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Tradition and modernity in Islam

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Every religion today is going through the struggle for change. When new challenges arise some try to reinforce tradition while others strive for change. This struggle goes on. Islam is no exception to it. However, it is nothing new. This tension between tradition and modernity in Islam is not new but started with colonial period in late 18th or early 19th century. However, tension between tradition and modernity has intensified with developments like process of globalization, with West not only insisting on theory of clash of civilization but also launching war against Afghanistan and Iraq and similar other developments.

Also, in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with dire poverty among Muslims and consequent illiteracy, tradition has very strong influence. In countries like these tradition and modernity become binary opposites. Tradition seems to be ruling the roast and modernity, as far as masses are concerned, is on the back foot. But it is not so only among Muslims but in all other communities in these countries.

Modernity means change and change is resisted by people on one hand, and, by the leaders on the other, for various reasons. First important reason for resistance to change is sense of insecurity which change implies. Tradition appears to be time tested experience with which generations have lived. Change brings sense of insecurity and uncertainty and even fear. Tradition is deeply embedded in ones inner being and produces strong emotions. Change, at best, appeals to intellect and poor masses lack intellectuality.

Secondly, the leaders have their own interest in retaining traditions. Old traditions have led to creation of certain establishments and institutions controlled by these leaders. They would not let go these institutions from their leadership. Apart from this these leaders themselves are product of these traditions and they have lived these traditions. They themselves have been trained in these traditions. Thus not only their leadership but also their sense of certainty is threatened by the process of change.

If change prevails then they loose leadership of these institutions for which they can be hardly be expected to be ready. Not only this, their own conviction is hit. One should not underestimate the role of inner conviction. Leadership interests do play an important role, conviction too plays no less important role. All these factors need to be kept in mind while trying to understand resistance to change.

But change, as noted Urdu poet Iqbal said, only is permanent and everything else perishes. No one can avoid change forever. All changes are not of similar nature. Some changes are technological, others are of theological nature. Technological changes are also resisted to begin with but accepted over a period of time. Now technology has become part of ones life and no one resists it but, on the other hand, used as an instrument to disseminate tradition.

Today computer and Internet are used in all traditional institutions. What is worse, the ‘ulama have even accepted talaq through SMS. Many husbands divorce their wives from other countries through SMS and traditional ‘ulama have accepted their legitimacy. However, and it is important to note, they would not accept khula’ given through SMS by wife to her husband.

Not that technological changes are accepted easily. Initially all technological changes are resisted but subsequently accepted. However, when it comes to theological formulations, changes are fiercely resisted. Theological dogmas are considered totally immutable on the grounds they are divine. All shari’ah formulations are upheld sacrosanct on the basis of divine origin.

First I would like to argue that every new religion in the world initiated process of change including Islam. Buddhism challenged so many old traditions and rituals and appealed to human reason and promoted certain values of which compassion and sensitivity to human suffering was foremost. Christianity too, challenged the powerful vested interests among the Jewish sacerdotal establishments and emphasized values like love and justice and Christ found his companions among the poorest of the society and worked for their relief.

However, soon a class of priesthood developed among followers of these religions who monopolized truth of respective religions and developed dogmas and built institutions on the basis of these dogmas and traditions. Subsequently these dogmas became divine and no one could challenge these dogmas. Soon huge establishments came into existence around these dogmas which were sought to be controlled by the religious leaders.

Islam also challenged old traditions; and sought to remove social malaise on one hand, and, human suffering on the other. The Qur’an sought to stress rationality and questioned all prevailing ‘religious’, social and dominant traditions and stressed human dignity, sexual equality, justice and compassion. It too sought to remove human suffering in society by emphasizing just distribution of wealth and strongly condemned accumulation of wealth. Its greatest contribution in social and economic matters was its promotion of economic justice and human dignity irrespective of caste, color, creed, sex, language and nationality. It also stressed rationality and opposed superstition.

It foresaw human rights and gender equality and also invited human beings to reflect on the creation of this universe and obey immutable laws of nature created; by Allah, one and only God who is neither borne nor gives birth to any human being. He creates. The Qur’an also held everyone accountable to only Allah, to no other human being. The Qur’an denounced all superstitions woven around the idols kept in Ka’bah through forceful logic.

The Qur’an rejected all traditional arguments like ‘our forefathers have been doing it, were they wrong? The Qur’an’s simple argument was why don’t you reflect, why don’t you exercise power of reason? The Qur’an pitted tradition against reason to liberate people from the grip of superstition and ancestral traditions. Reason, it emphasized, is liberative. Acceptance one and the only God liberates human beings from all kinds of slavery. And since justice was at the centre of Islamic values, all those belonging to weaker sections flocked to embrace Islam.

Islam, to begin with, attracted women, slaves, poor, youth and those who were dissatisfied with traditions to its fold which included some people of intellect and influence. Among later category there were some who were wealthy but were highly dissatisfied with unjust system and tribal customs and traditions. Islam tried to demolish these customs and traditions in no uncertain terms.

The Prophet (PBUH) himself was quite truthful and highly trustworthy though he came from a poor family although it was high in social status. He never claimed any miracles or superstitious powers. When people of Mecca demanded miracles the Qur’an said in unambiguous words Muhammad is a human being like you, he eats, sleeps and walks on earth like you. His only miracle is Qur’an? Produce Qur’an, if you can. Also, Qur’an repeatedly says bring arguments (hatu burhanakum) if you can. Thus Qur’an relies on intellectual arguments, not on miracles or unquestionable dogmas.

Now if we reflect a little this most modern approach. What is modernity, if not this? Modernity relies on reason and power of intellect, not on tradition. Modernity does not accept the authority of tradition but of reason. The Qur’an also builds up its case on intellectual arguments and demolishes traditions then prevalent with force of arguments. No where it supports its case on extra-rational arguments.

Thus as far as Qur’an is concerned reason is central, not tradition. Yes, it does emphasize faith (iman) but no human being can exist without faith. It is wrong to think that faith is irrational and blind. It is highly superficial approach. Faith, in order to be healthy, has to be rational. Without faith life will become impossible. We have faith in our teacher, in our doctor, in our political leader, or even in theories of science. Any psychologist will tell you this faith is highly necessary.

However, one has to take care that faith should not be blind. Total lack of faith would lead to skepticism and a skeptic lives without any conviction in anything and remains uncertain about everything in life. Life without conviction is life without meaning and life without meaning is life without direction and life without direction is life wasted.

However, faith in tradition is blind faith. Before accepting anything or before reposing faith in anything one has to exercise ones power of reason to thoroughly investigate what one is going to accept with an open mind. Thus a real faithful is always engaged in quest for truth. Once you engage in quest for truth you develop deep conviction and it is this state of mind and heart that creates inner conviction which Qur’an calls imani. Thus genuine faith can never be superstitious.

One cannot act without faith. In fact right action is possible only with a state of conviction. One undertakes great hazards and makes great sacrifices only for the sake of inner conviction. No one without inner conviction can ever make great sacrifices to achieve ones goal. One should not confuse, which we often do, between inner conviction and tradition. One puts ones life at stake for ones inner conviction but tradition can never inspire any human being for sacrifices. Traditions make our life mechanical and our acts become routine without force of inner conviction.

A progressive and dynamic society relies more on reason than on tradition. When a major revolution takes place in any society, that society rejects all traditions and moves on. When Islam appeared on the scene all pre-Islamic traditions were rejected and new values and teachings inspired people and society came alive and Islam inspired people with new ideas and new goals. Traditional society was a dying society.

It was under inspiring teachings of Islam that the Arab society achieved new heights of knowledge. New sciences came into existence and new philosophies were developed. The thirst for knowledge increased and new horizons of knowledge were sought after. Translations from literature from other countries like Greece, Persia and India were begun and Dar al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was established in Baghdad. All this became possible once pre-Islamic traditions were rejected. The Arabs, who had clung to traditions for centuries could achieve great heights of knowledge.

Now once again traditions have gripped Islamic countries. The ‘ulama refuse to accept change even within Islamic frame-work. For any problem arising they seek solution only in traditions. Any innovation is ‘sin’. Thus medieval text has become central. Whatever commentaries were written on Qur’an by early commentators like Tabari, Ibn Kathir, Kasshaf and others have become as sacred as the Qur’an itself. Also, the hadith literature which was compiled two centuries after the death of the Holy Prophet is also treated on par with the Qur’an.

The early Islamic society was quite progressive and dynamic but since early 13th century, it began to stagnate. Besides theology, early Muslims achieved great heights of knowledge in natural sciences and secular philosophies. Any one could be proud of these achievements. In fact Europe was passing through dark ages when Islamic society was thriving with knowledge. Europe learnt from Arabs. Most advanced universities of the world were located in Baghdad, Cairo and other places.

It is true there were problems. Some theologians opposed dissemination of secular sciences and philosophies. There was polemical debate between Ibn Rushd (Avveros) and Imam Ghazzali. Imam Ghazzali wrote his famous work Tahafut al-filasafai (Bewilderment of Philosophers) to which Ibn Rushd replied with a book Tahafut Tahafut al-Falasifah (Bewilderment of Bewilderment of Philosophers).

Imam Ghazzali himself had studied philosophy in depth but felt dissatisfied and ultimately could find inner peace in tasawwuf (Sufism). Philosophy, he felt, fails to answer ultimate questions of our destiny and leads to more intellectual anxiety and it is only religion which ensures spiritual growth and inner peace with conviction. It is true intellect cannot give answers which could provide inner peace. Those who seek inner peace take refuge in religion or in spiritual sciences like the Sufis.

But those who are ever inquisitive about this universe its origin and its end, never tire of intellectual inquiry. Quest for truth is a continuing process. It is continuing intellectual inquiry which leads to new dimensions of knowledge. Theologians in all religions generally resist intellectual inquiry. It is also interesting to note that once theology is born based on scripture and other social and historical influences, it becomes ‘divine’ for coming generations of theologians. Re-thinking in the field of theology is strictly prohibited.

Theology cannot be treated, strictly speaking, as wholly divine. It is partly divine and partly results of human intellectual efforts to grapple with the meaning and significance of scriptural injunctions. And any intellectual effort cannot escape social, historical and geographical influences. Thus any product of intellectual inquiry should not be treated as closed under the term divine.

The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) always encouraged efforts to find solution of the problems facing the believers. He encouraged his companion Jabal bin Ma’adh to make intellectual efforts to solve problem through what is called ijtihad and even said if you make mistake in finding solution still you will be awarded single merit and if you find correct solution Allah will reward you doubly.

However, this is acknowledged by all ‘Ulama yet no one encourages ijtihad to meet new challenges arising in the contemporary world. All great Islamic thinkers like Mohammad Abduh who grappled with new problems, resorted to ijtihad and encouraged others too to resort to it. Today the Islamic world is stagnating because any fresh inquiry or thinking is discouraged. The Islamic world today is clinging to traditions developed during the medieval ages.

What is unfortunate is that early Islamic society was most dynamic. Whole corpus of shari’ah law developed through lively debates on the problems that arose and great deal of intellectual efforts went into developing this body of law that exists today. This spirit of inquiry has been totally lost. When Islam spread to non-Arab parts of world host of new problems arose on which no direct guidance was available to the doctors of law who were trying to develop new corpus of law.

It must be said that what these jurists (fuqaha’) developed was most progressive and just law of the day. It was also most comprehensive law in the field of personal laws, criminal law, procedural law and property law. Such corpus of law did not exist before. This was possible only because of intellectual vigor and dynamism. However, today we witness just the opposite in Muslim societies – total stagnation. The ‘ulama have become highly conservative and do not allow any change.

Some modern intellectuals who try to re-think this corpus of law, these ‘ulama oppose it with all force they command. There have been many victims of their wrath. Latest among them is Abu Nasr Zaid of Egypt who had to run away to Holland as the ‘ulama declared him kafir and also issued fatwa that is wife is haram on him. He and his wife had to fled Egypt to avoid being arrested. Earlier Fazlur Rehman from Pakistan had to flee his country to spend rest of his life in the USA where he died.

We can certainly be proud of our tradition but cannot allow it to be impediment in our further development. Allah creates ever-new situations and these new situations become challenge for us. It is because of this overwhelming weight of tradition that Muslims have been divided in number of sects and each sect considers itself on true path and other sects on error. They keep on denouncing each other and spend more time in proving the other wrong than on meeting new challenges. For them last word has been said on every thing and there is absolutely no need to think any more.

Today, in the globalised world, there is urgent need to evolve a new fiqh (jurisprudence) and new theology. The Qur’an is most modern in various aspects of life. It anticipates human rights, which is pre-second World War concept but in Muslim world there is no freedom to think. Freedom of conscience is most fundamental to Qur’an, which declares unambiguously that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. There can be no clearer pronouncement of freedom of conscience and freedom of faith.

In fact this is most modern concept and the whole Qur’anic approach makes it clear that genuine faith requires complete inner satisfaction through thorough intellectual inquiry. If one is not permitted to satisfy oneself intellectually through such an inquiry his/her faith will have no inner conviction and satisfaction and such belief will be empty. Freedom of inquiry is a must for real iman (faith) and hence the Qur’an invited people to satisfy themselves with full freedom of inquiry before they accept Islam.

Thus it is highly necessary today to recreate this atmosphere of free inquiry in the Islamic world. It will create new vigor and will make Islamic world most dynamic and more and more people will be attracted towards Islam. Needless to say Islam spread so fast in the world not because of any supernatural miracle. Its real miracle was its values of justice, compassion and strong sympathy for weaker sections of society, on one hand, and its emphasis on freedom of conscience, on the other hand.

It was this freedom of conscience which attracted great intellectuals of the time from the Persian, Roman and Indian worlds. Islam had come to liberate humanity from all dogmas and age-old traditions but Islamic world today is again is under the grip of these dogmas and traditions.

We have to revive the spirit of early Islamic centuries when great Islamic minds were busy indulging in inquiry. There were invigorating debates like human person is free or determined, the Qur’an is created or coeternal with Allah, something is good as Shari’ah says it is good or Shari’ah says it is good because human reason says it is good. These debates are unthinkable today and we have just to submit, in the name of Islam, to what ‘ulama declare through their fatwas, to be true.

Let that early spirit of Islam be reborn when it was greatest project for social justice and human freedom.