Islamic perspective

Recostruction of Islamic thought


How do we look at a religion? As a set of rituals, dogmas and institutions? Or as values and thought system? Some emphasise the former and others the latter. Generally the masses of people are more concerned with rituals dogmas and institutions whereas the intellectuals lay more emphasis on thought system and values, particular on the thought system.

For the masses religion is nothing but performance of certain rituals as laid down and to have belief in certain dogmas formulated by the learned scholars. For them anyone who deviates from performance of these rituals or questions any of these dogmas is a 'heretic' worthy of condemnation.

The intellectuals may lay more emphasis on the thought system of a religion but there are those who accept the thought system as inherited and there are those who are intellectually quite active and consider it necessary to rethink the thought system of the religion they have inherited. In a dynamic society , there are much greater possibilities of rethinking the thought system. In a stagnant or a closed society such possibilities are smothered. The early Islamic society was highly dynamic and full of vitalities. Islam was a great revolution, not only religious but also social and economic. It had upturned all old ideas and ideologies. It gave human society a new value system and heightened the human sensitivity for change for the better. Islam put greater emphasis on change and called everything old into question. It encouraged people to rethink the beliefs of their ancestors. All that ancestors believed in was not necessarily right and beneficial.

Thus in early Islam change was never thought to be a 'sin'. The Qur'an laid great emphasis on 'ilm as well as 'amal (knowledge and practice). The Arab peninsula was an area of darkness in many ways. Only poetry was their passion. The other area of information they were proud of was what they called ansab i.e. the family tree. For them the nobility (sharf) of ancestors was more important than their own. They were greatly proud of their ancestry. Islam changed all this. It brought about complete revolution in the Arab mind set which spread to other areas conquered by the Arabs. The emphasis was on present and future, not on the past. The Individual was brought at the centre, not the tribe. The individual was made responsible for everything, not the tribe one belonged to.

There was no quest for knowledge in the pre-Islamic Arabia. In fact any knowledge except that of ones tribal ancestry was derided upon. The Qur'an, on the other hand, put all the emphasis on 'ilm (knowledge) which is a very comprehensive work in Arabic. 'Ilm is used for science as well. It includes knowledge of everything created by Allah including the knowledge of creator himself. Allah invites human beings to think, to brood and to reflect on the whole universe, on the creation of Allah, the stars, the earth, the plants and the animals. Also, the Qur'an lays great emphasis on induction rather than deduction. The former leads to objective knowledge of the universe and latter to speculation. Modern science is based on induction rather than deduction.

Also, knowledge was given further practical orientation by laying equal emphasis on 'amal (practice). 'Ilm without 'amal was projected as bereft of any benefit to humanity. Correct knowledge ('ilm al-yaqin) and healthy practice ('amal salih) is the most desirable synthesis. The word 'ilm al-yaqin (i.e. knowledge with conviction) is of great value. It is thus clear that the Qur'an neither encourages superficial knowledge nor allows its instrumentalisation. Qur'an has been described as hudan lil muttaqin i.e. a guide for the God fearing or the pious. Thus the term 'ilm is not only comprehensive but also value-oriented. Knowledge must not only be true but should also be based on conviction; it should not only advance the state of information about the universe but should also serve the humanity.

Similarly 'amal (practice) as pointed out above, has to be nothing but salih (healthy). The practice, based on knowledge and conviction, must promote the health of society. The modern capitalist society often exploits knowledge for private gain. Knowledge as an industry for private gain is negation of all human values which leads humanity astray and hence condemnable. Such a knowledge and wrong practice ('amal ghayr salih) will be harmful to humanity and will distort all values. Knowledge per se is desirable but it should be essentially value-oriented in order to benefit the human society.

In Greece as well as in Persia, knowledge, at the time of rise of Islam, had become quite speculative and devoid of external observation. Such a knowledge may be useful in its own way but fails to advance our knowledge about the creation, about the universe. The Greek and Persian knowledge had, therefore, become stagnant and mere speculative exercises. The Qur'an, while not rejecting the importance of philosophy, speculation and knowledge of inner self, lays even more emphasis on objective knowledge which is even more beneficial to humanity.

What kind of revolution it was in a stagnant society of Arabian peninsula whose whole universe was its own tribe cannot be easily imagined by us today. It was nothing short of a total break from the past; a break which changed the whole quality of social life and brought about tremendous advancement in knowledge. The ritual system of Islam - 'ibadat - was also not devoid of value-system. The French revolution had given important values to modern society - equality, fraternity and liberty. Islam had given these values to humanity much earlier and had devised its 'ibadat (ritual system) to reflect these values and hence these rituals were also made part of 'amal salih (practice leading to social health).

Take for example the prayer system (salat) of Islam. Since Islam's whole emphasis is on equality and dignity of all human beings and to create a society without any hierarchy, all Muslims have to stand in one line for prayer. In this there is absolutely no distinction of caste, race or social status. Since slavery was initially permitted by Islam (though to be ultimately abolished) even their human dignity was duly recognised by making it obligatory on them to stand in one line with their masters. In this respect no discrimination was allowed between masters and slaves as both are human beings and both possess the same degree of human dignity.

Islam strictly forbade a human being prostrating before another human being, not even before the Prophet. It is only Allah before whom one could prostrate (perform sajdah). It is only unseen Allah who is the greatest and human rulers are His creation and hence equal to other human beings. Thus Islam wipes out, in one sweep, all distinctions between the ruler and the ruled. Islam does not even recognise, let alone allow to be practised, the institution of monarchy.

Similarly, Islam does not accord any priority whatsoever to race, tribe, language, creed or colour. The Qur'an makes categorical statement to this effect (see 49:13 and 30:22). It also strictly forbade the Muslims from making any distinction between an Arab and non-Arab and a white and a black. The Prophet, in order to effectively demolish any such hierarchical distinctions, appointed a black liberated slave from Ethiopia, Bilal Habshi, to give azan ( i.e. call Muslims to prayer), a distinction, many Arabs close to the Prophet, intensely desired. But the Prophet accorded this distinction to a black slave to emphasise the importance of equality of all human beings.

No social or political system had put so much importance to the idea of human dignity and equality until the French revolution of 1789 i.e. until the close of eighteenth century. And, as pointed out before, this concept of equality was also spiritualised by integrating it with the prayer system of Islam. Thus equality found its place in the spiritual realm too. But it is a matter of shame that Muslims did not steadfastly adhered to this concept of equality and adopted the caste and other hierarchical systems including the institution of monarchy under alien influences. The Islamic teachings were discarded and yielded to other pressures.

The other slogan of the French revolution was fraternity. The Prophet of Islam when he migrated to Madinah devised the institution of ukhuwwah (fraternity) and made every Meccan migrant a brother of the Medinese Muslim. The Qur'an also declared that all faithfuls are brothers (49:10) and included women too in this category. The word mu'minun, as all commentators of the Qur'an agree, is inclusive of both sexes. The third part of the French revolution was 'liberty' which essentially means freedom of conscience. The Qur'an accepted this freedom of conscience as declared in the verse 2:256 and chapter 109. It is, in fact, erroneous belief that Islam does not allow freedom of conscience.

It is again the later Muslim juristic formulations and practice which is responsible for such an impression. If one goes by the Qur'anic pronouncements it is crystal clear that freedom of conscience is quite central to the Qur'anic thought. In fact every individual is free to do what he or she likes and reward or punishment will entirely depend on individual actions. In the tribal universe of Arabia it was the tribe which decided individual actions denying him completely the freedom of conscience. However, Islamic revolution put individual at the centre, not the tribe or any other collectivity. The individual was made answerable for all his deeds - good or bad. It was a revolutionary step in a tribal society where individual was only a part of collectivity totally subordinate to it.

Also, as anthropologists tell us, in a tribal society the main fulcrum of knowledge is knowledge of received traditions and tribal customs. Any other knowledge which is not related to the tribe is totally meaningless. The ideas of cosmos, creation and all related notions originate from the tribal practices. The frontiers of knowledge, in other words, cannot transcend the boundaries of the tribal universe. Islam, however, broke these tribal boundaries and made knowledge coterminous with the universe i.e. the entire creation of Allah.

It is also very interesting to note that the Arab world which had never known beyond tribal customs and traditions, became the fore-runner in the world of jurisprudence. We may have several problems today with the Shari'ah formulations. But, the juris corpus of Islam, was a highly progressive body of laws in those days. The French revolution, as pointed out above, had talked of liberty, equality and fraternity but had no reference to justice. Islam, on the other hand, made justice as central as equality, liberty and fraternity.

The notion of justice is very central to Islam (5:8). And it is justice in its absolute and varied sense. The Qur'anic notion of justice is quite comprehensive. No Muslim jurist could ever ignore the significance of justice in his legal formulations. But how justice was understood to have been done has of course been debatable. There may be arguments about how justice was thought to have been done in medieval ages and what is modern notion of justice. But that does not reduce the significance of justice as a Qur'anic doctrine. The relativity of medieval notion of justice and its modern notion is understandable.

The Qur'anic notion of justice was not tribal but universal. And this made all the difference. The Qur'anic notion of justice is so universal that it laid down that even the enmity with any one else should not come in the way of dispensing justice (5:8). In a tribal society justice was confined to within the tribal limits. There was no question of justice vis a vis other tribes. Islam, on the other hand, lays down that justice be done even to an enemy. The Qur'an gives the principle of justice as a norm; the legal doctors applied it to various issues which arose from time to time, according to their own ability, understanding and socio-cultural background.

It is necessary to understand that it is justice which has to be rigorously applied to all the issues in framing laws. It is the very foundation of the juris corpus of Islam. It is more central than the corpus of laws inherited by us. As the legal doctors applied the notion of justice in keeping with their own circumstances we must rethink the issues in Shari'ah laws based on the notion of centrality of justice particularly in the sphere of family laws.

Here we would like to point out that the position of women in the Qur'an is not subordinate to that of man. Certain verses (like 4:34) are used selectively, and out of context, to project subordination of woman to man ignoring several other verses (like 2:228, 9:71, 33:35 and others) which clearly indicate equality of man and woman. The verses 9:71 and 33:35 are quite central in this respect. In verse 9:71 men and women are not only shown each others friends but also charged with equal responsibilities of enjoining good and forbidding evil, keeping up prayer and paying the poor-rate (zakat). How could then women be inferior to men?

Thus we should not hesitate in having a second look at the Shari'ah laws which have in built medieval biases towards women. The Qur'an was the first scripture in the world to accord equal dignity to man and woman. Prior to Islam even great Greek philosophers thought that animal and women have no soul and hence women deserve no legal rights. Women could not inherit, let alone holding property in her own right, even in Roman law, prior to Islam.

The spirit of the Qur'an is more important than the opinions of medieval legal doctors and hence entire corpus of Shari'ah laws in this regard should be re-examined and re-thought. Also, as pointed out in some of my books (Rights of Women in Islam, The Qur'an, Women and Modern Society and Status of Women in Islam) there never was unanimity on these issues among the legal doctors themselves. The opinions differed from one legal doctor to another and on several issues even the disciples differed from their masters. While some legal doctors do not even admit women's evidence on hudud matters, others, like Imam Abu Hanifa, maintain that a woman can even become qadi on the basis of verse 9:71. The Shari'ah laws as formulated by early Muslim fuqaha' (i.e. legal doctors) need to be thoroughly reviewed. The centrality of justice must be asserted.

Knowledge, as pointed out above, was quite central to Islam. Some of the 'ulama, however, confined knowledge to knowledge of din (i.e. religion of Islam). But there is no strong evidence in the Qur'an or sunna in this respect. It is product of theologians' own mind. Since theologians were primarily concerned with religious or theological matters, they tried to confine knowledge to theological issues alone. Imitating these theologians many people still argue that 'ilm should be confined to the 'ilm al-din and reject other spheres of knowledge. But this view is no more a central view in the world of Islam today.

In fact this view that knowledge in the Qur'an is confined to the knowledge of din did not go uncontested even in the early history of Islam. Knowledge from different sources and from different fields was not only accepted by early Muslims but was also creatively advanced by them. The entire corpus of Greek knowledge in various sciences, mathematics and philosophy was transferred into Arabic language and passed on to Europe. No wonder than that H.G.Wells, the noted British historian, has described Arabs as foster father of knowledge. The Europe had lost contact with the Greek treasure of knowledge and they re-established contact with it only through the agency of Arabs. The House of wisdom (Bait al-Hikmah) established by the Abbasids fulfilled this task.

The Muslims assimilated this knowledge and also enriched it immensely. Their own contribution in enriching the Greek knowledge acquired by them was no mean contribution. Also, they imbibed knowledge from other sources as well i.e. Persian and Indian sources, besides their own Islamic sources. The Mu'tazila ( of whom we plan to write in detail in another paper) were a party of rationalists who gave primacy to reason. For them reason was the test of faith and not vice versa. Thus if reason holds something good, Shari'ah will also hold it good. The Asha'irah, on the other hand, held something good because Shari'ah held it good even if reason contradicted it.

The Mu'tazila also gave primacy to justice along with reason. this is what the modern rationalists also plead. Thus the Mu'tazilah were as fervent advocates of reason and justice as the modern rationalists are. But the modern rationalists tend to be atheists which Mu'tazilah were not. Mu'tazilah were also known as the party of tawhid wa al-'adl i.e. party of unity of Godhood and justice. Thus Mu'tazilah were essentially theists but also rationalists.

Islam, as all of us know, had arisen in Arabian peninsula and had its vitality and practicability. Practical rationality remained quite central to it. But when it spread to the ancient centres of great cultures like parts of Eastern Byzantian empire, or Persian empire and India, it was confronted with entirely different mind set. These great civilizations were based, as pointed out before, on speculative reason and sophisticated intellectual achievements. This had both positive and negative impact on Islamic thought.

The Islamic thought became inward looking on one hand, and, lost some of its most fundamental concerns like justice for weaker sections of society. These centres of civilization were centres of feudal culture and along with feudal sophistication, feudal values were also imbibed. Thus what Islamic thought gained in swing, lost in its sweep. Islam spread with great rapidity because of its great concern with justice for weaker sections of society but now it became an integral part of a huge Islamic empire and nearly lost its sensitivity towards suffering of the downtrodden of the society.

The Qur'an which was so direct and simple in its teachings, became a target for exercises in sophisticated inner meanings justifying hierarchical values which came to be acquired through feudal cultures of Roman and Persian empires. Monarchy became an acceptable institution and blind and uncritical obedience to the ruling monarch on one hand, and religious establishment of the time, on the other, became very common. Disobedience to them was construed to be disobedience to Allah and His Book. The earlier critical faculty and concern for justice was totally lost. It was in this atmosphere that Islamic thought became totally stagnant and part of oppressive establishment. There is great need to recapture its earlier vitality, dynamism and sensitivity. Critical evaluation and not blind obedience, is closer to the Islamic spirit. What predominates today, however, is Islamic theological thought, on one hand, and, age-old shari'ah formulation, on the other. It has made Islamic thought totally stagnant.

What is to be noted is that what goes in the name of theology is human construct and divine commandments as understood by human agency under a set of socio-cultural influences. For example, 'Ilm al-Kalam (Islamic dialectics) came into existence as a reaction to the widening influence of Greek philosophy and Greek sciences during the Abbasid period. This became an integral part of Islamic theology. Kalam, undoubtedly influenced the great minds of Islamic world of the time and also the succeeding generation for several centuries. But now Kalam cannot be treated as unchangeable and reified. There is urgent need for a new ilm al-kalam in the light of modern corpus of scientific knowledge.

A religion consists of several sub-systems like ritual system ('ibadat), institutional system (like zakat, 'ushr, etc.), thought system and value system (like equality, justice, compassion etc.). Of these ritual and value- system are permanent and cannot be changed under any circumstances. But the thought system could and must change, if religion has to keep pace with time, its thought system should change. There is misconception among Muslims about the Qur'anic verse 5:3 (i.e. This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favour to you...). They think that now what we have inherited is perfect in every respect and there is no need for re-thinking in any sense at all. Our din is perfect.

The din is undoubtedly perfect but the meaning and significance of din should be understood properly. One cannot include the kalam, for example, in din. The Islamic thought system has been evolved by theologians who are human beings and no human person can ever be perfect. Human beings think under certain influences which they cannot transcend as human beings. All Divine commands are sought to be understood by human agents under certain socio-cultural influences and these influences are reflected in the religious-thought system. Once we understand this there will be no resistance to change in the thought system. This will bring about a great revolution.

The Islamic Shari'ah is also an embodiment of Islamic values. Islamic Shari'ah is nothing but a sincere attempt by the fuqaha' (Islamic jurists) to apply divine commands and the Islamic values to a number of issues like marriage, divorce, inheritance, nature of evidence, crimes like theft, rape, adultery, division of property etc. This attempt to approach these issues in the light of Islamic values and divine commands was also influenced by the socio-cultural circumstances of the time. They could not have applied Islamic values and divine commands to these issues in vacuum. There is great deal of change in these external influences and hence many of these shari'ah formulations stand in need of change. This change does not amount to tempering with the divine commands but making yet another human attempt in the light of our own experiences and our own circumstances.

If we evolve this understanding of religion the dynamics of problem changes and religion will be even greater force to bring about spiritual transformation for the better. Naturally there will be differences in opinion while bringing about these changes. We should not be afraid of differences. These differences, if honest and sincere, provide greater vigour to human thought. The founders of the different schools of jurisprudence during the second and third centuries of Islam were not afraid of differences. Why should we be?

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