Between Text and History:  Re-establishing the Intellectual Link

Between Text and History:  Re-establishing the Intellectual Link

Najah Kadhim

The religious scholars of Islam, be they Sunni or Shi?ite, generally discourage the study of philosophy and its various disciplines, for they fear that it may have negative influence on the Muslim mind and may adversely affect their understanding of the creeds and foundational principles of Islam. Today, the dominant mode of thought and articulation espoused by Muslim scholars is the discourse on Islamic heritage. It
is best exemplified in the tradition of Islamic fiqh, which is based on medieval systems of jurisprudence, but which exhibits little awareness of the modern philosophical thinking, psychological insights and societal practices.

Today, the dominant mode of thought and articulation espoused by Muslim scholars is the discourse on Islamic heritage. It is best exemplified in the tradition of Islamic fiqh, which is based on medieval systems of jurisprudence, but which exhibits little awareness of the modern philosophical thinking, psychological insights and societal practices.

Fiqh or Shari?ah is generally regarded as synonymous with Islam. Islam has become associated with fiqh (or Shari?ah) as if it cannot be defined except through fiqh and Shari?ah. Or, expressing it differently, or Shari?ah (or fiqh) has become the principal mode of approaching and explaining the religion of Islam. Philosophical and rational disciplines seem to be missing in the list of authoritative models of Islamic self-understanding.

This neglect of philosophy has its own history. It started before the so called centuries of decline which followed the destructive invasions of the Islamic world by the Mongols and Tatars.

After the early adoption of science and knowledge by Islamic civilization, especially during the Abbasid era, and the enormous amount of translation achieved by Dar al Hikmah, there appeared signs of degeneration in the Muslim Ummah. The collapse began in the early fifth century AH, as is evident in Imam ?Abd al Qadir al Kilani?s book, Al ?Itiqād [The Beliefs], which has its emphasis on creeds. The end of the century witnessed the preoccupation of Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazali in waging a campaign against the philosophers, as is clearly discernable in his famous work, Tahafut al Falasifa [The Incoherence of Philosophy]. Nevertheless, the significant fact is that although al Ghazali rejected philosophy, he still supported the relevant use of logic and its principles, considering it an admirable element of thought.

Al Ghazali?s student, Abu Bakr ibn al ?Arabi, on the other hand, rejected all the great literary works of al Jāhidh, al Mas?udi and many others. These developments were the starting-point of the period of al bid?ah (innovation), during which Ibn al ?Arabi encouraged Muslims to despise al Jāhidh and others, calling them ?the innovative deceivers?. Meanwhile, he asked Muslims to boycott the people of ?religious ignorance?, who had no other task than ?making sins appealing to the public?.

Anything that did not conform to the views of the ?ulama? (Islamic scholars) or imams was considered bid?ah, as described in Imam al Shatibi?s al I?tişām. In his work, Imam al Shatibi stated that bid?ah was the intellect?s claims?, for the intellect is not independent of course and cannot be formed without an established a priori, rather, it depends totally on a presupposed a priori and there cannot be any other presupposition without the fundamental acceptance of Revelation (wahi).

According to the ?ulama?, bid?ah was ?inventing on matters that have not been introduced before?. This could be in ?manifest error? if it was unintentional, or as a result of ?disbelief in Shari?ah and those who implement Shari?ah? if it was intentional. 

The era of the rejection of bid?ah was followed by that of denouncing Sufis as unbelievers. The leading figure in this campaign was Ibn al Jawzi. In his book, Talbīs Iblīs, he condemned Sufis as ?criminal infidels? and accused them of promoting forbidden practices.

There followed a period dominated by the ideas of Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, which resulted in a lethargy of scholarship. During this stage of the Islamic civilization, few important intellectual works and critical commentaries were produced. As the originator of Salafi thought in the early eighth century AH, Ibn Taymiyyah rejected philosophy and logic, believing that both disciplines contaminated and debased Islamic faith. His student, al Suyuti, followed in his footsteps. Al Suyuti was famous for his spirituality and his outright rejection of logic, eliminating in his turn the discipline of kalam (Islamic theology).

Such marked changes had the effect of severing all rational links with religion. The intellectual efforts now were to be confined to a literal reading of the Text. In fact, the intellect itself was isolated from religion, which was ?intellectually guarded? and could be activated only by those ?ulama? who possessed the right knowledge; or who had the privilege of thinking on behalf of the rest of society. In other words, they, and they alone, were allowed ?intellectual tutelage?. Thus the gates of ijtihād were closed, creating a mentality throughout Muslim society which took every word of the Text at face value and followed its dictates. This approach was applied, in particular, to the use of qiyās, in which contemporary matters were analysed with reference to past events. However, that was where difficulties could arise, for although the current problem might be the same as one dealt with long ago, the circumstances of each were likely to be very different.

Thus began the disastrous dissolution between intellect and the Shari?ah, that is, between the intellect and life. Religion and culture were moving apart, marking out the path for the withdrawal of Islam into isolation, where it would be practised as a defensive religion with a protective shield, namely, the threat of extremism. When practised in this way, it became fanatical and immoderate extremist against the ?other?, whether the ?other? was Muslim or not, and severe against the ?self? when criticizing its imaginary sins.

In addition, the cultural and intellectual lethargy and decline of Muslim society were exacerbated by serious political instability in the Eastern region of the Muslim world. During the fifth and sixth centuries AH, the region was occupied by the Seljuqs and their relentless wars against the Buwayhids, which resulted in devastation, and then the Mongols and the Tatars wars against Muslims, who razed Baghdad to the ground, thus destroying the centre of a great culture. This destruction was followed by the wars of the First Crusades. Finally, the role played by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire delivered the death knell to the once intellectually inquisitive and self-confident Islamic civilization.

The Ummah witnessed the rise of numerous famous scholars and thinkers, in particular, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Hazm in Andalusia, and Ibn Khaldun among others. Nevertheless, they were unable to prevent, despite their many valuable contributions to Islamic heritage, the inevitable decline of the Ummah that was the consequence of intellectual stagnation.

This period of military activity, sometimes settled, at other times very unsettled, was distinguished for its hereditary monarchs, whose heirs were culturally illiterate and uninterested in promoting critical commentaries on intellectually demanding and creative works. Instead, they depended on a shield of religious severity to maintain their authority over their people. During this period, there was also a predominance of the nomadic element among the foreign states. It was especially noticeable among the Seljuqs and the Mongols, whose lack of civilization and culture increasingly influenced the Ummah. It is believed that the penetration of the heart of the Muslim/Arab world by the Mongols from Western Asia,  together with harsh environment of the huge expanse of the Arabian Desert, intensified the tribal customs and attitudes that persist today.

The purging of everything considered un-Islamic in the thought and practice of the society was followed by he ?purification? of Islam itself. The absence of the rational inquiry and the predominance of the literal reading of Textual dictates contributed towards the decrease in the interaction of the human element and the Text. The Qur?an was no longer at the centre, with its influence radiating in all directions, interacting with the human intellect and the changing circumstances of human society, and thus enabling a positive advancement in human civilization. Instead, it came to a rigid, impermeable sphere which imprisoned the human imagination and creativity itself.  These negative developments prepared the Muslim world for a long period of decline, especially after the bitter experience of the Ottoman Empire, which continued into the early twentieth century. Although there appeared new imams who seemed to have new ideas based on modern circumstances, in reality they were only repeating what had been said in the fifth century AH, since they were using the same old epistemological patterns and tools.

The introduction of these new ideas resulted in new political-social and even psychological attitudes, as indicated by Mawdudi?s thinking. It was based on his fascination (some see it as his own invention) with the concept of God as the ?Judge of all?, the ?Sovereignty of God?, the increasingly stringent ?cleansing? of Islam and Muslim society from ?foreign impurities? and the warranty of ?the purity of Islam and its followers?. This type of thinking restricted Muslims to imaginary boundaries and encouraged them to pursue arrogant ideas, who started believing themselves to be superior to the rest of the world. Sayyid Qutb exemplifies this way of thinking in his famous books, ?Malam Fe Tariqee? or ?Jaheliyat of the Twentieth Century?, and in many other works. Not surprisingly, the combination of all the factors described above resulted in a culture of takfir (expulsion from the orbit of the faith) of the most rigid type, the likes of which the Ummah had not experienced since the era of the Kharijites in the very early years of Islamic history.

Once again, there emerged great thinkers and scholars, such as Jamal al Dīn al Afghani, Muhammad ?Abduh, and later, Muhammad Baqir al Şadr among others. Nevertheless, even these influential figures were unable to arrest the rapid decline of the Ummah.

What we see today is the spread of the extremely harsh mentality of takfir as interpreted by certain institutions and groups, which refuse to accept that they are part of a history that will continue its march, or to negotiate with any other agency. The extremists who assume the exclusive authority to decide what is Islamic and what is not Islamic fall into two categories.

One category can be labelled the external dimension, and includes the many smaller groups, which are inspired by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi and others, as well as the early fuquhā? (jurisprudents) such as Ibn Taymiyyah. They share a hatred of the present states and societies, and are indeed prepared to kill anyone who does not support their views. A modern example is the Groupe Islamique Arm饠(GIA) or Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, whose members have taken it upon themselves to kill all the Algerians who do not belong to their clique. They consider themselves to be the only original and pure form of Islamic reference and therefore believe that they have the authority of God?s exclusive representatives. Although these groups are isolated from the normal institutions of the society, they attract widespread publicity as a result of their particularly horrific acts of terrorism.

The other category comprises the internal dimension. It is represented by a wide range of sectors of society and embodied in the traditional social and religious institutions, which assume the authority to interpret and impose the rules of Islam. In general, they do not treat religion in a complementary way, by making use of the intellect or modern cultural education. Examples are the promotion of the traditional means of ?the cleansing of shame?, otherwise known as ?honour killing?; 8 the fatwas issued by traditional Muslim scholars who condemn secularists as apostates and who deem it lawful to kill them; and the killing of civilian Iraqis in the name of jihad against the coalition forces occupying Iraq.

Text and Intellect

Each civilization is characterized by a particular worldview and possesses the appropriate tools for its representation and the expression of its thought, activities and achievements. Greek civilization was based on the intellect and its tools were philosophy and logic. The achievement of Roman civilization was the creation of legal and economic systems and its tool was the parliament known as the Senate. The supreme value of the modern Western civilization is action and its main tools are science and technology. The philosophy of Islamic civilization is the Text (Scripture) and its tool is the language.

The Text of the Holy Qur?an is the centre of Islamic civilization and Muslims should actively seek to interact to further their understanding of its content. There appears to have been a long history of stripping the Text of its meaningful connotations. Nevertheless, new approaches and methodologies of textual interpretations have not kept pace with the march of times. Sadly, the Qur?an has become frozen and inactive, its existence and strength unable to influence the traditional tyrannical governments.

The reading and understanding of the Qur?an remained unchanged for many centuries. Sometimes they were based on a literal interpretation, at other times they relied on the old tools offered by qiyas. The result was that jurisprudents (fuqaha) would deal with the same problems in the light of ancient history, regardless of the fact that the circumstances had changed. The continual application of this policy produced a mentality among Arabs/Muslims that made them prisoners of qiyas.

Someone narrated a Saying of the Prophet in the presence of Imam Abu Hanifah al Nu?man: ?One has the choice of selling or not as long as the parties to the transaction have not left the place of the sale?, meaning that both the buyer and the seller have the right to change their minds about completing the transaction as long as they have not departed from the place where the deal was negotiated.

Abu Hanifah said, ?Have you not considered if either of them was in prison? Have you not considered if they were on a journey?? It can be concluded, therefore, that Abu Hanifah, who was the most knowledgeable imam concerning Sunnah, rejected the automatic application of the same hadith under all circumstances. Although the hadith was clearly şahīh (authentic), he still consulted his own mind on the matter.

Perhaps another mufti, living in a different age from that of Abu Hanifah, would have been accused of being an unbeliever.  This was indeed possible, since Abu Hanifah was a mufti before al Shafi?i locked the door of ijtihad. The mind of the Muslim, especially in fiqh and Shari?ah, was not liberal in the face of Islamic ijtihad. Once ijtihad was not longer available, there remained only one way to reach the truth in regard to Shari?ah. In addition, the end of the correct application of ijtihad had its own political connotations, which necessarily provided it with an ideological mission. Thus ijtihad was stripped of the epistemological dimension. The consequence was the domination of a single exclusive dimension over a plurality of methodologies, perceptions and judgements.

The obstruction of the fiqhi mind and the lack of a critical approach resulted in human interaction being enveloped by the Text and virtually strangled by it. Thus, when reading the Text, the human being is immobilized by static views and literal restrictions. Since the sanctity of the Scriptural Revelation is at the centre of Islamic civilization, then there circulates around the human dimension as represented by the smaller spheres of fiqh, Shari?ah, kalam and so on. Circulation of the Divine around the human being, in abstract manner, means that these tools of human interaction are not put into use, which makes them close to the centre as well as they (spheres) overlap the large central sphere, that is, the Divine Revelation.  Since they are moving too close to the centre, they become intermingled and the difference between the human sanctity and the divine sanctity of the Text is lost, resulting in confusion. The size of the overlap indicates the extent and intensity of the confusion between the human spheres and the main central Divine sphere.

Some believe that the limits of Islamic civilization are set by its circular movement around a centrality based on the Divine Text. In the West, on the other hand, the direction is linear, that is, continually moving forward. In the West, as well as in Japan, the movement (or the growth) can also be exponential, for example, the development of semiconductor ram memories in the late 1980s.

What should happen is that the social interaction should circulate around the Text in an abstract manner. This would provide the space required for the enlargement of the central sphere (Divine) and therefore the extension of its influence in its interaction with the smaller spheres (human production, the study of human activity ? sociology and psychology, the renewal of fiqh, etc.). The circulation of the smaller spheres around the sphere of the Divine Text constructs the essential framework for its interaction with human thought by renewed readings in the context of the latest changes. The overlap of the smaller spheres containing the means of the human interpretation of the Text should be distanced from the centre. This means that the Qur?an is given the divine sanctity that it deserves and that the human reading of it is classified as a mere human effort; something to draw certain conclusions from it. This ensures the disentanglement and separation of the two types of spheres, that is, the large central sphere is not confused with the surrounding smaller spheres, and therefore the overlap is smaller. More importantly, it allows the extension of the influence radiating from the central sphere (and its harmonious interaction with the surrounding smaller human spheres) when one is dealing with the challenges of modernity and contemporary changes in society. These modifications enable this type of circular activity to develop and improve in the same way as other types of linear or exponential activities.

* Najah Kadhim (PhD) is Executive Director of the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID) and a senior university lecturer, London, United Kingdom.

1: George Tarabishi, From Revelation to Relapse (Beirut: Dar
al-Sāqi, 2000), p.89
2: Ibid.
3: bid.
4: Ghalib al-Shabandar, Al-Fikr al-Jadid (London), vol.1
(1994), p.170.
5: ?Aziz al-?Azimah, Dunya al-Dīn fi Hadhir al-Arab (Beirut:
Dar al-Tali?ah,
I6: If a woman or girl is merely suspected of fornication or
adultery, she is killed by her relatives.
7: As of February 2005.
8: Turki al-Hamd, Al-Thaqafah al-?Arabiyyah fi ?Aşr al-
Awlama [The Arabic Culture in the Age of Secularism]
(Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2001), p.123.
* Najah Kadhim (PhD) is Executive Director of
the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue
(IFID) and a senior university lecturer, London,
United Kingdom.

Originally published on the website of the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue in their newsletter Islam21 at