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How Can We Be Fair with Tradition? Openness to Criticism and Diverse Opinions Can Generate Grounds for Reform in Islam

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

2 August 2021

Reforms Must Include Appreciating Diversity and Incorporating Modern Knowledge into Traditional System

Main Points:

1.    This essay argues that there has been resistance to criticism and diverse opinions in the traditional Muslim scholarly behaviour which has thwarted a full-fledged movement of reform in Islam.

2.    In order to enrich our tradition in the modern world, Muslim traditional scholars should also benefit from modern knowledge.


The issue of reform in the Islamic religious and intellectual tradition has been one of the most discussed and contested topics during the last century. Among the suggestions that are proposed by scholars to initiate intended reforms include: First, for Muslim traditional scholars (‘ulema’) to appreciate diversity and tolerate differences of opinions. Second, for Muslims to incorporate modern knowledge into their traditional system. These two propositions have not yet been taken up. Muslim societies in the colonial and post-colonial subcontinent have been condemning modern knowledge as a source of heresy and suppressing dissent in order to maintain singularity within their society. In this essay, I will show how Muslims are still trapped in this situation, and how such entrapment comes at the expense of the regeneration of the Islamic tradition.

Suppressing Dissent

On September 19, 2019, a Deobandi ‘ālim posted a statement on his Facebook wall that the book “Khilāfat-w-Mulūkīyat is a source of hostility and antagonism (among the Muslim community). To protect the future generations from the harmful influences of the book, it should be torched, and the ashes must remain buried.” The book he mentions was authored by Syed Abul ’A‘lā Mawdūdī (d.1979), the founder of Jamā‘t-i-Islāmī, and was first published in 1967. It deals with the subject of how the Caliphate, an ideal form of governance in the Islamic tradition, transformed into a hereditary monarchic system of governance during the reign of Mu‘āwīyah (r. 661-680 AD). What is critical here is that the Caliph Amīr Mu‘āwīyah designated his son Yazīd (r. 680-83) as his successor, thus introducing what many saw as an un-Islamic system of governance, i.e. kingship, into Islam. Prior to Mu‘āwīyah, people ascended to the throne of the Caliphate either through nomination or election. Mawdūdī saw these previous procedures as popular and beneficial because they prevented a family from seizing the Caliphal institution. Mu‘āwīyah set an example for later generations of rulers by adopting a hereditary system of government leadership, and thus obstructed the possibilities of the full realization of Islamic “democratic” political values at its earliest stage. To Mawdūdī, this innovation of Mu‘āwīyah’s had long-lasting effects and corrupted major civilizational developments in the following centuries.

Because Mawdudi was obsessed with the idea of establishing an ideal Islamic government based on the ever-cherished memory of the first Caliphate, he lamented and criticized Mu’awiyah for causing its end. Mawdūdī’s book triggered criticism from a wide swath of the traditional ‘ulema in South Asia. Their conventional position is that the companions of the Prophet Muhammad are just and beyond any reproach and criticism. Therefore, Mu’awiyah, being the companion of the Prophet, must also be saved from any condemnation. Maududi’s views were rejected and a number of rejoinders were published. One of the most famous among them is Hazrat Mu’awiyah aur Tārīkhī Haqāiq (Mu’awiyah and the Historical Facts) written by Taqi Usmānī, a celebrated Deobandi ‘Alim from Pakistan. Usmānī based his argument on the unanimous opinion of the ’Ahl-i-Sunnāh, which held that all the companions of the Prophet (including Mu’awiyah) were the most pious people on the earth after the prophets and could not be subjected to criticism. Furthermore, Usmani condemned Mawdudi for constructing his criticism of Mu’awiyah on anecdotal accounts which are mostly dubious and cannot be equated with the authenticity of the Qur’an and Hadith. He argued that since the historical reconstruction of the conflicts among the Companions is a delicate project, it should not be undertaken. If one insists on doing so, he claimed, he/she must tread carefully under the guidance of the Qur’an and Hadith, and seek assistance of ‘ulema’ in this heavy task. In other words, he believed that an authentic history of the early period of Islam could only be constructed if it is based on the evidences provided in the Qur’an and Hadith.

The purpose of the previous paragraphs is to highlight how traditional Muslim religious circles treated and have continued to treat dissent as unacceptable. The quotation from the Facebook post is an example of this general attitude of Muslim ‘ulema towards dissent. I would argue, however, that while it is true that dissent disturbs the order of a tradition, it also offers a fresh opportunity to look into matters which may have been neglected and causing severe internal damages to the tradition. Dissent cultivates healthy discourse. Suppression of dissent through censoring, vilification, and sometimes anathematization, has caused the emergence of schismatic sects or groups in Islamic history. It has also curtailed positive mutations in the Islamic tradition.

Within the Muslim tradition, traditionalists have developed ways to resist new interpretations that go against the status quo. One way includes burning books or prohibiting followers from reading them. For instance, in her seminal work on the life of Ibn ‘Arabī, Quest for the Red Sulphur (1993), Claude Addas recorded an event illustrating the attitude of Ibn ‘Arabi towards Muhammad al-Fārābī (d. 950). Once Ibn ‘Arabī visited one of his acquaintances. At the home of his host, he found The Ideal City by Al-Fārābī. He glanced through the book, and upon reading the sentence, “In this chapter I wish to examine how to postulate [the existence of] a divinity in the world,” he got offended by the use of the word “divinity,” which al-Fārābī used instead of “Allah,” and threw the book at its owner’s face (108). He did not read the whole book because of its linguistic preference and condemned its author. As a Shaikh-i Akbar, his attitude was to be followed by his disciples and devotees as well. Because of this, the impact of his reaction was magnified immeasurably.

The attempt by Deobandi and Barelvi ‘ulema’ keep “harmful” influences from impacting ulema’ also speaks to this issue. At the Darul Ulum Deoband seminary in North India, a prescribed curriculum for studying the refutation of Mawdudi along with Christians and Ahmadiyas (Qadianis)—a sect of Islam founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889 in the Punjab, India, and considered heretical by Sunnis and Shiites—is the part of the curriculum for senior students. Furthermore, the Barelvi sect, who anathematizes non-Barelvi sects like Deobandis and Ahl-i Hadith, (a South Asian sect which rejected the canonical authority of the four schools of jurisprudence), prohibit Barelvis from studying with non-Barelvi teachers, for fear that his/her “heretical” ideas will influence the student.

The attitude of many Muslim scholars in South Asia described here suggests a belief that contending/dissenting ideas or views are contagious. Such ideas could infect students in classrooms as well as the masses on the streets if they are not contained. This position has created a gulf between different intellectual and ideological systems among Muslims in India and Pakistan. Groups have grown suspicious and become ignorant of the beliefs and practices of other groups. To bridge the gap between them, Muslims from different ideological groups must better find ways to better understand one other. With better understanding, the Islamic tradition will be enriched.

The categorization of scholarly opinions into general/majority opinion (Rā’i Al-Jamhūrī) or an idiosyncratic opinion (Tafarrud), is another mechanism to keep the isolated scholarly opinion from becoming the part of tradition, and hence reduces the chances of change within a tradition. An isolated opinion of a scholar may be a creative interpretation of tradition under special circumstances. It is isolated because it is new and no one has propounded it before. However, unless it is integrated into tradition it remains isolated. It does not matter if it is postulated by al-Ghazali (d.1111), Shah Waliullah (d. 1762), or any other scholar. When an opinion is isolated it can always easily be rejected. If the Islamic tradition is to go on it must accommodate such isolated and creative opinions.

Rejecting Modern Knowledge Systems

So far, I have been discussing Muslim traditionalist approaches to suppressing or dodging dissentious/contentious views. I have argued that this behaviour is detrimental to the very nature of a discursive tradition. Discursivity describes the ongoing debates and contestations that make up a tradition. Due to temporal progression and geographical dislocations, a tradition perpetually needs to employ various means to comprehend how it has understood itself in the past and how it should understand itself in the present. The continuation of a discursive tradition requires the creative and thorough accumulation of not just new knowledge, but also the application of new knowledge to current and past human experiences. Therefore, it becomes necessary to assess the role of ‘ulema’ with regard to the appropriation of modern knowledge systems as hermeneutical tools for interpreting the scriptural and traditional texts of Islam. As the scope of the essay does not allow me the space to discuss the issue under consideration in full detail, I will provide a few examples to highlight the challenges the ulamā’ are facing in dealing with new social forces.

In Social Change and Early Sunnah, Fazlur Rahman argued that if a society which is under massive pressure to change reacts self-confidently to new social forces “by necessary assimilation, absorption, rejection and other forms of positive creativity, it will develop a new dimension for its inner aspiration, a new meaning and scope for its ideals” (205). Though his article focuses on how a Muslim society should accommodate modern social changes, it also advances a methodology that makes it possible to synthesize the Islamic tradition with modern knowledge systems. The absence of such a creative methodology results in a crisis in thinking. What is needed, therefore, is an interdisciplinary methodology, much like that devised by early Muslims in Islamic history. As an example of how to adapt such a methodology, we can turn to a 2017 lecture given by Ebrahim Moosa in New Delhi, India. There he argued to his audience (many of them were ‘ulema) that an interpretation of the Islamic tradition, whether in medieval or modern times, requires an interdisciplinary approach that confronts contemporary knowledge. He invoked the example of Abul Hasan al-Māwardī (d. 1058), who not only drew from the Qur’an and the Sunna, but also “drew on the parables found in the writings of philosophers and the literary insights found in the work of the rhetoricians and poets.”  Scholars like Māwardī were confidently exploring new dimensions of knowledge and innovation by delving into philosophy, social and natural sciences, and humanities, while nonetheless maintaining their ideals. However, contemporary ‘ulema who take up the Islamic intellectual tradition are not as innovative as their predecessors were.

One can find very few examples of colonial and post-colonial Indian ‘ulema who employ a multidisciplinary approach to synthesizing their inherited knowledge with the constantly expanding knowledge of the modern world. In fact, since the establishment of the first modern madrasa in Deoband in 1866 in colonial India, ‘ulema have been apprehensive and hesitant to use knowledge that has roots in the western world. This is evident in the fact that even after a more than century-long discourse on reforms in madrasa education, ‘ulema in and outside of madrasas still seem neglectful of modern knowledge. Instead, they have grown more and more insular and reductionist in their approach. Their insularity is illustrated by their distrust not only of the Western scholarship on Islam (including by both Muslims and non-Muslims) but also of the ‘ulema’ who do not subscribe to their institutional identity, such as Barelvi, Deobandi, or Ahl-i Hadith. Evidence of their reductionism can be found in their hesitance to draw on hermeneutical tools from pre-modern and modern literatures produced outside of the Quranic sciences, Hadith sciences, and fiqh. One of the most important reasons for this detachment is that they no longer believe that the sciences, whether classical or modern—other than those deriving directly from the Qur’an and Hadith, like poetry or philosophy—can be sources of wisdom and illumination. However, their suspicion towards the modern knowledge, which is considered “western” by ‘ulamā’, is because of the academic projects that orientalists became involved in during the colonial period. It is also because of scientific theories, like that of evolution. These developments in the colonial and post-colonial era convinced the class of ‘ulema’ of the anti-Islamic/un-religious nature of modern/western knowledge systems. Their suspicion is validated by anti-orientalist literature, which is mostly polemical in nature, and is available in Arabic and Urdu languages. Let me provide a brief example of this attitude. Once I suggested that an undergraduate student in Jamia Millia Islamia, who also graduated from a madrasa, read Jonathan Brown’s, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (2009). After having a look at the book, he asked me whether the author was an orientalist. For, he did not want to read a book on Islam authored by an orientalist.

Another example that demonstrates how ‘ulema are suspicious of the knowledge presented to them in the western outfits, is an incident that occurred a few days ago at the Department of Islamic Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. I met a PhD candidate at the department during an unofficial discussion of Fazlur Rahman’s book, Major Themes in the Quran. The discussion was led by some students. In the discussion, to substantiate a point that I made, I referred to Plato’s Apology. She objected to my reference, saying that Plato could not claim knowledge as he did not receive revelation. Only we Muslims can claim knowledge as the receivers of the last revelation. Another student emphasized this point by saying that using Plato trapped us in an epistemology that is not our own. Among the participants, some of the students had studied in madrasas and some had not. Nonetheless, they shared the ‘Ulema’s suspicion of the “other.”

For a modern ‘Alim (scholar), the challenges are far more complex than those of his/her predecessors. He/she must develop a curriculum compatible with the modern sciences. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by my colleagues’ reactions described above, students trained in the traditional framework are not encouraged to read modern scholars, or scholars from different traditions, who discuss Islam. In their atomistic approach to reading Islam, the previous and the present generations of ‘ulema’ have failed to produce a complex and robust discourse that deals with the contemporary intellectual questions pertaining to the Islamic tradition. They need to react confidently to dissent and other epistemological structures. Doing so will also to establish a methodology of healthy and ethical criticism, in the absence of which they will find no option but to give into fear based on uncertainty and distrust.


Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses.


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