Traditional Islam: A Philosophical Defense of Its Case
There are many intelligent Muslims who are intellectually convinced that the only correct way to follow Islam is to follow the traditional understanding of it – the one that good Muslim scholars and intellectuals have been believing in, following, and disseminating all along the history of the Muslim religious tradition.
The philosophical foundation of this understanding is built on the premise that humans are gifted with an intellect which is only capable of raising the right kind of religion-related, philosophical questions; they cannot however answer them adequately. The very fact that, so goes the argument, most notable philosophers were in agreement about the important questions that ought to be probed but they were not able to answer them is a proof of the fact that God wanted those answers to be searched in religious tradition. The fact that there was unanimity about the questions amongst philosophers and disagreement about answers to them points to the reality that the answers were meant to be sought from a superior source which provided conclusive responses to each of those questions. The conclusion that proceeds from this line of argument is that whatever answers are offered by religion are authentic because of the very fact that they have been answered by a higher source with a claim that those were from God. Good religious people have to simply take them from their religious tradition in exactly the same way as they were available in it without making any alterations in them, because if they were to make alterations they would do so with their intellect whose inability to answer such philosophical questions on religion has already been established by the history of failure of the great philosophers in answering them.
Socrates is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of the basic premise of this point of view. He is said to have inflicted a conclusive defeat on the Skeptics who claimed that human intellect was incapable of gaining knowledge. He responded to it by insisting that knowledge did not always amount to grasping the complete reality of something; instead, quite often it was the act of reflecting or absorbing the reality in a measured way that constituted it. Knowledge in other words could only be had to the extent it was available and the possibility of having it varied from reality to reality.
If one followed the advice of this line of argument, one would stick to what the unanimous approval of the traditional understanding of religion – in our case Islam — was in order to follow its true message. What is in religious tradition is what religion has to offer; since we cannot have anything better than what is available, we ought to know our limitations. The argument that a certain opinion was held by the majority of Muslim scholars would be conclusive to decide that the opinion was the only valid one to be taken seriously. All other opinions were unacceptable simply because they were not supported by the traditional religious scholars.
There were a few difficulties in accepting the above-mentioned approach from Islamic point of view.
The opinion would hold all religious traditions superior to non-religious ones, at least insofar as the responses to the philosophical questions were concerned. If human intellect can only raise valid questions in the domain of religious realities and it has to sheepishly follow the immediately available religious responses to them, it should follow from it that those who were following the suggested process were worthy of being praised rather than being condemned. The Qur’an, on the contrary, strongly condemns the religious traditions of the polytheists of Makkah and the Jews and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula. Should we accept what this philosophically argued understanding says or should we side with the Qur’anic condemnation? If one were to respond to this criticism by saying that the Qur’anic criticism was on the attitude of a people who were following a religious tradition in preference to what the book of God, Qur’an, was saying, the responder needs to be informed that both polytheists of Makkah and the people of the book were claiming that they too were following the tradition of their religious elders. The Qur’an did not accept the excuse and responded by saying “(Are they going to follow their forefathers) even when they (the forefathers) did not understand anything and had gone astray?” In other words, the Qur’an is informing that religious tradition can get corrupted and therefore it was wrong to follow it blindly, especially when convincing criticism was raised against it.
The point of view assumes that there was always only one religious tradition which was to be followed. What if there were many? If the answer was that some minor differences were always going to be there but a religious tradition was defined by the major agreements amongst the majority of the religious peoples of a society, the question that would seek an answer would be this: Who would decide what was a major difference and what was a minor one? Are we going to describe the least common denominator as the valid religious tradition to be followed? If that was true then all religious differences should be tolerated, both new and old, because there were always some areas of commonality in the broad definition of a religious tradition. The fact is that in many religious societies in the Islamic world, both past and present, many practices followed by the majority of the traditional religious people were a distorted version of religion in the opinion of the majority of the traditional religious people of another society. Whose version of religion should one follow given that the intellect itself was incapable of deciphering what was right religiously from what was wrong?
If the opinion is to be taken seriously, one would not take the Qur’anic text quite as seriously as the religious tradition of Muslims. It will have to be assumed that Qur’an itself was unclear and the meanings given to it by the traditional scholars were the only correct interpretation of it. A new understanding on some aspect of religion would stand rejected simply because it was new. An old interpretation would be revered because of its oldness. The Qur’anic text would play no role whatsoever in deciding which religious understanding was correct because the golden principle was that in case of religious guidance what was thought and done earlier had to be correct and superior to what was done and understood later. The result of it would be that Muslims will have to curb their intellect from attempting to understand the Qur’an with an open mind. The call of the book of God “Why don’t they ponder over the Qur’an” will have to be ignored, because if it was pondered over sincerely, it might give results that were against the traditional understanding of religion, in which case, according to the given view, the individual would be led astray.
In order for this view to be taken seriously it will have to be acknowledged that the traditional knowledge about Islam has always been the same all along the last fourteen hundred years, that there have been no periods in the Muslim history when the knowledge was faulty, and what is understood and practiced today in the name of religion by the traditional Muslims was exactly the same as it was done fourteen hundred years ago. A careful study of the Muslims shows that such a claim about the message of Islam cannot be made with authority.
Thus a good number of intelligent Muslims have been dissuaded by a philosophical absurdity – the fact that intellect only raises religious questions and only the tradition of religion answers them – from seeing what has been clearly mentioned in the Qur’an. Instead of asking the Qur’an about what the answers to the perplexities of philosophical reasoning were, a naïve idea was invented completely blocking all roads leading to understand the book of God properly. The Qur’an declares about itself that it was the criterion between right and wrong (al-Furqan; 25:1); that it had come to give a verdict in religious matters where men differed (2:213); and that even the prophet, alaihissalaam, was bound to follow its verdict under all circumstances (10:15). But the proponents of this point of view suggested that the text of the Qur’an cannot be understood properly. They have suggested that language is incapable of communicating true meanings to the addressee, especially when it has grown old. In other words the Qur’an was unclear to at least the modern reader and it was therefore, God forbid, not fit to guide humans in the modern times. The book of God needs the crutches of traditional Islam to be understood. All claims of the clarity of its message on the basis of its remarkable thematic and structural coherence book stand rejected in the eyes of some of these philosophically minded Muslims. The entire traditional baggage of Islam, including what Sufis have been traditionally saying and doing, would carry more worth and significance than the book of God.
The fact is that Qur’an doesn’t condemn human intellect as completely incapable of knowing religious truths. On the contrary, it suggests that human intellect is constrained by certain limitations which it is capable of appreciating and acknowledging. Divine Revelation comes to the rescue of the shortcomings of the intellect to guide it towards higher levels of spiritual and moral stations. The relationship between the two is not analogous to that of a blind man who is being guided by someone with sight; instead it is more like a teacher-pupil relationship: the pupil (intellect) is guided by the teacher (revelation) to know even more from what is already known. The Qur’an uses the expression nurun ‘ala nur (light upon light) to describe it. Whenever the student finds that the teacher is apparently not performing in a befitting manner, he can question the teacher and investigate whether it really is a genuine guide or a bogus one: If the guidance of Divine Revelation one gets through religious tradition is not making sense to the human intellect, the latter has the right to ask if the guidance was coming from the right source.
Intellect also plays an important role in guiding humans by gradually taking them from lower levels of appreciation of divine revelation to the higher ones. It is through critical reasoning that intellect can appreciate that at times what was understood by the earlier religious people was a crude understanding of religion and what has come through later, after the process of critical appraisal was a much refiner understanding of the divine text. To snub human intellect from reasoning any further because of the reverence attached to the understanding of the earlier generations would therefore deprive humans of a much better, refiner, and deeper meanings of the divine text which God had left at a much deeper level simply because He wanted human intellect to struggle to dig it out from there. To assume that there wasn’t anything that lay underneath the miraculous language of the Qur’an was to undermine the divine nature and greatness of it.
One should however not conclude from the above understanding that all aspects of traditional Islam would fail the test if put through the test of Qur’anic scrutiny. Quite to the contrary, most aspects of Islamic tradition are consistent with the true message of the Qur’an. In fact the sunnah of the prophet which is as authentic as the Qur’an has been preserved through the tradition of Muslims. It is through unbroken chain of practice of Muslims that we have been able to get the fully preserved sunnah practices like the formal prayers, the pilgrimage of the Ka’bah etc. That aspect of traditional Islam most certainly is the true message of God which will never be in danger when put through the test of intellectual scrutiny in the light of Qur’an.