How to Achieve Unity and Progress of the Ummah: The Challenge Today
How are we to achieve harmony and unity among the Muslims on the one hand and a deeper, truer understanding of the Shari’ah on the other? To resolve this difficulty is not a mental luxury—it is a matter of our survival as the Muslim Ummah. One Muslim thinker, Malik Bennabi, summarized the last few centuries of Muslim experience in the world rather well:
The Muslim Ummah had [to] become colonist’s prey before it could be colonized.
How to stop being divided and backward, and how to avoid any future (and ongoing) attempts at colonization of the Ummah, that is the most urgent question of our time. And one important piece of that solution is how Muslims of different opinions and inclinations are going to relate to each other.
Three competing proposals of how to approach and overcome such divisions have been offered.
- One possibility is to approach the Quran and the Sunnah ‘directly,’ meaning apart from the guidance of any Madhahib (schools of thought). Such proponents cite the example of the first few generations of the pious predecessors as a sufficient guide. This is what people did before the development of the Madhahib—and some continued to do even afterwards).
- Another is to follow the four Madhahib strictly, as was done in the middle periods of Islam (4th -13th centuries, Hijri). When the painful history mentioned above is pointed out to these proponents of the individual Madhhab, they might add that now we must learn to tolerate each other, knowing that all the four solutions to all the problems are equally correct.Some advocates of this approach go to the extent of saying that no scholar can ever be a Mujtahid or an absolute Mujtahid after the classical age. In other words, “The gates of Ijtihad have been closed.”Though these two approaches differ on the surface, they share reverence for, and trust in, the classical scholars (those of the first three centuries). They differ in whether one looks at the ‘middle period’ (from the fourth century onward) as a necessary and inevitable progression of our history and hence binding upon us, or whether one wishes to go back to the early period directly by ignoring the middle period.
- There is a third tendency, not directly addressed in this series, of modernism, which rejects the authority of the entire tradition and the ‘burden’ of respecting even the early scholars, and wishes to reinterpret the Quran and Sunnah—sometimes even the Sunnah is rejected—in order to make Islam fit for survival in its own way.
The first two options each have something valuable, but each tells only half the story, such that their proposals will not become feasible unless they listen to each other. Hence, this series is an earnest call for dialog and synergy, an honest and sincere dialog among all those who care about the Din of Allah and the Muslim Ummah above all else.
And if such a dialog fails to happen on a large scale, I fear that the third of these options, that of rejecting all of the Islamic tradition, will become more and more probable. Or, equally dreadful, is the possibility that one more serious fault line will continue to further divide an already fragmented Ummah.
In this series, my goal is to flesh out the arguments put forth by various contenders with respect to the Madhhab issue, to show their strengths and limits, and to call for a dialog and synthesis among them. The slogans of ‘no-Madhhab’ and ‘one Madhhab’ have both been taken to extremes; we must learn to evaluate the worth of these slogans in their proper context, and to recognize the concerns, the polemics and the politics that always surround them. At the very least, in order to satisfy the minimal Islamic requirement of passing a judgment, we must first hear out both sides as sincerely as we can.
Later in this series, I will also put forth a middle view that acknowledges and builds on the strengths of both sides of the divide—a view that I believe is espoused by a large number of Muslim scholars and thinkers today for good reasons, even though it is not often articulated. That view is that the Muslims must embrace all the Madhahib, all at once, not just one Madhhab exclusively.
This needs to happen at two levels.
- On the level of scholars or Mujtahids, the Madhahib should be conceived of as ‘schools of thought,’ not as bases of various identities. This approach means that the resources and geniuses of all the schools be available to contemporary Muslim scholars—who must learn from each one of them but be bound by none. Our drastically transformed world requires profound, organized and collective efforts of Ijtihad by the scholars.
- On the level of the followers, this approach recommends that ordinary Muslims not identify with any of the Madhahib even when following scholars from one of them. Many scholars have in the past pointed out that a Muqallid (a follower who does not ask for evidence) actually does not have a Madhhab—it is only the scholar that he or she follows who has a Madhhab. [i]The majority of the scholars agree that Muqallids must follow the scholars they trust. It further requires that we distinguish between types of followers: those who are not capable of even understanding the evidence provided by the scholars for their recommendations (Muqallid), and those who are capable of understanding the basis for various recommendations (Muttabi: ‘reasoned followers’). [ii]But being a Muqallid is an undesirable situation, and most educated Muslims today can and must try to become ‘reasoned followers.’ An increasing number of (Islamically) educated Muslims already fall in this category. (Explanation of each of these points follows in Part 4, ‘Towards a Solution’).
This middle approach, I submit, is most conducive to dialog as well as to genuinely Islamic progress; it respects the Madhhab tradition without being limited by it, it reveres the great scholars of our past without idolizing them, and it pays fullest attention to the Quran and the Sunnah without ignoring the possibility of differences or making the faulty assumption that everyone is qualified to do Ijtihad.
First, a brief recap of the relevant history is in order to be found next time, insha’Allah, in Part 3
[i] The only notable exception to the general agreement that ‘an illiterate person may follow a trusted scholar’ is Imam Ibn Hazm (d. 456), a great original scholar and Mujtahid, no doubt, in his own right. He says,
Taqlid is prohibited for everyone, whether a slave, a commoner, a virgin girl in her quarter, a shepherd in the mountains—as it is prohibited for a learned scholar. And Ijtihad in seeking the commandment of God and His Messenger—in whatever the Din requires a person to do—this is incumbent upon all. Whoever blindly imitates (qallada) in any of these matters has disobeyed Allah and sinned. (Al-Ihkam fi Usul Al-Ahkam).
However, practically speaking, this is an isolated opinion which goes against the majority of the ‘Ulama’ of all inclinations, and will no doubt result in great difficultly and chaos if followed.
[ii] One of the factors correlated to the rise of Taqlid and stagnation was decline in the standards of education.
Ibn Khaldun, one of the most brilliant and original minds in history, observed in his Al-Muqaddimah that the increase in (unoriginal and uncritical) writings within any field generally make learning more difficult; confusing terminology proliferates; the aesthetic aspect of the language is ignored; and the student becomes forced to spend most of his life memorizing it and trying to reproduce it.
He gives the example of Al-Mudawwanah in the Maliki Madhhab:
Someone compiled a collection of Malik’s opinions which ran into many volumes; then its interpretations were written by many a scholar; then books were written separating various schools within the Madhhab; then compendiums were written since the original works were too large to handle; then explanations of compendiums were compiled because the compendiums were too terse and difficult to understand. A lifetime is needed to study any one of these. (Al-Muqaddimah)
We might add that since most of the rulings contained in these huge volumes are either abstract, theoretical, or outdated, much of the time of a traditional Fiqh student would be spent in memorizing these, and little time would be left for original, critical reflection, or for profound reflection on the Quran and the Sunnah.