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Ibn-E-Hazm To Sir Syed: Dissenting Voices In Islam – Analysis


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. 

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Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan is a Graduate of New York University (Majored in History and Philosophy) and in addition, is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

One thought on “Ibn-E-Hazm To Sir Syed: Dissenting Voices In Islam – Analysis

  • February 12, 2020 at 2:43 pm

    I would like to provide these points.
    First of all, there are many scholars who have been spending their lives in reading and explanations of Islamic principles and views. Those usually have better and detailed knowledge than those who are specializing in literature and those who try to receive a higher degree in education. Better knowledge does not take just that outward or the appearance of certain concepts but goes deeper in the analysis or to the essence to establish an explanation. Ibn Hazm (Al-Andalusī Aẓ-Ẓāhirī) was trying to establish a new doctrine in Islam as the other five by depending on Dawood AL-Zahiri of the ninth century but Ibn Hazm failed at that time as his source of AL-Zahiri. People were not interested in his explanations and views. That is, he was not able to provide convincing explanations.
    Second, Muslims are Jewish people were forced to leave Spain and all cultural values and knowledge of the past were subjected to continuous purging. Just like what the French did in North African countries by trying to impose the French language in place of the Arabic language to discontinue the present and the future from the past cultural heritage.
    Third, the article is very vague by not explaining briefly some of the issue that Ibn Hazm and other were trying to provide in difference what other Muslims know. The article has not explained to readers what are the problems that previous Muslims explained and their explanations have become inconsistent with the present time of Spain and India.
    Fourth, if any reader of Islam tries to impose her or his explanation on the rest, then Islam will be dismantled as a religion. This means Islam will have thousands of explanations are Marx’s and Keynes economic systems. There various views or system of knowledge will destroy of Islam as religion.
    If a Muslim tries to destroy his or her religion under the pretext of modernization and conformity with local conditions, then I agree with the critique of those who thought that this view is just an invention consistent with the basic goal of world imperialism that Islam must be eliminated because it is a threat to world imperialist power.


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