Scholars (3) – What could go wrong?

This is a continuation of the discussion on the role of scholars. Please read the preceding part 1, and part 2.

Do scholars sometimes make mistakes?

Despite the advantage afforded by lengthy educational training, human error is inescapable. Imam Malik (d.179H) famously said, “Everyone can have their statement accepted or rejected, except the Prophet Muhammad”. 1Siyar ‘Alam al-Nubala 8/93 Whenever an expert advances a viewpoint that is not substantiated by research and is contradicted by other experts in the field, such a viewpoint is rightly repudiated by those who possess the requisite skills to evaluate the research. It is essential that such a repudiation come from the community of experts so that the lay people are not left in the dark.

How should a mistaken view be handled?

The best way to help people is for other experts to clarify the correct understanding of the subject. Focusing on the person who made the mistake rather than the topic itself only leads people to get caught in unhelpful partisan debates driven by emotion rather than reason. On the other hand, when people acquire a correct understanding of the topic, they can judge for themselves and understand why a certain view is incorrect. Also, it is important not to disregard everything from a person when they make an error on one matter – they may still have valuable contributions on other matters. Just because an expert holds a mistaken view on one matter does not disqualify them from being an expert, or else there would be none left!

When is there a risk of bias in a scholar’s views? 

Human beings are biased by their cultural upbringing, as well as political context.

a) Culture – human beings grow accustomed to the norms of interaction within their own communities. Culture is so important in determining what is appropriate, that in some cases it can constitute the basis of legal rulings (in Islamic jurisprudence the cultural norm, or ‘urf, is recognized as a source of law). Culture cannot contravene the explicit commandments of Islam, but it can certainly shape the way in which many are applied and interpreted. The famous Hanafi jurist, Ibn Abideen (d.1252H), wrote an entire treatise entitled Nashr al-‘Urf fi bina’i ba’d al-Ahkam ‘ala al-‘Urf, explaining the role of culture in interpreting Islamic law. One of the most common culturally dependent realms of interaction is that of gender interaction. Islam provides general principles of modesty and the avoidance of pathways to illicit sexual relations. Beyond this, norms are dictated by the culture to which one belongs, and hence it is appropriate learn such matters from the scholarly community indigenous to the culture in which one resides. It is imperative that Muslim scholars acknowledge the cultural scope of their human experience and avoid endeavours which seek to export those cultural norms and impose them on foreign societies, thus contradicting the dictates of Islamic law.

b) Politics – Institutions of power have a vested interest in maintaining a scholarly establishment that is politically expedient. This is why historically many scholars were quite averse to serving any political powers and insisted on maintaining independence (Imam Sufyan al-Thawri (d.168H) is just one famous example). It is very important that an independent community of Islamic scholarship is able to verbally hold institutions of power accountable, rather than lending them obsequious support; the latter case often leads to the scholarly community losing credibility in the eyes of the masses who then take matters into their own hands leading to societal upheaval and turmoil. It is imperative that Muslim scholars reclaim the tradition of their predecessors of maintaining a free voice, untainted by the powers of dictators. In order for scholarship to have any potency, it must have freedom and therefore scholars musn’t lend religious authority to an establishment that suppresses dissent. If they do so, they run the risk of undermining their own credibility amongst the masses.

What causes controversial statements from scholars?

Scholars are supposed to be a source for education and guidance of the masses, but often they can become a source for controversy, partisanship and conflict. It is important to note that possessing knowledge does not always correspond with the ability to articulate that knowledge eloquently, sensitively, and in a manner appropriate for the audience with which one is speaking. Sometimes a person may try to communicate something but end up using an example that is exaggerated, irrelevant, confusing, or even insensitive or offensive. In such instances it is best for the community to simply correct the statement and move on. It is not always easy to immediately articulate your thoughts in a manner that will most accurately convey your intent to your audience. This is particularly the case when it comes to controversial matters.

Consider the quote of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.505H), “”I advise you, my brother, to have a good opinion of all people, especially the scholars. And it is part of having a good opinion of someone to look for the most positive possible interpretation of his words, and if you cannot find [one], then blame your own inability to find it [rather than him].” 2Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, “Haqiqat al-Qawlayn”, manuscript. Princeton University, Yahuda 4358, fols. 3b-4a, as cited in “The social construction of orthodoxy”, Ahmed el Shamsy, Cambridge Companion to Islamic Theology.

What are some of the causes behind the degeneration of Islamic scholarship?

This is a big question, a detailed analysis of which, is beyond the scope of the current discussion. In brief however, degeneration in Muslim scholarship seems to be historically concomitant with political subjugation to foreign powers, economic decline, destruction of the educational system, instrumentalization of sectarian and ethnic conflict to service the local powers, along with other lesser factors.

Who is missing from Muslim scholarship today?

The Prophet Muhammad said, “Women are the equal and identical partners of men” (Musnad Ahmad). There is a unique underrepresentation of women in Muslim scholarship today that is anomalous when compared to the immense tradition of female scholarship in Islamic history. The contemporary scholar, Dr. Mohammed Akram Nadwi, has compiled in a gargantuan 40-volume work the biographies of no less than 8000 female scholars in the field of hadith sciences alone. The tradition of female scholarship in Islam begins with the towering contribution of Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, and one of the greatest scholars of the first generation. 3The famous companion Abu Musa al-Ash’ari stated “There was never a time we found a religious matter confusing except that we would go and ask Aisha, and always find that she was knowledgeable concerning it” (al-Tirmidhi). The famous scholar of the second-generation, Masrooq (d.62H), was asked whether Aisha excelled in inheritance law, whereupon he replied, “I swear by the One true God, verily I used to see the most senior of companions consulting her on matters of inheritance law” (Sunan al-Darimi). Ata’ ibn Abi Rabah (d.114H) stated that Aisha was the leading expert in jurisprudence (Ibn Abdul-Barr, al-Isti’ab, vol. 2, 744). Urwah ibn al-Zubayr narrated that Aisha was also the most well-versed in Arabic literature and poetry (Bayhaqi in al-Zuhd, 216). She had 300 students and narrated 2210 traditions. 4In fact, several of the Prophet’s wives made tremendous contributions to the field of hadith sciences, indicative of further Divine wisdoms in these marriages. Umm Salamah narrated 378 hadith, Maymunah narrated 76, Umm Habibah narrated 65, and Hafsah narrated 60. Amrah bint AbdurRahman (d.98H) 5Amrah was consulted on matters by the caliph Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz (Ibn Sa’d. Tabaqat al-Kubra, vol. 2, p. 387). After being advised to study under her, the scholar Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d.124H) stated, “I found her an endless ocean.” (al-Dhahabi, Siyar. vol. 4, p. 508). was so great a legal scholar that she could reverse the decision of a court case after simply correcting judge’s misinterpretation. 6Muwatta of Imam Malik, 437-8.

Nafisah bint al-Hasan (d.208H) was so renowed a scholar that Imam al-Shafi’i (d.204H) – founder of the Shafi’i school – insisted that his funeral procession after his death pass by her house, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.240H) – founder of the Hanbali school – requested her to pray for him. Zaynab bint al-Kamal (d.740H) was authorized to teach at least 139 works spanning history, jurisprudence, and Qur’anic exegesis, and she was described by the famous Ibn Battuta (d.779H) as ‘a traveler of the world’ and he received ijazah (traditional license) from her. 7Rihlah Ibn Battuta, p67 as cited in Sayeed A Studies Islamica 2002, no 95, p79 Maryam al-‘Ijliyyah (d.356H) was a famous Muslim female scientist who designed astrolabes that were so innovative, they were used by the ruler of the city, Sayf al-Dawla. The illustrious female Hanafi jurist, Fatima al-Samarqandiya (d.581H) taught her husband, Imam Ala al-Din al-Kasani (d.587H) who authored one of the foundational texts in the Hanafi school, and when they issued joint legal verdicts (fatawa), Fatima’s name would appear above her husband. Female scholarship was so much more abundant in history that it is recorded that a single scholar like Ibn al-Najjar (d.643H) studied under 400 women 8Al-Dhahabi, Siyar, vol.23, p. 133, while Ibn Asakir (d.571H) is noted to have learned from 80 female scholars.

What are some of the gaps in contemporary Muslim scholarship?

1. Neglecting topics emphasized in the Qur’an and Sunnah

It should be obvious to every Muslim that the most important issues are the ones that are repeated over and over in the Qur’an and in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an repeatedly focuses on the concept of Taqwa – how to come closer to God, how our beliefs should not be empty theoretical doctrines but should shape our spiritual and moral journey towards God. It repeatedly focuses on Islamic values like Birr – how our faith should manifest itself in our moral duty to care for our parents, our family, our neighbours, the poor and needy (Qur’an 2:177). Therefore, it behooves contemporary scholarship to prioritize discussions on how Muslims can actualize Taqwa and Birr in their lives. The average Muslim needs to understand – why is Islam important in my life? How should it guide my decisions and behaviour with others? By focusing on Islam solely as a check-list of rules and neglecting the Qur’anic world-view and vision of the human journey, the contemporary generation of Muslims has acquired a hollow shell of meaningless rituals that is readily dispensed with when confronted with opposing ideologies and cultures.

2. Failure to address matters of relevance to modern society

Living in the age of globalization, scholars need to talk about the subjects of pressing concern to the average Muslims or else they make themselves irrelevant and Muslims will look for leadership elsewhere. The most important subject for Muslim scholars to write about today are not reviving frivolous medieval debates that were never spoken of by the Qur’an or the Prophet. Muslim scholars need to demonstrate the intellectual, moral and societal relevance of Islam in today’s world. To start with, consider tackling these ideologies: atheism, secular humanism, materialism, consumerism; and consider tackling these moral challenges: drug addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, bullying, prostitution, pornography, etc. In order to focus on relevant issues of concern, Muslim scholars need to collaborate and form interdisciplinary panels with a wide-range of societal leaders – scientists, social activists, psychologists, lawyers, doctors, journalists, entertainers, etc.

3. Loss of scientific knowledge

The Qur’an mentions numerous signs of God in the natural creation before stating, “Only those who possess knowledge truly revere God from amongst His worshippers” (35:28). The Qur’an therefore makes knowledge of the natural sciences a fundamental pillar of worshipping God. So why then are so many of today’s scholars the most ignorant of people when it comes to even the most basic facts of science?

Historically, Muslim scholars understood that the signs of God in scripture and in nature were both forms of religious knowledge. The Prophet’s wife Aisha, was not only the leading jurist amongst the companions, but was also a scholar of medicine. The Hanafi jurist Ibn al-Humam (d.861H) was also a renowned mathematician. Ibn al-Nafis (d.687H), the physician who discovered pulmonary circulation, was also an Islamic theologian. Philosophy of science was a subject Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H) was intimately familiar with, as he included in his theological work, Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah, a detailed chapter refuting astrology and alchemy as pseudosciences, arguing that they did not rely on empirical evidence or formulate logically coherent theories. Ibn Khaldun (d.808H) is often considered the father of sociology as he provided a scientific theory behind the dominance and decline of populations.

A famous maxim in Islamic jurisprudence states, ‘a ruling can only be given after acquiring a complete grasp of the subject’. 9For instance, can someone pass a ruling on smoking if they don’t know the medical evidence on its association with cancer? In order to make decisions about contemporary society, it is absolutely imperative that scholars correctly understand modern economics, technologies, scientific discoveries, medicine, and so forth. How can one adequately provide advice to a suicidal or depressed youth if one is completely ignorant of psychiatric risk assessment or basic psychological counselling? How can one advise the ummah when one is ignorant of the political, societal, and intellectual diseases plaguing the ummah? The corollary of this point is that contemporary scholars must recognize their limitations and avoid passing judgement on subjects that are beyond the scope of their educational expertise. Science gives us knowledge of the causes associated with certain effects. The abundance of fruitless speculation in conspiracy theories in some parts of the world is just one symptom of a failure to shape one’s views based on the evidence. Minds that are equipped with knowledge of causes will be able to guide people on how to manipulate those causes for their own betterment.

4. Failure to separate the mutable from the immutable

What parts of our understanding of Islam can change and what parts are fixed and immutable?  As a universal system of life for every time and place, Islam provides a revealed layer of guidance that is constant (al-shar’), as well as a derived layer of guidance (fiqh) that is dynamic and adaptable to every time and place. 10Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) referred to the former as al-Shar’ al-Munazzal (revealed law) and the latter as al-Shar’ al-Mu’awwal (interpreted law).  See Majmu’ al-Fatawa, vol 3, p.268. Contemporary scholars do themselves and their communities a disservice when they elevate a selection of human jurisprudential opinions to the level of timeless universal constants.

Classical Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) was a dynamic discourse that identified rulings that were contingent upon certain requirements (the academic term is ‘ratio legis’ or ‘illah). Such rulings can only apply if the appropriate context is present, and when the context changes the ruling changes as well. For instance, Imam al-Sarakhsi (d.483H) and many others explain that most of the abundant differences between Abu Hanifah (d.150H) and his two students, Abu Yusuf (d.182H) and Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani (d.189H), were not the outcome of different scriptural evidences but simply the outcome of differences in the historical context in which they lived – including economic, political, cultural, and societal differences. 11al-Mabsut, vol. 8, p. 178.(الخلاف بين أبي حنيفة وصاحبيه اختلاف عصر وزمان لا اختلاف حجة وبرهان). Examples including the way Abu Hanifah defined coercion and armed robbery – the rulings in the school were changed by Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn Hasan because Abu Hanifa’s rulings were deemed contingent on sociopolitical factors that had changed.

If one can countenance that such abundant differences arose within the span of one generation, then what about the massive differences that arise when one enters the post-industrial world of nation states, international law, digital communication, and post-malthusian economics? By collaborating with a multi-displinary team of economic and historical experts, contemporary scholars are better equipped to articulate which opinions in the jurisprudence of societal interaction (Mu’amalat) were contingent upon factors that have changed, and avoid mixing them with the immutable laws.

5. Failure to engage with foreign scholarship or consider new ideas

One of the strengths of modern scholarship has been its openness to critical inquiry, novel perspectives, and the benefit of knowledge gained from other cultures. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer – wherever one finds it, one has the right to obtain it” (Sunan Ibn Majah). The later period of Islamic history witnessed the development of insular culture among Muslim scholarship that was not present in the golden age of intellectual achievement. Many later scholars relegated their efforts to simply producing summaries of existing works and displayed an unusual phobia towards new ideas, foreign cultures, and even critical re-evaluation of the existing works. Many of the intellectual efforts of some of the most brilliant Islamic thinkers in the first eight hundred years were never built upon or furthered.

And God knows best!

 

References   [ + ]

1.Siyar ‘Alam al-Nubala 8/93
2.Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, “Haqiqat al-Qawlayn”, manuscript. Princeton University, Yahuda 4358, fols. 3b-4a, as cited in “The social construction of orthodoxy”, Ahmed el Shamsy, Cambridge Companion to Islamic Theology.
3.The famous companion Abu Musa al-Ash’ari stated “There was never a time we found a religious matter confusing except that we would go and ask Aisha, and always find that she was knowledgeable concerning it” (al-Tirmidhi). The famous scholar of the second-generation, Masrooq (d.62H), was asked whether Aisha excelled in inheritance law, whereupon he replied, “I swear by the One true God, verily I used to see the most senior of companions consulting her on matters of inheritance law” (Sunan al-Darimi). Ata’ ibn Abi Rabah (d.114H) stated that Aisha was the leading expert in jurisprudence (Ibn Abdul-Barr, al-Isti’ab, vol. 2, 744). Urwah ibn al-Zubayr narrated that Aisha was also the most well-versed in Arabic literature and poetry (Bayhaqi in al-Zuhd, 216).
4.In fact, several of the Prophet’s wives made tremendous contributions to the field of hadith sciences, indicative of further Divine wisdoms in these marriages. Umm Salamah narrated 378 hadith, Maymunah narrated 76, Umm Habibah narrated 65, and Hafsah narrated 60.
5.Amrah was consulted on matters by the caliph Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz (Ibn Sa’d. Tabaqat al-Kubra, vol. 2, p. 387). After being advised to study under her, the scholar Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d.124H) stated, “I found her an endless ocean.” (al-Dhahabi, Siyar. vol. 4, p. 508).
6.Muwatta of Imam Malik, 437-8.
7.Rihlah Ibn Battuta, p67 as cited in Sayeed A Studies Islamica 2002, no 95, p79
8.Al-Dhahabi, Siyar, vol.23, p. 133
9.For instance, can someone pass a ruling on smoking if they don’t know the medical evidence on its association with cancer? In order to make decisions about contemporary society, it is absolutely imperative that scholars correctly understand modern economics, technologies, scientific discoveries, medicine, and so forth. How can one adequately provide advice to a suicidal or depressed youth if one is completely ignorant of psychiatric risk assessment or basic psychological counselling? How can one advise the ummah when one is ignorant of the political, societal, and intellectual diseases plaguing the ummah? The corollary of this point is that contemporary scholars must recognize their limitations and avoid passing judgement on subjects that are beyond the scope of their educational expertise.
10.Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) referred to the former as al-Shar’ al-Munazzal (revealed law) and the latter as al-Shar’ al-Mu’awwal (interpreted law).  See Majmu’ al-Fatawa, vol 3, p.268.
11.al-Mabsut, vol. 8, p. 178.(الخلاف بين أبي حنيفة وصاحبيه اختلاف عصر وزمان لا اختلاف حجة وبرهان). Examples including the way Abu Hanifah defined coercion and armed robbery – the rulings in the school were changed by Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn Hasan because Abu Hanifa’s rulings were deemed contingent on sociopolitical factors that had changed.
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