WHAT IS ISLAMIC “tradition”? Why and how has it been neglected? Why do we still need it in our modern world? What is the value of unity and diversity in Islam and how can these be maintained and kept in balance? We answer all of these questions in the six parts of this series.
Tradition Out of Vogue in the Modern World
We live in a modern world, “modern” being the opposite of “traditional.” But not everyone is equally modern. Technically, there is no other way to exist, since ‘modern’ means simply “now-existing” or “recent.” For about the last three centuries, however, Westerners have thought that their “now” was unique compared with, better than, and superior to their “past” (and everyone else’s past or present)—and that through Westernization of the world they had imposed the same story on all.
It is a story to which non-Westerners have eagerly converted and tried to live by. But here is the tragic dilemma of our times: Those who are not modern are dying to become modern (often literally and with the help of the moderns), whereas those who are modern find their lives to be fragmented, vacuous, confused, incomplete, and hopeless. And as if in sync, the planet Earth, the single irrefutable stony observer, is telling the moderns, too shrilly to ignore now, that their time is up, that they have wasted it all away.
Let us, therefore, stop bemoaning the fact that it wasn’t Muslims who first became modern and made “progress”—and let us thank Allah for it. If there is something to bemoan, it is the extent to which we have failed to uphold our covenant with Allah, to persevere through the test, to strive harder. But it is not time to lament, but rather to move, to return, to live Islam in its fullness, with its past, present, and future. That’s all Islamic Tradition is about!
My aim in this essay is to urge believing Muslims, from whatever background, level of expertise (and yes, our ʿulamâ’ need this reminder too!), profession, or ideological persuasion they hail, to embrace Islamic Tradition—Islam here being the preservation and culmination of the prophetic Tradition, and its core, the Sharîʿah, with the joyous seriousness and blissful commitment that it deserves. In fact, most practicing and religious Muslims today, including many “scholars” and celebrities, fall short of living by the Sharîʿah and routinely make avoidable lifestyle choices—not merely minor sins or blights—that contradict what they know to be part of the Sharîʿah.
Of course, there are true scholars, very, very rare, whose store of knowledge has blossomed into trepidation and loving fear of Allah.
For it is only those of His servants who fear Allah that are the knowers. [Sûrat Fâ ṭir, 35:28]
And when “good” Muslims fall short, they repel the fence-riders and the weak-hearted even further from Islam and its Tradition.
Islamic Tradition, Our Cumulative Scholarly Accomplishment
Muslims are heir to a great tradition—the greatest of all endeavors in human history, in fact, in its ultimate aim, that of pleasing Allah, but also marvelous in its richness, diversity, and sophistication. Notice that I refer to Islamic Tradition as a “human endeavor”—because by Islamic Tradition we primarily mean today not just the divine word, the Quran, and the Prophetic teachings, ḥadîth—the scriptural Texts of Islam—but chiefly the learning of Muslim scholars and sages throughout the ages.
This distinction is important because no one can question the Quran and the Prophetic teachings and remain a Muslim—and no Muslim today who questions the worth of Islamic Tradition and traditional learning—and, unfortunately, many do—questions these scriptural Texts.
Now, most religious Muslims do not, of course, announce that Islamic Tradition is worthless to them. They simply act that way. One can look about them in our community and compile whole volumes of merely the names of the seemingly righteous, masjid-going, masjid-running Muslims (some of whom have insisted that their children even memorize the Quran) whose actual commitment is cipher—their commitment to learning, investing in, supporting, and encouraging their children to seriously take up the study of, or to develop, Islamic Tradition as a solution to the future of human kind.
To drive my point home, often when I introduce myself as somebody who teaches and researches Islam, I am accorded a certain formal respect from Muslims. But I am also presumed to be someone who obviously could not do anything else. When I tell my interlocutors I hold degrees in nuclear physics, computer science, engineering, and social science, eyes widen, and I am told, sometimes explicitly: “Brother, you should have told us that. We thought ….” Yes, that is what we all think, for the most part. And it’s a pity.
How to Respect Tradition
It is important, therefore, to properly define the issue underlying the intellectual and religious turmoil of Islam in our times. The key questions are as follows: Whether Muslims have need for previous Islamic learning beyond the scriptural texts? And if we do, What is the proper way to approach this tradition of learning? Are we to treat it like a mine of useful quotes, stories, and interpretations to pick from as we choose? Or must we devote ourselves to one specific school of the many groups and sects that fall within Islamic Tradition to the exclusion of all else? Or, is there some other way?
Most Muslims today know about the Quran—even if few are willing or able to understand and appreciate it—and many know some ḥadîth and sîrah (the life-story of the Prophet). The more ambitious might even be aware of the lives and achievements of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and other Companions of the Prophet s, Allah be pleased with them.
But then there follows a gap in our knowledge, stretching over nearly 1,400 years, of how Muslims have lived and understood Islam. It goes without saying, as far as believing Muslims are concerned, that we must preserve and uphold, even at the cost of our lives, the heart of our Tradition, namely, the Quran and the Sunnah. But what many even well-meaning Muslims have forgotten today is that in order to preserve this heart, we must preserve the organs that bring blood to and from it. That is, we must preserve and critically engage with the unfolding of Islamic Tradition in history, the legacy of the fourteen centuries of Islam.
Preserving the Preservers of the Quran and Sunnah
Of course, the primary achievement of Islamic Tradition has been to preserve through the vicissitudes of time the Message of Allah, the teachings of His Messenger ﷺ, and the normative practices of the Companions of His Messenger. Let me call this the heart of Islamic Tradition.
Next in importance is the record of the efforts of the best of the believers, generation after generation, to teach, guide, and correct each other in the mission of living Islam. These curators of Islamic Tradition include believing Muslim scholars of a variety of religious sciences and their supporters and patrons from across the ethnic and linguistic kaleidoscope of the Islamic world across fourteen hundred some years.
The resources needed to understand the heart of our tradition, such as language, cultural context, the whole thought-world that is presupposed by the Quran, have been preserved and developed during this period. Some might object that all we need is the Quran and the Sunnah—but this would be a sign of sheer ignorance because, as anyone marginally familiar with the Islamic Tradition (or anybody of knowledge) knows, we cannot understand even the language, let alone any higher significations, of these primary texts except through the sciences of exegesis, jurisprudence, ḥadîth-criticism, grammar, and so on, as they have been developed over the centuries.
Upholding the Preserved Heart of Our Tradition
Furthermore, there is the issue of maturity and experience. Just as Allah informed the first followers of the Prophet ﷺ regarding the history and experiences of the previous “muslim” ummahs of their time, the Children of Israel in particular, in order to give them a concrete sense of what it means to live by Allah’s message, so too must we learn how our ummah has fared in the past, in what ways various groups of Muslims have often done well, and in what ways we must improve.
This continued, rich, and rigorous struggle to understand and uphold the correct meanings and implications of the divine message include warding off challenges from outside as well as inside. In the past, defending against foreign challenges and resolving internal conflicts naturally led to enduring disagreements, which in turn have led to the creation of various schools and sects within Islamic Tradition. Our attitude toward this “ikhtilâf,” or divergence, is part of the moral and spiritual test that Allah has placed before us as believers.
Addressing the Neglect of Islamic Tradition by Today’s Muslims
The point is that living Islam wholeheartedly is much easier said than done. I, therefore, want to address what I take to be the two main reasons for the massive neglect of the Islamic Tradition on the part of Muslims today.
The first primary reason comprises what I call the Nishapur and Umayyad syndromes, the two inner enemies of Islamic Tradition. The Nishapur syndrome is widespread dissention within the Tradition that leads at times to fanatic sectarianism. The Umayyad syndrome is vacuous calls for unity or harmony without attention to proper beliefs, principles, and limits.
The second main reason for Muslim neglect of Islamic Tradition is the illusory façade of modernity and “progress,” which contradicts not only Islam, but also science and reason. These last two, science and reason—when properly understood—Islam urges us to embrace.
In Part 2, we will, Inshâ’Allah, move on to reasons why Islamic Tradition has come to be neglected.
Originally posted 2015-07-06 12:00:31.