Traditional Islam: A Philosophical Defense of Its Case

There are many intelligent Muslims who are intellectually convinced that the only correct way to follow Islam is to follow the traditional understanding of it – the one that good Muslim scholars and intellectuals have been believing in, following, and disseminating all along the history of the Muslim religious tradition.

The philosophical foundation of this understanding is built on the premise that humans are gifted with an intellect which is only capable of raising the right kind of religion-related, philosophical questions; they cannot however answer them adequately. The very fact that, so goes the argument, most notable philosophers were in agreement about the important questions that ought to be probed but they were not able to answer them is a proof of the fact that God wanted those answers to be searched in religious tradition. The fact that there was unanimity about the questions amongst philosophers and disagreement about answers to them points to the reality that the answers were meant to be sought from a superior source which provided conclusive responses to each of those questions. The conclusion that proceeds from this line of argument is that whatever answers are offered by religion are authentic because of the very fact that they have been answered by a higher source with a claim that those were from God. Good religious people have to simply take them from their religious tradition in exactly the same way as they were available in it without making any alterations in them, because if they were to make alterations they would do so with their intellect whose inability to answer such philosophical questions on religion has already been established by the history of failure of the great philosophers in answering them.

Socrates is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of the basic premise of this point of view. He is said to have inflicted a conclusive defeat on the Skeptics who claimed that human intellect was incapable of gaining knowledge. He responded to it by insisting that knowledge did not always amount to grasping the complete reality of something; instead, quite often it was the act of reflecting or absorbing the reality in a measured way that constituted it. Knowledge in other words could only be had to the extent it was available and the possibility of having it varied from reality to reality.

If one followed the advice of this line of argument, one would stick to what the unanimous approval of the traditional understanding of religion – in our case Islam — was in order to follow its true message. What is in religious tradition is what religion has to offer; since we cannot have anything better than what is available, we ought to know our limitations. The argument that a certain opinion was held by the majority of Muslim scholars would be conclusive to decide that the opinion was the only valid one to be taken seriously. All other opinions were unacceptable simply because they were not supported by the traditional religious scholars.

There were a few difficulties in accepting the above-mentioned approach from Islamic point of view.

The opinion would hold all religious traditions superior to non-religious ones, at least insofar as the responses to the philosophical questions were concerned. If human intellect can only raise valid questions in the domain of religious realities and it has to sheepishly follow the immediately available religious responses to them, it should follow from it that those who were following the suggested process were worthy of being praised rather than being condemned. The Qur’an, on the contrary, strongly condemns the religious traditions of the polytheists of Makkah and the Jews and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula. Should we accept what this philosophically argued understanding says or should we side with the Qur’anic condemnation? If one were to respond to this criticism by saying that the Qur’anic criticism was on the attitude of a people who were following a religious tradition in preference to what the book of God, Qur’an, was saying, the responder needs to be informed that both polytheists of Makkah and the people of the book were claiming that they too were following the tradition of their religious elders. The Qur’an did not accept the excuse and responded by saying “(Are they going to follow their forefathers) even when they (the forefathers) did not understand anything and had gone astray?” In other words, the Qur’an is informing that religious tradition can get corrupted and therefore it was wrong to follow it blindly, especially when convincing criticism was raised against it.

The point of view assumes that there was always only one religious tradition which was to be followed. What if there were many? If the answer was that some minor differences were always going to be there but a religious tradition was defined by the major agreements amongst the majority of the religious peoples of a society, the question that would seek an answer would be this: Who would decide what was a major difference and what was a minor one? Are we going to describe the least common denominator as the valid religious tradition to be followed? If that was true then all religious differences should be tolerated, both new and old, because there were always some areas of commonality in the broad definition of a religious tradition. The fact is that in many religious societies in the Islamic world, both past and present, many practices followed by the majority of the traditional religious people were a distorted version of religion in the opinion of the majority of the traditional religious people of another society. Whose version of religion should one follow given that the intellect itself was incapable of deciphering what was right religiously from what was wrong?

If the opinion is to be taken seriously, one would not take the Qur’anic text quite as seriously as the religious tradition of Muslims. It will have to be assumed that Qur’an itself was unclear and the meanings given to it by the traditional scholars were the only correct interpretation of it. A new understanding on some aspect of religion would stand rejected simply because it was new. An old interpretation would be revered because of its oldness. The Qur’anic text would play no role whatsoever in deciding which religious understanding was correct because the golden principle was that in case of religious guidance what was thought and done earlier had to be correct and superior to what was done and understood later. The result of it would be that Muslims will have to curb their intellect from attempting to understand the Qur’an with an open mind. The call of the book of God “Why don’t they ponder over the Qur’an” will have to be ignored, because if it was pondered over sincerely, it might give results that were against the traditional understanding of religion, in which case, according to the given view, the individual would be led astray.

In order for this view to be taken seriously it will have to be acknowledged that the traditional knowledge about Islam has always been the same all along the last fourteen hundred years, that there have been no periods in the Muslim history when the knowledge was faulty, and what is understood and practiced today in the name of religion by the traditional Muslims was exactly the same as it was done fourteen hundred years ago. A careful study of the Muslims shows that such a claim about the message of Islam cannot be made with authority.

Thus a good number of intelligent Muslims have been dissuaded by a philosophical absurdity – the fact that intellect only raises religious questions and only the tradition of religion answers them – from seeing what has been clearly mentioned in the Qur’an. Instead of asking the Qur’an about what the answers to the perplexities of philosophical reasoning were, a naïve idea was invented completely blocking all roads leading to understand the book of God properly. The Qur’an declares about itself that it was the criterion between right and wrong (al-Furqan; 25:1); that it had come to give a verdict in religious matters where men differed (2:213); and that even the prophet, alaihissalaam, was bound to follow its verdict under all circumstances (10:15). But the proponents of this point of view suggested that the text of the Qur’an cannot be understood properly. They have suggested that language is incapable of communicating true meanings to the addressee, especially when it has grown old. In other words the Qur’an was unclear to at least the modern reader and it was therefore, God forbid, not fit to guide humans in the modern times. The book of God needs the crutches of traditional Islam to be understood. All claims of the clarity of its message on the basis of its remarkable thematic and structural coherence book stand rejected in the eyes of some of these philosophically minded Muslims. The entire traditional baggage of Islam, including what Sufis have been traditionally saying and doing, would carry more worth and significance than the book of God.

The fact is that Qur’an doesn’t condemn human intellect as completely incapable of knowing religious truths. On the contrary, it suggests that human intellect is constrained by certain limitations which it is capable of appreciating and acknowledging. Divine Revelation comes to the rescue of the shortcomings of the intellect to guide it towards higher levels of spiritual and moral stations. The relationship between the two is not analogous to that of a blind man who is being guided by someone with sight; instead it is more like a teacher-pupil relationship: the pupil (intellect) is guided by the teacher (revelation) to know even more from what is already known. The Qur’an uses the expression nurun ‘ala nur (light upon light) to describe it. Whenever the student finds that the teacher is apparently not performing in a befitting manner, he can question the teacher and investigate whether it really is a genuine guide or a bogus one: If the guidance of Divine Revelation one gets through religious tradition is not making sense to the human intellect, the latter has the right to ask if the guidance was coming from the right source.

Intellect also plays an important role in guiding humans by gradually taking them from lower levels of appreciation of divine revelation to the higher ones. It is through critical reasoning that intellect can appreciate that at times what was understood by the earlier religious people was a crude understanding of religion and what has come through later, after the process of critical appraisal was a much refiner understanding of the divine text. To snub human intellect from reasoning any further because of the reverence attached to the understanding of the earlier generations would therefore deprive humans of a much better, refiner, and deeper meanings of the divine text which God had left at a much deeper level simply because He wanted human intellect to struggle to dig it out from there. To assume that there wasn’t anything that lay underneath the miraculous language of the Qur’an was to undermine the divine nature and greatness of it.

One should however not conclude from the above understanding that all aspects of traditional Islam would fail the test if put through the test of Qur’anic scrutiny. Quite to the contrary, most aspects of Islamic tradition are consistent with the true message of the Qur’an. In fact the sunnah of the prophet which is as authentic as the Qur’an has been preserved through the tradition of Muslims. It is through unbroken chain of practice of Muslims that we have been able to get the fully preserved sunnah practices like the formal prayers, the pilgrimage of the Ka’bah etc. That aspect of traditional Islam most certainly is the true message of God which will never be in danger when put through the test of intellectual scrutiny in the light of Qur’an.

10 thoughts on “Traditional Islam: A Philosophical Defense of Its Case

  1. Salman Ahmed

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Dr. Khalid,

    Thanks for uploading the article. In principle, I agree with what you have said. But, some of the writings of Al-Mawrid especially of Rehan Sahab almost equate the traditional Muslim scholars with Polythiests of the prophetic times. The kind of a unipolar way we have started lokking at this is not always matched up in facts. The reality is that different schools of Fiqh exist without there being any acrimony for any. Religious tolerance has improved in last 20 years. Even among masses, those traditional scholars made their way into public and recognition in scholarly circle, who were in most cases unbiased, tolerent and pluralistic in at least not asserting their will onto others. THis change has to berecognized and appreciated.

    Some of the traditional scholars like Ammar and Faisal Khurshid sahab and others have backgrounds with traditional roots, but they are now in pretty much agreement with Al-Mawrid school of thought. Now, this is not to be looked at as a win or victory, rather appreciated and welcomed.

    One Mufti sahab, Shariah Advisor for SCB Islamic Banking division used to tell me that Javed sahab is also somehow from deoband, though he has different views from deoband. But, he thought, there is much in common to say that.

    In principle, I agree with your opinion and let us pray that this wind of change will materalize substantially on a wide scale and bring more religious tolerence and openness in our society.

    Sorry for bothering you, I know your busy schedule and even then you took time to write.

    Allah Hafiz
    Salman Ahmed

  2. Syed

    Respected Dr Zaheer Sahib
    I have been reading your articles for more than a year and I really appreciate your all efforts. In response to your latest article ‘Traditional Islam: A Philosophical Defense of Its Case’, Mr Salman Ahmed commented and informed us that now there is some tolerance level in different school of thoughts (Fiqh), in this regard I have some questions ( I don’t know whether they are relevant or irrelevant);

    1. The word ‘FIQH’, from where this word came from? from Quran, Sunah or any Hadith?
    2. Till Couple of centuries ago, muslims were agreed or forced to pray (salah) in Haram in 4 different ways (Hanafi,Shafi,Maliki,Hanbli)… who prompted and initiated these practices?
    3. A reasonable portion in muslim community believe that Sufis/Aulia-karam are not to be considered as dead, they are still alive, they are mushkil-kusha, haajat-rawa.. visiting tombs and doing sajda on graves, who-else are the leaders of this muslim community?
    4. When Almighty Allah clearly warned us in Quran that not to divide religion.. who divided our religion and divided ummah?
    5. When Almighty Allah clearly advised us not to ask so many questions, because its very easy for Allah to give answer all questions but its nearly impossible for mankind in terms of implementation.. so who created so many questions, and after created so many questions unsuccessfully attempted to give answers?
    6. Almighty Allah repeatedly Says in Quran, that this book (Quran) is a book of guidance for whole mankind till the day of judgement.. who is intriguing that only few in this mankind can get guidance and others has to blindly follow them?
    7. Prophets including Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were all Muslims, and Almighty Allah also Called them as Muslim..who prompted this ummah to call themselves as Hanfi, shafi, maliki etc? and then further sub-divisions

    If we accept that after dozen of centuries, these school of thoughts are now tolerating with each other, but what about the damages we already suffered? I totally agreed that sincere Ulema/Scholars are our assets they eventually saved Quran, compiled treasures of ahadiths, but at the same time blind adherence is the major cause of division in ummah and this division or Ikhtilaaf is certainly not the blessing.
    May Allah bless Dr Zaheer, Mr Javed Ghamidi & others, who are sincerely trying their best to eliminate confusions & mis-understandings and spreading out true message of Islam.
    Finally, is this the case that Mr Javed Ghamidi personally informed Mufti sahab (of SCB) or Mufti sahab received revelation that Ghamidi sahab is associated with deobandis?

    Sorry for bothering anyone,

    Allah Hafiz


  3. salman Ahmed

    Dear Syed,

    If you asked these questions from me, I will be able to answer following questions.

    1. ‘FIQH’, refers to jurisdic schools in Muslim thought. It is not the same as other sources Islam like Quran, way of prophet. It is also not the same equivalent of Hadith. For practical reasons and for legal formulation in a muslim society, any school of thought (4 are major) can be adopted. Traditionalists say choice has to be mutually exclusive i.e. either one chosen in complete respect and as per them, one has to choose one among the major schools of jurisprudence. As per Al-Mawrid school of thought (as I understand it), no school of jurisprudence needs to be necessarily selected and the compliant opinions of either can be taken pluralistically and even that would not constitute deen, but just a agreed upon allowable thing. One can review it, one can modify it, one can improve it and one can argue against it. Basis in all religious matter constituting deen remains Quran and Way of Prophet (this is also not dependent upon Hadith, but religious acts of Prophet transmitted through generations without any disconnect).

    4. In religious matters, there is hardly any division. The division as per Al-Mawrid school of thought (as I understand it) is in matters not constituting religion.

    5. Allah said this in a particular context. Unnecessary questions for example, predicting the nature and form of God and its will are discouraged. But, genuine questions for clearer understanding are even encouraged both for Muslims and non-Muslims.

    6. There is some validity in saying that one needs to follow the scholars if one does not have sufficient knowledge. Scholars know better than the laymen. What Khalid Sahab is trying to highlight is the fact that when one gets to know and understand a different and correct viewpoint, then, one must revisit as it is an act of virtue to accept mistakes and revisit them. If one does not do that, then it gets problematic, else following scholars is not at all problematic if one does it after research that his circumstances permit and remains open to revisit his stance if found erroneous.

    7. There is no problem in difference of opinion as long as one remains open, respectful, honest and non-violent. When one feels oneself superior and solely on the right path, then, this is problematic.

    Mufti Sahab of SCB gave his opinion about Ghamidi sahab. It was just mentioned by me to say that its not like they all feel Ghamidi sahab to be a deviant from Islam. Many contemporary respected traditional scholars are revisiting their stance. The goal of Al-Mawrid is not at all to make one conform to Ghamidi sahab. It is an effort to seek truth based on some unique research which merits serious reading. If one remains convinced that the traditional scholars are right in a given matter, then, there is no problem. Honesty is requested in the search for truth and that will be the only thing that will matter in life hereafter.

    I hope I answered some of your questions.


  4. Aurangzeb Haque

    I wanted to write a full fledged rejoinder on Dr. sahib’s piece. However given my circumstances I just cannot spare the time to do so, as the response would be the size of a small paper. I neither have the time nor the library resources available to me to write one. However I am going to refute Dr. sahib’s proposition indirectly in the paragraphs below by critiquing his theory of the so-called philosophical foundation of traditionalism.

    Another thing that I must point out is that his essay is in no way a defense of traditionalism. Reading it, one discovers that it is absolutely its opposite. It should have been titled ‘An Essay on the Refutation of Current trends in Islamic Traditionalism’ or something similar. The only reason I can divine for such a ruse, is to trick the likes of me, to read the piece. If this is not the case, let the accused rise to his defense.

    Let me first start by respectfully refuting his concept of what the philosophical foundation of traditionalism are. I believe that these are NOT what he has pointed out to be, in his post. This, I believe, is a general mis-understanding shared by most of our ‘religious specialists’, and comes from just latching onto the standard way of looking at things, without questioning – in other words taqlid :-) . Such questioning was a part of Islamic scholarship of yesteryears. Nowadays it is a sad reality that in ‘Islamic’ societies, scholarship is an institution that is long dead. It has been replaced by what I have called ‘religious specialists’, which is more in line with the modern way of doing things. He/She is usually a PhD and appears on TV shows and writes on the Internet. The breadth of vision that was the hallmark of ‘Islamic Scholars’ is a thing of the past. The problem of the specialist is that he that has a hammer in his/her hand. Since a hammer can only solve a ‘nail’, therefore there is a tendency to convert every problem into one. This trend is evident here when Dr. sahib claims that traditionalism is premised on the fact that humans are gifted with an intellect which is only capable of raising the right kind of religion-related, philosophical questions, but cannot answer them. He tells us that Socrates is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of the above point of view. Nothing is far from the truth. Let me return to this in a minute.
    First I must point out something which is unfortunately not only factually incorrect but seriously mis-leading. Any one who has even a basic knowledge of western philosophy knows that there are no writings attributable to Socrates that we know of. All these things supposedly uttered by Socrates are in fact writings of Plato and other Greek philosophers who were Socrates’s disciples. They put words in Socrates’s mouth in their writings. Reading this, some may say that I am pointing out something trivial. Not so – not only am I trying to place before everyone the correct facts, but also in the same breath, providing evidence of my claim regarding breadth of knowledge of our religious specialists.

    To return now to the point, that is more relevant, is that the Socratic point of view that Dr. sahib is alluding to, HAS BEEN PRESENTED (BY PLATO) IN THE CONTEXT OF EPISTEMOLOGY. The dialogues discuss, what modern psychology terms as archetypes, such as Beauty, Justice etc. and are essentially metaphysical in nature and thus difficult to pin down intellectually. We Muslims know them by the 99 Names. To attribute this as a philosophical argument underpinning traditionalism, and attribute them to Socrates in the same breath, will surely have him turning in his grave (probably Plato also).

    I must end here. Another point, that I feel must also be highlighted, is given below. The debate started in a concrete context; about the madrassahs. Dr. sahib has done injustice by effectively de-linking it and pointing it towards something more abstract and philosophical (can you see the hammer being applied here). This in my opinion is unfair. Rather than respond to some of the issues that I raised, we are now discussing something much more abstract which require our heads to be up in the clouds. The madrassah issue is something that requires our feet to be on the ground because it has to deal with concrete realities. To avoid these is to be like the proverbial ostrich, who (in this case) sticks his head into the cloud rather than putting it into the ground.

  5. Salman Tahir

    AoA Sir,

    Thank you for a very nice article.

    In the seventh paragraph, you have provided a refutation of the premise “What is in religious tradition is what religion has to offer” – my question is: isnt this refutation equally applicable, if not more, for the suggestion of using intellect as a critical evaluator of religious tradition?

    Let me elaborate my question as well, what if there are differing suggestions of intellect? which one would be used? Will we use the least common denominator? What if intellect differed between different cultures?

    Salman Tahir

  6. J Yazdani

    Dr. Zaheer:
    I commend you on bringing to light the necessity of using the intellect in understanding the Qur’an. I just returned to the US from a 3-week stay at Lahore, where I had the immense pleasure of attending your “dars” Wednesday nights. May Allah give you the strength to continue on this path.

    Let me get back to my point, which is that the Qur’an (and, for that matter, earlier scriptures) was(were) revealed to prophets to guide their followers. The prophets and their followers are (were) all human beings. The one thing that differentiates human beings from the rest of Allah’s creation is intellect; that is, human beings are given a choice, while the rest of Allah’s creation acts involuntarily. It is a natural law that if one does not use a faculty, it becomes frail, ultimately becoming useless. It appears that since Muslims have not been using the faculty of the intellect, that it has become really weak, to the point that we do not even attempt to understand ourselves what the Qur’an is saying; rather, we look to others’ works. The one thing that the Qur’an stresses the most is knowledge – “ilm” – and knowledge can only be “understood” by the use of the intellect. Surah Rahmaan, verse 2 says: “Allamal Qur’an”, followed by saying in verse 3 that He created humans, and in the 4th verse: “Allama hul bayaan” (rough translation: taught him speech). Therefore, Allah who has created humans, has given humans the faculty of speaking with knowledge. It is only with intellect and intelligence that one can understand what the other is saying.

    Once again, I commend you on trying to make people understand to make use of their intellect, their thinking power given by Allah, to read, understand and apply the Qur’an in their daily lives. This alone can take Muslims out of their miserable situation that they are in these days.


  7. ALi

    The way this kind of stuff is produced and consumed is indicative of the worsthlessness of the present state of Muslim scholarship in Pakistan. God knows how long this situation will long. We have to live with it. My study of the history and various religious disciplines of Islam does not provide me with even a remote match for the school termed traditionalist in this essay. The author assumes to have covered all the major religous and philosophical traditions in the ummah yet leaves us with clear and undeniable proof that he does not even know the names. May God bless him. Every human author needs to be open to criticism and ready to be corrected. This is only possible if I state whom I am addressing and whose viewpoints I am presenting. It is not that others are always wrong and need your guidance. You need to be corrected and disciplined. Please stop shadowboxing and name the advocates of the viewpoint you are criticising. This will give you an opportunity to learn and others to explain.

  8. Khalid Zaheer

    Assalamo Alaikum Ali

    My article is making a reference to a group which is clear in my mind. If you believe that there is no such group in existence, you have every right to ignore it. But it is not necessary that if a writer is not making a direct mention of an individual or a group, he is necessarily shadow-boxing.

    I heard lectures of an important, influential intellectual making the remarks I have commented upon. It is not necessary that one should always quote sources. Those who believe that there is only one way of presenting ideas are welcome to live in their own world of understanding. I will find it difficult to make comments about you as you have done about me. I am sure you are a better person than me, both intellectually and morally.

    When you make a general mention of ideas, it helps people to read them without being affected by their emotional attachments to names. I can see that there are some disadvantages of it too. Thank you for pointing them out.

    Khalid Zaheer

  9. Aurangzeb Haque

    Here is an excerpt interview from a “like minded” “intellectual”, given to Middle East Quarterly.

    MEQ: Have no attempts been made to reform the madrasas?

    Hoodbhoy: Following the 9/11 attacks, General Pervez Musharraf was prodded by the Americans to initiate a madrasa reform project aimed at broadening the madrasa curriculum to include the teaching of English, science, mathematics, and computers. Huge sums were spent but to no avail. These misogynist bastions of anti-modernism and militancy cannot be reformed. The Pakistani state literally cowers before them. They have the power to bring every Pakistani city to a halt. On the other hand, in East Africa, India, or Bangladesh, one sees that madrasas can be quite different. While conservative, they do permit teaching of secular subjects. Some even have small minorities of non-Muslims, which would be unheard of in a Pakistani madrasa.

    Full interview maybe seen at:

    Unfortunately it is personal opinion being presented as holy gospel by the media such as this magazine. The traditional concept of “Ahl-ar-Rai” has completely been overshadowed by the “democratic” crowd for development of public policy. This means that successful policy making, has de-facto become the capability of being able to sell it through the media. The inherent truth (or falsehood)of the concepts and facts deployed count for nothing. Using phrases and words like misogynist bastions, mixed with Massachusetts Institute of Technology can easily sway the minds of a public that is no better than a herd of cattle (to use a Quranic metaphor). No one would of course know the simple fact that he probably went into Physics because he could not score enough marks in F.Sc to get into a public sector engineering university.


  10. Khalid Zaheer


    Given the quality of some of the messages written in response to my blogs, I have decided not to allow this facility to be available in my future blogs any more. Call it my failure or lack of tolerance, but I never intended the space of my website to be available for unleashing hatred against people in indecent ways. The fact that religious attitudes have stooped low was well known to me; that they have gone this far is a sad revelation.

    Unfortunately, therefore, my blogs would follow a one-way communication process, unless someone sends me an email and I respond to it in the Q/A facility.

    Khalid Zaheer

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