Islamic theological “expertise” in the liberal press

By Umair Azmi for

The article points out the internal inconsistencies in the theological arguments made by A. Faizur Rahman in articles which appeared in

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The affidavit of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in relation to the continuance of personal laws has led to the expected frenzy in the media. The statement is being assailed on grounds of being violative of not just equality and constitutional rights but on the ground of being violative of the Quran as well. In the past few months, such has been the hysteria that even those who are neither Muslim nor have any background in Islamic Studies seem to have an insatiable urge to give a lecture on the “Quranic procedure of divorce”. For example, during this discussion on Uniform Civil Code, a legal expert reduces the question of UCC to the procedure of divorce established by the Quran. It makes one wonder whether Mr. K.T.S. Tulsi would like to see a uniform civil code based on Quranic teachings!

AIMPLB annual program in Lucknow on 21 March 2010

But for all of the talk of “un-Islamic”, barely anyone has undertaken the task of presenting the “real” Islamic side of the matter. A notable exception is Mr. A.Faizur Rahman who does not stop at asserting the un-Islamic nature of the AIMPLB’s stance but also proceeds to provide rebuttals based on the Islamic sources. His piece in The Wire titled “The Muslim Personal Law Board’s Intransigence is Shocking” attacks the affidavit for its supposed illogicalities and its unworthy theological sources, among other factors.

I would like to point out that this is an analysis of the theological aspects of the author’s argument.

We are told that the scholars of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board betray “an appalling ignorance of the Quranic procedure of divorce”. But for a work that seeks to provide the “correct” Islamic interpretation, it is perplexing that it fails to engage with the scriptural evidence amassed by the traditionalists, for there is no dearth of scholars who have discussed the issue of three talaq in a single sitting. For instance, the Pakistani jurist Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani discusses the issue in “Takmilah Fath ul Mulhim”, a commentary on the canonical hadith collection, Sahih Muslim, an English translation of which is available online. The serious scholar would find more detailed material from the polemical-cum-scholarly debates on the issue between scholars belonging to the Hanafi and Ahl-e-Hadees jurisprudential traditions, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s.

In particular, Hadith scholar Mawlana Habib Al-Rahman Al-Azami wrote multiple treatises on the topic. (Some of these have been recently re-published in 2004 under the title “Maqalaat e Abul-Maasir” – Volume I from his hometown, Mau, U.P.). These debates, apart from providing theological depth would also help one to appreciate the intellectual rigour involved in Islamic jurisprudence. For an author to make bombastic claims and not engage with even one opposing scholarly work is a very unintellectual act.

The author’s critique of the AIMPLB’s affidavit attacks the referred sources for being of a “lower level of authenticity” than the hadith books of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim. Other criticisms levelled at the sources in question are that Al-Daraqutni and Al-Bayhaqi were compiled at least three centuries after the Prophet, while the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shayba contains discontinuous reports. These criticisms raise several questions of methodology which must be addressed to make a compelling argument.

Whereas the greater level of authenticity of the collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim are almost unanimously agreed upon in Sunni Muslim scholarship, the superior-most rating is about the collection as whole rather than each individual hadith. Therefore, it is entirely possible for a hadith from the collections of the imams Daraqutni, Bayhaqi or Ibn Abi Shayba to be as authentic as any hadith from the collections of Bukhari or Muslim.

The second criticism is that they are “relatively unknown scholars”. They may be so for the layman but not so for the hadith scholars. Is it the author’s case that fame, as opposed to scholarly aptitude is the criterion for reference? (Or is it that the author wishes to bring down scholarship to the level of the lowest common denominator?) Imam Daraqutni was known in his time as ‘the imam of his time’ and ‘amir-ul-mumineen fi al-hadith’ i.e. ‘leader of the faithful in hadith’ (see Jonathan A.C. Brown, Criticism of the Proto-Hadith Canon: Al-Daraqutni’s Adjustment of the Sahihayn”, Journal of Islamic Studies 15:1). To label him as a ‘relatively unknown scholar’ flies in the face of the historical record.

On Al-Daraqutni and Al-Bayhaqi, we are told that the works were compiled in the third century after the Prophet (Peace be Upon Him). The collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim were also compiled two centuries after the Prophet. If time is the criterion for rendering a work unworthy, what would be the parameter for it? If the intervening generations make Daraqutni and Bayhaqi irrelevant, why does not the same apply to Bukhari and Muslim? For two hundred years implies at least three generations. Interestingly, the generational gap between the Prophet and the compilation of the canonical hadith collections has been one of the factors used by many orientalists to dismiss all hadith literature as fabrications. Does the author wish to impute a similar charge, albeit to collections after Bukhari and Muslim? This tantalizing question is, unfortunately, left unexplored.

Imam Ibn Abi Shayba precedes Imam Bukhari and Muslim, so the charge of “n centuries after the Prophet” would not apply. The criticism directed against his Musannaf is that it contains maqtu’ reports which suffer from discontinuity in the chain of narrators. But according to the reference provided by the author, the Musannaf contains a mix of saheeh (sound), marfoo’ (attributed to the Prophet), mawqoof(attributed to the companions) and maqtoo’ ahadith! Is it the author’s case that if a hadith collection contains a mix of differently graded ahadith, the collection as a whole becomes irrelevant? Once again, the methodology is not explicitly specified.

The author references an earlier article of his on the Quranic procedure for divorce, in which to buttress his case, he presents arguments that contradict his own methodology. He calls the account of the Caliph Umar (May Allah be pleased with him) legalizing talaq al bid’ah – an account found in the Sahih Muslim – unauthentic based on a hadith in the collection of Abu Dawud. The author objects to the affidavit for referencing a collection of hadith other than the authentic collections of Bukhari and Muslim (even though those they were not used as counters to narrations from the more authentic collections), yet the same author finds it legitimate to use a narration of Abu Dawud – which is lower in authenticity than Sahih Muslim – to declare a narration in the latter as unauthentic! Hadith collections compiled three centuries after the Prophet were deemed by the author to be unworthy of being quoted, yet the author quotes a hadith from Mishkat-ul-Masabih, a collection that was compiled more than six centuries after the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him)!

In short, some points of the author’s methodology may be summed up as follows: 1) For others, it is invalid to cite a hadith unless it be from Bukhari or Muslim, even if it does not contradict them, but for A. Faizur Rahman, citing Abu Dawud to counter Muslim is valid. 2) Citing collections of hadith that date to the fourth century of the Hijri era is invalid, but in the case of Mr Faiz, all is hunky dory even while citing a collection dating to the seventh century.
What does one make of such methodological gymnastics?

Far from meeting any standards of scholarship, the pieces in question fail to meet even the basic test of internal consistency. But when it is about everyone’s favourite whipping boys, the “mullas”, why bother with such worthless ideas such as consistency?

The author works in Gurgaon. (Disclaimer: The author is a great grandson of the hadith scholar mentioned in the article, Mawlana Habib Al-Rahman Al-Azami.)