Intellectual Tasks Before Islamic Scholars
Among the gravest threats facing humankind today is extremism resulting from erroneous interpretations of religious teachings. Almost every religion has some teachings or the other that if not understood and practiced in the right manner can have disastrous effects, at both the individual as well as collective level. For instance, many religions underscore the need to protect society from anti-social elements, call for eradicating injustice, advocate establishing justice, and sanction self-defence in exceptional circumstances. All of these things are part of our basic human duties. But if ignorance and immorality leads some people to develop distorted and deviant perspectives about these issues, it can easily lead to violent conflict in society. If this happens, religious teachings that were meant for promoting goodness and human welfare come to be used as a means to foment violence and destruction.
In this regard, Islam is faced with a particular predicament—of being viewed through a distorted lens by both those who claim to follow it as well as others. That it is misunderstood by others is not as surprising as the fact that it is misunderstood by many of those who claim to be its adherents, who are themselves destroying the religious and cultural bases of the tradition that they say they follow. These people are projecting their own religious teachings as a grave threat to the world.
The source of this distorted understanding of Islam is the intellectual crisis that Muslims have fallen prey to over the last three or four centuries. Several factors are responsible for this crisis, and unless these are properly understood, no meaningful efforts can be made to help Muslims come out of the morass in which they find themselves and to turn Muslim thought back in the right direction.
In part, the intellectual crisis of present-day Muslims can be traced to the suppression of the movement of Islamic rationalism by the traditionalist, orthodox ulama in the early centuries of Islam. In the conflict between reason (aql) and text (nass), the suppression of reason played a major role in the ensuing intellectual stagnation of Muslims.
A second factor for this intellectual crisis of Muslims was the supposed closing of the ‘doors’ of ijtihad’, creative reflection on and application of Islamic teachings in new contexts, in the 4thcentury AH following the establishment of the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Who closed these ‘doors’ and when is a separate issue, but the fact is that, for all practical purposes, meaningful ijtihad did come an end and its ‘doors’ remain closed till this very day.
A third factor for the present-day intellectual crisis of Muslims is the inability of Muslim leaders to understand the social political challenges that have emerged as a result of various socio-cultural processes. This, and a desperate clinging to the past, meant that Muslims were unable to relate intellectually with the present. Related to this is the fact that in seeking to preserve their intellectual heritage in the face of modernity, they uncritically continued to hold fast on to even those aspects of that heritage that were not a part of Islam as such, but, rather, reflected the influence of particular historical and socio-cultural contexts in which that heritage emerged.
Because of all of these inter-related factors, Muslim thought has strayed far off from the straight path.
The greatest need of the ‘Muslim world’ today is the reconstruction of Islamic thought so that Muslims can appropriately relate to contemporary socio-political demands. The poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) attempted to do precisely this through his monumental work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930), but the book failed to have any noticeable impact on the traditional ulama class, even though they counted themselves among Iqbal’s greatest admirers. While they were all praise for his poetry, they rebutted this serious academic work of his that raised many questions about traditional Muslim religious thought.
With regard to the renewal and reconstruction of Islamic thought, one dimension that needs particular attention is Muslim political theory. This urgently needs to be re-looked at. Aspects of this political theory that have now become irrelevant, and, more than this, have turned into a threat to the world of today, must be completely renounced so that the younger generation of Muslims can be protected from falling prey to deviant thinking and thus going astray. Controversial and completely un-Islamic notions such as the global political hegemony of Islam, offensive jihad, considering other people’s lack of faith in Islam as a sufficient cause to wage war against them, and regarding war, not peace, to be the basis of relations with people of other faiths regrettably remain deeply entrenched in some Muslim quarters despite the fact that they can in no way be proven from the Quran and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). These notions fuel conflictual relations with people of other faiths. Islamic scholars must clarify that these notions have actually no Islamic legitimacy at all, contrary to what radical extremists claim. The enormous confusion in Islamic circles about these issues has resulted, on the one hand, in great misunderstandings about Islam among non-Muslims, and, on the other hand, has facilitated the emergence and rapid spread of extremism and radicalism among a section of Muslims.
The major share of the blame for the enormous misunderstandings about Islam that abound today, particularly with regard to the issues mentioned above, lies with the traditionalist ulama, and, more than them, the Islamists or votaries of a politics-centric interpretation of Islam, who dream of imposing and enforcing their particular interpretation of the Shariah and establishing global what they regard as Islamic political dominance—or, in other words, their own rule. The traditionalist ulama are mired in stagnation, while the Islamists are a victim of literalism. These two classes seek to establish the political theology that emerged in the Middle Ages, when Muslims enjoyed political dominance in large parts of the world, word for word, without making any changes in it. The only difference between the two is that the former gives stress to ‘patience’ and ‘waiting’ as a means to realise its dream of establishing this political ideology, while the latter is driven by a frenzied zeal to revive the past political glory of Muslims at any cost and without any delay. Because of this, the image of Islam is being terribly stained and in such a way as has never happened before. All across the world, there is a rapid escalation of hate for Muslims, and, moreover, Muslims themselves are killing each other.
While much has been written on various other aspects of Muslim jurisprudence, very little work has been done on an issue of immense contemporary import—Islamic political jurisprudence. Because this issue has not received the attention that it deserves, there is a huge vacuum in Islamic political theology, which is being taken advantage of by radical Islamists, who falsely claim to speak for Islam. In this regard, it is truly lamentable that the mindset of traditional ulama is such that they are not interested in taking up the task of addressing this vacuum, although this work of rethinking Islamic political theory is something that they would be more effective in doing because of the great influence that they have on general Muslim thinking. On the other hand, there are relatively few modernist Islamic scholars who can combine both traditional wisdom and modern perspectives and fill this enormous gap. One hopes that this issue will receive the attention that it so sorely deserves.
Today’s world is a closely interlinked ‘global village’. A saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “All God’s creatures are His family’’ reflects this reality, and we all, Muslims and everyone else, have to learn to live together in harmony, like members of one large, well-knit family. It is for each one of us to try to unite this family, through love, not to divide it, through hate. There is a very urgent need today for interfaith dialogue on a vast scale in order to promote mutual understanding, which is simply indispensable for peaceful coexistence at every level. In this way, the external nearness between religious communities across the world that has come about through new communications technologies can evolve into an authentic, inner nearness. Today, this is the most urgent task for those who have true love for Islam to undertake and another major responsibility for Islamic scholars, besides other Muslims.