By M Aamer Sarfraz
December 17, 2018
Muslims have embraced religious dogma instituted by some Imams and broadly determined by the early Muslim history for centuries. Leading names like al-Ghazali, Ibne Tamiah, and even Maududi and Khomeini tried unsuccessfully to tweak this religious outlook, from within the system, by capturing whatever space for manoeuvring was available. They were applauded for it during their lifetime (and beyond, to some extent) for finding the middle-ground. Is this just a coincidence then, that despite their formidable efforts, Muslims fortunes (scholarship, moral, social, financial) have steadily declined?
It is now established that Muslim decline has been proportional to the religious outlook of Muslim civilization over time. Nations actually rise and fall on the strength and profundity of their ideology. Muslims achieved glory when they believed in, and carried the simple and rational message of the Quran. I have explained in detail how they drifted away from the Quran through conspiracies hatched by their enemies but mostly due to their own foolhardiness. Muslims kept following those who were already lost; despite alternative narratives being presented to them by valiant intellectuals at the cost of their social status and personal safety.
We keep going in circles because insanity is about repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
Among those who tried to buck this decline in modern times, Mohamad Abduh (1849-1905 CE) dominates. He was a student of Jamal al-Din Afghani at the al-Azhar University. He combined modern knowledge with theology, and advocated reforming all aspects of Egyptian society through education. He suffered exile due to his views and lived in the West. He returned to Egypt later and was appointed a judge. He said during this time, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam”. He gave innovative judgements, e.g., the allowance to consume meat slaughtered by non-Muslims and the acceptance of bank-loan interest. He was appointed a Grand Mufti in 1899. He advocated that instead of relying on the interpretations of Quranic texts by medieval clerics, Muslims should employ reason for their reinterpretation. He promoted religious harmony, and equal rights for women; and was against polygamy. Following his death, the next Grand Mufti reversed all his reforms.
Husain Nasution (1919-1998) came with the next wave. He hailed from Indonesia. He had received traditional and modern education by spending most of his early life outside the country studying in Mecca, Egypt and in Canada. He did his PhD in the theology of Muhammad Abduh from McGill University. He was one of those who first suggested that the scientific and economic decline of the Muslim world was partly due to its embrace of the Ash’ari school of theology, which he regarded as fatalistic. He is less known outside his country but influenced fellow academics including Nurcholish Madjid. He has also inspired other rationalist thinkers such as Mohammed Arkoun and Abu Zayd.
Our own, Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1988) was a renowned scholar. He hailed from Hazara and studied at Punjab and Oxford Universities. He taught in Canada and the UK before coming to Pakistan at President Ayub Khan’s request to head the Central Institute of Islamic Research to help implement Islam into the daily lives of the nation
Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) was an Egyptian academic who challenged the mainstream religious views. He had received traditional and modern education ending in a PhD from the Cairo University. Zayd argued that the Quran needs to be understood and interpreted in the context of the language and culture of seventh century Arabia. He also criticized the use of religion for political power. In 1995, an Egyptian Sharia court declared him an apostate because he had questioned the prevalent notions of Jinns, slave girls, and Jizyiah. Threats of death were made against him and his marriage was declared annulled; which made him flee the country. He spent the rest of his life teaching and writing in Europe. He returned to Egypt quietly before his death and was buried at his birthplace.
Our own, Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1988) was a renowned scholar. He hailed from Hazara and studied at Punjab and Oxford Universities. He taught in Canada and the UK before coming to Pakistan at President Ayub Khan’s request to head the Central Institute of Islamic Research to help implement Islam into the daily lives of the nation. After Ayub Khan’s power declined, mullahs disputed his interpretations, denounced him as an apostate, and called for his death. He left in 1968, and wrote several books while teaching in the US for the rest of his life. Rahman linked Islamic revival to the return of intellectual freedom of the Islamic scholarly tradition. He criticised Muslim theologies for failing to create a balanced worldview in the light of the Quran, which requires perpetual interpretation. He unscrambled the issue of riba by citing Imam Malik that it must be understood in the context of pre-Islamic Arab money lending customs, and not be equated to modern banking.
Finally, Javed Ghamidi is a friend. He would agree that despite using rationality, he is not a ‘Rationalist’. His past is in Jamaat-e-Islami and he was mentored by Amin Ahsan Islahi. He has travelled in the right direction (Quran) over the last 30 years, but too slowly. He has adopted the same balancing act which Wali Ullah and Maududi attempted; which is essentially a continuation of the failed Ash’ari theology with some modern patchwork.
(To be continued)
M Aamer Sarfraz is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Visiting Professor.