The Living Character of Islamic Tradition
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
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
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
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
(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.