One of the characteristic features of most reverential legends is that they obfuscate more than they reveal about religious personalities. When the Prophet of Islam returned to Mecca, his point of origin, in January 630 and consummated what Ziauddin Sardar (a scholar/writer/critic specializing in Muslim thought, in his seminal work “Mecca: The Sacred City”, 2014) calls “the moral heart of his mission”, his most important message at this moment of his most complete triumph was the assertion that peaceful coexistence is not only possible but the essential basis for doing good, for enacting ways for justice and equity as living realities for all. There are obvious references, which clearly indicate the necessity of such coexistence among people of different communities, more specifically, Muslims, Jews, Sabians, Christians, Zoroastrians (“Magians”), and polytheists as mentioned in the Qur’an (Cf. Qur’an 2:62, 5:69 and 22:17).
At its inception, the idea of “Islam” (literally ‘submission’) was a call for justice, a protest of inequity. It was a demand for inclusiveness, for unity and equality for all under the umbrella of one god. Aside from the politics of the times, the original community founded by Muhammad in Medina was a multi-religious community comprising Muslims, Jews, Christians, and polytheists. It was this kind of heterodoxy that thrived in some of Islam’s greatest cities, such as, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Marrakesh, Cordoba and Tehran for long. Yet, ironically, the city of Mecca, the very “portal of paradise”, was to be closed to all but Muslims. This was a particular legacy of the Umayyad dynasty, which receives little mention by religious scholars of Islam – a legacy, which, in effect, led to a certain closing of the Muslim mind.
When Baghdad was a center of Muslim thought and learning in the 8th and 9th centuries, Mecca turned into a haven for anti-rationalists. This was partly due to the influence of the Kharijites, the puritans obsessed with the idea of keeping the religion “pure” and uncorrupted by what they called bid’ah (‘innovation’, or ‘foreign thought and ideas’). This view expressed itself in the form of an utter distaste for philosophy which was perceived as a product of human reasoning, and, therefore, as bad as “associating partners with God”. Under this view, taqlid (‘imitation’) of the Prophet’s companions, their successors, and the successors of the successors, was to become the norm. The latter, as would be expected, was likely to suffer an enormous misinterpretation, and that is what happened.
In continued tension with the idea of taqlid was the notion of Ijtehad – the principle of movement, which gave birth to inductive intellect in Islam. Here, in order to achieve full consciousness one must finally be thrown back on one’s own resources. Ironically, under the most traditionalist and regressive views of Islam, this beautiful concept of Ijtehad is condemned as “heresy” and “innovation”, and has been more or less completely ignored by the modern Muslim world, with some exceptions which are often debarred from claiming the faith by the traditionalists.
Note that it was during the 9th century that the old idea that “only what was stored in memory was truly known” was replaced by a new emphasis on writing down hadith and legal judgments. And it was now that the traditions of the Prophet were being compiled, collected and canonized by various scholars. Consequently, the degree and extent of the authenticity of some of these compilations is rather questionable (Recall that the holy Qur’an itself was revealed in disjointed verses and chapters over a period of twenty-two years, i.e., between 610 and 632 C.E. The Prophet recited the verses to his companions who, in turn, were instructed to memorize them. The verses were “collected” later on and compiled and organized in the form of the chapters of the manuscript that we see today).
What was sacrificed in the exercise of the canonization of the hadith was the idea of complete authority in legislation. Hence, the significance of change and continued reinterpretation of the Islamic Law was gradually erased from its history, giving way to the ever-strengthening radical ideologies, which are not only primitive in their nature but also extremely regressive and anti-humanitarian. Until and unless the notion of Ijtehad is reclaimed, the Muslim communities across the world are highly vulnerable to radical ideology and, hence, susceptible to intellectual degradation.
© Sadaf Munshi. Dec. 10, 2015. (Updated on Dec. 27, 2015).
(Ref. Ziauddin Sardar. 2014. “Mecca: The Sacred City”. Bloomsbury, India.)