Thoughts on the Muslim Mind

by Tarek Heggy

This mental, intellectual and cultural stagnation represents not only a danger for humanity, but for the Muslims themselves, in that, among other limiting features, it places them and their societies in a state of enmity, even war, with the rest of humanity.

Forty years ago, one of the subjects offered for a Masters degree in law was Islamic Jurisprudence -- a massive, purely human endeavour, whose founder, the Grand Imam Abu Hanifa al-No'man, defined it as the science of extracting practical rulings from legal proofs.

The subject extended beyond the four established legal schools – the Hanafite, Malakite, Shafi'i, and Hanbalite – and even beyond the legal schools founded by other Sunni sects that have since fallen into oblivion -- and into the realm of Shiite jurisprudence. The school of Muslim theology I admired most was the Mu'tazalites and their offshoots -- especially the ideas of Ghilan Al-Demeshky, who challenged the doctrine of predestination on the grounds that it denies man's responsibility for his deeds, good and bad, and which led me to ask a number of nagging questions.

The jurists who founded the four main Sunni schools of law --Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn-Anas, Mohamed bin Idriss Al-Shafei and Ahmed ibn-Hanbal -- lived in the period between 70 and 220 Hijrah [690 to 840 AD]. Strangely, the earliest of these jurists was more liberal than his successor, who was in turn more liberal than his successor, while the fourth was the most conservative of all, allowing no scope for independent thinking, and asserting the primacy of tradition [naql] over reason ['aql]. While, for example, Abu Hanifa allowed jurists to refuse to base their rulings on the Hadiths [sayings or acts attributed to the prophet Mohammed] known as akhbar ahad [accounts of individuals], Ahmed ibn-Hanbal, who followed, stamped as authoritative legislative enactments more than ten thousand Hadiths, the great majority of which were, not surprisingly, accounts of individuals.

The conservatives in Islamic history were selective in what they presented to seekers of knowledge. Thanks to them, many Muslims today believe that the greatest Islamic thinkers always believed in predetermination. Many other great Islamic thinkers, however -- for instance, the Kadarites -- rejected the doctrine of predetermination. There are countless further examples of the subjective way the conservative elements in the world of Islam distorted historical facts to suit their purpose; the result of which distortion was to produce among Muslims a pattern of passivity at odds with the realm of knowledge, culture and science. One of the most famous examples is the conservatives' concealment of Abu Hanifa's opinion on the punishment for apostasy – death. Although he did not totally reject the punishment, the great jurist effectively invalidated it by holding that an apostate can repent, and that the period of repentance is "the length of the apostate's life."

Some of the greatest Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Sinna, Al-Faraby, Ibn Rushd and so many others, were branded as heretics by the Hanbalites. Although one of Ibn Hanbal's folllowers, Ibn Taymiyah, was a man of limited intellectual abilities, incapable of dealing with deep philosophical issues, he gave himself the right to accuse of heresy noble and original thinkers who were far superior to him in every way. Thus, because of an obscurantist ruler -- the eighth Abbasid caliph Al-Mu'tasim -- and because of the growing dominion and influence of conservative Muslim jurists -- such as Ahmed Ibn Hanbal and the interpreters of his tenets, Ibn Taymiyah and Qaiym Al Juzeya -- the Muslim mind became afflicted with a singular case of rigidity, passivity and stagnation – even fossilization.

This mental, intellectual and cultural stagnation not only represents a danger for humanity, but for the Muslims themselves, in that, among other limiting features, it places them and their societies in a state of enmity, even war, with the rest of humanity.

At some point, however, despite the backwardness and extreme primitiveness that has afflicted the minds of millions of today's Muslims who have become polarized around a worldview totally divorced from the reality of the age and from contemporary science and culture, the future will shake the Muslim mind and destroy many of the fossilized ideas that have held sway for so long, similarly to Christianity after the earthquake set off by Martin Luther and Jean (John) Calvin.

The Muslims will come to realize the need to keep religion separate from the State and from constitutional and statutory legislation. I can even see the day they will adopt a legal system based on the doctrine that upholds "the specificity of the purpose, not the generality of the text." This would allow for enlightened opinions compatible with the age, and the march of human progress in respect of women and the Other.

But before we reach that point, many years and decades will have elapsed, and many bitter battles will have been fought before reason, science and progress can claim victory over the dark legacy of a journey that began with a ruler who allowed the Hanbalites to slaughter, in the literal sense of the word, the Mu'tazalites in the alleys of Damascus.

From that day until the present, free thinkers in our societies continue being slaughtered, either literally or figuratively, with weapons wielded by forces of darkness without parallel in the annals of history.

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