Monday, February 12, 2007

compass for a sea of scholars

I have written about a similar topic before but it has been on my mind again recently...

Shortly after becoming Muslim, I realized how common it is for Muslims to speak in extremely confident and extremely vague terms about what "the ulema" or "the scholars" have to say about this or that topic. At the same time, it was also very clear that in reality "the ulema" display a diverse range of orthodox opinions on a great many questions. The situation can definitely be confusing to a beginning Muslim.

One of the more beneficial talks I attended as a new Muslim was one which stressed the importance of finding a regular methodology for resolving the various fiqh issues one is faced with from day-to-day. One of the presenters even went as far as saying that pretty much given ANY action, there was at least one scholar who would argue that any action was halal. So if you just look to what "the ulema" say indiscriminately it would be possible to be lead by your ego and follow no law at all just by following the "easy rulings" of every scholar.

For practical decisions, one solution to this problem is to follow one of the traditional schools of fiqh (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Hanbali). I would say that seeing this presentation was one of the significant moments which really got me thinking seriously about following a madhab.

I would suggest that there is a similar problem when it comes to broader spiritual questions. If you want good general advice about spiritual/religious/moral/ethical issues from an Islamic perspective, where do you go? In the sea of varied scholars with varied opinions, who are the reliable sources? This is the question which inspired the current post:

According to a well-known hadith:
"Allah shall raise for this Umma at the head of every century a man who shall renew (or revive) for it its religion" (Sunan Abu Dawud)

The Arabic term for this figure is the Mujaddid and through the years Muslims have expressed a wide variety of opinions about the identity of the Mujaddid or reformer for any given century.

At one point, I thought to myself that a good goal would be to go to
some traditional sources and with a list of mujaddids I felt comfortable with, and become more familiar with the ideas and biographies of the people identified as mujaddid for all 14 centuries. To be honest I didn't get very far. Part of it was due to motivation but to be fair, some of it was ultimately due to the fact that translation of Islamic works into English is an uneven process. And texts which are of interest to English-speaking Muslims are not necessarily going to the same as texts which are of interest to Western scholars.

In any case, the whole concept of mujaddid is what reminded me that in a lot of ways there are some healthy similarities between what I would call traditional or orthodox Islam and the best aspects of Roman Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy). Just the idea that in century after century there were always saint-scholars who were reminding the community of basic truths about the religion, passing down, preserving and reforming a traditional orthodox faith. This sense of continuity is especially pronounced in the case of candidates such as Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti (founder of the Chisti order) or Abdul Qadir Jilani (founder of the Qadri order) or a prominent Naqshbandi like Ahmad Sirhindi because the Sufi orders themselves each have specific silsilahs or chains of master-disciple relationships which trace, in "apostolic" fashion, from the current head of a given branch of the order all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (saaws). Even for Sunnis, most of these chains typically go through Ali ibn Abu Talib (ra) but occasionally (in the case of the Naqshbandis) through Abu Bakr Siddiq (ra).

In any case, I would just suggest that going to these major touchstones like the mujaddids or through shaykhs with a verifiable lineage seem like a reasonable way to navigate through the uneven sea of "the ulema".


arafat said...

Very interesting post. Both Chisti and Jilani are, btw, very highly revered and idealized figures in populist Islam across Bangladesh.

Silencer said...

Hey Abdul Halim,

havent checked out your blog (or anyone else's) for a looong time...

that's a pretty good idea. But it seems strange that most of the mujaddids are shafi'is and i think that it's really the shafi'is who are most concerend with the idea of the mujaddid and picking one each century. you very rarely get a non-shafii there (like abdul qadir al-jilani).

in fact i did hear a scholar, but dont remember who, mentioning that it's the shafiis most concerned with the idea. so the list could be a bit biased toward them, except for instances when a non-shafii is far far more likely to be the mujaddid.

Silencer said...

oh wait. you dont get abdul qadir al jilani. you do get a shafii, imam al ghazzali. which i think is more deserving (not some shafii bias this time). i mean, while shaykh al-Jilani might have been a greater sufi, ghazzali really did revive the religious sciences. and he also would have had a chain going back to the Prophet.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

Thanks for the comments... to be honest I feel like I don't know enough about those traditional scholars. I actually would only be able to identify the madhabs of a few of the candidates on the wikipedia site. But there definitely are some prominent scholars who are extremely recognizable (even to beginning Muslims) who turn out to be Shafii.

I'm not sure what you meant about Abdul-Qadir Jilani... are you saying that he wasn't the Mujaddid because he was a contemporary of Al-Ghazzali? Or are you saying he was a Hanbali and I like the Hanafis? Also he was descended from the Prophet as well (physically and in terms of a silsila)

Silencer said...

no i know al-Jilani was descended from the Prophet from both his mother and his father (one of them was hasanid, the other husaynid), so that's an amazing lineage;. And spiritually too of course. and his madhhab has nothing to do with him being a mujaddid or not. i mean, im not very pro-madhab but if i were to pick one madhab or study it i think i would pick the hanbali.

i meant that he was a contemporary of al-ghazzali, and if there is only one mujaddid then it's definitly al-ghazzali because of his far greater impact on thought.

Silencer said...

btw it really doesnt matter who's the mujaddid because what you are saying is to find scholars who are like touchstones that help us navigate through all the different viewpoints. and both al-ghazzali and al-jilani are among the most perfect and guaranteed scholars to rely on.