Contextually Relevant Ijtihad and a Culture of Intellectual Criticism

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (tr. Yoginder Sikand)

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Contextually Relevant Ijtihad and a Culture of Intellectual Criticism

By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

A religious scholar once dissented from his spiritual preceptor on a particular matter. Somebody rebuked him, saying that he had criticised his master. In reply, the scholar said, ‘I love my sheikh, but I love the truth even more’. This reply points to a very important truth that when a dissenting opinion or a critique is articulated on a particular matter, even if this concerns the view of a particular person, it must not be seen as a personal attack on someone, but, rather, as an intellectual activity. This sort of criticism certainly involves a certain person, because without specifically mentioning this person and his views, criticism would simply be some languid expression of a certain counter view point, and then the basic objective of criticism would not be attained. Yet, it should not be regarded as a personal attack on that individual.

Criticism or the expression of dissenting views has always been a characteristic feature of Islamic history. The companions of the Prophet differed with each other on numerous occasions, and they generally openly expressed these differences. Similarly in the case of the first two generations of Muslims who succeeded the companions, as well as the commentators on the Hadith and the early ulema. They did not consider this as bad or unworthy, and nor did they try to stamp out criticism and differences. This was because they regarded all this from the point of view of principle, and not as a personal attack on anyone.

To coolly and dispassionately listen to criticism is proof that one is not immersed in a personality cult. It is evidence that what is important for one is a principle, not a particular person.  A true intellectual will accept the critique of an individual, including himself or someone whom he cherishes, but will not accept that a cherished principle be violated. This can only happen when the true spirit of religion is alive in a person. But when a community declines, people start blindly imitating certain supposed leaders and refuse to tolerate any criticism of them. They do not display the same zeal for defending principles as they do for defending these hallowed individuals. This is why they cannot tolerate criticism. And when they are faced with any criticism of these leaders of theirs they become enraged. This indicates that they are yet to reach the stage of the proper realisation of the Truth. They erroneously conflate some cherished individuals and their views with the Truth.

The Benefits of Criticism

To critique someone’s views is not to abuse him or to unnecessarily find fault with him. Rather, this sort of intellectual critique is a blessing. It opens new doors of knowledge and uncovers new aspects and dimensions of various issues. It leads to intellectual sharing between the critic and the person subject to critique, and this equally benefits both and helps expand their intellectual horizons. Genuine critique is actually an intellectual gift that is presented by the critic to the person whose views he critiques. This is why the second [Sunni] Caliph Umar Farooq asked for God to extend his mercy to those who presented him the gift of pointing out his faults.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that from childhood onwards I have always been in favour of criticism. And because of this I have always wanted that my friends should subject my views to intellectual critique. When a close companion of mine, Maulana Anis Luqman Nadwi, went to Arabia for the first time, he was asked by an Arab shaikh what work he did in India. He replied, ‘I am the critic of India’s greatest critic’. From this you can gauge how passionately I support intellectual criticism.

Intellectual exchange is the greatest experience that a true intellectual can have. In the process of intellectual criticism, a certain individual appears to be challenged, but, in actual fact, it is not this individual as such, but, rather, a certain issue that is the target or object of criticism. True intellectual criticism is actually a sort of discussion on a certain topic by two people even if it be in the context of discussing a particular person. That is why true intellectual criticism is not regarded as a personal attack on someone’s integrity, because it aims not an individual per se but, rather, at a view or set of views about a certain matter. And if the critique is proper and sound it enables a person to improve and to correct his or her stance.

Even if someone’s critique of the views of a certain person is not proper or sound, it can enable new facets of the issue under discussion to be uncovered. If a person whose views are critiqued is able to accept criticism, it can help advance his own intellect and think in a more creative way. It can enable him to express his own views in a more effective and convincing manner. In actual fact, intellectual criticism is always beneficial, even if the critique is not valid.

In this regard, let me cite a personal instance. In 1960, when I was in Lucknow, I met a certain non-Muslim scholar. He was an atheist. In the course of our conversation, he criticised the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He also mockingly asked what difference it would make if the Prophet were to be removed from history. Undoubtedly, his words were very provocative. Had I got angry with him, all I could have done was to lose my temper and leave. But, by the grace of God, I maintained my emotional balance. Because of that, I was able to think about what had transpired in a positive manner, and then replied to him that if the Prophet were to be removed from history, mankind would be in the same position that it was in before the Prophet’s advent. Thereafter, this conversation and criticism forced me to ponder on the life of the Prophet, including on aspects of his life that had not been clear to me before. In this way, this scholar’s criticism became for me a means to discover dimensions of the Prophet’s life that I had not seriously thought of earlier. I started seriously studying the issue and a result of that was my book ‘Islam, the Creator of the Modern Age’. This is an example to show that if one listens to criticism and does not get agitated or angry and maintains one’s balance, it can prove of immense benefit.

Right and Wrong Criteria

The taqlidi approach leads to numerous difficulties and problems. Perhaps the biggest damage that it causes is that it makes people to seek to understand the truth not on the basis or the criterion of the truth itself but, rather, through some supposed learned elder of theirs. For those who strictly bide by taqlid, the views of such supposed learned elders become the criterion of truth and they are considered to be sources of emulation. They strictly refuse to listen to any person other than such supposed learned elders, no matter how valid that person’s argument may be. This was one of the major reasons why, in every age, prophets were rejected by people. The prophets appeared to the people whom they addressed as new individuals, as other than those elders whom they believed they should follow, and so they did not respect them. Furthermore, when the prophets critiqued the persons whom they held in high regard they grew even more agitated and were unwilling to listen to what they had to say.

The biggest difference between the ijtihadi and taqlidi mindset is that those who sternly abide by taqlid seek to understand the truth solely on the basis of the views of certain chosen elders of theirs, while those who stand by ijtihad seek to understand the truth on the basis of proofs, rather than on the basis of the views of certain personalities. This is why the former are bereft of the faith that is based on deep understanding and realisation (marifat), which is the highest form of faith. The font of such faith is self-discovery. Those with a taqlidi mindset do not freely use their intellect, and that is why they fail to recognise the sort of faith that is based on deep understanding and realisation.

The opposite is true for those with an ijtihadi mindset. The windows of the minds of such people are always open, and they are always ready to ponder and think freely. If anything appears to them as true, they immediately recognise and accept it.

The most important thing for human beings is to discern and realise the truth. To discover the truth is surely the greatest blessing that one can enjoy. But this great blessing can be had only by those with an ijtihadi mindset. Those who are lost in the darkness caused by taqlidi thought can never experience the truth that is based on genuine understanding. 

Need for a Revolutionary Mindset

In his book Aqd al-Jayyad, Shah Waliullah (d.1762) discusses taqlid and ijtihad and writes in this regard that a mujtahid is one who possesses five forms of knowledge: that of the Book of God, of the Sunnah of the Prophet, of the sayings of the early ulema (including of the issues on which they were agreed and on which they dissented from each other), of the relevant languages and of [the principles of] analogy and derivation (istinbat). Now, the conditions that Shah Waliuallah (and other ulema) laid down for a mujtahid are in themselves correct, but these apply only to ‘restricted’ (muqayyad) ijtihad, and are inadequate for ijtihad which is not ‘restricted’.

Ijtihad is of two types. The first is the ‘ordinary’ (am) sort of ijtihad, and the other is ‘special’ (khas) ijtihad. By ‘ordinary’ ijtihad is meant that kind of ijtihad that is related to external conditions (ahwal-e zahiri). On the other hand, ‘special’ ijtihad is that sort of ijtihad that relates to underlying or non-apparent conditions (ahwal-e batini)葉hat is to say those conditions that are not visible externally but are present as a powerful undercurrent. The difference between the two can be expressed in another way, by saying that ‘ordinary’ ijtihad relates to external eyesight (basarat), whole ‘special’ ijtihad relates to insight (basirat).

For instance, for an issue such as whether one’s ablutions are valid if one is wearing factory-made socks and wipes them with one’s hands or if one’s ablutions are nullified if one takes an injection, a mujtahid can rely on the five forms of knowledge that Shah Waliuallah mentions. For this purpose, one can draw analogies from the opinions expressed by the earlier ulema on similar issues.

But for ‘special’ ijtihad, one needs another form of knowledge in addition to these five, and this is what is referred to in a Hadith report according to which it is binding on a wise person that he should have knowledge of his times. Thus, a mujtahid must have a deep understanding of his society and his age in order to engage in proper ijtihad, in addition to possessing the five forms of traditional knowledge mentioned above. And this additional knowledge can be acquired only through additional study and carefully pondering and reflecting on reality.

Islamic history is replete with examples of such forms of creative ijtihad. One such instance was that represented by the Treaty of Hudaibiyah. The terms of the treaty appeared, on the face of it, to be loaded against the Muslims, because this ten-year no-war pact was based on the acceptance of the terms set by their opponents. Because of this, many Companions of the Prophet found it difficult to accept the treaty, so much so that Umar Farooq labelled it as an insult. But the truth about the whole affair was revealed in the Quran, when it said, ‘For eHe   He [God] knew what ye knew not, and He granted besides this, a speedy victory’ (Surah al-Fatah, 27). This meant that the reality of the matter was different from what it appeared to be, the truth of which God knew and on the basis of which He instructed His Prophet to enter into this Treaty.

The Treaty, as I said, appeared to be based on the one-sided conditions of the Muslims’ opponents. But the underlying truth, which did not appear to those who could not fathom it, was that the treaty would do away with the state of war between Muslims and their opponents that had blocked interaction between them. It would enable them to meet and interact with each other, and would, thereby, promote an open dialogue between them. In the course of this, others would be able to recognise the beauties of Islam, and, finally, what the Quran refers to when it says ‘And thou dost see the people enter Allah’s Religion in crowds’ (Surah an-Nasr:2) would take place.

And this is precisely what happened. At the time of the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, Muslims numbered less than 1500, but, in the period of peace that followed after the Treaty, Islam rapidly spread, and in less than two years the number of Muslims grew to around 10,000, and Muslims acquired power without resorting to war.

The same sort of thing happened in the thirteenth century, when much of the Muslim world was overrun by the marauding Tartars. They destroyed many Muslim cities and put a violent end to the Abbasid Caliphate. Many Muslims at that time believed that the Tartars could never be defeated. But although the Tartars had powerful weapons of war, they lacked a suitable ideology or world-view. In the course of interacting with Muslims, they learned about Islam. Because they did not have any suitable ideology that could reply to it, they began converting en masse to Islam, and thus it was that, as the noted Orientalist scholar Philip K. Hitti put it, ‘The religion of Muslims [...] conquered where their arms had failed’.

Now, turn to developments in later periods of history. Take the example of Shah Waliullah. In his time the Mughal Empire in India had started weakening and rapidly showing signs of completely collapsing. Shah Waliullah strove to strengthen this Muslim dynasty and sent off letters to various Muslim rulers asking them to wage wars with their enemies. He also advised the ruler of Kabul, Ahmad Shah Abdali, to invade India and vanquish the Sikhs and Marathas so that the Mughal Empire could be saved and strengthened.

This effort of Shah Waliullah is evidence of the fact that he looked only at the external conditions around him. He was totally unaware of the new flood of developments at the global level, in particular the stirrings of democracy that had begun making themselves felt. Shah Waliullah believed that he was the ‘Support of the Age’ (qaim uz-zaman), and his entire thought process operated in the framework set by the monarchical age. He had no idea what the coming age of democracy would mean. In the monarchical age a single man controls power, while democracy is based on the rule of the majority of the people. If Shah Waliuallah had properly studied and understood the changing times that he was faced with, he would have focussed all his energies on the propagation of the faith in order to win over the majority of people. And in this way, even if the Mughal Empire came to an end the Muslims would be able to maintain their power owing to being in the majority. However, Shah Waliullah was completely unaware of the revolutionary importance of dawah or inviting others to the faith. One indication of this is that his renowned book Hujjat Allah al-Balagha contains chapters on various issues and subjects but not even one on dawah.

Take also the example of Syed Jamaluddin Afghani (d.1897). By his time, the British and the French had established their political domination over most of the Muslim world. Syed Jamaluddin Afghani spent his entire life struggling to end this domination. His slogan was, ‘The East is for the People of the East’.  On the face of it, it appears that Western domination has now come to an end, for some sixty independent Muslim countries have appeared on the map of the world. However, in actual terms, conditions have not really changed, and Muslim communities are still compelled to live under the domination of Western powers. This shows that Syed Jamaluddin Afghani could only see the external aspects of conditions around him, and not the various underlying processes and forces. Accordingly, he saw British and French domination only in terms of their externally visible political control. This was a result of the West having acquired intellectual superiority in the fields of science and technology. But because of his medieval political mindset, Syed Jamaluddin Afghani could not properly appreciate this. Had he understood the importance of knowledge in the modern age, he might have overlooked foreign political domination as just a temporary thing and, instead, focussed his energies on the intellectual development of Muslims so that they could excel in this field. If he and his companions had abandoned the useless path of political jihad and, instead, taken to intellectual jihad, the history of Muslim countries today would have been very different.

These few examples should suffice to indicate that for ‘restricted’ ijtihad the traditional five disciplines that Shah Waliuallah and other ulema have outlined are adequate, but for ‘absolute’ (mutlaq) ijtihad one more condition is necessary預nd that is a deep understanding of the conditions of the contemporary world. Without this there can be no effective ijtihad that can provide proper guidance to the community.

This is a translation of a portion of a chapter titled Taqlid Aur Ijtihad in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s book Din-o-Shariat: Din-e Islam Ka Ek Fikri Muta’ala [Goodword Books, New Delhi, 2003, pp.240-50].

For more writings in English by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, see See also