The Research Methodology in Traditional Islamic Scholarship
An intellectual journey to engage Islamic Traditional Heritage
Islamic civilization has undoubtedly played a major part in the development and advancement of human civilization, which shows that classical Muslim scholars and scientists were ahead of others in discovering many scientific theories, facts, and methods from which modern civilization has immensely benefited. One who studies the Islamic intellectual heritage realizes that it is like a beacon of light in scientific research and methodology as well as of values, conduct and behavior in research and thought. This treatise aims to set out the principles, foundations, and start-points that the researcher must follow in Islamic scholarship so that his work is in accordance with a scholarly methodology found in seminal works and crafted by geniuses of Islamic Scholarship in the span of Islamic Intellectual history.
Research (Bahth): is a word that carries a general sense in the Arabic language meaning, “to seek out or investigate a thing ”.
Definition of Method: is “a way that leading to discovering reality in fields of knowledge by means of a set of general principles that govern the use of reasoning and determine a course of action so that one many arrive at a specific result.”
Scholarly Research may be defined as specialized study in a specified field according to a determined methodology and set of principles.
The Methodology of Scholarly Research in Islamic Studies
Islamic Studies is renewed in each generation and will continue to exist throughout time. It is incumbent on people and those who bear its responsibility to receive it and to convey it to people, which is an obligation based on the text of the Quran and the command of the Prophet (peace be upon him): “Nor should the believers all go forth together: if a contingent from every party remained behind, they could devote themselves to studies in religion and admonish the people when they return to them― that thus they (may learn) to guard themselves (against evil)” (9: 122). This verse relates to its reception and as for conveying it, the following verse: “Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book on them shall be Allah's curse and the curse of those entitled to curse. Except those who repent and make amends and openly declare (the truth) to them I turn; for I am Oft-Returning Most Merciful” (1:159-160).
By turning away from engaging with every intellectual perplexity or with all human problems, the student of Islamic studies violates an obligation and opens the way for those who have biased aims and sick souls.
Muslim researchers and students fulfill a collective duty imposed on the Muslim community, which is greater than fulfilling an individual duty because fulfilling the collective duty fulfills the shortcomings of the entire community and make amends on its behalf . Imam Zarkashi (d. 794 H.) states, “It is a collective duty to produce books on whoever Allah has given understanding and insight. Despite its short lifetime, the Muslim community continues to grow and develop with regard to its intellectual capabilities and knowledge is not permitted to be concealed. If writing books were abandoned, knowledge would be lost for people .”
Expanding Islamic Studies in Time and Place
Islamic Studies is a broad field, encompassing a wide range of periods, places, and topics. As for time, it encompasses 14 centuries of history. As for place, minds from all across the world have undertaken work in Islamic Studies. As for topic, many fields of study have been produced on the vast subject of Islam and they continue to develop and grow. Haji Khalifah (d. 1675 CE) enumerates in his book Kashf al-Zunun 300 sciences and fields of study . If we take the Quranic sciences alone as an example, we find that it comprises 80 fields, according to what Suyuti (d. 911 H) has listed in his book, al-Itqan, and exegesis (tafsir) is one of the 80. If we consider exegesis alone, and examine its various kinds, we find that it comprises approximately 10 branches, under each of which there have been a multitude of works produced. The kinds include:
1. Exegesis written by scholars of hadith and transmitted reports.
2. Exegesis written by scholars of theology and creed.
3. Exegesis written by jurists and scholars of legal theory.
4. Exegesis written by grammarians and linguists.
5. Exegesis written by literati and rhetoricians.
6. Exegesis by scholars of the art of recitation.
7. Exegesis written by Sufis and ascetics.
8. Exegesis written by historians and storytellers.
9. Exegesis written by social reformers.
10. Exegesis written by scientists in various fields.
11. Exegesis that combine two or more kinds mentioned above.
As for the sciences of the Sunna (Prophetic tradition), it consists of more than 90 fields, for instance law and its sources, the history of Islamic law, principles of faith, the study of sects and schools of thought, Prophetic biography, Islamic history, and Arabic language studies. All this, and others, explain the wide scope of the field of Islamic studies with regard to time, place and subject. However, these sciences focus on the Quran and the Sunna and all such studies exist for the serve these two foundational sources and focus on them.
The Aims and Objective of Writing in Islamic Studies
For any research in a field of Islamic studies or any other field of study, there must be an objective and a goal that one seeks to achieve. The scholars have set out 7 points regarding writing, which Ibn Hazm (d. 456 H) lists in his book Introducing the Field of Logic and Ibn Khaldun (d. 1382 CE) clarifies them in the Muqaddimah:
“People have enumerated the aims of writing which one must follow exclusively. They are seven:
1. Elucidation and expositions that can take different ways and forms: Deriving knowledge of the subject; setting out the chapters and sections of the science; apprehending the problems (of the science) or deriving them. There are problems dealt with by an adept scholar who conveys it to others so that it is spread. He preserves his knowledge by writing books so that his successors could benefit from it, as was the case with the principles of jurisprudence.
Imam al-Shafiʿi (d. 204 H) first discusses linguistic legal proof and summarized his discussion. Then the Hanafis came along and derived problems concerning analogical reasoning (qiyas) and exhausted the question and those who came after benefited from it.
2. To come across the positions of the predecessors and their works and find them difficult to access and God provides understanding of them. Thus one is keen to expound that to others so that what is inaccessible is made accessible to those deserving of it. This is the approach of elucidating knowledge in both rational and transmitted sciences and it is a noble distinction.
3. For a successor to come across an error or mistake in the words of a predecessor, who is well-known for his virtue. One should ensure that it is a mistake by means of a clear proof that does not allow for any doubt. And one should ensure that it is communicated to those after him, since it might be difficult to undo given how books spread across the world and due to the fame of the author and people’s trust in his knowledge. So one should produce such a book so that this is clarified to others.
4. For a certain field or science to be missing a problem or section, according to how its subject matter is divided. So one who grasps this should aim to complete what is missing regarding those problems so complete the science and no deficiencies are left.
5. For the problems of a science to be arranged or organized incorrectly. One who recognizes this should aim to organize it correctly and arrange all the problems in the suitable chapter. Such was the case with the Mudawwana of Ibn Sahnun, narrated from Ibn al-Qasim (d. 854 H) and in al-Utbiyya narrated by al-Utbi from the companions of Imam Malik. The problems are many that are dealt with in the chapters of law and many were placed in chapter that is not suitable. So Ibn Abi Zayd (d. 996 H) revised the Mudawwana and the Utbiyya remain unrevised, so we find in every chapter problems that are from another chapter. So they sufficed with the Mudawwana and what Ibn Abi Zayd, al-Barada’i and others did with it.
6. For the problems of a science to be dispersed in other sciences, so some learned person pays attention to the subject of the science and bring together its problems. By this he brings out a field that he organizes amongst the other sciences that people adopt, as was the case with rhetoric and Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 474 H).
7. For a work that falls within the core sciences and is comprehensive to be lengthy and details, so one aims to author a work that extracts from it by summarizing and avoiding repetition, while being cautious of excising what is necessary so that one does not contravene the aim of the first author .”
This is the collection of aims that one must consider and follow in producing written works. What is done for other than these is not needed. Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi (d. 543 H) has aptly summarized these seven aims which were ascribed to earlier thinkers by his saying: “A judicious person, who undertakes the writing of a book, should not stray from two goals: Either to produce a meaning or devise a new order and structure, according to what we have set out in Qanun al-Tawil and determined in al-Tahsil in a general and detailed manner. Whatever is not included in these two aspects is simply putting ink on paper and adorning pages by plagiarism .” With regard to this, it is necessary for the researcher to place his goal and objective in front of him and what he and his religion will derive from it.
The Steps of Undertaking Research in terms of Content and Structure.
1. Competency and preparation for research
Preparation and training grounding one’s intention and desire is the necessary foundations for doing research. The one who conducts research in Islamic studies, whatever his specialization, must do two things:
a. One must be acquainted with its principles and foundational concepts, that is, the Qur’an and the Sunna. This is the minimal requirement, as mentioned in the Prophetic report: " This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones in every time, they purge from it the distortions of the extremists and the interpretations of those who see to make the Book of Allaah false and the interpretations of the ignorant " To the extent that the student is grounded in the fundamentals he will come close to the truth and what is correct.
b. To be well grounded in the field that one is concerned with, like exegesis, hadith, law, legal theory, creed, and so on. Whoever is not grounded in his area of specialization, and does not have firm knowledge of the area in which he is writing, how will he contribute? What will be revised? And what will be understood on so as to be commented on?
Knowledge of the technical terms of a certain field is a part of being well grounded in it, and knowing their meanings with precision, since every science has its own terminology. Sometimes there is overlap between the terminologies of two or more different areas of study. So it is necessary for one to recognize the special usages and to master their application in expressions and in eloquence. Scholars have noticed bad usage in terminology due to individuals consulting books that mix the terminology between various disciplines, such as the Ta’rifat al-Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1414 H).
The meanings of the terms of the Quran are complete in its own field, as are the terms of hadith, grammar, law, legal theory, and philosophy. It is not appropriate to use the terms of one science in another, because its meaning will not be correct or complete in a field that is not its own.
It is not scholarly for a writer to define the terms of one field in another. I fear that the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him) will apply: “One who is sated by what is not rightfully given to him is like one who wears a stolen shirt .” Imam Dhahabi (d. 748 H) confirms, regarding the way to being grounded in the science of hadith and how to master its areas of inquiry and fields, that, “There is no way for a scholar who investigates the character of the transmitter of reports to become a master except by persisting in seeking and investigating these matters, by doing much revision, by staying up, by understanding through piety, by strong faith, impartiality, frequenting the circles of the scholars, deep investigation, and mastery. Otherwise, “Leave writing for you are not of it, even if you turn your face black with ink .”
The Scholars used to say long ago: The value of a person is in what he perfects. The scholars, over the centuries, have emphasized the necessity of preparation and training before producing written works and they have warned against doing so before that. Abu Amr ibn al-Ala (d. 154 H) states, “A person is free of mind and safe from people’s tongues, as long as he does not produce a book or recite poetry .”
What we observe in terms of the inadequacy of students and training is the result of a deficiency in their education and lack of effort in acquiring knowledge of the Quran, Sunna and Islamic knowledge. It is hazardous for such kinds of students to embark on producing books, since they either sabotage the way by appropriating the works of their predecessors or by producing ideas that are lowly and immature. At the worst, such works affect the Muslim community and life and impede the development of Islamic thought.
Amongst those kinds are students that have no training in Islamic Studies, like those training in literature, medicine, history, engineering, physics, and chemistry. They randomly pick out verses from the Quran or hadith reports and derive rulings that God did not sanction. At this moment, Islamic knowledge is confronted by the ideas of such confused people.
2. Knowing Research Fields and Mastering Them
It is incumbent on every researcher in a certain field to know the dimensions of the field in which he wishes to emerge himself fully, before he begins to write on the topic. So he must be well acquainted with the condition of the field and know the major works of the field which were passed down over the centuries, that were recognized by those specialized in the field as being exceptional and original, and being accepted. He should teach a course on these works by taking a book that brings together these major works and teach the book masterfully. This way he will understand a wide range of problems of the field. Then he should examine what contemporaries have written on the topic, during his investigation and research. And he should examine the various opinions of the pioneers and ideologues in the field to know what is agreed upon and what is subject to dispute in the field and to distinguish what is clear from what is problematic and what is correct from what is unfounded. This will open windows for research and make one a true specialist. Imam Dhahabi (d. 648 H) states, “The student should first study a book in law and if he memorized it, he investigates it and examines commentaries on it. If he is intelligent and a natural talent in law and grasps the proofs of the Imams then he should observe God and be cautious of his religion, because the best of faith is caution. Whoever leaves what is doubtful is free from blame in his religion and honor .” What applies to law applies to other sciences.
Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406 CE) also states, “Proficiency and mastery in a field is only achieved by obtaining a skill in comprehending the principles and rules of the field, and understanding its problems, and deriving solution from its principles. As long as this skill is not obtained, proficiency in that field will not be obtained .”
3. Muslim scholarly Research and its Benefits for Humanity
It is necessary for the researcher to keep in mind the benefit that accrues to people as a result of his work, and the contribution that his work will make. Does it take up a general or specific problem? an existent one, or one that is simply anticipated? Does it have any value to begin with? Or is it, rather, a waste of time? For an investigation that wastes years of a researcher’s life, and offers no benefit is itself a problem.
Oddly, these days we often hear about people lecturing in America or Europe, or submitting articles and books on, for example, visiting shrines, etc. And yet others investigate the color of the People of the Cave, and of the Cow of Moses, etc. This is simply idiocy. Are there shrines in America and Europe? And are people really confronted with these issues?
On this point, our predecessors would answer the questions they were asked; they would write and arrange books. When they were asked about rulings or the details of an issue, they would ask the questioner, “Is this an actually existing issue? Do you fear its actually coming to pass?” If the questioner responded in the affirmative, they would investigate the original question and answer. If not, they would refrain from answering, and rebuke the questioner. In terms of wasting time, it is enough for us to point to the verse: “Those are a people who have passed away; theirs is that which they earned and yours that which ye earn. And ye will not be asked of what they used to do.” (Al-Baqara: 134, 141). These are discussions that have nothing to do with the real world. It is of no value that man spend a precious hour of his time in this, for they are dead discussions, and do not move anyone to anything. This indicates the strong connection between knowledge and life and the importance of knowledge in directing people towards the true path.
In a similar vein, we can point to the importance of considering the length of one’s written research. Excessively lengthening one’s work these days has the effect of lessening the ability to derive benefit from it. How many works have there been in the pasts that have forced scholars to undertake summaries because of their lengthiness?
4-Proper Structuring, Mapping and Classification of the Research Field
Scholars of hadith and jurisprudence have explained the importance of proper structuring and mapping of the research field. They call it in Arabic “al-sabr wa’l-taqseem”. Al-sabr is following the routes of hadith to know its narrators, and al-taqseem is distinguishing every issue from the others in order to make it easier to think about it. They added al-taqseem in an effort to clarify and explain in detail. Among the most beneficial matters in the field of acquiring sensory knowledge, or theoretical deductive knowledge, is differentiating and gathering, i.e., dividing the universal into its particulars and its categories, and gathering together the particulars into universals.
In dividing the universals, it becomes easier to study every category carefully and in detail. After studying the particulars, and deriving judgments, the operation becomes once more about gathering similar judgments (what are called ashbah and naza’ir), and giving them the quality of a comprehensive universal principle .
5-Gathering information with awareness and forethought
The beginning of any purposeful reading is to gather all information which has to do with the research in question in any manner; and to know all the relevant books, their strengths and weaknesses, and the orientations of their writers. It is especially important that the researcher take aware of this last point. For example, the Wafiyyat al-A’yan of Ibn Khallikan (d.1282 CE) is a famous books often relied upon, even though Ibn Kathir (d. 774 H) said about him that he refrained from abusing those he gave biographies for, especially the literati, despite their poor behavior, beliefs, and schools of thought. For example, is there anyone better known for his heterodoxy than Ibn Rawandi (d. 911 CE)? But when Ibn Khallikan (d.1282 CE) speaks of him, he calls him “the famous scholar,” and mentions his works without presenting any of its faults. This is why Ibn Kathir (d. 774 H) often comments, “This was in accord with [Ibn Khallikan’s] practice of being lenient, and diverting his eyes from the faults of the likes of this wretch…” Ibn Nadim (d. 998H) , too, inclined towards Shi’ism, which explains why he would regard highly those of this school, and exaggerate in praising them, and describing others as laymen. There are also among contemporary ignorant and unprincipled people who denigrate the geniuses among Muslim scholars and raise up ignorant people. Therefore, researchers must exercise caution, for knowledge of the value of any given source is very important for helping arrive at the truth.
6- Thoroughly analyzing the intellectual material, its ordering and framework
After gathering and authenticating material, the researcher must examine it thoroughly, seek to derive judgments from it, and frame it in a manner that acknowledges its chronology, formation, development, and change. Each issue should be prefaced by a Qur’anic passage and a sound prophetic report. There should also be an exegesis of these texts from reliable sources. This methodology clarifies for us the development of thinking of the people of knowledge, their status, and what they have contributed over generations. From this, we may come to realize the impact of time and place.
It is mandatory that if the researcher relates a thought from the original writer that he imbibe it fully, and the roles of all the personalities involved in its narration. Imam Al-Nawawi (d. 676 H) says in his book Al-Majmu Sharh Al-Muhadhdhab fi al-fiqh Al-shafi’i: “Know that the books of the madhhab contain serious disagreements among the scholars, such that it may not be apparent that what the writer says is the prevalent opinion until you also study many of the agreed-upon works of the school . This means that the researcher must undertake a deep study of the madhhab and learn each opinion, disagreement, etc., so that he may come to know that which he desires.
Among modern thinkers, we find this emphasis on methodology in the work of Descartes in his Meditations. He says, “I will follow my thoughts beginning with the simplest of matters and the easiest of knowledge so that I may gradually advance until I arrive at a more organized knowledge. Rather, that I impose an order among things that do not precede one another naturally.” Islamic knowledge grew slowly, and so it must also be organized as such. Then, Descartes says, “And that I act in all situations from complete information and comprehensive sources towards that which gives me confidence that I have not neglected anything .” Indeed, this methodology followed by the scholars of Islam opens the field so that each future generation may add something new, correcting and refining what came before until it reaches a stage of perfection.
7-Scholarly Integrity in relating ideas
With respect to the issue of integrity in relating and attributing ideas to people, Qadi ‘Iyad (d. 1149) has said, “Scholarly integrity in attributing sayings and ideas to people is to be done without even the slightest shortcoming, whether the attribution is to a great person or not, to a Muslim or not, to a pious person or not, to an early personality or a later one .” The scholars of Islam have set a great example in such scholarly integrity because the Qur’an itself has laid down this principle. This is of great benefit in the Islamic sciences, like the science of hadith, which has set out a methodology for authentic reports narrated from the Prophet (peace be upon him).
As mentioned, the Qur’an itself has set out the principle of integrity, for it mentions the beliefs of other nations as they are, even though it considers them misguided. It informs us of the state of the hypocrites, how they are in both private and public, and responds to them. It also clarifies for us what the pagans did to the Prophet. This is the methodology followed by the scholars of Islam, among themselves and with others, in relating proofs as they were, in full, without changing or distorting them. Only then did they seek to contradict them or point out their mistakes. Examples of this are found in the books of Al-Ash’ari(d. 324 H), Al-Baqillani(d.402 H), Al-Razi(d.313 H), Al-Ghazali(d.505 H), Ibn Taymiyya( d. 728 H), Ibn Al-Qayyim( d751 H), Al-Shaybani(d. 805), Al-Shafi’i(d. 204 H), Al-Tahawi(d. 303 H), Al-Tabari(d.310 H), and Abd Al-Qahir Al-Baghdadi(d. 1037CE). They were exemplars of truth and integrity, and related ideas even if they were misguided, in order to demonstrate where they went wrong. This is why it is said, “Relating disbelief is not itself disbelief,” i.e., so as to remove obstacles from engaging in dialogue and debate, and importantly to fulfill the demands of scholarly integrity.
Through this commitment to integrity, we are able to access ideas not found in other places, because the works of their proponents had disappeared and perished. As such, the work of these great scholars became the references for learning views of others which were not longer extant.
It is also necessary that we not engage in unscholarly game in the transmission of texts by truncating them, or omitting parts, so as to remove disagreements with the point of view of the researcher. Rather, researchers must display truthfulness at all times.
8-Proper understanding of the texts and specifying their meanings
Another aspect of intellectual integrity of the utmost importance is the issue of committing to principles for properly understanding the texts, and specifying their meanings in a manner that accord with these principles.
The most dangerous thing in the field of knowledge is that a person follows his own whims and subjective opinions, his desires and his unreflective positions. That is why the Qur’an has warned against following one’s whims aimlessly. One of the manifestations of this is follow aberrant opinions, weak positions, and deviant explanations, for these could be in the service of one’s personal whims and desires.
The Qur’an has demanded of the Muslim that he speak the truth (“Speak the truth from your Lord”). And the Prophet reaffirmed this in the oath of allegiance his Companions took. They said, “The Prophet took an oath from us that we would listen and obey, that we would speak the truth wherever we are, and that we would not fear anything but God.” Similarly, the scholars of Islam affirmed this when they stipulated that anyone who follows simply the dispensations of a school has left it without any true semblance of religion .” The issue of a proper understanding of the text -- especially the Qur’an and the Sunna – began with the early Muslims, and slowly they formed principles for understanding. The early Muslims formed a science to understand the text properly, and generalize it to other sciences (since its principles are rational, natural, and inductive). That science was Islamic legal theory, whose discussions center on explaining the text, dealing with its external meaning in a proper manner, and determining when that is appropriate and when not.
9-Resorting to specialists
The honest researcher will use as his reference in every science, specialists of that science. He will take his information from trustworthy original sources, relied upon in the field. Indeed, specialists are to be given preference over others because they have gathered together all the relevant issues, specified the principles of the science, compiled books, and dealt with difficult matters. So, in the sciences of Qur’an and Qur’anic recitation, one resorts to specialists, just as is the case with hadith, language, etc.
Paying special attention to this explains the issues that have afflicted some who leave aside the principles of an issue, and instead relate opinions from here and there without authenticating or subjecting them to rational thought. As a result, there are much mix ups, and a lot of mistakes. That’s why it is so important for researchers in Islamic studies to attain knowledge through a proper methodological framework.
10-Impartial and honest criticism
The accomplished and trained researcher need not sit on his hands and not reveal his thoughts. Rather, he has the right to understand and explain his own understanding of the Qur’an, Sunna and deriving intellectual production from them. He has the right to criticize and evaluate constructively. There should be no text that he comes across having to do with his area of study and which he deems to be in need of evaluation or correction except that he corrects the record as he sees it. If there is something he does not understand it, he may point to it and explain it. For if he does not mention this, it is an indication of his acceptance of what is said, and implicitly becomes responsible for what he stated.
The principle for this right to evaluate is found in the golden statement of Imam Malik bin Anas (d. 179 H), “Everyone’s opinion may be accepted or rejected except for the person in this grave,” pointing to the grave of the Prophet (peace be upon him). This is because in the Islamic paradigm only the Prophet is infallible.
Honest intellectual criticism is a positive feature of this umma. At the root of this, is the tradition of intellectual authentication and production among the hadith scholars, jurists, jurisprudents, historians and other specialists. Al-Nawawi said that he criticized great scholars and exposed their mistakes because the truth is greater.
The spirit of criticism and evaluation demands that it be practiced by the genuine researcher on himself as well as others. As the scholars would say, “Beware of putting forth your works before they have been refined and looked over many times .” Al-Rabi’ Al-Muzani said, “I never saw Al-Shafi’i eating by day or sleeping by night. He was always engrossed in writing and looking over his writings many times ”
An introduction to the sciences of the Islamic tradition
The importance of engaging with the tradition and understanding it
We must undertake a journey into the mind of a Muslim scholar, who understands his religion, and concentrates on it as a basis and point of departure by which he may fill the globe with its knowledge and civilization. We must understand how this Muslim scholar thinks, and how he undertakes investigations, mining for that which is behind the sciences of his time. What nurtures his passion for knowledge? From an examination of these questions, we will be able to extract many research methodologies, concepts, and summaries which exist in the pages of the Islamic tradition, itself gleaned from the Qur’an. This will allow researchers and students in fields outside the shari’a sciences to gain a footing within them, unlocking their concepts and methods.
A concern for discovering, or coming to know, the Islamic tradition gives us a foundation for understanding the intellectual and methodological commitments of scholars in all specializations. Upon these, they built their scholarly visions, as well as the principles of authority upon which Muslim scholars relied in the natural, human and social sciences, metaphysics, and other fields needed to conceptualize, evaluate, and authenticate matters. These allow them to attempt the following questions: Are there fixed principles and variable ones? What is the extent of the definitive matters and the probabilistic ones? How can we connect the reality of the world to the texts?
The methodologies of the Islamic tradition are crucial as a paradigm by which to understand the way in which the Muslim scholars proceeded in a variety of sciences and fields. I believe that the renaissance of our times is in need of appreciating this paradigm in the fields of leadership and the human sciences as well as the shari’a sciences.
We must understand the goal of this topic, which necessitates that we “possess the tools required to understand the means for engaging with the Islamic tradition.” This means of course that we understand first what the Islamic tradition itself is, and get at what is behind the Muslim scholar s’ differentiations between different arts and sciences. For example, astronomy is the outcome of their desire to specify the timings of prayers, the direction of prayer, the days of fasting and pilgrimage, etc. Similarly, Islamic ornamentation and design is a result of the difficulty for the Muslim artist in drawing living things. Because of this, he took to depicting geometrical patterns, vegetation designs, and calligraphy. Finally, he joined all these together giving us the art of arabesque. As such, he brought into existence a specific artistic philosophy, which was an outgrowth of his Islamic culture.
As well, it is incumbent on us to understand what we may call the “Islamic paradigm.” What are its landmark signs? And how may we reformulate this paradigm such that it is amenable to a worthwhile dialogue with others? This latter is something of which are in dire need in this time.
We must also understand the elements of a traditional mindset. How did the Muslim scholar see the world? What is his opinion on a variety of philosophical matters, such as the problem of circularity, being and non-existence, and the question of infinity?
We must come to understand the sources of knowledge from the Islamic viewpoint. How do the Qur’an and the Sunna form the basis of Islamic civilization? And, a question which occupies many minds: Why has this traditional mindset disappeared today? Representative of this problem is the fact that a person who has mastered this Islamic paradigm of knowledge and authority is not exposed to the problems of today’s reality, its roots and background reasons. This is what has occurred in Egypt since the period of Muhammad ‘Ali, who first divided between two types of education: civil and religious. At this time, it was said to the person of shari’a learning, “You are a person of religion, not the world. Therefore, you must stay out of current affairs.” And today, it is said, “Why don’t you perform ijtihad to come up with the Islamic ruling, the Islamic solution to these problems?” But they simply have been excluded from learning such things.
Finally, we must appreciate the importance of the Arabic language and linguistics, which have a great impact on understanding the tradition itself, and the degree to which classical Muslims placed emphasis on the issue of the meanings of words.
All this is extremely important for understanding the tradition and the traditional mindset. We must, however, also take notice of a few important points:
(i) Understanding the tradition
The representatives and ideologues of the Islamic paradigm are important participants in bringing to fruition the great renaissance of the modern period. This clarifies the importance of the understanding of Muslim scholars in a variety of sciences – the humanities, physical sciences, metaphysics, etc for the Islamic intellectual paradigm. For, renaissance and development in our time require the realization of an intellectual paradigm for leadership, just as they do for the human and shari’a sciences.
The Islamic tradition is human production transmitted verbally and in writing to the Islamic nation before the past hundred years. We exclude the last hundred years based on the example of laws on relics and antiques in some countries, which define antiques as that which is at least a hundred years old. This tradition has developed from one period to another, based on the demands of the time. In order to satisfy these demands, we must understand properly the Islamic tradition, and extract from it its theories and methodologies. Particularly important here is understanding the importance of the Islamic tradition, a knowledge which necessitates that we possess the proper tools required to engage with the tradition itself.
This tradition, in sum, refers to two things: intellectual production, and historical reality.
As for the former, the place for the beginning of thought is the Qur’an and the Sunna, the two fundamental sources of knowledge for Muslims since they are revelatory. Intellectual production is that which comes about from humans interacting with these two sources via worldviews, thoughts, sciences, methodologies, judgments and practices. This is because these texts are the basis for Islamic civilization. The science of jurisprudence, for example, is in general taken from the Qur’an, even though very little of it is directly from the Qur’an: there are in fact 1.2 million questions taken up in jurisprudence, while the verses of the Qur’an are drastically fewer than that. However, the point of departure is the Qur’an itself.
Historical reality is the counterpart to intellectual production, and is made up of five realms: things, people, symbols, ideas, and events. The traditional scholar would be zealous to maintain an intellectual engagement with these worlds within the context and authority of the text. That is to say, in confirming that the text is the basis of civilization, he kept it before him when interacting with these five worlds.
For example, the ancient Muslim astronomer took up the science in order to serve his religion. As such, the field of astronomy among Muslims was a result of his desire to specify the timings of prayer, the direction of the qibla, and the days for fasting and pilgrimage. Similarly, Islamic ornamentation and design is a result of the difficulty for the Muslim artist in drawing living things. Because of this, he took to depicting geometrical patterns, vegetation designs, and calligraphy. Finally, he joined all these together giving us the art of arabesque. As such, he brought into existence a specific artistic philosophy, which was an outgrowth of his Islamic culture. This is with respect to his interaction with the realm of things, of which reality is itself a part.
In terms of the interaction of the text with the realm of ideas, we find that it has been the motivator for literature and sciences, and their point of origin. In the realm of events, we are able through history, as Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H) explained, to explain the weakness and fall of civilization and its connection to the lack of new science. This is an indication of the connection that the fall of nations is contemporaneous with their inability to develop knowledge.
In sum, we may say that this tradition is either a product of the intellect or an original source. It is now incumbent upon us to understand this tradition well, so that we may be able to discern methodologies and manners of thinking, i.e., how minds may come to know things, without regard to the particularities of individual cases.
There are principles to proper understanding that must be followed in any reading of the tradition of Islamic sciences. They are:
1. The Arabic language, which is a receptacle for Arabic logic, itself connected to Islamic dispositions.
2. Consensus, which proper understanding must neither be oblivious to, nor contradict.
3. The Universal Objectives of the Shari’a. These are the protection of religion, self, honor, lineage, reason, and private property.
4. The Intellectual Paradigm, which we may call also doctrine or a worldview.
5. The Juristic Principles and maxims. Examples include “Harm is not to be done, nor reciprocated”, and “One will not bear the burden of another.”
What is most helpful in understanding the tradition is a focus on methodology and manners of thinking: How did classical scholars come to understand the world. We are less interested in the particulars and details they took up.
The foundational texts of the Islamic tradition were motivators to literature and sciences, and their point of origin. As such, it also stimulated the generation of new knowledge, and was an important constituent of the Islamic civilization itself. However, there was a decline in the seventh Islamic century after a cessation of knowledge production. Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H) connected these two in his explanation of history.
(ii) The Islamic Paradigm
Within the Islamic paradigm, there are some central questions surrounding God, existence, man, the world, and life. These are fundamental questions in that there is no proceeding without answers to them, whereas in the Western intellectual paradigm, though they are important, they are considered “ultimate” questions, and things do not follow from them. There is no doubt that these features have an effect at the levels of thought and behavior. In the Islamic paradigm, there is the concept of fitra (human nature), whereas in the Western paradigm, they speak completely in terms of “nurture”, not “nature”. In terms of sacredness, we believe for example places and areas may be sacred. So, the Qur’an, the Prophet and the Ka’ba are all sacred, while they take this as a form of paganism. In the Islamic paradigm, the bases of behavior and belief are the notion of legal obligation and divine commands, whereas the Western intellectual paradigm is based on interests that are apparent to people. This, to the extent that they may spend on inanimate resources they don’t spend on thousands of hungry and afflicted people in the world.
However, what is missing from the Islamic worldview today is a flexibility that allows for addition. Therefore, what we need in the Islamic paradigm is a reformulation that can arrive at an assimilation of these results to the paradigm, even if that is not logically entailed. This reformulation is simply an act of discovery within the Islamic paradigm itself and not one of re-creation.
The benefit of this is not apparent until we compare one with the other in an effort to have an intellectual exchange. In formulating my own intellectual paradigm and attempting to understand the dimensions of another, it allows the person to engage in dialogue and a give and take encounter. It allows him to avoid incoherent thinking, and accept or reject based on standards and valid criteria. It makes it incumbent on him to take both form and substance into equal account, and not simply one or the other.
There is also an important claim to take up here. It is often said that the Islamic paradigm is based on values, while the Western paradigm is simply materialistic. This is a false and misleading claim, because the Western paradigm is also based on values. The difference between the two in reality is that that Islamic paradigm relies on revelation as a source for knowledge, while the Western one does not. Or, put in another way, Islamic knowledge is based on two sources: revelation and existence, whereas Western knowledge takes into account only existence. The issue is not about the presence or absence of values, for they are unavoidable in both. Rather, the question is, “Who specifies these values?”
The importance of looking to the past
The purpose of looking to the past is so that we may gather from the tradition concepts that allow us to reformulate form and content such that our message can be conveyed. This is important for the creation of knowledge in a continuous manner is what indicates that we are still alive.
In conclusion, let me say that we are in dire need of creating methodologies form the tradition which depend on Islamic texts as a source; and specifying the conditions, bases and formulations so that we can then apply this to the human and physical sciences in a manner that corresponds to Islamic notions of authority.
(iii) Elements of the traditional mindset
In order to understand the tradition and the traditional Islamic sciences, we must first get a grasp of their general worldview and the traditional mindset. Understanding a thing is an outgrowth of conceptualizing it. Therefore, in order to arrive at a deep understanding of traditional knowledge, we must first understand the elements that make up a traditional mindset that gives rise to this intellectual production, or knowledge. We must come to know the foundations that constitute this traditional mindset, the mindset that produces intellectual, literary, artistic and civilizational products. When we take an example, we deduce from that that the elements of the traditional mindset and their influence on civilizational output is not simply theoretical. We may take as an example that music among classical Muslims was a living example, which connected art to doctrine and the Islamic intellectual paradigm. Shaykh Tantawi Jawhari (d. 1940 CE) remarks in his book, Bahjat al-Ulum, that the origin of music among the ancients is its alternation between stillness and movement. These are two qualities which are mutually exclusive and exhaust the phenomena of existence. That is to say, existents are either still or moving. So, music among the Muslims – putting aside for the moment, its legal status – is a coordination of sorts. Just as it rises, it falls. As such, there is a certain pairing, which indicates absoluteness. This means that the producer of such knowledge believes in absoluteness, and the principles upon which his investigations are based are “absolute”, that is external to one’s self. This is the basis of the difference between our civilization and Western civilization. Our classical scholars spoke of the necessity of existence, of understanding absoluteness which is the measure of our existence. In the West, they say that “the absolute” is either non-existence or unlikely.
Theology: An invitation to revival
There are several new intellectual contributions which require our attention, so that we may fill gaps in today’s Muslim mindset. Perhaps it can be said that the distinguishing characteristics of the age may be dealt with through examining the traditional discipline of ‘ilm al-kalam (theology). But, what is actually needed is a precise and appropriate framing. For example, proponents of the historicity of texts, and using historical methodology to understand the Islamic tradition, is a contemporary development associated with the likes of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010 CE), Sa’id Ashmawi, Muhammad Arkoun (d. 2010 CE). They believe that the Qur’an is a temporal, historical document. As such, we are in dire need of reframing the debate in an appropriate manner, and uncovering new ways of dealing with the Islamic tradition that will allow Muslim scholars to engage also with other disciplines outside the shari’a sciences.
(iv) Features of the tradition and methodologies for working with it
There are distinguishing features and methodologies of the tradition that include:
1. It is comprised of rational thought, scriptural texts, and gnosis.
2. It comprises sciences in a variety of domains: shari’a, natural science, literature, etc.
3. It has accumulated over a long period of time, over fourteen centuries.
4. It is of various levels in terms of authentication.
5. It is the human product of a specific time period, capable of being rejected or accepted.
6. It is global, encompassing Arab, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and other cultures.
7. It has a specific language and a terminology proper to it.
8. It represents a unique experience, namely the attempt to apply scripture to reality in all its forms. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate its methodologies.
9. Our engagement with it must be a measured, balanced one.
Among the various ways of engaging with the tradition and the Islamic sciences are:
1. Publication, editing, and study
2. Abridging works and genres in a manner that introduces them to the novice.
3. Serving knowledge
4. Reviving knowledge.
There are also difficulties in engaging with the tradition:
1. The engagement may be unprincipled and dogmatic. This could be either:
(i) Complete rejection, e.g., the Marxists
(ii) Unreflective acceptance, e.g. many Muslims, especially fundamentalists.
(iii) Random and unprincipled denial, e.g., severely holding on to, or denying, certain parts of the tradition.
2. Partial engagement, in that the tradition may encompass many aspects, and the intelligentsia may interact with them in only a partial and deficient manner. For example:
(i) Only at the level of rational thought
(ii) Only at the level of texts
(iii) Only at the level of gnosis and spirituality.
3. A deficient engagement, i.e., some people engage with the tradition through publication and editing only.
4. A historical engagement, i.e., one which does not take into accounts the methodologies of the tradition, nor how to generate methodologies or use them.
5. An oppressive and reductionist engagement, i.e., understanding the tradition in a manner removed from its particular historical circumstances, and introducing to it an understanding which follows one’s whims and subjective theories.
How should we deal with the tradition?
1. A principled methodological engagement: neither absolute acceptance, nor absolute rejection, nor unprincipled engagement.
2. A complementary engagement, which takes into account intellectual, textual and spiritual aspects and sources.
3. A revivalist engagement, in which a researcher revives and learns from historical methodologies.
4. A just engagement, which avoids removing the tradition from its historical context.
5. A service of the tradition, through publication, editing, studying, and abridging texts, and drawing closer to God.
6. The laying down of standards, through which the tradition may be evaluated and examined.
(v) Difficulties in understanding complicated issues
There are several difficulties that confront the researcher or student desiring to learn more about his tradition. The first set of difficulties has to do with the researcher himself, and his sparse knowledge of the tradition, both in its generalities and details. The second set of difficulties has to do with the gap between the tradition and modern knowledge. This is represented by the confounding terminologies in both the modern sciences and in traditional texts, including the Qur’an and the Sunna themselves.
(vi) Tools for engaging the traditional sciences
The tools for engaging with the traditional sciences, and grounding an understanding of them, are made up of a variety of components. Perhaps the two primary ones are the elements which constitute the vision of the external world for writings in the Islamic tradition, and the linguistic tools that allow him to understand the traditional texts.
Theories of jurisprudence: A journey into a traditional intellectual mindset
To exemplify what we have mentioned previously, let’s take the example offered by Dr. Ali Gomaa,the Grand Mufti of Egypt, in his book al-Tariq ila al-Turath, in which he shows how to create a methodology from the shari’a sciences and thereafter apply it to the humanities. Because he is himself a scholar of jurisprudence, and in light of the importance of this particular discipline among the shari’a sciences, he chose it to demonstrate the traditional Muslim mindset.
He added, “Jurisprudence is a methodology which is equivalent to the scientific method in physics. For, jurisprudence is, for Muslims, the method of arriving at truth in the field of revelation.” After then defining the science, and presenting its underlying theories, such as the theory of demonstration (how are the Qur’an and Sunna considered proofs for deriving shari’a rulings); the theory of authentication (how can we affirm the validity of the Qur’an and sunna before us today); the theory of semantics (the manner of arriving at the meanings of the Qur’an and Sunna); the theory of the definitive and the probable; the theory of analogy (the manner of arriving at a ruling in new matters not explicitly mentioned in the texts); the theory of proof; and the theory of giving fatwas (knowing the objectives of the shari’a, the manner of choosing between competing opinions, and how to bring into being the command of God in reality).
Through this discussion in the book, Dr Gomaa sets out the Islamic vision which gave rise to a civilization, and which is needed to form the mentality of today’s Muslim scholar throughout the various fields. Beyond this, he invites specialists of the social sciences to learn from the framework of jurisprudence and the results of their investigations, just as he opines that scholars of jurisprudence may themselves benefit from studying the social sciences, especially in ascertaining the specificities of the world in order to issue fatwas.
Landmarks of engagement with the Qur’an, Sunna and Tradition: A methodological introduction and an attempt at application
In this section, we clarify how a Muslim traditionalist may interact with the Qur’an, Sunna and tradition in a practical way. This leads us to affirm his opinion that “the contemporary reader has lost the universal vision that was widespread amongst writers of the classical works.” As such, we must take from the researcher his contributions over time and place. From a practical perspective, we must see how the Muslim scholar thinks, investigates, and produces such that he may ground the sciences. Thus, Muslims of the Golden Age were creators of knowledge at its very foundations.
It is upon the researcher, and he who wants to know how we used to be, and why we have become the way we are, and he who seeks a renaissance in the future, to begin understanding the tradition from its very roots. Whoever doubts the capacity of the umma to take up this tradition once more must re-examine it, and attempt to re-create the methodologies which aid in understanding the other sciences.
In sum, we must understand and become aware of the importance of striving to analyzing the traditional texts and principles. This is so we can properly understand what the writers of these texts were trying to convey to their readers at the time, as well as the universal concepts necessary for understanding the tradition. Similarly, it allows us to understand the theories, terminologies, definitions, linguistic frameworks, and ancillary sciences in these matters. We may then return to the texts and ask if our understanding of the texts before us differ after taking all this into account, or not.
1. Engaging with the Qur’an
It is upon the Muslim to interact with the Book of God on the basis that it is a book of guidance. This entails committing to a few important matters:
(i) The Qur’an is a book of guidance. That is, we derive guidance from it with regards to matters on which opinions disagree and diverge. As such, the Qur’an gives the Muslims a point from which to start thinking. This also means that the Qur’an is not a book of data, even though there is a lot of information contained within it. It is at bottom not a book of chemistry or physics. Nor did it come to specifically address political science, sociology, economics, etc. Though it may well be a guiding post for these sciences, it is a book of guidance first and foremost. It gives the Muslim who follows its light a comprehensive worldview in terms of constituting a methodology that makes him capable of explaining and evaluating all existential questions that come before him. This worldview satisfies value-based questions by either accepting or rejecting them, rendering them obligatory to follow or leave. It is in connecting them to the Qur’an that the Muslim researcher is able to make differentiations.
The Qur’an is not a book to understand reality or existence. It is simply a revelation which specifies how to come about this knowledge, how to evaluate this reality.
(ii) Engaging with the Qur’an as the ultimate authority, that brings contentment to hearts and minds. This sort of engagement is in order that one may derive mental, psychological and behavioral changes from it; that the researcher may derive general principles for the science. Similarly, one may understand from it the Divine Attributes of God which, upon thorough reflections, are capable of structuring individual and societal behavior. Also one may glean from it judgments of shari’a and the general objectives of law.
(iii) Engagement with the Qur’an must be structured by principles of understanding. The most important of these are the Qur’an itself. The second is the Sunna in that it is a criterion of understanding the Qur’an and deriving from it. The third is the Arabic language because the Qur’an is understood in Arabic. The fourth is consensus. The fifth is the objectives of the shari’a in that no proper understanding of the Qur’an can work in contradiction to them. The sixth is another group of factors which deem it necessary to interact with the Qur’an such as preference is given to the generality of its language, and not the specificity of its particular motivating cause, e.g. context. As well, there is engagement with the Qur’an such that one can distinguish between its original meaning and secondary ones, and the types of disagreement in understanding. There is also engaging with it in its ten different manners of recitation. Finally, it must be engaged with in that it is an inimitable book, unlike any other.
2. Engaging with the Prophetic Sunna
The Sunna is attributed to the Prophet, and narrated to us via the Companions and their Companions. There were books that were compiled to contain them, and then there were ancillary sciences made to aid our understanding and evaluating them, such as ‘ilm al-rijal (the science of the narrators of hadith) and ‘ilm al-jarh wa’l-ta’di (the science of validating and invalidating the narrators of hadith). Scholars and researchers paid a lot of attention to the Sunna. The researcher in this field must take account of several things. First, authentication: he must start by looking to the chain of narrators in order to confirm the attribution of a saying or action to someone else. Secondly, the issue of understanding the text of the hadith after it has been authenticated, but before it is used for derivation. Third, using it to derive and benefit from it intellectually. This requires a firm grounding and training. For a researcher to achieve this, he must undertake a number of steps:
(i) Be committed to the principles of religion, i.e., committed to the Qur’an, sunna, and not simply one at the expense of the other.
(ii) Theorization, that is construct some sort of intellectual basis for each question.
(iii) Application, that is attempt to apply this theory to the problem at hand, if there is a connection between the two.
These three steps are required to effect a proper engagement with the Sunna, in order to form a general worldview.
3. Engaging with jurisprudence
It is possible to look at the science of jurisprudence from a variety of angles, because it is a discipline, intellectual-methodological application, and a set of tools for other sciences. As well, it is possible to benefit from it by contemplating its contents, its definition, its theories, and the tools for thinking about its genesis over to its formation and stabilization.
Jurisprudence offers the researcher a way to arrive at an intellectual methodology. This is because any researcher must undertake a number of operations: he must specify the sources of his investigation (the proofs), the manner of his investigation (or the theories upon which he bases himself), the tools of investigation (tools for every act of analysis, derivation, deduction, induction, etc.), and the conditions necessary to undertake the investigation. Each of these differs from one science to another in their particulars, even if they are unanimous on the generalities.
It is possible to realize this by examining the process of discerning a shari’a ruling, which is itself subject to conditions:
1. A proper understanding of the proof, or of the text.
2. Distinguishing between the definitive and the probable, and their respective effects on the process of proof.
3. Benefitting from the tools of consensus, which jurisprudence delineates.
4. Distinguishing between the types of proofs, and their different degrees; and the lack of authority of a proof in the presence of a stronger proof.
There are further many conditions that the jurisprudent needs in order to abstract out a methodology from which the researcher may benefit in other sciences as well.