Muslim research into ancient and contemporary knowledge led to numerous discoveries in astronomy, medicine, mental health, and much more.
Ibn Khaldun’s insightful comment on his contemporaries’ perspectives of “Islam” is succinct and to the point: “[Unthinkingly] following ancient customs and traditions doesn’t mean that the dead are alive, but that the living are dead.” Ibn Khaldun’s comment was reflective of his lifetime, and sadly, reflective of our modern times – our Islam is not enlivening our spiritual development; thus, fails to fully inspire Muslim growth and development to meet the challenges of today or tomorrow. Progressive Islamic research and evaluation is one of several methodologies needed to change this debilitating condition.
Today’s Islamic scholarship remains mired in ideals and ideologies profoundly inappropriate for modern times. Time-worn methodologies do not mean effective, and will not meet the needs of a secular and multi faith society of today. When “keepers-of-the-gate” scholarship trudges through well-worn “footsteps” of the past, which result in promoting “answers” that, in actuality, are “window-dressing” regurgitation of tradition-focused Muslim scholarship, modern scholars of this ilk fail to inspire Muslim development today. Proving “authenticity” via antiquated “authoritarianism” views is only text proofing, which any “Google” sheikh can fulfill that function, that is not “progressive” scholarship. Muslim thinking today are hindered by this “copy-and-paste” scholarship, and such “bubbles” promote Quranic ethics and shari’ah law as rigid, staid, and immutable – the living spirit of Muslim-thinking is dead.
Progress Islamic Education Past
During the Golden Age, Islamic institutions of intellectual debate were called “salons”. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars of diverse backgrounds met and discussed knowledge of the known world. The exploration of ancient and contemporary knowledge led to numerous discoveries in agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine, mental health, and much more. These discoveries improved Islamic education, generally and specifically, expanding the breadth and depth intellectual study. We are fortunate they left future generations methodological tools to revive our theological spirit and shape societal reforms for humankind.
Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad
We may ask what so negatively influenced the modern Muslim mind? A good student of Islamic history would say, it is the result of Islamic education after the Mongol invasions and the implementation of the “Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad”. Ibn Taymiyyah, a founding member of the original Hanbali Madhhab, promoted a strict form of literalism, i.e., strict adherence to Quranic textual sources, and Sunnah as found in compilations like Bukhari and Muslim. Through personal trials and tribulations of the turbulent times in that region of the Islamic empire, Hanbal and Taymiyyah eventually, gained the support of several Caliphs, which over time convinced them to close opposing madhhabs – at the threat of imprisonment or death. The Hanbali madhhab by implementing these restrictions negatively influenced scholarship of their time, preventing the use of ijtihad in the application of theological thought.
As a result, numerous scholars from other Islamic schools, both during his lifetime and in later periods, consider Ibn Taymiyyah’s contribution limited Islamic theological thought. His strict adherence to sharia law and governmental authority was mandatory; and, of course, this was done without consideration of how “urf” (customs) of place and time played an important role in rendering legal opinions suited for diverse Muslim communities. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, some centuries later, retooled the Hanbali madhhab to become the current dominant thinking in mainstream Islam of the Wahabist, Salafist and Jihadist ideologies we see today.
In the generation following Ibn Taymiyyah, Muslim researchers like Ibn Khaldun brought new understanding to Islamic education. For example, Ibn Khaldun developed philosophy, metaphysics, sociology, as well as how education should be taught, which made major impacts during his lifetime. He held that education should be based upon understanding politics and human nature, understanding of nature over time and locale, knowledge of social environments, comparing the present with the past, and knowing the origins and motives of historical players, and such information would clearly separate fact from fiction. Thus, this methodology increasingly improve the quality of knowledge learned, and diminished opportunities to mislead the Muslim masses. Today, progressive Islamic theorists utilize many of the evaluative tools developed by Ibn Khaldun.
Combating Creeping Islamism
We are two decades into the 21st century, and the proliferation of Wahabist, Salafist and Jihadist ideologies, (collectively Islamism), has caused some Muslims to turn to the worst of human behaviors – the murder of coreligionist and innocents. Globally, academic and governmental forces in both the Muslim world and the West promote Islamism. In Muslim classrooms students of all ages are taught Islamist “theological” principles, where “kufur” (unbelievers) encourages attacks on Muslim minorities and non-Muslims, ignoring the human rights of women, children and LGBT Muslims, and the taking of large numbers of innocent “martyr” lives, reveals the internal decay and obsolescence of the Islamist ideology.
Progressive Islamic Education – Today
Following Ibn Khaldun theories of Islamic education supports establishing similar standards for progressive Islamic education in modern times. MECCA’s Institute’s supports this philosophy in reviewing and researching modern problems, with the goal to develop modern solutions applicable to Muslim societies where these problems exist. Expanding the capacity to do this type of research, Muslims and non-Muslims must financially support MECCA Institute’s inclusive Islamic theological seminary, and collectively build alternative Islamic community centers that promote multi-faith coalitions and quash Islamist-centered education cultures as the standard for modern theological achievement.
In the West today, a progressive education requires reforming Islamic thought. This entails a full evaluation of current teachings, comparative theological and historical studies, and the application of usul-ul-fiqh. Also included in this process is utilizing the full-breadth of scientific knowledge today. Modern research and peer review methodologies help people clarify and authenticate theological conclusions that have often been taken for granted. Theological scholarship must thoroughly scrutinize “hearsay” sources, while at the same time evaluating the “evidence” using the filter of Quranic ethical principles. Discussion of one’s findings and comparison with other researchers often render the most accurate qualitative meaning(s). Muslims and non-Muslims will gain invaluable insights into their faith that will lead to the reform of Islamic thought and revival of Islamic spiritual growth today.
Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute, a progressive Islamic institute with a think tank and a school.