One hears quite often calls for the teachings of Islam to be altered and to be kept in line with the changing realities of time. The conventional scholars are blamed for causing it to have become static. What exactly is the reality about Islam’s message: Should the teachings be adjusted regularly to the pace of the changing times or should the changing trends of the society be considered evil if they do not conform to Islamic standards?
The fact is that Islam’s message was meant to be a source of guidance for humans of all times. However, its immediate addressees were the people who were addressed directly by the Qur’anic text. Their circumstances and the peculiar nature of their trial – which included the fact that being direct addressees of God’s revelation they were to either flourish or perish in this life too – moulded the Qur’anic text to suit their needs of guidance first and foremost. There is a part of the Qur’an therefore which is era-specific and there is another one which is universally applicable to all times. The decision of which part belongs to one category or the other is not subjective. The Qur’an is a clear book of guidance. However, the text expects careful reading for the reality to emerge clearly.
That message – both the Qur’anic text and the authentically transmitted religious practice of the messenger (Sunnah) – is what forms the core of God’s religious guidance for mankind. However, most of our traditional scholars believe that what the earlier scholars have said is sacrosanct too, even though only the word of God and the authentically transmitted religious practice of the prophet are sacrosanct; the rest of the Muslim literature should always be scrutinized in the light of these two criteria.
The reason why our traditional scholars insist that the religious views of earlier scholars have to be accepted as authority is that they claim that no one in the present times can be better than Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi’i etc. Thanks God other disciplines didn’t follow the same line of argument or else no Einstein could have been born after Newton, no Keynes could have dared to better what Adam Smith had already mentioned, no Bernard Shaw and Iqbal could have produced literature after Shakespeare and Ghalib respectively. Each one of them had his own place in history. The achievements of one didn’t undermine the stature of the other. And what is more important, the disciplines they served were prevented from staying static; instead, they flourished because of the contributions of the later scholars.
Islam is dynamic too. It is simply not possible that what is true for Science, Economics, and literature, the very reverse of it should be true for God’s message. The original teachings of Islam carry ingredients for catering to the needs of changing conditions of the new times. However, its teachings mention some principles and some applications of them which are unalterable. Most certainly some part of the Qur’anic message was era-specific which carries enormous value for our faith but is not applicable to us practically. Unfortunately, Muslims are torn between two extremes: On the one hand are the religious extremists who deem each and every word of the Qur’anic message – including the situation-specific part that requires non-believers to be killed – to be applicable for all times to come, even though the Qur’an makes it unmistakably clear that the message carrying such expectations was meant for a particular occasion only; on the other hand are the liberal extremists who want religion to submit to each and every expectation of the changing times.
To sum up, the message of Islam is dynamic; it has full potential for responding to the needs of the contemporary world. However, it is important to distinguish between what is religiously binding and what is not on the one hand and between new happenings of the modern times that are necessary to be taken seriously and the ones that need to be condemned or ignored. We need to have scholars who are up to the task to properly understand and bring forth the potential dynamism in the message of Islam. We need a perennial supply of Shah Waliullahs and Hamiduddin Farahis who could further the great task done by Abu Hanifas and Shafi‘is without undermining their great contribution. To achieve that task, we need educational institutions where potentially great scholars get the right education, training, and environment to be groomed properly.
Those who are worried about the present state of the Muslim ummah should do something to create such institutions.