It appears Muslims actually stopped thinking and questioning with the defeat of Mutazillah, the rationalists, in the middle of ninth century, a little over two centuries after the demise of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). They were told by the ulema to close the doors of Ijtihad, the Islamic principle of creative rethinking, and they did.
Even after the closure of doors, ijtihad has continued to be used by individuals but without sanction from the larger community. It’s only when ulema themselves accept some innovation that it becomes acceptable to the community. Take for instance, the use of photos for a passport to go to Hajj, loud speakers or radio to recite Quran or that of internet for purposes of Dawah (inviting others to the religion of Islam). These have become acceptable to our religious divines after long debates. So, it would appear some measure of rationality does dawn upon our ulema after long, excruciating debates. It seems the time it takes for their minds to get illuminated is also getting shorter. It took ulema of Khilafat-e-Osmania (Ottoman Caliphate) almost four centuries to give religious sanction to the import of printing presses from Europe, but only a few decades to accept passport-size photographs, loud speakers, radio, television and internet.
It is not difficult to see why the world of Islam is mired in deep darkness of ignorance while the world is making progress by leaps and bounds. Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Adonis (born 1930) called it “a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world.” Tunisian thinker Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946 –2014) prophesied “Arab (civilisation), constrained by the framework of Islamic faith, will join the great dead civilisations.” What constraints of Islamic faith is Meddeb talking about? Can you imagine Khilafat-e-Osmania (1517–1924), the rulers of one-third of humanity for centuries, not importing a printing press, not even to propagate holy scriptures, because religious scholars thought all new inventions were works of the Shaitan (Satan). Probably, our religious scholars thought that God had lost His creativity after revealing the religion of Islam and now only Devil could invent new things.
In fact, in the view of our ulema even Quran is not created by God but is uncreated and co-eternal with Him, lying in the divine vaults for aeons; He merely revealed a pre-existing Quran to humanity through Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century (C. E).
It was largely on the question of createdness or uncreatedness of Quran (khalq al-Quran) that a major conflict took place among the ulema of 8th and 9th centuries (CE), leading to the defeat of rationalist theologians. The rationalists (Motazallah) said that Quran was created by God in a particular time in history; it was a compilation of verses that came from time to time to guide the Prophet and Muslims in the evolving situation in early seventh century Arabia following the appointment of the Prophet as a messenger of God. So, many verses are contextual in nature and cannot be applied to other contexts. But the orthodox literalist ulema would not accept this. They said that Quran was unique like God and co-eternal with Him; God merely revealed the Quran and did not create its verses as the unfolding events demanded, the implication being that all verses are of eternal applicability.
Even Imam Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari, a Motazallah rationalist till the age of 40, joined the orthodox camp, though continued to use Motazallah methodology of logical arguments to support his case. But logic and reasoning were not allowed in the literalist Hanbali creed even to support their own cause. So bitter opponents of Motazallah, the Hanbalis and Ash’aris also went their own separate ways.
The uncreatedness of Quran meant that all the events that led to revelations in the Quran guiding the Prophet and his companions through the struggle and strife of the early seventh century Arabia were pre-ordained and choreographed to create opportunities for Quran’s verses to be revealed. It also meant that all those who supported the Prophet were simply meant to do so and all those who opposed the Prophet tooth and nail, including making attempts at his life, were just doing God’s bidding. How else could a pre-existing Quran be revealed?
This understanding of Islam also means that everything happening in the world, good or bad, is pre-ordained. Where is the question of reward and punishment then, the rationalist (Motazallah) ulema asked? How can God be considered Just, Kind and Merciful, if He punishes people for doing things he Himself chose for them to do? All those opposed to the use of reasoning in matters of religion, the Hanbalies, Ash’aris, Maturidis, Zahiries, Mujassimites and Muhaddithin, said God is all-powerful; He simply does things that he wills to do. In their view, imposing canons of justice and morality on God would amount to limiting his power and this cannot be done. God is not rational or just; He is the embodiment of power and will, he does what He pleases. God is the First Cause in a universe which does not have any secondary causes. No cause and effect for the orthodox ulema, only God’s will and power to do as He pleases.
In the raging theological debates in the 8th and 9th centuries (CE), both groups cited verses of Quran. The group opposed to reason also quoted numerous ahadith (believed to be sayings of the Prophet, even though collected up to three centuries after his demise).
A century and a half after the rationalist group had been defeated and their books burnt, Imam Ghazali (1058 –1111) summed up the Islamic theology of consensus (Hanbali, Ashari, Maturidi, etc. minus Motazallah) in this way. He put the following words in the mouth of God:
“These to Bliss, and I care not; And these to the Fire, and I care not.”
It’s this supposed indifference and arbitrariness of God that Ibn-e-Rushd (1126 –1198), known as Averroes in Europe, countered in his famous book “Incoherence of the Incoherence.” This was a point-by-point refutation of Imam Ghazali’s book “Incoherence of the Philosophers.” But all of Ibn-e-Rushd’s books were burnt down in supposedly liberal Muslim Spain (1195) and he had to go into exile. Some of his books survived only because they had already been translated in European languages and gained a lot of supporters, even though his ideas were condemned by the Catholic Church in 1270 and 1277. What gained him most following in Christian Europe, despite opposition from Church, was his ‘unity of the intellect’ thesis, claiming that all humans share the same intellect. As a result, Europe got its renaissance and Muslim world pushed itself into a darkness from which it is still to emerge.
Under this literalist theology, violence, xenophobia, intolerance and gender injustice become acceptable due to an interpretation of Quran and Hadith which deliberately avoided using reason and logic. Early 20th century radical ideologues like Hassan al-Banna, Syed Qutb, Syed Abul Ala Maududi and numerous later ideologues of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, among several others have gone further than the classical jurists and come up with interpretations that even justify horrors of terrorism in the name of Muslims’ religious duty to make Islam victorious in the world. In many mosques even in the non-Muslim majority West today prayer-leaders curse non-Muslims and pray for their defeat and victory for Islam in their Friday sermons. The seventh-century war-time Arabian mindset persists.
In classical jurisprudence Jihad or Qital ordered by the state was considered farz-e-kefaya, a communal duty which some people in the community would perform voluntarily absolving others of this duty. To defend one’s country in the event of an external attack was considered farz-e-ain, every capable individual Muslim’s religious duty. But even this was subject to the guidance and instructions and requirements of the State. But modern ideologues have made even offensive Jihad (in other words terrorism) a farz-e-ain for all individual Muslims, and even done away with the need for a legitimate Muslim state to order such fighting.
Islamic scriptures and books of fiqh (jurisprudence) and aqaid (beliefs), can always be made to yield some sort of support for almost any position, even positions that are diametrically opposed to each other, as we have seen above in the debate between Motazallah and the Hanbalis and Ash’aris. And these become acceptable to a populace that has been told for a millennium that merely thinking a thought is unbelief or infidelity (al-fikr kufr).
We have seen in the above quotations from Quran cited by the Motazallah that God asks Muslims again and again to think, observe, learn and so on. Occasionally, He gets angry and asks Muslims, why won’t you think? See, for instance, the following verse from Quran: “Truly, the worst of all creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf, the dumb, those who do not use their reason/think.” Quran 8:22
And here we are, a community that has accepted for a millennium that merely thinking a thought amounts to denying God’s divinity. We, the Muslims, are where we are today largely because we have accepted our dominant theology of al-fikr kufr, leading to violence and exclusivism. Blind, unthinking adherence to the dogma (taqlid) has been our practice since the 9th century. Even the Salafi/Wahhabi who call themselves ghair muqallid (those who do not follow any school of thought) actually follow equally blindly the Hanbali jurisprudence and Ibn-e-Taimiya and Mohammad Abdul Wahhab’s theology.
I hope Muslims states that are signatories to the UN Charter take the issue of terrorism seriously, understand its link with our current taqlidi theology of consensus, make serious efforts to evolve a new ijtihadi theology of peace, pluralism and gender justice, and revise our madrasa text books accordingly. The new theology should be more rational, coherent and internally consistent, over which a consensus of the global Muslim community can be gradually evolved.
(This is the concluding Part-2 of the two-part series by Sultan Shahin. This article was first published in New Age Islam and is being reproduced in News Intervention with due permission from the Author)