Lecture notes and slides on:

Crisis of Critical Thought in Muslim Societies: The Bidding of Bid’a

By Zaman Stanizai, Ph.D.

The Rise and Fall of Societies

1. Scientific Reasons—From Evolution to Civilization:

Human Creativity: The more creative, the more productive, the more evolved, and more involved.

With what frequency and to what heights do they rise depends on the degree of consciousness (awareness, degree of education) and the social and political environment conducive to such a rise and the opportunity that historical events provide as they unfold.

2. Non-scientific Reasons—The Rising Sun Theory:


The global ‘civilizational’ pattern of development follows the sun as it had started in the East in China, moving to India and then the Near East, and slowly moving towards Europe that eventually jumps over to America and is probably at this stage of historical development jumping the Pacific Ocean to Asia. (Coincidentally President Obama is attending the Pacific Rim Conference in Honolulu to strengthen ties with its neighbors to the west.)

The efflorescence Islamic Civilization is largely due to nurturing the growth of creative mind in arts, architecture, science, medicine, astronomy, literature, poetry, philosophy, etc.  Monuments that testify to that glorious past are the Taj Mahal, the Blue Mosque, the Timorid Renaissance, the Lodhi Gardens, Mughal Agra,  Isfahan and more.

It was in the area of religion and politics where they did not excel at the same level and at times the expression of critical thought was suppressed.

The creative mind as in active imagination and critical thought are not stoppable, but suppression can render them irrelevant.  Critical thinking is creative thinking that target those who threatened by it—resulting in conflict.

The closure of the gate of ijtihad:

“From the middle of the 3rd/9th century, too the idea began to gain ground that only the great scholars of the past had the right to independent reasoning in law (ijtihad), and in the 4th/10th century a consensus gradually established itself in orthodox Islam to the effect that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all (TAQLID).”

The early independent ulema resisted the temptation of power and prevented the formation of theocracy, but the later ulema who were coerced to join the court sold out and inadvertently endorsed plutocracies, autocracies, and authoritarianism.

Thought was not quantified, but qualified and as such

All thought was not considered equal.  Building on such premises that:

The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.

The concept of hal-u ‘aqd or the selected few that has manifested in modern Iranian politics as the khibragan or in the 18th century American politics as the electoral college.

The closure of ijtihad was sealed with bid’a, a concept that meant to protect the principles and core values from being too loosely interpreted that could turn the legal and the lawful into a state of anarchy of sophistry, but one that soon become the policeman arresting even sound critical thought at every corner of the Muslim mindscape.

Limiting the schools of ijtihad may have been a necessary step in the consolidation of unmanageably diverse views on Shari’a matters, but propagating the notion of the closure of ijtihad was certainly an opportunistic stand by the rulers.

The closure of ijtihad as a symbol of the freedom of expression was a travesty to human dignity as a free agent, its lingering has become a built-in regression and stagnation from which the Muslims have yet to recover.

In the Medina model of social stratification illustrated in the picture below there is single authority, divine legitimacy, and direct democracy with diversified religious legal system accountable in civil matters to a single state.

The above Abbasid model pyramid is stratified into three layers: the ruler or caliph, the ruling autocracy that consisted of some of the following: the intelligencia (‘ulama, scholars, and freelance notables), the military class that protected the state, the ethnic/tribal elite to whom certain rulers were beholden.  If any privileges trickled down below this level of the social strata, it was to the public, the subjects pr the ra’iat who paid taxes, but were not entitled to any services unless it was the grace of the ruler.

In this kind of environment only freelance scholars who were not at the service of any court were able to produce real work.  Ibn Sina, Ibn Arabi, Razi, etc.  Or those who were in the courts of more compassionate rulers like Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun, etc.

At the time of the European Renaissance Muslim societies had fallen behind the West in 1) science and technology, 2) critical thinking and the development of political thought for a more democratic form of government, 3) military prowess that enabled the West to dominate the world.

Fighting for their survival if not dominance, Muslim authorities suppressed critical thinking, considered Western technology, the symbol of Western superiority, corrupting, but were willing to try Western military hardware.

This was the beginning of its economic and technological dependency and eventually the loss of its political independence. That end-user consumer only speeded up the creative edge of the West. Repeating the pattern in the non-military and civilian section locked Muslims in a dependence of consumerism.

Muslims followers of the most progressive religious tradition become the most regressive and repressive.  The heirs of the most inclusive and diverse civilization become the most xenophobic and the most backward.

Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani played an archetypal role in the reawakening of the Muslims, but he was expelled from every land and the Ottomans cut his tongue symbolically showing how much significance they gave to critical thought and the expression of free speech.

Since then Muslim societies have been on a slippery slope.  Post colonial societies are free only in name as neo-colonialism wears a more invisible mask.

Where we stand:

Perhaps due to a very authoritative social and political order even the religious/spiritual mind-set in the Muslim societies has changed.  God of authority replaces God of love and compassion.  The unbinding of the Immanent and Transcendent.

Muslims societies suffer from some of the following symptoms:

Resisting ‘foreign modernity’

The psyche of paralysis

The formation of a mind-set resistant to change

The past not viewed as inspiration, but nostalgia

The present is despair – indifference

Defined by inter- and intra-religious diversity and inclusion

Some suggested remedies could include revisiting core values and understanding them in the modern context. 

Define new ideals alongside old ones:

Social justice, socialized economics, fair trade

Environment, global sustainability, peace advocacy, nuclear-free world, embrace and endorse science and technology is our own, balanced approach to scientific inquiry (reason and intuition)

Problem:  Muslims are inspired by the past and idealize the past. The future is missing from the equation.

Solution:  They should inspire from the past, but idealize in the future.

Problem: Changing in a defined socio-political context is reactive.

Solution: Define the context, define the change, and change proactively (change from within)

Problem: Muslims see Islamic Civilization as Islamic (religion bound).

Solution: Islamic Civilization should be seen ‘civilizationally’ (inclusive and comprehensive)

Observations and Conclusions

1.   Innahu le ayaatin le qaumin yatafakarun.  In this (Qur’an) are the signs for those who think.  It is a travesty of the highest order when we deny human citizens not to employ the medium necessary for the understanding of God to know themselves, i.e. improve their life conditions.

2.   Laqad karramnaa bani Aadama, ‘We have dignified the progeny of Adam.’ A socio-political order must tap onto the creative human imagination, nurturing the freedom of thought and embracing the freedom of expression is paramount to any and all principles.  In this expression human consciousness must deservedly qualify as the dignified creation, ashraf-ul makhluqaat.

3.   As the Qur’an is sincerely believed to be the final revelation, than its interpretation must, out of logical necessity and practicality, have the dynamism to accommodate circumstances that are not static and time-bound.  The Qur’an rejects the notion of the authenticity of historical precedence over logical reasoning.  Neither should we follow “the way of our fathers” when reason rejects it.

4.   We must measure the authoritative rationally rather than through historical precedence (replace taqlid with tajdid replace naqlani with ‘aqlani).

5.   Muslims operate on a default mode, i.e. instead of thinking for themselves and using their God-giving power of reasoning, they relegate the responsibility to obsolete interpretations of the 10th century which may not be relevant or practical.

6.   Muslims must de-link, disassociate, and disconnect Western science and technology from the West in order to desensitize themselves.  They don’t need a fatwa to declare telephones halaal just because they are made in the (colonial) West.

7.   Muslims must think out of the box by getting inspiration from the (glorious) past, but they must idealize into the future.  The past can be a source of emulating moral principles and code of behavior conduct, but not a model for life style or for running the affairs of a sophisticated 21st century cosmopolitan post-modern state on a model of 7th century oasis-township.

8.   Avoid the use of the term Islamic as it shields political and social organizations from sound criticism and it feeds the cross-cultural stereotyping in the West.  It is more important to live by the essence of what is Islamic rather than an entity that is Islamic only in name.  An Islamic republic is as meaningless as Western democracy.  Both terms should be used monopolistically as living under a fair and just system of government is a universal yearning of the human nature, regardless of ideological or religious affiliation.

This talk was concluded with the poem: Dancing with the Divine. To read the poem click here.