ISSN 2330-717X

Did Islam Have Its Own Reformation(s)? – OpEd

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A leading scholar on Islamic intellectual history Binyamin Abrahamov in his book Islamic Theology: Traditionalism and Rationalism explained that “tradition” further entrenches stability, continuity, and authenticity and “reason” creates rupture, discontinuity, and originality. The former breeds conformism and the latter engenders creativity. Islam is also a tradition that predicates on the notion of submission and conformity. In order to render the religion of Islam relevant to the evolving realities of time, the tradition has to be rationalized and philosophized. To cater to this need, reform and revival were incorporated as integral components of classic Islamic scholasticism by Muslim dialecticians.  

The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said that a reformer/revivalist would emerge at the end of every century in order to resurrect the religion of Islam. This report of the Prophet led to a massive literature of theology on questions pertaining to the authority, mandate, and the qualification of a reformer/revivalist. How should a reformer make an attempt to revive the religion of Islam? Scholars ranging from different intellectual backgrounds came forth with their own version of interpretive models and reasoning frameworks. To many, Hassan Basri was the reformer of the second century for his mystical ideas and to some Umer Bin Abdul Aziz for his administrative management. 

The beginning of 9th century paved the way for the flowering of Islamic sciences. Islamic legal schools came into being with their own set of postulates, principles, and formulations. Islamic theology also crystallized into guilds of scholastic learning. Islamic philosophy blossomed, Islamic ethics flourished, and Islamic exegetic literature thrived. These scholarly traditions drew extensively from Greek philosophical schools, Iranian gnostic centers, and Alexandrian Neo-Platonic ideation. By late 11th century, Islamic orthodoxy had already set in. Out of a huge mass of literature produced in three successive centuries, a well-knit structure of religious doctrinal system emerged and gave birth to an Islamic orthodoxy. 

Did this Islamic orthodoxy, emboldened, nurtured, and sustained by scholars for three centuries, stand in need of reformation? An eminent scholar from Tus in 11th century, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali held that Islamic scholarly tradition had to undergo a radical transformation and reformation. Ghazali was an exceptional thinker of his time. He was the student of famous theologian al-Juwayni. Ghazali was an official advisor to the Prime Minister Nizam-ul-Mulk, Sultan Malik Shah and the Caliph Mustazhir. In addition, he was also the rector of the famous institute Nizamiyya-e-Baghdad. 

Ghazali contributed a number of important books in his lifetime. His books on politics, ethics, metaphysics, law, and philosophy were masterpieces in their own right. He did not only master religious sciences, but also had a strong grip on rational sciences. His book Aims of the Philosophers was an excellent articulation of ideas held by the Greek philosophers. To Ghazali, Islamic orthodoxy was excessively steeped in hellenic philosophy. The Greek philosophic rationalism led to the degradation of Islamic principles of active reasoning, and led to the spread of heretic ideas. The ethical framework that was deeply rooted in the rationale of Greek logic and Aristotelian syllogism was out of harmony with the injunctions enshrined in the scriptural text. 

Even the theological outlook of Islam was compromised by excessive indulgence in Greek metaphysics. According to Ghazali, Islam was ruefully reduced to an intellectual pursuit of few philosophers with a solid training in philosophical reasoning. In his books Revival of Islamic sciences in Islam and Deliverance from error, Ghazali held that the only epistemological tool to revive the creative spirit of Islam was to find shelter in the intuitive reasoning. The theosophic vision, illuminative disclosures, and the gnostic experiences were the foundations on which Ghazali built the entire edifice of his reformist project.

Ghazali maintained that the religion of Islam was expressed either in theological tracts or in the legal treatises in his time. These theological and legal treatises were mere an attempt to translate the ancient ethos of Greek scholasticism into a form of rigorous reasoning. This reasoning was neither rooted in the normative practice of the Prophet nor was it anchored in the text of the Quran; as a result, did not become a catalyst for spiritual transformation. To Ghazali, the spiritual awakening and the illuminative transformation of human beings was at the root of Islamic reformism. The reformist project of Ghazali shifted the emphasis of Islam from the Greek rational reasoning to the spiritual enlightenment through experiential disclosure. As a consequence of his reformism, Islamic mysticism turned into a mass movement years later.

Two centuries later in the 13th century, the waves of Mongol invasion shook the entire Islamic world. The seat of Islamic caliphate in Baghdad was sacked, and the Muslim empires in India and Egypt were threatened. Islam was once again in need of a reformative project. Ibn-e-Taymiyah came to the forefront. He was an erudite scholar with unrelenting resolution. He was at once a gallant warrior, a remarkable polemicist, a sharp legalist, and a prolific writer. Ibn-e-Taymiyah was jailed at least seven times for his voice of dissent. 

In his classic works The refutation of the logicians and Averting the conflict between reason and tradition, Ibn-e-Taymiyah argued that the political and intellectual downfall of Islamic sciences were the direct result of emphasis on spiritual gnosticism, Greek logical syllogism, and theological formalism. He held that the spiritual gnosticism enfeebled the creative faculties of Muslim scholars and engaged them in a theosophic activity bereft of any meaningful social contribution. This self-illuminative enlightenment engendered a saintly hierarchy resulted only in the glorification of mystical guilds. On the other hand, the theological formalism and Greek logical syllogism that formed the backbone of Islamic scholarly tradition were flawed in their own postulations. 

As a reformist thinker, Ibn-e-Taymiyah argued that the revival of Islam was possible only through the exploration of new intellectual models of reasoning and interpretative epistemological tools. Instead of rooting the exploratory inquiries in gnostic practices and logical syllogism, they should be anchored in the textual verses of revealed divine corpus. Ibn-e-Taymiyah was a radical reformer; as a result, pressed for the need to break free from the shackles of illuminative shell and formalistic logic for the exploration of innovative reasoning models guided by the divine injunctions. 

The reformist projects of Ghazali and Ibn-e-Taymiyah are the classic examples to demonstrate that Islam had its own reformation, but only with reference to its own logic of history, tradition, and vision. 

*Rehan Khan is a Prospective Candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.


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Rehan Khan

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.

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