A Liberal Islam in South Asia

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A.G. Noorani [*]


(Historically intellectual stagnation in the Islamic world long preceded revivalism and its hideout offshoot, fundamentalism. Western imperialism inspired revivalism. Its opportunism aided fundamentalism. Accordingly, any reform in the Islamic world must grapple honestly with four related tasks: (i) interpretation of some Quranic verses in the light of the times, as against others which are of enduring relevance for all time; (ii) weeding out hadith (compilation of the Prophets sayings) of dubious credibility; (iii) rejection of the authority of the ulema (clerics); (iv) a sound appreciation of Islam in history, especially the role of the first four caliphs, as distinct from Islam in the Quran. Author).

“What the Muslim League has done is to set you free from the reactionary elements of Muslims and to create the opinion that those who play their selfish game are traitors. It has certainly freed you from that undesirable element of maulvis and maulanas. I am not speaking of maulvis as a whole class. There are some of them who are as patriotic and sincere as any other; but there is a section of them which is undesirable. Having freed ourselves from the clutches of the British Government, the Congress, the reactionaries and so-called Muslims, may I appeal to the youth to emancipate our women. This is essential. I do not mean that we are to ape the evils of the West. What I mean is that they must share our life, not only social but also political.”[1]

Even when Jinnah spoke thus at the Muslim University Union in the Strachey Hall in Aligarh on 5 February 1938, liberal thinking among the Muslims of the sub-continent was under fierce attack. Two of their outstanding thinkers were obliged to compromise flouting a strong tradition of free thinking that went back to Shah Waliullah (d.1762) and was nurtured by the founder of the Aligarh Movement, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817 – 1998) and his yet bolder colleague, Maulvi Cheragh Ali (1844 -95).

Iqbal gave up a projected work on ijtihad on the advice of Sayyed Suleiman Nadvi.[2] Maulana Azad suppressed the third volume of his commentary the Tarjuman al-Quran.[3]

How did this come about? Iqbal explained it all too clearly in the late 1930s in a letter to Akbar Shah Mujibabadi: “The influence of the professional maulvis had greatly decreased owing to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s movement. But the Khilafat Committee, for the sake of political fatwas, had restored their influence among Indian Muslims. This was a very big mistake (the effect of) which has, probably, not yet been realized by anyone. I have had an experience of this recently. I had written an English essay on ijtihad, which was read in a meeting here and, God willing, will be published, but some people called me kafir. We shall talk at length about this affair, when you come to Lahore. In these days, particularly in India, one must move with very great circumspection.”[4]

Jinnah’s secular politics did put the mullahs back in their proper place. But in 1939, when he propounded the two-Nation theory, they flocked to his support, which he accepted, more so after the 1940 Lahore Resolution on Pakistan. The Congress had begun playing this game much earlier. It supported not only the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind but also the Shia Conference. This Jamiat serves in India, still. The pro-Muslim League ulema founded the All-India Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam  at Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 26 October 1945, and it flourishes in Pakistan under a changed name, J UI Pakistan. Another and poisonous export was the Jamaat-e-Islami. It was founded by Abul Ala Maudoodi in 1941 at Pathankot. He opposed the demand for Pakistan as also the tribal raid in Kashmir. In Pakistan, he took up the Ahmadiya issue in 1949 and flourished thereafter, with Saudi backing and, later, Zia’s.

In Pakistan, the revivalists hold the public and the State to ransom despite electoral debacles. In India, Muslim society struggles to free itself from their shackles. Every now and then, poets, scholars and artists are treated to their wrath. To cite an instance, the highly respected Director of the Khuda Baksh Library at Patna, Dr. Abid Raza Bedar, was denounced for his reported remark, at the A.N.  Sinha Institute at the launch of Prof. S.M. Mohsin’s book, Keynote of the Holy Quran, that the word kufr (unbelief) has been misinterpreted and has affected our national integration.[5]

To what a rich tradition have the Muslims of South Asia turned their backs. Professor Abdullah Saeed, Director of Study of Contemporary Islam at the University of Melbourne, recalls: “Modern trends in the interpretation of the Quran may be traced to Shah Waliullah of India (d. 1762). In the course of Shah Waliullah’s life, several monarchs occupied the throne in Delhi. The Mughal Empire continued to decline and break up until it was replaced by a Western power in the form of British Raj … Shah Waliullah reacted to this changed situation for Muslims in India by initiating his reform movement. He rejected taqlid (blind imitation of early scholars) and advocated ijtihad (independent judgment) and the application of fresh ideas in interpreting the Quran. In emphasizing a move away from the blind following of tradition, Shah Waliullah rejected some accepted views related to the principles of exegesis (usually al-tafsir).

“Though Shah Waliullah’s reformist ideas about interpretation are not radical from the perspective of the twenty-first century, they seemed so at the time. They became quite influential, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” According to J.M.S. Baljon, from the end of the nineteenth century, “Shah Waliullah was loudly acclaimed in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent as the man who discerned the signs of his times. And when at present an Urdu-writing modernist is looking for arguments from Muslim lore, he weighs in with opinions of the Shah.”[6]

Perhaps one of the most radical attempts to reinterpret the Quran in the modern period was by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of India (d. 1898) who published a six-volume work on the Quran from 1879. He believed that Muslims needed to reassess their tradition, heritage and ways of thinking in line with newly emerging knowledge, values and institutions. The gulf between Western and Islamic modes of thought was vast, and Muslims who had been educated in the West or influenced by Western education were no longer able to comprehend the religious discourse of the ulema of the time. The widening gap threatened the very relevance of Islam as a religion for many Muslims.

But such is the clime today that when Rafiq Zakaria pleaded with the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, Syed Hashim Ali, and Prof. Atiq Ahmed Siddiqui, Director of the Sir Syed Academy, to publish an English translation of Sir Syed’s commentary on the Quran, he found them hesitant as they feared that it might provoke a fundamentalist backlash.[7]

Less known is Cheragh Ali who spent the better part of his career in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad. In 1833 he published from Bombay The Proposed Political, Constitutional and Legal Reforms in the Ottoman Empire and Other Mohammedan States. In 1885 appeared a work which is of direct relevance to the situation in 2008. It was A critical Exposition of the Popular “Jihad”. In 1984 the Idarah-i-Adabiyat-i-Delli (Sic.) published a reprint. The bulk of the book was devoted to establishing, with learning and reasoning, that Islam does not enjoin wars of conquest “Neither the wars of Mohammad were offensive, nor did he in anyway use force or compulsion in the matter of belief. All the wars of Mohammad (PBUH) were defensive.”

Cheragh Ali, however, did not stop there. He submitted the Anglo-Muhammadan law in British India, which passed for Shariah, to merciless scorn; particularly the Hedaya.  In his Conclusions he wrote: “The Mohammedan Common Law is by no means divine or superhuman. It mostly consists of uncertain traditions, Arabian usages and customs, some frivolous and fortuitous analogical deductions from the Koran, and a multitudinous army casuistical sophistry of the canonical legists. It has not been held sacred or unchangeable by enlightened Mohammadans of any Muslim country and in any age since its compilation in the fourth century of the Hejira. All the Mujtahida, Ahl Hadis, and other non-Mokallids had had no regard for the four schools of Mohammadan religious jurisprudence, or the Common Law.” (pp. 159 – 160).

Forty-Five years later, in 1930 Iqbal had much the same things to say in his famous lectures The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi). Chapter VI on The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam is particularly relevant. “I have no doubt that a deeper study of the enormous legal literature of Islam is sure to rid the modern critic of the superficial opinion that the Law of Islam is stationary and incapable of development. Unfortunately, the conservative Muslim public of this country is not yet quite ready for a critical discussion of ‘Fiqh,’ which, if undertaken, is likely to displease most people, and raise sectarian controversies, yet I venture to offer a few remarks on the point before us. In the first place, we should bear in mind that from the earliest times, practically up to the rise of the Abbasides, there was no written law of Islam apart from the Quran. Secondly, it is worthy of note that from about the middle of the first century up to the beginning of the fourth not less than nineteen schools of law and legal opinion appeared in Islam. This fact alone is sufficient to show how incessantly our early doctors of law worked in order to meet the necessities of a growing civilization…..

“ Turning now to the ground work of legal principles in the Quran, it is perfectly clear that far from leaving no scope for human thought and legislative activity the intensive breadth of these principles virtually acts as an awakener of human thought….. Did the founders of our schools ever claim finality for their reasoning and interpretations? Never. The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to re-interpret the foundational legal principles, in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life, is, in my opinion, perfectly justified. The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems…. In view of the intense conservatism of the Muslims of India, Indian judges cannot but stick to what are called standard works. The result is that while the peoples are moving the law remains stationary.”

Turning to the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) he held; “we must distinguish traditions of a purely legal import from those which are of non-legal character. With regard to the former, there arises a very important question as to how far they embody the pre-Islamic usages of Arabia which were in some cases left intact, and in others modified by the Prophet. It is difficult to make this discovery, for our early writers do not always refer to pre-Islamic usages. Nor is it possible to discover that the usages, left intact by express or tacit approval of the Prophet, were intended to be universal in their application. Shah Wali Ullah has a very illuminating discussion on the point.  I reproduce here the substance of his view. The prophetic method of teaching according to Shah Wali Ullah is that, generally speaking, the law revealed by a prophet takes especial notice of the habits, ways, and peculiarities of the people to whom he is specifically sent. The prophet who aims at all-embracing principles, however, can neither reveal different principles for different peoples, nor leaves them to work out their own rules of conduct. His method is to train one particular people, and to use them as a nucleus for the building up of a universal Shariat. In doing so, he accentuates the principles underlying the social life of all mankind, and applies them to concrete cases in the light of the specific habits of the people immediately before him. Shariat values (Ahkam) resulting from this application (e.g., rules relating to penalties for crimes) are in a sense specific to that people; and, since their observance is not an end in itself, they cannot be strictly enforced in the case of future generations.”

Iqbal concluded his analysis by saying “It is, however, impossible to deny the fact that the traditionalists, by insisting on the value of the concrete case as against the tendency to abstract thinking in law, have done the greatest service to the Law of Islam. And a further intelligent study of the literature of traditions, if used as indicative of the spirit in which the Prophet himself interpreted his Revelation, may still be of great help in understanding the life-value of the legal principles enunciated in the Quran.” Iqbal lamented “the closing of the door of ijtihad” and “this voluntary surrender of intellectual independence.”

Far less known is another comment by Iqbal in his Presidential Address to the All-India Muslim League at Allahabad on 26 December 1930. His advocacy of “autonomous Muslim States along the North-West border” aroused interest. It was to be a member of the Indian federation. Only on 21 June 1937 did he advocate partition of India “The Muslims of North-West India and Bengal be considered as nations entitled to self-determination…. I think that the Muslims of north-West India and Bengal ought at present to ignore Muslim minority provinces.”[8] But to what end?

On this, Iqbal was explicit in his Presidential Address: “for Islam; an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp that Arabian Imperialism was forced to give it, to mobilize its laws; its education, its culture and to bring them into closer contact with its own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times.”[9] Iqbal’s Pakistan then was to be a State in which Islam, shorn of the dross accumulated over the centuries, would find a liberal rational expression with the spirit of modern times. (Note also that, unlike Jinnah’s two-nation theory, Iqbal’s “Muslim nation” was confined to the north-west and Bengal).

But after independence the Muslims of South Asia had none of high political stature to guide them. The Munir Report 1954 (Report of the Court of Inquiry to enquire into the Punjab Disturbances of 1953) subjected the religious leaders’ rhetoric on Islam and on the Islamic State to pitiless scrutiny and exposed their falsehoods.

A minority that feels besieged becomes a conservative minority. That apart, the Muslim leadership in India, such as it was, came within the sway of a motley crowd; comprising the Muslim League in the south and the old pro-Congress Jamiat-ul-Ulema in the north. Aligarh Muslim University was torn apart by factions. Since 1973 the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board acquired a monopoly on “the reform” of Muslim law and exerted itself to avert the day which would put its leaders out of business.[10]

In Pakistan, President Mohammed Ayub Khan tried manfully to arrest the trend. It is sufficient comment on Indian Muslims that they view with suspicion his Family Laws Ordinance 1960, which reforms the law of marriage and divorce on the basis of Shariah.

Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-88) was a major and significant scholar of Islam. He founded the Islamic Research Institute (now attached to the International Islamic University) in Islamabad in 1960. One fellow researcher described him as “probably the most learned of the major Muslim thinkers in the second-half of the twentieth century, in terms of both classical Islam and Western philosophical and theological discourse.” His father, Maulana Shahab al-Din, was a scholar at Deoband. Fazlur Rahman received his doctorate from Oxford University and taught at Durham University and McGill University before returning to Pakistan to set up the Islamic Research Institute.

The Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan 1966-1972 contain two revealing entries about him. One of 30 April 1967 reads: “Dr. Fazlur Rahman of the Islamic Research Institute came to see me. He was engaged in writing a book on ideology of Islam. I read his first chapter. It is fascinating, but the language he has used is scholarly and difficult. It has been arranged to attach a couple of knowledgeable people with him so as to discuss the theme of each chapter and then put it in simple language. The doctor can then review it to ensure that his theme has been properly brought out. I am sure that this book, when written, will be a real contribution in the service of Islam.”[11] The President clearly wanted to encourage the study of a liberal scholarly view of Islam. But he was powerless to protect the great scholar.

The entry of 5 September 1968 reads: “Dr. Fazlur Rahman, Director of the Islamic Research Institute came under countrywide adverse criticism fanned by the ignorant and politically motivated mullahs. The allegations, which were totally false, were made against some remarks made in his book, Islam, which he wrote some years ago and which was later published by the Oxford University Press. This book is a highly scholarly work written for a European audience and an attempt to remove some false impressions about Islam. When the criticism gained momentum he held two press conferences refuting all the allegations. These clarifications would have satisfied any honest critic, but the mullah, who regards any original and objective thinking on Islam as his deadly enemy, was not going to be pacified. This sort of argument is just the grist he wants for his mill. Meanwhile, the administrators at the centre and the province got cold feet. Some of them persuaded the doctor to resign. He must have also got frightened. After all, it is not easy to stand up to criticism based on ignorance and prejudice. So I had to accept his resignation with great reluctance in the belief that he will be free to attack the citadel of ignorance and fanaticism from outside the government sphere. Meanwhile, it is quite clear that any form of research on Islam which inevitably leads to new interpretations has no chance of acceptance in this priest-ridden and ignorant society. These people will not allow Islam to become a vehicle of progress. What will be the future of such an Islam in the age of reason and science is not difficult to predict.”[12]

The tacit prediction came true. Dr. Fazlur Rahman moved to the University of Chicago and won undying fame. His work Islam & Modernity is a classic.[13]

There are three legacies from the past which Muslims must discard – the ossified Sharia which conflicts with the Quran; the notion of the “Islamic State” which the Quran does not support and which never existed in history; Jihad which is a perversion of the concept as propounded in the Quran.

Accordingly any reform in the Islamic world must grapple honestly with four related tasks: (i) interpretation of some Quranic verses in the light of the times,  as against others which are of enduring relevance for all times; (ii) weeding out hadith (compilation of the Prophet’s sayings) of dubious credibility; (iii) rejection of the authority of the ulema (clerics); the fatwa is a mere opinion. During the Raj, fatwas were sold to the British; (iv) a sound appreciation of Islam in history, especially the role of the first four Caliphs, as distinct from Islam in the Quran.

It was only a century after the Prophet’s death that the task of compiling the hadith was undertaken. There is not the slightest doubt about the integrity and authenticity of the Quran. One cannot say that of the hadith. The Prophet died at Medina on 8 June 632. Al-Bukhari, a man of piety and compiler of the most respected of the hadith, was born in the ninth century (194 of the Hejira, he died in 256). He was methodical. Having collected 600,000 hadith, he retained only 7,257 omitting 4,000 repetitions.

“Thus less than two centuries after the Prophet’s death there were already 596,725 false hadith.” Al-Bukhari told off a king who wanted him to read some excerpts in private. “Go,” he told the emissary, “tell your master that I hold knowledge in high esteem, and I refuse to drag it into the antechambers of sultans.”  Islamic history would have been different if others had his integrity.

This brings us to the question, precisely what had Fazlur Rahman done to invite the trouble. There was a long standing debate among Muslim scholars on the distinction between Sunnah and Hadith. To S.M.Yusuf. for example, Sunnah “refers to practice as distinct from any documentation of it (hadith).” Practice, unbroken and untainted, is a proof by itself.[14]

Fazlur Rahman’s “offence” is described well by Prof. Daniel Brown in his work Rethinking Tradition in modern Islamic thought. To recall the promise of that era is to realize the intellectual poverty in South Asia’s Muslims today. He writes: “A similar but much more sophisticated attempt to separate the authority of sunna from the strict authenticity of hadith is found in the work of the Pakistani modernist Fazlur Rahman. Rahman articulated his views on hadith, sunna, and other relationship during the 1960s when he served as director of Pakistan’s Central Institute for Islamic Research, an institution established by the regime of General Ayyub Khan to aid in promoting modernist interpretations of Islam compatible with the needs of the regime. His work on sunna must be understood against the background of religious politics in Pakistan during the 1960s and, in particular, against the background of the controversy between Ghulam Ahmad Perwez and his opponents among the Pakistan ulama. Perwez’s radical rejection of sunna and his particular vision of the Islamic state as true heir to Prophetic authority was associated in the minds of his opponents with the efforts of the Ayyub government to bypass the ulama in order to promote modernist Islam. A number of controversial government actions seemed to suggest that Ayyub was sympathetic to Perwez’s ideas.

“Opponents of the government suspected, quite correctly, that Ayyub was intent on bypassing traditional sources of religious authority in his formulation of policy. They concluded, probably incorrectly, that Perwez’s ideas were exercising an undue effect on government policy. Thus the debate over the relationship between religion and state and the relative role of the ulama and the government in formulating policy on religious questions became focused on Perwez’s ideas, and particularly on the issue of sunna. Attention was also focused on the regime’s major voice in religious matters, the Central Institute for Islamic Research and its director. Against this background of heated controversy, Fazlur Rahman entered the fray with the publication of a series of articles on the authority of sunna and the authenticity of hadith.”[15]

By his own account he was responding through these articles[16] to two quite separate, although interrelated, controversies. He was responding, first of all, to the immediate controversy in Pakistan aroused by Perwez’s radical rejection of sunna. But he was also responding to the ongoing international scholarly debate about Joseph Schacht’s sceptical views on the authenticity of hadith which had been published some years earlier in his Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Fazlur Rahman refuted Schacht.

In 1981 came a vindication of sorts, belatedly, in a ruling of the Federal Shariat Court in a case concerning rajm (stoning to death for adultery) which is contradicted by a Quranic verse (24:2) prescribing a hundred lashes.[17] Justice Salahuddin’s remarks touched a raw nerve. “Apart from the fact that Hadith cannot override the definite and clear injunctions of the Quran, the Ahadith (particular to the case) themselves suffer from infirmities. In the circumstance it is neither safe nor reasonable to found a grave punishment like that of (rajm) on such Ahadith and make it an obligatory rule of law.”

In 1968 the mullahs decided that the debate had to be ended. Fazlur Rahman had to go. A debate of great promise and consequence was aborted to the loss of Muslim scholarship in the entire region. Elsewhere it picked up speed. Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan scholar, submitted it to rigorous scrutiny in Women and Islam.[18] It is neither the Quran nor the Messenger of Allah but certain hadith that have served as texts to sanctify oppression of women.

“Al-Bukhari’s work (Sahih) has been one of the most highly respected reference for 12 centuries. This Hadith is the sledgehammer argument used by those who want to exclude women from politics,” indeed from much else.

Al-Bukhari retained as authentic only 7,257 Hadith, if the repetitions, which number 4,000 are eliminated. The great lesson to be drawn from Al-Bukhari’s experience in coming to grips with the flight of time and failing memory is that one must be true to one’s method and honour it, by continuing to mistrust, all those who regulate their affairs with the help of Hadith. “If at the time of Al-Bukhari – that is, less than two centuries after the death of the Prophet – there were already 596,725 false Hadith in circulation (600,000 minus 7,275 plus 4,000), it is easy to imagine how many there are today. The most astonishing thing is that the scepticism that guided the work of the founders of religious scholarship has disappeared today.”

In two whole chapters Mernissi takes two significant cases of “misogynistic hadith” by witnesses of dubious repute whose false testimony played havoc for centuries. One is Abu Bakra, not to be confused with the great first Caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr al-Siddiq. He reported the Prophet as saying “those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.” He recalled this and other saying at convenient moments. He was convicted of and flogged for false testimony by the legendary Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab. Al-Tabari was against exclusion of women from politics.

Another such witness was Abu Hurayra. Mernissi points out: “There is no trace in al-Bukhari of ‘A’isha’s refutation of the Hadith. They told ‘A’isha that Abu Hurayra was asserting that the Messenger of God said: ‘Three things bring bad luck: house, woman and horse.’ A’isha responded: ‘Abu Hurayra learned his lessons very badly. He came into our house when the Prophet was in the middle of a sentence. He only heard the end of it. What the Prophet said was ‘May Allah refute the Jews, they say three things bring bad luck, house, woman and horse.’

“Not only did Al-Bukhari not include this correction, but he treated the Hadith as if there was no question about it. He cited it three times, each time with a different transmission chain. Thus procedure generally strengthens a Hadith and gives the impression of consensus concerning it.”

Is it any wonder that both the Caliphs Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and Umar ibn Al-Khattab forbade the citation of hadith; the latter, even whipping the offenders.

But Sir Syed’s legacy was rejected and his intellectual heir, Fazlur Rahman, had to quit his country. The Indian scholar Asghar Ali Engineer remarks: “Quran gives equal rights and equal dignity to both men and women but hadith literature is full of ahadith contradicting this Quranic approach. For example in Bukhari we find a hadith which stands in contradiction to the Quranic verse 33:35. The hadith is narrated thus: ‘The Prophet (PBUH) urged the women to be generous with their gifts, for when he had glimpsed into the flames of hell, he had noted the vast majority of people being tormented there were women. The women were outraged, and one of them instantly stood up and demanded to know why that was so. ‘Because’, he replied ‘you women grumble so much, and show ingratitude to your husbands.’ Even if the poor fellows spent all their lives doing things for you, you have only to be upset at the least of thing and you will say, ‘I have never received any good from you.’ At that the women began vigorously to pull off their rings, and throw them into Bilal’s Cloak (Bukhari 1.28. Abdu Dawud 439).

“See the content and tenor of this hadith. It is full of anti-women attitude and women are supposed to be, in this hadith, ungrateful to their husbands. As against this see the Quranic verse 33.35 which says: ‘Surely the men who submit and women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and truthful women, and the patient men and patient women, and the humble men and humble women, and the charitable men and the charitable women, and fasting men and fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah and women who remember –Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and mighty reward.”

“See how in this verse Quran treats men and women equally and talks of equal degree of forgiveness and equal reward. In the above hadith, on the other hand, more women than men are consigned to flames of hell because they are ungrateful to their husbands.”[19]

A team of reformist Islamic scholars at Ankara University, acting under the auspices of the Diyanet or Directorate of Religious Affairs, the government body which oversees the country’s 8,000 mosques and appoints imams, is said to be close to concluding a “reinterpretation” of parts of the Hadith, the collection of thousands of aphorisms and comments said to derive from the Prophet Muhammad and which form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence or sharia law.[20]

The Quran is the only source that escapes criticisms of unreliability. Out of a total of 6,236 verses, revealed over 22 years, between 200 – 500 are estimated to be law-like rules.

Mutazilites were the ulema whose school of thought became important in the mid-eighth century (Christian Era) and who ascribed a key role to reason in their research – as opposed to those who constantly invoked the hadiths in their creation of new laws. The Mutazilites explained the Quran itself by constantly referring to reason. They made reason the very criterion of religious law. In this way, they were able to develop extremely bold legal constructs. They were hunted down as infidels as early as 546 (CE). Their writings were thoroughly destroyed. It is only in the last century or less, since the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts, that we have had direct access to their writings. With the crushing of the Mutazilites, the spirit of imitation carried the day over the spirit of reflection. The gates of ijtihad (reasoning), itself a source Islamic law, were closed.

What the founder of the Aligarh Movement wrote of the hadith over a century ago will shock the Muslims in the subcontinent today: “It is the most sacred of all Islamic lore, yet Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar had forbidden people to narrate a hadith. The latter even whipped offenders and imprisoned Ibn Masud. Abu Darda and Abu Masud Ansari for narrating traditions. In fact Abu Bakr burned all those traditions, which he had collected. Evidently the collection of tradition started in earnest only after the death of Caliph Umar (644)” whom Caliph Uthman succeeded.[21]

Hafeez Malik, a distinguished Pakistani scholar records: “The founding of four schools of jurisprudence started the decline of ijtihad.” People began to follow them blindly – they do so to this day. Many ulema fabricated false hadith. He set out 38 of them, which Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had listed in 1871. Some are still in vogue.

It is, then, on the Quran that we must largely depend. Fazlur Rahman’s “double movement” theory is brilliant: “If we look at the Quran, it does not in fact give many general principles for the most part it gives solutions to and rulings upon specific and concrete historical issues, but as I have said, it provides, either explicitly or implicitly, the rationales behind these solutions and rulings, from which one can deduce general principles. In building any genuine and stable Islamic set of laws and institutions, there has to be a two-fold movement. First one must move from the concrete case treatments of the Quran – taking the necessary and relevant social conditions of that time into account – to the general principles upon which the entire teaching converge. Second, from the general level there must be a movement back to specific legislation, taking into account  the necessary and relevant social  conditions now obtaining.”[22]

He complains that no serious effort is made to read the Quranic verses in the order in which they were revealed. That would show the context. If the Quran must be read in context, the hadith can do with close scrutiny and the ulema must be properly sized up.  Maududi has been called “erudite” by some. Fazlur Rahman held that “he was by no means an accurate or profound scholar.”

In none of the states of South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – would the Muslims have welcomed such views, judging by the recurring outbursts over trifles; more likely than not, tolerated Fazlur Rahman even after the fame he had won in the entire world of Islamic scholarship.

But the problems which Muslims of South Asia face are in no hurry to run away. They persist and will continue to persist unless they are faced and resolved honestly and boldly. That is where this scholar’s greatest service lies. He pointed out: “The first essential step to relieve the vicious circle is for the Muslim, to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam. Unless effective and sustained efforts are made in the direction, there is no way visible for the creation of the kind of Islamic mind I have been speaking of just now. No amount of mechanical juxtaposition of old and new subjects and disciplines can produce this kind of mind. If the spark for the modernization of old Islamic learning and for the Islamization of the new is to arise, then the original thrust of Islam – of the Quran and Muhammad – must be clearly resurrected so that the conformities and deformities of historical Islam may be clearly judged by it.[23]

Another South Asian who struck a fresh note is Shabbir Akhtar. Born in Pakistan, he settled in Bradford, England after graduating in philosophy at Cambridge and winning a doctorate in comparative religion. His book A Faith for All Seasons: Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World[24] is little known.

This is one of the most stimulating and original works on Islam that has appeared in a long while. Its main purpose is to prod Muslims to overcome the paralysis of the mind that has afflicted them and rendered them unable to respond to the challenges of   secular modernity. “Modern Muslims are as a group of people, embarrassingly unreflective: it were as though Allah had done all the thinking for his devotees… After developing a great national philosophical tradition, the adherents of Islam have lapsed into an intellectual lethargy that has already lasted half a millennium… Owing to an absence of sceptical and liberal influences, itself traceable to the lack of an extant philosophical tradition, few Muslims have even recognized the threats of secularity and ideological pluralism that our current circumstance brings in its train.”

His counsel to Muslims is not to turn their backs on Islam, but to discover for themselves that Islam is, indeed, “a faith for all seasons.” He defines three problems which are discussed throughout the book – the religious ban on critical assessment of revealed claims; “the true office of religion in theology” and the justification for “the inquiring mind in matters theological.” Far from turning their backs on the faith, he emphasises the need for its renewal.

The call for Islamic liberalism is in essence a call for the renewal of the faith. A devout Christian scholar, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who taught Islamic history at the Forman Christian College in the 1940s held: “Our own view is that liberalism and humanism in the Muslim world, if they are to flourish at all, may perhaps be Islamic liberalism and Islamic humanism; or that: in any case, some basis must be found for matters of this weight.”[25]

Yet another South Asian offers the same wise counsel. But he also lives abroad. He is Muqtedar Khan. Born in India in 1966, where he earned a degree in engineering and an MBA, he received his doctorate in government from Georgetown University and is now on the faculty of the University of Delaware. His forthcoming book on Islamic democratic theory should be thought-provoking, judging by his essay in Islam in Transition : Muslim Perspectives[26] Read this: “Reason, as Imam Shafi himself suggests, is Allah’s greatest gift to humanity. Without reason the human agent is nothing but a beast incapable of conceiving or realizing his/her divine purpose. Reason is the singular element that constitutes the human and enables everything else. Even the Quran needs reason to make itself available to us. The limitation of reason in the theory of ijtihad has had an adverse effect on the very theory of knowledge in Islam. The epistemological dilemma of using reason for practical and other purposes such as medicine, while circumscribing it in Islamic studies in order to conserve legal thinking has led Muslims to reach and maintain mutually contradictory positions. For example, nearly all Muslim thinkers, particularly those grounded in the Islamic traditions and genre, maintain the unity of knowledge as a fundamental epistemological truth. These same Muslims continue to maintain a stated or implicit boundary between secular and sacred knowledge.  Reason reigns in the former while the latter is supposed to be ruled by revelation. Indeed, traditions and metaphorical thinking masquerade as revelation in the realm of sacred knowledge. The most significant consequence of this double-think has led to the decline of both forms of knowledge in the Muslim world. There is no doubt in my mind that the decline or rather stagnation of Islamic thought in all realms is due to the leash that the fuqha (jurists) have placed on reason.”

There is a vibrant movement for reversal of Islam which has been noticed by Westerners. Nicholas D. Kristof noted that apart from “the thread of fundamentalism” equally real is “the thread of reform.” Islamic history has never been without dissenters and heretics. Particularly strong is the Muslim women’s voice for reform.[27]

Prof. Mehran Kamrava of the California State University, Northridge produced a timely and telling collection of writings by creative Muslim thinkers whose views were neglected by those obsessed with the utterances of the fundamentalists, The New Voices of Islam: Reforming Politics and Modernity. [28] He notes that over the past two decades or so, at a time when the forces of Islamic fundamentalism have emerged as the dominant face of Islam in the West, “a vibrant and highly influential discourse by a number of prominent Muslim thinkers is seeking to reform and reformulate some of the main premises of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.  Throughout the Muslim world, from Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asia to Algeria and Morocco in North Africa, there has emerged a group of highly articulate and influential public intellectuals whose ideas are inspired by reformist interpretations of Islam. Their voices might be faint and difficult to hear, downed by the boisterous violence of self-righteous fundamentalists whose claims of exclusivity leave no room for discourse and debate.”

Their writings form “part of a proud tradition of reformist Muslim thought that dates back to at least the late eighteenth century and even before.” Today’s reformists do not represent a novel or new phenomenon in Islam. What they do represent is a vision of Islam and its role in human polity that is radically different from that advocated by orthodoxy. Included in the book are 13 of the most renowned and influential Muslim reformist thinkers alive today – Leila Ahmed (Egypt and the United States), Nasr Abu Zaid (Egypt), Moahmmed Arkoun (Algeria and France), Hasna Hanafi (Egypt), Fethullah Gulen (Turkey), Mohsen Kadivar (Iran), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), Tariq Ramadan (Switzerland), Muhammad Shahrour (Syria), Abdolkarim Soroush (Iran), Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia), and Amina Wadud (United States.).Not included because of space limitations are Huseyn Atay (Turkey), Rachid Ghannouchi (Tunisia), Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (Iran), Anwar Ibrahim (Malaysia) and Abdurrahman Wahid (Indonesia), among others. A notable exception is the South African Scholar Farid Esack, a powerful advocate of the Islamic theology of liberation. Another notable exception is the Tunisian Mohamed Charfi’s work Islam and Liberty : The Historical Misunderstanding.[29] The work draws heavily on writings in French by Arab and European scholars, which are not cited in English books.  The author’s analyses are based on the Quran.

He faced the problems boldly at the very outset. “Islam is no less capable of evolution than Christianity or Judaism. But whereas, over the past few centuries Europeans have undergone profound technological, economic, cultural and political changes, often amid considerable suffering and with major ebbs and flows, the Muslim peoples have fallen greatly behind in all spheres. This is not a fate to which they are doomed for ever, it is possible for them to close the gap.”

Historically intellectual stagnation in the Islamic world long preceded revivalism and its hide-out offshoot, fundamentalism. Western imperialism inspired revivalism. Its opportunism aided fundamentalism (witness : Afghanistan and Somalia).

Year after year the gulf has been widening between an idealized ancestral system, which is held sacred and disseminated through school, and a new system that is ever more widely regarded as an alien import contrary to Islam. This is a grave discrepancy that tears people apart and brings them to the verge of schizophrenia for they do not wish to sacrifice either Islam or modernity. They are as attached to the Islamic religion, as they are to the structure of the modern state, which they insist should be genuinely democratic and representative.

The political Islamist wants his imagined historical Islam to prevail over modernity. The modernist seldom rises to the intellectual challenge of understanding Islam as well as modernity. “There is no credible counter-discourse,” especially among Muslims of the subcontinent. Most of them think in stereotypes. For the lay Muslim, the   disconnect between the faith he learns at home and the rationalism and knowledge he acquires at school and in college is painful. He wants to be a good Muslim; yet finds the Islam preached from the pulpit strange, almost irrelevant. A Muslim student learns one “truth” at an English-medium school, another from devout parents at home. Baffled, he either clings to the faith or abandons it. Neither course does homage to reason or justice to the faith and the role of religion in an individual’s life.

If in Muslim countries, an authoritarian state stifles free debate, the same job is undertaken in countries where Muslims are a minority by the bigoted, ignorant mullah in complicity with Muslim politicians. Without free thought and free discourse, Muslim society stagnates intellectually and morally, even if some Muslims prosper economically.

The gravest, most fateful mistake by Muslims over the centuries is a palpable, wilful misconstruction of Quranic messages on marriage. This is a scripture, not a statute.

Judges say that the worst way to read a Constitution is to read it literally and that every document must be read as a whole. Now read the Quranic verses for yourself in the Fourth Surah (chapter) on Women. The second verse in this Sura enjoins: “render unto the orphans their possessions.” The third says: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four: But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.”

This verse is clearly illustrative, not mandatory. Honestly read, monogamy is what it enjoins; polygamy is permitted in that specific situation and subject strictly to the overriding condition of equal treatment. Later on, another verse (129) in the same Surah says in categorical terms; “And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you (wish it).”

To the true believer the Holy Quran is in the Word of Allah. This is His assessment of the nature of His creature, man. It implies a clear prohibition of polygamy. Abdullah Yusuf Ali records in his commentary on the Quran that the immediate occasion for the verse was the battle of Uhud, which left behind many orphans and widows. This brings us to a fundamental of Quranic interpretation – reading the text in its context. Even those who disagree with that, cannot honestly ignore the overriding prohibition (4 : 129). It is, however, on a dishonest reading of the Quran, that Muslim women have suffered for centuries at the hands of men and mullahs. They still do.

It is the same story in regard to divorce. The law in force in India is not Islamic law of the Sharia, but Anglo-Mohammedan law, which the courts followed during the Raj. In 1905, an English judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice Batchelor, was honest to admit that “there can be no doubt that talaq-ul-bidat (the triple, irregular divorce) is good in law, though bad in theology.” These instances reveal the perversion of the faith by men in authority; the denial of ijtihad.

It is a parlous situation. The ulema lack the intellectual equipment, the courage and the desire to think afresh. Politicians feed on the people’s ignorance. Intellectuals are either apathetic or seek short cuts. The winds of change sweeping over the Muslim world elsewhere, the intellectual ferment, stop at the shores of the South Asian subcontinent. “Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.” (Quran; 13 : 11).

[*] A.G. Noorani is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.

[1] Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah, compiled and edited by Jamiluddin Ahmad, Sheikh Ashraf, vol. 1, p.43.

[2] Fazlur Rehman, 1982, p.120.

[3] Ali Ahraf and Mushirul Hasan, Islam and Indian Nationalism, Reflections on Abul Kalam Azad, Manohar, 1992, p.116.

[4] Muhammad S. Ikram, Modern Muslim India and Pakistan, 1970, pp.175-6.

[5] Vide The Times of India, 2 June 1992 for the details of the instructive episode.

[6] Modern Muslim Koranic Interpretation (1880-1960), L.J. Brill, 1968.

[7] The Times of India, 26 November 1988.

[8] Hafeez Malik, Iqbal, 1971, p.388.

[9] Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada (Editor), Foundations of Pakistan: All India Muslim League Documents, vol.II 1924-1927; p.160.

[10] Vide the writer’s Muslims of India. A Documentary Record 1947-90, Oxford University Press, 2003.

[11] Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan 1966-1972, Edited and  annotated by Craig Baxter,  Oxford University Press, Karachi,  p.90.

[12] Ibid., p.253.

[13] Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity, University of Chicago Press, 1978.

[14] S.M.Yusuf, An Essay on the Sunnah, Lahore, 1966.

[15] Prof. Daniel Brown, Rethinking Tradition in modern Islamic Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.102.

[16] Published in Islamic Studies in 1962. A compilation appeared in Islamic Methodology in History,Karachi, 1965.

[17] Hazoor Baksh vs. Federation of Pakistan; All Pakistan Legal Decisions. 1981, FSC.

[18] Mernissi, Fatima, Women in Islam, Blackwell Publishers, 1991.

[19] Janata, weekly, Mumbai, 17 February 2008.

[20] Ian Traynor Guardian, 27 February 2008.

[21] Quoted in Hafeez Malik; The Religious Liberalism of Sir Sayyid Khan, The Muslim World, Vol. LIV, No.3, 1964, p.163.

[22] Islam and Modernity, p.20.

[23] Ibid., p. 141.

[24] Akhtar, Shabbir, Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World, 1990, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago.

[25] Islam in Modern History, 1957, p.303.

[26] Donohue J John, Esposito L John, Islam in Transition: Modern Perspectives, Oxford University Press, 2006.

[27] International Herald Tribune, 16 October 2006.

[28] Kamrava, Mehran, The New Voices of Islam: Reforming Politics and Modernity, I.B. Tauris, London, 2006.

[29] Charfi, Mohamed, Islam and Liberty: The Historical Misunderstanding, Zed Books, London, 2006.