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Institutionalized Disagreement

Dr. John Walbridge whose primary area of research is Illuminationist Philosophy (specifically the school of Suhrawardi) has succinctly shared some valuable insights regarding some larger issues which, according to him, have puzzled him for years.

The issues[1] in question keep most of us flummoxed and need persistent attention from various angles in order to simplify the present variety of impasses that we have found ourselves in. A very short summary and evaluation of Walbridge’s main points is presented here:

Endorsement of Diversification. The first phenomenon that Walbridge mentions is the acceptance of diversity since the formative phase of Islam. He rightly observes that by the time of al-Ghazali, the notion that there are atleast four equally acceptable versions of Islamic law, was firmly placed in theological framework of Islam. Besides acknowledged multifariousness in variant readings of Quran and differences of opinion in authenticity of Hadith, the most striking case is of seemingly contrary conclusions in different disciplines. Ghazali can be cited as a valid example whose Mishkat al-Anwar (Niche of Lights) has been questioned because its doctrines do not appear elsewhere in his other works. There are so many inconsistencies in his endeavour in variety of disciplines, for instance logic, philosophy and theology, that it is difficult to locate the real Ghazali. It would be approproate to quote Walbridge as he describes the gist of his assertion:

It is a remarkable phenomenon: a willingness to tolerate equally authoritative alternative versions of religious truth.

A Curriculum Emphasizing Form without Content. Walbridge observes that Muslims developed a curriculum that mainly stresses the form over content. He cites Dars-i Nizami, the traditional curriculum of South Asia as a case study. This is a classical curriculum which was developed in 12th century and still being taught in various madrassas (religious schools). The main emphasis is upon the improvement of dialectical skills of students. Instruction is based on concise historic text books where a student goes through courses of traditional logic, grammar and rhetoric. The study of pure religious texts is relatively less in a given period, for instance various interpretations of Quran and Hadith and their subsequent and constant evolution into legal theory. Students are taught how to understand religious texts through a deep knowledge of logic and language but there’s relatively little or no focus on extensive teaching of the sacred texts themselves.

Failure of Consensus in Modern Times. Walbridge’s primary concern is the underlying role that unanswered questions and disagreements play in contemporary Islamic society as compared to medieval and early Islamic society. He accurately puts it:


…observer cannot fail to be struck by the sense that something has changed. In the middle ages the Islamic acceptance of institutionalised disagreement took place in the context of general consensus about the structue and functioning of Islamic society. In the contemporary Islamic world, the range of disagreement is far broader, and there is not even agreement about the extent to which the disagreement should be tolerated.

The examples from Pakistan can be the intolerant voices in the society, legal schools not being mentioned at all in religious text books and portrayl of a legal system ‘that sprang full grown and uniform from the brows of Companions of the Prophet’. There are organised efforts to opine that Islamic law should be adopted as the basic law of state without even slightest of efforts to restore the part of law that needs specific attention of individuals themselves. Naturally, a pious ruler would attempt to exercise his powers in accordance with Islamic norms and vice versa. Another glaring source of disagreement is the question of derivation of cultural norms and their various manifestations from the Islamic tradition.

Classical Islamic Attitude to Disagreement. Professor identifies some major attitudes that come into play in order to interpret disagreements in medieval times. He recapitulates his main theme:


Medieval muslims were able to maintain religious unity by the device of systematically tolerating diversity and disagreement within a certain range. This tolerance was based on an honest understanding of the tentativeness of each of the great legal schools, as well as of the scope for disagreement in other areas of Islamic religious scholarship. Eventually, the understanding of the bases of this disagreement in effect became the central theme of Islamic education. The fact that Islamic law influenced the state but was not usually enforced by the state allowed this state of affairs to continue without violating the consciences of individual scholars and thus forcing schism. The fact that travel was slow and Muslims were isolated from each other made such tolerance easier to maintain, especially since there was also usually a tolerance of local custom.

Based upon this extremely sketchy yet profound examination, Walbridge diagnoses the breakdown of traditional education, educated laity bringing naiveté about the interpretation of texts alongwith fresh questions, ease of communication bringing along conflicts, rising trend in favor of pseudo-literal interpretations and intolerant attitudes towards legal schools as well as other cultures as the root cause of this unmanageable conflict.

The presentation, may be due to its abbreviated nature, is surely lacking in few areas besides being immensely valuable and accurate in some of the assertions. In early and middle ages of Islam tolerance was not embedded in the acceptance of alternative versions of religious truth. The truth in religious epistemology of Islam has always been understood as eternal. It would create a paradox within the Islamic theory of knowledge if we believe that truth manifests itself in alternative forms. In my humble opinion, bounds of disagreements among early Muslims were dictated by the recognition that everybody has the right to question the extent to which Law-giver makes the application of truth abundantly clear. This continous search to find the application of truth in different settings became a timeless expression of inherent dynamism of Islam.

Modern as well as relatively pre-modern generations got influenced by many other variables, including the changed nature of rhetoric itself, lost the track of this inherent dynamism. Its a combined effect of innumerable agents but modern man’s conscience is unable to be satiated with a coarse presentation of Islam. His struggle to surrender, which is nicely embedded in his kernel, moulds itself into a unique inquisitiveness. This inquisitiveness is usually misunderstood with sheer skepticism or deliberate disbelief and delivers disagreements.

Walbridge rightly asserts that colonization and modern education system affected the traditional system in a variety of ways. But traditional curriculum’s inability to evolve itself constantly with time should equally be held responsible for this unbridgeable gap. People having background of modern education were not accepted as ‘traditionalists’ and forced to remain on sidelines. A conscious effort was not made to bridge the gaps and traditional and modern education became completely compartmentalised as a result. Knowledge got enclosed in these compartments and people started refering to ‘their scholars‘ rather then ‘all those who are better in knowledge then themselves‘.

Dr. John Walbridge has provided a sound outline to build a stronger modern foundation. In a way, this small paper should prove to be a reminder of medieval times when ikhtalaf (disagreement) was merely understood as jurisprudential antonym to ijmaa (consenus). Classical literature is full of some great books on ilm al-ikhtalaf (the knowledge of disagreements) for instance ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha (The difference among jurists) by Tabari and al-Insaf fi Bayan Asbab al-Ikhtilaf (The Fair Explanation of the Causes of Differences) by Shah Wali Ullah. In recent times, Taha Jabir al-Alwani has written a good work titled Ethics of Disagreements in Islam. However there is still a need to do persistent professional work in this forgotten field of Islamic sciences. Tolerance and acceptance can only be taught through examining the past where disagreements were intelligently structured to put them on a positive course.

1. John Walbridge, Islamic Art of Asking Questions, Ilm al-Ikhtalaf and Institutionalisation of Disagreement, Spring 2002, Islamic Studies.

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