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Why restructuring theology is vital for Indian Muslims ?

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi 

While religion seems static and stagnant, religious interpretations should never be fixed in a place or time. The religious science of hermeneutics and theological interpretation is ‘the lived dimension’ of any religion. And this branch of knowledge is constantly in flux: reimaged and dynamic, and grounded in human experiences.

According to the canonical view of the classical Muslim jurists, ijtihad is an intellectual activity of a legal Islamic theorist, Faqeeh or jurist as per his scholastic ability, aimed at finding a new jurisprudential standpoint or opinion for the larger benefit of Ummah. 

An authentic Prophetic tradition reported in canonical hadith collections Sahih Al-Bukhari, Muslim and Abu-Dawud goes as follows:

“If a scholar makes an ijtihad (the extraction of Islamic rulings from original sources of legislation) and he reaches the correct conclusion, then he will achieve two rewards. And even if he [makes a mistake] reaches the wrong conclusion, he will get one reward”.

Having known this, each of the holy Prophet’s companions (Sahabas) engaged in Ijtihad and creative re-thinking to deal with the new emerging issues and challenges in socio-religious and political matters. Nearly every Sahabi i.e. companion of the holy Prophet was in a position of the Mujtahid, the one who undertakes Ijtihad. Thus, each of them adopted an approach of his own to deal with day-to-day socio-religious and political affairs with a moderate method in accordance with their modern times and requirements. According to the canonical Islamic jurisprudence, if a Muslim has the ability to carry out Ijtihad, he needs to engage in it for the betterment of the community.

Next to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, ijtihad has the most pivotal role to play in the Islamic rulings and edicts. Unlike the first two primary sources of the Shari’ah, which discontinued at the demise of the Prophet, Ijtihad is a continuing process of intellectual brainstorming, creative re-thinking and contemplating on contemporary issues of and various new matters of religion. But it is allowed only for those who have a scholastic aptitude for deriving meanings and extracting correct rulings from the texts of Qur’an and Hadith. Since Prophet’s companions were the closest to the primary source of Islam—the Prophet himself— and were well-versed in the essential Islamic sciences, Ijtihad was a lawful prerogative for them. But what had hampered the creative thought processes in the theological issues and challenges of today’s Muslims?

Dr Wael Hallaq, former Islamic Studies Pofessor at the famous McGill University, addresses this question in his research paper titled Has the door of ijtihad been closed now? He avers that the intellectual activity of ijtihad in Islam is an unceasing and continuing process ushering in the renewal of Islamic thought in every new era.

Most Muslim jurists of the medieval times not only opposed the blind adherence (taqlid e jamid) in favor of ijtihad, but “also presented themselves as qualified mujtahids, and were accepted by others as such”, Hallaq highlights. He reaffirms, through an objective study of abundant texts available from the 10th and 11th century sources, that “there was no closure of the door of ijtihad or any expression that might allude to the idea of blockage.”

A robust and innovative approach towards ijtihad remained uninterrupted in the Muslim world at the scientific and theoretical levels.

In this context, Dr. Khaled Omran, Secretary General of the Fatwa Centre in Egypt, states that ijtihad is close to the desired renewal in religious discourses, which includes renewing the method of presentation, dealing with texts, concepts and perceptions, indicating that it is actually a form of worship for which the hardworking scholars are rewarded. For the Prophet has clearly stated it.

Furthermore, he explains that there is a connection between the two concepts of “ijtihad ” and “fatwa”, and thus infers that some scholars stipulate that a mufti must attain the rank of diligence, as it is one of the pivotal concepts in the process of issuing fatwas. It thus indicates that a fatwa is not a divine commandment. Ratner, it is only an individual opinion supported the sources and principles of Islam. 

But then what was the cause of this intellectual decay and the blockage of the ijtihad doors in India? This question prompted the prominent Indian Muslim philosophers of the 19th century like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Shibli Nomani and Allama Iqbal to invite the Indian Muslim scholarship to open the doors of ijtihad and engage in the continuing processes of rethinking and re-examination of the intellectual thoughts of Islam in India. While Allama Shibli Nimani wrote scathing criticism of the intellectual decay among the Indian ulema in his research papers published as a collection called Maqalaat-e-Shibli.

Allama Iqbal produced a ground-breaking and thought-provoking seminal work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. In this book, Allama Iqbal called for the renewal and revitalisation of Islamic thought.

Today, Indian Muslims in general and the Ulema and Islamic theologians in particular must understand what Allama Iqbal meant by his “reconstruction” of Islamic religious thought. It actually connotes the restoration of essential messages and universal values of the Qur’an. That is to say, when the Islamic postulates, precepts and practices became obliterated, he advocated restoring the true and original version of Islam. However, by ‘reconstruction’, Iqbal did not aim to change or alter Islam, but rather to change the religious attitude of the Muslims. For instance, he viewed that the Muslim religious thought in India was deeply entrenched in Riwayat (tradition) in place of the Haqiqat (truth). Thus, by the idea of ‘reconstruction’, Allama Iqbal urged the Indian Muslims to change their mindset of Riwayat into Haqiqat. This is the true spirit of ijtihad and Islamic rethinking and reformation well-embedded in the primary sources of Islamic thought.

Deplorably enough, Indian Muslims, for the past few centuries, have committed a grave blunder. There’s a continuing stagnation in the evolution and restructuring of Islamic theology in India. More deplorably, they have rather confined their religious seminaries and madrasas to a narrow interpretation of their Fiqhi Mazahib (schools of Islamic jurisprudence), and various Masalik (Islamic sects).

In fact, even the mystical experience and practice of Islam is an incomplete way to find the Ultimate Truth if it is not viable in the changed scenario. In an effort to reclaim the true mystical narrative of Islam, there is rather greater need for the reformation of Sufism in the modern age in the light of Allama Iqbal’s idea.

Thus, ijtihad is emerging an increasingly important task for the Indian Muslim scholars to undertake. It is becoming one of the most urgent and pressing needs of the time for the Indian Muslims facing a whole new range of issues and challenges in their daily life and socio-religious affairs. The Indian Ulema and Madrasas must take it into serious deliberation in order to reconstruct the Islamic thoughts in the light of the 21st century’s changing dynamics. Tellingly, we have just passed through the new phases of developments in the Muslim world, the Arab Spring in general and the Islamic reformation or the ‘Theological Arab Spring’ in particular.

ALSO READAllama Iqbal wanted to reconstruct Islamic thought with help of Ijtihad

Consequently, modern Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa are turning less ‘Islamist’ and more multi-cultural and tolerant. At this juncture, while a new religious narrative is emerging within the Muslim world with radical Islamists and extremists losing their appeal, it would be pertinent for the Indian Muslims to live with the new realities keeping pace with the time. Their Ulema should look into the major theological overhauls that they need to make in synergy with the world’s most multicultural and plural society with an aim to chalk out a progressive, modernist path for the new generation of Muslims in India and thus contribute towards strengthening the cultural, religious and social fabric of the country. After all, the thrust of religious thought, as in the words of Allama Iqbal, should be “that it must penetrate the soul of new man, and it can best penetrate the inner man.…..”.

Author is Editor of Word For Peace, an online journal promoting peace and pluralism. 

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