By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
30 September 2015
MODERN ISLAMIC THOUGHT IN A RADICAL AGE
Religious Authority and Internal Criticism
By Muhammad Qasim ZamanCambridge University Press, 2012
Few books have handled the theme of modern Islamic thought with such competence as Muhammad Qasim Zaman. This book combines academic rigour with a focus on the practical ramifications of Islamic thought and how it has influenced the discourse in this radical age. For those known now-a-days as Islamists or fundamentalists, the failures and shortcomings of modern Islamic lands afflict those lands because they adopted alien notions and practices. They fell away from authentic Islam and thus lost their former greatness. Those known as modernists or reformers take the opposite view, seeing the cause of this loss not in the abandonment but in the retention of old ways, and especially in the inflexibility and ubiquity of the Islamic clergy, who, they say, are responsible for the persistence of beliefs and practices that might have been creative and progressive a thousand years ago but are neither today. The modernists' usual tactic is not to denounce religion as such, still less Islam in particular, but to level their criticism against fanaticism. It is to fanaticism—and more particularly to fanatical religious authorities—that they attribute the stifling of the once great Islamic scientific movement and, more generally, of the freedom of thought and expression.
This book examines some of the most important issues facing the Muslim world since the late nineteenth century. These include the challenges to the binding claims of a long-established scholarly consensus, evolving conceptions of the common good, and discourses on religious education, the legal rights of women, social and economic justice, and violence and terrorism. The debates, marked by extensive engagement with Islam's foundational texts and legal tradition, afford vital insights into the ongoing contestations on religious authority and on evolving conceptions of Islam in the Muslim public sphere. A new crop of intellectuals revived the reformist debate in the twentieth century.
They picked up the strands from the epic works of intellectual colossuses and polymaths such as Al-Farabi (872-951 AD), Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 AD), Ibn Arabi (1165-1240 AD), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 AD). Much of the work of eclectic scholars had already been jettisoned by self seeking despots who portrayed themselves as sentinels of everything that constituted Islam. The spectrum of exegetical guesswork had already been exhausted. The new intellectuals, riding on the cusp of a new wave of enlightenment, immediately captured the Muslim minds. Most of them tried to resurrect the hallowed scholarly tradition of the great reformist thinkers of the Golden Age. By the same token the local would diffuse across the global.
Among those who laid the foundations for the reformist ideology and hermeneutical approach to Qur’an were Jamal al-Din al Afghani, (d.1897)Muhammad Abduh (1849 –1905) ) Shah Wali Allah (1703–1762) Hassan al Banna (1906–1949) Sayyid Qutb (1906–(1966) Rashid Rida (1865–1935 ) Mohammed al Ghazali (1917–1996) Muhammad Iqbal1877–1938)Abul A'la Maududi (1903–1979) Mohammed Arkoun (1928–2010) Ali Shari'ati (d.1977) Yusuf al-Qaradawi, (1926-) Ubaid Allah Sindhi (1872-1944).
The iconoclastic strain they inaugurated has been a powerful engine in Islamic discourse, expressing strong criticism either of the stagnation of scholarly institutions and religious practices postdating the early Muslim generations or of those institutions and practices themselves. It has characterized the revival and reform movements of the eighteenth century and has crystallized in the modern reformist movement. Since it desacralised the Ulema, it was stridently derided by the traditionalists who still endorsed servile conformity to the Ulema.
With great insight and erudition, Zaman opens a new window on the ways in which the heirs of the pre-modern Muslim scholarly tradition think, rethink, and argue about contentious issues in the modern world, some of them wielding a soft power that few of their counterparts in the western academy can emulate. Zaman addresses a number of interesting topics with admirable subtlety and meticulous detail.
They range from debates about knowledge formation and tradition within the madrasas of South Asia and their counterparts in the Middle East; women in law and society; a very rich chapter on socio-economic justice where the views of a select number of Deobandi Ulema are ventilated in engaging ways; and, finally, a review of the justification of religiously sanctioned violence in claims made by advocates of jihad and suicide bombings as well as the views of those who refute such practices. It would be impossible to summarize any of these debates since they involve multiple and complex angles and the reader ought to relish those arguments first hand. In fact, the strength of this book lies precisely in its rich and textured detail, where Zaman surveys as well as analyzes valuable aspects of Islamic law and theological practices that were not previously available in English.
This book is bound to influence the current discourse on the relevance of reform and the importance of Ijtihad. The author examines the entire spectrum of Islamic thought on Taqlid (imitation) and Maslaha (common good).The verse Q4:59 which refers to “those in authority” comes in for a detailed treatment with special emphasis on Rashid Rida’s and Iqbal’s formulations on what constitute “authority”.
A unique feature of this book is that Zaman builds a superstructure on the strength of the mainline scholarship and then goes on to elucidate how the second tier scholarship enriched it. Of particular relevance is the contribution of Indian scholars. What Zaman has successfully accomplished is to present multiple themes and contentious debates with a critical resonance by highlighting the tensions in the arguments of the various contenders. In his view, the inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, silences, and difficulties in making sense of the discourses of the Ulema also amount to the strength of their tradition. Paradoxes and contradictions, in his view, invite rival discourses and these, in turn, shape the public discourse. Seeking coherence in Ulema discourse, one understands the author to be saying, might be an over-rated virtue. What this reviewer seemed to have grasped, among many other things from Zaman’s learned study is that the Ulema, as both collectivities and individuals, occupy discrete life worlds.
It is time to clearly understand the pristine message of the Qur’an rather than reading it with the eye of its medieval era jurists, scholars and ideologues. There is an urgent need to understand the core message of Islam that remains buried under layers of medieval interpretation.
The world is now too complex, too interconnected, too globalised to be divided into ‘black’ and ‘white’: ’the abode of Islam’ and ‘the abode of unbelief’. The overall message is: break the monolith wherever it comes from. The fundamentalists must realize that their blind literalism could lead them to follow the letter of the law, but betray the intents of foundational texts. The future of freedom in the Islamic civilization lies the unique insights that modern discourses have provided -- that the Shari’ah was made for man, and not man for the Shari’ah. Luckily, the sources that will help nurture that insight are more abundant in Islamic theology and jurisprudence than what is often thought.
Alfaz-O-Maani Mein Tafawat Nahin Lekin
Mullah Ki Azan Aur, Mujahid Ki Azan Aur
Parwaz Hai Dono Ki Issi Aik Faza Mein
Kargas Ka Jahan Aur Hai, Shaheen Ka Jahan Aur
(There is not a speck of difference in words and meanings
Bu the clarion call of a muezzin and Mujahid are poles apart
The vulture and falcon soar in the same skies
But the world of falcon is far far different from that of vulture)
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications including Daily Sabah (Turkey) Moroccan Times, Chicago Monitor, Sudan Vision and Times of Malta. He was also a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is based in Nagpur.