Book: Diversity of Islamic Thought – Coming to Terms

The one issue that intrigued me during my formative years was not so much the tendency to inherit one’s religious beliefs, but the vigour with which one tended to defend one’s own turf, while belittling the similarly inherited beliefs of others. It seemed to me that if there was but one standard answer as to the correctness of a specific belief system, all thinking minds should have gravitated towards this obvious solution.

The religion of Islam, which stands for ‘submission to the will of God’ and for ‘peace’ is unfortunately in the spotlight for quite some time for all the wrong reasons. The volatile mix of religion, which is moralistic in character, and politics, which is opportunistic in nature, is precisely what has been afflicting Islam since the times of the early Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.

In the way that it is practised, Islam is by no means a monolithic faith, nor is it simplistically divided into the Sunni and Shia belief systems, as commonly perceived. Apart from politically inspired causes, differences primarily stem from interpretation, which spill over from the Quranic domain to the field of Prophetic traditions (Hadiths).

The centrality of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) to the religion of Islam cannot be ignored, as the Quran not only extols him as a ‘perfect exemplar’ and as a ‘mercy to all mankind’, but repeatedly exhorts the believers to ‘obey Allah’ and ‘obey His Prophet’ in the same breath. The authenticity of the Prophets’ traditions is however exclusively based, as per the Sunni Muslim perspective, on the chain of transmission, rather than its subject matter. Considering that there were literally tens of thousands of fabricated traditions floating around by the time concerted efforts for their collection were initiated, it seems surprising that many, if not most, Islamic scholars have used ‘hadiths’ to supplant rather than supplement the word of God.

The diversity in Islamic thought over the ages is on display in this book. The first seven chapters explore the origins and spread of ideologies like the Khwarjis, the Abadis, the Kaysannia, the Murjiyya, the Jabbariyyah, the Qadariyyah, the various Sufi silsilas, the four Sunni ‘madhabs’ (Hanafis, Malikis, Shafiis, Hambalis), the Mutazillites, the Maturidis, the Asharis, the Ahle Quran, the twelver Shias and other Shia denominations (the Mukhtariyah, the Alawis, the Zaidis, the Ismailis, the Mustalians, the Nizaris, the Tayyibis, the Hafizis, the Dawoodi Bohras), the radical reformist ideologies of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Abd al Wahhab and in our very own backyard, the Deobandi, Tablighi Jamaat, Ahle Hadith, Barelvi and Ahmadi movements of 19th century colonial India. The subsequent chapters are devoted to an analysis of the pitiful state the Islamic community finds itself in, prior going on to offer meaningful recommendations for coming out of this morass.

In general, Islamic reformation can only come about by seeking enlightenment from the Quran, while a meaningful understanding of the Quranic message in turn is dependent on a recourse to the faculty of reason, a theme which is seen to resonate throughout the Book of Divine Guidance. The Quran’s message has unfortunately become so distorted at the hands of its practitioners that it has become difficult to discern the basic principles that it espouses: maintaining unity, adopting the path of moderation, enjoining what is just, forbidding what is evil, avoiding transgression, oppression and profane talk, enduring with fortitude, displaying mercy, rendering charity, clinging to the truth and rejecting falsehood: there can indeed be no better code of conduct.

The community of Islam can thus only reclaim its rightful place in the comity of nations if it ‘holds fast to the rope of Allah’ by ‘enjoining what is just’ and ‘forbidding what is evil’, for, as the Quran puts it, ‘truth stands clear from error’.