Sharia, Theology and Modernity

Reza Ismail wrote:

“I would like to pose the following question to you Prof: In Islam’s encounter with modernity it is faced with a plethora of non-standard contexts onto which Shar`i positions need to be established.  In one response approach, scholars like Fazlur Rahman for example, have advocated a movement away from the idea of mechanically superimposing the literalism of textual injunctions, in favor of an analytical approach which takes into account historicity and societal contextualization, and in that way preserves the spirit of the particularity of law, whilst breathing new life into the process of “ijtihad” in order to distill “fiqh.”  So my question is: To what extent would you advocate a modern-day revisiting of theology in order to better justify the approach to law which is described above?”

My reply:

1. All contexts are unique in many ways and would have some continuity with other contexts.  The question is whether some contexts differ so radically that the practices prevalent in earlier contexts become redundant and anachronistic or meaningless in new contexts.  Let’s face it, the rules and regulations prevalent in patriarchal societies are fairly meaningless if not promptly unethical when even contemplated in societies that aspire towards egalitarianism. (Note, I used the word ‘aspire’ since all attempts to reach such ideal ends are necessarily incomplete and a work-in-progress.)

2. The great contribution of the late Fazlur Rahman and other thinkers have been that they urge us to think about scripture (Qur’an and hadith) hermeneutically, in other words think in terms of complexity-namely, history, context, intention of the author, purpose of the rule and the kind of subject that the rule addresses and the desired outcomes.

3. Ijtihad and fiqh: Intellectual effort (ijtihad) to arrive at understanding (fiqh) is a great merit. There is a prior question though: what kind of methodology does one utilize and what kind of knowledge is one deploying in the process of ijtihad.  Most Muslim thinkers of a traditional stripe still think that the methods proposed in the books of legal theory (usul al-fiqh) are still valid.  Some of it might be valid, but if one follows those methods scrupulously one is going to deprive oneself of great advances that have occurred in human knowledge (epistemology) and the new ways of being (ontology) that we continuously create and discover in our day-to-day existence.  Often I find the rhetoric of ijtihad to be vacuous for at least two reasons. One it creates the impression that Muslims need some kind of permission and license to think. The other being that there is the somewhat misplaced belief that by just dusting off some of the classical authors one will get great insights and silver bullets to deal with the present. That is lazy thinking, in itself an oxymoron.

Indeed, studying the Muslim classical authors who wrote on law and moral philosophy will reveal their creativity and ingenuity for their time.  This discovery should serve as an inspiration for modern Muslims to realize that innovation in thought is not proscribed in Islam. But that is precisely the purpose that a Ja`far al-Sadiq, Shafi’i, Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Mulla Sadra and others serve: exemplars of inspiration.  The innovation in thought is the responsibility of every age.

The contemporary thinker and scholar engaged in ijtihad, must take the knowledge of our time in its broadest framework seriously.  Most often, scholars only take the canonical authority of the past not only seriously, but reverentially, and dismiss knowledge of the present.  This kind of approach is fairly injurious to any serious effort to understand faith, tradition, self and society.  One cannot do ijtihad by revamping old knowledge. That is not ijtihad, that is like admiring monuments, in itself an admirable disposition, but it should not be mistaken as an intellectual effort to resolve the challenges of the present. Walking through the arcades of the past will make one nostalgic and give one a sensibility for history.  But one has learnt nothing about the past if one duplicates the past into the present.

3. Revisiting theology is an absolute imperative.  Legal theory is built on a foundation and a conception of the moral good and the good society. The ancients did not always explain their vision of the ideal moral good in their discussions of legal theory, nor did they have a concept of ‘society’ the way we imagine it today. Perhaps they imagined things in smaller-scale notions of ‘community.’  But their theological convictions were stated elsewhere in theological treatises and treatises on governance and ethics.

There is also an additional question: does one really want to foster a theology for our societies or does one want to foster a moral philosophy?  Perhaps both, depending on the audiences one addresses.  Theology requires some shared understanding of the divine and in multicultural and multi-religious societies it would be hard to reach such shared understandings. Of course, discrete religious communities could strive to develop newer and updated versions of theology.  However, if one focuses on the moral good then there could well be a shared moral philosophy with people of different faiths which would be secular.

About ebrahimmoosa

Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
This entry was posted in Ethics, Islam & Democracy, Islamic Law/Ethics, Muslim Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Sharia, Theology and Modernity

  1. auwais says:

    Found the question and piece quite interesting. A few nagging issues:
    1. Aren’t we overthinking the ‘problem’ of context? The remarkable thing about traditional following of madhabs is that it survives intact, quietly adapting itself to contexts with in built mechanisms of fatwa based on classical legal tools. Modernity? What modernity?
    2. This has always been done by the fuqaha, ancient and modern, as we know. Fiqh is fundamentally contextual and adaptive. So what’s the difference? Methinks that Fazlu Rahman and co loved open-endedness for its own sake. But for the fuqaha the law is a vehicle- to get safely to the hereafter without crashing. That’s where “reality” is at. And that’s why the god of reason needs to be hemmed in.
    3. Law is based on isnad not theology. How do we deal with the ahadith? There’s the rub.

    Just some thoughts. Would appreciate your comments.


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      Thanks for your query Auwais. If the tradition-based canonical schools (madhahib, sing madhhab) were doing so well, then I wonder why they are in such a crisis today and unable to deliver on the most elementary responsibilities of ethica guidance? My critique applies to both contemporary Sunni and Shi`i schools. How can one over-think context, when context is so vital? I do not think the Muslim jurists, fuqaha, were only interested in reaching the afterlife safely. That goes without saying. I would attribute that kind of analysis to a pietism. Any serious faqih was also interested in the good life and pondered about how his community could flourish. Therefore jurists spoke of the common good and the common weal (maslaha). I need to know more what your rhetorical question about modernity signifies to reply intelligently. Otherwise Baudelaire would suffice: you have no reason to despise the present.

      The prophetic traditions (hadith corpus) that undergird the fiqh is based on isnad. There is more to hadith than only isnad. Hadith scholarship and the commentary tradition on hadith is a rich reservoir and archive that informs us how generations of Muslims imagined and thought about the prophetic example and the prophetic charisma in their time and the extent to which they synthesized it with their own experience or isolated it.

      But in terms of the system of licensing and authorizing scholarship (ijaza) between one generation to the next and between teacher and student one could receive authorization for theology just as one can for law or Qur’an exegesis. That is by way of clarification. But to answer your question, theology (kalam) would incorporate the essential components and what classical scholars would call the hermeneutical foundations (qawa’id) of the scriptural teachings. So a serious theology would include a solid scriptural component to the extent that it is vital. Again theologies are a matter of taste. Those who prefer ‘foundations of religion’ (usul al-din) would want to portray Islam’s foundations as series of scriptural ordinances. Others would prefer rational and metaphysical propositions. Why hem in the God of reason? Authority without rationality is tantamount to idolatry, my paraphrase, according to both Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and Shah Waliyullah.


  2. Adis Duderija says:

    If I may suggest a few points worth considering in rerlation to the issues of new theology and role of hadith.

    As prof Moosa , in my view, correctly asserts and a lot of recent scholarship confirms (Hourani, Sh. Akhtar, M Al-Attar, A. Souaiaia and others) the Qur’an and Sunna (not hadith and I’ll come back to this later) , if interpreted in a comprehensively contextualist and historical manner (and this contextualist-historical approach is based on the very nature and the character of the OVERALL CONTENT and nature of the Qur’anic discourse) and do not disparage the use of reason but fully endorses it. The isolated verses of the Qur’an that seem to be pessimistic of the role of reason are so primarily in relation to the question of salvation and recognition/remembrance of God but not necessarily so in the areas of law or ethics. As such they must be viewed in their context-as counter narratives to arrogant, impious, unjust, cynical and powerful tribal cheifs who did not want the status quo to be disturbed for their own socio-economic and political reasons.

    Furthermore, in my view it is absolutely essentail to establish what is the actual purpose and character of the Qur’an and Sunnah in the first place. To what extent, if at all, is it their function to go beyond the issues of religion understood in a narrow way (i.e. provide the minimum for salvation). Soroush in his most recent writings goes to the extent to say that the role and the function of the Qur’an and Sunna does not even extend to that of ethics. (I would disagree on this with him) let alone law or politics (I agree with this).

    What is encouraging in all of this is that even traditionally educated scholars like Ibn Ashur , aL-Alwani or al-Qaradawi are increasingly adopting the purpose-based (maqasid) appraoch to the Qur’an and hadith. This is clear evidence of the increasing hermeneutical importance given to contextualisation and other atextual methods of interpretation which are in turn, arrived at by a sytematic engagement with the textual sources.

    In relation to hadith there are real and strong precedents in the Islamic tradition which give us confidence to seperate sunna and hadith ontologically, epistemologically and methodologically as I tried to show in some of my publications. In additoon to this the same precedents exist to show that Qur’an and Sunnah were seen as an organic whole, two sides of the same coin. This leads to the view that, apart from the in actu practice (‘amal) component of the sunnah which does not require oral/verbal/written means of transmission what constitutes sunna depends upon how we interpret the Qur’an.

    Finally, I believe that one important step in re-thinikng Islamic theology, apart from the issue relating to the role of reason in Islamic ethics and law, is to essentially hermeneutically equate (or if you wish limit) the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah to certain ethico-religious norms /principles understood in ethically objective manner ( therefore following in the footsteps of the Mu’tazilah) and, if their scope was deemed to be applicable in the areas of law or politics, for that matter, consider these ethico-religious norms/principles as being the hermeneutically most authoritiative tools of interpretation in the light of which any other evidence, including unequivocal textual evidence in form of Qur’anic verses of hadith, is to be interpreted.


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      Dear Adis, It has been some time that we spoke. Thanks for the post. I like your question as to what the purpose of revelation is. In my view, it is a pathway to salvation. To what extent revelation wanted to be in control of building that salvation path and to what extent human beings are offered autonomy to configure part of that path on their own, is the million dollar question. As the author of Hidaya, al-Marghinnani said in a famous line: “li al-nas fi ma ya’shiquna madhahibu”–“on the things they cherish, people have fairly divergent views. ” I think traditional modes of thought have tethered religious thought to past imaginaries and therefore we have great difficulty unmooring from the past. Tradition, in this sense is both a blessing and something of an obstacle.


  3. Abdulkader says:

    Reza Ismail directed me to his question and your replies, for which I thank him.

    Great conversation, and a privilege for me to join briefly.

    In my view, there are a couple of issues missing in this brief but now very common exchange. Principles and contexts are becoming the usual tropes of dealing with change, modernity and adaptation. The genius of Rahman must be credited for putting this on the table. Not all geniuses, however, he may also have led us the wrong way.

    I agree that at least one should learn from the past, both the remote as Ebrahim suggests, and the recent past. And the question I would like to pose is why has there always been a need or desire to restate theology and law? The easy answer might be that people forget or become lax and lazy. But is there not a deeper reason for this restatement? Does not desire not reveal something more than a maladjustment! I mean by the latter the realization that the pure tradition had been forgotten, or that the changing context called for a new framework! My answer is not only that the context has changed, but that the Prophet died a long time ago. Should this absence not be the point of departure for any restatement?

    My comment from the recent past is to turn to the realization by Sayyid Ahmed Khan that theology (in particular) cannot be reconstituted after the scientific revolution (I paraphrase). I think he is one of the first to have realized that. This penny has not dropped for us yet. In short, what kind of theology can one build after Kant? I think Iqbal and al Faruqi tried but failed. Rahman, to my mind, avoided the problem. We need to look at these modern attempts to see where to go from here (or not go at all).

    Thirdly, I think that the discover or invention of religion has been another major change. We live through this, but we ignore its implications. This might be seen as context too, but not only the socio-political context that Rahman addressed. And if we turn to theology, we cannot ignore religion!

    Anyway, great conversation.


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      Dear Abdulkader, thanks for your provocations, which as always are food for thought. I agree with you that the attempts to salvage older versions of theology or even law/ethics discourses are not always satisfactory, but more importantly they do not deliver. These theologies and juridico-ethical discourses cannot just be dusted off and re-packaged like a re-cycling center. This requires systematic thinking like the versions of systematic theology that Christian theologians like Niebuhr and others have written. While Kant re-thought the categories, Hegel put the emphasis on becoming and not so much on be-ing. But we might also have to re-think the difference between knowledge and information, a category difference that Muslim traditionalists hold on to dearly. I would say the epistemological overhaul and the theorization of history which you marked in you comments all deserve serious attention, in the light of the invention of religion, the post-prophetic milieu where Islam is now in the hands of mortals, albeit that some lay claim on the Prophet’s charisma for power and authority. I am less persuaded that theology cannot be reconstituted in a scientific age. Sayyid Ahmad Khan himself was engaging in practically writing a new theology, albeit un-systematic. We ignore the new social imaginaries we live in to our peril when re-booting the conversation on any religion. Thanks for the comments.


  4. ebrahimmoosa says:

    This was Reza ismail’s question about Salafiyya, to which Prof Abdulkader Tayob replied above.

    Reza Ismail writes:
    I have a question about the term “salafiyya” and in which sense Egyptian reformers like ‘Abduh and Rida are often referred to as “salafi”.

    To my mind the only way this can carry meaning for someone like ‘Abduh is if in his case he refers to himself as salafi to strike some congruency between the organic rationalism of the early generations of believers (salaf al salih), and what he was proposing in terms of intellectual reform for late 19th century Islam, i.e. re-employing reason in order to address the societal stagnation that medieval Islam left as a legacy.

    In other words, the early generations used reason to organically respond to their contextual situations by using the broader moral imperatives (like justice and egalitarianism) implicit in Quran and Sunna as a basis for their decisions. Likewise, an integral part of a modern Islamic reform project would be a return to organic human reasoning as a response to changing times.

    The more “vanilla” interpretation of “salafi” refers of course to those orthodox puritanical literalists who rely solely on Quran and Hadith (hence also call Ahl al hadith) and, theologically, reject the use of human reason from discerning what is morally commendable for society.

    So am I correct in that the only way in which ‘Abduh can find resonance with the term “salafi” is if by “salafi” he refers to the organic, creative interpretative processes employed by the early generations?
    Subject: ‘Abduh and Rida and the term “Salafiyya​”


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      I had a brief comment to Reza via email. I will have to think about it more in the light of Prof Tayob’s comments below. But for now this is what I will say.

      Abduh is not a pure salafi, namely, one who views the early three generations of Islam to be the arbiter of all teachings. But rather Abduh is a hybrid case or rather a bricoleur. The salafi reading of his work comes from his rhetoric to give primacy to the Qur’an and Sunna. In that sense only would he be a soft salafi. Furthermore, he does not give ultimate authority to the canonical law schools, madhhabs but neither does he ignore those schools entirely. So again, he is a soft version of salafi and also invokes the authority of the salaf frequently. But his main contribution was to move in the direction of purpose and goal oriented philosophy of ethics, based on considerations of public interest (maslaha) and ends (maqasid) derived from Maliki jurists. He also believed that the opinions of the canonical law schools can be reinterpreted in the light of newer readings and insights derived from the Qur’an and Sunna. In theology, Abduh followed a version of Mu’tazili reason, believing that reason itself could ascertain the good and the abominable. One could arrive at such conclusions independent of revelation, even though revelation would confirm such conclusions reached by reason. For a time he openly displayed his Mu’tazili leanings but later became a closet Mu’tazili, removing certain theological phrases from the Epistle of Unity (Risalat al-Tawhid) from later editions regarding the created nature of the Qur’an as the Mu’tazilites advocated.


  5. ebrahimmoosa says:

    I have had a busy day replying to the comments and queries of Abdulkader Tayob, Reza Ismail and Adis Duderija


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