On Hope and Other Chic Ideals

Literally squeezing last drops of socio-political, historical, scientific and literary analysis coming out of global cyber industry since last decade now, I am pushed to share one humble bit of my personal lay-reader’s critical viewpoint on US Elections 2016.

Liberals in the USA, who are weeping as if a valuable ideal has lost, always have a way of rationalizing blood on their beloved African-American, or in fact any president’s hands; these are interesting times when we have even movies coming out of Hollywood rationalizing or at least problematizing the paradox of a drone operator’s choice; alien immigrants, who are in the long queues of naturalization and now chest-thumping for an allegedly lost compassionate ideal, have a way of forgetting how they support puritans, religious bigots and radical xenophobes back home; in short, all of us, somehow, ultimately end up settling over a subjective resolution of choice-paradox staring at our face.

There may be more humanistic exceptions but a closer inspection would certainly reveal deep crevices.

We must, at least, accept this double-standard as an apriori fact but unfortunately, it won’t happen since it has never happened in the past. It is what you call an outlier habit of mind, not even closer to the mean value, not within any standard deviation. Its fragments are scattered all over the pages of history of ideas.

Now, when the fun part seems finally over, Pakistani conservatives would start selling the same bull-crap aimed at rationalizing totalitarianism, secular or religious nationalism verging on the boundaries of soft-fascism, or at least, selectively biased populism. Understandably so, since Conservative right-wingers don’t need to be original; after all, they derive their lifeblood from an age-old xenophobic impulse with diverse manifestations. Social, religious or philosophical theories merely presume this impulse as a fact and try to channelize it.

Pakistani liberals will have nothing original to say as always. They are merely a manifestation of phantasmagorical reactive attitude that sparks off in response to an equally phantasmagorical conservative psychology rooted in the above mentioned fundamental impulse. There is no original Pakistani liberalism, as such, which really belongs to its own milieu. There are fragments of it but now they are considered a shade of conservatism since the liberal mean is shifted ahead, and will soon be completely lost with the coming generation.

So where do we go from here?

In fact, history has a way of reminding us incessantly that there is a lot of randomness that cannot be predicted in historical process. By lot of randomness, I mean so much that is beyond any rational models yet developed by human beings.

We must realize that ultimately, human beings are doomed to choose with every reconfiguration of a spatio-temporal continuum, and all such choices are justified as logically ‘reasonable’. As Camus said, it is always easy to be logical but it is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. I think he was too gracious to put that qualifier ‘almost’. It is perhaps simply impossible.

All the dialectics that arrive after the forced moment of choice just aim to pronounce one rationalization or the other. All religious, philosophical, or political views against an absolute justification of necessary relativisation of all values are merely an ameliorated bull-crap. The smell coming out of the rot underneath ideological paradigms of reason is too much to miss. Let us not fool ourselves with short bursts of one ideology or the other.

In a nutshell, our best analyses must aim to describe, again describe and continue completing the sketch, while always stopping just short of prediction. Prediction gives a false illusion of control. Prediction gives us more hope than is necessary. Hope is a drug that should be imbibed in infinitesimally small doses. Too much hope has a way of transforming itself into ideology.

All of us do have our socio-political sensibilities, religious or quasi-religious notions of morality, and plans to arrive in time at our Utopian destinations. We are doomed to travel toward the idealized terminus. But while doing so, we must not forget that we are collectively adrift within a chaotic flow of history, and there is no way to know whether this chaotic flow looks deterministic from some higher plane or not. As I said, any notion of control is merely an illusion.

If there is any least common idealistic denominator, it is flowing as close together as possible. Applying any conditions on this ideal of spatial close proximity would ultimately negate that ideal from within. This ideal seems necessary since we have an impulse to live and not kill ourselves.

But all of it, that is, realization of the flow, this strange presence we call life, is nevertheless very interesting; its so sedative and at the same time so tragicomic. As Vonnegut put it so bravely, life is no way to treat an animal.

Once looking back from somewhere ahead on the flow, all of it, the complexity of the process, the multitude of variable space seems so mesmerizing. Its sheer grandeur, beauty or nefariousness cannot be missed. Just like when you this 1987 flashback of Donald Trump interviewed by Larry King.

Certainly, there are more surprises awaiting the pundits still bent on predicting eventualities, one way or the other.

Is Islam a patriarchical tradition (I): Understanding the hermeneutical gap

We have made it a Qur’an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand.     (Al Quran, 43:3)
Nothing exists except through language.
-Gadamer in Truth and Method

Islamic tradition, in many ways, can be described as a tradition of literature and one way to legitimately analyze the above question is to ask whether the core Islamic texts, i.e., Quran and Hadith are necessarily patriarchical [1]. Although it is true that Quran was originally revealed in a primarily patriarchical society and, at least in Islamic tradition’s formative and post-formative periods, interpreted mostly by the subjects of patriarchies, its text equally allows more coherent, less subjective and unauthoritarian interpretations to contest the popular traditionalist (or orthodox) interpretations with a visible patriarchical bent [2].

A direct import of these orthodox interpretations is that the core texts of Islamic tradition are explicitly sexist in favor of men and advocate a society in which women are essentially subjected to men. Interestingly, these interpretations have ontological as well as hermeneutical basis: ontological, because women are created after/ from men and thus their purpose of creation merely reduces to service provision to a superior creation and hermeneutical, because literal, authoritative and patriarchical readings of the text dictate so.

JunaidJamshedThese patriarchical and to some extent misogynist interpretations of scripture have far reaching implications for the society because they not only serve to demean the status of majority (or at least half) of the Muslim population, thereby subjecting them to the other half, but also render scripture as a misogynist text purporting women as a creation which is essentially unclean, deficient in intellect and created primarily ‘for‘ men. In fact, these readings are authoritatively used to an extent that serving husbands, for instance, is popularly preached as an essential article of a wife’s faith. Indeed, more crass and popularly sold interpretations boastfully build upon vivid details to create a kind of pietism in men where women merely fit as a serving commodity and must not be ‘used more than physically necessary‘ because the real pleasure is coming their way in heavens [3]. But till that time, being an inherent distraction for man’s sexual urges, they should be confined to houses and should be covered from head to toe if they come out.

It is interesting that same interpretations, if objected to, quickly rely upon socio-historical narratives – which are also rooted well in the scripture but generally reduced to secondary narratives in terms of employing them in the popular social discourse – that Islam liberated women from the pre-Islamic traditions and raised their status in a society where daughters were considered a disgrace and female infanticide was a norm.

In my view, the first step towards unreading these oppressively authoritarian and patriarchical interpretations of the scripture is to characterize the hermeneutical tendencies of these predominantly sexist readings. There are various dimensions of this characterization and at least two different broad layers at which critique can be carried out to articulate some right questions: 1) a complete disregard of the so-called hermeneutical gap between various stages of development of Islamic tradition and 2) an almost ambiguous notion of authority, which presumes a monolithic and anachronistic view of interpretive tradition as well as Islamic societies in which that tradition was developed, thereby aiding authoritarian (mis)use of the scripture.

It is perhaps a trite observation that any form of scriptural interpretation is aimed at deciphering the will of God. In Islamic theological tradition, this will, after the demise of Prophet, is essentially embodied in the form of text. It is important to note this peculiarity of character because no human being after the Prophet can explicitly claim absolute knowledge of God’s will. Prophet too, as obvious from the explicit pointers in Quran [4], only possessed that knowledge due to his exceptional status as a messenger of God, thereby giving this possession a kind of metaphysically intuitive miraculous character, not discernible through ordinary human intellect.

This observation, however, must not be misconstrued to understand that I am in anyway implying delimitation of Prophet’s authority and diminishing his interpretive role [5]. In fact, being the direct recipient of revelation and its carrier, Prophet’s will (that is Sunnah) is only the second most important source of Islamic law after Quran; however, this will is also contained in textual reports [6], which are preserved, transmitted and defended by generations of Muslims. The peculiar textual nature of this will is evident by the fact that Muslims have proudly developed exceptionally scientific methods to criticize these textual (and once oral) reports for validity of the content as well as authenticity of transmission. Deciphering God’s will, therefore, since the formative periods of Islam is essentially an interpretive enterprise; and any claim regarding absolute and exhaustive knowledge of that will would not only be fallacious but can be seen as effectively claiming the interpretive character of none other than Prophet himself.

Many modern semantic theories generally characterize texts through three dimensional models which, in one way or the other, incorporate roles of author, reader and the text itself in the hermeneutical or interpretive undertakings. Moreover, these three components are always interrelated as texts are understood to be bound by contexts and contain words with multiple communities of meanings which are used by readers (as they access texts) to decipher the original intent (or will) of the author. Jorge Gracia, a contemporary expert on texts, defines them [7] as

Groups of entities, used as signs, that are selected, arranged and intended by an author in a certain context to convey some specific meanings to an audience.

This is indeed a conservatively concise definition (not involving artifacts and other art forms) but enough to convey the complexities that surround a text for our present purpose. Moreover, this definition explicitly implies that all texts (and Divine ones are no exception) allow variant readings by nature, as all the audience are bound to disagree regarding the original intent of the author to some extent, thus goes the famous cliche that no two persons ever read the same book.

Admittedly, this definition is rather more fluidly structured than the conventional concept of Nass [8] in Islamic tradition, which is more stringently structured and symmetrically deterministic to cater for Quranic claim of divinity, transcendence and immutability; rightly so, because of the peculiar character of the author here – who is Himself believed to be Divine and Transcendent – which necessitates a faith-based assumption that He must have chosen and structured each word and phrase carefully enough to convey His full intent in best possible manner. Yet, these are still words and to paraphrase a saying attributed to Ali Ibn Abi Talib- one of the most knowledgeable and equipped exegetes in whole Islamic tradition – Quran is but ink and paper and ultimately it is a human enterprise which makes sense of it. In other words, it is reasonable to contend that language is an imperfect medium, and the faith-based assumption that God uses that medium perfectly does not reduces the inherent ambiguities and complexities of the medium itself.

Therefore, any interpretive indulgence remaining within the conventional dictates of language, thereby not relying on some esoteric knowledge inaccessible by the whole linguistic community or employing an orphic or quasi-orphic semiotic and semantic framework, has to be respected as a reasonable interpretation of scripture and a well intended exercise to decipher God’s will, albeit allowing disagreement and criticism by adherents of other readings.                                                                                                     ______________________________________

  1. It is important to note that I am not mentioning the sources of Islamic law but the core texts; the former implies sources other than Quran and Sunnah, with Sunnah being defined in various ways and other sources being selected and weighed according to methodological dictates of a particular juridic tradition or an individual jurisconsult. I employ the terminology of text as it is more in line with the present framework of inquiry.
  2. I hate to simplistically employ complex (and often confusing) terminologies like traditional or orthodox but unfortunately the present discourse in predominantly patriarchical Muslim societies like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia demands that; primarily, because adherents to these patriarchical readings of scripture themselves choose to employ these cliches and love to associate with these dualities.
  3. An example is recently circulated video lecture by a Pakistanic scholar on connubial pleasures in heaven. The lecture is in Urdu titled Jannat Ki Hoor and can be accessed here.
  4. See for instance, verse 41:6 or 6:50.
  5. My views on the question of Prophetic authority can be accessed here and here.
  6. To contend that Sunnah is only contained in textual reports (i.e., Hadith) is rather another oversimplification, but one which is the popularly held orthodox stance; in reality, there are classical as well as modernist schools and individuals who also/ or only believed in some form of perpetually transmitted practice as Sunnah, which obviously is supported by textual reports too.
  7. Jorge Gracia, Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience.
  8. Nass is a term used in Islamic jurisprudence to generally mean a clear legal injunction; however, there are other specific legal connotations too, for instance, declaring a legal injunction as Nass may entail that there is not an iota of doubt that the said injunction can be authentically traced back to the originator, which may be God or the Prophet.

Is Shariah Possible (III): Tennessee Bill, Objective Resolution and Ibn Qayyim

I had almost forgotten about this ongoing series until coming across this recent piece by John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani discussing fear of Shariah in the state of Tennessee.

That the bill introduced by Senator Bill Ketron exemplifies the irrational fear of Islam is a fact that cannot be denied by anyone generally aware of political, social and philosophical nuances of Islamic law. It is also true that the language and dictates of the bill are prejudiced and outright Islamophobic, likely to cause disturbance among US Muslims. However, even a somewhat perfunctory analysis of the language of the bill shows that it thrives upon more or less similar kind of sensibilities which are prevalent in many Muslim societies as well. These sensibilities are not only popular among masses (educated as well as uneducated) of these societies but also provide intellectual foundations for some famous contemporary religious reform movements. Interestingly though, both the discourses differ in terms of transposition of political realities, i.e., the discourse presented in the Tennessee bill arguably fears the encroachment of Islamic law in the American society led otherwise by a secular constitutional ideal; whereas in many Muslim states the popular political discourse in various manners assumes supremacy of some kind of a higher Islamic ideal.

Lets take, for example, the notion of Shariah being a supreme political doctrine governing affairs of a majority Muslim state like Pakistan. Since moving on from the status of dominion to republic in 1956, Islamic character has officially been an essential part of governing political philosophy of the state, best described by the Objective Resolution of 1949, which states that:

Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust.

The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan prolifically manifests that no law repugnant to Quran and Sunnah can be legislated by the parliament, which may also take advice from a Counsel of Islamic Ideology. In fact, Pakistan is perhaps the only Muslim country besides Iran which finds it necessary to literally interject the Islamic character in its official state title. However, in spite of all these statutory vehicles and guiding principles in place, many political parties in Pakistan choose to jump in public arena with an overriding religious disposition. True that they differ considerably in their political and religious outlook and objectives, all of them, in one way or another, thrive upon the promise of religious reform and Shariah based Islamic society without giving a slightest hint as to what that promise objectively means. Besides successful equivocation of religious semantics, this kind of attitude ends up lumping technically distinct categories of religious discourse into one large basket.

In this backdrop, it is hardly shocking that Tennessee Bill defines Shariah as a legal-political-military doctrinal system combined with certain religious beliefs. For instance, when the bill states that,

Sharia as a political doctrine requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharia as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharia with a sharia political order; […] Sharia requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America’s constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharia…

it is not very different in its outlook from the manifesto of any ‘Islamic’ political party or a puritanical religious reform movement of a Muslim state like Pakistan, Egypt or Malaysia. What is common in the language of the bill and the prevailing jargon of these Islamist parties is the underlying Orwellian structures in which words are deformed, twisted and intentionally mis-joined to render ideas which are not permitted commonly by the associated communities of meanings. No wonder how, in Pakistan, the concept of Shariah is usually misconstrued with punishments of various crimes prescribed by Quran, prohibition of economic indulgences like bank interest and interest-based loans, or ban on various cultural activities and behaviors not perceived in conformance with popular religious understanding.

In order to have a fair idea of these misapprehended subtleties, it is useful to juxtapose the above understanding of Shariah (as contended in the Tennessee Bill) with the one provided by 14th century Hanbali jurist, Ibn Qayyim

The Shariah is God’s justice among His servants, and His mercy among his creatures. It is God’s shadow on this earth. It is His wisdom which leads to Him in the most exact way and the most exact affirmation of the truthfulness of His Prophet. It is His light which enlightens the seekers and His guidance for the rightly guided. It is the absolute cure of all ills and the straight path which if followed would lead to righteousness. It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. […] If God would wish to destroy the world and dissolve existence, He would void whatever remains of its injunctions. For the Shariah which was sent to His Prophet is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the Hereafter.

The above description, albeit quixotically poetic, aptly conveys the most important conceptual nuance: Shariah is a linguistic abstraction employed to point towards the perpetually emanating will of the God; an ideal, that one who submits to it, should incessantly strive to achieve but without the ultimate notion of reaching the terminus. The actual will of the God, consequently, stands distinctly separate from the understanding or implementation of that will; the latter being a totally human dominion and therefore subject to all the usual human failings.

This distinction between the understanding and implementation of Shariah, and the Shariah proper needs to be adequately understood by the predominantly Muslim societies as well as those in which Muslims are in minority. Shariah is not a political or legal doctrine which is always in need of implementation through internal or external formal mechanisms. The concept of its implementation effectively entails that a moral life should always be guided by the Divine will; a search which should naturally encompass all dimensions of individual and collective life without trying slightly to evade the inherent burden of contemporary subjectivities.

Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will?

Socrates: If that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. […] But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not and what is impiety?
Euthyphro: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. (Euthyphro, Plato’s Dialogues)

But you will not unless God wills; surely God is ever All-knowing, All-wise. (Al-Quran, 76:30)

So they departed; until, when they met a lad, he slew him. He said, ‘What, hast thou slain a soul innocent, and that not to retaliate for a soul slain? Thou hast indeed done a horrible thing. (Al-Quran, 18:74)

Moses and KhidrThe story of Moses and the wise man (known as Khidr in Islamic tradition), related in 18th chapter of Quran, invites our attention towards a classical moral dilemma: Are there any moral standards independent of God’s will? As he holes the boat about to take passengers, slays an innocent lad and responds to a town’s inhospitality by setting up their tumbling down wall, Khidr repeatedly disturbs Moses’ preconceived notion of morality as well as ours. An unbiased and careful reader of Quran is therefore justified in asking whether an all benevolent and sovereign God can make it just and good to kill an innocent boy for crimes he had not committed hitherto. Putting it in perspective, If something is good only because God wills it so (as entailed by God’s sovereignty) then there is nothing that can be called intrinsically good or bad and mankind is oblivious regarding ultimate nature of morality. Furthermore, the idea of Godly benevolence would seem empty and problematic; perhaps, best described in the words of C.S. Lewis

…if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘Righteous Lord’

This kind of moral dilemma, though not discussed by Islamic philosophers explicitly, is indirectly an important part of traditional as well as modernists Islamic discourse regarding nature and concept of God. Theologically speaking, the question of ultimate nature of morality is understandably inseparable from the nature of God; and interestingly, the more concrete and rigorous your concept of God, the more apt you are to run into difficulties as to what are the actual origins of moral standards.

There seems to be two possible reasons for this conflict. Firstly, the academic classification of epistemology, theology and ethics are fairly modern and classical Islamic philosophy of the tradition of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes is virtually non-existent since well before Descartes; hence, it is not easy (if not impossible) to fill this gap of at least three centuries. Secondly, a conventional religious mind, unaware of logical tensions in his belief, necessarily speculates about the nature of God (and thus morality) by way of revelation, thus garbing a primarily epistemological question into a theological one.

Albeit academically necessary, it is not of immediate importance (perhaps too difficult) to comment upon the complete tradition of Islamic ethics. Suffice it to say that with the exception of Mutazilites and initial Muslim philosophers of Peripatetic tradition, most of the scholars believed that humanity is always in need of Divine guidance to settle the ultimate moral questions. Some of them, for instance Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajjah, linked the moral question with original unaltered nature of human being but failed to satisfactorily incorporate revelation into the model. Others circumvented the question altogether. But literalists among them, like Ibn Hazm, went so far as to claim that categories of good and bad are not something existing per se, and if God so desires, he can punish good and reward evil.

In the modern times, Shah Wali Allah has explained God’s customary way of acting in some detail in his magnum opus Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Conclusive Argument from God), regarding which Quran mentions at several places (e.g., 33:62 and 35:43):

…and never wilt thou find any change in God’s way.

According to him, God’s perpetual creativity always moves all the causes in the universe to attain absolute good; and the knowledge of mankind, though well aware of the immediate action proceeding from an obvious cause, cannot encompass the complete causal structure in the universe and is thus liable to face conflicts. How Shah Wali Allah further explains the nature of Divine creativity is beyond the context of present discourse, but it can be safely assumed that he is trying to access the moral problem through theory of knowledge besides employing the usual theological operators from revelation. In a nutshell, I would dare say that if Shah Wali Allah would try to resolve our present dilemma he would argue that even though God can reward evil and punish good if He desires so, it is against His customary way of acting; a kind of Divine resolve which He never violates.

This brings us back to the narrative of Moses and Khidr. Interestingly in the verse immediately preceding the narrative (18:65), Quran points towards the nature of knowledge possessed by Khidr: we had taught him knowledge proceeding from Ourselves; thus supplying enough epistemic grounds within the revelation to resolve the so called Euthyphro’s dilemma.

But moving further from here onwards on a different note, questions may be asked as to how revelation is justified as a universal tool for comprehending morality, and for that matter, the ultimate nature of truth? Are there any pure philosophical means using which one can proceed testing the character and medium of revelation (I assume there may exist some scattered pointers in critical and post critical theories of text)? or should we instead try to metaphysically vindicate the religious experience itself, like Ghazali or Iqbal?

PS: Euthyphro’s dilemma is elegantly presented by the guys at philosophyexperiments.com where they let us talk with God and help us reveal the tensions inherent in our belief which we might not be aware of.

Is Shariah Possible (II): Origins of a Cosmopolitan Venture

A moral philosophy characteristically presupposes a sociology. For every moral philosophy offers explicitly or implicitly at least a partial conceptual analysis of the relationship of an agent to his or her reasons, motives, intentions and actions, and in so doing generally presupposes some claim that these concepts are embodied or at least can be in the real social world. [Alasdair Macintyre]

shariahAny study of Muslim civilization – with the purpose of exploring the roots of law – cannot remain unaffected by a certain kind of arbitrariness as far as specific time spans concerning various formative and post formative legal developments are concerned. However, it can be said with certainty that during the time of pious caliphate, there was no formal body of religious law that can be understood as binding on all Muslims. The community, being a direct recipient of revealed word of God, had no need to indulge in formal interpretation as the text (being characteristically a recitation-text as indicated by the word Quran itself and the first revelation Iqra’a) naturally exercised authority through immediate oral methods. A striking example of this spontaneous textual authority is Abu Bakr’s admonition to Umar at the time of Prophet’s demise which automatically brought the latter out from a state of denial.

This spontaneity, however, does not imply normative singularity (as we shall see later in the detailed examination of the Quran as a source of Sharia’h) and there were differences of opinions among companions regarding meaning of various verses.

Similarly, the concept Sunnah was not understood to be taken as a authoritative binding source in a proper and well defined framework. It was a kind of exemplary Prophetic practice – not yet formally situated in history – having a quasi-authoritative character; a disposition, which has to be necessarily distinguished from a relatively formal framework developed by later scholars especially Shafii.

It is difficult to identify the triggering point in history where Islamic tradition began to transform itself into a coherent, encompassing and self-assertive social order from a crudely authoritative moral philosophy . In this regard, one of the best studies of historical development of Islamic civilization has been carried out by Marshall Hodgson.

In his majestically detailed work, Hodgson goes on to explain the early  origins of a certain piously conscious class within Muslim societies supporting a faith-based egalitarianism in contrast to ruling absolutism of Marwani caliphate. A striking characteristic of this class – which was later specialized to be accepted as Ul’ema – was the pronouncement of this expectation that Islam has to have its own system of law, ethics, education and set of governing principles for public as well as private life.

With regards to Muslim civilization as a whole, the most profound cultural implication of this universalistic phenomenon was the emergence of a global social concern. In the words of Hodgson:

[…] the Muslims, unlike the Jews, did not regard their own community as a unique and (in principle) hereditary body selected out from a world left otherwise without direct divine guidance. The Muslim community was thought of as one among many divinely guided communities such as the Jewish or Christian, all (at their origin) equally blessed. Thus far, Islam took explicitly the form that various Christian and Jewish bodies had implicitly been assuming under the confessional empires […]. The difference between Islam and the other communities was that Islam was first to rule over and then to supersede all others. Islam was to bring the true and uncorrupted divine guidance to all mankind, creating a world-wide society in which the true revelation would be the everyday norm of all the nations. It must not guide an autonomous community like the Jewish; it must guide the practical policies of a cosmopolitan world.

This indeed was the aspiration which can be termed as the cornerstone of that sacred socio-moral vision we call Sharia’h or Islamic Canon. It is important to note that this sacred vision was as much informed by a will to act in opposition to the political reality of pre-Abbasid period as it was by the resolve to bring the whole ambit of individual life in accordance with divine will; or more specifically, to act as ordained by the Quran and Sunnah.

Is Sharia’h Possible? (I): Definition and Scope

The Shari’a is all justice, kindness, common good and wisdom. Any rule that departs from justice to injustice […] or departs from common good (maslaha) to harm (mafsada) […] is not part of Sharia’h, even if it is arrived at by literal interpretation. [Ibn Qayyim]

“Just what is Shari’ah“, asks Zakintosh on his blog as he invites “unemotional” responses which are aimed towards understanding and clarifying things. In a series of posts, I would try to limn my understanding of the concept as well as sundry issues which do inform the current socio-religious and political discourse.

As far as it serves in drawing parallels, Iqbal’s famous enquiry: Is religion possible? (his lecture to fifty fourth session of Aristotelian Society, London in 1932) can be used as a starting point in examining the problematic of Sharia’h. Proposing three periods of religious life, i.e. faith, thought and discovery, Iqbal asserts that in the period of faith an individual or society must submit unconditionally without grasping completely the ultimate rationality behind religious demand. Similarly, before considering Sharia’h as a viable vocation, we should probably come in terms with the concept that Islam – during its present sojourn into modernity – can be seen beyond the duality of temporal and spiritual, i.e., as a unified dynamic experience which can enrich and facilitate all the modern aspects of life. It is only after grappling with the sociological possibility of Sharia’h that a modern muslim mind can overcome its proclivity for atomism and its incapability for generalization. In this sense, it is the only right premise that can mother the possibility for right conclusions.

Moving forward beyond the usual etymological distinctions, the concept Sharia’h has been traditionally used to refer to a wide range of philosophical and legal connotations. In an epistemological sense, the arabic terms aq’l (the reason) and hawa (desire) have been often used in contrast with Shara’a in traditional texts (for instance in Shatibi’s Al-Muwafiqaat or Ibn Qayyim’s Ailaam al-Muwaqaeen). At this level, Sharia’h has been essentially understood as a knowledge producing category emanating from the realm of Divine. From an ontological perspective, it has been understood as the expression of legislative aspects of Divine Will whose compliance is not immediate; rather, it is conditional to be exercised by the society itself. This is in clear distinction to His creative Will which is immediately complied for automatically achieving the intended end.

Probably for utilitarian reasons, Sharia’h has often been seen as synonymous to wahy (revelation), especially in the domain of law. True, that revelation is also a knowledge producing function; yet, the contention of equating Sharia’h with revelation historically gave birth to two major ambiguities. Foremost being that revelation is a process which brings the intent of the Divine to the creation, i.e., a medium for expression and not the intended meaning of the expression itself; hence, goes the famous adage by Ali that Quran is but ink and paper, it is the human being that interprets. Secondly, due to an additional understanding of the nature of revelation as a law producing function – albeit indirectly – the terms Sharia’h and Fiqh have been used interchangeably in much of the medieval religious discourse. Right up to the modern times, this usage has added considerable complexity to the discourse. No wonder, the most famous shibboleth of our times: whose Sharia’h? is a by product of same confused usage. What is generally understood as Sharia’h is actually its understanding or explanation, i.e., Fiqh.

But perhaps the most serious historical problem associated with this arguably confused equation was the question of immutability or adaptability of Sharia’h. The upholders of immutability-view claimed that rulings of Sharia’h are absolutely final and unalterable; the premise being that revelation is complete and final. Whereas, the proponents of adaptability-view upheld that the contents of Sharia’h are constantly expanding and undergoing change with varying sociological conditions. As we shall see later, both the views are historically significant because of their direct effect on respective choice and handling of sources of Sharia’h and therefore its ultimate scope.

A final point having great contemporary relevance is whether the Sharia’h can be termed as law in modern sense. The modern notion of law entails in itself the concept of an imposing authority. If Sharia’h or a particular set of its substantive interpretations (i.e. Fiqh) may understood to have the same import as modern law, the nature of ritual, worship and various other moral injunctions (included in the corpus of Sharia’h) will become questionable as far as their respective relationship with individual and society is concerned. This is why it is interesting to note that the practice of Islamic moral brigades forcing individuals to keep beards and imposing particular dress codes is intrinsically modern. The phenomenon will be explored further during the analysis of socio-moral dynamics of Sharia’h. At this point it is sufficient to mention that in Islamic legal tradition, the idea of formally separating legal obligation from theology and morality has its origins in 13th century Spain.

With this introduction, it now seems imperative to dwell into the purposes of Sharia’h, what constitutes it and the major disagreements regarding the nature of various sources.

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.