Reviving Islamic Thought

There is no doubt that at one time Muslims were highly intellectually curious and led the world in science. This golden age of Islamic Civilisation seems today however to be distant memory. There have been many attempts to diagnose the causes of this and like any complex matter there are many factors. My focus here is to diagnose what is stopping Muslims think well. That is at its core what prevents Muslims finding appropriate solutions to the problems they face.

“the religion is sincerity”

Hadith Sahih Muslim

The core teaching of Islam is that our mind must be sincere when we think. We must not have hypocrisy or any form of self-delusion or dishonesty. This is emphasised in many ways in the Qur’an, but I picked a saying from the oral traditions of Islam that captures this idea succinctly.

This oral tradition captures the history of the early Muslim community and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Much effort went into authenticating this tradition as it became core to the emerging schools of Islamic law.

These schools of law became established in the centuries following the life of the prophet, starting to form in different regions where people turned to experts to give them rulings on their disputes often when rulers were not trusted to do so. This aspect is key. The rulers had not been trusted by many from the time that Muawiyah the son of Abu Sufyan (the erstwhile leader of the enemies of Islam), seized control of the nascent Islamic government by force and established dynastic rule.

Due to this breakdown in political legitimacy, people sought out local scholars to resolve their disputes. This led to the formation of the madhhabs, the schools of thought or schools of Islamic law.

Out of these madhhabs four ended up dominating, perhaps 5 if one counts the shia sect of Islam. They are known as Maliki, Shafii, Hanbali and Hanafi. They each developed a series of precedents in methods and rulings used to produce legal judgements know as fatawah.

Although they differed in their judgements they accepted each other as legitimate. This caused however some problems when these largely regional monopolies of dispute resolution met together. In particular this was glaring when people went on pilgrimage to Makkah. Here rather than praying all together as Muslims are instructed to do, you would find four separate congregational prayers with four people leading them, one from each madhhab. This shocking contradiction with the teachings of Islam found in the Qur’an, was surely some part of the cause of the radical form of Islam that emerged in Arabia with some direction and aid from the British, Wahhabism. This reform movement asserted that following the madhabs was wrong and a form of idolatry – the worst and only unforgivable sin in Islam. This has now softened somewhat into the modern school known as Salafi Islam. They still reject the madhabs, and have effectively become their own madhab, dominating Saudi Arabia and becoming important around the world due to charitable donations influencing institutions and media.

These various schools of thought, all have one thing in common, they are ways in which Muslims agree to resolve their disputes. They are at the core, not sciences, but political bodies which provide a dispute resolution and question answering service. This can be very confusing for people trying to find out about Islam, to get contradictory answers to their questions, and indeed it causes some conflicting situations.

Once, however you recognise this as fundamentally a political rather than a scientific endeavour, then it all makes sense.

Law is agreement.

Islamic law, like any law is based on agreement. The islamic schools of law, which I would now include Salafis as an example of (though they would deny it), are political organisations that have produced decisions for their communities. They have on the whole however claimed to be non-political and avoided attempts to involve themselves directly in overtly political acts. This goes back to their formation happening because rulers were not trusted or legitimate.

The true source of authority in law is agreement of a group of people. Such a group of people can only bind themselves by their agreement. The madhhabs represent an agreement among a group scholars as to how they will act. These agreements were formed in different areas and changed over time. The basis of such agreements having authority over others however is weak. One school could not dictate to another how they should reach their rulings. Moreover, in our interconnected world today where people move around a lot, people are unlikely to understand which school if any they should practically follow.

The scholars, by virtue of their claim to be experts within the madhhabs, have effectively become like churches which dictate opinions and belief to the rest of society. However, today in the world of the internet such dictatorial behaviour will not survive the challenges of scrutiny.

Islamic Law is thus founded on not the principle of the authority of the consensus of the Medina community, or the consensus – however derived – of the early companions of the Prophet, nor on the elaborate interpretative methodologies of any traditional jurisprudence school. Islamic law is founded on the principle in the Qur’an:

Their decisions are made by their mutual consultations

Quran Surah al-Shura verse 38

When we make decisions by listening to one another we give each other notice of what decision is up for debate and we give one another the right to be heard. Such decisions are binding on those taking part. For this to work for a large community, the way this has worked is via people claiming to represent others. Sometimes these claims have dubious merit.

Any body that makes such decisions overstretches its natural authority if it tries to impose its decisions on those who did not take part in them. This was, for example, the basis of the American revolution against the British with the slogan “no taxation without representation”. The same underlying tension is the injustice at the heart of all self-imposing authorities:  “We did not agree to that”.

In terms of Islamic law then, the rulers imposed themselves and the people did what they could to keep control of the less politically sensitive decisions in their hands through delegating scholars to help make those decisions.

The situation though is riddled with contradictions. Contradictions between madhhabs is just one thing people have to wrestle with. Another, more pressing issue is contradictions with conscience and contradictions with the Quran.

In order to get the machinery of these schools of law to produce the needed answers, a mountain of oral tradition evidence as well as the Quran and other sources of information needed to be processed. Often though there was little evidence, and what evidence there was to base a ruling on was subject to lots of interpretations. To cut through this confusion many credit Imam Shafi’i with developing the “‘usul ul-fiqh” the “methodology (roots) of understanding”. This radical approach set out strict rules for how evidence should be interpreted.

Unfortunately he was wrong.

It makes sense if your goal is to derive answers from the evidence to apply a mechanistic way to interpret the evidence. The problem is that it does not arrive at the truth. If some evidence is incomplete, you may be entirely misled by it. Most of the hadith evidence is – even after strenuous efforts to weed out the fabricated evidence – lacking in context. We usually don’t know what was the time or place at all. The lack of context renders much of it deeply uncertain. Forcing a definite interpretation on uncertain evidence is bound to lead to errors. This is why many rulings of the madhhabs blatantly contradict the Qur’an. None more so IMHO than the issue of stoning the adulterer.

If the evidence on any matter is inconclusive, and we need a ruling, then that is a legitimate subject for community debate to reach a political decision. If it is conclusive, then there will be agreement anyway. We don’t need scholars to labour away squeezing out the last bit of meaning from the most weakly insinuating evidence. Rather we need functioning, political, agreement-making processes. Experts must have their role, but they need to stop pretending that what is not proven is otherwise.

Islamic law needs to return to its proper foundations, not as an academic pursuit but as a political one, framed inevitably by the evidence but being responsible for turning that evidence and everyone’s opinions about it into agreements that may change over time.

Only then can the Muslim conscience be freed from the contradictions inherent in its situation. By recognising all the phenomena of Islamic law as correct, Muslims have been forced to live with massive contradictions. We have whole scholastic methodologies that have been applied to try and determine what abrogates what, to try and resolve these. The truth is that the Qur’an declares itself to be a book of guidance not a book of law. It is we who turn that guidance into agreements and into laws. When that law is contradictory, it is our fault and our collective responsibility to agree to change it.

The methodologies applied to derive Islamic law without using political shurah as the basis of its authority have sent the Muslim mind into a mess of contradictions in which sincerity struggles to emerge. The result is that the political life of the Muslims was ruined and followed by political humiliation and near destruction of the Muslim world. This political failure also has led to failure to provide the infrastructure in which other scientific and cultural endeavours can flourish. We have collectively neglected our consciences telling us that things are wrong. We need to listen to that conscience better, obey our hearts when they tell us what is right and wrong. Feed and nourish and purify our conscience and our sincerity can show us where the truth is. Only by doing so can we avoid the ruining of our situation. Only with a clear conscience and a sincere mind can we weigh the evidence properly and use the capacity in our souls to balance it all, to find the truth. Only then can we revive the Muslim mind and contribute again properly to the useful work we are commanded to do.

By the sun and its arrival, by the moon as it follows it, by the daylight and what it reveals and the night and what it conceals, by the heavens and how they are built, by the earth and how it is stretched smooth, by the soul and what makes it balanced, showing it what endangers it and what protects it

(I Swear)

Whoever, grows it succeeds and whoever buries it is ruined.

Quran Surah Ash-Shams