Masood N. Khan, MD

We left at a very important point in our discussion in the last issue of the Spark. It had brought focus on how Muslims related and dealt with knowledge in general. I think this matter points out to yet two more characteristics contributing to decline of Muslims early on in their history. The first, has been the domination of conservatism over liberalism, and traditionalism over intellectualism in interpreting knowledge of Deen. The divisive roots of these two schools of thought go as far back as middle of eighth century AD about 100 years after the departure of the Prophet. During this time, the process of formulation of fiqh (Islamic law), that was to play a great role, in giving a mindset to Muslims and shaping their individual and collective behavior, had started. Unfortunately it proved to be bitterly schismatic, for traditionalism as a school of thought in interpreting Quran and the Sunnah, emerged as a formidable opponent to a more flexible interpretation and application of Quranic in- junctions – the former represented by Imam Malik (718–796 AD), later endorsed and strengthened by Imam Hunbal Bin Ahmed (780–855 AD) while the latter by Imam Abu Hanifa (699–767 AD). Two very important principles in the methodology of the formulation of the law underpinned this division.

Qiyas & Ijma which is extraction of law based strictly upon a well established analogy or precedent (with little scope for innovation and variance) and/ or the confluent opinion of majority of scholars at a given time.

Maslaha & Ijtehad based upon extraction of law on expedient or analytical reasoning and possibly, a creative solution in a given situation.
The former, dominant in traditionalist (conservative) approach, relied heavily on literal interpretation of ahadith (sayings of the Prophet) and on established socio-cultural norms at the time of the Prophet (and his companions), while the latter, dominant in non- traditionalist (liberal) approach, relied on the contextual and dynamic interpretation of ahadith and critical evaluation of the socio-cultural norms at the time of the Prophet and his companions.

During the golden period of Abbasid caliphate, Hanafite school created a moderate balance between conservatism and liberalism keeping under check the ill effects of both approaches. It became a harbinger of great progress in intellectual analyses, philosophy, mathematic, medicine, astronomy and anthropology, producing great minds of Islamic history. Muslims established hospitals, universities and observatories from Spain to Iran with excellent administration. It was in early Abbasid period during the period of Ma- mun, a great institution called Dar ul Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was established in Baghdad, which operated with a commitment to seek knowledge from wherever it was available and encouraged research on great works of renowned Greek philosophers of earlier times like Socratese, Plato, Aristotle and others. It was academically so vibrant and dynamic, that it could be said to have easily passed for a role model for the Harvard of today.

Intellectualism being rampant and attractive, it insensibly gave rise to a new class called Mu’tazalites (the rationalists). There was a period when Mu’tazalites with their liberlistic and rational interpretation of religion dominated the Muslim world and even won the favor and approval of Abbasid Caliphs. But unfortunately they took their rationalism too far, that it became suicidal for them; for example, a very superfluous debate of mere hypothetical significance was let to spark a huge crisis in the Caliphate. This was the debate if Quran was created or was eternal. Mu’tazalites argued that God in His eternal existence had preceded existence of Quran, hence Qur’an was created by Him. They did not stop there, but went on to emphatically insist that no monotheist could believe otherwise. Conservationists were alarmed with this conclusion for it meant God could possibly have created it only to address the needs and issues of a certain time and place (the time of the Prophet and Arabia) and that it could be liable to change with time. Since Mu’tazalite position was supported and upheld by Abbasid Caliphs, disbelief in Qur’an being created came to be regarded a violation of law. The conservative scholars who rejected such a preamble to Quran, were persecuted and punished; one highly notable and respected among them, was Ahmed bin Hunbal, a strict conservationist, a scholar, a muhaddith of high repute and founder of Hunbali school of Fiqh. The humiliating punishment he was subjected to, was enough to ignite a reaction in public and soon this repressive imposition of a belief which was debatable at best, gave rise to a revolt against Mu’tazilite school and ultimately annihilated it. Consequently the liberalism was replaced with conservatism except what was sporadically left at individual level. The crisis about Qur’an gave a bad name to Mu- tazalites and indirectly to intellectual exhortations and liberalism. They came to be regarded as a source of fitnah and considered dangerously prone to push humans to a sinful path. On the contrary, conservatism in interpreting religion was considered a source of piety and purity. The denunciation of intellectualism and analytical reasoning in interpreting Qur’an and Sunnah was of mammoth significance in the process of Muslims’ decline. Muslims’ distaste for intellectu- alism and their abandoning of reflective comprehension and rational application of Deen was a great loss. It made them insolent literalists. Intellectually stagnated, Muslims made Deen a bundle of rituals and reduced it to a checklist of dos and don’ts with more focus on outward form than meaning and purpose of the message. Within a few centuries Europe advanced in the very direction from which Muslims had retrieved and left them way behind.

The above situation paved way to the second characterstic leading their decline. Muslims diminished the very definition of knowledge by sharply separating knowledge of Deen from secular knowledge, as though they are two separate realities and not the interconnected shades of a span. To make the issue more disconcerting, religious knowledge was considered superior to secular knowledge. The former was identified with conservatism and traditionalism with its perceived purity and piety while the latter with intellectualism with its perceived bad side-effects.

Two very effective catalysts to this taprootedly misguided thinking, unfortunately emerged during this time and deeply influenced Muslims/ understanding and approach to Deen for generations to come.

One was Ghazali (1058 – 1111) who was a religious scholar of high caliber and was the head of a prestigious Islamic institute, the Nizamiah College in Baghdad. During his teaching career at the school, he was very much given to rationalization, reasoning, philosophy and intellectual debates. He wrote strongly condemning Taqleed (following only the path already established) as a detestable practice that promoted unthinking obedience. This was a period when Suljukh sultans had taken over the caliphate, and violent politics were weakening its authority. A murderous movement called “The Assassins”, based upon some strange ideology that was set to reinterpret Sharia, had created havoc in the Caliphate. Severely burned-out by the stress of his administrative responsibilities, political pressures and his intellectual exhortations, Ghazali, supposedly, had a nervous breakdown and decided to quit his job to seek peace through Sufism, dedicating instead solely to writing. He started to draw attention of the Muslims to inner purity and sincerity of intent but insensibly and gradually drew himself deeper and deeper into a ritualistically codified, and highly conservative interpretation of Deen. He wrote profusely and one of his books “Revival of Religious Sciences”,became a hallmark of conservatism and left a deep impact on Muslims’ understanding of Deen. Ghazali’s impact not only promoted and empowered conservatism, it also indirectly pushed Muslims to a mindset which disconnected knowledge of Deen from secular knowledge and upheld its superiority.

The second catalyst which complemented Ghazali’s impact was Sufism that emerged between 8th and 10th century and became popular and widespread between 13th and 16th century AD. It created in Muslims an anti-world fatalism that would discourage their involvement in all material pursuits. Since religion was identified as a means to salvation in the hereafter, all worldly pursuits including acquiring of knowledge in secular sciences were considered unimportant to say the least. Sufism as an ideology emphasized connection with God, purity and sincerity but unfortunately robbed Muslims of the dynamism and motivational energy required to progress in this world. Consequently, as new knowledge in the fields of mathematics, physical and biological sciences, language and arts, sociology and philosophy impacting deeply on human life, economy and politics, became quite renascent (especially during the period of the Renaisance in Europe), the above mindset in Muslims created unreal apprehensions and fears of moral pollution. They thought going after them would ultimately ruin their hereafter. Sadly enough, this anti-intellectualist and anti-world understanding of religion pushed Muslims deeper into the pit of decline.

It was but inevitable, that due to all the above, the exclusivity and superiority of religious knowledge and its much appreciated disconnect with secular knowledge, led Muslims to believe in the need to establish exclusively religious schools. Such schools by their very intrinsic character had to be digressive and subversive to the understanding of the message. They had two very deleterious consequences for Muslims. First, they produced graduates who were highly conservative and dogmatic. They were believers in ‘Taqleed’ (unquestioned following of what was established). They infused rigidity, narrow-mindedness and a sort of ritualistic regimentalism in Deen, believing such traits to be expressions of piety and virtue. Secondly by their interpretation of Deen and their influence in defining the perception of a pious Muslim, they aided in dividing Muslims into two distinct classes, religious (and pious?) and the secular engaged in worldly pursuits (not so pious).

The most damaging aspect of this division was the ever widening gulf between the two with former becoming more dogmatic and the latter becoming only peripherally religious. What was indeed necessary was a universal inculcation of Deen in its essence with emphasis on good conduct and good morals extracted from divine guidance, across all strata of Muslims, religious or secular. This was only possible when divine guidance transcended material pursuits in such a way as to make them good human beings and not reduce it to a uniform garbed for identification or a false and feel good sense of self-righteousness. Exclusively religious schools which Muslims misguidedly supported in order to fortify and uphold religion were the result of rather prodigal but effete understanding of Deen and certainly contributed to their decline. Corollary to the exclusively religious schools, Muslims embraced with unreserved respect, the inglorious, so called, religious scholars. Taking advantage of the reverence Muslims had for religious knowledge, these scholars ingratiated themselves wit the ignorant and vulnerable masses and unfortunately came to command a hypnotizing respect from them. the wielding of such enormous power to a few individuals was extremely dangerous for the stability and peace of any country. In many Muslim countries, especially in the subcontinent such indiscreet scholars who behave like a mafia, have been the source of crisis after crisis, each causing political destabilization, distracting attention away from constructive programs for the betterment fo the people and diverting to storied and personalities of the past and intellectually silly, artificial and irrelevant issues like blasphemy, triple talaq, moon sighting, segregation of sexes and punishing apostasy and misconceived and misplaced love for the Prophet. They have been no doubt conducive vehicles of decline! These scholar have often aroused violence with their immature, impulsive and inflammatory speeches. Their bigotry has promoted, interfaith and intrafaith religious intolerance among Muslims. This disease in some Muslim countries has attained endemic proportions and has forced the wiser and more level-headed scholars to self-exile themselves in other countries because of death threats by people.

Before concluding, the question that requires an incisive answer is; will Muslims be able to reverse this pathetic situation they are in, because of their incommodiously damaging misinterpretation of Deen causing their shameful decline?. The answer could be ‘Yes’ but definitely bound by conditions. The two major conditions that look into solution-seeking eyes are following:

  1. Quran has described a class of people as “Ul ul Albaab”, meaning those who depth of thought, insight and wisdom. Humanity is blessed with such people in every society. There is a great responsibility on such people to play a role to promote right understanding of Deen by standing up against bigotry, close-mindedness and distorted perception of piety. In their social gatherings and interactions, public speakings and from other platforms they need to be outspoken and assertive. Muslims have to study Deen, themselves in the modern light with deep understanding of the challenges of the present world that is different from the world in 1400 years ago. One particular area that needs special attention of modern scholars is a responsible dealing with the sayings of the Prophet. A great deal of attention and research is needed in applied interpretation of a hadeeth. This way they will be able to undo the centralization and institutionalized monopoly of religious education and make the Mullahs irrelevant.

2. At a governmental level Muslim countries should, as an urgent step, abolish all exclusively religious schools. The secular education and religious education should be compatibly made complementary parts of a wholesome educational system that makes Muslims good human beings always in service of God and therefore readily in service of humanity. In other words the educational system needs to be revolutionarily redesigned.