By Rehan Khan
The scholarly literature in the Islamic world has always been a private enterprise. Individual scholars quite early in the Islamic history span a web of intellectual network. In conversation with each other through exchange of ideas, these scholars by mid 8th century had established a firm ground for the blossom of Islamic scholasticism in future. Amongst them, Malik Ibn Anas was prominent for his dedication towards collecting the traditions of the Prophet. Based in Madina, Malik founded a school of law to interpret the Quran and the reports of the Prophet. Simultaneously in Kufa, another scholar Abu Hanifa was also establishing his school of law. The great intellectual historian Shah Wali-ullah in his work Al-Insaf maintained that the school of Abu Hanifa was rationalist in its orientation, whereas Malik’s school was traditionalist in its interpretive framework.
As these schools gravitated followers, Malik’s precocious student Al-Shafi came to the forefront. The great Muslim scholar Dr Fazlur Rehman in his book Islamic Methodology convincingly argued that al-Shafi combined the legal rationalism of Abu Hanifa and the traditionalism of Malik to build a comprehensive system of thought that eventually transformed itself into science of Fiqh. Dr Fazlur Rehman maintained that this science of Fiqh, though eclectic, was closer in orientation to that of Maliks’s conception of legalism. Shafi’s analytical methodology of legal science became a reference point for the successive Muslim scholars, to an extent that, he was considered to be the revivalist(Mujaddid) almost unanimously by Muslims, including by Shah Wali-ullah.
The traditionalist legal framework of Shafi remained uncontested for centuries. Almost all the schools of law and theology extensively borrowed from the writings of Shafi. It morphed into the cornerstone of Islamic orthodoxy that had already spread all across the Islamic World. However, it was challenged by a great Muslim scholar in Islamic Spain. Ibn-e-Hazm of Cordoba in 11th century revolted against the classic Islamic orthodoxy that had already defined the broader contours of Islamic scholasticism. Initially a student of literature, Ibn-e-Hazm found in himself a growing penchant for the acquisition of Islamic sciences. An autodidact, Ibn-e-Hazm was liberal in his approach to understand Islamic sciences.
Ibn-e-Hazm maintained that legal conformism arrested the growth of Islamic sciences. In his book multi-voluminous work Al-Muhalla, Ibn-e-Hazm systematically dismantled the traditional architecture of Islamic sciences. Islam, in his ideation, had its own philosophical spirit for the emancipation of human beings. This philosophical spirit is wedded to the notion of renewal and reform. This reform is only possible through constant engagement with forces of nature by exercising rational faculties. The legal schools that continued to borrow from earlier scholars did not develop answers to contemporary problems; as a result, they were reduced to the relics of the past. The Shafite traditionalist school did not incorporate in its analytic framework the sensibilities, norms, and the behavioral tendencies of Islamic Spain. How could it be useful to those living in this part of the world, Ibn-e-Hazm questioned?
He proposed that the origins of every Islamic legal school must be local so that they would cater solutions to contemporary problems of that local population. This will result in the growth of numerous legal systems and will help eventually cultivate a vibrant Islamic society. Ibn-e-Hazm noted that most of the inhabitants in Islamic Spain could not relate themselves to the legal systems that sprang in the Middle East; as a result, could not find attraction in Islam. Hence, Islam remained a minority in Islamic Spain.
Interestingly, a similar argument in a different setting was put forth by Sir Syed in the 19th century. Sir Syed held that Islamic law and Islamic theology were imported to India mostly from Central Asia. Those living in India could not find in them solutions to their problems. In addition, Sir Syed posited that by the time Islam arrived in India as a doctrinal system, it had already attained its definitive shape. Muslims in India were left with no option but to give in to this orthodoxy. Like Ibn-e-Hazm, Sir Syed also went a step further and argued that Islam should have been re-interpreted constantly in order to align with evolving needs and requirements.
Sir Syed concentrated his intellectual energy in developing a rationalist theology in order to interpret Islamic principles in the light Western civilizational progress. His project of renewal allowed for a wider of reason as an epistemology to comprehend Islam. In his journal Tehzul-e-Ekhlaq, he demonstrated that the traditional methods of reason were not sufficient to develop sophisticated answers. Hence to Sir Syed, scientific rationalism was the key to frame a rationalist approach to the principles of Islam. Bringing into use his own frame of reasoning firmly rooted in scientific rationalism of the West, Sir Syed re-defined traditional Islamic concepts of “Jinn”, “angels”, “Jannah”, and various other Quranic episodes of history. His efforts gave birth to a new rationalist interpretation of Islam that was both modern and liberal in its philosophic vision.
Ibn-e-Hazm’s innovative legalism in Islamic Spain and Sir Syed’s liberal theology in Muslim India predicated on the need to allow for reason to play a major role in defining Islam. Their radical views irked scholars who championed orthodoxy and were mostly condemned as outright deviations. But their dissent generated fresh waves of intellectual renewal in Islam. As the Sudanese Muslim scholar Naim Abdullahi said, “heresy(dissent) must be celebrated, for there is no orthodoxy that was not once a heresy(dissent) in history”. The dissent of Ibn-e-Hazm and Sir Syed must be celebrated.