Claiming ‘Orthodoxy’

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A few colleagues who have graduated from British religious seminaries (Dar-ul-ulum), and Madinah, Umm Al Qura and Al Azhar universities recently intimated their deep unease with the existing scattered approach to claiming Islamic ‘orthodoxy’. A vague term used to establish legitimacy and usually built on very shaky grounds, the term has replaced what used to be the notion of a good and solid argument, and much of this is down to the parochial mind set and sectarianism ‘leaders’ implicitly or explicitly endorse. One Dar-ul-ulum graduate mentioned that he is derogatorily called open-minded by his colleagues, as if there is any universe in which such a thing might be bad. Unfortunately, the inability to systematically reason and behave appropriately in particular situations is neither new to current times nor will it suddenly disappear, the Hanbali jurist and hadith master Ibn al-Jawzi lamented in his own time saying, ‘I saw a group of those who ascribe themselves to knowledge acting like the laity.’

Now the interesting thing is that ‘orthodoxy’ has no specific Arabic equivalent; whilst we might debate the terms that most closely align with what it is perceived to mean, there is no specific shar’i word. The English word comes from the Greek ‘correct belief’, so inherently, everyone will have their own idea of what that is. Depending on the school, sect, denomination (or cult!), it can stand for many things. For some it describes a direct approach to revelation, but those who use this in popular discourse have little actual knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, and even less on how to extract law and guidance from the two. What occurs is that a simplistic literalism takes root, a limited focus on one verse or hadith without an understanding of how the Arabic language works. All other verses and hadith relevant to the issue are simply overlooked, and there tends to be little thought on hermeneutics: how to interpret texts and the type of text that should be applied to a given situation. Alternatively, some understand orthodoxy as the pursuance of mystic experiences and pay scant attention to the ways in which God directs the sentiments of a worshipful soul.

Some present orthodoxy as a fanatical ascription to a madhab. Indeed, the madhabs are a mercy and blessing from God: the organic construction of legal thought that formed into ways of thinking about the law which reveal how jurists developed an analytical study of revelation. Yet to argue legal tradition, not as ‘method’ but as the exact prescriptions of jurists that weren’t even talking about the things we do, nor speaking to circumstances we find ourselves in, nor envisaged the variables at play in the modern world when deriving their understanding of a particular issue, goes beyond the absurd. Even within one school of law there are variant opinions, and there is no compelling argument to say one variant or one scholar should have a final say on the rich and diverse ways of thinking within a legal tradition. Beyond that, there is often the mantra that ‘we accept the four schools’, but the façade of tolerance quickly becomes apparent in the hostile approach adopted by many, including graduates in various Islamic disciplines from whom we might expect a bit more, towards anything except a narrow reading of their own school. What actually manifests is dogmatic partisanship for some strange and immature desire to be seen as the champions.

Some present orthodoxy with a distinct political undertone; it is viewed as an ascription to ideological markers, such as the hudud or khilafah, portrayed as the be all of the sharia, instead of topics under its purview. Moreover, claimants are specific about their orthodoxy: these markers must be accepted in a particular way and understood according to a particular outlook or ideology, not because there are compelling arguments for doing so but because ‘it was written’ or arbitrarily because it is ‘orthodox’. The circular logic is dizzying. Beyond this there are other problems: the claimants to this type of ‘orthodoxy’ tend to be uneducated in fiqh and consequently misinform wider audiences as to what the ideological markers actually represent, pertinent juristic and philosophical discussions that have been ongoing for more than a millennium, and how they might fit relevantly into British life. Additionally, these markers are usually pronounced as ‘orthodoxy’ in the face of intimidating political rhetoric and this is where things go pear-shaped; the ‘correct belief’ should not be deemed as being so merely because it is targeted by adversaries, but established via a diligent study of the divine will.

On a superficial level, there are those who regard an eastern way of dressing (and other cultural markers) as symbols of orthodoxy, but such markers intimate cultural norms and values and not those of the faith. There is an irony in the idea that many of those who perceive of the ‘western’ as un-Islamic alternatively share ‘eastern’ cultural markers with Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. My point isn’t to say that they are blameworthy; wearing cultural attire that isn’t particular to a faith isn’t a problem, but the inconsistency is. Ironically, many scholars, including al-Shatibi and Ibn Taymiyyah, considered giving religious credence to any specific cultural attire to be heterodoxy (bid’ah), the opposite of orthodoxy.

Of course, there are many other examples beyond these, but to start the conversation these should suffice. None of the above offer a satisfactory account of what orthodoxy might mean. There is neither agreement between ‘orthodoxy’ claimants as to what it consists of, nor are the claims themselves remotely compelling. Am I saying there is no such thing as orthodoxy? Well yes and no. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a realm in which coherent and persuasive religious views fall, but that contemporary claims to ‘orthodoxy’ have little to do with intellectual enquiry, rich and persuasive arguments, and the weight of evidence, and more so to do with rhetoric that seeks to cement an intolerant mentality and incite irrational partisanship that hampers a meaningful relationship with God, a mature outlook, tolerance, and improving our economic, social and political situation. It is any surprise that on one hand some complain about a lack of progress yet simultaneously shun the enterprise of reason?

Of course, there is a realm of ‘correct beliefs’ that make up the core of the faith. Those beliefs, such as God being one, Muhammad being the messenger of God, and that God ordained five daily prayers are definitively correct, any other view on these matters would be objectively wrong. But then there are views and opinions that are differed upon, and due to the subjectivity involved in interpreting authoritative texts we cannot decisively say that they are correct or incorrect from a point of impartiality, but that they are acceptable; people might reasonably disagree, and that is because language, context, or the relevant variables at play, allow for the authoritative sources to be considered in variant ways. Thus it happens to be both a matter of perspective and determining the most compelling way of looking at an issue, all things being considered. Where those of sound intellect recognise the methods of reasoning employed by alternate positions to be sensible, we acknowledge the legitimacy of looking at things in those ways, even if we remain swayed in a direction that evidently doesn’t resonate with others due to their own intelligent insights. Such subjectivity in legal matters was affirmed by various scholars, among them al-Shafi’i is commonly quoted as saying, ‘My opinion is correct with the possibility of being wrong, and your opinion is wrong with the possibility of being correct,’ and the Hanafi Ibn Nujaym relating similar sentiment from al-Nasafi in al-Ashbah wa al-Naza’ir.In attempting to avert contentious issues that tend to be politicised by wider non-Muslim society, such as women leading congregational prayer or uneven inheritance shares, many take on a zero-sum policy, the ‘my way or the highway’ approach that brashly censures a perceived threat rather than astutely countering it with a credible response. Many become so accustomed to reacting in this way that it becomes an entrenched habit. So even where the engagement is with a sincere Muslim (rather than a perceived non-Muslim antagonist), any view that is unfamiliar to interlocutor is looked at with an eye of suspicion rather than an attitude of tolerance. In an age where religious ignorance is widespread, it is highly problematic when the same ignorance becomes the criterion for judgement: ‘it can’t be correct because I don’t know it!’

Everything that I say, if your intellects neither confirm nor accept it, and where you cannot see its cogency, then do not accept it – for the intellect is obliged to accept truth.
al-Shafi’i (al-Qafal al Shashi, Hilyat al-Ulama fi ma’rifat madhahib al-Fuqaha)

If orthodoxy simply boils down to what we personally know and assert, then the term is redundant, claiming orthodoxy does little beyond spelling out the obvious: you believe that the view you advocate is the correct one. So in this situation, rather than appealing to orthodoxy the only thing that should prove consequential to us all, is an intelligent and compelling proposition.

I merely offer some initial thoughts and a basic, and perhaps partial, starting point to explore the notion of ‘orthodoxy’; a highly politicised term that is increasingly being used to undermine substantial views that have made up the realm of legitimate religious opinion for over a millennium. There is much to say on this topic and in far greater detail and more nuance than I can put down here. But even then, starting to think about how we do religion will only help in maturing our religious outlook, and in the context of a diverse Muslim community, promoting cohesion and growth.

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