A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and spoke about various aspects of Islam with a well- known ulamak in Malaysia. One particular topic of our conversation would always replay itself in my head.
I asked him of his opinion on the practice by some Muslims in Malaysia who brush their teeth using a piece of wood which was apparently used by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to clean his teeth. The Malays call this wood “kayu sugi.”
He smiled and asked me, “What is important to you, usage of the wood or the cleanliness of your teeth?” Without waiting for a reply from me, he continued, “if the usage of the wood is important to you, you use the wood and if the cleanliness of your teeth is important, you use Coldgate, as do I.” He smiled.
It got me thinking. Have the Muslims misunderstood the sunnah (the Prophet’s acts and sayings – the sayings are known as “hadiths” -, all of which are otherwise known as the “tradition”)?
If for example, we have a sunnah that the Prophet loved to ride horses and learned how to use bow and arrow, what is the real lesson which we could derive from it? Is it that the Muslims should emulate the Prophet by learning how to ride horses and use the bow and arrow or is it that Muslims should stay healthy by leading an active life and perhaps in the process also learn the art of self-defence?
In a speech delivered at the Islamic Information Service's Outreach Award ceremony, on 3rd October 1998 in Beverly Hills, Sheikh Zaki Ahmad Yamani, posits:
“But back to how we apply Islamic Law in a modern society, a Muslim society? It's an important issue because first we have to distinguish between Al-Sharia and Al-Fiqh al Islami - Islamic Law and Islamic Jurisprudence. Al-Sharia or Islamic Law, it's what written in the Quran or in the Sunnah. This is obligatory, so to speak. The other part, Al-Fiqh al Islami, is a huge volume of legal opinion (sic)….. In Saudi Arabia they apply Hanbli (sic), In Iran they apply Jafri, in Yemen they apply a blend of Zaidi and Shafa'i. And so on. That is not really the Islamic Law.
What we applied 10 centuries ago or 15 centuries ago it cannot be really applied today at a time when camel was the only means of transportation.”
Judging from current trend in Malaysia, where adherence to the strict and almost literal meaning of the sunnahs is the norm, Sheikh Zaki’s statement above is astounding, to say the least. Some people may even argue that it is heresy.
Effectively, what the good Sheikh was saying is the various schools of thought and what they represent is not really Islamic Law. Thus it is not obligatory or mandatory for contemporary Muslims to subscribe a slavish adherence to the various principles which those schools propound.
Sheikh Zaki is not alone in his thinking. Contemporary Muslim jurists, such as Tariq Ramadhan have often made a case for a complete re-look and re-thinking of Syariah (Islamic code laws). Tariq Ramadhan has even gone as far as suggesting that the Muslim world should suspend the application of hudud laws until such time when a complete Islamic social justice is attained in Islamdom thereby laying a fair path for a thorough Syariah application.
Islamic history would show that in a period of almost unsurpassed intellectualism in medieval Islam (using the word “medieval” to describe this period is almost unfair as the intellectual expression of this era was anything but medieval), there were various schools of thought called the Rationalists which pursued a rational and reasoned methodology of interpreting and applying Islamic laws. Against them were of course the Traditionists, who insisted on strict and almost literal application of the tradition and the Quran, thereby reducing Islam into a one dimensional legal code instead of a dynamic “ad-deen” (way of life) for which the Quran lays the foundation.
Question on whether the Quran was “created” or whether it was “un-created,” for example, was intellectually pursued by the Rationalists. So was the question on whether human beings have free-will and are therefore solely responsible for all their actions on Earth (as propounded by the Qadariyah) or whether everything was pre-destined or pre-ordained by God (as posit by the Jabriyyah) was explored with vigour.
In fact, one of the four recognised sunni schools of thought, the Hanafi school, chose to use reason and rationale in propounding its rulings and in interpreting the Quran. Mustafa Aykol in “Islam Without Extreme” quotes Eric E F Bishop in “Al-Shafi’I, Founder of a Law School” as saying about Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi school:
“He felt apparently that local conditions differed, and that even if Medina was through force of circumstances the city of Muhammad, yet it was a desert town and therefore you could not possibly expect a desert law to apply to city life, when it came to matters of universal import. [Hence Abu Hanifa relied in threefold cord of Koran, qiyas, and Ra’i with occasional use for istihsan and scarcely any for Hadith (tradition).”
“Ra’i” or otherwise referred to as “ra’y” refers to reason or reasoned opinion.
The opposite of Abu Hanifa and the Hanafi school was of course the Hanbali school, founded by and premised upon the ultra-traditionist teaching of Ahmad Hanbal, whose principles and rulings are applied to Saudi Arabia as stated by Sheikh Zaki in the preceding paragraphs. Ahmad Hanbal was known to adhere strictly on the tradition. He reputedly did not eat watermelon because he could not find a precedent for that in the tradition. He was also reported to have asked his wife not to wear a certain kind of shoes as those shoes were not in existence during the Prophet’s time.
Abu Hanifa, on the other hand, was a known sympathiser of a group of jurists known as the Murjiites (or the “Postponers”). The Postponers believed in a state of suspension of judgment in that theological disputes should be postponed to the afterlife to be settled by God. They in fact are probably the first known Muslim jurists who promoted pluralism.
The Hanbalis however gained political support during the reign of Al-Mutawakkil, the Abbasid ruler. In 935, Ibn al-Athir, wrote:
“In that year the Hanbali affair became more distressing as their fury intensified. They began to raid the houses of the commanders and of the common people, and if they found wine they poured it away, and if they found a singing girl they beat her and broke her instruments. They hindered buying and selling and delayed men who were walking along with women and youths, to question them about their companions. If the answer failed to satisfy them they beat the men and dragged them to the chief of police and testified about their immoral acts. The Hanbalis wrought discord upon Baghdad.” (quoted in Akyol’s book above).
The gulf of differences of theocratic opinions between the Rationalists and Traditionists did not however in any way weaken Islam or its grip on the world political power. The dynamic interplay between the various schools of thought and jurisprudence rather served to enrich and promote the vibrancy of the Islamic agenda, be it social, political and even economic.
Alas, such enriching culture was soon ended by various circumstances.