Rethinking Islamic scholarship in Ghana
Ghanaian Muslim scholars have for years operated in a discursive space with the followers of the different sects as their interlocutors.
They operate within a society highly polarised by relevant and trivial religious differences between leaders and followers of the two Sunni sects (the, Wahhābiyyah and Tijāniyyah) and between them and the leaders and followers of the Ahmadi and the Shi’i Muslims.
The unconscious state of their followers not to seek clarifications nor probe most of the things the leaders of these sects say and do has been a major cause for juristic disagreement between them.
Differences in comprehending what Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did and did not do, said and did not say, tacitly approved and disapproved has also been a major cause for concern.
Lack of competency in the Arabic language and its nuances by many of the leaders and followers of the various sects have further worsened the sectarian differences.
The desire of each group to strictly adhere to its established school of thought have caused their scholars and followers to regard as false all other sects except their own and shouting their ‘true’ sectarian positions from the rooftops of their mosques without being stopped by any form of decency.
Followers of each sect have an arresting sense of loyalty and duty; nothing could faze them once they pledge their commitment.
In a fit of over-zealous loyalty, graduates of the pure Islamic secondary schools (the Madrasas) have received standing ovation with reverberation of words of eulogies from fellow sectarian members for blurting out harsh criticisms at holders of masters and doctorate degrees in Islamic sciences perceived to be adherents of other sects.
This situation has, on many occasions, led to sectarian clashes in the various Muslim communities across the country and created hostile relations among the leaders and followers of the rivalry sect(s).
The term at-Taqlīd denotes the conformity of one person to the teachings of another. The definite meaning of the term varies per the context and time.
Sunni Islamic usage designate the unjustified conformity of an ‘ordinary Muslim’ to the teachings of a Mujtahid (a person who is qualified for independent reasoning).
Shia Islamic usage designates the general conformity of an ‘ordinary Muslim’ to the teachings of the members of the house of the Prophet (Ahlu-l Bait) and the Twelver Imāms without the connotation of negativity.
Among progressive Muslim scholars who keep advocating for reforms, the concept is portrayed in a negative light and translated as ‘blind imitation’.
It refers to the perceived stagnation of independent intellectual effort (Ijtihād) and uncritical imitation of conventional religious interpretations by the traditional establishment.
Progressive Muslim scholars have characterised the earlier Islamic scholarship as dominated by ‘blind imitation’.
They demonstrate a desire for radical reform, usually associated with a return to the time before taqlīd became established.
The absence of any positive assessment of this term in modern commentaries tend to produce a negative view of more than thousand four hundred years of Islamic history.
The insistence on taqlīd in Ghana is clearly the determination of the legalist traditionalists and Political ‘Ulamā scholars to keep enjoying the loyalty of their followers and preserve the literal interpretation of the sacred texts.
The argument against taqlī̄d rests on several conventional moves in Islamic polemics.
I start by setting up some discursive binaries that are not simple descriptions of existing realities; rather, they are designed to highlight the superiority of the position of progressive Muslim scholars.
The binary opposition between “imitation” and “following proofs” allows progressive Muslim scholars to construct argument against taqlīd as inherently contradictory – a logical fallacy so to speak.
How does the imitator come to be concerned with proofs at all?
How can the position of the imitator even be compared to that of the one who relies on proofs?
The distinction between following the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) versus following fallible human beings is also the difference between the clear truths of the revealed texts and the internal contradictions of the juridical schools.
Ibn Qayyim Aj-Jawziyya
Ibn al-Qayyim’s theological attacks on the practice of taqlid made him to quote Qur’an 30: 32 which reads: […of those who have divided their religion and become sects, with every faction rejoicing in what it has.
These splits, and the self-satisfaction of which sect is on ‘the right path’ compelled Ibn al-Qayyim to make a rare connection with the realities of his time.
He explained how Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his successors (al-Khulafā ar-Rāshidūn) held on one path until disagreements emerged years after their death which occasioned split between Muslims, with every sect rejoicing over the ‘truth’ that is on their side.
This condemnation is not only ideological, but also based on a particular diagnosis of prevailing events in the then leading Islamic countries for Islamic scholarship (Iraq, Syria, and Egypt).
He wrote,‘Certainly, disagreement has arisen and worsened because of imitation and its proponents.
They are the ones who divided the religion into factions, each group glorifying and turning to its principal and condemning those who oppose them.
They do not believe in the correctness of the others’ views, as if the others belonged to an entirely different community’.
Ibn al-Qayyim sets up series of questions or apparent logical paradoxes that proponents of imitation find fascinating.
These questions amounted to a critique of Islamic juridical reason and a denial of Islamic legal hermeneutics.
His anti-hermeneutical reading sometimes misrepresented the interpretive reasoning of the Islamic legal schools of thought (al-Madhāhib). For within the interpretive methods of the juridical schools, scholars work with probabilities rather than certainties.
This is why Ibn al-Qayyim referred to the Shari‘a (Law) through a synecdoche, where a part or some parts are made to represent the whole.
Synecdoche is an interesting figure of speech because it can reveal what is essential about a whole in the minds of the speaker and his/her audience.
Ibn al-Qayyim has become a major figure of Islamic legal scholarship in the 21st Century. As a disciple of Ibn Taymiyya with whom he spent years in prison, the reason for his contemporary relevance is his critique of imitation which resonates with progressive Muslim scholars.
His emphasis on the need to go beyond any single Islamic sect gives progressive Muslim scholars greater flexibility in confronting the challenges of contemporary times.
His call for independent Muslim chief justices (the Muftis) to be familiar with the realities of the times and the peculiar challenges facing their individual countries also resonate with progressive Muslim scholars. Most of all, Ibn al-Qayyim’s broad definition of Shari‘a (Law) with a change of emphasis from the stricter rules of
Islamic jurisprudence (Usūl al-fiqh) manuals to justice, mercy, wisdom, and the general interests of the society is what makes his contributions to Islamic civilization valuable.
His broad definition opens the field of politics to the conservative Islamic scholars (legalist traditionalists and political ‘ulāmā), who must consider what is beneficial to the society at large and never ignore socio-cultural issues in the way they had done for decades.
In the age of legal codes administered by state institutions, Ibn al-Qayyim’s indifference to legal practices in Islamic court becomes an advantage. He demonstrated that the intent of the law (Maqāsid ash-shar’iyya) must be the focus and not the law in itself.
He explains that the general and specific rules set out in the Qur’an are not objectives in themselves. The rulings were contingent on particular historical circumstances that might or might not exist in contemporary times.
At the time these rulings were revealed, they were meant to achieve particular objectives.
Therefore, Muslim scholars must study the moral objectives of the Qur’an and treat the specific rulings as demonstrated examples of how to achieve the intent of the law.
If social order can effectively and efficiently be ensured by other means possible, then the intent of the ‘Qur’anic laws’ is achieved.
Thus, in a sovereign state such as Ghana where the law enforcement agencies are assiduously implementing the laws without fear or favour, Islam enjoins all Muslims to submit to the dictate of the state.
In line with this, most of the Muslim majority countries have long reformed their legal codes to fall in line (to a large extent) with the international standard of legal practices.
Egypt in 1884 dropped the strict Shari’a (law) and adopted the Code Napoleon, leaving only matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance to the jurisdiction of the Islamic legal system.
While Syria in 1939, Morocco in 1958, and Iraq in 1959 followed up with their sets of reforms, it is the reforms undertaken by Turkey in 1926 and Tunisia in 1956 that remain the most rigorous of all.
The writer is Founding President, Centre for Islamic Thought and Civilisation E-mail: