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Rethinking Islam
Dotting the I’s and Crossing the T’s

By Ahmed Kamal Sultan

STARLAB- Department of Electrical Engineering

Stanford University

In his article “Rethinking Islam” (Article No. 381 at WWW.IRFI.ORG), Prof. Ziauddin Sardar called for new Ijtihad to reform Islam. No one can argue that a wide opening of the door of Ijtihad is crucial for the Muslim Ummah. Yet, it is legitimate to question what is meant by Ijtihad and if there are any boundaries for the process.

Does Islam really need to be rebuilt from scratch?

To elaborate on these important points, we need first to define Ijtihad.

Ijtihad: Ijtihad is the most important source of Islamic law next to the Qur’an and Sunnah. The main difference between Ijtihad and the revealed sources lies in the fact that Ijtihad is a continuous process of interpretation and reasoning while the Divine revelation and the Prophetic legislation and oral traditions are immutable. In this sense, Ijtihad will continue to play its role as the main instrument of applying the Divine message in the continuously changing conditions of the Muslim Ummah in its aspirations to truth, and justice.

Ijtihad can be defined as the serious effort by a jurist to infer, with a degree of probability, a religious ruling from its detailed evidence in the authentic religious sources. The question arises to what is and what is not amenable to Ijtihad.

The Definitive and Speculative Evidences:

The Qur’anic verses and the Prophetic Sayings can have definitive or speculative meaning. The definitive texts have meanings that no two persons with sound intellect and proper understanding of Arabic language could disagree upon. These texts comprise the eternal and immutable core of the Islamic belief. They are not open to Ijtihad or abrogation lest Islam will cease to be a religion in the first place.

They are only subject to operationalization and measures of becoming practical matters linked carefully to codes of ethics, norms and/or laws. To be more accurate regarding the definitive and the speculative, one should mention that one verse or Prophetic saying can have a definitive level of meaning, and a speculative one has different horizons of significance. A very simple example is the verse of ablution:

“O you who believe! When you prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles.” (Qur’an, 5:6).

The text is clear that ablution is a perquisite for prayer. Ablution consists of washing the face, washing arms, rubbing the head, and washing the feet. This is the definitive level of the verse. The speculative level may pertain to: a) Whether the order is obligatory or not. b) The arms are to be washed to the elbows. Are the elbows included or not? c) The feet are to be washed to the ankles. Are the ankles included or not? d) Should the whole head be rubbed or only a portion? So, there are several definitive rulings that are indisputable. Nonetheless, due to the very nature of language, there is another level of multi-layered reasoning that requires diligent analysis.

Ijtihad: Scholarly and Methodological Conditions:

The next question that arises: are there any rules of interpretation to be followed and obeyed while undertaking Ijtihad or is it a completely subjective process? The Rules of Interpretation: Ijtihad requires interpreting the sacred texts and interpretation should have rules lest it would run the risk of being a simple exercise of capricious whimsy. I will not approach this subject in the traditional way of the books on Usul al-Fiqh (The Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) by stating the rules by which one should abide while pursuing Ijtihad. I would rather define what interpretation should be by stating what it should not be. My idea is that any epistemological discourse whose inevitable result is the nullification of the foundations of Islam is completely unacceptable and actually amounts to forsaking Islam itself. This is a legitimate concern that surely is present in any discipline, religion or ideology.

I will mention four discourses of this type: a) The most radical discourse aimed at undermining Islam and impairing its foundations is the idea that the Qur’an is a historical product, i.e. the verses are revealed to deal with specific socio-historical circumstances and may not be applicable in modern life. The “fundamentalist secularists” who adopt this approach, in order to evade a prompt rejection of their ideas, argue that, “…it is the spirit of the verses that is valid for all times in all places. Every generation of Muslims should give them new meanings that suit their age.”

Yet, if the relevance and universality of the message for all times and places was of that liquid nature, I would argue that any text or message could fit it. Here religion looses any distinctive nature and the essence and wisdom of divine revelation becomes subject to relativism and subjectivity. There are Divinely inspired transcendental constants in Islam that are eternally and ubiquitously valid. Validity stems from relevance and compatibility with essential human nature and welfare of mankind.

Historicizing Islam:

Now, let us investigate where this discourse of relativization and historicity can lead to. The pre-Islamic Arabs had the habit of drinking wine till they became fully intoxicated. In modern ages, humans are educated and rational and can control their intake of wine without losing control. So, there is no harm in drinking some wine if one remains sober!! Almsgiving (zakah) is not necessary since the nation state collects taxes from people! Fasting was prescribed to curb the desires of those lusty Arabs of the seventh century; nowadays fasting hinders productivity and thus should be abrogated or removed to the month in the Gregorian Calendar with the shortest day! Interest-based (usurious) economy is crucial for modern capitalist economy. The “public” interest of people requires lifting the ban on usury. Pilgrimage was for those Arabs who entered Islam while believing in the magical powers of stones. Islam could not have prohibited Arabs from visiting Ka`bah.

Nonetheless, after the widespread of rationality and enlightenment, there is no need to adhere to the idolatrous practices that were allowed for those naive ignorant Arabs of the desert! Woman should not obey the Islamic dress code. Working and active women in the modern world should not be burdened by this regulation! Capital punishment is the epitome of savagery and barbarity. It was just mentioned in Qur’an to deter people. It was just given as an option not an obligation! The same applies to the prescribed penalties of theft and fornication. Amputating hands and flogging are a flagrant violation of the United Nations convention of human rights! Ablution was for those dirty Arabs who lived in the desert in the seventh century. After the advancement of civilization and the clean environment in offices and houses there is not need to repeat it before every single prayer.

In short, since everything was revealed to those backward Arabs of the past, it must be replaced by more modern rulings (mainly liberal capitalist). Obviously, the result will just be the Western secular laws and social habits. The vast majority of those who advocate the historicity of the Qur’an have fully assimilated the Western epistemological and philosophical assumptions. Direct confrontation and military conquest are now secondary tools to dominate cultures and markets. Habits and lifestyles are primary target of change in order to guarantee an open market based on a free consumer who has an open mind. Too open to be affected by any ways of life or beliefs that would set principals contradicting the calculations of market profit...and too open to feel empowered vis a vis the market rules and dynamics.

The most striking observation one finds in their writings, is that they want to change the specific Islamic rulings that the Western scholars always criticize or belittle. If their attempts are really sincere and aim to develop and reform the Islamic Jurisprudence and saving the Muslim Ummah from its perils, they should consider Islam itself as the ultimate point of reference. Western paradigms and discourses can be invoked in logistics and procedures as a human experience one can learn from, like, for example, how to implement the Islamic principle of Shura (consultation) through a pluralist party system. Nevertheless, the West need not be our point of reference. The divine origin of Islam should not be subject to man-made secular measures to re-formulate it to match them. The opposite should be the case. Any Muslim must believe in this for Allah, Glorified be He, says in the Qur’an that He has perfected our religion: Islam.

Deconstructing the Qur’an:

Recently there has been an ongoing debate regarding analyzing the Qur’an as a simple text with the tools of the deconstruction school of thought. This was advocated as a reformation and an innovative way of reading the Text. The Divine nature of the Islamic text was ignored and it was treated as a man-made text with no special nature nor purpose. Language here was also itself considered a man-made device and all the rules of understanding related to it subject to change and addition. For example, Derrida’s Deconstruction is a theory of understanding the text (philosophical, legal, fictional, or scientific) by which a reading can attempt to undermine and refute the text’s structure and meaning. But what would be left if we de-sanctify the Qur’an and deconstruct it? The theories that regard texts as an authorial enterprise that is influenced by the text itself, the author, and the reader cannot be applied to the Qur’an. The reason is that Qur’an is the immutable word of Allah, Glorified be He, and Allah has all the attributes of perfection. Allah, Glorified be He, says:

“Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy.” (Qur’an, 4:82).

Contradictions and inconsistencies can be found in human texts but by no way they can be found in a preserved Divine text like the Qur’an. The role of reason is to understand the text and explore the structural coherence of the text and see the explicit differences of meaning as related to different contexts the text can be applied to not as implicit or internal contradictions in the text itself.

There is always a temptation to imitate the Western scholars and implement their discourses as if they are universally valid. The current state of backwardness of the Muslim Ummah and the apparent superiority of the West stimulate many scholars to adhere blindly to Western paradigms and methodologies. “Reforming” the Qur’an is another discourse nullifying the Islamic Shari`ah. Also casting doubts on the way the Sunnah was transmitted and/or discrediting the Companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, who are well known for their numerous narrations like Abu Hurayrah. The Qur’an is replete with verses commanding the Muslims to obey the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him:

“O you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and make not vain your deeds!” (Qur’an, 47:33).

The Sunnah expounds the Qur’an, specifies its general, qualifies its absolute, and elaborates on its horizons of meaning. For example, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to pray. The Sunnah determines the number of prayers, their manner, and their times. Ignoring the Sunnah under the pretext of the sufficiency of the Qur’an is contrary to the Qur’an itself which says:

“(We sent them) with clear signs and scriptures and We have sent down unto you (also) the Message; that you explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought.” (Qur’an, 16:44) and

“We have sent among you a messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in scripture and wisdom, and in new knowledge.” (Qur’an, 2:151).

These are clear verses on the role of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, in explaining the Divine message and thus the crucial importance of the Sunnah.

No reasonable Muslim opposes the idea as well as the fact that Muslims should, are, and have been reforming their understanding of Islam, but we surely need always to dot the i’s and cross the t’s so as not to loose the essence of Islam in that crucial process, with all the assumed good intentions!

* A cultural critic, Muslim scholar, author of many books, and editor of Futures: The Journal of Planning, Policy, and Futures Studies. He is based in London


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