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Jun 17, 2019

The Islamic Art of Asking Questions

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John Walbridge

Indiana University Bloomington

John Walbridge is a Near Eastern languages and cultures professor at Indiana University Bloomington.

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The Islamic Art of Asking Questions

A version of this essay was presented in 2001 at the University of the Punjab, Lahore.

The asking of questions and disagreement about their answers are, it seems to me, at the heart of the Islamic experience. The first believers—and equally importantly, the first unbelievers—came to the Prophet with questions. A significant portion of the Qur’an and an even larger portion of the hadith consist of answers to those questions. After the Prophet’s death, the believers came with their questions to those who had known the Prophet well, and later to those who were versed in the stories passed down from the first generation of believers and in the accumulated religious wisdom of the Islamic community. And still they come with their questions to those who are reputed to have knowledge.

Three Phenomena That Have Puzzled Me

Jesuits At Akbars Court

Mughal emperor Akbar holding a religious assembly at the Ibādat Khāna

In this essay, I am going to talk about three phenomena, each in its way related to the role of questions and disagreement in Islamic society. Each has puzzled me. I will suggest that they all relate to the same underlying feature of the Islamic religion (a tolerance of permanent disagreement) and that they ultimately explain each other. I will list them now and then discuss each in more detail.

1.  Why did Muslim scholars endorse diversity in matters that would seem to have only one right answer: legal schools, texts of the Qur’an, authoritative collections of hadith, and the like?

2.  Why did Muslims adopt a curriculum for training ulema that stressed form over content, an educational method that stressed interpretive methods that only a handful of scholars would actually have practical use for?

3.  Why were Muslims successful in generating a consensus about the relation of religion and society in the Middle Ages but unsuccessful in doing so in modern times?

The Acceptance of Diversity

Islam faced its first great crisis very early in the fitnah that followed the murder of the Caliph ¢Uthmān (35 AH/656 CE). For the first time, Muslim armies faced each other in battle over the gravest of religious issues: the nature of religious leadership after the Prophet. Other fitnahs followed. Many were battles for leadership, often in protest over corrupt rule, but others were intellectual fitnahs. Early Muslims argued about the nature and content of Islamic law, about the fundamental beliefs of Islam, about the text of the Qur’an, about which hadith were to be accepted and which to be rejected as unreliable or forged. For the most part, these disputes were settled within a few centuries—to use an arbitrary date (505/1111), by the death of al-Ghazālī. By this time, there was a general consensus about the great religious issues within the Islamic world. The details need not concern us; what does concern us is that the consensus often took the form of an agreement by consensus to disagree within defined limits by accepting a certain range of alternatives as equally valid.

The point is that medieval Muslims were content to accept equally authoritative versions of things that we might think could have only one correct version: Islamic law, the text of the Qur’an, authoritative collections of the Prophet’s sayings, even accounts of the nature of reality. The principle applied also to leadership. In Europe, in theory, every post had a rightful holder—a rightful king of Scotland, for example. In Islam, except among Shia, this is not the case. There are rulers in Islam, and there are religious obligations that specially apply to rulers, but there is no rightful ruler before he becomes ruler.

It is a remarkable phenomenon: a willingness to tolerate equally authoritative alternative versions of religious truth.

An Education of Form without Content

The term Dars-i Niżāmī is well known to the Muslims of South Asia. It is the name of a curriculum devised by the eighteenth-century Indian Muslim scholar Niżām al-Dīn al-Sihālawī (d. 1161/1748). It was not an innovation on his part since it was based on versions of an Islamic curriculum that went back to about the thirteenth century. Niżām al-Dīn’s curriculum stressed dialectical skill. The student was expected to spend a great deal of time studying traditional logic, Arabic grammar, and rhetoric. Instruction was based on a set of concise textbooks, which the student might very well memorize, with a series of commentaries and super commentaries. Classes consisted of detailed explorations of the difficulties implicit in the texts, with students and teachers competing to raise and resolve difficulties. It was an extremely rigorous and demanding, though narrow, form of education, much like the education in medieval European universities. Its most remarkable feature was that it contained relatively little study of religion; Islamic law, Qur’an interpretation, and hadith were largely neglected. This last feature was much criticized by Muslim reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so as a result, the Dars-i Niżāmī has been partially supplanted by new curricula, such as that of Deoband, that put more stress on primary religious texts and less on logic.

But why should Muslims have adopted such a curriculum? It was not due to some accident of historical development in India, since similar curricula had been in use earlier throughout much of the Islamic world and are still used in places such as Qom in Iran. For now, I will simply observe that the central goal of the Dars-i Niżāmī curriculum was to teach the student how to understand texts through a deep knowledge of logic, the inner workings of language, and rhetoric. It did not focus on teaching the sacred texts themselves to the students or on explaining what the texts meant. This did have the virtue that the Dars-i Niżāmī and its cousins could be pan-Islamic curricula, ones that Shia and Sunnis of any of the four madhhabs could equally well study. Thus, Shia texts on logic and even on theology were taught in Sunni madrasas.

The Failure of Consensus in Modern Times

In the Middle Ages, the Islamic acceptance of institutionalized disagreement took place in the context of a general consensus about the structure and functioning of Islamic society. In the contemporary Islamic world, the range of disagreement is far broader, without even agreement about the extent to which disagreement should be tolerated. I will take Pakistan as my usual example because it is in many ways an extreme case in which the phenomena I am discussing can be clearly seen. Strong, or at least loud, voices oppose toleration even of the degree of disagreement institutionalized by the consensus of the learned in premodern times—recognition of other madhhabs and de facto acceptance of Shi¢ism, for example. Awareness and tolerance of this institutionalized diversity are also slipping away in subtler ways. Beyond these issues is one even larger: the extent of the legitimacy of culture, Islamic or otherwise, not derived from the norms of universal Islam.

One example is the effort to adopt Islamic law as the basic law of the state. This is not, as one might suppose, the restoration of a situation that existed during the Islamic Middle Ages. An early form of Islamic law prevailed, of course, under the Prophet and during the tenure of the Rāshidūn caliphs, but Islamic law in its fully developed form emerged only in the eighth and ninth centuries. This law was almost never the law of the state, for a variety of good reasons. Few rulers were willing to give the conduct of the legal system completely into the hands of the ulema, nor were the ulema willing to relinquish their legal authority to rulers of uncertain piety. The bulk of Islamic law was concerned with religious practices that had nothing to do with the state, and most of the rest was law governing voluntary contracts between individuals, such as sales and marriages. Many areas of law of close concern to the state were barely dealt with in Islamic law, notably criminal law. Each area of the Islamic world also had customary laws, usually in several different forms and often predating Islam. Whatever religious scholars may have wished, important areas of life, such as taxation and landlord-tenant relations, were governed by customary law, not Islamic law. Finally, the enforcement of one legal school by the state would do violence to the consciences of ulema and ordinary believers who followed another school.

Naturally, a pious ruler, like any other conscientious believer, would attempt to act in accordance with Islamic norms, and even a ruler whose conscience was not much troubled by Islam would try not to offend the sensibilities of the pious unnecessarily. Nonetheless, the state followed its own necessities and enforced its own laws. As a result, attempts to convert Islamic law into the law of the state were rare and generally not very successful or long-lasting—for example, the British attempt to administer a legal system for Muslims based on Ĥanafī law in Bengal in the eighteenth century, a system that is the actual ancestor of the legal system of modern Pakistan. In both British Bengal and Pakistan, well-intentioned attempts to base the law of the state on Islamic law have run afoul of disagreements about the content of Islamic law and the tendency of state legal systems to evolve according to their own inner logic, as happened even in Ottoman Turkey, probably the most successful example to use Islamic law as the basis of a complete legal system.

The greatest source of disagreement in the Islamic world is the role of culture not directly derived from the Islam of the old books. I am not talking here about the challenge of Western and global culture; I am talking about the local culture of the Islamic lands. The classic example is Iran, where two distinct cultural traditions have coexisted for twelve centuries: an Islamic culture, whose focus is religious and universalist, and an Iranian culture, embodied in the Persian language and the nationalist traditions of the Iranian monarchy. These two traditions are very different and have always coexisted in a tension that is usually fruitful and sometimes destructive. Analogous situations exist in all Islamic countries, where the local culture may express itself in ways that have nothing to do with Islam—the Lahori kite-flying holiday of Basant, for example, whose origins are probably Hindu but which is now a purely secular holiday frowned upon both by the pious, for religious reasons, and by the state, which wishes to avoid damage to the electrical grid. The local culture may also take religious form, resulting in local Islamic cultural features, such as the Sufi shrine culture of Punjab and Sindh or the strict segregation of women practiced by the tribal peoples of Afghanistan, the North-West Frontier Province, and Balochistan.

I will come back to these issues, but for the moment, I will only remark that attempts to use Islam as a tool to revitalize Islamic society have made the underlying issues objects of greater controversy.

Islamic scholars were constantly faced with the problem of deciding what the Prophet would have told them to do about problems that had not come up during his lifetime.

The Classical Islamic Attitude to Disagreement

Islam is a religion of unity and of law. What I propose to do here is give an account of how medieval Muslims came to a consensus about how to deal with disagreement, how they created an educational system that reflected that consensus, and how we might understand current Islamic issues in the light of the medieval Islamic understanding of disagreement.

Muslims, being human beings, disagreed with each other even in the time of the Prophet, but disagreement posed no intellectual problem in those glorious days: issues could simply be put to the Prophet himself, who would settle them. It was not until two centuries or so after his death, with the emergence of distinct legal schools, that the question of disagreement became a serious intellectual problem. Before that, disagreement certainly existed among eminent Muslim scholars, but the issues had been argued on the assumption that only one party could be right and the others must be wrong—in other words, without asking questions about the nature of disagreement as such. Gradually, though, fair-minded scholars realized they faced the risk of splitting Islam over fine points of law on which they had honest disagreements. Unwilling to do so, they conceded that disagreement over issues of law and other matters was going to be a permanent feature of Islam.

Rodolfo Acquaviva Diskutiert Mit Dem Großmogul

Religious dialogue at the Ibādat Khāna (House of Worship) in Mughal India

This tolerance of difference of opinion is expressed in a hadith: “Whatever has been brought to you in the Book of God, do it; there is no excuse for failing to do so. If it is not in the Book of God, then follow my sunnah. If there is no sunnah from me, follow what my companions say, for my companions are like the stars in the sky, so whatever you take from them will be guidance to you. The disagreement of my Companions is a mercy to you.”1 This hadith seems to me spurious, as are similar hadith justifying the diversity of Qur’anic texts, but it is nonetheless valuable, for like most spurious hadith, it reflects a legal or theological position someone felt strongly enough about to put into the form of a saying of the Prophet.

Though a spurious hadith might not be legally decisive, a consensus of the learned (ijmā¢) certainly is, and a consensus quickly formed that the four major legal madhhabs were all legitimate, as were the various trends of opinion within each school. In practice, Twelver Shia law tended to be accepted as well, though Shia and Sunni scholars had less intellectual contact between them. It was quite common for scholars of one madhhab to study and comment on works from another madhhab. Despite occasional friction, scholars rarely called into question the Islamic legitimacy of scholars of other madhhabs. This approach of accepting permanent disagreement was then used in other areas of Islamic scholarship and thought.

Two factors appear to have led to such tolerance of diversity. On the one hand, Muslims place great value on unity. The Muslims are one ummah, and no Muslim is entirely comfortable with an outright split in the community. The Islamic community was united politically for only about a century, but the yearning for a restoration of that unity is still of real political importance; there is no Christian or Buddhist equivalent of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Likewise, Muslim scholars are uncomfortable with using schism as a way of resolving disputes.

On the other hand, the nature of the Islamic religion made disagreement a continuing fact of life. Islam is a religion of law; in principle, every possible human action falls into one of five well-known categories of legal acceptance or condemnation. Moreover, after the death of the Prophet, the law was closed; all future legal questions would have to be answered by applying fallible human reason to the Qur’an and the surviving reports of the words and actions of the Prophet and his Companions. Under such circumstances, honest disagreement was inevitable. Islamic scholars were constantly faced with the problem of deciding what the Prophet would have told them to do about problems that had not come up during his lifetime. The most fundamental such problem was precisely how to resolve such disputes about what the Prophet would have done.

Obviously, many thought that some disagreements were important enough to call into question the legitimacy of an opponent’s faith—the question of free will and predestination was one such issue—but equally obviously, one could not call another scholar an unbeliever over a disagreement about a fine point of contract law. And so a characteristically Islamic compromise emerged. Islamic law became the domain of opinion. A believer was obliged to make a sincere effort to ascertain the law and follow it, either by studying it deeply for himself or by following the best judgment of someone who had made such a study for himself. God would reward his good intentions if he was in error and would reward him additionally if he had correctly divined the law and followed it. Thus, by the twelfth century, the various Islamic sciences had assumed their permanent forms—forms in which institutionalized disagreement and diversity were central.

While the substantive content of the Islamic sciences has changed little in the last thousand years, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw two major new influences on the way they were understood: formal logic and Ibn ¢Arabī’s theory of waĥdat al-wujūd. It was logic that shaped the way the Islamic sciences were studied in the following centuries, culminating in the Dars-i Niżāmī and its counterparts elsewhere in the Islamic world. Greek logic and philosophy reached the Islamic world too late and remained controversial for too long for them to have more than an indirect role in shaping the Islamic sciences. Al-Ghazālī seems to have been the first important Islamic scholar to systematically incorporate logic into his legal theory. He included a summary of logic as an introduction to his manual of uśūl al-fiqh. He was one of the few to do so, for the widespread study of logic by students of the religious sciences soon made such introductions unnecessary.

The introduction of logic into the curriculum of Islamic religious colleges seems to have been accompanied by a desire to reexamine the foundations of Islamic thought. The most striking manifestation of this change is the science of theology, ¢ilm al-kalām. Kalām means speech or argument and began in the early Islamic debates about the creed and certain divisive issues, such as free will, predestination, and the imamate. The early texts consisted of discussions of particular disputed points, with the author supporting his opinion by proof texts from the Qur’an and hadith and commonsensical arguments. Though the arrangement and argumentation gradually became more systematic and sophisticated, kalām texts for several centuries remained collections of discussions of disputed points of belief. The theologians defined their science as “a science by which one is enabled to establish religious doctrines by offering proofs for them and removing doubts about them. According to the early scholars, its subject is the essence of God exalted and His attributes.”2 The philosophers, intellectual rivals of the theologians, described kalām as a dialectical discipline offering rhetorical or dialectical arguments for religious beliefs but not giving scientific certainty.

The fiqh is a delicate web of inferences whose strength comes from a deep understanding of language, logic, and the texts on which it is based, as well as from the efforts of dozens of generations of scholars patiently weighing and piecing together thousands of bits of evidence.

Then, around 1300 CE, the nature of kalām changed radically. Its subject was no longer religious beliefs as such but the ways in which religious beliefs could be known. Theologians began devoting most of the space in their books to complex discussions of logic, epistemology, and metaphysics and banished the actual discussion of religious beliefs to a relatively short section on things heard (sam¢iyyāt), in the back of the book. The central subject of theology became the methodology of theology, not theology itself. Similar things were happening elsewhere in the curriculum, where logic, Arabic grammar, Arabic rhetoric, and uśūl al-fiqh became the central subjects in the curriculum, at the expense of the study of Qur’an, hadith, and substantive Islamic law.

As far as I know, the Islamic scholars of the time did not explain the reasons for this change. Something similar happened in Europe at about the same time, partly due to the intellectual excitement of the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and partly because university authorities did not want undergraduates studying theology, the central intellectual discipline of medieval Christianity. Perhaps similar forces were at work in the Islamic world. Islamic law, Qur’an interpretation, hadith, and the like were mature disciplines, whereas the application of logic, the rhetoric, and philosophy to their foundations were new and exciting areas of research. But that does not explain the long-term popularity of curricula, such as the Dars-i Niżāmī, in which logic, dialectic, and the profound study of language were and are central.

Whatever the conscious reasons for adopting a curriculum that stressed the methods of Islamic research over the content of Islamic law and belief, the fact is that the curriculum suited the situation in which Islam found itself. No religious scholar can doubt the true and single shariah, revealed by God to Muĥammad, but our knowledge of it is imperfect. The fiqh is a delicate web of inferences whose strength comes from a deep understanding of language, logic, and the texts on which it is based, as well as from the efforts of dozens of generations of scholars patiently weighing and piecing together thousands of bits of evidence. An education in which logic and linguistics are studied dialectically might sharpen the mind of the student, but it also taught him a good deal of humility as he sought to divine the will of God. Sincere disagreement under such circumstances is inevitable and shows only that we are servants before God, not His privileged counselors.

It should be noted that a much more radical interpretation of disagreement swept the Islamic world at about the same time: Ibn ¢Arabī’s theory of waĥdat al-wujūd. It would take us too far from the main topic to discuss this in detail, but Ibn ¢Arabī argued that all beings are manifestations of some aspect of God. Human beings, unlike other creatures, can progress toward God. However, except for a handful of saints and prophets, we inevitably see God from a limited and idiosyncratic perspective, which is our own particular way of understanding God. These perspectives do not really have a right or wrong, only varying degrees of deficiency and completeness. Thus, Sufis have always recognized the legitimacy of varying spiritual paths, based on the diverse temperaments of human beings.

To recapitulate, medieval Muslims were able to maintain religious unity by systematically tolerating diversity and disagreement within a certain range. This tolerance was based on an honest understanding of the tentativeness of each of the great legal schools as well as of the scope for disagreement in other areas of Islamic religious scholarship. Eventually, the understanding of the bases of this disagreement in effect became the central theme of Islamic education. The fact that Islamic law influenced the state but was not usually enforced by the state allowed this state of affairs to continue without violating the consciences of individual scholars and thus forcing schism. The fact that travel was slow and Muslims were isolated from each other made such tolerance easier to maintain, especially since local customs were usually tolerated.

Disagreement in the Contemporary Islamic World

In the past century, the old ways of handling disagreements among Muslims have obviously broken down. Old quarrels have reemerged with new vehemence, and disagreements of new sorts have arisen. I will offer some explanations for this and then close by suggesting some directions from which a new resolution might come.3

The Breakdown of Traditional Education

Colonialism, modernization, and secularism have done great damage to the Islamic educational system. Modern states, colonial and otherwise, have withdrawn the traditional sources of support for Islamic education. Talented students, who might once have become ulema, now go to modern schools and universities, seeking more lucrative careers. Traditions of learning have been broken in many places as madrasas have closed or gone through bad times. In some places, Islamic education has been co-opted by other forces in society, such as in Indonesia, where well-funded government Islamic institutes were founded to train government religious officials who know government ideology far better than they know Arabic. As far as I can tell, only Iran, Iraq, India, and Egypt have managed to preserve vigorous and continuous traditions of Islamic education and scholarship.

The Role of the Educated Laity

Probably more people in the Islamic world are literate than ever before in history, and the major Islamic source texts are available in inexpensive printed editions in all the major Islamic and European languages. The combination of traditionalism and the dialectical subtlety of the medieval Islamic scholars and of many modern ulema does not answer the questions an engineer or doctor might bring to Islam. Increasingly, Muslims with modern educations are reexamining the Islamic sources for themselves, bringing fresh questions and answers to the material but also bringing a naivete about the nature and interpretation of the primary Islamic texts.

Ease of Communications

Muslims of every school and sect now live as a single community, so that Malaysia and Nigeria are in closer contact now than Multan and Tehran were two hundred years ago. It is not surprising that Muslims accustomed to thinking of the practices of their own community as the Islamic norm should be shocked by other Islamic communities that behave very differently. The resulting conflicts are played out wherever Muslims of diverse backgrounds are thrust together, whether in the great cities of the Islamic world, swollen with migrants from the countryside, or in the mosques of the cities of the West.

The Rise of Neo-Hanbalism

A rigorous and literalist Islam deriving from the Ĥanbalī tradition and its Wahhabi offshoot has become increasingly influential in the Islamic world. It is characterized by a literal interpretation of Islamic texts and a degree of intolerance both toward other Islamic legal schools and toward cultural traits, whether Islamic or Western, not based on Islamic tradition. From the beginning, the Ĥanbalīs generally preferred to follow the letter of the text rather than reason in deriving law. Although the Ĥanbalīs in the past were the smallest of the madhhabs, they are becoming increasingly influential. Partly this is due to the historical accident that Saudi Arabia is predominantly Ĥanbalī, and the Saudis, both the government and individuals, have generously supported Islamic causes around the world, thus spreading influence of Ĥanbalī thought.

There is another reason, however, for Ĥanbalī influence in the modern world. As literalists, the Ĥanbalīs can offer the simple yet convincing argument that something ought to be done or not done because a Qur’anic verse or a hadith commands or forbids it. The argument that the Qur’an and hadith are the only legitimate sources of Islamic practice (that something not commanded by the Qur’an or hadith ought not to be done) is almost as compelling. Most Muslim scholars throughout the centuries have rejected these arguments, holding that individual texts must be understood within a much larger textual, intellectual, and social context. However, the arguments against the Ĥanbalī position are not simple and can only be understood on the basis of the complex intellectual heritage of medieval Islam. And so the Ĥanbalī argument tends to prevail in popular debate.

Some Reflections

As a non-Muslim, it is not my place to say which of these positions is right or wrong or what Muslims ought to do to restore the unity of their community. I will, however, close by suggesting two quite different sources I think are likely to be needed to resolve these issues.

First, the Islamic learned tradition cannot be disregarded. It is easy to be impatient with traditional Islamic scholarship. It is old, narrow, often hidebound, and slow to deal with current issues. Many of the issues it has debated strike even sympathetic Muslims as rather silly. In fact, both Muslim modernists and many so-called fundamentalist groups have rejected the learned tradition. In Egypt, for example, both secularists and the revolutionary Islamic parties are suspicious of the traditionalist ulema of al­Azhar. On the other hand, I do not think the Islamic learned tradition can be lightly discarded. The medieval ulema had a profound understanding of how Islamic law and teaching could be extracted from the material available to them. They understood the limitations of their own reasoning, and they knew the Islamic tradition intimately. They taught a responsible humility before the sources of their tradition. Most of all, they understood the need for and limitations of interpretation in deriving Islamic law and teaching.

Fundamentalists and modernists are, it seems to me, united against the traditional ulema and the medieval Islamic learned tradition by a willingness to naively read texts in a way that imposes an idiosyncratic interpretation on them.4 Disagreements arise whose basis is no more than the limited understanding of a single reader of the Qur’an and hadith. Such interpretations can even be cynical, as in Indonesia, where students are taught to do ijtihād—by which is explicitly meant finding Islamic justifications for government policies. Without the Islamic learned tradition, it seems to me, the Qur’an and hadith will become nothing more than a screen on which Muslims of varying temperaments will project their own preconceptions and prejudices.

Second, I think Muslims living in the West are likely to play a key role in the renewal of the Islamic consensus. Though comparatively small in numbers, they are quickly evolving into a vigorous and successful community. As a minority in a new cultural setting, they have had to ask themselves new questions about the meaning and nature of Islam. As a minority with diverse origins, they do not have the luxury of preserving the divisions of the societies they came from. Mosques, whose congregations might come from a score of countries across the Islamic world, have to face issues of diversity, cultural difference, modernism, unity, and the role of women, and have to do so while trying to win acceptance from a larger non-Muslim society that has usually not been very sympathetic. Ulema have had to learn to play new roles and to deal with new problems. Muslim communities in American or European cities are microcosms of the Islamic world in a larger global society. I suspect the lessons they are learning will prove invaluable to their homelands.


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