December 3, 2008

Taqleed, Ijtihad, and Wujub al-nazr

You drown in an ocean of God and can't breath
-Jedi Mind Tricks

Recently I have been digging into different facets of Islamic theology, and it is certainly interesting to see the early theologians having debates similar to what the early Christian theologians were debating (the nature of G-d, His attributes, free will, eternity, oneness.)

What I always find MOST interesting about these debates is the degree to which the debaters assume that all those in the conversation know how to ascertain that something is true. It is rarely questioned HOW we actually KNOW FOR CERTAIN that something is true.

Islamic theologians tried to address this systematically, but even they were limited by the ideas and ideology current at the time. Many of them borrowed heavily from Hellenistic philosophy in order to argue their theological and philosophical viewpoints. However, if one reads the average book of aqeedah, what one generally gets is not sophisticated argumentation but crude propositional logic using mostly hadith. In fact, I have found that these books are rarely encouraging believers towards the pursuit of knowledge but towards the pursuit of certainty and non-argumentation. This is disappointing but understandable, as religious scholars are often tied to state projects of social and political control and religious ideology offers a convenient prop for this. Even if said religious scholar is not tied to a state-project, he still exists within a milieu which requires him to convince his followers that he knows THE way: uncertainty is public enemy number one when it comes to religious knowledge.

After considering all this, and then reading more on the basic principles of knowing (i.e syllogistic knowledge, first order logic, etc) I came across the following concept from Jainism (an an Indian religious and intellectual tradition predating Hinduism and Buddhism):

Anekantavada--the principle of multiple viewpoints

Anekantavada is basically the idea that since everything changes, what we know to be 'true' ought to be tempered by another knowledge: that of our impermanence and extremely limited knowledge of the world. Reality itself is manifold in its manifestations. Special relativity demonstrates this is in regards to the nature of space and time: an object's experience of it may be profoundly different depending on the reference point and relative nature of motion. This is rarely present at the level of ordinary awareness, rather it becomes apparent only as one moves at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Our experience of the world presents a profound paradox which we can ignore existentially, but not philosophically. To me at least, anekantavada is like saying "Allahu 3lim."

Even math, otherwise one of the purest and clearest ways to see the world, has its own set of inherent limitations. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem shows that since any given mathematical system complex enough to contain arithmetic, contains propositions that are true but not provable from within the system, then it may be possible that no single theory will be able to explain the whole world. To extrapolate beyond the abstraction: If we consider Islam as a "system" or a "special world-system" to borrow John Voll's words, then is it not the case that there are true propositions within it that are not provable using its internal methodology. (i.e the existence of G-d). By extension, doesn't this mean that there are things outside the system which are also true but not demonstrably true within the system? This does not invalidate the system's truths, but it does inject a sense of humility into the conclusions one draws within the logic of that system. In other words, the conclusions from our system or set, have to be part of a larger set of sets (The SET OF ALL TRUTH, if you will)

I will let al-Ghazali have the last word on this one, with his criticism of the Mutazilites:

"Don't you see that when you are asleep you believe certain things and imagine certain circumstances and believe they are fixed and lasting and entertain no doubts about that being their status? Then you wake up and know that all your imaginings and beliefs were groundless and unsubstantial. So while everything you believe through sensation or intellection in your waking state may be true in relation to that state, what assurance have you that you may not suddenly experience a state which would have the same relation to your waking state as the latter has to your dreaming, and your waking state would be dreaming in relation to that new and further state. If you found yourself in such a state, you would be sure that all your rational beliefs were unsubstantial fancies."

Al-Ghazali didn't reject reasoning, he simply said that it had its limits especially in regards to attaining the WHOLE truth of a situation. Thus he indirectly pointed to the principle of multiple viewpoints.

Now let us consider the application of this viewpoint to the science of knowledge leading to right guidance:

The central debate in Islam seems to be between taqleed (following a particular authority out of respect for their knowledge) and ijtihad (making a decision, particularly a legal decision, by independent judgement). Taqleed is what we 'ordinary' humans do, while ijtihad is for those well-versed in Islamic scholarship. There is a place in Islam for both of these concepts (for example, taqleed tells me that when I want an opinion about mathematics, I don't go to any random friend but to a mathematician or math teacher. That doesn't preclude my friend the Calculus II student from offering some brilliant analysis up to his level of expertise.)

Unfortunately the two been distorted into opposite poles (like when Western critics argue that "closing the gates of ijtihad" was the cause of intellectual stagnation in the Muslim world but ignore that there are plenty of Islamic commentators who have parsed this debate in different ways, with great skill.)

My question: Why can't an ordinary person perform ijtihad? Is there anything in the Quran prohibiting this? Unequivocally, no. Therefore, I am convinced that, with the availability of modern knowledge, one can easily perform ijtihad, and indeed should. One ought to have the deepest respect for true scholars, and be quick to point out factual errors, but the arguments against ijtihad only demonstrate how scared some 'ulama are of losing their power, as well as how far some have come from the reforming message of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.

But even beyond ijtihad is the process of wujub al-nazar, or the obligation to reason to produce truth. Given the above limitations, proof with al-nazar will necessarily still be contained within a system (that of human thought) but it will be a larger system with more points of overlap. Whereas to reason from within ijtihad alone might also produce truth, but within a more limited system (the framework of Islamic law).

Now the question REALLY is: how does one parse out the differences between an obligation to use reasoning, and an obligation to obey the principles of a given system (Islam, for example). This is a very relevant question, especially when it comes to implementing Islamic law.
ASIDE: Please note that I don't use the word 'reason' (i.e. Western rationalism) but the word 'reasoning' to denote the process by which any group of humans produces its fundamental truth and which has produced a pretty stunning plurality of viewpoints on a range of ethical and ontological issues.
Many 'liberal' or 'modernist' Islamic scholars (I have problems with those two labels but we will address that later) have correctly pointed out that institutions which are now basically assumed to be the pillar of Islam as a 'system' are not in fact as ontologically sound as they have been purported to be and thus not to be relied on to establish the truth of a given proposition within that system. See, for example, Kassim Ahmad's Hadith: A Re-evaluation. The most shocking aspect of what Ahmad reveals is that the Prophet Muhammed himself (in an often ignored or misinterpreted hadith) clearly forbade his followers from writing down what he said.

Here is one of the reason's Prophet Muhammed's revelation was so important: he was specifically addressing the corruption and empty formalism that had arisen within the Judaic tradition due to the fact of relying on Talmudic interpretation and scholarly opinion. Using our earlier terminology, the logic of that system (Judaism) had become strained and unharmonious due to its overreliance on taqleed.

This produced a sort of disharmony between the obligation to reason speculatively towards the truth, and the opinions of past scholars. What the early Islamic scholars did, in an attempt to ensure that its system would not be corrupted along the same lines, is to try to ensure that there was a given system in place for discerning the accuracy of a given hadith. (Compare this to the Christian Church fathers decision to implement a priesthood)

But given that compilers like Bukhari didn't begin to write these down until some two centuries after the Prophet's death, isn't it ironic that Muslims would claim that the hadith are more accurate than say, the Gospels? (With a similar time lag between events and recording). I do not make this point in order to incite the ongoing battle of correct revelation; I am merely pointing out that theological controversies in Islam are a function of human limitation within that system, as is the case for Christianity, Judaism, etc. Any given system of religion will necessarily have a degree of pluralism; the question is never about eliminating that pluralism but of establishing its boundaries: how do we discern what is 'of the system' and 'not of the system'. Mathematically speaking, what is our set? And does our set harmonize with the set of sets? We are back to the principle of allahu 3lim.


زينب أبو المجد December 4, 2008 at 6:17 PM  

Dr. Mathews, I have a comment on methodology rather than content. It seems to me that every time you address a religious issue—even if you are trying to make a more rational and enlightened point like in the pants legs article - you still follow 10th cent. polemical or argumentational methodologies of both Christian and Muslim theologians alike…and what they basically did was talking talking talking thinking that they are applying logic and making sense…but today it totally turns me intellectually off when I hear priests and shaykhs still speaking this language…which they do all the time in mosque khutbas and church ceremonies…if you want to be convincing to people like me who can’t stand a word of polemics you’ve got to quit this methodology and apply another way of persuasion…I understand that your style might still appeal to some, but I promise you those are less intelligent audience sold out to superficial religious discourses…this is why I can’t stand reading Talal Asad too…

On another note, seeing the word “G-d” written this way just comes on my nerves!! If he is there, he wouldn’t give a dam s* about how people spell his name!!!! if you are afraid of it being reversed to dog then just say Allah and save your reader from this ridiculous religiosity…

so sorry…you told me to feel free to comment, and here I am with my stupidest and extremist criticism again!!

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