14th Century blunder!!

19 07 2007

For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb― those who understand not.(Quran 8:22)

It is significant that the desire to create an alternative world, to modify or augment the real world through the act of writing is inimical to the Islamic worldview. The Prophet of Islam (saw) is he who has completed a world-view; thus the word heresy in Arabic is synonymous with the verb ‘to innovate’ or ‘to begin’. Islam views the world as a plenum (full), capable of neither diminishment nor amplification.” Thus Edward Said rationalises the absence of the novel in Arabic literature, in his book Beginnings, intention & method. Said considered novels to be – among other things – “aesthetic objects that fill gaps in an incomplete world”. And according to him, Arabic stories like those in the Arabian nights are merely “ornamental, variations on the world, not completions of it; neither are they… designed to illustrate… ways in which the world can be viewed and changed”.

The Arabic word for ‘beginning’ is al ibitida; for ‘innovation’ is al ibtidaa or al bidaa; and for ‘heretic’ is al mubtadiaa. Many Muslim thinkers agree with Said’s etymological explanation. But can one extend Said’s argument from literature to science, and draw a similar conclusion: that the desire to create an alternative world, to modify or augment the real world through scientific innovation is against the Islamic worldview? On the contrary, the common view is that, Islam emphasises the acquisition of ilm (‘knowledge’) and there is no conflict in the acquisition of new (novel) knowledge and the practice of Islam.

Speaker at a panel discussion on ‘What is holding back science in Muslim countries’, however, has a different opinion. “You are urged to acquire knowledge. Not to create it,” he says. He reasons that Muslims are asked to discover knowledge that is already there, in the Book. They are not urged to create new knowledge outside the Book. Like Said, this speaker refers to Islam’s completed worldview, and uses it to rationalise the absence of a tradition of innovative science.

To these thinkers, though, the distinction between discovery and creation of knowledge is cosmetic. For them, one creates knowledge in that one brings it from unknowing to knowing. One discovers it in the sense that all knowledge belongs to Allah. A secular scientist of my acquaintance uses a similar explanation: knowledge lies in nature; we create models to understand nature; models are creations of the human mind, which in turn is a creation of nature. So one could argue that the mind is actually acquiring knowledge, not creating it from nothing. The two words – acquiring and creating – become mere word play, or a difference in outlook.

So if creating and discovering knowledge come to the same thing, where lies the problem with science and learning in the Muslim world? Perhaps it’s in the method and scope of enquiry that is permitted and encouraged. In an ideal Islamic polity, life is mediated by scripture – the Quran, Sunnah and Hadith, where Sunnah is the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) life, and the Hadith are his narrations and approvals. Muslim life is informed by these sources; no action or information can depart from their prescriptions, everything must subscribe to the perfect worldview in the Quran.

So the critical issue for Muslims is not whether the scriptures ought to be interpreted literally or metaphorically, but whether they allow other worldviews that explain the nature and functioning of the universe. In other words, do they allow exploration beyond the worldview of the Quran?

Today most Muslim countries are far from the world view of the Quran, they enforce a limiting orthodoxy, yet this was not always the case with Muslims. During the heyday of Islam, in the 7-13th centuries AD, the principles of Islamic scriptures were a subject of debate by Muslim thinkers, Ijtihad was a common practice, and the political stability allowed intellectual elevation. In this time Muslims were the main innovators of science, philosophy and medicine in the world. At such crucial time an erroneous decision was made to close the doors of Ijtihad and debate in order for the one particular orthodox view to prevail, without realising the impact. With this, much of the Arab world’s innovation in science and technology came to an end. They generated a fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) based on taqlid (imitation), suppressing the stress on ijtihad -which allowed open inquiry, and other views whether erroneous or valid . They did not reject ijtihad amongst the learned, but they discouraged its application by the public. The loss of the application of ijtihad in law indirectly led to its ebb from philosophy and science. Most historians now think that this caused Muslim societies to stagnate, of which the symbolic moment came in 1492, with the final fall of Muslim Spain.

The regression of Muslim intellectual life continues unabated. Where they lost, the West gained. From current situation, it is clear that the West stands as the dominant power. From the onset of Capitalism, the West experienced the Renaissance and Enlightenment, a period of tremendous scientific and intellectual growth, which culminated in the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, what is often overlooked is that, under the Islamic civilization when Islam was implemented as a system of life and the Shariah was the dominant system, science and technology flourished. This progress came as a result of the ability of the Muslims to understand the relationship between science and Islam. Nowadays, this relationship has been misunderstood because the the term ”science” has become synonymous with progress and advancement, whereas religion is viewed as something backward that stifles progress and is counterproductive to reasoning. In order to promote the idea of Secularism among the masses, the West is attempting to sell the idea that science and knowledge are one and the same, that intellect/knowledge and religion exist in two mutually exclusive spheres, and that scientific and technological progress is a direct result of the Western Capitalist ideology.

It was reported in a hadith that a group of people came to the Prophet (saw) asking him about the pollination of dates. He instructed them not to pollinate the date palms themselves since the wind may carry the seeds. That year there was no harvest; they informed him of this, and he told them, ‘‘You know best regarding your worldly affairs,” referring to scientific research. Also, Imam Muslim reported that the Prophet (saaw) said:

”I am a human being like you, but I receive the revelation. If I instructed you on something related to the Deen, then take it, but if I instructed you on something related to your worldly affairs, then you know best.”

Islam clearly distinguished between the scope of science and technology, which is the lab and the physical universe, and the scope of the Deen, which is the life affairs and the systems governing the relationships and issues that human beings are confronted with. In spite of this distinction, there are so many so called Islamic “Scholars” issuing fatwas on scientific issues based on their understanding of some ayahs and hadiths, such as the rotation and shape of the earth, the atom, the fetus and its development, and many other scientific issues. In addition, many Muslims are busy digging into the Qur’an and the Sunnah for a cure for cancer or diabetes rather than conducting the necessary research in the lab. The problem with such an approach is that those scientific fatwas may become part of the Deen itself, the way it happened with the Church during the European Middle Ages. Such a trend could lead either to not accepting any scientific theory or conclusion unless a fatwa exists supporting it, or a potential conflict between the Deen and science if the scientific research proves the error in any fatwa.

Hundreds of years ago Muslims opted to follow the orthodox teachings based on Taqleed over Ijtihad. Is it now time to review unproductive choices? To reinstate ijtihad over taqleed, and encourage ‘free’ intellectual transgressions over forced containment?

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9 responses

19 07 2007
Sumera

I dont really understand why theres this rampant taqleedism these days. How and why did it occur? Where did it stem from? And why were the doors of ijtihad closed?

Dont know about anyone else, but I personally find the intellectual decline of Muslims in this day and age very disappointing. Instead of progressing we seem to be regressing. Its a poor state of affairs to be in 😦

19 07 2007
Tia

There are many historical perspectives on why the doors of ijtihad were closed. From 9th-13th century(AD) the Muslim world had reached its intellectual peak. Every other individual was literally a Scholar, men and women alike, they were ordinary people with day time jobs, in their private lives they were poets, philosophers, politicians, mystics and what have you. The only problem was there was no uniformity, everyone just followed their own Ijtihad, it created on the one hand those who became extreme mystics to those who became philosophers without bound, Mu’tazila, kharijites, and those who found it easy to declare every other ‘heretic’. Once this chaos was over, some scholars from the four schools of thought got together and decided that the knowledge they have so far will last them for ever, so they closed the doors of Ijtihad. It sounds like a sensible thing to do, because effectively Ijtihad didn’t stop but it was merely shifted to responsible few from each of the four madhab. From that point people didn’t see any point in delving into sciences of Islam as it was almost illegal for unauthorised individuals to practice Ijtihad unless they wanted to pursue a career in it.. since scholarship became a state institution. However, stupid it sounds under the Memleuks and later Abbassids scholars were paid per fatwa, so the sincere reason to seek knowledge diminished, it became a paid profession.

This ‘taqleedism’ you mentioned is direct result of the cop-out, since the 14th century we have not heard of any outstanding scholar, whereas prior to that we had scholars who are even recognised in the west. So basically everyone is happily following the 14th century fiqh. In matters concerning rituals and others, we can live with taqleed but every other issue we face requires new Ijtihad. People forget that when these classical scholars compiled their outstanding masterpieces the reality of the world was different, Muslims lived under a progressive Islamic state, now our reality is different.

Amongst the people who follow the doctrine of taqleedism (most Muslims) they use a term ‘lay person’ which has psychological impact on individuals. So those who are intelligent are afraid to delve into Islam, in case they become heretic in the process for there are some useless people around us who will throw some arabic words and technical jargon to make you feel ‘lay’. If you challenge their beliefs which are merely opinions of some scholar whose understanding of the world consists of 8 years in some backstreet madrassah… you are made to believe you just stepped on ‘apostasy’ line. Bleh

thanks for visiting my blog 🙂

20 07 2007
Erica

If there are so many scientists in Muslim countries than why there are not progressing? Are there any scientists who won noble prize?

I am afraid if Muslims want to progress they need more scientists and inventions to compete with the west.

22 07 2007
Tia

We have to be very clear about the relationship between science and ideology. It is the ideology, and not the advancement of science, which will result in progress and advancement for the human being. Furthermore, the ideology is what will create the momentum for scientific and technological advancement. Even if the Muslim Ummah graduates the highest number of scientists and educated minds of any part of the world, and yet the Muslim countries are among the most backward societies in the world. In contrast, when the West initially adopted Capitalism, very few people were educated, yet they were able to advance in a short period of time. Similarly, the Russians before Communism were not nearly as educated as the Muslim are today. Yet, after adopting Communism, they were able to initiate the Space Age within thirty years.

Those who laid down the foundations of these civilisations, such as Freud, Adam Smith, and Machiavelli, were not scientists but Western thinkers who studied human beings, human behavior, societies, and their relationships, based on Western culture. And the conclusions that they reached were also based on Western culture. This allowed them to progress and not the scientific discoveries.

2 08 2007
Hasmita

Great article!

but I dont understand this notion of ‘doors of Ijtihad’? If it was closed than why do we still have people giving fatwas? Did this process of fatwas ever stop or ‘doors of Ijithad’ means something else? (confused).

Wouldnt free intellectual trangression bring about the same kind of confusion it did back then? we already have self-claimed scholars doing diy fatwas about women leading men in prayer, its not necessary to wear hijab sort of people and people will wierd sufi beliefs?

6 08 2007
Tia

Hasmita, the doors of Ijtihad were not completely closed. It just means only a select few had the right to do Ijtihad and not the masses. So, what we have today is many scholars giving fatwas which are through imitation (taqleed) and its very rare to see any scholar take the path of original thinking instead of taqleed (imitation).

It can possibly cause problems such as it did in the past, but not if its objective and regulated.

11 08 2007
Syd ElCid

MashaAllah. A wonderful article.

A few additions:

– Ijtihad and Taqleed were not the only reasons for suppression of free enquiry in the minds of Muslims. There were many world events, like the attack of the Mongols who destroyed many libraries, books and Muslim scientific achievements along with the huge mountains of skulls that they made in their way.

– As Islam spread to farther regions, especially those places where poverty and ignorance were rampant, many of the traditional and cultural aspects of pre-Islamic beliefs of the reverted Muslims were unable to be removed from their practices. Thus too much of belief in Miracles and superstitions led to a downfall of the scientific spirit of Islam.

– Similarly, suppression of women became rampant and common in Islamic societies. Even though, history is witness to the liberty and the spirit of a unique feminine identity during the period of our Beloved Prophet Mohammed (SAWS)! Khadija (RA) was a business woman. In the Hadith regarding the allegations or “Ifk”, when Allah SWT removes the doubt from Aisha (RA) by revealing the Ayaat of Surah An-Nur, her mother says to her “Go to Prophet Mohammed (SAWS)” – meaning to thank him (SAWS) for his (SAWS) patience etc. However, this girl of only 13 years (RA) refuses and says that I thank only Allah SWT! I think such an act would hurt the ego of so many men today! Anywayz, what I was insisting upon, is that we know – a child’s first school is his mother’s lap! So, the suppression of women in Islamic societies of the later centuries deprived Muslim children from their first school!

11 08 2007
Tia

Syd ElCid many thanks for visiting here and your profound additions.

Please do visit back.

2 02 2008
Amina Ae Sook

Yeah we are a pretty messed up bunch right now. We look up to individuals but don’t realize that we do not have institutions.

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