Misunderstanding Traditionalism

RTX1LDM9

By Shaikh M. Nizami

Kwame Appiah said, in his first Reith Lecture, ‘If scriptures were not subject to interpretation – and thus to reinterpretation – they wouldn’t continue to guide people over long centuries. When it comes to their survival, their openness is not a bug but a feature.’ Here he wasn’t making a point on what ought to happen, but pointing out what has always happened and how scriptures, across religions, have remained relevant despite significant changes to attitudes and ways of life. What Appiah said is equally applicable to the Islamic tradition. Never has it been the case that a scholar had little new to say about contemporary matters, or sought to evaluate and perhaps reform earlier sentiments, whatever the contemporary matter of their time.

Inherently, reinterpretation does not take place for its own sake but for the objective of contextualising the shari’ah. Reactionaries often assume that contextualising revelation is a project of the liberals, that is to say that the endeavour is only the aspiration of those who intend to formulate the law beyond religious recognition and aligned with dictates that ultimately serve a heretical or nefariously political agenda. Whilst the project of such ‘extreme’ progressives is certainly existent, such a reactionary approach simply throws the baby out with the bath water. There are far too many examples of re-contextualisation across tafsir or fiqh to fully innumerate, in fact nearly every mas’alah (legal issue) may present as an example. So I point to one, merely because it came up in a recent conversation. The issue is far more sophisticated than I present here, but for brevity it should suffice.

Based on a hadith related by Ibn Abbas, Imam Ahmad opined that a poor person (faqir) should be given no more than fifty dirhams of zakat, yet later Hanbali scholars clearly disagreed. Al-Mardawi held that the position of the Hanbali school was that a poor person should be given that which suffices him/her, thus the amount should not be specific but based on sufficiency (kifayah) in the economic context. Earlier Hanbali scholars, like al-Zarkashi, in making sense of the narration from Ahmad, speculated that perhaps Ahmad said this based on the hadith of Ibn Mas’ud but then retracted the view when he realised that the hadith was undependable. Or perhaps it was in reference to a specific group of people for whom fifty dirhams sufficed. For Majd al-Din b. Taymiyyah, it was clear, as it is to most Maliki and Shafi’i jurists, that the Prophet articulated the amount of fifty dirhams in a context where fifty dirhams helped to lift them out of abject poverty.

Little acknowledgement of the expansive nature of scholarly opinion and scholarly method has meant that many modern day ‘scholars’ assume scholarship is to simply restate the same conclusions as the past without any deliberation. But the key words here are investigation and deliberation, through asking the appropriate questions and seeking answers that make our faith applicable and actionable in the real world, and not fanciful theory debated online or in the abstract. If the job of ‘scholars’ is simply to relate past views, then they’re not really scholars but somewhat glorified translators who make turathi (historical tradition) texts accessible to an English speaking audience. The failure to recognise this has led to a quasi authority relegated to the tribunal of the laity, where matters of the law or theology are forced into naive strictures and oversimplifications. Is it then any wonder that avowed secularists and non-Muslims view Islamic law as a rudimentary legal system that finds no place in the modern world?

Now that is not to say that suspicion towards reinterpretation is always unreasonable. We often find those who advocate it the loudest, are usually those who tend to have a political agenda, and very rarely do these advocates demonstrate how a reinterpretation will facilitate godliness; they tend to be fixated on addressing only those religious issues that non-Muslims have a problem with rather than those relevant to the everyday lives of believers. But on the flip-side, it is undeniable that others have an irrational commitment to whatever is deemed as ‘the past’, not because of the persuasiveness or applicability of what might have been said, but merely because it’s from the past. This idea is usually drawn from the Prophet’s statement, ‘the best of generations is my generation, then those who follow, then those who follow them.’[2] Given the sequential order, people infer from this, that every later generation will be ‘less’ than the one preceding it. The word used by the Prophet is khair, usually translated as ‘best’, but best in what sense? And does best, in the context of what the Prophet intended in this hadith include any interpretation? We know that ‘best’ here cannot mean the process required to arrive at optimal applications, a) from many different examples and cases, and b) in most circumstances most interpretations are not even agreed on across a generation, so which interpretation by virtue of being from the past should take precedence?

As for the examples or cases, for brevity I merely point out three. Firstly, in the farewell sermon the Prophet said about disseminating knowledge, ‘perhaps the one who hears it understands it better than the one who relates it.’ Secondly, if the earliest of opinions were authoritative by virtue of being early, later scholars would not have studied them, disagreed, and formulated appropriate responses or revisions. For example, it is commonly held that three immediate utterances of divorce count as irrevocable, and that this was something all scholars held since the time of Umar b. al-Khattab with many claiming ijma’ (juristic consensus). Yet, some later scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah famously differed holding that three immediate utterances of divorce only count as one, and thus, revocable. Ibn Taymiyyah wasn’t the only major scholar to show independent reasoning. Al-Tahawi, al-Nawawi and a whole host of scholars had their fair share of revisions. Thirdly, the Quran infers the problems of remaining committed to traditionalism for the sake of it, and demands some nuance and cerebral evaluation. The pagans were heavily criticised for their provincialism and simplistic retorts, ‘We shall only follow what we found our forefathers up to!’[3]

Considering ways in which to apply revelatory texts isn’t new, since this is exactly what scholars have been doing for a millennium, and a novel application ought to be expected given that the occurrence to which it is being applied is different to the past. As for re-interpretations, and by that I mean interpreting something in a different light to the perceived past, there are two brief points to be made. Firstly, the views or interpretations of the past are often consumed thoughtlessly, without attention paid to why a scholar might have said something, who they were talking to, and whether they intended it in the way it is later taken. Often, in the modern world, we impose our interpretation on the past for the purpose of rhetoric and to strengthen ideological commitments. Secondly, is it inconceivable that God revealed some verses in a certain way that they’d be understood based on specific variables, this meaning that the factors in each period/age would determine how a verse would be understood and consequently acted upon? Sulaiman al-Tufi, the famed Hanbali legal philosopher points to this when discussing the verse, ‘We have explained everything in detail’[4] in his Sharh Mukhtasar Rawdah, that most ahkam are not detailed by the Quran, Sunnah or early Imams, so God deferred the ‘detail’ to the mujtahids of every age who offer verdicts from God as detailed by what revelation infers.[5]

A common retort is that this would make our religion considerably different to what has been practised for more than 1400 years. Such a retort is unfounded since it overlooks the fact that until relatively recently this has always been happening; our religion over 1400 years is the product of this very process. It also assumes that we are all homogenous when it comes to interpretations (besides issues of a qat’i nature, such as the five pillars) which has never been the case, and especially not now. Even in looking back at the medieval period, the books of tafsir – whilst discussing the same text (the Quran) – are obviously not all the same and exegetes (mufassirin) have interpreted verses in variant ways. The various schools of Islamic law also present somewhat variant ways of living and worshipping. As some mundane examples, the Malikis are dog lovers and the Hanbalis would offer the Friday prayer before midday. Changing our mindset to be less suspicious about things we haven’t heard doesn’t mean that the differences in outcomes between various eras would be drastically different, but enough that godliness on a given issue might be fully realised in each particular epoch, since the impediments that come from disregarding variances between the ages, and viewing past interpretations as static, are effectively removed.

For some Muslims, religious understanding is specific to the medieval age; the modern age doesn’t exist or, they suggest, we should ignore it and pretend we live in another time or at least act like we do, which has been a major cause for cognitive dissonance in contemporary Muslims. It is held that the idea of a religious opinion not articulated before the 17th century is a non-idea. Even a contemporary fatwa has to be premised on the argument of a past scholar, and presenting a scholarly argument that draws on revelation and which has been reasoned cogently is deemed by many as worthless, though were the same thing presented in a modern print of a medieval text it would be deemed a marvellous display of Islamic scholarship. So for all the talk that revelation is ‘timeless’, it doesn’t seem so when our contemporary approach is merely to regurgitate a fatwa meant for another world, and then engage in hermeneutical gymnastics in (what is usually) a poor attempt to make it relevant to the modern age, and the western world no less. Al-Saamiri, in his introduction to the fiqh text al-Mustaw’ib, put it lucidly, ‘and how (can it be said) that the earlier cohort left nothing (to be developed) for the later cohort…it is merely the product of intellect, and God granted the intellect to the latter just as he did to the former. It is said that there is no statement that incites learning more than the statement of Ali: “the value of a person is in what he can improve” and “people are the product of what they improve.” And there is no statement more harmful to knowledge than their saying: “the first left nothing for the last” since it diverts from knowledge and learning, and restricts the later cohort only to that presented by the earlier one.’[6]

Now, of course, this speaks to those who are taken as guides and scholars, and as a disclaimer, my point here isn’t that those unqualified in such undertakings suddenly run wild with flights of fancy, but where it does concern lay Muslims is that rather than employing a perpetual state of suspicion, they attempt to embrace all of the asrar (secrets) of revelation, the layered meanings and possibilities that revelation opens up, holistically exploring all of the godly opportunities it affords us, rather than discounting what they don’t know simply because they don’t know it (i.e. haven’t heard it before) or haphazardly look to those have little to offer beyond ancient soundbites. The consequence of this is that our own contemporary religious practice ends up a partial Islam, between ritualism and much of that which is lost in translation. The popular Islamic saying that differences of opinion are a mercy, speaks to the legitimacy of having various readings that allow for options to make the shari’ah most relevant. Of course, any interpretation has to show how it sits well within the entire construct of the shari’ah, aligning with its overarching philosophy. Therefore, when misinformed reformers posit the hollow argument that God might want something simply because He wants ease for us, it does not suffice; the statement is far too ambiguous since there are second-order factors that underpin this sentiment such as what ‘type’ of ease and what are the benchmarks? And if one uses ‘ease’ in an unqualified fashion, what exactly is the purpose of taklif (legal obligation, linguistically defined as exertion)?

As I hope to make clear, I’m not advocating a free-for-all. But what I am putting on the table is that where much religious rhetoric has been premised on staying true to ‘the past’, it is actually a very new way of doing religion. Classical scholars didn’t simply do with those before them, as we do to them, but fully embraced the revealed word to make it as applicable to their context as possible. If a commitment to the past is what we must have, then we ought to distinguish between being committed to the way the scholars of the past did religion, rather than simplistically focusing on specific statements intended for specific people. Jaroslav Pelikan famously put it that ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.’ The first is clearly what God wants, saying, ‘He wishes to make His laws clear to you and guide you to the traditions of those before you…”[7] As for traditionalism, for the sake of the future of Islam in the west, it might well be worthwhile untangling it from our commitments and ongoing maturation.


[2] Al-Bukhari and Muslim, related by Abdullah b. Mas’ud.

[3] Quran 31:21

[4] Quran 17:12

[5] al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar Rawdah. Resalah Publishers: Lebanon (1992), p.134

[6] al-Saamiri, al-Mustaw’ib. Ma’arif Publishers: Riyadh (1993), p. 80

[7] Quran 4:26

Post a comment

Book your tickets