The Islamic Intellectual Life in the Religious Sources

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Religion is the core of Islamic life. Life of Muslims takes shape entirely according to religious orders, experiences, and purposes. It is true that genuine religion must come from God for the right guidance of humanity. And it is equally true that human nature and majority of human needs are essentially the same at all times. Therefore, this concept leads to the common conclusion that there are some forms of religious experiences that emerge from the One and Same God, to be dealt with exceptional human problems throughout history. There were also many prophets who proclaim and declare God’s message where they were sent. Although Islam was taught by the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), from the Islamic perspective Islam had been taught by all the Prophets before Muhammed (PBUH), and by the true followers of Abraham and Moses as well as those of Jesus. Islam commands all Muslims to believe in all the Messengers and Prophets of God without any discrimination among them. Every known nation had a warner or messenger from God. All prophets were taught wisdom, whether they received the scripture or not. Moreover, these Messengers were not only great teachers of the good, and champions of the right for their own nations, but for all nations that believe in the one God. Hence, the descendants or children of Abraham, such as Ismail, Ishaq, Jacob, Job, Moses, and others were all granted the Book and Prophethood.

Among the well-known Prophets, Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) stands as the last Messenger and the crowning glory of the foundation of Prophethood. The Qur’an states:

He it is Who raised among the inhabitants of Mecca, Messenger from among themselves, who recites to them His communications and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom, although they were before certainly in clear error.” (Qur’an 62:2)1

Contrary to Goodman, who declared: “Muhammed brings a Qur’an for the Arabs, Moses brings a Torah for Israel”2, it should be noted that Islamic understanding states the context of Prophecy and its function as one of a universal knowledge.

a-The Similarity with Other Traditions

The Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) in the early part of the 7th century AD in the towns of Mecca and Medina in west-central Arabia. The first home of Islam was Mecca and its second home was Medina. Both Mecca and Medina maintained close relationships their surrounding nomads. This newly revealed book and the Prophet challenged these two nomadic communities socially, morally, ethically, and intellectually, leading to significant changes. Consequently, Islam was able to displace the old traditions based on polytheistic mindsets, to new ways grounded in the worship of One God. Thereafter, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was able to unite the Arab tribes that had been torn apart by revenge, rivalry, and internal fights, and produced a strong nation that conquered and ruled several known empires at that time, simultaneously. Muslims were aware of this radical change in their community and their individual lives. The impact of the new religion can be demonstrated through the following example. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) sent a group of believers to Abyssinia. When the emigrants were well received in Abyssinia, Negus, who was the King of Abyssinia, spoke to them saying: “What is this religion wherein you have become separate from your people?” And Ja’far, who was the son of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) uncle and the leader of the emigrants of Abyssinian at that time, answered him saying:

O King, we are a people steeped in ignorance, worshiping idols, eating unsacrificed carrion, committing abominations, and the strong would devour the weak. Thus we were, until God sent us a Messenger from out of our midst, one whose lineage we knew, and his veracity and his worthiness of trust and his integrity. He called us unto God, that we should testify to His Oneness and worship Him and renounce what we and our fathers had worshipped in the way of stones and idols; and he commended us to speak truly, to fulfill our promises, to respect the ties of kinship and rights of our neighbors, and refrain from crimes and from bloodshed.”3

These people gained a new identity, which was Muslim. This identity was embodied by the Muslim community, first in Mecca, then Abyssinia, Medina, Syria, Egypt, Spain, and Asia. Furthermore, they were determined to live with their beliefs abiding by all conditions.

b) The Encouragement for Knowledge and Practice

From this impressive starting point Islam flourished under the guidance of the two foundations—the Holy Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH). These two sources motivated the Muslims to reach the highest intellectual level as God revealed to His Last Prophet: Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists), Has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood). Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who has taught (the writing) by the pen. Has taught man that which he knew not.(Qur’an 96:1-5) Therefore, the common knowledge was nourished and reinforced throughout the Muslim community from generation to generation. Wherever they lived, they clearly knew that nature and the world were fields of exploration and the objects of enjoyment for the Muslims. Such kinds of essential knowledge, which the Qur’an sometimes stimulated in the human mind, raised many questions which were left for the human intellect to resolve. In this large-scale intellectual atmosphere, many religious scholars, theologians, philosophers, and physicists flourished. Shariff notes:

The Qur’an did indeed give guidance to the intellect, but in no way did it chain and fetter it. Just as Nature gives organisms to develop in suitable environment, even so were the seeds of Muslim thought supplied by the Qur’an and the Hadith, and growth was simply the germination and fruition of these in the congenial soil of some pre-existing modes of thought.4

Simultaneously, the relationship between faith, practice, and knowledge in Islam contributes to the depth of religious understanding. All Muslims should be good people before God. Islam does not recognize any kind of separation between faith, practice, and the interests of knowledge. In this context, Muslims must be gathered and nurtured in the religious practices. There are no special or separate social classes that are above the necessary requirement, even to scholars, governors, religious leaders, and clergy. Additionally, the educated people are required to be much more religious and closer to religious values as role models within the Muslim community. God praises these educated people who seek to be people of understanding: “And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it; the whole of it is from our Lord.’ And none receive admonition except men of understanding.(Qur’an 3:7)

c) Fiqh : Revealed Way of Life

Islam is basically defined by the term shari’ah, which, as developed by the jurists over a period of time, includes both ‘ibadat (matters relating to spiritual aspects) and mu’amalat (matters related to human interaction in this worldly matters). As far as ‘ibadat are concerned, they need not be judged intellectually; but they too are not necessarily irrational or contrary to reason. They may be beyond reason but not against reason. This distinction is important to remember. ‘Ibadat have their own rationale whether it is praying, fasting, pilgrimage or any other spiritual practice.

Therefore, in the early Islamic period, the term shari’ah was used to cover all aspects of Islam.5 Shari’ah can be literally translated as “Islamic law”. But, it should be noted that the Islamic conception of law differs greatly from other jurisprudence systems. Watt states: “The word usually translated ‘Islamic law’ is shari’ah, but the basic meaning of this is ‘what is revealed’. So the shari’ah in the modern world is not to be compared with any code of positive law.”6 Although Watt states that Muslim intellectual activity has focused on law or jurisprudence7, Hitti clarifies Islamic law in terms of the Islamic foundation: “The Qur’an and tradition provided the foundation upon which theology and fiqh (law), the obverse and reverse of sacred law, were raised. Law in Islam is more intimately related to religion than to jurisprudence as modern lawyers understand it.”8 In Shari’ah, God regulates and controls every aspect of Muslims’ lives. It means that the Muslim life derives its motivation from the twin Islamic foundations which are the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH). Schacht calls this law system the “Sacred Law of Islam” and he declared: “The sacred Law of Islam is an all-embracing body of religious duties, the totality of Allah’s commands that regulate the life of every Muslim in all its aspects; as well as political and (in the narrow sense) legal rules.”9

In relation to this, there is an important point that needs to be noted in respect to the development of intellectual activity during the lifetime of Muhammed (PBUH) and then his successors. Apart from this early Islamic period, Muslim scholars, thinkers, and jurists were interested in this practical and intellectual achievement. Watt observed:

The curious thing about the whole development is that, besides those who were responsible for the administration of justice, many men became interested in discussing questions of jurisprudence from a rather theoretical point of view. The root of their interest seems to have been the desire to ensure that the Islamic community, as it was founded on a ‘revealed law’, should remain entirely faithful to that law. This theoretical or religious concern of the jurist (if this term may be applied prematurely to these early thinkers) was pursued by them without any direct reference to the ruling institution.10

d) The Model of the Muslim Intellectual as Ulama, Fukaha and Qadis

Although the term shari’ah includes all Islamic knowledge, there are several terms which were used as law of Islam, such as fiqh and ilm. In this context, shari’ah is the wider circle which covers all human actions more than fiqh and ilm.11

The Arabic word ilm generally was used for all sciences in terms of general knowledge. Hitti remarked: “The Arabic word for science ilm, like its English correspondent, etymologically means ‘knowledge’ or ‘learning.’ It may be used in a broad sense to mean knowledge systematized with reference to general truths and laws, or more specifically, to refer to knowledge as it relates to the physical world, in which case it is known as physical or natural science.”12 Although in early Islam these two terms were understood to be synonymous, Hasan pointed out that the term fiqh carried a wider meaning covering all aspects of Islam such as theology, politics, economics, and also the legal sense more than natural science.13 Therefore, the Faqih, who is well-educated and has deeper knowledge as a religious person, is distinguished from those with an ordinary interest in other scientific fields:

Faqih is a person who possesses a deeper knowledge of religion or is the specialist in Fiqh, regular in his prayers, pious in his dealings and who refrains from disparaging Muslims and is also a well-wisher of the community. Therefore fiqh requires the depth and intensity of faith, knowledge of the Qur’an, laws relating to rituals and other general injunctions of Islam. 14

Due to the development of Islamic knowledge and study of the Islamic sources, there were growing groups of specialists, scholars and thinkers. These people were known in the Muslim community as Fukaha and Ulama. During the first few decades of the second century, the Ulamas and Fukaha established Islamic knowledge in terms of its major foundations. As Schacht stated, these well-educated members of the Muslim community constructed ‘the ancient schools of law’, and they did not have any definite organization or strict uniformity, any official status, or the existence of a body of law in the Western meaning of the term.15 He also named them as scholars and lawyers; “The scholars (Ulama) or lawyers (Fuqaha) continued to be private individuals, singled out from the great mass of the Muslims by their special interest, the resultant reverence of the people, and recognition as kindred spirits they themselves accorded to one another.16 This, however, does not mean that those individuals and their special work remained and were kept on as local and individual curiosities; beyond this they impregnated the sphere of Islamic knowledge with religious sources. Therefore, not surprisingly, the early Islamic period was filled with high ranked scholars, and the doctrines of schools were attributed to these specialists. For instance, Kufa was well-known by Ibrahim al-Nakha’i, Medina by Sa’id ibn al-Musayyib, Iraq by Zuhri, and Mecca by Ata ibn Abi Rabah. 17 These great scholars, though they differed from each other on some minor points, agreed upon other sources or roots of the Islamic understanding.18 Their intellectual activities dealt with Islamic jurisprudence in particular and with the whole Islamic knowledge framework in general. Probably, as to the saying of the Prophet (PBUH), these great scholars contributed to the development of other great successors. Once Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) said: “May God brighten a man who hears a tradition from us, gets it by heart and passes it on to others. Many a hearer of knowledge conveys it to him who is more understanding than he is, and many a bearer of knowledge is not understanding of it.”19 Indeed, in this early period four Islamic schools were founded: the Hanafi School20 was established by Imam Abu Hanifa (699-767), the Maliki School by Imam Malik Ibn Anas (713-795), the Shafii School by Imam Ash-Shafii (767-820), and the Hanbali School by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855).

As a result of this development of knowledge, this early period was called the Golden Age of Islam, just as Western scholars called Muslim Spain (al-Andalus) the Golden Age21:

The great achievement of Islam lies in its simplicity, its adaptability, its high yet perfectly attainable ethical standards, For the value of the collection of the Qur’an, the administration of justice, the study of law and traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) or the Ahadith, the study of law as a science along with other researches, the period under review is called the Golden Age of Islam. The reason of it was the high piety, knowledge and wisdom of the scholars of the time.22

e) A Religious Counselor in the Ruling Institution: Qadi

In the early Islamic period many independent scholars (ulama), lawyers (fukaha) and specialists dealt with issues of the Muslim community. They sought to put their opinions into practice. For the first time under the early Abbasids, a religious counselor named Qadi emerged. Qadi Abu Yusuf (798), who was also the famous pupil of Imam Abu Hanifa, was the first to be known with the title of Qadi.23 Schacht pointed out: “The Chief Qadi soon became one of the most important counselors of the caliph, and the appointment of all dismissal of the other Qadis under the authority of the caliph, was the main function of his office.”24 Nevertheless, Qadis dealt with other responsibilities related to religious duties. Hitti observed: “The chief duties of the Qadi of the first class consisted in deciding cases, acting as guardian for orphans, lunatics and minors, administrating pious foundations, imposing punishments on violators of the religious law, appointing judicial deputies in the various provinces and presiding under certain conditions at the Friday congregational prayers.”25 Therefore, according to Schacht, the office of Qadi with its action and form proved to be one of the most vigorous institutions in Islamic society.26 As has been seen, the religious scholars had different names and titles. However, they always dealt with activities and functions based on Islamic knowledge. In addition, as Watt emphasized: “In certain respects, too, the jurists had come to be dominated by the ruling institution, since it was responsible for making the appointments to the best positions that were open to jurists. This led to widespread worldliness among the jurists and other scholars.27

By, Akif Coskun

1 A. Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Glorious of the Qur’an (Istanbul: Asir Media, 2002)

2 L. E. Goodman., Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. (Los Angeles: Gee Tee Bee, 1991), 35.

3 Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources ( Rochester: George Allen and Unwin, 1983), 83.

4 M.M. Shariff, Muslim Thought: Its Origin and Achievements. (Lahore: Kashmiri Bazar, 1959), 10.

5 Ahmad Hasan, The Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence. (Lahore: Mansoor Book House, 1973), 2.

6 W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), 61.

7 Ibid, 61

8 Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London: MacMillan’s Express, 1970), 242.

9 Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (London: Clarendon Press, 1964), 1.

10 W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969), 62.

11 Ahmad Hasan, The Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence (Lahore: Mansoor Book House, 1973), 2.

12 Philip K. Hitti, Islam A way of Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970), 106.

13 Ahmad Hasan, The Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence (Lahore: Mansoor Book House, 1973), 1.

14 Ibid, 1.

15 Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (London: Clarendon Press, 1964), 28.

16 Ibid, 28.

17 Ibid, 31.

18 Anwar Ahmad Qadri, Islamic Jurisprudence in the Modern World (Bombay: N.M Tribathi Private, 1963), 36.

19 Abu Dawud, Sunan. (Trans. Ahmed Hasan). (Lahore: 1984), 4:69

20 Anwar Ahmad Qadri, Islamic Jurisprudence in the Modern World (Bombay: N.M Tribathi Private, 1963), 37-42.

21 M. Lombard, The Golden Age of Islam (Amsterdam: North –Holland Publishing, 1975), 239.

22 Ibid, 33.

23 Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (London: Clarendon Press, 1964), 51.

24 Ibid, 51.

25 Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: MaccMillan’s Express, 1970), 326.

26 Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (London: Clarendon Press, 1964), 50

27 W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), 59.


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