Methodological Considerations Regarding Approaching the Qur’an & the Sunna in the Context of Contemporary Life


[This is the twelfth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference later and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Session 12, Moderator: Hisham Altalib
Paper Presentation by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
“Methodological Considerations Regarding Approaching the Qur’an & the Sunna in the Context of Contemporary Life”

Developing a method to understand Qur’an and Sunna in ways that that are both authentic and relevant to contemporary realities and sensibilities in the West and the Muslim world requires an epistemology predicated on the belief that absolute certainty belongs only to Allah and that the best that humans can do is to seek a convergence of the three sources of knowledge Allah has granted to us: reason, experience, and transmission from reliable sources. Research conducted within that epistemological framework requires a rigorous academic discipline. Every hypothesis, every idea, every argument, and every conclusion must be subjected to the most thorough questioning to seek its weakness with the intention of reformulating any analysis until it can withstand any rational scrutiny or empirical test as well as consistency with the scriptural texts.The corpus of hadith ought not be taken as a given neither in text, interpretation, nor authenticity, but rather as historical reports useful as an aid to understanding the Qur’an insofar as, to the extent that they may be deemed authentic, they provide an insight into the sunnah of the Prophet (as). The sunnah, however, is neither a supplement to the Qur’an nor a means of abrogation of the Qur’an (astaghfirullah!) but a set of examples of how the principles of Qur’anic Islam were implemented by the Prophet in his time and place. These examples provide an illustration of the principles that, properly understood, may allow us to formulate equally correct answers appropriate to our time and place and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Reason is a given, but its application is subject to rigorous critique as any chain of reasoning may be erroneous either because it is based on false premises, contains a logical fallacy, or may simply not apply to the point under consideration. Similarly, due weight given to the significance of experience requires critical analysis as to whether observations are mistaken or perceptions false. When under critical scrutiny we find carefully interpreted revelation, sound reasoning, and repeated experience all point to the same conclusion, we may declare ourselves to be as certain as it is possible for humans beings to be, and still, to avoid arrogance, add Allahu a`lam.

Interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna requires including scholars specializing in the social and physical sciences as well as scholars of the traditional Islamic disciplines.  While there are some good reasons for thinking of social sciences as “soft science,” any work that approaches the sources of Islamic law must maintain the highest standard of rigor. This begins with the requirement to clearly and carefully define terms in our research and also in the planning and discussion of research.

In the methodology we envision, some things we shall take as a given. The received Arabic text of the Qur’an itself is not open to question and constitutes the furqân, or decisive criterion of any inquiry. Muslims, by definition (the second part of the shahadah, Muhammad ar-rasûl Allah) have already been convinced that the Qur’an has been reliably transmitted from its divine source. (Non-Muslims engaged in discourse on such subjects must accept this premise as a hypothetical.) However, this does not mean that any given interpretation of the text is taken as a given, however longstanding or authoritative its progenitors. On the contrary, all interpretations may be questioned and reconsidered.

In my paper I explore three cases in details and get very different answers. In considering the times of prayers one can argue that a systematic standardized prayer, fixed by time zone but changing by season is a more elegant solution to the problem of high latitudes than the ad doc solution of telling people at high latitudes to follow an ill-defined “normal” population center in their time zone. In the case of the punishment for adultery, stoning is not in the Qur’an and no reasonable case can be made for abrogating the Qur’anic punishment, which flagrantly contradicts any form of capital punishment. In the matter of money, on the other hand, the sunnah is upheld, not in the detail of which substances are acceptable forms of money, but in the principle that money must be a commodity that doubles as a store of value in order to avoid fraud, theft, and monopoly.

Discussant 1: Sami Catovic

I don’t disagree in principle, but would like flesh out the ideas. Put a footnote to indicate that there could be another Islamic understanding. Ghazali sought knowledge free from all doubt.

Ahmad: The correspondence principle only requires that the Prophet’s solution be AN acceptable solution; it need not be the only solution.

Discussant 2: Louay Safi

I disagree with the correspondence principle and have problems with the examples. To me faith is faith in God. To grasp the faith you have to take it as a whole. It has to be rooted in personal experience.  Any faith no rooted in experience is a false faith. To me Ghazali was not a Sufi. Rituals must be taken from the Prophet.  For example, what is the intent of the prohibition on trade outside the market? I fear you are taking something that belongs outside the natural science and applying it to the religious sciences. Qur’an implies the times relate to the movement of the sun itself. On money you can find five or six Islamic sources that disagree with you. Gold would be limiting. Or we would create inflation. I don’t see how correspondence can help us.

Ahmad: The prohibition on trade outside the market is an example of what I’m talking about. To make sense of it we need a theory that Islamic law requires a fair price, which is the price, produced by a market. Sale out side the market is not prohibited per se, but only because it may lead to an unfair pricing. The epistemological basis of the methodology is perfectly general and applies in any field of knowledge. The traditional prayer times are not based on any actual movement of the sun but on its APPARENT movement. Apparent movement depends on the location of the observer. The observer in the case of the Sunnah was the Prophet Muhammad, as, at Mecca or Medina. Thus to base the prayer time son the apparent motion of the sun as seen form the latitude of Mecca and Medina is perfectly sound, while basing posit ion the position of the someone at other locations range from ad hoc (such as the latitude of Washington DC) to absurd (such as Vancouver).

Mohammed: Is your methodology similar to the “double movement” proposal of Fazlur Rahman, [to generalize specific examples into moral or social objectives in historical context and then to apply them to the contemporary one].

Ahmad: I believe so. The point is the specific answers may be change with context, but the principles themselves must apply to all contexts.

Al-Shingieti: Value is a convention. Sometimes there is a disparity between barter conventions. If a state can maintain the exchange value of currency why not do it? I take the relationship between knowledge and human experience as necessary because only experienced things can be known. We can only know through history.

Ahmad: Value is subjective to the agent, not conventional. Conventions are but a single factor influencing what we subjectively value. Market value is the social outcome of allowing a large number of people to trade that which they possess for things they would prefer to have in an open market. It is not conventional at all, but changes, sometimes dramatically.

Ayoub: We always talk about Tahâfût and ihyâ, but Ghazali’s theory of knowledge in Mumkidh min ad-Dalâl is based on two important sources, Qur’an and Sufism. In his life his brother was more famous, but it in the end he is the better known. Knowledge is relative, the sun seems like a small thing in the sky but it is many times the size of the earth. Which is correct knowledge? In Qur’an Allah says, indeed you will know. In the ranks of degrees of knowledge, (e.g., ilm, yakin, ayn al yaqin, haqq al yaqin), experience is subordinated to the highest knowledge. We will experience it because it will be opened to us. Knowledge is not something we can acquire; it is given by God, a light that God inserts into the heart of the mu’min. In the end this is the difference between faith and modern scientific knowledge. The value of rational knowledge is that it can lead you to divine knowledge. Tariqat al-khalîl, the way of Abraham.  In a conflict between `aql and nakhl, choose `aql.

Catovic: Looking at the Prophet’s actions from the view of the Qur’an, I’m reminded of Abu Baker’s response: “If he said it I believe it,” reading the Prophet as subservient to the Qur’anic message.

Safi: These problems only occur when we take a fragmented reading of the Qur’anic text.

Ayoub: Ta’bir an-nakhl is not a reliable hadith.

Safi: I don’t accept the reduction of experience to sense experience. Iman and Islam are not the same thing.

Ahmad: The correspondence principle does not require one to accept any particular hadith it can lead to rejecting some hadith.

Ayoub: There is far more to knowledge than we have discussed this afternoon. The most exalted and meaning of knowledge comes from God and how it comes depends on the individual.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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