. But the early centuries were also marked by political upheavals and intellectual disorder of an unprecedented magnitude that forced the ulema to lay down a commonly agreed charter of faith. Khairul quroon qarni, summal lazina yaluna hum, summal lazina yaluna hum only reinforced the belief that the first three generations hold key to Islamic interpretation. Few could realise then that this methodology had a direct bearing on the Jewish hermeneutical tradition which places Tanaim, Amorim and Saborim, the three Talmudic generations, at the helm of interpretative activities. And much like the Jews we too created an aura of sacredness around sahaba, tab'ein and tab'ta'bein . It was here that the seed of a church was sown in Islam which soon paved the way for a full-fledged Vaticanization of a simple faith.

Can a specific period in history be called sacred? If the first three generation of Muslims lived in sacred times ( khairul quroon), as the tradition would like us to believe, what about the other prophets in history? Do they fall below, after the tabein and tab'tabein, in the chronological order? The idea of sacred times has a Christian connotation where Christ's presence on earth is seen as unfolding the word of God. To believe that a specific time is sacred is problematic on many counts. It gives undue importance to an entire generation for simply having lived in a specific period ignoring the fact that right within the prophetic period and inside the prophet's City of Enlightenment – save the second and third generations of Muslims – there also lived a host of hypocrites, polytheists and idolaters. We also know that a significant amount of intellectual activity in different parts of the early Islamic empire was carried out by those who were not happy with the new situation. Amidst tabein and tab'tabein, whom we so eulogise for their close proximity to the prophetic time, also lived fabricators of traditions and storytellers who were to influence the shape of Islam in the time to come.

In the Quranic weltanshuuang, the foundation of Islamic faith was well laid out during the prophet's time: al-yaum akmaltu lakum dinukum. This vision of Islam was to serve as a model for all successive generations. The Siddiqi model of Islam might appear a little different from the Islam of prophet's time and the Omerian model may bear a different look from the Siddiqi model owing to the changing context, but they are a continuation of the same process. If caliph Omer had the right to overturn certain precedents of the prophet's and the Siddiqian periods – as he did on many occasions, the future Muslims too will have the right to envision an Islam most suited to their own times. A message for all times and places as Islam claims itself to be, no specific generation can claim monopoly on the word of God. Our predecessors who tried their best to emulate the prophetic message had had their share of the revelation. It would be demeaning on our part to rely solely on their understanding of the revelation instead of partaking of the revelation itself.

The idea that interpretative activities have come to a stop and an orthodox version of faith has taken a shape for all time to come, essentially emanates from the long held confusion in Muslim mind which often mixes message with history. We must understand that historical Islam, as it has come down to us, is a transitional stage of the prophetic message that in future has to culminate in a divine thread bringing together submitters of all traditions, singing in unison the glory of one God. Orthodoxy by its very definitions relies on history and not on the simple message itself. For example, as opposed to the Shei Islam which does not consider the first three caliphs legitimate, Sunni Islam places the four caliphs at the centre of faith. The same is true of the four fuqaha who rose to prominence due to the socio-political conditions of the time. Accepting them as what they have been made into, or not, can hardly have a bearing on our faith. Then there are also a number of hadeeth compendiums. Compiled in the fourth century, some of them have acquired the status of canon literature as they are devoutly called the sehah sitta. A produce of history as they are, their rejection should not cast a shadow on our faith. But doing so will make the entire structure of Sunni Islam crumble. The Shia Islam too rests on a similar canonization of history. The basic creed that differentiates it from Sunni Islam, such as the divine origin of Imamate where Ali and his progeny have a designated role, is quite a late development. As late as the middle of the third century hijra when Bukhari and Muslim were collecting traditions, there were no separate books for Shei and Sunni traditions. That is why we come across many essentially Shei traditions in Bukhari and Muslim. If we can do away with the misgivings of history and roll back historical Islam, this process will trigger the end of both Sunni and Shei Islam. Then alone we will be in a position to re-envision the prophetic message without any historical intervention.

It is the historical Islam that we have been upholding so proudly and for so long. Developed and perfected in history, as it were, it tells us that the pious elders have perfected the process of thinking, that history is not negotiable, and a critical look at the canon period is simply unthinkable. If the four great fuqaha of the past have really finalised a code of living for all time and if the so called canon period spanning on the first three generations is not negotiable, our encounter with the revelation can only be illusory, we will be struggling with the frozen words which spoke to our predecessors long back in history. For many centuries the Muslims have found themselves in a constant fix; on the one hand the Quran exhorts them to focus on the revelation ( afala yatadabbarun al-Quran am ala qulubun aqfaluha) while on the other hand, historical Islam tells them that any encounter with the revelation pointing to a direction different from that of the pious elders is simply not acceptable.

To my understanding, the message of Islam is constantly on the grow; as the human society evolves so does the intent of revelation. There are many verses in the Quran about human embryo which today we are in a better position to appreciate than our predecessors whose knowledge of medical sciences was scanty. I have no hesitation to say that the ideals of prophetic Islam have yet to manifest in full. A global society embracing submitters of different hue based on the principles of liberty and justice for which prophets of God strove in different periods of history and which was given a final push by the prophet Muhammad himself is yet to be realised. This unfinished agenda has to be carried out by the followers of the last prophet. This is to say that the changing models of Islam, from the essential or 'basic' to the Siddiqi and to the Omerian, will eventually culminate in the realisation of a full bloom prophetic model.

Such statements however should not delude us to believe that the future model of Islam will be an improvement upon the Siddiqi or Omerian model. Logistically, it may have an edge over the previous models but in essence it will be a logical continuation of the same process. Like their predecessors the future Muslims too will have their share in the prophetic mission. But for this to happen, the monopoly of the first three generations on the revelation must end. Instead of waiting for a messiah or a hidden imam, the present generation of Muslims must claim their share in the enlightening words of God. This alone can redeem us from the sheer emptiness and non-events that surround us today. As long as the Jewish and Christian nations celebrated their inactivity and waited for a messiah, they lived in an intellectual prison house of their own making. There was no role for them at the centre stage. But once they came out of the mythical world, they found a whole new vista open to them. It took a considerable amount of time on their part to realise what they were clinging to, and for so long, it was a false religiosity. Rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity, as these nomenclatures suggest, are essentially human constructs of religious experiences. Without early scholars or the clergy they cannot be conceived. Rabbinic Judaism calls for building an impregnable fence around the Torah. On the contrary, the Quran wants to demolish all such fences that the clergy have ever built around it. In the Christian weltanshuuang, walking out of the mythical world of a future redeemer simply means forsaking religion itself. This indeed has been a painful situation generally termed as post-Christianity. Walking out of the historical constructs of Islam however will not lead us to a similar chaos as in that case we will find ourselves amidst the enlightening, comforting words of God.

Historical Islam must give way to critical thinking if we are serious in reinvigorating our religious life. Revival of Islam in our time should not mean a return to the medieval feel that unfortunately many of us think as its logical outcome. This misconception has deprived us of our originality, turning the entire spectrum into a pastiche. We do but we do not. There lies around us a buzzing world of religious activities; mosques full of worshippers, annual Haj gathering ever on the rise, the holy Harems in Makkah and Medina are constantly on expansion, the jihadis are out to turn the world upside down and the pacifists are busy to take the message of God to every nook and corner, to recreate, yet again another utopia. But the outcome is frustrating, rather depressing. It appears as if it is a pastiche world where we are parodying the pious elders, unwittingly trying to recreate a medieval world in a modern setting. Take, for example, the Friday congregation which as a religious institution had played an instrumental role shaping the Ummah. Today when the Imam reads out an Arabic sermon from an old book composed during the Muslim rule and exhorts the believers to obey the just imam he not only sounds completely out of tune with the time he also makes us feel that we live in a pastiche world. An Islam based on secondary sources can only create pastiche. Our intellectual heritage spanning on some twelve hundred years or so is a pathetic reflection of this pastiche mindset where similar ideas are woven generation after generation in multi-volume compendiums. For many centuries our intellectual activity hovers around classical works and we rely solely on the medieval minds as we consider the formative period of historical Islam somehow sacred and a direct access to the Quran a blatant disrespect to the great masters of the past.

In principle, scholars of Islam agree that a direct access to the Quran, a fresh reading of the text, is very much desirable. Some of them even call for a semi-autonomous reading of the text, i.e., a reading based on hadeeth reportage. Their willingness to go beyond the orthodoxy is indicative of the fact that the 'three-generation Islam' is falling short of contemporary challenges. However, despite so much ho-ha about a fresh reading it is not easy for them to concede that a new reading may command us to take new positions on a host of issues. If the frozen words of God are allowed to speak yet again we would find ourselves amidst a new revolution; that same sublime feel when God had intervened in history through His prophetic agency.

A re-reading of the text will bring us face to face with the pristine purity of Islamic message. We will be in a position to conceive Islam without history, without the misgivings of the past generations. Today, our efforts at fresh reading are generally aborted by the traditional understanding which though in blatant violation of the Quranic intent has been held for so long that now it appears to be an auxiliary revelation. Take for example the Quranic verse: inna akramakum indallahi etqakum. If piety is the sole criteria what is the rationale of investing the leadership in the tribe of Quraish, as traditions would like us to believe: al-aeimmah min al-Quraish. The Quran tells us time and again that for each individual is what he earns ( kullu nafsim bima kasebat rahina) and that man has no share in what he does not earn through his hard work (laisa lil insan illa ma sa'a), but the traditional understanding of Islam makes us believe that family lineage alone can be a sufficient ground for one's supremacy. An independent reader of the Quran is taken aback when finds that contrary to the Quranic statement – ma kana muhammadin aaba' ahdim mir rijalikum wa lakinna rasulillah….– which clearly demonstrates that absence of a male progeny has left no room for any one to claim descendance from the prophet, Muslims have found in the progeny of Ali the royal family of Islam. A re-reading of the text will help recover Islam from the blatant racialism that it acquired during the Fatmide rule as it will also clear the intellectual haze that has been continuously getting thicker with the passage of time.

A cre ative reading of the text in contemporary setting however cannot be totally risk-free. The journey both in time and space, from the seventh century Arabia to our Globalized world, is no small challenge. It is like intermittently changing the gear, or continuously shuttling between the two worlds. We need a highly imaginative mind to properly adjust to the changing context and a responsive soul to appreciate the intent. Yet the result could be at times not easily sallowable. Take for example the issue of inheritance. In a traditional patriarchal society where woman was not supposed to shoulder any financial responsibility and where she was not seen as a breadwinner, it was more than justified that she inherits less than her brother. Today social structures have radically changed. In big cities, and especially in the West, woman is doing as much as her male counterparts. In most cases she leads an independent life, partakes entire financial responsibility and carries her own cross. Shall she still inherit less than her brother? Can we discriminate against her simply for being a female? If caliph Omer can suspend the Quranic hadd of amputating one's hand for theft in the days of famine and yet he can be held in high esteem as upholder of justice and guardian of Islamic faith, there is no reason that we stick to the same patriarchal understanding of inheritance laws. Every text has only a relative meaning. A maximum meaning can only be discerned in the context. This is the predicament of language in which meaning is never absolute.

I understand that a jump from the prophet's Arabia to modern times is no easy task. There is enough probability that in our efforts to reach the divine intent we may err. But God Almighty, who certainly knows our limitations more than we do, exhorts us to accept this challenge. Do we dare say Him a 'No'?


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