Understanding Modernism: Thoughts on Muhammad Nizami’s Essay “Misunderstanding Traditionalism”


Muhammad Nizami’s essay Misunderstanding Traditionalism [1] is apparently written in an effort to provide an alternative understanding of traditionalism to counter what he perceives as an unjustified commitment to the past. The result, however, is a clear attack on traditionalist beliefs, values and attitudes. Misunderstanding Traditionalism is not an innocent attempt to rebrand traditionalism, but to do away with it entirely – and Nizami says as much in the final paragraph of his essay.

In the following comments on his piece, we hope to highlight that Nizami is effectively attempting to substitute a thousand-year-old tradition of relegating authority in legal matters to past authorities with an entirely different way of “doing religion”. His essay amounts to a metanarrative of religion in which modernist, deformist, “progressive” and “free-thinking” attitudes can flourish.

Contextualisation Vs Reinterpretation

Nizami advocates the belief that learned individuals of each generation need to go back to the sources of Shari‘ah, the Qur’an and Sunnah, to discover new understandings applicable to their era. He also claims that this is how it has always been done.

His advocacy of “reinterpretation” is a push towards renewed ijtihād – the act of coming up with interpretations of law directly from the texts of Qur’an and Sunnah. While his advocacy of such reinterpretation is not historically new, it is certainly a mistake to characterise most of Islamic scholarly activity in the last thousand odd years in this manner. New ijtihād, or reinterpretation, after the first four centuries of Islam, was promoted by only a few individuals. The pervasive scholarly activity was in fact what Nizami derisively calls “glorified translation.”

Following the early era of Islam, authority in law was not derived from renewed understandings of Qur’an and Sunnah, but from the precedents found in codified schools of law called “madhhabs”. The job of a legal scholar after this period was not ijtihād, but taqlīd, or an effort to integrate these precedents into the reality of the time in which he operated. This certainly calls for “contextualisation”, which was an important scholarly activity of the later period. Many of the precedents left by the founding authorities (mujtahids) of the law-schools were premised on conditions and circumstances found in their time, and these founding authorities would often make this clear. If these conditions and circumstances change, the subsequent rulings will also change. Scholars engaged in taqlīd would provide such contextualisation. It should be obvious that this is not moving away from the recorded verdicts of the founders of the law-schools. To the contrary, it is an effort to appreciate them fully so they can be actualised in any said context.

Muhammad Nizami confuses this activity, which is a part and parcel of what he calls “glorified translation”, with reinterpretation or renewed ijtihād. It is obvious that the two activities are not the same. Nizami is not merely calling to contextualise the authoritative legal precedents of the past imāms or to apply their insights to new areas that were not addressed by them, but to revise and reinterpret those very legal precedents in light of renewed analyses of Qur’an and Sunnah.

To prove his point that renewed interpretation was always a part of scholarly activity, Nizami draws our attention to one particular example from the Ḥanbalī school. As we will show below, his rendering of the issue is misleading and made to fit his overarching deconstructionist thesis.

Defining Who is Rich in the Ḥanbalī School

Nizami says:

“Based on a hadith related by Ibn Abbas, Imam Ahmad opined that a poor person (faqir) should be given no more than fifty dirhams of zakat, yet later Hanbali scholars clearly disagreed. Al-Mardawi held that the position of the Hanbali school was that a poor person should be given that which suffices him/her, thus the amount should not be specific but based on sufficiency (kifayah) in the economic context. Earlier Hanbali scholars, like al-Zarkashi, in making sense of the narration from Ahmad, speculated that perhaps Ahmad said this based on the hadith of Ibn Mas’ud but then retracted the view when he realised that the hadith was undependable. Or perhaps it was in reference to a specific group of people for whom fifty dirhams sufficed. For Majd al-Din b. Taymiyyah, it was clear, as it is to most Maliki and Shafi’i jurists, that the Prophet articulated the amount of fifty dirhams in a context where fifty dirhams helped to lift them out of abject poverty.”

To begin with a minor correction, his opening words should read: “based on a hadith related by Ibn Mas‘ud” not “Ibn Abbas”. That aside, this paragraph is a very misleading presentation of the development of this issue in the Ḥanbalī school. Nizami gives the impression that the founding authority of the school, Imām Aḥmad, held a particular opinion which was then opposed by later scholars of his school. The reality however is that there were two conflicting transmissions from Imām Aḥmad, and later scholars differed over which is the more reliable.

It is not permissible in the Ḥanbalī school to pay zakāt to a poor person (faqīr) more than the amount by which he will become rich (ghanī). On the question of at which point a person is considered “rich”, however, there are two transmissions (riwāyats) from Imām Aḥmad. According to a widely transmitted view from him, a person is considered “rich” when he owns fifty dirhams (silver coins) or its equivalent in gold, and hence one cannot give more than this amount to a poor person. According to another transmission – that of the long-time authoritative companion of Imām Aḥmad, Muhanna’ ibn Yaḥyā al-Shāmī (d. 248 AH) – a person is considered “rich” when he has enough wealth to sustain himself. [2] According to this transmission, if he does not have enough wealth to sustain himself, he is considered “poor” (faqīr), even if he owns more than fifty dirhams. Both transmissions are based on ḥadīths. [3]

Ḥanbalī scholars differed over which transmission to give preference to. There were some that gave preference to the view of fifty dirhams, and there were others that gave preference to the view of sufficiency (kifāya). The latter include Ibn Shihāb al-‘Ukbarī (335 – 428 AH) [4], Abu l-Khaṭṭāb (432 – 510 AH) author of al-Hidāyah [5], and Abu l-Barakāt al-Majd ibn Taymiyyah (590 – 652 AH). [6] Mardāwī explains that according to the principles of fatwā, the latter is the correct position of the school. [7] Naturally, those who argued for the transmission of “sufficiency” gave explanations for the other transmission: it may be that Imām Aḥmad initially held that position and then retracted because he found Ibn Masūd’s ḥadīth on the subject to be weak; or he may have understood it as applying to a particular people, period or place, and not universally.

Whatever the case, it should be clear that this is not an example of introducing a new opinion into the Ḥanbalī school based on a renewed interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah as Nizami would have us believe. Rather, it is merely an example of a common activity that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the founding of the law-schools: that is, to determine which is the final and strongest transmission from the founding imāms when conflicting views are narrated from them.

Is Taqlīd Merely “Glorified Translation”?

Reflecting orientalist clichés about taqlīd favoured by those propounding “reform”, Nizami says:

“If the job of ‘scholars’ is simply to relate past views, then they’re not really scholars but somewhat glorified translators who make turathi (historical tradition) texts accessible to an English speaking audience. The failure to recognise this has led to a quasi authority relegated to the tribunal of the laity, where matters of the law or theology are forced into naive strictures and oversimplifications. Is it then any wonder that avowed secularists and non-Muslims view Islamic law as a rudimentary legal system that finds no place in the modern world?”

Contrary to such negative perceptions about traditionalist jurisprudence that Nizami refers to and defends, according to American academic Sherman Jackson, taqlīd represents a more advanced stage of legal thinking, where earlier legal precedents set down by authorities from the formative period undergo “legal scaffolding” [8]. A position that is handed down to us from the imāms of ijtihād must be understood in the correct way and applied accordingly. What Nizami calls “glorified translation” is in fact a meticulous engagement with the writings of the founding imāms of a law-school, ensuring they are passed down accurately, authentic transmissions are sifted from spurious ones, and their judgements are applied in the correct way. This however does not amount to what Nizami calls reinterpretation or renewed ijtihād designed to move away from the authoritative precedents of the early imāms.

Moreover, “taqlīd” is an expected part of any advanced legal system. Adherence to transmitted legal precedents is crucial to the survival and preservation of jurisprudential orthodoxy. Thus, the non-Muslim “secular” scholar, Wael Hallaq, writes on taqlīd: “For no school, in the first place, could have come into existence and survived without this doctrinal loyalty. This loyalty, popularly summed up in Western legal systems by the expression “law is conservative,” is nothing if not the lynchpin of all legal systems in complex societies.” [9]

Ijtihād in the Later Period

Nizami puts a caveat to his advocacy of renewed ijtihād, stating that it “is not to say that suspicion towards reinterpretation is always unreasonable.” In other words, he is arguing we should generally be welcoming of renewed interpretations, but suspicious towards it in some cases – like when it is practised by those who have overtly sinister motives or who are not learned.

However, given the general way in which earlier scholars viewed such claims of renewed ijtihād after the formative period, it would be safe to say that suspicion towards such reinterpretation is always reasonable, not only sometimes – while suspicion is only to be amplified where there are indications of external pressures to deconstruct Islam or where such calls happen to coincide with political agendas.

Scholars from the fifth century onwards state that the capacity for ijtihād was rare or non-existent. Al-Juwaynī (419 – 478 AH) said that his time “almost matches” the situation that “the age is devoid of jurisconsults of the calibre of mujtahids, but not devoid of those who relay the correct positions of the previous imāms.” [10] Similarly, his famous student, Imām al-Ghazālī (450 – 505 H), said that all jurisconsults have not reached the rank of ijtihād, and were thus to merely relay the position of the mujtahid imāms whose madhhabs they adhere to. [11] His famous Mālikī contemporary, Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ (476 – 544 AH), explicitly states that “after the first era and the righteous predecessors and the praiseworthy three generations”, “those who have reached the path of ijtihād” are “few” and, in fact, “less than few”! [12]

The Best of Generations

Attacking a key foundation of traditionalist thought – commitment to the way of the pious early generations (Salaf) – Nizami states:

“But on the flip-side, it is undeniable that others have an irrational commitment to whatever is deemed as ‘the past’, not because of the persuasiveness or applicability of what might have been said, but merely because it’s from the past. This idea is usually drawn from the Prophet’s statement, ‘the best of generations is my generation, then those who follow, then those who follow them.’ Given the sequential order, people infer from this, that every later generation will be ‘less’ than the one preceding it. The word used by the Prophet is khair, usually translated as ‘best’, but best in what sense? And does best, in the context of what the Prophet intended in this hadith include any interpretation?”

The first thing to note is that if the idea of committing oneself to the past is based on the famous ḥadīth to which Nizami refers, how is it then considered an “irrational” commitment? Khayr – being better and superior – refers to religious superiority in terms of virtue and piety. Hence, the ḥadīth goes on to mention that unethical behaviour will become more common following the first three generations. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) stated somewhat more explicitly that “no era will come, but the era following it will be worse than it.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī) As Ibn Ḥajar points out, referring to a variant of this narration from Ibn Mas‘ūd (may Allah be pleased with him), part of the meaning of this ḥadīth is that true prophetic knowledge will deteriorate over time, and people will begin to prioritise their personal opinions over truth. [13] Hence, the commitment to the past is based on very sound faith-based principles, and is not “irrational”.

As explained earlier, authority, in terms of valid ijtihād, was generally limited to the mujtahids of the first few centuries not merely because they are from the past, but because the capacity for ijtihād after them became extremely rare. This would be owing to a number of factors, primary amongst them the fact that Islam as a lived reality that closely resembled the Prophetic model became less accessible following the first three generations; subsequent jurists therefore were limited to written narrations and accounts, rather than a visible and tangible model, on which to base their ijtihād – this would naturally be a major hindrance to ijtihād.

The ḥadīth that Nizami refers to gives us a clue as to why there is a need to be particularly suspicious of claims to ijtihād after the early period. Piety and scrupulousness are important in assessing the credibility of claims to ijtihād as they rule out ulterior motives. True ijtihād can only be realised when one’s sole motive is search for truth. What the ḥadīth shows is that after the first few generations, piety and scrupulousness waned, so the possibility of people abusing ijtihād for their ulterior purposes became much more likely.

Emphasising this crucial point, Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī (736 – 795 AH) states regarding the period after that of the early generations: “Thereafter, piety and scrupulousness become less and those who spoke about religion without knowledge increased, as did those who set themselves up for this position while unworthy of it. If the condition in these latter times were to continue as it was in the first period, whereby each individual issues legal verdicts according to what he asserts is the truth that became manifest to him, the structure of religion would undoubtedly crumble, halal will become haram and haram halal, and whoever wants would say what he wants, and our religion, because of that, would become like the religion of the people of the two scriptures before us.” [14] He states it was from the wisdom of Allah that He erected imāms on whose knowledge, piety and scrupulousness there is agreement, and “on whom all people depend for their legal verdicts, and refer to for knowledge of rulings.” [15] Ibn Rajab does however concede that on the rare occasion there were those who claimed to reach the position of ijtihād, “and amongst them were some for whom this was legitimate, because it was clear that his claim was true, and there were those whose assertion was rejected and his claim denounced.” [16]

Is a Commitment to the Past Contrary to a Commitment to the Truth?

Nizami supports his contention that authority should not be relegated to the past, and renewed interpretation should be welcomed, with three arguments:

“Firstly, in the farewell sermon the Prophet said about disseminating knowledge, ‘perhaps the one who hears it understands it better than the one who relates it.’ Secondly, if the earliest of opinions were authoritative by virtue of being early, later scholars would not have studied them, disagreed, and formulated appropriate responses or revisions. For example, it is commonly held that three immediate utterances of divorce count as irrevocable, and that this was something all scholars held since the time of Umar b. al-Khattab with many claiming ijma’ (juristic consensus). Yet, some later scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah famously differed holding that three immediate utterances of divorce only count as one, and thus, revocable. Ibn Taymiyyah wasn’t the only major scholar to show independent reasoning. Al-Tahawi, al-Nawawi and a whole host of scholars had their fair share of revisions. Thirdly, the Quran infers the problems of remaining committed to traditionalism for the sake of it, and demands some nuance and cerebral evaluation. The pagans were heavily criticised for their provincialism and simplistic retorts, ‘We shall only follow what we found our forefathers up to!’”

The first point – that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) encouraged conveying his words because there may be some who have better comprehension of them than those who directly heard them – may support Nizami’s contention in the narrow sense that merely because someone came earlier, it does not necessarily mean he will have better understanding than one who came after. It would however be a non sequitur to assert that because sometimes someone that is later may have a better understanding than someone earlier we can infer a general rule that we are to therefore set aside the superior virtue and knowledge of those in the past. Moreover, no one argues that we adhere to the ijtihād of the early authorities only on the basis that they are from the past. Being earlier in time, however, did offer them the advantage of being at a better vantage point, which together with the general piety of that era, makes sense of why in the early period ijtihād was a more acceptable activity than in later periods.

On Nizami’s second point, it is accepted by general agreement of the Ahl al-Sunnah that three divorces given together amount to three. The famous Ḥanafī jurist, Abū Bakr al-Jaṣṣāṣ (305 – 370 AH), states: “As for three divorces occurring together upon [a woman] with whom marriage was consummated, it is by agreement of the Salaf (predecessors) from the first period, from those after them from the successors and the jurists of the towns. Our scholars do not view the opinion of those who negate the occurrence of three together as a valid disagreement.” [17] Similarly, Imām Muḥammad in his transmission of the Ᾱthār of Imām Abū Ḥanīfah narrates that Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him) rebuked an individual for issuing three divorces, stating, “Your wife is now forbidden for you, and she will not be permissible for you until she marries someone else.” Imām Muḥammad then explains: “We adhere to this, it is the view of Abū Ḥanīfah, and the view of everyone – there is no disagreement on it.” [18]

If someone issues a statement implying three divorces, but claims he meant only one, will this be accepted in court? ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (may Allah be pleased with him) announced that since such claims were in his time viewed with suspicion, the courts will rule that it amounts to three divorces in all cases. If, however, a person issues three divorces with the express intent of three, it will amount to three by general agreement, and there is no valid disagreement in this situation. The only individual of note that clearly differed on this issue is Ibn Taymiyya, whose dissent was thus not in general viewed positively; his contemporary, Taqī al-Dīn al-Subkī, called him to question on this and other issues. [19]

It is telling that Nizami resorts to the anomalous example of Ibn Taymiyya for historical precedence of the “reinterpretation” he calls to. It underscores the reality that the normal pattern historically was not “reinterpretation” or renewed ijtihād, but was to relegate authority to the imāms of the past. Nizami also refers to al-Ṭaḥāwī (239 – 321 AH) as another historical precedent, but al-Ṭaḥāwī was from an early period, and was undoubtedly capable of ijtihād; he thus differed from his preferred law-school (the Ḥanafī madhhab) in several issues.

Nizami’s third point that “the Quran infers the problems of remaining committed to traditionalism for the sake of it, and demands some nuance and cerebral evaluation” is a restatement of a classic anti-taqlīd argument found amongst literalists (ẓāhirīs) and affiliated groups. These verses condemn adhering to the opinion of one’s predecessors when not in the service of truth, but in defiance of truth. If adherence, however, is made in service of truth, such adherence is praiseworthy and not condemned.

An analogous situation would be a person who stubbornly adheres to what his parents told him on a medical issue in defiance of a widely accepted medical truth. Such a person would rightly be scorned at. But if someone adhered to a group of medical experts on an issue of medicine, it would be silly to equate this situation with the first. This is effectively what those who use such verses to argue against taqlīd are doing. In refuting a similar anti-taqlīd argument, Ḥabīb Aḥmad al-Kīrānawī states: “Allah, Most Exalted, condemned imitation in defiance of established truth and did not condemn it when in service of the truth, but in fact has made it obligatory, since He has made it necessary to follow the prophets and ‘those of authority’ amongst them, and ‘those of authority’ include rulers and scholars.” [20]

Reinterpretation: A Call to Deform Religion

Nizami mentions that “a common retort is that this would make our religion considerably different to what has been practised for more than 1400 years” but then says “such a retort is unfounded.”

To the contrary, such a retort is quite valid given the situation that we find ourselves in today. Against the backdrop of colonialism that has leveraged prestigious Islamic institutions to deform Islam, claims of renewed ijtihād have increased massively in the last century or so, and the results are striking. Outrageous “liberal” opinions and egregious violent opinions have emerged as a direct result of such “reinterpretation.” There are those who claim women may lead men in prayer, that it is permissible for one to combine prayers in normal circumstances, and that it is permissible for women to uncover their hair in front of strange men; and on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who claim it is legitimate to kill women and children as a form of retaliation. These are views at odds with the authoritative rulings of all law-schools, and with such opinions on the rise, religion is gradually being deformed almost beyond recognition.

Such a process of deformation can only be curbed by re-establishing the thousand-year-old tradition of rigid adherence to the authority of mujtahid imāms of the past. Nizami rebukes “misinformed reformers” for their “hollow argument[s]”, and insists that he is not advocating a “free-for-all”, but by giving such “reformers”, misinformed or otherwise, an equal license to engage in reinterpretation, there is no objective way he can argue their views are not just as legitimate as any other, no matter how distasteful he finds them. This is precisely the fear that Ibn Rajab and others had articulated many centuries ago.

Adherence to the Way of the People of the Past

Nizami laments that “much religious rhetoric has been premised on staying true to ‘the past’” and that this “is actually a very new way of doing religion”. He argues: “Classical scholars didn’t simply do with those before them, as we do to them, but fully embraced the revealed word to make it as applicable to their context as possible.”

To the contrary, we find amongst the qualities admired of the people of learning and piety was their adherence to the way of the people of the past. One of the major students of Imām Abū Ḥanīfah characterised his endeavours, as well as those of his disciples, as nothing besides: “fiqh and copying those who came before them.” [21] Ibrāhīm al-Nakha‘ī (39 – 96 AH), a famous early jurist of Kufa, states while praising his uncle ‘Alqamah ibn Qays, another major early scholar from Kufa: “‘Abdullāh [ibn Mas‘ūd] would be likened in conduct, behaviour and mannerism to the Messenger of Allāh, while ‘Alqamah would be likened to ‘Abdullāh in conduct and behaviour.” [22] Abū Isḥāq al-Sabī‘ī (33 – 127 AH), a prominent transmitter of ḥadīth from the early period, would be likened to the famous companion, ‘Alī (may Allah be pleased with him). They were so alike, it would in fact be said: “Whoever sat with Abū Isḥāq has sat with ‘Alī!” [23]

One who peruses the hagiographical literature will likely find many more examples of those who made it their life’s purpose to be as alike to their predecessors as they could be; and this was a quality of theirs that was admired, not looked down upon. Being like the Salaf (pious predecessors) was not viewed as practising a “dead faith” as Nizami implies, but as embracing the ideal mode of behaviour in all aspects of life – since the Salaf represented for them the pinnacle of piety and religious excellence.


[1] http://islamicate.co.uk/misunderstanding-traditionalism/

[2] Masā’il al-Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal al-Fiqhiyyah Riwāyah Muhannā ibn Yaḥyā al-Shāmī, Maktaba al-Ma‘ārif, 271

[3] ibid.

[4] Al-Inṣāf, Bayt al-Afkār, 497

[5] ibid., al-Hidāyah, Gheras, 152

[6] Al-Inṣāf, 497

[7] ibid.

[8] Taqlid, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory in Islamic Law and Society 3 (1996), 165-173

[9] Hallaq, Sharīah, 112-113

[10] Ghiyāth al-Umam, 300

[11] Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, Dār al-Minhāj, 1:162

[12] Tartīb al-Madārik, 1:60

[13] Fatḥ al-Bārī, Dār Ṭayba, 16:461-2

[14] Majmū‘ah Rasā’il Ibn Rajab, 2:623

[15] ibid. 2:624

[16] ibid. 2:624

[17] Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar al-Ṭaḥāwī, 5:61

[18] Kitāb al-Ᾱthār, Dār al-Nawādir, 442

[19] al-Durrat al-Muḍiyyah, 7

[20] I‘lā’ al-Sunan, Idārat al-Qur’ān, 20:13

[21] Faḍā’il Abī Ḥanīfah, al-Maktaba al-Imdādiyyah, 118

[22] Tārīkh Baghdād, Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 14:242

[23] Siyar A‘lām al-Nubalā’, Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 5:398

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