About Jihad, Section IV: The Three Groups of Muslim Scholars

February 15, 2008 at 12:30 am (Islam, Islamism, Pakistan, South Asia)

The Three Groups of Muslim Scholars

There are in Islam three major groups of thinkers, scholars, and authorities. To understand the various formulations or policies or explanations of jihad, especially jihad by force, it is important to be aware of these three groups. Understanding this can also open up a greater understanding of the Muslim world and of the war of ideas therein. These three groups are the conservatives or traditionalists, the fundamentlist reformers, and the modernist reformers.

As an aside: many people say Islam needs a reformation. The sad news is that it is experiencing a reformation and its making Islam worse with regard to compatibility with the world and with other peoples. The fundamentalist reformers are at the forefront of reforming Islam, and have the greatest legitimacy of any reforming group. Indeed, in many cases such fundamentalist reformers have greater authority than the conservatives or traditionalists.

In order to better explain these movements or groups, examples from the South Asian subcontinent (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and (for our purposes) the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan) will be used.

The first group is the largest and contains what may be called conservatives or traditionalists. Unlike in Christianity and Judaism, these conservatives or traditionalists do not necessarily identify with such labels. They do not see themselves really as a movement within Islam as much as Islam as it has always been and, thus, have no need to identify themselves to differentiate themselves from the others.

The goal of the conservatives and traditionalists is to preserve Islam as it has been believed and practiced in a region for a long time. This often involves legitimizing beliefs and practices that some consider to be un-Islamic. They want to prevent both types of reform efforts people try to carry out with regard to Islam in their area: the fundamentalist reforms and the modernist reforms. Their belief is that Muslims should believe and practice what they have always believed and practiced.

In terms of relations with the rest of the world, the conservatives or traditionalists are hostile to the modern world and especially to the West. They believe that the modern world, especially through the West, is trying to encroach upon Islam and trying to change it in order to defeat Islam. But the issue of jihad may become a little complicated.

As Muslim states began to settle down, that great impulse of jihad by force began to die down. Rulers were more interested in revenue and internal stability than going off and conquering more land. The people, in turn, wanted to focus more on progressing theselves than fighting jihad. Indeed, in the complacency of civilization, many Islamic mandates were conveniently forgotten. (Although not entirely.) By way of example, the Mughal emperors of India conquered large amounts of land and began to administer them. Technically, according to Islamic law, the Hindus and others like them would have to convert or be killed. But this was ignored. Indeed, under some emperors the Hindus were unmolested. This did not please the clerics who nonetheless did little about it. Aurangzeb came to the throne and sought to implement Islam strictly and began persecuting the Hindus and whatnot. But his policies did not last long among his successors.

The second group consists of the fundamentalist reformers and reformationists. The reformers wanted to reform Islam, to revise it completely, to bring Islam from its state of corruption to a state of purity. They sought to do this by imposing the mandates, beliefs, and practices as laid out by the fundamental sources of Islam (hence “fundamental reformers”).

How fundamental continues to be a point of dispute. It all boils down to “ijtihad” (promulgating rules). According to some, “the doors of ijtihad had closed” (as it is expressed) quite some time ago: with the consolidation of Islam in the four schools of jurisprudence, ijtihad came to an end. Others say that this is not true. The latter are radical reformers in that they essentially want to rewrite all the books of law, practices, and beliefs. So there is the “Ahl-e Hadith”, who believe Islam should be formulated based on the sayings of Muhammad, and the “Ahl-e Sunnah”, who believe Islam should be formulated on the example of Muhammad and other ancient senior Muslim figures.

Then each of the four schools of jurisprudence has its own reform movements, seeking to publicize the rules and laws and standards of one’s respective school of jurisprudence, seeking to throw away accretions and to remedy ignorance of the rules. So people would have to give up their corrupt practices and fully obey the school of jurisprudence they belong to (whether by custom, geography, or choice).

The key issue for fundamentalist reformers is something called “bid’ah” which refers to unauthorized and unjustified changes, modifications, and innovations. Fundamentalist reformers seek to find all cases of “” and root them out. As can be imagined, some throw the baby out with the bathwater by trying to essentially reinvent Islamic law, practices, and rules.

A good example of the differences between fundamentalist reformers and conservatives/traditionalists is the difference between the Deobandis and Barelvis. The Deobandis are fundamentalist reformers who seek to strictly follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The Barelvis are conservatives/traditionalists who want to get rid of Western innovations but preserve the many unique aspects of South Asian Islam. Rather than these unique aspects being unauthorized innovations, the Barelvis see these unique aspects are perfectly permissable and, in some cases, mandatory. The Deobandis and Barelvis have essentially excommunicated each other because of their differences.

However, there is a geopolitical and ethnic component. Most South Asian Muslims are Barelvis. The Deobandi movement dominates in the northwest, in the Pashtun areas. Most Pashtuns are Deobandi and quite proud of it. The Taliban are part of the Deobandi movement. Pashtuns view the Barelvi others as polluters of Islam while the Barelvi others view the Deobandi Pashtuns as intolerant hicks.

A small note about the Salafis: the fundamentalist reformation movement is often called by the name “Wahhabi” and/or “Salafi”. The Wahhabi movement is a very specific movement: a fundamentalist reformation Hanbali Sunni movement founded by Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab and following his teachings. Various similar movements exist, some of which are allied with the Wahhabis, some completely separate, and some essentially being local branches of the Wahhabi movement. Such movements often identify themselves as “Salafi” which means “of or pertaining to the Salaf”, “Salaf” referring to the first generations of Muslims wherein Islam was said to be practiced perfectly. Accordingly, some use “Salafi” to refer to the entire fundamentalist reformation.

The third group comprises of modernist reformers. These are few in numbers but wield some influence over well-educated and especially Westernized levels of society. These reformers believe that the practices and rules of Islam need to be adjusted to be compatible with and relevant in the modern world. And whereas certain fundamental elements, such as prayer, may not be revised, their importance can be diminished as greater priorities rise (such as humanitarianism). Such reformers are at constant logger-heads with the conservatives/traditionalists and fundamentalist reformers; both often accuse modernist reformers of being agents of anti-Islamic forces seeking to bring Islam down.

Modernist reformers want to study the past practices and laws in their contexts and thereby derive the principles behind those laws and practices, which principles could be used to formulate newer and better rules. Three examples of such scholars are Javed Ghamidi, Ahsan Amin Islahi, and Hamiduddin Farahi. Such reformers do help formulate alternatives to what exist now, alternatives that do make Islam more compatible with the modern world.


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