In the Absence of Leadership, Anything Goes

by Noha A. Bakr
Amman - Events like the Muhammad caricatures and their terrible aftermath leave most of us wondering how to reconcile the anger and violence of a minority of Muslims with the culture of peace espoused by the majority. We frequently dismiss or explain the actions of this hostile minority as not representative of the rest of the peace-loving Muslim community. Although one out of five people on earth is Muslim, the tiny fraction that resorts to irrational and counterproductive means to express its frustration is the one that grabs the headlines.

It is time we Muslims begin to identify and analyse the reasons why this minority has neutralised and silenced most of us. The most important problem that the Muslim community faces today is a virtual absence of spiritual, ethical and moral leadership. This comes from a deep-rooted fear, on the part of more representative Muslims, of taking an authoritative position on current crises and events.

Is this due to an inherent lack of tools in Islam to tackle new problems? Not quite. Islamic leaders and legal scholars faced new challenges and tough problems for centuries and used either ijtihad or taqlid to reach conclusions. Ijtihad is the process of reasoning whereby a scholar of Islamic law uses the principles and procedures established in legal theory to extract a rule directly from the Qur’an and Sunnah (tradition and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Taqlid is adherence to the precedent established within one of the four schools of Islamic law and judging in conformity to it.

The goal of both processes is identical: to reach legal norms in conformity with God’s law. Whereas ijtihad interprets the sources directly, taqlid refers to the authority of the founder of one of the schools of law. Throughout Islamic history, ijtihad enjoyed a privileged position as the superior means of making decisions. Taqlid is dismissed today as mere docile imitation of others. But such a simplification misses the point.

Ijtihad was instrumental in formulating the legal system from scratch. Once it was in place, ijtihad per se was no longer necessary (i.e. we did not need to re-invent the legal system, only reach decisions on new cases as they arose). With the Islamic legal system in place, taqlid becomes the de facto means of treating issues that arise.

For too long, Muslims have debated the virtues of ijtihad over taqlid and found themselves in an impossible situation. Many a Muslim layperson and scholar argue that we need to embrace ijtihad to tackle the problems facing the community in the modern world because taqlid is blind imitation and that has been the cause of our problems. But few scholars are qualified to perform ijtihad even within traditional Islamic institutions of higher knowledge. And most who do perform ijtihad seem to be out of touch with either the modern world or Islamic values, rendering their conclusions less than authoritative and hardly relevant. So, is there no solution?

Somewhere between ijtihad and taqlid is the institution of the fatwa. The fatwa, or legal judgement, comes within the framework of taqlid and is the result of ijtihad within a particular school of law. Although the most infamous fatwas in recent memory have been nearly as counterproductive and irrational as the actions of the inflammatory violent minority, the potential for its use to lay foundations of peace and reconciliation abound.

Perhaps it is here that the greater Muslim community can find its voice and express itself most authoritatively. When an incident like the publication of the Muhammad caricatures takes place, reasonable and intelligent leaders firmly grounded in Islamic sources should confer and issue timely and functional fatwas that tackle the crux of the problem as well as propose proportional and effective actions for Muslims to take.

How would this work in the case of the caricatures? They first appeared in the Danish press in September of last year, but the international response did not begin until almost five months later. Muslim intellectual leaders had time to issue fatwas to provide an Islamic perspective on drawing the Prophet, freedom of speech as well as appropriate responses. Fatwas could have stopped the small groups that exploited the cartoon issue for their own political gain.

We saw this at work effectively in many responses to the caricatures. Muslim organisations in different countries offered concrete, positive and proactive actions to take in order to teach people about the Prophet’s kindness, peacefulness and piety. Throughout the world, concerned Muslims arranged educational talks and distributed films, books and other media products to present their views on the issue. But these community groups did not catch media headlines, nor do they carry religious authority with Muslims in other countries, especially among political groups bent on using violence to advance their parochial agendas.

These “moderate” organisations need to shed their fear of ijtihad and taqlid and take on the responsibility of putting forward Islamic perspectives that are more representative of the majority of Muslims and, indeed, of Islam itself. If balanced and educated Muslims yield the ethical and moral domain to the loudest, most violent and most irrational elements of the community, then we are accomplices in their behaviour. Let’s use our voices – through such mechanisms as the fatwa - to create a new ethical standard for our community.

If we cannot begin to reclaim Islam for those who love and embrace its remarkable heritage of peace and tolerance, its legacy of science and exploration, and its teachings of equality, freedom and responsibility, we will have allowed the angry mob to speak for most of us.

*Noha Bakr is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
This article is part of a series of views on the role of ijtihad in Muslim-Western relations, published jointly by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and United Press International (UPI).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), March 28, 2006

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity (CGNews-PiH).

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.

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Open the Gates of Ijtihad
A collective ijtihad for solving society’s problems
Two Theories of Ijtihad
Ijtihad and Pluralism in South Africa
The Door of Ijtihad is Open
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Other articles in this series

Open the Gates of Ijtihad by Claude Salhani
A collective ijtihad for solving society’s problems by Mohammad Hashim Kamali
Two Theories of Ijtihad by M.A. Muqtedar Khan
Ijtihad and Pluralism in South Africa by Tamara Sonn
The Door of Ijtihad is Open by Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani