THE LIVING CHARACTER OF ISLAMIC TRADITIONby
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (1985)
A great deal of controversy, confusion and disunity among Muslims is caused by a careless use of the argument that such and such a thing did not exist in the days of the Prophet and the rightly guided caliphs or was not allowed by them and therefore it is un-Islamic. Often this argument is used with a measure of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty, in the sense that an 'alim (Muslim jurist, scholar) or a group objects to one thing on the ground that it has no precedence in the days of the Prophet and the suhabah (companions of the Prophet) and at the same time accepts something else which also does not have any precedence in early Islam. For example,
- When loud speakers were first used in India to amplify the sound of adhan, the call to prayers, some 'ulama opposed this use on the grounds that they were untraditional. Yet many of these 'ulama accepted women's almost total exclusion from the life of the community of the type that did not exist in the days of the Prophet and the suhabah.
- Shaikh bin Bas, a Saudi 'alim, has written a small pamphlet in which he argues that celebrating 'Id Milad an-Nabi (the Prophet's birthday) is un-Islamic since this great occasion was not celebrated by the Prophet and the suhabah. Yet it seems that Shaikh bin Bas is willing to accept the institution of kingship in his country even though kingship also did not exist in the days of the Prophet and the rightly guided caliphs.
- Members of Jama'at-e-Islami in Pakistan oppose Islamic tasawwuf (Sufism) because some of its systems of adhkar (remembrance of God) were developed later by the great shaikhs such as Abdul Qadir Jilani. Yet they accept some systems within their own jama'at that did not exist in early Islam. For example, they are obliged to write weekly reports in which they must state how much of the Qur'an and Hadith they studied in the week before. The idea is that fear of embarrassment will make the members study the Qur'an and Hadith. In the days of the Prophet and the suhabah, of course, such a way of making people read the books of God and the Messenger was never used.
- The members of Tablighi Jama'at are cool to the idea of general elections. Yet many of the ways in which the work of this jama'at is organized has no precedence in early Islam. For example, they get together every Saturday evening or so and hold a bayan (speech). Also they tell Muslims that they should go to a center of the jama'at such as Ra'y Wind, Pakistan once in their lifetime and spend four months there. Of course, the custom of holding a bayan on Saturday evenings and going to any specified place for four months once in one's lifetime did not exist in early Islam.
These and many other examples illustrate the double standards that are often used in discrediting or condemning ideas or practices on the grounds that they have no precedence in early Islam.
The truth is that this whole argument about precedence, its arbitrary and hypocritical use and the resulting controversy, confusion and dividing among Muslims is the result of a wrong model of the Islamic tradition in our minds. Consciously or unconsciously we think of the Islamic tradition as a castle of rocks that was built in the days of the Prophet and the suhabah. But such a dead model does not do justice to the living force that is Islam. It is far more accurate to think of Islamic tradition as a living organism with the Qur'an and the authentic Sunnah as its genes. A living organism - a plant or a human being - grows and changes during its lifetime and yet the blueprint of this growth and change, is already in its genes. In the same way the Islamic tradition grows and changes with time but the pattern of its growth and change is once and for all fixed in the Qur'an and the authentic Sunnah. The Islamic sciences of Hadith, fiqh (jurisprudence), kalam, etc. did not exist in early Islam as we know them today. Yet they have been accepted by almost the entire Muslim world as legitimate Islamic developments. This would not have been possible if Islamic tradition were not something living and growing but dead and fixed.
The fact that Islamic tradition grows continuously does not mean that revelation did not come to an end with the Prophet Muhammad or that it was not perfected by his work. For the entire growing Islamic tradition is the Prophet's work. It is like a planter who plants a tree and the tree that continues to grow even after the planter departs from this world.
But it is necessary at this point to carry the analogy between tradition and a living organism a little further. We know that sometimes growth of an organism can get out of genetic control and go against the pattern provided in its genes; such a growth is called cancerous. The same phenomenon can occur in the development of tradition in the sense that it can grow to contain elements that go against its original and real character. Christian tradition provides a particularly clear and gross case of this, with the Trinitarian dogmas and redemptive myths providing examples of growths in the Christian tradition, totally alien to its original character as manifested in the work of Jesus and the earlier thinking of his eyewitness disciples. Serious cancerous growths are found in the Islamic tradition too. Many forged ahadith have found wide spread circulation among Muslims, many laws alien to the Qur'an have found their way in fiqh and many conflicting ideas in regards to the letter and spirit of the Prophet's message are present in kalam (Muslim theology). These cancerous growths in the Islamic tradition are less serious because unlike the Christian tradition, alien elements in the Islamic tradition can be removed by constantly referring back to a pure source, the Holy Qur'an.
If the model of tradition presented above is kept in mind, then the real question is not whether such and such an idea or practice existed in early Islam but whether it fits with the character of Islam as revealed in the Qur'an and the authentic(1) Sunnah and whether it serves the purposes of Islam and the interests of Muslims.
We will not here consider this question in relation to Jama'at-e-Islami's practice of weekly reports or Tablighi Jama'at's once-in-a-lifetime four month trips to Ra'y Wind. We would, however, affirm that:
1) The use of any technological device is perfectly okay if it furthers the purpose of an existing Islamic injunction. Thus, for example, the purpose of adhan is evidently to announce to the people that the time for prayer has come. The use of loud speakers in adhan furthers this purpose, since the adhan can reach more people through their use. The use of loud speakers, therefore, is quite alright, as has now been universally recognized by Muslims.
By the same token, the use of scientific calculations and instruments to determine prayer timings and the beginnings and endings of lunar months is proper. It is yet another manifestation of the arbitrariness of the way our jama'ats decide what is Islamic or un-Islamic that while they now use loudspeakers for adhan and their speeches and also employ prayer calendars based on scientific computations, they continue to refuse to use similar computations to determine 'Id days and thus end the controversy that perpetually goes on concerning these holy days. Such people do not follow reason and revelation, but the confused thinking of some of their leaders. There will come a time when the Muslim world will use scientific computations to determine 'Id days. At that time the people who now oppose this use will be declared blind, just as the people who once opposed the use of loudspeakers are now recognized to be mistaken.
2) The nearly total exclusion of women from community life which gradually developed after the Prophet's departure from this world is one of the bad new developments in Islam. It deprived Islam of half of its workers and it hindered the full development of women who were therefore unable to bring up their children into nature, brave adults of sound mind, and hearts full of iman (inner conviction, faith). This needs to be undone now and women need to be involved in all levels of community life. During this involvement in public matters, all that Muslim women should keep in mind is that their dress should adhere to Qur'anic standards of modesty and private meetings with members of the opposite sex should be avoided as far as possible.
3) Celebration of 'Id Milad an-Nabi is a good new tradition in Islam. It provides an occasion for Muslims to get together and talk about their beloved Prophet and about his work and message.
4) The institution of kingship which gained widespread acceptance in the Muslim world after Yazid is an un-Islamic institution. It is a glaring violation of the Islamic principle of justice for a single family to keep within itself the highest authority in the land.
5) Regular elections are Islamic, as through them we can put the Qur'anic principle of mutual consultation and of justice into practice more effectively.
6) Tasawwuf as understood and analogy, for example, by Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, Al-Ghazali, Sayyad Ahmad Sirhindi, Shah Wali Allah, and Sayyad Ahmad Shahid is at least as valid an expression of Islam as the sciences of hadith, fiqh and kalam. Some elements alien to Islam have entered tasawwuf but other branches of Islam also have such elements, which need to be removed by constant reference to the Qur'an.
(1) What is generally called Sunnah is a collection of reports about the Prophet that are not completely reliable as to their authenticity. The use of Sunnah in determining the character of Islam should, therefore, be made with caution. Some Muslims take everything in their favorite collections of hadith such as Bukhari or Muslim as entirely authentic. But even though some collections may be more reliable (e.g., the ones that have come to us in tawattur - continuity) than others, there are none that are completely free of forged traditions.
First published in Al-Ummah, Montreal, Canada in 1985. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.