Islamic Thought Must Be Constantly Regenerated
By Anas Alam Faizli
December 30, 2015
Thirteen years ago, my brother, Dr Afif, chose to undertake the monumental task of memorising the Holy Quran instead of going to Form 4 after PMR. Praise be to God, he achieved it in no more than 18 weeks.
I was proud of him. Ideas gushed to my mind as to ways to expand his potential. Since he had the mental capacity, I had the notion that he should continue his regular schooling in the science stream so that he could study medicine at university and fulfil my grandmother’s wish to have a grandson who is a doctor. Imagine the fabulous combination, in one person, of deep knowledge in both the natural sciences and the science of revelation. My brother could be like one of the numerous polymaths whom we read about when we study the history of Islamic civilisation.
At a time when Islamic civilisation had long lost its dynamism in the eyes of the world, Allama Iqbal (1877-1938), in lectures compiled as “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,” addressed the pertinent question of why modern man had been trying to separate faith from science. They had been trying to confine faith within the walls of the mosque, he complained. As a result, man had become soulless. For Iqbal, there could ultimately be only one truth. He believed that the truth discovered by faith could not be different from the truth discovered by science or history.
In the same compilation, he argued that “to have a succession of identical thoughts and feelings is to have no thoughts and feelings at all. Such is the lot of most Muslim countries today. They are mechanically repeating old values.”
Although Islamic history is replete with examples of people who were at once scientists, jurists and religious scholars, the frustration felt by Iqbal was not new. Throughout Islamic history, there have been alternating periods of progress and regress. There were times when progressive thinkers had to work against the prevailing mood of the day. An example was Ibn al-Qayyim, said to be the most passionate advocate of the Islamic scholar and logician Ibn Taymiyyah.
Al-Qayyim repeatedly sought new methods to deal with the problems of the 13th Century. He gave more weight to “formulated evidential theories” than to oral testimony. For example, he sought a way of proving a person’s fatherhood of a child by using scientific methods to identify facial similarities. He also opined that a judge could obtain a sample of a husband’s ejaculate for lab tests to measure the degree of a man’s impotence when a woman petitioned for divorce on that ground.
These instances of the marriage of science and faith seem backward today, but back in the 13th Century they represented progress. In Ibn Qayyum’s time, the imams of the day kept to the ways of their ancestors when the problems facing the Ummah had changed tremendously in all fields.
The revisiting and reconstruction of the Islamic position on a variety of issues should be a continuous process. Perhaps we need to be reminded that Imam As-Shafie, the founder of the school of fiqh (jurisprudence) that most Malays subscribe to, did himself change his opinions in certain matters, sometimes in a short span of time.
Imam Abu Hanifah, the founder of the Hanafi school, is known to have given seven different opinions with regard to a certain issue because he believed changed circumstances required him to do so. Some of his followers today who differ in opinion with earlier followers have said that if Abu Hanifah was still alive he would have adopted their new position due to the changes that have taken place.
No to dogmatism
Indeed, even today, despite the prominence in the press of dogmatic so-called scholars, many true scholars would agree that there is room for continuous change in opinion in those areas that are outside the domain of aqidah (creed). In fact, there are areas where pressing change is required, and there are areas where evolution in thought is necessary. The continuous reconstruction of religious thought must be allowed.
We have to say no to dogmatism and we have to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong sometimes. We need solutions to new problems that come with changed times or problems associated with different geographical locations or social situations. Some have become so dogmatic that they have forgotten the basic premise of legal theory (usul al-fiqh) that everything is permissible until proven wrong and not the other way around.
Islam is a religion that inculcates thinking. If we encourage thinking, and if we allow continuous discussions and debates, we will nurture intellectualism and progress. We need to question in order to understand the purpose of certain systems, rulings or judicial decisions.
On the surface, this may seem like encouragement to partake in unnecessary rebellious activities. But that is not so.
We see throughout history how often new ideas are rejected without proper deliberation. We have seen how the idea of democracy was initially rejected as haram. We have seen how the idea of women being allowed to vote was considered outrageous. But because we bothered to revisit the fundamentals of the religion, we have come to accept that democracy, although not perfect, is consistent with the spirit of Islam and we now support women as leaders.
Some of us fear for the future of Islam because of the ongoing ruckus and the continuous blackening of the religion’s name. The blame lies not on Islam itself, but on Muslims. We fear that people are shying away from looking into Islam for solutions to problems that plague the Ummah – problems in policy making, problems in the care of the environment, problems over health, economic and social issues, and so on.
If the intellectuals do not continuously revisit the teachings of Islam to suit them to changing circumstances and to do their best to provide solutions to contemporary problems, the idea that Islam is shumul (complete) and covers every aspect of life will have no meaning to the Muslim layman. Neither will the assertion that Islam is rahmatan li al-alamin (a blessing to the entire universe).
Islam is a religion of love, forgiveness and peace, a religion that inculcates and nurtures strength in its followers.
Ahmad Deedat, the late South African scholar, once said, “Imagine Islam as a perfect car and the Muslims the driver. Blame the driver, not the car” if something goes wrong.
Dr Anas Alam Faizli works in the oil and gas industry and is the author of Rich Malaysia, Poor Malaysians.