Using the common language of academics, we commonly call the introduction to Islam by the name “Islam 101.” From there, we would speak of the basics of Islamic thought and practice by the name of “Islam 201.” This posting represents an “Islam 301″ providing detail on how to believe, imagine and follow life as a Muslim. The common believer does not need anything beyond an Islam 201, but in our era of mass information (and by extension mass misinformation), it becomes necessary to develop Islamic Literacy.
The central concept in Islam is the creed that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad (may peace be upon him) is the Messenger of Allah. In fulfilling this creed as a belief and practice, the central approach is one of “listening and obeying” Allah and those who Allah instructs us to listen to and obey. The primary authority He instructs us to obey is the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). He has revealed through the Prophet Muhammad two bodies of material: recited and non-recited. The recited material, meaning scripture, is the Qur’an. The non-recited material is the person of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. This non-recited material is the compilation of his reported sayings, actions, and events that he witnessed and seemed to approve (as compiled in the Hadith literature).
From here, the primary question is simple: how do we know what it is we are supposed to be believing and doing? The first answer to this question is that we listen to and obey the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Further, in what matters do we “obey” the Prophet and in what matters do with “follow” the Prophet, may peace be upon him? Further, what about those of us who are living long after he (may peace be upon him) has left the earth? This is one of the central functions of Fiqh.
Literally, it follows that “Fiqh” means “understanding.” And, specifically, we find in the Qur’an in the Surah 9, Ayah 122 (roughly, “chapter” 9 and “verse” 122), we find Allah instructing us that some of the members of the community must go out on various expeditions, but some members must stay back in order to develop “understanding” of the religion. This group of people developing this understanding is the scholars. They effectively become the inheritors of the Prophet (may peace be upon him) because they are taking on the responsibility of understanding the religion. Just as the Prophet (may peace be upon him) himself is a mercy to all of the worlds, the community of scholars – by taking up this responsibility to receive, understand, transmit, and explain the religion to us – become a mercy to us.
Without the continuous train or chain of scholars transmitting and explaining to us the way to understand, believe, and practice our tradition, we would be left with the huge responsibility of trying to understand our tradition on our own. Beyond the simple problem of time, we have one serious concern that is often overlooked: everyone has a worldview. Everyone views the world in a particular way that might be different from the way others view the world. Most of us do not realize what is our world view. Some people are skeptical in the way they view things, while others are very hopeful. Some people are rather passionate, while others are dispassionate. Some tend to look at things more literally, while others tend to look at things more symbolically or metaphorically. So, when we are looking at our tradition, one of the challenges is to look at it appropriately. Often, we do not realize that we are being excessively skeptical or excessively simplistic. The term here is “Aqeedah.” Generally, our Aqeedah informs us of the essentials we are supposed to believe.
When we look at the first generation of Muslims – the Companions of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with them and may peace be upon him – with the wrong worldview, then we might make some great errors in understanding and appreciating them. If, for example, we study their history from the perspective of “peace,” then it might seem as though they were sometimes peaceful. If we study them from the perspective of “technological advancement,” then it might seem as though they did not advance technologically as quickly as later generations of Muslims did. But, the appropriate Aqeedah, is to study them from the perspective that they are not only completely loyal to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, and his message, but that they were loyal to each other in matters of Aqeedah. They definitely had disagreements on worldly matters, but they were unified in matters of Aqeedah. They had consensus in matters of Aqeedah.
So, now we see we have three concerns in approaching the tradition. One concern is in having the appropriate lens, or worldview, or filter, or Aqeedah. Then, as we establish the appropriate Aqeedah in approaching our tradition, then we engage in the process of understanding, or Fiqh. Third, the source for developing this Aqeedah and Fiqh is Allah, who gave us the personal example and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) along with the scripture, the Qur’an. And, by extension, we have the legacy of scholars who receive, preserve, transmit, and explain what is that Allah gave us through the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Thus, we rely upon the scholars to inform us on the appropriate Aqeedah and Fiqh.
Now, we mentioned before that one of the challenges of understanding the tradition without the help of scholars is the concern over an appropriate Aqeedah. Another concern is over the appropriate methodologies to interpret the material. Living a way of life is an act of interpretation. Living a tradition is especially an act of interpretation. How do we maintain consistency in interpretation? We have appetites of various sorts that influence how we behave. Even if we establish an appropriate Aqeedah, these appetites likewise will influence how we interpret our source material. Thus, we might make arbitrary choices in religious practice. Or, we might make choices based upon fulfillment of these appetites. The risk then, is that we might engage in practices that are unhealthy, or even destructive. The greater risk, however, is that we contradict what Allah is instructing us to fulfill. We find this problem very frequently in our environment, where many of us often make arbitrary choices in our beliefs without much serious consideration. Or, because we are sometimes dealing with large populations of believers and non-believers, we might have political motivations that affect our choices. Thus, the scholars have established methodologies for interpreting text. The goal is to establish consistency in interpretation, over arbitrariness and over our appetites’ yearnings and over political motivations.
The different schools of methodologies for deriving understanding are called “Madhahib.” (Singular: Madhhab). In these methodologies, we are not only interpreting our source material – the Qur’an and Hadith – but we are also, through this process, establishing priorities. The common – and frequently mistaken – methodology in our American society toward finding answers in tradition is the thesis/supporting citation approach. Many of us have been trained in secular and so-called “Islamic Full-Time” Middle School, High School, College (and beyond) that the method to find an answer is to establish a thesis, and then scour the texts to find support for our thesis. The problem here is that this method is not a method for deriving any sort of holistic understanding so much as it is a technique for presenting very limited arguments.
Notice that there are multiple methodologies, there are multiple Madhahib. Each Madhhab is very unique from the next one in its methodologies. Nevertheless, we can understand that it is certainly possible to have different interpretations on many matters. We call this difference of interpretations and opinions “Ikhtilaf.” This Ikhtilaf is not so much a detriment, as much as it is a benefit to the believers, by providing flexibility and diversity in opinions.
Having said this, we must understand that there are those matters that are considered to be beyond interpretation. Meaning, we follow them as they are. These matters, that are handed down to us with little or no room for interpretation are called “Tawqifi” matters. Most of these Tawqifi matters are related to the essentials of the acts of worship. We avoid making any changes to the essentials of our acts of worship. So, for example, why do we fast in Ramadan? Because that practice was handed down to us to be practiced as such. We do not move the month of fasting to a different month.
Beyond the Tawqifi matters, we have a whole range matters that are up for interpretation, debate and further consideration. This process of deliberation over these matters is called “Ijtihad.” One of the first results of this deliberation was the view that believers need to establish some basics in Aqeedah. We do not quite find this discussion of Aqeedah among the companions of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with them and may peace be upon him. It is a later conclusion, based on the narrations transmitted, that they were united in Aqeedah implicitly. Essentially, Ijtihad is the process of applying the methodologies of a particular Madhhab, seeking to find a consistent answer to our contemporary issue. So, in seeking answers to our questions, the scholars engage in Ijtihad.
Now, what about we lay people who are not scholars? If we had the time and will, we could get training in scholarship to find our own answers. Unfortunately, even though that route might be an ideal for many of us, we have various other obligations to ourselves, our families, and our society that prevent this possibility. Further, if we So, without training in these methodologies, how do we derive understanding of our tradition. Rather, how do we know how to fulfill what it is that we are supposed to fulfill for Allah? Here, we embody a culture of trust. Just as we approach physicians to give us answers for our questions of health and illness, we trust the scholars for answers in understanding our tradition. The term here is “Taqleed.”
Now, despite its long and logical history of support in our tradition, this term seems to be a bitter pill in our era of seemingly independent thinking. We must understand that ours is a living tradition, an oral tradition. Ours is a tradition of embodiment of knowledge. Thus, it is a person-to-person tradition. The whole foundation of the tradition is trust, and Taqleed is an organic result of this tradition. Taqleed removes from the believer the obligation to find evidences on every single issue. Practically speaking, everyone engages in Taqleed whether or not he or she realizes it. Everyone trusts certain sources, sometimes consciously, and sometimes arbitrarily. Taqleed does not, however, free the believer from using his or her own intellect. Effectively, we are saying that within the first few centuries, the norm in the Muslim community was that the believers followed specific Madhahib and conducted their religious practices within their specific Madhahib. So, the scholar engages in Ijtihad, and the lay believer engages in Taqleed.
Considering that our goal is to be consistent in our practices, Taqleed provides us with a method to fulfill this drive for consistency through the acceptance of a particular Madhhab. From there, however, because we are seeking consistency, it does not follow that we would jump between Madhahib. We run into the same concern mentioned above about arbitrariness, caprice, and political influence on our choices. Rather, each Madhhab stands on its own, with methodologies to answer just about all our possible questions of practice. If we were to jump from Madhhab to Madhhab, we would essentially be jumping from methodology to methodology, which is called “Talfeeq.” In the process, we lose consistency. By extension, we lose a central benefit of our Islamic practice: stability and cohesion.
And Allah knows best.