What Does a (Good) Tradition Do

A TRADITION SEPARATES the good answers to the problems it is concerned with from the bad ones, and further develops the good answers and prunes the bad ones.

This dynamic of questioning, disagreement, and struggling to locate truth is, I explained to my youthful audience, the purpose of any successful tradition, that is, to try to find the right answer. And in this case, that  right answer means discerning the true will of God, on any question, as much as possible, by documenting and recording carefully the debates of previous generations and developing those arguments generation after generation, so that agreements as well as disagreements become clear. Healthy and self-confident traditions, in fact, are careful to record not only the successful answers, but also the rejected ones, in order to teach the coming generation—but also for the sake of integrity.

Think of it this way. You read a verse that says: There is no compulsion in religion. On the basis of your knowledge of Arabic, you conclude that it means that no one must be forced to become Muslim. Your liberal friend, however, reads the verse differently, concluding that it means one should mind one’s own business. No one should tell anyone to pray or even encourage another so as to bring him closer to Allah, because that is a form of psychological compulsion. Another friend of yours reads it to mean that no Muslim must be forced to convert out of Islam, but compelling someone to become Muslim is perfectly fine. How would you decide what it means? Would you throw up your hands and concede that anyone’s interpretation is just as good as anyone else’s?

This, unfortunately, is the conclusion that some of my young friends had come to. The reason was not that their parents and elders had not told them the “right” answer—these young men, after all, attended a competitive Islamic school and a mosque—but they hadn’t been convinced. Understandably, the reasons for the provided answers on any such questions had not been compelling: You must believe me either because I am your parent, or the imam, or because there is only one answer. On rare occasions, someone might even have offered a rational argument addressing the contextual and linguistic aspects of the verse. But the question, as one young man put it, is this: Why should I trust your interpretation and not the next person’s? The question is legitimate and lurks in the minds of God-knows-how-many young Muslims today.

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The answer is far more convincing if it is presented as part of a whole, long-standing, healthy, persuasive, self-aware and self-critical tradition. Instead of giving one answer, I chose to tell my friends to consider that there exists a record of centuries of far more learned commentary on this and every other verse and hadith. Entire legions of devoted scholars have figured out every possible meaning of this verse and its relationship to other verses, teachings, and the practice of the Prophet ﷺ and that of the Companions. Often, they could not settle on the one right answer, and generation after generation, they diligently and passionately produced works recording agreements and disagreements. You may come up with a clever interpretation today—your cleverer friend might outdo you tomorrow—but what if this process had already taken place at the hands of people far more qualified and closer in time to the revelation of the Quran?

Left on your own, you and your friends might never have found a common ground on many issues. But now you can. The Tradition may still have valid disagreement on the modality of “no compulsion,” but on the whole, the meanings of this phrase are known in great detail and with great confidence about the Divine intent behind it.

There is another, purely psychological aspect of the beauty of Islamic Tradition.  By the time you learn the language, the historical context, the totality of the scriptural Texts that are relevant, and the complexity of the legal and philosophical problems involved, you would have spent a good part of your life immersed in this ocean and would have encountered the breathtaking brilliance, scrupulous diligence, and not infrequently the sheer genius of a procession of Muslim scholars. It is enough of a sign of Allah to read these scholars, or to read of them. The chances that you would be smug about your own interpretive abilities after this learning are small indeed. Our Tradition inspires humility in the hardest of hearts.

Enough talk about disagreements. The case of agreement among Muslim scholars is no less inspiring. Compared to any other religious tradition and given our diversity of viewpoints and complete freedom—incentive, even—to disagree, early Muslims came to consensus—or widespread agreement—on a surprisingly large number of issues.

Perhaps the greatest distinction of Islamic Tradition, in particular of Sunni Islam, has been the mutual validation of the various schools of legal interpretation. The goal of Islamic tradition is to seek agreement on any question, but failing that, its function is to organize disagreement, evaluate, and categorize various opinions. The four famous schools of Law, or madhâḥib, are all seen by Sunnis as equally valid. No other religious tradition, as far as I know, has historically displayed this level of mutual tolerance and respect among themselves. As the celebrated statement of Imam Al-Shâfiʿi goes:

My opinion is correct but has the potential of being incorrect, and the opinion of my opponent is incorrect but bears the potential of being correct.

Four is not a magic number, and these schools of Law—by name, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali—survived and thrived simply by the process of human effort and by the Ummah’s acceptance of them. The fact that we have four or more schools of Sunni interpretation that consider each other to be mutually valid is something to be proud of. It is this mechanism, when it is working well, which keeps—and has kept—Islam from turning into a tyranny on the part of any one government, any class of scholars, or any one family. The kind of theocracy that oppressed Christian Europe for centuries—and then led to an equally extreme reaction against religion—has never been the case in Islam.

My young audience was thrilled (and overloaded) with information. I was very happy to hear that they wanted me to come back again, for this kind of meeting, transmission of knowledge, and discussion is, after all, at the heart of our Middle Way, this central tradition.

A Parable: Tradition as a City

in the modern world, tradition is a stranger, even to adherents of great traditional religions. Even those Muslims who live by traditions do not, for the most part, understand how a tradition works, what makes one great, and how traditions become outdated and weak.

When the adherents of a tradition face external challenges or too many irresolvable internal disputes, they lose their power of persuasion and inspiration, becoming either oppressive or powerless and irrelevant. In the pre-modern world, most civilized people lived and thought within religious traditions—some weak, others strong; some intellectual, curious, and open; others narrow and dogmatic; some based on truth that was preserved (Islam); others corrupted and lost to varying extents (Christianity, Judaism); or lost completely.

Because healthy, functioning tradition is a stranger, perhaps the best way to describe it to those not specialized in history or the traditional sciences, is through a parable. Think of Islamic tradition as a city. The city was established by a divine plan through the blessed hands of the last builder. Over time, it expanded, and welcomed multitudes of people.

A successful city is built to accommodate the multitudinous needs of a large number of people, with diversity of professions, preferences, and tastes. It is nonetheless a unified system with a mayor or governor, and its success depends on whether it has the material and other resources to support its inhabitants and nourish their growth, whether it is run well with integrity and competence, and whether its inhabitants get along with each other, and finally, whether it can defend itself against invaders. Each new generation adds its layers, either by building on top of the existing buildings or erecting new edifices and extending in new directions. New circumstances, immigrants, challenges, foreign invasions, plagues, riots, and even civil wars may afflict a city. If the city survives them, it becomes stronger and more resilient by developing new buildings or neighborhoods, adjusting and adapting its governance, and so on.

Now imagine that city as Islam. The initial foundation of Islam provided a divinely guided vision, the master plan for building a divinely guided city, the city of salvation for all human beings until the end of time. The simple source-Texts of Islam give the vision and a plan for the entirety of life, but they establish only a few simple buildings, leaving the rest to the coming generations to build in the same vision but adjusting according to their needs. Each generation developed new solutions to problems it faced. As the number of citizens multiplied a thousand-fold in a couple of generations, new buildings were needed, some built right, others not. Each generation added to, fixed, decorated, or destroyed and disfigured, the legacy it received.

If the physical structure of the city does not support the number and diverse needs of its citizens, it loses its dwellers and its charm, so people immigrate out to other cities rather than immigrate into it. They may not permanently move out, visiting it every now and then as their ancestral home for vacations and get-togethers. But they can’t call it home.

Denying Islamic Tradition, or merely paying lip service to it, even while holding onto the original Quran and the Sunnah, is like destroying the entire divine city out of frustration that it is malfunctioning, and then trying to fit a billion and half people into a cottage. Indisputably, the original divine vision for the city is essential to keep in mind as we go along. Likewise, the experiences and wisdom imbricated in the buildings and streets, generation upon generation, are also necessary to accommodate the nearly two billion Muslims today.

It is true that the later generations could have built some buildings in the wrong way, ways that contradict the vision of the divine architecture laid out in the Quran and the Sunnah, but through the constant process of commanding right and forbidding wrong, the Ummah, we know from the divine promise, has been guided and will, if it continues to apply itself in the path of Allah, ultimately set things aright.

The city of Islam represents the last and final locus of Divine Light in the world. And even if we need to rebuild parts of that city, restore and refurbish many older and abandoned masterpieces, the city cannot be abandoned and a new one started from scratch, leaving the billions of citizens to dry out in the heat of the Satanic lure of this worldly life, or to freeze in the cold of the animosity of Islam’s enemies. Like any renovation and rebuilding of a live and thriving city, any attempt to reform the Islamic Tradition requires understanding the spirit of the Tradition, and a recognition that mere imitation of foreign architectures will likely turn out to be as disastrous as erecting a breeze-friendly beach house near the North Pole.

People now leave the city of Islam in hordes as they once moved into it in droves, even while keeping their Muslim names and nostalgic affiliation, visiting it for special occasions such as birth, death, and marriage. Has that not happened to Islam today? Then the question that remains is this: What can we do to rehabilitate this city of Allah?

Entering the Discourse of the Islamic Tradition: Our Essential Need for Islamic Tradition

My ideas have, no doubt, raised more questions than provided answers. My intention has not been to give detailed answers, but rather to advocate what I believe to be the correct paradigm in which to ask such questions. I am promoting the spread of a spirit among us, namely, to understand and master our challenges today through the existing city of knowledge, rather than attempt to erect yet another shantytown or to abandon it altogether.

For the last two centuries, there have appeared a slew of reformists and modernists among Muslims, but only those reformers that have paid attention to this city have had any lasting impact. I have argued that no matter what its challenges and shortcomings, we cannot give up Islamic Tradition if we wish to keep Islam.

Islamic Tradition as a Living Discourse

The second point I have made is that Islamic Tradition does not consist of a set of answers to a list of questions. Rather, it comprises a complex, evolving set of conversations that have taken place among believing scholars over the centuries, which has enabled both definitive agreement on a number of issues, as well as rejection of some others as clearly heterodox. At the same time, it has also sustained, organized, and recorded a much larger number of disagreements.

Since the colonial onslaught of the last two centuries, Muslims have faced the greatest crisis in Islamic history, but it has also been an era of inspiring revival, resistance, rethinking, and renewal. Yes, there are demagogues, fanatics, charlatans, tyrants, and profiteers on Allah’s verses, even as the Prophet of Allah ﷺ had prophesied. But when one goes down deep into the trenches of knowledge and struggle, one finds scholars and ordinary Muslims who are fortresses of knowledge and faith, and who withstand storms of disbelief and persecution with faith, the like of which has moved mountains. How else do you think it is that Islam remains one of the most vibrant religions in the world–indeed, the only world religion that has not only withstood the wave of secularization and materialism but has turned it around! Some observe that Islam now stands as the single remaining civilizational alternative to secular humanist materialism.

By advocating the indispensability of the historical Islamic Tradition, I do not mean to suggest that all Muslims should become scholars and specialists in ancient Texts. The Islamic mission encompasses all of life, of course,, including politics and preaching, building and healing, discovering and recovering, as well as doing science and the arts. But I want to point to the part of Islamic life that concerns our font of knowledge and thought that is absolutely indispensible, and without which we would become intellectually bankrupt, morally moribund, and which ought to be at the very center of our activities, but which has come today to be woefully neglected by most Muslims.

The first step toward reviving the metaphorical city of Islamic Tradition is to move back into it permanently, while being free to visit the rest of the world of ideas and ideologies for inspiration, knowledge, and wisdom. We must realize that we are part of a great city of virtue, light, valor, and beauty, a city built upon a divine plan that has manifested itself and elaborated its radiance throughout history. But it must be on its own time-honored terms that it develops or holds fast in the face of the vicissitudes of the world. That is why when one looks around at its structures and houses, one needs to be able to recognize that these were, indeed, built by devoted designers, men and women of great genius and passion, who did their best to build it according to the plan of the Divine Architect.  To fix it, or to build on top of it, requires that we understand the motif of its history and the wisdom of the old—and something of the spark of soul and leap of mind of its first believing builders, however unsuitable their covered and beaten edifices now look to hasty eyes.



Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.


  • Ahmed Salim

    December 14, 2015 - 4:01 am

    Except for the suggestion that we must move back to Muslim lands, which is debatable, I enjoyed this article, and particularly its writing style.

  • Ahmed Salim

    December 14, 2015 - 4:01 am

    Except for the suggestion that we must move back to Muslim lands, which is debatable, I enjoyed this article, and particularly its writing style.

  • Ahmed Salim

    December 14, 2015 - 4:01 am

    Except for the suggestion that we must move back to Muslim lands, which is debatable, I enjoyed this article, and particularly its writing style.

  • Ahmed Salim

    December 14, 2015 - 4:01 am

    Except for the suggestion that we must move back to Muslim lands, which is debatable, I enjoyed this article, and particularly its writing style.

  • Ahmed Salim

    December 14, 2015 - 4:01 am

    Except for the suggestion that we must move back to Muslim lands, which is debatable, I enjoyed this article, and particularly its writing style.

  • aataai gazi mahbub

    December 14, 2015 - 2:12 pm

    Welcome your idea. we need talent generation to lead the idea. at first, we have to keep aside our grouping mindset in defense of our own madhab.

  • aataai gazi mahbub

    December 14, 2015 - 2:28 pm

    Imam ibn Taymiya , imam ibn al-Qayyim , Mudodi and many others advocated for bringing all the rulings of Islamic schools of law into one platform. But no body wanted to listen to them. Everybody loves his following madhab in his own style.

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