A Missive to My Grandfather: An Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

Assalamu Alaykum Nana Abba,

The present engagement must not be taken as criticism or critique of any of your considered viewpoints on religion and society but just an apologetic discourse on my behalf. I found it necessary because during our engagement on social network during last year, I have found you ostensibly critical of my literary indulgences while being self-righteous yourself. I do respect your viewpoints from the core of my heart and its not my stature to teach you something; however, since your criticism divulges your moral stances, it becomes kind of morally incumbent upon me to share mine.

ThinkerTo start with, while having immense respect for your standpoints, its remarkable to see your authoritative soft-averseness and carefully veiled lack of empathy to the religious ‘other’. I fail to understand why must we speak in God’s name and why must we doubt anyone’s intentions, may it be the so-called heathen philosophers or illuminating literati whom you apparently despise? Is it a moral necessity?

It might very well be possible that all of us in Indian Subcontinent might still be Hindus, Sikhs and Jainists, if its not for multitude of intricately entangled historical causes which I cannot even begin to list here in this space. Its only Allah’s blessing that we are Muslims and have the gift of Iman; and we cannot claim to have achieved this blessing of Islam on the strength of our intellect and imagination alone. Hence, while being grateful to this blessing, we have no right to portray authoritatively that we have the sole claim to truth and everyone else is living and dying on falsehood. In my humble view, this is a highly distorted view of humanity and existence.

I wish you understand that the claim to truth and the truth itself are two different things altogether.  Or must we follow Bani Israel in proclaiming that we have the sole claim to paradise and blessings by virtue of being chosen from the God?

literatureQuran, or for that matter, any religious text, is merely ink and paper and its us which have to ultimately make sense of it. The complex dynamics of one man’s faith cannot be effectively and conclusively commented upon by another man. I would plead you to leave the final judgement to Allah who alone enjoys that ultimate prerogative, as He knows the inside of our hearts.

Our critiques, criticism and commentaries must be intelligently nuanced to disseminate self-awareness and affirmation of our own subjective attitudes. Being Muslims and having particular interpretations of religion, life and death, does not theoretically exclude the possibility that we may prove to be ultimately wrong when these mysteries will be resolved and the illusion of this mortal temporality will be no more.

This awareness must not be misconstrued as a weakness of faith, confusion or ambivalence but just the humbleness of enquiry and empathy to other people’s struggles. Ultimately, its the struggle, with intention to find truth, that is more important than the claim of truth itself.

According to a famous Hadith of Prophet, Quran will be the Hujjah for us or against us on the judgement day. Therefore, what matters is whether we have tried to access it with good intention and clarity of purpose to find the original intention of Allah Almighty. In the end, all of us, if we continue to struggle with the text, reach a considered understanding of this Divine intention; some a little early in their life and some when they approach their biological terminus. However, no one can ultimately extend his claim of discovering that truth outside himself. The best we can do is to share our understanding and leave it at that.

That is why its called understanding: its a very personal, deeply intricate and elusive cognitive condition.

For all practical purposes in this life, we essentially have multiple claims understanding God’s intention and therefore, variety of truths. And there is no absolute way of claiming any version as final. Whoever does this emphatically is doing nothing but finding himself in and out of Divine shoes. In essence, this is one way of understanding why this life is a testing ground: we have to deal with variety of truth and use our critical judgement to decipher our own. 

To reiterate from another dimension, each one of us accesses revelation from our particular standpoint and has been granted this rightQuran by none other than Allah Almighty. We approach it (the revelation) with various apriori multidimensional constructs based on knowledge, attitudes and psychologies. The phenomenological manifestation of this complex combination can be called the experience of our self; and our indulgence in Quran and Sunnah, rather the whole tradition, is ultimately dictated by our imaginative self alone. If one is a misogynist, he is liable to read Quran from a patricentric standpoint; on the other hand if one’s interest lies in political dimension, he will find the mention of Caliphate in every other Ayah or Hadith or at least, be more receptive to the textual areas which are magnified due to the locus of imagination.

You being a businessman, having interest in economics and being monetarily preoccupied for last six decades, are liable to find that part of Quranic message most interesting and gripping. On the other hand, I remain occupied in life, society, literature, science and philosophical issues and find myself engaged in that arena. Our indulgences give us essentially different outlooks to life, and therefore, it is normal that I find some of your readings simplistic; on the contrary you may find my indulgences otiose. Bottom line: we are different persons and have our own struggles.

In a nutshell, while you have reached some conclusions, I might find them crass, ineffectual, unimaginative or simply uninteresting. This, however, does not mean that I am employing a binary construct where one of us is either right or wrong. My readings of life and society tells me that our zeal to discover truth and its multiple versions (as explained above), each one of us claims to believe, are situated on a continuum with a lot of grey distributed between black and white. The black and the white is merely there in a theoretical sense to characterize the extremities, or else the spectrum would be rendered meaningless and incomplete. The wider, larger chunk consists of grey and there lies our real struggles.

I know that you wish well for me and I appreciate that being an octogenarian your flew from Karachi to Islamabad to spent a day with me and share your readings and views, however, you have to realize that this is not simply an issue of being right and wrong. Its about our respective views of life, the complexities of our milieu, the problems that bred therefrom and the possible solutions.

QuestionsI am a strong believer in the act of questioning, and my readings subsequently allow me to reflect and improve my questions. For me, its the question that has to be asked meaningfully because the act of questioning take fuller and forceful characterizations as necessary premises. I believe that at this point in our social ontogenesis its the act of questioning that matters foremost, as our intellectual arena is bombarded with responses but there are seldom any meaningful questions. Our best minds must engage in the act of characterization and finally frame the right questions. History do tell us that if we fulfil this necessity, the way would be paved for the answers almost naturally. However, whenever the time will come, these would essentially be the collective responses.

In the end, being the motes of dust, our individual answers do not matter at all in greater scheme of things. These personal claims to truth are in fact answers to non-existent or abstract enquiries, which are not important as far as the reality outside ourselves is concerned. Therefore, I keep my answers (these claims to metaphysical truths) to my innermost self and would like to die that way, In-sha-Allah. The only answers that matter  for our societal being are those effectual in the social realm and these, as I have said, are bulldozed in response to wrong questions.

Take care and May Allah give you longevity, health and blessings of both worlds. Do continue sharing your wisdom as usual and remember me in your prayers as always.

wassalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.

The Night Kaptaan Fell

These are some hurriedly jotted thoughts from last night in no particular harmony or structure. I do not specifically want to contend anything in particular and it is merely loud thinking and should be taken as such…

No adjectives can encompass that feeling accurately. Was it shocking, or awful, or traumatically dreadful? Or for that matter appalling, as if you areImran Khan about to reach to the climax of your most cherished dream and an extremely noisy clatter jolts you; the way you momentarily want to go back to sleep again and somehow commence to that treasured expected culmination.

While all the television networks played and replayed that fall, it was indeed a crazy vision to be imprinted on one’s mind and would perhaps stay for many days to come. A kind of vision that has the capacity to haunt all the contrasting refreshing visions, for instance, the one from 92′ in which a relatively young, vibrant and smiling Imran Khan was uttering “I am proud that in the twilight of my career…“.

SohailBatBut there were other more nuanced thoughts and among them, yet another spontaneous vision – this time from 96′ – of a swaggering Amir Sohail sledging Venkatesh Prasad towards boundary, ribbing him by pointing the bat as if meant to say “go, fetch the ball“, and getting clean bowled on the next one.

Albeit its not pleasing to share, but when I saw the great Khan falling from that miserable lifter like a wooden marionette whose strings are somehow broken, I wondered whether that was nature’s way of rejoining during a “Go, Fetch the Ball” moment. After all, we have amply seen him with an angry young-man’s swag, showing his bat to the proverbial Prasads of the so-called Takht-e-Punjab, the corrupt Zardaris of Sindh and their brethren with red caps from KPK, in the last few weeks.

But it was indeed heartrending to see some of the political zealots on social networks still using tonight’s accident for petty and childish point-scoring; however, on the other hand, the compassion shown by all the politicians towards this episode is at least a positive sign that we are collectively recognizing the universal humanistic ideals.

[Speaking of more visions, this reminds me of that afternoon in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards. We were visiting our grandparents in Lahore. When it was finally revealed on radio that she had finally succumbed to her wounds in the hospital, one of my aunts spontaneously showed signs of jubilation (I vaguely remember that she might have clapped like a child), characteristically similar to the one when India looses to Pakistan in a cricket match. I remember my grandfather rebuking her quite harshly without noticing that we, the kids, were also present, and asked her whether it is customary to rejoice when a human being dies? I always cherish it as my first lesson in empathy and respecting the core values that bind all humanity together.]

benazirIts ironic that collective memory of our nation, experiencing leadership crisis since its inception, is filled with bloody and deadly images; among them the recent ones, in which Benazir Bhutto was standing inside her vehicle amidst the procession and that gun is rising from the background, or the one in which Musharraf is showing his fist with that jingoistic and comical expressions on his face, or the innumerable killings of politicians, political workers and common people in last three months since the elections are announced.

But in all these gory visions, it is still possible to recoil from a gripping determinism by attributing the ultimate causes to some palpable agents. In the fall of Kaptaan this evening, there is very little in the domain of tangible causative enterprise.

Yes, he was tired; his workers were tired; including the 6 or 7 scheduled to happen tonight, this was the 62nd Jalsa of PTI in last 10 days; then there were looseKhanFall wooden boulders on the lifter to raise the height; there were more than required people on the lifter; and that person with black T-shirt with No.6 printed on its back didn’t realize while bending down that Imran Khan is standing right behind him completely unaware and off-balance, etc, etc.

Nevertheless, ain’t all these factors merely got accumulated to effectuate the intended course of nature?

I know I am speculating in line with a another kind of romanticism, different than the one I usually object in others, but I am forced to reflect whether we end up somewhere at some time in some manner, because there is an event pregnant with innumerable possibilities, and in order for one of those possibilities to become an actual happening, we are a necessary cause?

Or is it nature’s way of dragging us out of the other, more dangerous form of romanticism – the one I tend to object and do not subscribe to – which somehow deludes us to believe that individuals in particular are true masters of their destinies and can ultimately control or change the course of events? All of us, at some point in our lives, do tend to forget that we are perhaps not more than marionettes, who cannot even stop ourselves from falling on our heads, if the puppeteer just lets go of our strings?

God forbid, if something fatal would have happened to Khan tonight, must we go back to our original states and wait for another messiah to come and show us how to dream in next 20 years? Or must we learn to live and die by the ideals?

Moreover, in essence, while all of us have the right to be cynics, realists, idealists or romanticists and most of the times, many of us keep crisscrossing over the boundaries of these indulgences, can we in a collective sense rise above and do not psychologically deify our leaders, and the ideals they want us to ascribe to, on the cost of loosing compassion for our fellow human beings? Because, no matter how dynamic or charismatic, they are flesh and bone just like any of us; and in the greater scheme of things, may or may not prove to be the causes for some events, which are hitherto unpredictable.

KhanCould this incident be a way of providing us with an opportunity to reflect and do not confuse our social or political passions with a game of cricket? Can we, as leaders and their followers, stop supplying fallacious narratives to strengthen binary paradigms? Can we, for once, hold our breadths, rise above our egos and emphatically refuse to lampoon each other?

It was a pleasure to hear the great Khan speaking tonight from his hospital bed. One of the things he mentioned that God does not change the state of people unless they desire to change it themselves; however, we must also remember that true and sustainable change, as it has turned out many times in history, does not have a singular manifestation and does not come through one individual or a particular group of individuals. In the end, whosoever we vote for after three days, its about changing our inner selves and ultimately finding compassion in our lives by learning to love those who disagree with us. This is the only ideal that can bind us together in empathy, converging all our paths to a single most important ideal of humanism and love.

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (I): Resisting the Renaissance, the Bigger Picture

The “Muselmann” no longer was the master of his own body […] also the spiritual, intellectual and emotional activities decreased radically. [He] lost his memory and his ability to concentrate. His conscience was fixed on food only […] He only realized things directly in front of his eyes and only heard when word were shouted loudly. Without resistance, he was struck and hit. In the final phase, he even did not feel any hunger nor pain any more. The “Muselmann” perished because he could not go on. He was the symbol for mass-dying, a death of hunger, of being left alone, of killing the soul, a living corpse.[1]

Regardless of its original motivations and some possible phenomenological relationships with any observed MuslimMuselmann_hbe experiences in German or Polish thought in the early 20th century,  the above depiction of a specific kind of prisoner in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, at least has some startling metaphorical associations with generalized Muslim dispositions. Albeit in a figurative sense, this depiction provides us a literary canvas to formulate an old yet pressing problem, that is, why is it so hard for Muslim societies to come at terms with modernity; or to put differently, why is it so hard to resolve our baffling, and at times tragically mirthful paradoxes, so that the classically ascribed thought structures become consistent with the collective as well as individual experiences of reality?

To rephrase it from another angle, why being children of enlightenment, not only devouring fruits of modernity but holding tightly to them, we are resisting the intellectual renaissance?

What ultimately preoccupies us to generate such strong resistance to reform, giving us a peculiar resigned disposition, where we are desperately waiting for an impending and almost inevitable death in our proverbial Auschwitz? Why we are absolutely contended with our cherished intellectual and social infertilities and not only satisfied, but at times, proud of them too?

I have to accept from the onset that contrary to what might some of my liberal unorthodox interlocutors generally reckon, there is not a straightforward manner to approach this problem. Neither it is simply an issue of so-called regressive versus progressive sensibilities, nor it is merely a matter of authoritative or biased hermeneutics; rather, the locus of the problem lies in the domain of ideas, their history and mobility, how they relate with human experiences, get transformed by them, and if possible, evolve anew.

Just like in Auschwitz, its about our ability or, for that matter, inability to raise our legs and walk forward; to believe strongly that we are the masters of our own body, and that we can shape a new and original Weltanschauung which should correspond to our own experiences of reality, and which must also has the ability to extend outwards from our self and transform the world.

A large part of the problem lies in the inherited cosmologies which are based on a peculiar, and almost pathological, proclivity for an atomistic world-view. The opening lines of publisher’s prologue in a modern translation of Ibn Rajab’s prized classical work [2] on the realms of Islamic  knowledge and scholarship, provides us a showcase for phrasing this essential organic complexity. While challenging an alleged modernist trend in Muslim conception that beneficial knowledge – commendable in the eyes of Allah and His Prophet  –  includes all the expertise that is beneficial for the society such as commerce, engineering and medicine, it nourishes a perspective where, even though these other forms of knowledge are not despised per se, these are essentially pitted against the true knowledge which is solely for the pleasure of Allah Almighty and ultimate salvation.

Consequently, it is perhaps not unwarranted to claim that a Muslim universe is essentially atomistic, neatly compartmentalized in this-world and next-world. In my view, a world-view with such cosmologies at cornerstones, ameliorated with required scriptural pointers, is just a recipe for resigned psychologies.

But surrender in the domain of ideas is not the only manifestation of this atomism. There is more to it, related to exclusivity, by appealing to some imaginative authoritative structures. Argumentum ad verecundiam.

madrassaIn this respect, Muslim orthodoxy, with all its shades over the whole spectrum, unequivocally insists to keep religion as a private category much like their Christian counterparts in the middle-ages. Exclusivity is asserted in all its forms. Sect based seminaries and mosques where innumerable versions of the absolute truth are ceaselessly expounded from the pulpit (and now the pulpits over the social networks) by the so-called intellectual giants, and relayed immediately to the community in the streets from the parrots on their shoulders, concocted extracts from the literature employing medieval categories of thought and experience projected as epic literary marvels, or even the bland authoritative usage of scripture for all kinds of social exploitation are various forms of this exclusivity.

The argument appealing from the authority presumes a kind of academic expertise on the part of its proponent, and the orthodoxy is no exception. However, all the tools of exercising this expertise in public sphere, such as reason, criticism and discursive methods are not conformed to any universal academic norms but usually employed whimsically. In this respect, a paradigm is projected where everything in the domain of religion stands established and luminous, all elusiveness or ambiguity toned down as its handling logically belonged to that private domain.

Thus, well understood categories falling prey to these exclusivist  percepts tend to loose their original meanings and connote fresh ones. The category of reason, for instance, is transformed to mean the exercise of intellect in conformance with the well placed sectarian structures of thought, rather than an objective enterprise with its inherent limitations; and critique, rather than an all encompassing appraisal resulting from an analytical exercise, is merely boiled down to find a countering ‘evidence’ in the tradition supporting one’s preconceived contention.

Furthermore, the histories and sociologies are also forced to comply with this new paradigm. The texts, individuals and patterns of thought, which are considered non-conformists are dubbed as confusing, based on hearsay, blasphemous or simply nonsense. It isn’t just a coincidence that students in our religious seminaries are not introduced – from compassionate intellectual standpoints for making an effort to understand the other – to other diverse religious traditions as well as varying, and often conflicting, patterns within our own. As one of my orthodox friends puts it, its like ‘exposing young kids to the evils of pornography‘.

In a nutshell, the physiognomy of this proverbial Muselmann, desperately resisting change, is organically paradoxical. That is, being essentially a product of enlightenment he is trying to betray his perpetual experiences by ascribing to a world-view based on some imagined medieval sensibilities; not that these sensibilities were inherently stillborn – rather in many ways vibrant in their own time – but just because it is impossible to ascribe to a world-view beyond our experiences. If not theoretically impossible, it does at least belong to the domain of improbable, and happen to be in such quasi-fictitious company as time travel or transmigration of souls.

Echoing Malik Bennabi’s seminal diagnosis[3] of post Al-Mohad Muslim civilization (with Algeria as test-bed for his sociological studies), its about time, we must ask whether Muslim mind in predominant Muslim societies such as Pakistan, is utterly incapable of generalization?

Does Quran contends unity of self and its holistic experience in the macrocosm, or else an atomistic sensibility where knowledge and experiences are neatly placed in various compartments for this world and the hereafter?

Can orthodoxy continue to meaningfully insist for Muslim thought to be imaginative in some selected domains of ideas and regulate this imaginative exercise through some elusive religious authoritative structures as medieval Christianity (where they were not as elusive, at least)?

To put it more directly, is God simply indifferent as to how we make sense of our world or are there any possibilities of reconstructing a unified universe with God at its origin and Islam as the culmination of evolution of human thought?


  1.  Muselmann definition, Johannes Kepler University of Linz.
  2. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, The Heirs of the Prophets, translated by Imam Zaid Shakir.
  3. Malik Bennabi, Islam in History and Society, edited and translated by Asma Rashid.

Dynamics of Change in Islamic Law (III): Grundnorm, a cosmological myth

To effectively address the original Weberian objection i.e. normative pluralism is substantively irrational, it is mandatory to reformulate the problem in concise terms, starting point being that change in Islamic law takes place by means of some interpretive mechanism called Ijtihad. What exactly constitutes it: Is it the interpretation of the textual source ab initio; is it merely a pseudo-clandestine thought experiment to seek out verdicts on issues on which there is no past consensus among jurists; or is it merely a different solution to an old problem, but one which is in sync with contemporary social reality?

Irrespective of the particular theoretical inclination favored, there is no doubt that multiple norms will be generated in any interpretive undertaking; a fact which is amply observed by the term ta’addud al-ahkam in traditional Islamic literature. That this multiplicity of norms gives an irrational character to the law is the contention I am presently trying to analyze.

In my view, basis of this contention can be traced back to Islamic legal history and literature with some effort. After the post-recognition phase of Madhabs (the schools of Islamic Law), Muslims jurists increasingly found it hard to espouse the concept of Ijtihad “proper” through the medium of ifta’a, thereby limiting the response of an independent jurist to the ambit of his own juridical school. At times, some of these jurists resorted to quasi-artificial casuistic methods in order to achieve equity between presumed universality of complete legal paradigm, i.e. Sharia’h, and its practical manifestation when it comes to application of law to facilitate the functions of a society. Most of these casuistic developments – for instance Istihsan (Juristic Preference), Istishab (Presumption of Continuity), Urf (Custom) – in medieval times were arguably instigated by the desire to achieve a rational character of the law, thereby circumventing an almost subjective and probably mistakenly understood and emphasized universality of norms. And if all these developments and the enormous literary genre evolved from them achieved a kind of “practical wisdom” in line with social reality of times, it seemed rationally inconsistent to a modern critical mind.

But there is more to this discourse than casuistry acquiring a contemptuous nuance in Islamic law.

The Austrian-American jurist Hans Kelsen argued in his theories of legal positivism that all newly discovered norms must conform to the Grundnorm, a kind of hypothetical higher logical condition. The argument has been contextualized islamically in recent times, whereby many modern scholars** of Islamic law have argued that the Islamic moral expression “obedience to Allah” is an expression of the transcendental myth that fulfills the function of grundnorm in Islamic legal discourse.

There is no doubt that this remarkable proposition serves to make Sharia’h and natural law compatible; however, the real use of it lies in disentangling two confusingly snarled threads that modernity has brought to the fabric of Islamic law. On one hand, there is an increased proclivity for stringent applications of law in various spheres of public and private life. There are two contrasting shades of this tilt: 1) the literalist “text as norm” approach generally subscribed by the Islamists, liberals and revivalists alike (albeit not always erroneous intrinsically) and 2) a kind of “formal jurisprudence” employing all the tools of discursive logic, yet envisaging the use of universal principles and clearly pronounced norms. On the other hand, there is a resort to casuistry, most of the times employing specious argumentation that is clearly extended to achieve specific preconceived ends. In many cases, the latter can be observed in localized jurists muddled between knowledge and identity issues related to their respective communities.

Most of the modern readings of Islamic law generally fail to acknowledge these subtle distinctions but so is the modern jurist who remains strangled, on one side, between the pursuit of legal as well as ethical application of law in the society and the quest to achieve formalized rationality of jurisprudential method on the other.

To drive the point home, it can be concluded that social change and legal developments cannot be visualized to act in water-tight compartments rather the former triggers the latter in more than one ways. It is imperative to understand that norm-creating activity is a perpetual human-divine legislative process which is validated – without exceptions – by a Grundnorm revealed as a guiding authority for the independent jurist (mujtahid). At the same time, it is not necessary that the content of all the newly discovered norms must be implicitly found in revelation; rather, these are deduced through the science of Islamic legal epistemology, commonly termed as Usul al-Fiqh in traditional jargon.

In modern times Islamic legal developments are at a juncture where these cannot be technically characterized as formally rational (in the modern sense of the word); however, the characteristic modern reading of the law which imply that jurisprudential method of medieval times was substantively irrational is not correct either. In fact these developments – at that time – were meant to achieve a kind of normative pluralism which inadvertently harmonized the law with the social reality and worldview of those times. ____________________________

**For instance read Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, “Islamic Jurisprudence“; Ebrahim Moosa, “The Allegory of Rule (Hukm): Law as Simulacrum in Islam


Dynamics of Change in Islamic Law (II): Iftaa, Ijtihad and Social Customs

The “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.
[Marshall McLuhan]

In 1913, Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi gave his famous juridical response to a British court in India. The seeker was a claimant who wanted to re-establish conjugal rights with his wife but his in-laws refused to let her join on the plea that she has apostatized and can no longer be his wife according to Islamic law. “Annulled”, wrote Thanawi while explaining that “unbelief causes annulment of the marriage contract and marriage of the claimant stands invalidated.

During next seven years, the same fatwa was pronounced on ten different instances, albeit in marginally different contexts, by the same Mufti. However, in 1931, Mawlana Thanawi published an independent treatise dealing with the same issue at length and revised his previous opinion citing Maliki law as an authority instead of usual Hanafi law citations from al-Haskafi’s text or Ibn Abidin’s commentary.

Dr. Khalid Masud, in his paper on Apostasy and Judicial Separation in British India [included in this volume], analyzes the intricacies of these two fatwas (original and the revised one) at length and makes some interesting observations regarding social changes that took place between 1920 to 1930 in British India. He notes that the number of applications in the courts – seeking judicial separation from husbands – substantially increased in the span of these ten years. A large number of Muslim women were encouraged to declare themselves Christian and get their marriages dissolved by producing certificates of baptism.

According to Masud, situation became noticeable to an extent that some notable Muslim Scholars, for instance Dr. Iqbal in his famous lectures, questioned the validity of Hanafi law in this particular area and asked the Muslim jurists to exercise Ijtihad in order to reform the law. The debate triggered by these collective developments finally culminated into the revised fatwa of 1931, thus permitting the use of grounds in Maliki law – including husband’s impotence, cruelty or inability to maintain his wife – to dissolve a marriage instead of using apostasy as a legal device.

The normative shift in these fatwas, besides reflecting normative pluralism, also reflects another important dimension of legal change in Islamic Law: an almost inseparable construct of two mediums, i.e. Iftaa’ and Ijtihad.

Even though, many contemporary experts [1, 2, 3] of Islamic law argue that the terms ‘Mufti’ and ‘Mujtahid’ have been used interchangeably in pre-modern Islamic literature, it would not be entirely wrong to assert that fatwa still remains the primary medium of extending Ijtihad towards the society. For in actuality, it is only the Mufti (even today) who – inadvertently at times – creates and extends new legal norms to the level of positive law that works in a particular social construct.

It should not, therefore, sound surprisingly ‘liberal’ to a ‘traditionalist mind’ when a Maliki jurist from 14th century Spain, Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, gives primary importance to social reality in his celebrated treatise on Islamic legal philosophy:

The rule is that you examine the given case in the light of Sharia. If it is correct according to the Sharia then consider its consequences in the conditions of its time and its people. If by its mention, your mind does not recall any evil then submit it to reason. If you feel that it will be accepted by reasonable people, then you may give your opinion in general terms if the case relates to a matter that is generally acceptable. If it cannot be generalized then give specific opinion. If the case in question does not accept this process, then it is better to keep silent; that would be more in conformity with the welfare of the people, legal as well as rational.

Having argued elsewhere, albeit not so eloquently, that Islamic law can be essentially experienced as a tradition of literature, I now use that observation to reassert that the available legal tradition – if hierarchically arranged and closely analyzed from primary texts (mutun) to commentaries / super commentaries (shuruh) to juridical responses (fatawaa) – can reveal a lot about normative pluralism in Islamic law and the inherent ability of law to perpetually adapt itself to the ever changing social conditions through well-knit and remarkably reasonable mediums.

concludes next…


Dynamics of Change in Islamic Law (I): Normative Pluralism

In my view, the most important crisis that Muslim society miserably failed to handle during Islam’s sojourn into modernity is diversity. By diversity, I mean religious heterogeneity in any form, may it be the pronouncement of legal injunctions, opinions regarding societal norms or something as personal as individual religious practices.

Therefore, whether it is the abundance of contradictory fatwas on issues as diverse as women leading prayers to Muslims attending Christmas celebrations to Islamic prohibition of images to what constitutes death, Pakistani brothers arguing about the bare heels of a Chinese sister during Hajj or my grandma’s queasiness while watching me pray in a manner other than our family’s religious school, there is an invisible urge to see a kind of religious monism; a CONSENSUS based on an almost Utopian unity of intelligibility, opinion and action.

I would go as far as contending that pluralism, when it manifests itself in any of the above forms does not resonate well with the conventionally perceived absolute nature of religious discourse. And this perception, while breeding religious exclusivism and thus extremism, also undermines the true rationalistic nature of Islamic legal tradition.

One of the foremost reasons for this intellectual aversion to disagreement is the nature of Muslim law itself. While majority of traditional Muslim jurists – and I prefer to restrict my comment to Sub Continent as I am aware of someMax Weber exceptions outside – seem perfectly at ease with it, western legal sociologists have always struggled with the antinomies of permission and prohibition that exist for a single issue. Max Weber, for instance, while attributing these “variety of norms” to the irrationality of the law, stated:

The priestly approach to the law aims at a material, rather than formal rationalization of the law. The legal teaching in such schools, which generally rests on either a sacred book or a sacred law fixed by a stable oral or literal tradition, possesses a rational character in a very special sense. Its rational character consists in its predilection for construction of purely theoretical casuistry oriented less to the practical needs of the groups concerned than to the needs of the uninhibited intellectualism of the scholars – its casuistry, inasmuch as it serves at all practical rather than intellectual needs, is formalistic in the special sense that it must maintain, through re-interpretation, the practical applicability of the traditional, unchangeable norms to changing needs. But it is not formalistic in the sense that it would create a rational system of law.

Needless to say that these comments by Weber in Economy and Society generally pertain to any religious law and do not specifically consider the dynamics of Muslim positive law. However, while Weber scarcely commented on Islam (except of course his formulation of Kadijustiz), above analysis while comprehensively illuminating the problem of “variety of norms” as construed by the post-Cartesian mind also highlights the kind of confusion that still prevails regarding contextual literacies of the pre-modern Islamic legal tradition.

While some attribute this characteristic of variety of verdicts in Islamic law to quasi-irrational nature of Islamic law, others argue that normative pluralism has a perfectly established pedigree in Islamic law and that new norms are perpetually created and recreated through a perfectly reasonable process that is an intrinsic part of the law itself.

The key question thus, in my view, can be formulated in this way: When a jurisconsult – a mufti, mujtahid or a faqih more specifically – adjudicate according to new circumstances thereby adding to the already existing variety of norms, is it a symptom of irrationality of law, per se or the change thus driven can be attributed to some rational interpretive method called Ijtihad.

to be continued…


Ghamidi’s interpretation of Islam: Is it a fad that will fizzle out with time?

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.