A concept that aims human progress, wishes to lessen human disease and distress, seeks harmony with nature is a noble endeavour, an exercise that bequeaths a better world to the next generation. This concept enriches itself in effectiveness by its covenant with God, which is felt by individuals uniquely and whose bounty will be beyond our quantification or imagination.
Yet, what can be imagined and quantified, must be to make sure our interactions with our households, our workplaces, our communities, our nations are as strife-free as they can be.
It is in this spirit, a structure can be created to forge a meaningful and durable social contract. I imagine other religions will be doing something similar, or along these lines soon.
Elements of the structure
If the Abbasid era gave us Bayt al-Hikmah, then they also brought in al-Minhah. This introspection was inevitable given the exposure of early Muslims to vast knowledge accumulated over millennia in the East and the West. Their beliefs were called to bear on integrating with the outer and wider world. Even as masters, they could not ignore this reality.
Eager students of knowledge dissected out the Quran and debated it in earnest. Discovery of paper-making techniques from China helped spread these discussions as they began to be widely read across the Muslim world; rejoinders and rebuttals followed; acrimony and partisanship created confusion among the academia – all part and process of understanding the truth.
What this ordeal produced was a belief and consensus that Quran indeed is the Word of God. A similar phenomenon happened in the early 19th century Europe; an honest introspection led to abandonment of the divine from the public life.
As the dust of debates began settling down, reconciliation of seeming inconsistencies in the Quran began – with our formal understanding of abrogation of verses, use of metaphors, context in chronology and circumstances, etc.
The Fatimid Shi’a were the lone dissenters, who justified their rule by developing a cosmology that was inspired by eastern imaginations though they kept invoking select verses of the Quran. Despite the seeming setback, progress continued.
As the Mu’tazilah spent their energies on dissecting the Quran, another group of scholars began verifying the commonly held beliefs in the lands of Islam.
They knew the New Testament and the Talmud but also the Upanishads and the Dharma-shastra from the East. They understood these texts lacked the certainty of their authorship, and the confusion it created in maintaining a stable civilisation.
Another source of their inspiration was ar-Risalah, a treatise written by al-Shafi’ (died 820 CE) in which he emphasised hadeeth be treated on par with any ayah of the Quran. Despite its cool reception during his lifetime, Ar-Risalah will eventually catch the attention of later jurists.
It was more than 200 years since the death of the Prophet, and his words were quoted to inspire, and to settle disputes. These scholars tasked themselves with teasing out the truth from the false narrations invented by all kinds of mishaps and vested interests.
To be clear, transparent and consistent, al-Bukhari (died 870 CE) devised a methodology that has its relevance in modernity today: use of inclusion and exclusion criteria to verify a tradition.
The idea was his peers could verify his work, correct him if wanting in a blame-free environment, or built on from his astute work. In a few decades, we get the Sahih-Sittah (the Authentic Six).
The aim of these Muhaddithoon was to reach the truth, and they did their best to filter out sayings, traditions and attributions related to the Prophet. This process should continue today as we face new realities, by verifiable methods of seeking truth – following a long deeply-held tradition.
Major political disruptions of the 10th century (with power-play oozing from Andalusia, cosmic non-sense from Fatimid Egypt and an over-burdened Baghdad) had Sunni jurists looking for ways to be independent, fair and systematic in dispensing justice in the lands of their duty.
It was during these times, al-Ash’ari (died 936 CE), a former Mu’tazili, penned his treatise: Ibaanah ʿan Usool ad-Diyaanah (Statement on the Principles of the Deen). ‘Ilm al-Kalaam’ formally began planting its roots into Muslim consciousness.
Disciples of Shafi’ School were its early acceptors, even champions. Of the 19 Fiqh schools, only 4 survived the rigours to uphold these requirements of clarity, fairness to others and to draw near to God.
Fast forward a hundred years, al-Ghazali (died 1111 CE) proscribed the use of ‘Aql (understood as ‘logic’) from Fiqh and its studies to stem speculations in the Deen; he is famous for reconciling Sufism with Islam.
However, his emphatic prescription of Aql in secular sciences created a duality, which did not survive the Mongol invasion of 1258 CE. As the cloud of Taqleed spread across the jurist landscape, ‘Aql was banished as an arbitrator for truth in Islam. Classic ‘unintended-consequences’!
In the 19th century, Georg Hegel (died 1831 CE) sought truth via dialectics – just like al-‘Ashari, inspiring generations which ushered in today’s modern world.
Hegel demanded genuine science instead of approximate truths of material Plato or fiqhi al-Ashari. This is what progress looks like in time and space.
Arrangement of these Elements
As we sprint or stroll into the future, we have few choices:
One way is to insist on Quran as the ultimate source of Fiqh, followed by Hadeeth; and then to use our faculties. Left to our individual choices, without an agreed method of reaching truths, human brain fails to engage due to cognitive load. It will seek its base in a sheikh, an imam or a celebrity to guide its needs, its lifestyle, its urges.
Having three elements – Quran, Hadeeth and Science – in harmony will more likely work better because this combination and its balance has the best chance of reaching the definitive truth, or the best evidence most close to truth.
We will need a million scholars, be it with ijaza or university degrees, to arrange these elements to help rebuilt our purpose of lives – as once again, a Muslim’s beliefs are asked to bear on integrating with the wider, and a much smaller world – in fact, a village.
With this systematic approach, we can hold to account all stakeholders – be it the Taliban or the extreme nationalists of various hues. It is with this methodology we can be part of progress, in step with all religions and humanity.
Living in Contradictions
Since the day Adam’s two sons fought, human soul has been drifting in contradictions seeking solace in conciliation. Progress has been made since, by one group or the other (5:54). And this process is relentless. We can only learn, try to live well, and bequeath a better world.
Sustaining the structure
It is worth repeating, lest forgotten in these many words, that the ideals which nurture and sustains any viable structure will have to be transparent, clear and lucid in explanation, consistent in application – with declared scope for peculiarity and deviance, be reasonable and appeal to reason.