Rejoinder to Muhammad Nizami’s “Choosing Tradition over Traditionalism”

islam_fiqh_usul

Muhammad Nizami wrote an essay under the title Understanding Traditionalism, re-evaluating how we as Muslims ought to determine our religio-legal doctrines. [1] He suggests we shift authority away from the understanding of the imāms and experts of the early generations – which was how legal scholars operated for most of Islāmic history – to a process of reinterpreting source texts; that is, authorising each individual person of learning with the task of interpreting the texts of Sharī‘ah himself, unlimited and unbound by the precedents of the early mujtahids. A somewhat detailed critique of his piece was published on this blog, [2] offering direct rebuttals to some of his specific points as well as a general critique of his overall narrative on how Muslim theologians have historically dealt with the issues in question. The critique demonstrated Muhammad Nizami was way off the mark in some of his specific points as well as his overall narrative.

Now, in what appears to be a response to our critique, Muhammad Nizami has written a second piece under the title Choosing Tradition over Traditionalism. [3] The result is a poorly thought-out diatribe that addresses none of the direct responses in our critique. In fact, it would be fair to characterise his “response” (if it can be called that) as a “reactionary” one, just as he characterises the “traditionalists” he criticises. His modus operandi seems to be to trivialise the contentions of those who oppose his deconstructionist project, describing them variously as “reactionary,” “crude”, “cultish” and “narrow-minded”, claiming that they engage in “juvenile” and “primitive debates”. We ask those following the discussion to read our initial critique carefully. It will be clear that while we put forward several valid points of rebuttal on which a response from him would have been expected, he simply dismisses them and dogmatically restates his position.

Conflating Contextualisation with Ijtihād

As mentioned in our initial critique, Nizami conflates “contextualisation”, which was a common and necessary activity throughout Islāmic history, with “ijtihād”, or deriving rulings directly from the sources of the Sharī‘ah. The quotes he presents from al-Qarāfi and Ibn al-Qayyim in this second piece are referring to contextualisation, and not renewed ijtihād, as we will demonstrate below.

We can appreciate the difference between these two activities when we consider the question of where authority lies. When we contextualise the expert legal opinions of the early mujtahids, authority in legal matters is still vested in those early mujtahids. We are only trying to understand what their verdict would be if they were presented with the same question in our context. On the other hand, the renewed ijtihād that Nizami is calling for shifts authority away from those mujtahids and puts it in the hands of present-day people of learning. Hence, in the system that Nizami proposes, a person may come up with something we recognise to be completely at odds with how all the early mujtahids interpreted the texts of Shari‘ah, and yet we will be expected to respect it as a valid legal opinion! This is opening the door to accepting the most outrageous interpretations into legitimate religious discourse.

Engaging in Mature Conversation

In apparent criticism of the earlier critique, Nizami states:

“In the end we must recognise that those who react in this way ultimately call us to turn off our cognitive functions, reject reason, pay little attention to revelation and the actual endeavours of past scholars, all the while ignoring the context of the real world we live in. This shows where they are currently at: unable to mature a conversation or engage with whatever departs from the rhetoric of their contemporary traditional ‘ulema’ (whether at home or abroad), they go into complete cognitive shutdown.”

Although Nizami appears to want a mature “conversation,” he does not address any of the points raised in the critique. To summarise, he does not address:

  • His conflation of contextualisation with reinterpretation
  • His misleading presentation of a particular matter in Ḥanbalī fiqh
  • The fact that several early scholars have stated categorically that the ability to perform ijtihād following the first few centuries became extremely rare. Going by his contention, these masters must have also possessed “simplistic attitudes” and fostered a “toxic culture.”
  • His ascription of “irrationality” to those who base their views on ḥadīth, and his gross deconstructionism applied to a famous ḥadīth used to support a commitment to the Salaf
  • Several other points directly relevant to his initial piece

Instead, he regurgitates the same ideas.

If he wants a “mature conversation” and really is “open-minded” to views in conflict with his own, why does he not engage in a meaningful way with them? His second piece is not a demonstration of healthy and mature dialogue, but merely a dogmatic repetition and restatement of his earlier sentiments.

Incompetence in Translation

Towards the end of his essay, Nizami quotes a passage from the great Qāḍī Abū Bakr ibn al-‘Arabī al-Mālikī (d. 543 H), claiming that he criticises fanatic adherence to the Mālikī madhhab. Nizami states:

“Andalusian Maliki scholar Abu Bakr b. al-Arabi demonstrated the constructive approach of past luminaries, criticising the clerics of his day for fanatically sticking to past writings in defence of his own madh’hab, the Maliki school of law, stating that their attitude also made them subjects of the verse, ‘And do not follow that of which you have little knowledge,’ since ‘he draws legal analogy and reasoning from that which is not a source of ijtihad, for ijtihad is in the speech of God and the Messenger and not in the statements of men. And whoever from the muqallidin (lay-clergy) protests that a response (fatwa) departs from the statement of Malik found in some text, is included in this verse. If it is said, ‘Well you put it like this and so have many scholars before you!’ We say: ‘Yes, we say it in cataloguing the school of Malik based on one of two opinions in order to codify the school through takhrij (investigative extraction), and not that it is a fatwa for a contemporary situation according to which issues may ensue. So if a questioner comes, the issue is presented to the core dalil (revelation) and not the extracted position of the madh’hab (takhrij madh’habi), and it is thus said to him, ‘The answer is this, so do this…’”

Nizami is completely wrong in stating that Ibn al-‘Arabī criticised “the clerics of his day for fanatically sticking to past writings in defence of his own madh’hab, the Maliki school of law, stating that their attitude also made them subjects of the verse, ‘And do not follow that of which you have little knowledge.’”

To begin with a somewhat minor point, Nizami here translates verse 17:36 of the Qur’ān as “do not follow that of which you have little knowledge,” while in fact it states: “do not follow that of which you have no knowledge” (mā laysa laka bihī ‘ilm).

The actual message Ibn al-‘Arabī conveys in this passage from his Aḥkām al-Qur’ān is lost in Nizami’s inaccurate translation-cum-commentary. A brief explanation of what he actually states is as follows:

There are statements of Imām Mālik which apply to certain situations. If those same situations materialise, a person relaying Imām Mālik’s view can give the same answer. If, however, a different but analogous situation materialises, can the person stating Imām Mālik’s position adjust the answer to suit the new situation based on the principle of “derivation” (takhrīj)? Ibn al-‘Arabī explains that there are those who merely relay Imām Mālik’s statements without the ability to perform ijtihād (in the texts of Sharī‘ah), while there are others who do have this ability. The first group cannot do takhrīj, as takhrīj entails going back to the sources of Sharī‘ah and not merely reasoning on the basis of the statements of Imām Mālik alone. The second group on the other hand can do this. Furthermore, based on one opinion, the derived opinion itself can even be ascribed to the madhhab (school) of Imām Mālik. In brief, Qāḍī Abū Bakr is merely stating that takhrij is an activity that can only be done by those able to perform ijtihād because it requires looking into the evidences and not merely looking at what the imām said.

This message of Abū Bakr ibn al-‘Arabī is completely lost in Nizami’s distorted and deformed “translation” (and his surrounding commentary). Rather than making a clinical analysis of his entire translation, let us just take the translation of one crucial sentence in the middle of the passage and demonstrate how vastly different it is from the original meaning. He translates one sentence as: “And whoever from the muqallidin (lay-clergy) protests that a response (fatwa) departs from the statement of Malik found in some text is included in this verse.” This sentence in fact says: “Whoever from the muqallidīn (i.e. those who do not have the ability to perform ijtihād) claims that a certain juristic issue (mas’alah) is derived (tukharraju) from the statement of Mālik in a certain place is included in this verse.” [4] Notice how Nizami mistranslates “derived from the statement of Mālik” as “departs from the statement of Malik”. This is crucial to the point he is making, as his “translation” makes it appear that Ibn al-‘Arabī is responding to those who argue against departure from the madhhab of Mālik, and claims they are included in the verse: “do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge.” Not only is this translation incorrect, it does not fit the context in which Ibn al-‘Arabī makes this statement. In reality, what the sentence actually states is that those unqualified for ijtihād, if they were to derive a new ruling from a statement of Imām Mālik, they are “pursuing what they have no knowledge of.” Only those capable of ijtihād are able to do this. As evident from this explanation, the mistranslation of this one sentence conveys a completely different message to what the original passage actually states.

Part of having a “mature” and “healthy” conversation, and having intellectual “confidence”, is to not step outside of one’s bounds and to know one’s limits. Nizami apparently does not like the idea of “limits”, and hence makes embarrassing mistakes like this one. There are also other inaccuracies in his translation of this passage and the passage he translates from Ibn al-Qayyim, but this one example should be sufficient to demonstrate the need to not step outside of one’s limits. We feel it is important for this to be highlighted as Nizami criticises others for “ignorance” and “inability”, while it may be worthwhile to direct his criticism closer to home.

Rational Vs. Transmitted Sciences

In commenting on the scientific, political and civilizational achievements of the Muslim world, Nizami states: “the approaches and methods they adopted in their thinking and recorded in those celebrated books, those which we evidently recognise as the source of their intellectual strength and productivity, are today the same attitudes towards religious understandings that many consider to be sacrilegious, or at least to be viewed suspiciously…”

However, he does not spell out how this is the case. How do those who hold an unwavering commitment to traditionalism adopt attitudes that would counter the achievements made in the past? When religio-legal doctrines are based on the expert opinions of authorities from the past, this does not mean progress in other fields cannot be made based on discovery and experimentation. There is no evidence that the intellectual productivity he speaks of is linked to any particular religious orientation. Muslim history went through many phases, yet intellectual productivity in these areas did not stop until a sudden decline from the 16th century onwards, primarily due to economic and political reasons – not religious ones. [5] Nizami thus needs to explain how the attitudes of traditionalists would have hampered scientific, technological and civilisational progress. Our previous piece has already shown that taqlīd – deference to precedent and relegating authority in legal matters to the mujtahids of the past – is in fact a more advanced phase of legal reasoning.

The Statement of al-Qarāfī

Nizami says:

“Highlighting the illegitimate obsession with earlier texts, the distinguished Maliki legal philosopher al-Qarafi wrote: ‘And do not become stuck, your entire life, on what is composed in books …perpetually being stuck on scholarly references is misguidance in the religion and ignorance towards the objectives of the scholars and past predecessors.”

As mentioned earlier, al-Qarāfī is speaking about contextualisation, not reviewing the opinions of the past imāms. Many aspects of Sharī‘ah are based on conventions and norms. It is these aspects that al-Qarāfī refers to here. Thus, al-Qarāfī starts his discussion on this particular issue by stating that “the rules that are based on customs will revolve with them.” [6] That is, the rulings relayed from the early mujtahids that are dependent on their context will of course change if the context changes. It would be disingenuous, therefore, to say al-Qarāfī’s statement applies to rulings of the mujtahids that are not based on context, or that al-Qarāfī’s discussion supports the idea of challenging and sidestepping the ijtihād of the earlier authorities; and, yet, it appears this is precisely what Nizami is doing!

Al-Qarāfī gives the example of currencies which of course change from time to time and place to place. Hence, the ruling applied to a certain currency that was in vogue at an earlier period would not apply when that currency is no longer used. He also gives the example of faults (‘uyūb) in a commodity. When a fault is discovered in a commodity, the buyer is entitled to revoke the sale; but whether something amounts to a fault or not is determined by social norms. Al-Qarāfī explains: “When something is a fault in garments in a [particular] norm, we will return the commodity based on it, but once the norm changes and that undesirable thing becomes desirable causing an increase in the price, it will not be returned because of it.” [7]

Another example he discusses is that of ambiguous expressions of divorce as compared to unambiguous or clear expressions of divorce. These two types of divorce have different effects in the Sharī‘ah. However, “ambiguity” and “clarity” are speech is dependent on the language, context and conventions of a people. Thus, although at one time, an expression may be “ambiguous,” at another time, that very expression may be “clear.” [8] It would be a mistake to apply earlier meanings of statements to later usages of them. To do so would, moreover, be to mistake the intent and objective of the mujtahid who based his ruling on his earlier convention.

It is in this context that al-Qarāfī says: “Fatwās are to be observed based on this principle at all times. So, whenever there is something new in custom, give it consideration, and whenever [something] stops [being a custom], drop it [from consideration]. Do not become stuck to what is written in books your whole life…” [9]

Notice, however, al-Qarāfī is not advocating disagreeing with the imāms from the past based on one’s own interpretation of the sources of Sharī‘ah. To the contrary, he is encouraging understanding what they said correctly so they can be applied correctly. Nizami, on the other hand, is arguing that it is fine to disagree with them on the basis of one’s own ijtihād. Nizami’s use of al-Qarāfī to promote his ideas is therefore disingenuous. The passage Nizami quotes from Ibn al-Qayyim was also said in the same vein of “contextualisation”, and not renewed ijtihād.

Conclusion

Often individuals who take a certain approach are unable to see, and therefore question, the underlying assumptions on which the approach is built – even when those assumptions are directly challenged in a robust way. Muhammad Nizami may feel he is “liberated” and “free” to explore certain ideas that other Muslims who are supposedly “insecure” feel uncomfortable exploring. But from this brief examination it is clear he is in fact not willing to engage in serious dialogue about some of his most fundamental assumptions. Instead, he brushes off the very direct and hard-hitting responses that have already been made. It is hard to see therefore how his own approach does not show him to be “insecure” and “reactionary” in just the same manner that he criticises others.

As for Muslims in the West genuinely seeking guidance, they are best advised to look elsewhere. Errors in translation of scholarly text, dismissal of ḥadīth and what seems like a chronic allergy to the past, all directed at a “reformist” metanarrative, betray an underlying post-modernist/deconstructionist agenda. There would be no better way to advance such an agenda than to set up a method of “doing religion” that bypasses the ijtihād of the early authorities and puts the mantle instead on those pursuing the said agenda. Muslims in Britain and more generally in the West must not fall for these loud and ever-increasing calls to adopt revisionist attitudes. To do so would be to throw away any authentic and meaningful Islamic identity for both ourselves and our future heirs.


Endnotes:

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

[2] https://theislamiclens.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/understanding-modernism-thoughts-on-muhammad-nizamis-essay-misunderstanding-traditionalism/

[3] http://islamicate.co.uk/tradition-over-traditionalism/

[4] Aḥkām al-Qur’ān, Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 3:201

[5] See: George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance

[6] al-Furūq, Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 1:385

[7] ibid. 1:386

[8] ibid. 1:387

[9] ibid. 1:386

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