The traditional orthodox Islamic scholars (Ulema) of all schools of thought have always played very important role in up keep of Muslims and spread of message of Islam as guardians of treasure of knowledge. However they developed tendency to remain confined to their respective schools of thought, enjoying considerable influence over their followers. This Scholasticism (the close adherence to the methods, traditions, and teachings of a sect or school) became impediment in the growth of progressive faith of Islam to meet the challenges of modern developments. Many scholars, to name few like: Ibn Hazm (d 1064), Ghazzali (1058-1111) Zamakhshri (d 1144 C.E), Fakhr al Din Razi (d 1209 C.E), Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), Ibn Kathir (d 1373 C.E) made valuable contributions to advance the Islamic scholarship and knowledge. Besides some isolated efforts here and three, overall there has been stagnation in the learning and development process with emphasis on conforming to the existing knowledge base compiled back in 8th & 9th centuries C.E. Islam encourages thought process, Allah says: “This Book (Al-Qur’an) which We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) is highly blessed, so that they may ponder upon its verses and the men of understanding may learn a lesson from it.”(Qur’an;38:39). Though the efforts made by scholars like Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792 C.E) and Shah Wali Ullah (1703-1762 C.E) to revive the original sprit are noteworthy, however it must be kept in view that the main thrust of the efforts of Ulema have been mostly directed towards safeguarding and preserving the dogmatic, ritualistic and institutional structure of Islam writes Dr.Israr Ahmad: As regards fulfilling the requirements and demands of reviving Islam in the present Westernized milieu, and re-establishing the ascendancy of the politic-socio-economic system of Islam, they are often unaware of even the existence of such need. Therefore, the services of the Ulema can be seen as a continuation of the efforts – like the services of present day Ulema are mainly focused on preservation rather than renascence.
The respectable ancestors were justified in narrowing down their fields of activity because the cultural and legal system of Islam was still very much intact in those days, and the predominant need of their time was merely to preserve the religious faith in its original form and defend it against alien influences. As a result, all the past reformers concentrated their energies in the academic fields or at most in the moral and spiritual purification of common Muslims. None of them tried to launch any organized political or militant movement, as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had strict restrictions on such rebellion against Muslim rulers, as long as Shari’a was being enforced and no flagrant violation of Islam was being committed. It was not considered permissible to revolt even if the rulers are themselves wicked and oppressive. Therefore as soon as the situation was changed and non Muslims started to conquer and occupy Muslim lands the reformist efforts quickly turned in to armed struggles, prominent among them are the Mujahideen movement of Sayyed Ahmad Shaheed (1786-1831) in India, the Sanussi movement in Libya by Syyid Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanussi (1787-1859) and struggle against Italian occupation up to 1932, the Mahdist movement initiated by Muhammad Ahmad (1844-1885) to resist British invasion in Sudan. Imam Shāmil (1797-1871) struggled against Russians occupation of Dagestan-Chechnya lasting for 25 years (1834-1859), which was again revived recently and goes on. The Afghan Jihad started in nineties, initially against Russians occupation, has turned against their benefactor US. The armed struggle in Palestine and Iraq against occupation forces, has also been colored by religious fervor. The recent misadventure by Israelis in Lebanon was thwart by Hizb-Allah, a militant out fit with religious spur.
It is obvious that even today the traditional Ulema are following in the footsteps of earlier reformers who had worked under completely different conditions. In other words traditional Muslim scholars have in general restricted themselves and their abilities within a rather narrow circle of activity which is essentially defensive rather than revivalist. Moreover even the task of defending Islamic doctrines is not being properly done by the Ulema as they are more often than not completely out of touch with developments in contemporary philosophical, social, and scientific thought. Imam Ghazzali (1058-1111 C.E) and Imam Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328 C.E) were able to defeat the onslaught of Greek Philosophy and Aristotelian logic only after a careful and deep study of these invading ideas. Ibn Taymiyah employed a massive battery of philosophic, theological, and legal arguments against every shade of Bid’ah (deviation) and called for a return to the beliefs and practices of the pious ancestors. Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624 C.E) a reformer in India reemphasized Qur’anic orthodoxy and tempering Hindu pantheistic influences and reasserting what he deemed the clear distinctions between God, man, and the world. Despite some impact, however, attempts of this kind remained isolated and were either ignored or reintegrated into the mainstream, until the coming of the modern reformers.
Unlike the doctrinal and philosophical movements of the Middle Ages, the modern movements were chiefly concerned with social and moral reform. The first such movement was the Wahhabi, named after its founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which emerged in Arabia in the 18th century and became a vast revivalist movement with offshoots throughout the Muslim world. The Wahhabi movement aimed at reviving Islam by purifying it of un-Islamic influences, particularly those that had compromised its original monotheism. Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence, based, respectively, on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah and on the legal school of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, stress literal belief in the Qur’an and Hadith and the establishment of a Muslim state based only on Islamic law. Deoband School was founded in 1867 in India. The theological position of Deoband has always been heavily influenced by the 18th-century Muslim reformer Shah Wali Allah and the early 19th-century Indian Wahhabiyah, giving it a very puritanical and orthodox outlook. They have considerable influence in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is generally perceived that the Taliban are influenced by them; but recently the Deoband has unanimously condemned and renounced all forms of terrorism declaring it to be un-Islamic.
Similarly in order to deal with the modern ideologies that are seeking to destroy the foundations of Islamic faith one needs to first clearly discriminate between what is and what is not against the spirit of the Qur’an. Afterwards one can refute that part of the invading ideologies which are in conflict with the Qur’anic spirit and to accept and incorporate after reconciling that part which is in accordance with its spirit in to a new and contemporary exposition of Islam without compromising on the fundamentals of Islam. Unfortunately this is not being done by the traditional scholars (Ulema). Dr.Israr Ahmed has rightly pointed out that; the role of Ulema today, instead of being that of an engine capable of propelling the ship of Islam forward, is actually nothing more than that of a heavy anchor which prevents the ship from drifting away in any wrong direction. Although, under the present circumstances, even this is a commendable and substantial service, the fact remains that this is by no means enough. Another aspect of the activity of Ulema that needs correction is their usually strong emphasis on sectarian matters. A serious stagnation of thought along with dogmatism has set in, ever since the practice of Ijtihad (‘independent reasoning’ as opposed to ‘taqlid’-imitation) was done away with. The religious seminaries and Ulema of every sect are therefore spending most of their time and energies in defending and propagating their particular brands of dogma and rituals, often insisting that any variation in such matters is nothing short of apostasy. The doctrine of Takfir; is being used in the modern era in sanctioning violence against leaders of Islamic states who are deemed insufficiently religious. Takfir is a pronouncement that, some one is an unbeliever (kafir) and no longer a Muslim. It has become a central ideology of militant groups such as those in Egypt (now also in Afghanistan and adjoining tribal areas of Pakistan) which is claimed to be derived from the ideas of Sayyid Qutab. Mainstream Muslims and Islamic groups reject the concept as a doctrinal deviation. Leaders such as Hassan al-Hudaybi (d.1977) and Yousf al–Qaradawi reject ‘Takfir’ as un-Islamic and marked by bigotry and zealotry. Such narrow mindedness has exacerbated the evil of sectarianism and the resulting intolerance among the masses has led to a dangerous trend towards sectarian militancy.
The 19th and 20th-century reformers include Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), but Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), is the first modern Muslim philosopher to deal with the intellectual challenges faced by Muslim Ummah in any comprehensive manner. He made an effort to address the real issues, by saying: “With the reawakening of Islam, therefore, it is necessary to examine, in an independent spirit, what Europe has thought and how far the conclusions reached there can help us in the revision and if necessary, reconstruction, of theological thought in Islam.” Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) initiated struggle for Islamic revival in India, but was discouraged due to opposition by some traditional Ulema, he got disillusioned and gave up the struggle to join nationalist politics of India. The twentieth century revivalist movement of Jama’at–e-Islami by Abul A’la Moududi (1903-1979) in India, later in Pakistan and Ikhwan al Muslimun in Egypt by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928 have left lasting impact. Some organization operating in Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya, Philippines, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics and elsewhere getting inspiration from these movements have developed radical out look, despite differences and disagreement in their approach, their significance can not be ignored. The Iranian revolution has its own importance and long term implications.
Due to lack of interest in religion by the Muslims in general and the rulers in particular, and later colonization of large part of Muslim world, the responsibility to acquire even basic knowledge of Islam was left to the religious scholars only. The Madaris which produced the scholars like Jabir ibn Hayyan, Abu Musa Al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm), Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (Alkindus), Ar-Razi, Al-Farabi, Alhazen, Al-Biruni, Avicenna, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and many more, by teaching all branches of knowledge including mathematic, algebra, astronomy, science and technology, medicine and social sciences along with religious sciences, philosophy and logic, teaching in Madaris was restricted to religious sciences only. This void created a new class of semiliterate religious scholars (mullah) devoid of knowledge of science, political, economic, social and other fields, so important for the smooth management of Muslim societies. Instead of leading the prayers (salah) and delivering the weekly sermon (khutba) on Fridays, the Muslim rulers encouraged and created a class of Mullahs (religious teachers, cleric) with priestly tendencies alien to Islam. Mostly these semi literate people are leading prayers in mosques as prayer leader (Imam), the function which can be performed by any Muslim. Since ordinary Muslims are dependent upon Mullah for the socio-religious functions like Nikah (marriage contract), reciting Adhan (prayer call) and Qur’anic verses in the ear of new born babies, washing the dead, burial prayer etc, the Mullah enjoys considerable influence over ordinary Muslims. While delivering sermons, specially on weekly Friday prayer congregation they do not hesitate to deliver talk on any topic be it politics, economics, social, sexual relations or international affairs without much background knowledge. No one among the audience, even an expert can dare to disagree or challenge the Mullah, because it may result in to dire consequences like being falsely declared as apostate, liable to be killed. Many such incidence have been reported in press. They are main contributor of sectarianism, intolerance and militancy, though there are some exceptionally knowledgeable and tolerant among them as well. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan resulted in creation of Mujahideen by USA. After Russians defeat, they started fighting among themselves for power, using the name of Islam. This resulted in emergence of Taliban, the students of seminaries (madaris) which produce Mullah, a sort of professional priest. However it would be a great fallacy to brand all the seminaries (madaris) as source of trouble, most of them are doing good job. The taste of power has now made Taliban to continue fighting whosoever oppose them be it Russians, Americans or Muslim brothers. Talibanization has affected the tribal areas of Pakistan as well, they are using suicide bombers as tool for killing of innocent fellow Muslims in violation of Islamic principles. This menace can not be tackled by more violence. The reforms of religious seminaries (madaris), are overdue to include modern and technical education to the students along with the religious education. The graduates of these institutions should not only be looking for a mosque to earn their livelihood as Imam (priest), but may join other professions as well. There is strong need of policy shift at the national and international level to bring them to mainstream. The superfluous priesthood, (the form it has taken now) has to be restricted by the society whereby each Muslim should acquire normal religious knowledge to perform routine religious functions and reduce dependence on Mullah. A class of genuine religious scholars well versed in the theology and comparative religions should always be an asset for Ijtihad, guidance and education of the masses in their religious obligations. The massive religious mobilization by Tablighi Jama’t, by and large is playing an important role with in the larger process of Islamic Renaissance, with regards to its effort for the regeneration of fundamentals of faith among the masses, though some people express reservations. The efforts of non traditional scholars due to their rational appeal for the educated people is highly commendable. Many modern educated Muslims have been encouraged to come closer to Islam.