Jun 17, 2019
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.
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?
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.
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.