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?”
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.