Critical Thinking For Muslims

This essay is a summary of a lecture delivered by Dr. Tariq Ramadan at the 1st International Symposium on Critical and Analytical Thinking, at the Sakarya University, Turkey (April 10, 2015).

Dr. Ramadan is a Swiss academic, philosopher, writer and analyst. He is currently a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. He was named in the Top 100 Influential People and Top 100 Global Thinkers by the TIME and Foreign Policy magazines respectively. In this lecture, he advances philosophical and historical bases and an analytical framework for critical thinking for Muslims in the East and the West. In certain places, I have inserted verses & translations and used my own language mostly for clarity and cohesiveness. I have also minimally reworked how arguments are sequenced or linked. Ideas and arguments are entirely Dr. Ramadan’s. Allah knows best.

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

“Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed Signs for men of understanding. Men who celebrate the praises of God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (with the thought):” (Surah A’ale Imran: 190–191)

1. A Starting Point for Muslims

It is time to rejuvenate the traditions of critical thinking among Muslims. When speaking about critical thinking, it is not enough to cover critical thinking only within the bounds of the Human Sciences; we must evaluate critical thinking as it pertains to our own selves, our worldview and our existence. Muslims must critically think about where Reason stops and Faith begins. Islamic critical thinking needs to define its own starting point and its operational framework. Naturally, pure rationalists question this very premise. But as Muslims, it will be convenient for us to recognize that the basic tenets reside in the realm of Faith, while everything else is potentially open to questions and critical inquiry.

A serious, analytical view of Islam will reveal that we are dealing with two dimensions: (a) faith and (b) rationalism. As Muslims, we believe that there is one God and the Quran is has been sent down from Him. This is the starting point for Muslims. We believe in Islamic tenets not because they can be rationally proven – though many may be thus proven – but because we accept them as a starting point. Typically, Muslims hold that there are no conflicts between Rationality and Faith. But in reality, Muslim critical thinking has been restrained by the religious framework and literalism of Islam. Therefore, the only framework available to Muslims is the one developed by European philosophers.

Pure rationalism – which questions the existence of God, scripture and prophets – presents itself as non-ideological thought. But in reality, there is ideology even when there is no ideology. It means at the end of the day, the only parameter (for evaluation or judgment) is rationality or rational logic. Like it or not, this is an ideological position. In our thought, Rationality is a means of revealing the Truth. And such Truth is for the benefit of Creation.

Critical thinking in the Muslim tradition needs to ask: are we dealing with pure Rationalism? Is everything questionable, to the point that everything becomes relative? Are there limits to rational thinking or is everything open to questioning? And where does Faith end and Rationality begin? There are those who refer to a verse from Quran to argue that it is not up to us to ask questions. Often they will cite:

We hear, and we obey. (Grant us) Thy forgiveness, our Lord. Unto Thee is the journeying. (Surah Baqara, verse: 285)

Within the Muslim community, it is important to understand that questioning does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. The quality of faith does not depend on whether articles of belief are accepted with questions or without. In fact, deep questions can enable us to have deep faith. There is no contradiction between the two.

At the heart of the very concept of human being lies a combination of intellectual thinking and spiritual reflection. That is the framework Muslims must use, not the tradition of questioning everything for the sake of questioning or provocation in the Western manner.

2. An Analytical Framework

There is a particular Hadith that comes up often in these discussions about critical thinking. When the Prophet Muhammad was sending Muadh Ibn Jabal to Yemen, the prophet asks the companion how he was going to make decisions as per the creed [questions from the prophet are in bold]:

  • How will you judge?
  • Mu’adh said, “I will judge according to what is in the Book of Allah.” The Prophet said:
  • What if it is not in the Book of Allah?
  • Mu’adh said, “Then with the tradition (sunnah) of the Messenger of Allah.” The Prophet said:
  • What if it is not in the tradition of the Messenger of Allah?
  • Mu’adh said, “Then I will strive to form an opinion (ijtihad).”

[Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1327, Grade: Sahih]

So we find, when the scripture is not clear, when there is clear guidance, the Muslim’s mind is the answer. There is no way one can be a good Muslim if (s)he is not asking for sources, understanding and asking questions. An imitating Muslim (or a Muqallid, a disciple) is a contradiction in terms.

Let’s turn to another prophetic story. On the eve of the Battle of Badr, Muhammad and the Muslim army had decided to set up camp at the first water-well they encountered. But Hubab Ibn Mundhir came to see the Prophet Muhammad and quizzed him regarding war strategy. Hubab asked if the chosen place was divinely commanded or a part of Muhammad’s own strategic plan.

Muhammad replied that it was his idea. Hubab then told the Prophet that it was not good strategy. He suggested instead that they occupy the well closest to the Quraish army and block off the other ones. Muhammad agreed with the suggestion and changed the army’s position.

In approaching the prophet, Hubab Ibn Mundhir demonstrated followed three principles. First, he questioned the source of the decision. Second he tried to understand and evaluate the decision. Thirdly, he advanced his questions to clarify confusion and ambiguity.

Finding the Source Is the action a divine commandment? Then take it as it is. If it from a human being, it is debatable, questionable.
Understanding the Decision or Judgment What is the rationale of the decision? How was it formulated and by who? What scriptural contents are available to support this line of reasoning?
Formulating Questions Is this the best possible decision? Can it be solved in others ways so as to not contravene the Quran or the Sunna, but still obtain better outcomes?

Ibn Mundhir was questioning the authority of the prophet not as the supreme religious leader, but as a general leading the nascent Muslim Ummah during times of war. This is a crucial distinction.

The existence of God, the precepts and prophecies of the Holy Qur’an fall within the realm of ‘faith’. These are things that we believe in. On the other hand, whenever humans have been involved in the remembrance, transmission, recording and relaying of articles of faith, it must remain open to questioning. Almost all notable Islamic scholars – be it Shi’a or Sunni – have maintained the position that if their interpretation was right, one was free to accept it. If it was deemed faulty, people were also free to reject it. There can be no compulsion to accept the interpretation of a particular scholar or school.

Muslims must be careful to refrain from idealizing things that are coming from human beings. Early companions, scribes and other Muslims had an opinion, in the way they were dealing with the scriptural sources, their context and history. They had their vision and opinion, much in the same way we have our vision and opinions. So those visions, interpretations and opinions must not be sanctified or idealized today. It is the right and the duty of Muslims to question everything in Islam that has come from a human source: even if the source is the prophet himself. Because, in worldly affairs, Muhammad was just a man. His opinion on agriculture or medicine for example, is not infallible and must be able to withstand scrutiny if it is to be accepted.

3. Rationality in Islamic Knowledge

The first Islamic science is Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. It is interesting to investigate the role of rationality in this (legal) science. As we know, Muhammad’s companions (Sahaba) were afraid to issue edicts (Fatwa Pl. Fatawa) lest they should transgress boundaries. People were afraid to accept every edict too. Unlike today, they were afraid of misinterpreting the prophetic message. Even in the modern day, a Muslim has the duty to demand a rationale from experts and teachers of Fiqh.

Muslims must move away from the practice of blindly accepting the opinions of scholars.Otherwise, one is just an imitator (Muqallid), one who simply borrows and/or adopts from another without question. We should not agree simply because we like a particular scholar. We should ask for the rationale: it is the only parameter. The scholar should provide a source, explain the reasoning and answer questions. And Muslims should decide on the basis of a set of objective criteria:

  • Level of texts: are the texts divine or human? Do they have an established chain of transmission? Are they corroborated?
  • Core Contents: what exactly does the verses or traditions say? Who interpreted the meaning? What other possible meanings are there?
  • Priority of issue: how central is the issue to Islam? Is it compulsory or optional? Is it part of tenets of Islamic Faith? Is it a legal issue?
  • Knowledge of context: under what circumstances did the verse or statement come about? Who said it? To Whom? In what city? What was society like back then?
  • Knowledge of History: is this before or after the migration? Who was in power? Were there any natural or manmade disasters taking place? What were socio-political customs of 6th century Arabs?

Priority or importance of the issue is a big challenge. In today’s world, a lot of emphasis is given to the outward appearance of Muslims: does he have a beard? Does he wear a skullcap? Is her hair and arms covered? But in Islam, it does not matter how people see you. What matters is how God sees you.

Muslims also need to be mindful that there are political efforts to manufacture consensus within the Muslim World: to the extent that wars have been waged to establish one side’s interpretation of Islam. Many refer to the ‘law of majority’ in the Hadith to defend their striving for majority:

“My Ummah will never agree upon an error.”

The reason why the prophet relied on the collective opinion of the Muslim Ummah, was not to encourage consensus between Muslims, but because they were expected to engage in critical thinking, ask difficult questions, evaluate options and finally arrive the best solution.

4. Reinforcing Common Grounds

It is not fair to question the concepts and terminology of secular sciences, but refuse to do the same when it comes to Islamic knowledge. One of the most difficult question among Islamic scholars, Muslim intellectuals and experts of Human Sciences is one concerning ‘definitions’ and ‘terminology’. And this does not include challenges of translation from Arabic to another language. Rather, we ask: how are the concepts and terminologies defined in Arabic?

In the first place, we have no consensus about what ‘Islam’ is. Some say Islam is a religion; others say it is a code of life. There are those who conceptualize Islam as a civilization and still those who say Islam is everything that is between Life and Death. If we translate Islam to mean ‘submission’ – does it encompass the highest values of the religion? Are the themes of peace – peace with one’s self, peace with Creation and peace with the Creator – being transmitted with such a terminology? By accepting Orientalist translations of Islam, we are failing to critically present ourselves to the world.

Think about ‘Sharia’. What is Sharia? Who is defining Sharia? The Sufi mystics have one definition. Sixteenth century India saw the reconciliation of Legal and Spiritual laws. The Muslim Ummah today has the responsibility of developing a consensus regarding what we mean by Islamic definitions and terminology. And that’s not merely because the West does not know what Muslims are talking about – it’s because we don’t know what we are talking about.

What is the definition of ‘Jihad’ or ‘Caliphate’? These concepts are a reflection of the holistic nature of Islam. But as long as we interpret them in the light of our present experiences – the war in Syria or Iraq for example – we are not thinking critically. For the last 200 years, we have been talking about ‘Ijtihad’. There has been a lot of discussion about Ijtihad, but with little outcome. Today, we have disjointed Islamic versions of modern world phenomena – Islamic finance, Islamic economy – reflecting how Muslims are adapting to the modern world. But Ijtihad is about transforming society and world, not merely adapt to it.

5. Islamic Theology and Islamic Sciences

Another important issue is our categorization of Sciences, the hierarchy of Sciences. Think about this: first we have the Quran and the knowledge of Quran. Then come the Sunnah and the knowledge of Sunnah. Then we have Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul Ul Fiqh) and Fiqh. Then come self-knowledge (Ilm Al Tasawwuf), science of discourse (Ilm Al Qalam), knowledge of morality & virtue (Ilm Al Akhlaq) – all these bodies of knowledge, where are they coming from? Are they in the Quran? No, they are not in the Quran. Are they in the Hadith? No, they are not in the Hadith.

The answer is that they have been included as human constructs. At the beginning, there was a brief reference to ‘Islamic Sciences’. That is where they are coming from. Let me pose a question: what is ‘Islamic’ in Islamic Sciences? Is the object Islamic? Is the methodology Islamic?

If we have sciences that are branded ‘Islamic’, then it is understood that we have ‘sacred sciences’ – knowledge that deals with the realm of Faith. But this is problematic. Where does that leave ‘Fiqh’? Jurisprudence is concerned with human protection and laws are derived through human opinions. Does that mean that one’s opinion can be sacred? That is an absurd contention and at odds with our critical thinking framework.

Today, the main science in Islam is ‘Fiqh’. The law of what is permissible (Halal) and what is forbidden (Haram). The Shaikh is telling you what is okay and what is not according to a preset rule. But the philosophy of the legal framework – that should be the master science. We don’t have that. We only have a legal interpretation. There is no science to govern other areas of Muslims’ lives.

In the early days of Islam, scholars were open to other ideas. That meant they could be open to other sciences as well. So, Islam had no problem with the social sciences, or the arts. But because today Muslims are on the defensive, ‘Halal-Haram’ i.e. jurisprudence has become the main science. With every problem, edicts are sought from religious scholars and no critical thinking is involved. Thus, by putting edicts before philosophy, we have turned the priority of Islamic knowledge and sciences upside down.

6. Critical Thinking Principles

The Muslim World, including the Turkish people, are influenced by the West: even in the way they ask questions. We need to reclaim the power to ask the questions that we want answered and to use that knowledge for the Greater Good. In the famous universities of the West, people think in ivory towers, trapping the practice of critical thinking within the narrow framework of academia. But the purpose of universities is to serve the people. Therefore, our roles are not to be seen as ‘thinkers’, far removed from the society. Muslim thinkers must be immersed and engaged in society. Being just a scholar, without being an ‘activist scholar’ serves no societal purpose. Refer to the supplication, “O Allah! I ask You for useful knowledge.’ Make your knowledge useful. This is how we can serve Creation. And this must begin from our schools: students must be encouraged to ask questions. So that they don’t only memorize words, but also internalize their meaning and implement such knowledge for the good of society.

The topic of knowledge production cannot be discussed without touching upon its ultimate goal: the construction and distribution of Power. Look at the Islamic World: who speak for Muslims? From which science does one have the authority to speak about Islam? If a decision is needed in medical science, who can give an edict? Probably, a Shaikh (Jurist). But what does a religious scholar know about medicine? How are we to integrate scientific knowledge with religious authority? In Islam, we notice the absence of a clergy. Yes, there are scattered centers of power and authority, both formal and informal. High fragmentation of Knowledge means Muslims learn and transmit the details well, but fail to grasp the nature of the broader philosophy of Islam.

A second dimension in this consists of understanding and evaluating our own thinking about the Ummah and how it relates to the whole world. What is the source of our thinking? Don’t we have to from Economics? Sociology? Physics? It is not as though Muslims only accept the sacred knowledge and reject the other branches. All the Sciences must be included in Muslim critical thinking. Human contributions to Islam must be questioned and challenged on the basis of the latest knowledge.

Islam has had, in its history, very courageous Ullema (scholars). As early as the 8th century, scholars challenged the tradition of shedding blood for apostasy (Hikmal Ridda). Some pointed out that the prophet never killed anyone for changing religions. And if we consider him to be the most perfect representation of a Muslim, then there is no way capital punishment can be prescribed for apostates. Today, many are rediscovering the thoughts of Sufyan al-Thawri and finding more sense in his interpretation of Islam.

Such scholars and jurists may have been small in number. But how do we know the Truth lies with the majority? An opinion rooted strongly in scripture and religious traditions is better than agreement with feeble sources. Think about our governments and the leaders we elect. Often they are not the best choices for such a responsibility. But it is the majority’s preferences. Critical thinking is about resisting the momentum of the majority opinion, in favor of questioning and verifying knowledge and opinion, before accepting it.

There is also no scope to become a Muqallid (literally: a follower, in context: a disciple) of a particular religious scholar, by accepting all his interpretations and opinions of Islamic matters. A Muqallid takes an opinion without knowing the evidence. It is thus also the duty of Muslims to entertain and systematically evaluate a scholar’s opinion before accepting it. No one can think on your behalf.

This is not to suggest that Islamic scholars throughout history and their teachings must be abandoned. On the contrary, Muslim thinkers must revisit renowned scholars in history. Take for example Abu Hamid Al Ghazali (11th century Persian theologian, philosopher and jurist, credited with a renewal of the Islamic Faith). But we must recognize that even someone as great as Ghazali was a man of his times and thus restrained by the thinking of his time. His conceptualization of the relationship between Man and Woman – assigning Man as the ‘master‘ and Woman as the ‘servant’ – is simply not acceptable. Islam does not need to be reformed – only our way of thinking has to be revolutionized.

7. Critiquing Power & Authority

Muslim thinking must pertain to Muslim ambitions and dreams. Muslims need to question ‘Authority’. Muslims worldwide are experiencing a crisis of Faith. And we must renew calls to question how Islam is being practiced in the world. How are Islamic decisions being made? Who is giving the opinion? What are the standards of evidence in such decisions? If we don’t know these things, politicians will struggle to fill this power void and subpar scholars will advance their own interpretations to answer the Ummah’s questions.

The discussion about Power and Authority is critical. We don’t like this practice, especially when it comes to religious authority. The Salafist literalists in Saudi Arabia say, “O you who believe, obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those entrusted with authority amongst you;” (Chapter 4 Surah Nisaa verse 59). Using this as a shield, they discourage questions. And they say, ‘don’t do politics’. That is the most political of all statements, an indirect way of discouraging critical thinking and a culture of questioning in Muslim societies.

When scholars refer to the verse, “It is Allah who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom – although they were before in clear error;” (Surah Jumuah, verse-2) – they interpret ‘Hikmah’ (Wisdom) as the Sunnah. But that’s a legal reading. In essence, Hikmah is a broader worldview, within which all knowledge can fit, including the sciences. Scripture is for deriving wisdom, not to merely shape jurisprudence.

As Muslims, let us not dive into critical thinking as if it were only an exercise in rationality, and not related to spirituality. Begin with assessing yourself. Are you honoring yourself? Is your behavior just? Think about to what extents we are serving God and serving our self-interest.

[Video] Tariq Ramadan: Critical Thinking for Muslims in the East and the West (lecture), April 2015



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