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Shariah, Fiqh and the Sciences of Nature - Part 4
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, educated at Cornell University and other institutions. He is author of several books and innumerable research papers. He has also been featured as an invited speaker in many countries. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed was a Chief Engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope and several Star War projects.  He was Institute Scholar at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor to University of New Mexico. He has also been Consultant to numerous other institutions of high training and research here and abroad.  He is currently President of WORDE, a non-profit NGO based on Washington, D.C. He is also Executive Director of American Institute of Islamic History and Culture and Consulting Dean to HMS Institute of technology, Bangalore, India)


The development of fiqh must be viewed in its historical context. All five of the predominant schools of fiqh were developed at a time when the Muslim empire dominated the Eurasian landmass and the Ijtihad of the great jurists reflected the societal issues of the times. The influx of different traditions and ideas during the eighth and ninth centuries of the Common Era had a profound impact on the development of jurisprudence. Specifically, the emergence of the Hanbali School of fiqh was a direct result of the convulsions caused by the Mu'tazilites (Greek rationalists) in the first half of the ninth century. These historical facts must be kept in mind as we discuss the principle of Ijtihad in modern times.

The Mu’tazilite School placed its anchor on human reason and its capability to understand the relationship of man to man and of man to God. Necessarily, they based their arguments on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The principles of the Mu’tazilah School were: (1) The uniqueness of God or Tawhid (“Say! He is God, the One; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begets not, nor is He begotten; and there is none like unto Him”, Qur’an, 112:1-5), (2) The free will of man (“If it had been thy Lord’s Will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!”, Qur’an, 10:99), (3) The principle of human responsibility and of reward and punishment as a consequence of human action (“On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear”, Qur’an, 2:286), (4) The moral imperative to enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong (“You are the most noble of people, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong and believing in God”, Qur’an, 3:110).. By placing man at the center of creation, the Mu'tazilites sought to make him the architect of his own fortunes and emphasized his moral imperative to fashion the world in the image of God’s command.

The Caliph al Mamun (d 833 CE) adopted the Mu’tazilite School as the official dogma of the Empire. From Caliph Mansur (d 775 CE) to Caliph Al Mutawakkil (d 861 CE), the Mu'tazilites enjoyed official patronage and they guided the intellectual ship of Islam. It was during this period that the Darul Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was established in Baghdad and books of Greek philosophy, Indian mathematics and Chinese technology were translated into Arabic. Islamic civilization at the time was open to ideas from the East and from the West. It integrated these ideas and produced a uniquely Islamic amalgam. Learning flourished and Baghdad became the intellectual capital of the world. New disciplines such as Algebra and Chemistry emerged. History and geography received new dimensions. Science and civilization advanced.

The undoing of the Mu'tazilites was their excessive zeal and their inability to comprehend the limitations of the methodology they championed. They overextended their methodology to attributes of God and of the Qur’an. God is unique and there is none like unto Him. Therefore, the Mu'tazilites argued, the Qur’an cannot both be part of Him and apart from Him. To preserve the uniqueness of God (Tawhid), and without sufficient understanding of the nature of time itself, they placed the Qur’an in the created space. The issue of “createdness” caused a great deal of division and confusion among Muslims. Furthermore, by maintaining that reward and punishment flowed mechanistically from human action, they left their flank exposed for an intellectual attack from the traditional schools. If humans are automatically rewarded for their good deeds and automatically punished for their evil, then where is the need for Divine Grace? This deterministic approach was repugnant to Muslims and a revolt was inevitable.

The challenge to the Mu'tazilites came from the Usuli (meaning, based on principles) ulema, the best known among whom was Imam Hanbal (d. 855 CE). A great scholar, he had mastered the principles of Fiqh from all the Schools prevalent in his generation, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Ja’afariya, as well as the Kalam (philosophical) Schools. Mu’tazilite ideas were causing confusion among the masses. Stability was required and innovation had to be curtailed. Imam Hanbal argued for strict adherence to the Qur’an and the verified Sunnah of the Prophet. Any principle, legal or philosophical, not based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah was to be considered bid'ah (innovation). Imam Hanbal took issue with the principle of Ijma (unless it was sanctioned by the Sunnah) and totally rejected Istihsan and Qiyas as methodologies for Fiqh.

The position of Imam Hanbal was a direct challenge to the Mu'tazilites who enjoyed official patronage from the Caliphs. With official sanction, they tried to silence all opposition t their ideas and punished the ulema who disagreed with Mu'tazilite doctrines. Imam Hanbal, along with many other ulema, was punished and jailed for most of his life. His sustained and determined opposition galvanized those who fought the Mu'tazilites. It was primarily through the efforts of Imam Hanbal that the Caliph Al Mutawakkil abandoned the Mu’tazilite School in 847 CE. In turn, when the traditionalists gained the upper hand, the Mu'tazilites were punished, jailed and their books confiscated. Such is the fate that differing ideas have suffered at times in Islamic history!

The Hanbali School flourished in Arabia and western Iraq until it was adopted by the Wahhabi movement in the late 18th century. When the Saudis captured Hijaz (1927 CE) the Hanbali Fiqh became the official school of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia. As practiced in Arabia, the Hanbali Fiqh is known for its abhorrence, indeed condemnation, of anything that is bid'ah (innovation). Because of their association with the cities of Mecca and Madina, these ideas have had an enormous impact on modern Islam.

The four schools of Sunnah Fiqh - Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali - are mutually recognized. However, there have been occasions when frictions between them played an important part in the outcome of historical events. Specifically, just before the invasions of Genghis Khan (1219 CE), one reads of overt hostility between the followers of the Hanafi, Shafi’i and Ja’afariya Fiqh in Khorasan and Persia, a situation that played to the advantage of Genghis in his war against Shah Muhammed of Khorasan..

The school of thought that had perhaps the most pervasive impact on Islamic thinking was the Asharite. Indeed, one may take the position that Asharite ideas have been a primary driver of Islamic civilization since the ninth century of the Common Era. The vast majority of Muslims through the centuries have followed one of five schools of fiqh (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, and Ja’afariya) plus the Asharite philosophy. The difference is that the five schools of Fiqh are overtly discussed whereas Asharite ideas have been absorbed into Islamic culture like water in an oasis. The direction, achievements and failures of Islamic civilization have been influenced in no small measure by Asharite thinking. From Al Ghazzali of Baghdad (d. 1111 CE) to Muhammed Iqbal of Pakistan (d. 1938 CE), Asharite ideas have burst out on the Islamic landscape like an ebullient fountain and have influenced the direction of collective Muslim struggles.

Named after its architect, al Ashari (d. 935 CE), it was the Asharite School that finally expelled the Mu'tazilites from Muslim body politic. Al Ashari was initially a Mu’tazilite. The Mu’tazilite School had placed reason above revelation and had come to the erroneous conclusion that the Qur’an was created in time. Such views were repugnant to Muslims. Al Ashari turned the argument around and placed revelation ahead of reason. Reason is time bound. It requires a-priori assumptions about before and after. Revelation is transcendent. By definition, it is not subject to our understanding of time and our assumptions of before and after. It is revelation, not reason, that tells us what is right and wrong, helps us differentiate between moral and immoral, enlightens us of the attributes of God and gives us certainty about heaven and hell. Reason is a tool bestowed by God upon humans so that they may sort out the relationships in the created world and reinforce their belief.

The crux of the Asharite argument lies in its definition of the phenomenon of time. Al Ashari was well aware of the Greek view that matter may be divided into atoms. He extended this argument to time and postulated that time moves in discrete steps, a view not far off from modern views of quantum mechanics. At each discrete step and at all times in between, the power and Grace of God intervenes to determine the outcome of events. This conceptual breakthrough enabled the Asharites to preserve the omnipotence of God. Whereas the Mu'tazilites had failed on this score precisely because they assumed (much as Newtonian Mechanics does today) that time is continuous so that a given action automatically and mechanistically, leads to a reaction. If the outcome of an event is completely determined by the action that causes it, then there is no room for the intervention of God and the world becomes secular. This is precisely what happened to the Western (and now global) civilization a thousand years later. We may summarize the Asharite pyramid of knowledge as follows: Atoms and the physical world are at the lowest rung of the ladder. The physical world is subject to reason. But reason itself is subject to and superseded by revelation. By contrast, the model presented by the Mu'tazilites (as well as the Greeks and the modern secular civilization) places both the physical world and revelation subject to understanding by reason.
Two other important elements of the Asharite philosophy need to be stated. The Asharites asserted that only God is the owner of all action (Qur’an, 10:100). Man has no independent capacity to act but is merely an agent who has acquired this capacity as a gift from God. This doctrine, known as the doctrine of Kasab, was misunderstood and misinterpreted by later generations of Muslims as predestination.

Secondly, the Asharites held that there is a divine pattern in nature but no causality. The cause and effect that we perceive is only apparent and is only a reflection of the attributes that are inherent in nature. This doctrine was a central argument in Al Ghazzali’s famous treatise, Tahaffuz al Falsafa (The Repudiation of the Philosophers, written circa 1100 CE) that provided the death-knell for philosophy in Islam and fundamentally changed the course of Islamic history. Ibn Rushd (1198 CE), perhaps the greatest philosopher the world has produced since Aristotle, provided a counter-argument to this doctrine in his famous treatise, Tahaffuz al Tahaffuz (Repudiation of Repudiation, circa 1190 CE). The Muslims adopted Al Ghazzali, whereas the West adopted Ibn Rushd and the two civilizations went in different directions. The consequences for the unfolding of global history were enormous.       (To be continued)


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