My personal thoughts on Islamic Topics, not a form of ijtihad rather than applying my mind.

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Location: Cairo, Egypt

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reform, Reprogram, Reset: Islam's Fifth Stage?

In my last fiqh class the professor explained the development and evolvement of Muslim thoughts with regard to fiqh and arriving at a useful and workable methodology to be used in fiqh. He identified 4 stages which are as follows:

Stage 1 – The time of the 4 rightful caliphs when the sahaba (companions) mainly practiced shura (consultation)

Stage 2 – Afterwards by the end of the first century of Hijra, different schools were established in various cities, which also used shura to arrive at a local ijma (consensus)

Stage 3Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shafie (or in short Imam Shafie) (767 – 820), who distinguished between what was agreed upon in various local schools and that which was agreed upon by all schools unanimously, i.e. between local and universal/uniform ijma (consensus) and he placed more importance on universal ijma, which was evidently much more restrictive.

Stage 4 – At the turn of the twentieth century with the emergence of reformers such as Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) who refused blind taqleed (imitation of and adherence to what was established before) and called for reopening the doors of ijtihad (independent interpretation or personal reasoning)

With that I received a shock to my system. For an entire millennia nothing happened? All the thinkers, scholars and intellectuals were doing nothing much but reinventing the wheel? It seemed like they were just busy coming to the same conclusions again and again no matter how they phrased or rephrased any question. It was as if there was one and only one way to proceed - as if there was simply no choice. They seemed to have imposed some sort of a self-censorship on thoughts and in turn progress in any direction.

I kept going back to the word taqleed in my mind. The literal meaning is defined as: Taqleed is a verbal noun of the root ‘Qa' 'la' 'da’ in the second form. The verb Qalada means to place, to gird or to adorn with a necklace. When used in conjunction with human beings, it refers to the wearing of a necklace, pendant or any other such similar ornament. And technically it means: the acceptance of a statement of another without demanding proof or evidence on the belief that the statement is being made in accordance with fact and proof. And I kept thinking that what was placed on our collective ummah’s neck was not a necklace but rather a yoke. This yoke did not only affect the intellectuals and thinkers, but it seems to have had an influence on everything else as well.

In 935 the Qur'an was regarded as being in its final written form. Ja'far Muhammad al-Tabari (838-923) was for Quranic exegesis what Imam Shafie was for fiqh. At that time the unity of the Ummah was completely disintegrating, with 3 different caliphs focusing more on rivalry than anything else, the Mutazilites (Rationalists) had given up to the Traditionalists and (too) many scholars began to consider the "gates of ijtihad" as closed. And that also was the end of what has been known in history as the Golden Age of Islam (which lasted roughly 750-950).

I keep wondering if there was a relationship between the decline of sciences and achievements and the stagnation of thought and intellectual discourse. There must be. In those last two hundred years the Muslims followed the instruction of the Prophet "to seek learning as far as China", which eventually they did. They published books thanks to the introduction of paper and the establishment of a paper mill. They translated and kept Greek scientific and philosophical manuscripts at Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) and later on many other manuscripts. They focused on mathematics, contributed to geometry and initiated algebra. They worked on medicine, gynaecology and ophthalmology. Engineers perfected the waterwheel and constructed elaborate underground water channels. And travellers contributed heavily to geography. Between Baghdad and al-Andalus it was a time of great achievements in all sorts of different avenues including literature, poetry and music. And then not only a decline in all sorts of different discourse and output happened, but seemingly a total standstill.

Until the turn of the twentieth century, there appears to be a deep hibernation up to Abduh and his colleagues Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, along with Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal, who all rejected blind adherence to tradition (taqleed) and independently called for reopening of the "doors of ijtihad" as the chief way to modernise Islam.

Syed Ahmad Khan is quoted to have said: “Acquisition knowledge of science and technology is the only solution for the problems of Muslims.” And: “Look forward, learn modern knowledge, do not waste time in studies of old subjects of no value.”

Muhammad Abduh aimed at modernising Islam and bringing it into line with rational thought. Together with al-Afghani he founded the Salafiyyah movement (from the phrase, salaf as-salihiin, 'the pious ancestors'), a reform movement calling for modernisation based on Islamic principles. Included in its ranks were the Islamic world's first feminists, prominent among them was Qasim Amin, who wrote the then two very controversial books, ‘The Emancipation of Women’ and ‘The New Woman’.

Qasim Amin is often credited for having been the first to address the question of women's role in society. He accused the religious luminaries and conservative political leader of resisting any attempt to change the old and by now outmoded social norms. He urged his fellow men to understand that certain traditions had served their purpose and had been established to cater to the interests of their predecessors but must now be seen as incompatible with the 1900s. He insisted that Sharia was based on social and human praxis; and very much capable of accommodating new conditions without violating the fundamentals of Islam. He believed that the line between “Islamic” and “un-Islamic” was obviously drawn by the then dominant Islamic orthodoxy, and not by Islam itself and argued strongly for the equal treatment of women as mandated by the spirit of egalitarianism and equality in Islam. Muhammad Abduh in turn called for reinterpreting the Sharia in favour of women to conform to the spirit of Islam which he perceived as a liberating force for women not a means of repressing them.

Muhammad Iqbal has been called: “the best articulated Muslim response to Modernity that the Islamic world has produced in the 20th century”. While he is primary noted for being a poet, he has also been called “the most serious Muslim philosophical thinker of modem times.” His book: “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” consists of seven lectures on religion and philosophy originally held in English in 1928 at the universities of Madras, Hyderabad and Mysore. The book is characterised by outstanding lucidity, accuracy and passionate thought, reconstruction of religious deliberation. He wrote: "The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to re-think the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past". And one of the most important requirements for this re-thinking process he defined as a critical reception of modern knowledge: "The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that knowledge."

These revered reformers tried to reawaken Islam and at the same time prove that it was compatible with modern times. That was a century ago. What happened since? Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Abul-Ala Mawdudi! And not to forget Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab! With them, the small step forward changed radically into a u-turn.

What amazes me the most is, that Al-Shafie was considered then as having his own revival movement. He urged people to follow the Sunnah after a lot of confusion had spread among them. He wrote his famous book, Al-Rissalah towards establishing the fundamentals of jurisprudence and was committed to relying on evidence, and rejected blind imitation. He said: "If you see that my words contradict the hadith, then apply the hadith and disregard my words." He was the first to distinguish and separate between the application of istihsan (equity/discretion in legal matters), and qiyas (juristic reasoning by analogy). But then his revival movement became the yoke that strangled every new thought or reform attempts after him. His rejection of local ijma as insufficient and his insistence on universal ijma turned out to be more of a problem than a solution. In theory a universal ijma is easy and makes sense as there is only one Qur’an and one Prophet with one Sunna, but in practice trying to find conformity between so many different and diverse cultures with different traditions, customs, political climates, social structures and societal norms is downright impossible.

We need “stage 5” now. We require it desperately. We need tools that are more useful than historically rooted. Tools that would and could help us fly rather than tie us down and chain us to medieval times. We have situations now that the historical scholars of fiqh couldn’t have dreamed about. We also have many tools available to us that were not even conceived during their times. Therefore we should not merely accept any thought as dogma or doctrine, but ask how this was developed and whether this was the best possible method and the only achievable result. We should consider whether this still fits our time or whether it can be developed further and made compatible with the 21st century. Al-Shafi'I was trying to build something that was fit for his time, but his time has passed and now is our time, which is so very different from his. We are now able to operate on embryos in the womb, walk on the moon and photograph the surface of mars and we are still stuck in medieval thoughts. Instead of living in the past (in more ways than one) and eternally moaning and whining about the lost glory of the golden age of Islam, we should start working at least towards a lead age and then move on to aluminium then Copper, then tin and perhaps one day we will again reach silver or even gold or regain some of the lost splendour and sparks.


Blogger temporal said...


a great post

4:16 pm  
Anonymous Edip Yuksel said...

Dear Yasmin:

I congratulate you for your openmindedness.

I invite you to vist

There you will find the Manifesto for Islamic Reform, which is an appendix in our upcoming Quran: A Reformist Translation. If you would like to recieve its updated version please contact me via my email address,

I would like to receive your opinion.


5:33 pm  

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