Nadeem F. Paracha: A more investigative look at Islam's early history needed?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and]

There is an informative debate show on a local private channel called Alif. The show is mostly about the various philosophies of Islam and their place in Pakistan and rest of the Muslim world. A moderator usually invites up to four intellectuals every week, with two of them usually being ‘moderate’ in outlook while the other two guests hold a more conservative view on the discussed topic.

Even though it is one of the more academically sound Islamic programmes compared to the myopic disasters viewers are bombarded with in this respect, Alif almost always ends up hitting an intellectual dead-end.

The reason for this is the common consensus Muslim scholars of all shades have had on the traditional version of Islamic history. So no mater how diverse their views and interpretations of what constitutes Islamic philosophy and law, they all usually end up with almost exactly the same agreement on Islamic traditions that emerged some time in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, after which the ‘gates of ijtihad’ were said to be closed.

However, many modern Islamic scholars have now started to point out that the roots of political and social problems that the Muslim communities started to face after Muslim imperialism began its decline after the eighteenth century can be traced to the laws, politics and social bearings constructed from the pitfalls of the consensus reached among various Islamic schools of thought on what constitutes Islamic history and tradition.

They believe that this history and the traditions that it cemented stopped being investigated critically and thus ended up creating gaping misconceptions and leaps of logic about what Islam meant and how it was practiced during the Prophet’s time.

In other words, the history of early Islam that is taught to every Muslim child and is taken as the primary source by almost all Muslim scholars and historians was never put to any serious intellectual test and modern investigative methods.

On the other hand, western historians, while investigating the theological history of early Christianity, tried to a understand the ‘historical Jesus’ in place of the ‘theological Jesus’ whom they discovered (and claim) was different from his historical self.

The theological Jesus, they figured, had very little to do with the actual events in history and was more a creation of Christian priests and scholars who appeared almost two generations after Jesus. According to these historians, the theological version of Jesus was formed for political and evangelical reasons in which the person of Jesus was exaggerated and his personality molded according to social and political norms and nuances of the time when early Christian priests were formulating the personality of Jesus through their exegeses of the Bible and the Gospels.

Early Islamic history has hardly ever been treated and investigated in this manner. Some early attempts were made between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, but these attempts were largely the work of Christian apologists who failed to take an unbiased and objective view of the subject and generated their work more as a way to pitch the ‘authenticity of Christian history’ against that of Islam.

However, in the twentieth century, small groups of secular European academics and scholars picked up the pieces and started to investigate early Islamic history using the academic methods historians and anthropologists use to study non-theological history. So far the results have been startling, and many progressive Muslim scholars and historians too have agreed to some of what the rigorous investigations and secular study of early Islamic history has generated.

The most controversial among the investigators was the late Dr John Wansbrough, a leading historian and researcher at London’s prestigious SOAS institute. Though controversial, Wansbrough triggered an academic wave in which a number of respected historians and scholars started studying early Islamic history with the same academic and investigative tools with which historians study the historical context of the Bible and with which general history is studied and its authenticity determined. Wansbrough was at once criticised by Muslim academia for undermining the importance of primary Muslim sources in his study.

Other leading historians in this respect have been Prof. Patricia Crone, Martin Hinds, Michael Cook and Prof. G R. Hawting – people whose critical look at early Islamic history has been largely respected by a number of modern Islamic scholars.

The meeting point where these western academics and many progressive Muslim scholars have managed to reach is the fact that almost all early Islamic history is based on just a single complete biography written on the life of the Prophet. It appeared in 750 CE (by Ibn Ishaq), or about a century and a half after the demise of the Prophet. In fact, this biography has only survived in the writings of Ibn Hisham, who wrote a biography of the Prophet in early ninth Century.

Modern western and Muslim scholars now believe that the accuracy of these biographies is unascertainable because instead of any written documents, Ishaq and Hisham used memorised accounts of the life of Prophet Muhammad (hadiths) as sources.

Historians now view the hadiths with caution, insisting that they cannot be taken as accurate historical sources because they first started to be documented more than a century after the Prophet’s demise.

The reason why early biographers of the Prophet, and early Islamic lawmakers who used hadith accounts to formulate the shariah, could not use any tangible written documents (other than the Qu’ran) was that even a hundred years after the demise of the Prophet there were almost no documented Muslim sources at all about early Islam. Ibn Ishaq’s biography is the only surviving source (written 130 years after the Prophet).

Modern Muslim and western scholarship studying Islam believes that Islam’s progressive evolution was mutated and it became increasingly static after ulema started to compare the human condition of their time with a rather romanticised version of Islam’s early history that was constructed purely on memorised accounts. Accounts that were first put to writing more than a century after the Prophet are likely to have gone through various lapses.

Scholars like Wansbrough, Crone, Hinds, Prof. Ziauddin Sardar, Mohammad Arkoun, and authors such as Irshan Manji, Sumanto Al Qurtuby, and Rashad Khalifa believe most of these memorised accounts of the Prophet and of life under the first four Caliphs were documented more than a century after the Prophet’s demise and then ‘projected back to the time of the Prophet.’

The reason to do so were largely political because at the time Islam was a rapidly expanding imperialist force and needed a politico-religious anchor, especially in the conquered lands that had different (or opposing) faiths as dominant religions.

This tradition was carried across all major stages of Muslim imperialism and the Islamic doctrines were further expanded through scholarly assumptions about life under the Prophet and the ‘rightly guided Caliphs.’ The hadith remained the primary source.

At the decline of Muslim imperialism some time in the late eigteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, the narratives on which much of Islamic history, philosophy and law were constructed during the imperial phase started to seem static, especially in the face of former Muslim powers coming under waves of western imperialism.

Islamic Scholars and leaders appealed for a return to the basics in an attempt to reform Islam and Muslim societies that they now thought had been ‘adulterated’ by their long imperialist exposure to the rituals of other religions.

The hadith still played the primary role in this respect, but many reformist scholars and leaders now chose the more conservative hadiths to transform Islamic law into a harsher article of faith and legislation, believing these would help Muslim societies ‘retain their true identities’ under western imperialism.

That said, there were also reformists who found Imperialist Islamic dictates to have become static and decadent and they wanted to ‘modernise’ Islam by trying to adopt modern western laws and technology.

But since both these strains of Muslim reformists continued appealing to the nostalgia of Islamic imperialism’s heyday, and to the more mythical narratives of ‘perfect Islam’ under the four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs,’ the historical and legislative doctrines of Islam based on the conservative reformists’ views managed to bag a more attentive audience in Muslim societies. It is out of these doctrines that concepts like Political Islam would eventually emerge. A concept whose more retarded strains are what we now call Islamic militancy and ‘Islamo-fascism.’

Interestingly, Islamic reformists too continued to draw their legislative, political and historical conclusions from eighth- and ninth-century hearsay accounts as if modern society was still responding to medieval impulses.

Consequently, even today many Muslim historians and lawmakers carry on defining the shariah and Islamic history using a history constructed from memorised and backwardly projected accounts of the Prophet.

Most progressive Muslim scholars however, have pleaded for a more investigative look at Islam’s early history without the use of eighth- and ninth-century perspectives. To do that they beseech the need to be much more cautious about memorised accounts based on simple hearsay. They say that the hadith should be used watchfully and, perhaps, only when it supports or expands the teachings of the Qur’an and not as a legislative response to the political and social dynamics of modernity that can only leave Muslim societies hanging in a limbo between mythical historical narratives and modern material impulses.

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