Friday, October 24, 2008

The Problem with Anti-Madhhabism

I thought this article by Shaikh Abdel-Hakim Murad beautifully summarized the history and current situation of madhhahib (Islamic schools of thought).

Anti-madhhabism is an issue that comes up every once in a while, and is especially confusing for those who live in diverse communities with members from several madhahib.

Excerpts from the article below, but I would encourage those interested to read the whole article because it provides some interesting history and examples:

The ummah's greatest achievement over the past millennium has undoubtedly been its internal intellectual cohesion. From the fifth century of the Hijra almost to the present day, and despite the outward drama of the clash of dynasties, the Sunni Muslims have maintained an almost unfailing attitude of religious respect and brotherhood among themselves. It is a striking fact that virtually no religious wars, riots or persecutions divided them during this extended period, so difficult in other ways.

The history of religious movements suggests that this is an unusual outcome. The normal sociological view, as expounded by Max Weber and his disciples, is that religions enjoy an initial period of unity, and then descend into an increasingly bitter factionalism led by rival hierarchies. Christianity has furnished the most obvious example of this; but one could add many others, including secular faiths such as Marxism. On the face of it, Islam's ability to avoid this fate is astonishing, and demands careful analysis.


What happened was this. Sunni Islam, occupying the middle ground between the two extremes of egalitarian Kharijism and hierarchical Shi'ism, had long been preoccupied with disputes over its own concept of authority. For the Sunnis, authority was, by definition, vested in the Quran and Sunnah. But confronted with the enormous body of hadiths, which had been scattered in various forms and narrations throughout the length and breadth of the Islamic world following the migrations of the Companions and Followers, the Sunnah sometimes proved difficult to interpret. Even when the sound hadiths had been sifted out from this great body of material, which totalled several hundred thousand hadith reports, there were some hadiths which appeared to conflict with each other, or even with verses of the Quran. It was obvious that simplistic approaches such as that of the Kharijites, namely, establishing a small corpus of hadiths and deriving doctrines and law from them directly, was not going to work. The internal contradictions were too numerous, and the interpretations placed on them too complex, for the qadis (judges) to be able to dish out judgements simply by opening the Quran and hadith collections to an appropriate page.

The reasons underlying cases of apparent conflict between various revealed texts were scrutinised closely by the early ulama, often amid sustained debate between brilliant minds backed up with the most perfect photographic memories. Much of the science of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) was developed in order to provide consistent mechanisms for resolving such conflicts in a way which ensured fidelity to the basic ethos of Islam.


In a Western-influenced global culture in which people are urged from early childhood to think for themselves and to challenge established authority, it can sometimes be difficult to muster enough humility to recognise ones own limitations.[71] We are all a little like Pharaoh: our egos are by nature resistant to the idea that anyone else might be much more intelligent or learned than ourselves. The belief that ordinary Muslims, even if they know Arabic, are qualified to derive rulings of the Shariah for themselves, is an example of this egotism running wild. To young people proud of their own judgement, and unfamiliar with the complexity of the sources and the brilliance of authentic scholarship, this can be an effective trap, which ends by luring them away from the orthodox path of Islam and into an unintentional agenda of provoking deep divisions among the Muslims. The fact that all the great scholars of the religion, including the hadith experts, themselves belonged to madhhabs, and required their students to belong to madhhabs, seems to have been forgotten. Self-esteem has won a major victory here over common sense and Islamic responsibility.[72]

The Holy Quran commands Muslims to use their minds and reflective capacities; and the issue of following qualified scholarship is an area in which this faculty must be very carefully deployed. The basic point should be appreciated that no categoric difference exists between usul al-fiqh and any other specialised science requiring lengthy training. Shaykh Sa`id Ramadan al-Buti, who has articulated the orthodox response to the anti-Madhhab trend in his book: Non-Madhhabism: The Greatest Bida Threatening the Islamic Shari`a, likes to compare the science of deriving rulings to that of medicine. "If ones child is seriously ill", he asks, "does one look for oneself in the medical textbooks for the proper diagnosis and cure, or should one go to a trained medical practitioner?" Clearly, sanity dictates the latter option. And so it is in matters of religion, which are in reality even more important and potentially hazardous: we would be both foolish and irresponsible to try to look through the sources ourselves, and become our own muftis. Instead, we should recognise that those who have spent their entire lives studying the Sunnah and the principles of law are far less likely to be mistaken than we are.[73]


Affad Shaikh said...

wow! you were thinking about something i came across and argued about with some paki uncles...!

Amer said...

"It is a striking fact that virtually no religious wars, riots or persecutions divided them during this extended period, so difficult in other ways."

what history book is he reading that has, apparently, failed to take even the slightest account of Sunni-vs-Sunni religious injustices throughout history?

Huda Shaka` said...

Br. Amer, I had the same comment but then I realized he was talking strictly in terms of religious/madhabi violence. Of course, there were many political wars (sometimes under religious names) but after the initial period he describes, I cannot think of an example of a major sunni-sunni 'theological' war.

Of course, I'm no history expert.

Amer said...

Sr Huda
Are you referring to his bit on the kharijites and shiites? I'm not sure I understand how he manages to, for lack of better word, extract what he calls "purely religious" conflict from a context of political conflict. For example, this quote stood out to me:

"Only the inherent sanity and love of unity among scholars of the ummah assisted, no doubt, by Providence overcame the early spasms of factionalism, and created a strong and harmonious Sunnism which has, at least on the purely
religious plane, united ninety percent of the ummah for ninety percent of its history."

Interestingly enough, his footnote for this comment is to a history of fiqh, not political struggle. Are we to consider various fitnahs and struggles that arose throughout history to be either religious or political?

You kind of already answered this: "there were many political wars (sometimes under religious names)". But how do we account for the pervasiveness of religious discourse surrounding any political conflict? And how does br AbdelHakim find 'purely religious' conflict? The relationship between Power and Knowledge shouldn't be neglected: i.e. the political power vested in the Kalam thinkers of the early Abbasid courts by the caliph fueled the (re)production of Kalam thought, it's (re)production, in turn, (re)asserted the caliph's primacy in specific theological matters. Imam Ahmed was not just dissenting theologically, but politically (even unintentionally! - the former implied the latter). Isn't that after all the ever-strong tactic of speaking truth (counter-discourse?) to power?

I feel like br AbdelHakim's ultimate social unity super-glue (maddhabism?) exists only when we separate the workings of power from the production of knowledge, that is, when we begin to dismiss struggles as strictly power-full/political.


Huda Shaka` said...

Actually, this is the period I was referring to: "After the success of the fifth-century Sunni revival, when Sunnism seemed at last to have become a fully coherent system..."

I think the point the author is making is that there were no major sub groups/splinters of Sunni's after the 5th century of Muslim history, mainly because sound and agreed upon methodologies were set for answering questions and resolving issues (past, present and future): the 4 madhahib.

By the way, Sheikh Abdel Hakim Murad is the one who translated sections of Imam Ghazali's masterpiece Ihya Uloom Ad-deen into English.