Whenever a question about motive or meaning is asked concerning the sharī’ah which sits uncomfortably with the cultural preachers who don’t have a reasoned position, they holler “so and so is trying to change the deen!” Many then mindlessly adopt this rhetoric, erroneously railing against legitimate rectification and exploration. Now had religious literacy amongst the masses not have been so low there might be some basis for this claim, but it is essentially ignorance that becomes the criterion of truth. Of course, there ought to be some balance: on the one hand the laity must be careful not to follow every claimant in their fanciful views: “There are some who, with no knowledge, argue about God, who follow every devilish rebel” (22:3), but at the same time they must be able to transcend irrational, spurious or irrelevant traditions: “But when it is said to them, ‘Follow the message that God has sent down,’ they answer, ‘We follow the ways of our fathers.’ What! Even though their fathers understood nothing and were not guided?” (2:170)
I’m continuously asked: “How are the laity meant to know?” Well, to put it simplistically, having some general literacy of the Quran is a good place to start so that you can take what you hear and judge whether it resonates with the general nature (and entirety) of the divine message. And once lay people start to actually pay attention to what advocates are saying along with the depth of their arguments (rather than relying on sectarian rhetoric or cultural conformity) then I believe they’ll start to recognise the range of standards and abilities out there, and discern the real from the pretenders.
In our context today, religious opinion is largely uninformed, social opinion judgemental, and political opinion either baseless or grievance driven. Most are led to believe there has only been ONE mainstream opinion on everything for a millennium. Yet there is nothing mainstream and traditional about contemporary religious rhetoric, in fact it’s very new and reactionary (mostly as a post-colonial force). One of our aims should be to revive the traditional realm of religious opinion that we so staunchly claim a commitment to, and challenge the provincial attitude that has become the status quo.
Those who position themselves as gatekeepers of the Qur’an and sunnah are no such thing; more than often they distort verses with mistranslations or misinterpretations, and as much as they claim the tradition of the past’s ulama, they intend that you only follow their way, reducing the entire edifice of intellectual shar’ī thinking over a thousand years to the specific 3-4 people they’ve chosen to take as interpretative authorities. All sects and denominations do this, it’s intrinsic to their nature. It’s nothing new. Many hundreds of years ago, Ibn Taymiyyah addressed the same issue:
ومن الناس من يكون نشأ على مذهب إمام معين، أو استفتى فقهيًا معينًا، أو سمع حكاية عن بعض الشيوخ، فيريد أن يجعل المسلمين كلهم على ذلك
“And there are some who develop (their views) according to the school of a particular Imam, or only seek answers from a particular jurist, or hear from some shuyukh, expecting ALL Muslims to be just like that.”
Note that the problem isn’t with seeking a simple approach – it can actually be praiseworthy, but it’s with imposing one’s own personal choices on others as matter of fact. And this becomes particularly heinous when religious leaders/personalities do so, since irshad (religious guidance) requires from them wider learning, deeper understanding, and consideration of the variables that affect the context. We might sympathise with the parochialism of the unlearned, but when religious personalities advocate it, then they establish for us that they’re pretenders.
Some general thoughts:
1. What God has revealed is known: “We have sent down the Quran Ourself, and We Ourself will guard it.” (15:9) None can change that. What the righteous endeavour to do is challenge how it is misunderstood and how some want us to parochially understand what God wants from us, or the fact that some don’t want us to understand God at all and instead want us to opt for irrational religion/faith as an extension of an ethnic identity, religio-cultural practices, or their fear-driven ‘orthopraxy’.
2. It’s not something the learned are at liberty to overlook (no matter how much they might want to and instead opt for a simple life). It is their duty and THEIR responsibility. Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of God said, “This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy of every successive generation, refuting the corruption of extremists, the distortions of falsifiers, and the interpretations of the ignorant.” (al-Tabarānī)
3. Seeking meaning and guidance from God and His messenger is something both progressives and the cultural preachers abhor. For the former, it absolutely undermines their superficial claims, and for the latter it divests them of the positions they occupy in their communities and places it back with God. They no longer get to control the masses, since it is through raising educational standards that the masses are empowered with some evaluative tools, at least to separate the wheat from the chaff. The motives of such preachers reflect those of the earlier Church which positioned priests as middlemen between God and humanity. How else can we explain the inane idea “If you read the Qur’an to understand it, or in a language you understand, you’ll be misguided!”
4. The majority of our established practices are valid, but because we have lost much of their meaning, the substance of what we do and believe is insipid. Speaking about the why informs the how. Take the tarawih as an example, a perfectly valid and meaningful form of worship, yet being superficially committed to 20 rakat (units) as a doctrinal code means that many mosques offer prayers with such haste and empty movements that the entire 20 rakat are rendered meaningless AND offensive. Had what God wanted from Ramadan night prayers been understood and explored appropriately, I doubt most (who do) would behave this way.