Politics of the Islamic Tradition: The Thought of Muhammad Al-Ghazali

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 Politics Of The Islamic Tradition 2
  • Book Author:
Mohammed Moussa
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Introduction – Tradition: Muhammad al-Ghazali the scholar reformer


Studies on contemporary Islam are confronted with the challenge of mapping out the presence of continuities and changes in this complex phenomenon. The last two centuries have witnessed dramatic transformations in the Muslim world impacting the Islamic tradition. Many of the changes that have occurred were either reconciled or resisted in light of this enduring cultural frame of reference.

I seek to examine the intellectual elements of contemporary Islam with particular reference to political thought. The twentieth century was a period of intense rethinking in the Muslim world known as al-sahwa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Awakening). This book initiates a journey of exploration of contemporary Islam centred on Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali.

 A hugely important figure during the twentieth century, al-Ghazali was present in the monumental episodes that radically altered the political and religious contours of the Muslim world. Changes to the intellectual fabric of contemporary Islam, ranging from political thought to religious exegesis, were effected from the pen of al-Ghazali in his long career as a ‘traditional’ scholar.

The book locates al-Ghazali at the crossroads of an enduring tradition, the Islamic tradition, and the broad scope of innovation present within it as evidence of an indigenous capacity to speak about and enact change in contemporary Islam. This introduction will outline the assumptions underpinning the examination carried out on al-Ghazali. It chiefly focuses on tradition as a tool and a framework of analysis.

Reflections on tradition and modernity

A clash between modernity and tradition is a prevailing presupposition in studies on contemporary Muslim scholars. They tend to focus on the influence of an essentially Western modernity on Muslims since the nineteenth century in creating the impetus for the reinterpretation of Islam in a tradition resistant to change. Indigenous mechanisms of innovation within the Islamic tradition are often underplayed. I thus seek to outline a category of tradition in contradistinction to the dichotomy between tradition and modernity that informs most scholarly studies on contemporary Islam, which is critically examined in more detail in a later chapter.

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For contemporary Muslim scholars and thinkers, the encounter with other cultures, especially in the Middle East, was primarily with the West. Various responses can be discerned. Struggles within the Islamic tradition were accentuated by the presence of a foreign yet accessible tradition.

 The Enlightenment, more broadly modernity, did impact Muslim intellectual thought and social prac-tices. Modernity has been identified as a ‘post-traditional order’ that ‘institutionalises the principle of radical doubt and insists that all knowledge takes the form of hypotheses: claims which may very well be true, but which are in principle always open to revision and may have at some point to be abandoned’.1 The collective body of knowledge is thus supremely modifiable without any undue constraints.

The phenomenon of modernity, for Fred Halliday, can also be extrapolated from nationalism in the Middle East. Inevitability and contingency define its ideological career in the region.2 Somewhat sounding deterministic, modernity has imposed, from without, the ubiquity of a formerly foreign political form that involves the construction of a tradition.

It is important to note that the initial formulation of the Enlightenment, to gain common currency, did at a certain point in time and at a particular place become a tradition.3 Further, no generation ‘invents’ for itself the entire set of ‘beliefs, apparatus, patterns of conduct, and institutions’ that has in reality been transmit-ted to it in the form of a tradition.4 Notwithstanding the claims of the Enlightenment to liberate human beings from the shackles of tradition, it has instead replaced a previously authoritative body of knowledge with another that is no less subject to the continuity of transmission. Whether nationalism or ration-alism, the assumed values of modernity demanded the life-preserving act of transmission to become both widespread and rooted in the Middle East.

In this book, modernity and the Enlightenment are not defined in opposition to Islam. Their contents form a patchwork of different elements, common to all extant traditions, rooted in the present. The consequences of a single modernity for Edmund Burke III and David Prochaska amply demonstrate its different mani-festations in Europe and throughout the world.5 An important caveat concerning the study of the West in light of modernity underlies the position of Burke and Prochaska: homogeneity should not be assumed of what has been a plural experience.

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Shmuel Eisenstadt has elaborated a similar argument of ‘multiple modernities’ in response to the global journey of modernity and its transmutations. From Europe to the Americas and then Asia and Africa, modernity has been variously appropriated accompanied by the adoption and later undermining of the nation-state.6 Thus, modernity features in this book as an intellectual phenomenon that is, in principle, interpretable and open to selective adaptation by other non-Western traditions – particularly the Islamic tradition.

Tradition as a coherent category of interpretation has appeared in some schol-arly works. Edward Shils’s Tradition stands out as the most exhaustive account of tradition with its broad and in-depth exposition of the transmission of tradition and the variety of ways it is received in a society. Antecedents do exist, however Introduction 3

not at the same level of theoretical erudition, in the theologically minded works of G.K. Chesterton and Yves Congar. Tradition possesses a normative thread that ensures continuity with the past, aptly captured by G.K. Chesterton in the follow-ing passage, ‘Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead’.7

Tradition and democracy are seen to be synonymous with each other as the former endows the past’s insights with authority to participate alongside those of the living in present. Contributions by Eric Hobsbawm, Jaroslav Pelikan and Ashis Nandy also demonstrate the relevance of tradition in scholarship. In the introduction of an edited collection of essays under the title of The Invention of Tradition, Hobsbawm puts forward the view that a ‘tradition’ is motivated to search for a past through the constant repetition of practices and rules.8

In ‘traditional societies’, continuity with the past is alternatively termed ‘custom’, distinct from tradition, which possesses the double function of motor and fly-wheel, allowing for innovation and continuity.9 Nandy’s work engages with tradition, from the Indian subcontinent, in light of the fluid relationship between the past, present and future.

He raises the objection of deploying history to examine so-called ‘ahistorical’ societies whose attitudes to the past differ markedly from the West.10 The past cannot be limited to history as the former is a merely a subjec-tive function of the present, thus precluding the claims of objectivity of the latter in its study.11

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 Rather the past and present are characterised by a plurality that is necessarily incomplete that allows the past to be treated as a special case of the present. The corollary of this argument is that there are plural pasts and plural presents that are constantly being remade. ‘Myths’, as opposed to history, current in the present about the past, are to be considered valid accounts of the past. Indigenous conceptions of the past are not to be dismissed out of hand.

I have drawn upon Shils to apply a concept of tradition to contemporary Islam, specifi-cally Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, from the vantage point of the Islamic tradition as a dynamic yet enduring entity transmitted over a millennium with remarkable consistency that did not undermine indigenous change in response to internal discontent or external conditions.

Tradition as a prism of interpretation

What follows is an outline of the theoretical framework examining Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali. Tradition as a category of interpretation is at the centre of this framework. The previous section provided a background for the category of tradition and the relationship between the past and present.

I highlighted the existence of previously published works on the dynamic process of the transmission and reception of tradition and how the past and the present are constructed. Applying the category of tradition to contemporary Islam in this book leads to situating al-Ghazali within the context of the Islamic tradition. The recurring tendency of tajdid (renewal) in the Islamic tradition can be explained as a result of the dynamism of traditional cultures seeking change in concert with their own

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