I have stopped believing strongly since long that Javed Ahmed Ghamidi’s exposition of Islam, more or less like Mutizilite Islam in medieval times and Progressive Islam in modernity, is a fad that will fizzle out automatically with time; however, I still doubt that sometimes. It is primarily a better understanding of traditional Islam, cornerstone of which is Ilm al-Ikhtilaf, which moved me to drop my prejudiced (most probably) contention. Persevered deliberation made me realise that Ghamidi’s Islam, which I often call Contemporary School and which may going to be widely recognised as Islahi’s School, is a movement that would prove to be good for intellectual rejuvenation of Islamic thought; a kind of renaissance, which according to Javed Ghamidi himself began with Shibli Naumani in Indian Subcontinent.
The most striking feature of Contemporary School, to its proponents and those who agree with it, is its effort to posit a simplified and wholesome interpretation of religion. An interpretation which is commonly accessible because unlike classical interpretive methodologies, it is rooted in a singular divine text which can primarily be deconstructed through its language and historical context rather than tradition; an interpretation which is philosophically dynamic as it advances the ethical argument by way of inherent nature of man rather than any textually ordained source; an interpretation which is jurisprudentially liberating because it delimits the ambit of religious obligation by redefining the second most important source of classical jurisprudence, reducing it to a mere handful of practices; most importantly, an interpretation which is intellectually refreshing as it tends to reposition the categories of classical Islam’s legal archetype.
Yet, despite its entirely remarkable outlook, the school of thought in question poses complex paradoxes that seem unresolvable unless the underlying methodology is repeatedly tuned, tweaked and transformed into a consistent whole. A large part of blame, for this contradictory presentation, should be apportioned to modernity itself which has blurred the demarcating lines between various disciplines of religious knowledge, creating an atmosphere which is difficult for sensible and comprehensible communication. It no more matters whether you are getting a religious opinion from a jurist, philosopher or a traditionist; rather most of the times, it is the persuasiveness and sheer strength of argument with which one challenges the ostensible status quo of traditional scholarship that matters. However, whether traditional or contemporary, intensity of the argument should not be allowed to enshroud the underlying incoherence and inconsistency of the method.
Contemporary School asserts that the language of Quran, which is the single most important source text of Shariah, is not polysemantic in nature (a point about which I have already rambled once) and all differences of opinion due to apparent linguistic ambiguities will be resolved by referring to the context of revelation. The assertion, though attractive, is problematic on a number of accounts. It entails that a particular scholar or group’s insistence on absolute meanings of a verse is completely justified and all other explanations may not be seen as acceptable. It also disintegrates the problem of deconstructing the text by introducing an additional variable of context, differences of opinion regarding which will obviously be left unresolved. The magnitude of these contextual differences can be seen by comparing views of Islahi and Ghamidi on al-Ahzab 33: 59. Contemporary school insists that bringing out coherence (nazm) from the textual structure is the foremost principle and prerequisite of Quranic interpretation, which virtually reduces the possibility of true access of Quran to those individuals who have extraordinary command on language and have an exceptionally gifted mind that can appreciate high poetry in another language.
Indeed, we have enough evidence to substantiate that early generations of Muslims preferably interpreted the text through the simplest of meanings unless there is a specific directive from Prophet; otherwise, it seems hard to believe that some of the companions misinterpreted a seemingly straightforward trope, a caliph refused to comment on the meaning of ab’ba, and an exceptional master of language did not know the exact linguistic flavor of faatiris samaawat.
Coherence is a delight of mind and greatly improves one’s involvement in the divine text but it is not a prerequisite for understanding the message of God (not that Islahi contended so).
The ethical argument of Contemporary School is equally implausible, at least when it is applied to the details of religious interpretation. Philosophical skepticism of past two centuries have showed us decisively that ‘human nature’ is one of the most flimsy ground for establishing the moral argument. Even if one avoids the philosophical gibberish, it seems difficult to show arguably why swines and donkeys were made unlawful and camels were made lawful for human consumption; that too, when Ghamidi argues that Quran has prohibited only those comestibles which could not have been decided by human nature alone and Hadith (or Sunnah) cannot add to the Quran. Now, all of us know that camels and donkeys are not mentioned in Quran (in relation to food) and there are people in the world who have no qualms eating a plate full of sliced bacon.
It also seems strange how human nature alone, with its completely relative criteria of judgment, can be trusted to add into the ambit of religious prohibitions? Isn’t it true that Prophet himself used to ‘naturally’ dislike particular kinds of food and edible meat? If not an absurdity, it at least seems a dire contradiction that human nature can be understood as a primary ‘source’ of religion on one hand and cannot be understood to define what is Shariah on the other. Is it also not ‘natural’ for men to grow hair on their faces? If it is, how it is not understood to be ordained by Shariah; if it is not, why should it be a recommended practice in religion at all.
By redefining what constitutes Sunnah, Contemporary School has actually redefined the established archetype of traditional Islamic law. The observation might seem exaggerated to some, as it has presumably happened partially in the past also; yet, the manifestation of any of the applied legal principles in the past has not been so consequential ever to delimit Prophetic legal authority to something like 27 practices. As already said, deducing Prophetic legal authority from established regional practices is not a unique idea, however limiting this authority solely to the transmitted practices – of majority – is a completely modernist phenomenon; one which is paradoxically simplistic and seemingly oblivious to methods of historical enquiry.
It is funny as it successfully circumvents the need of Prophetic traditions for proving extra-Quranic legal injunctions (of different shades from prohibited to obligatory) but seeks historical record to substantiate consensus of community.
As much as I mull over regarding the past, present and future of Javed Ahmed Ghamidi’s interpretation of religion, I see it quickly disentangling itself from the modernist tradition of Shiblis, Farahis, Azads, Iqbals and Islahis of the Subcontinent. It still remains doubtful whether history will remember it as a valid school of thought that steered Islam’s sojourn into modernity or another media-sect of Subcontinent, which struggled with itself to remain skeptical about all that reached us through tradition.