Traditionalists vs. Traditionalism

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

This is a very important piece that I should have written a long time ago, but in the end Allah’s will is supreme.

Traditionalism as understood in this article is the collective amalgamate of Sunni theological, legal and spiritual traditions. In theology, the Ash’ari, Maturidi and Athari traditions in theology, the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali traditions in fiqh, and mystical and non-mystical understandings of tasawwuf either via a tariqah or independently of them.

Traditionalists as understood in this article are those who claim either be in support of, part of or participating in tradition and traditionalism as outlined above.

As the name of this article suggests, I want to discuss a sentiment that is increasingly common among many Muslims today, which is the de-legitimization of tradition and traditionalism as a valid and useful means of understanding Islam and defining Islamic orthodoxy and normative understandings. As I have come to observe, much of this is done for two reasons: either due to a harmful attachment to modernism and liberalism inspired by Western/Eurocentric cultural and political hegemony, or a disillusionment with the varied and increasingly public gaffes of many traditionalists.

As such, I want to explain two things in this article:

  • That traditionalism is not just a useful means of understanding Islam, but rather that it is THE authoritative means by which to understand Islam.
  • That the mistakes of many traditionalists in either understanding of applying tradition is not indicative of the weakness of tradition and traditionalism in and of itself.

So why is traditionalism the ideal candidate by which to understand Islam?

Firstly, Sunni intellectual tradition serves as a direct or indirect commentary to the sacred texts of Islam – the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The primacy of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunnah in understanding Islam and forming an authentic and normative Islamic ontology should be an a priori understanding for every Sunni Muslim. Any attempt to understand Islam without giving primacy to the Qur’an and Sunnah is not an attempt to understand Islam as a religion, rather it is something else.

So, for example, understanding Islamic history or Islamic political theory to be a primary paradigm by which to understand Islam itself is not approaching the question from a theological or religious studies perspective, it is rather a historical or political one. Yes, Islamic history or political theory are useful secondary extractions from the Qur’an and Sunnah by which we can add to our understanding of the sacred texts themselves, but they are not the primary ontologies by which we begin to understand Islam. The Qur’an makes this clear on numerous occasions, giving primacy to obeying the Creator and his Prophet as a characterizing feature of being a believer:

O believers! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. Should you disagree on anything, then refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you ˹truly˺ believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is the best and fairest understanding. [4:59]

Therefore, Sunni intellectual tradition, since its claim to the normative is based on being true – in varying degrees – to this ontological premise, acts as a sort of intellectual means to understand the Quran and Sunnah. If the Sunnah is to be understood as Prophetic commentary on the Quran – as per Shafii parlance, then Sunni intellectual tradition is a resulting meta-commentary on both.

So, this is establishing the utility of tradition and traditionalism purely from an epistemological perspective. And it is in my view, an inescapable truth. Not only does the verse of the Qur’an quoted above in its mention of authority – widely understood to be referring to intellectual authority – implicitly state this, but one observes that even those who attempt to deconstruct tradition such as those of anti-madhhab Salafis/Ahul-Hadith persuasion, or progressive Muslims attempting to challenge the authority of tradition find no means to do so except by referring to the tradition itself.

Indeed the fact that it comes across as ridiculously unscientific, unsophisticated, arrogant and disingenuous to claim a normative understanding of Islam that is not based in any way on any previous understanding is enough of a proof in itself, as that would indicate that 1400+ years of Muslim understanding of the sacred texts was incorrect. Most Sunni Muslims with enough understanding foundational themes of the Qur’an would instantly rebuke such an attempt, unless it was veiled and hidden away effectively enough – which would amount to deception.

The second argument to be made in favor of traditionalism is its pedagogical utility. An effective pedagogy to learn an intellectual construct must by necessity be based on the ontology that the same construct is based on. For example, if we suggest that the better means by which to understand the natural sciences is a more empirical approach grounded in some sort of scientific method, a scientific education that did not comprise of some participating in laboratory experiments and methodological practicums would be an undoubtedly poor scientific education.

In a similar vein, traditionalism must form a substantial part of any effective pedagogy for studying and learning Sunni Islam. And by simply analyzing the different fields of study that make up the Sunni intellectual tradition, one can easily understand why it is so effective. Take the emphasis in most traditional curricula on the Arabic language i.e. the sciences of Arabic literature, syntax, morphology and rhetoric is a highly logical approach to understanding sacred text presented in the Arabic language, and that purports itself to be miraculously worded, and ontologically comprehensive. Or the emphasis on usul-ul-fiqh and mustalah al-hadith, the very sciences designed to filter out accurate understandings of sacred text from inaccurate ones. Lastly of course is the emphasis on direct study of the resulting extraction of fiqh that the above is based on, as well as direct study of tafsir and hadith themselves.

In this way, no pedagogical approach is able to overcome subjects of traditional study in their utility of understanding Islam, unless it incorporates traditional study itself because these subjects by their very nature are founded on a direct interaction with the sacred texts themselves.

The third argument to be made in favor of traditionalism is its decolonial utility. A commonly understood problem in Islamic academia whether salafi, traditional or contemporary is the obstacle of colonial or post-colonial influence on Islamic understandings. These are often considered foreign, malignant and insidious intrusions into Islamic thought whose main concern was to undermine authentic Islamic understandings, deconstruct Islamic intellectual culture, and dismantle Islamic civilization from within to render it politically impotent and thus unable to ideologically withstand the onslaught of European imperialism.

Intellectual tradition, therefore, a preserved continuation of the Islamic intellectual legacy, has immense utility in delineating where an Islamicate understanding of Islam ends, and when a foreign imposed or unwittingly abstracted-in understanding of Islam begins. Otherwise there is no other way to isolate colonial and post-colonial influence, as ill-intentioned Orientalist or Islamophobe understandings of Islam also utilize sacred text with which to mount their assault against Islam and Muslims. Most contemporary academics in Islamic Studies – Muslim or non-Muslim – have understood this, and it’s only a rare few who persist in trying to put forward an anti-traditional narrative which ends up contributing little to nothing substantial in our understanding of Islam.

In conclusion, Sunni intellectual tradition is critical to understanding Islam (i.e. Sunni Islam for the majority of Muslims who consider Sunni Islam to be the authentic understanding of Islam in opposition to Shi’i Islam). It is why to this day, those who do not have a sufficient academic background in the traditional Islamic disciplines will always fail to accurately, academically and intelligently delineate what exactly Islam is and what it isn’t, rendering any applicative effort on their part to understand an extra-Islamic idea, philosophy or ideology to be weak and quite often wrong.

Any Muslim who wishes to pursue research in anything ‘Islamic’ whether it be for the purpose of activism, academia or polemics, must be proficient at some level in the Islamic tradition for their work to be efficient, productive and contributive to the Islamic tradition and Muslims as a whole. Otherwise, when the definition of Islam is itself of low resolution and ill-defined, there is a high risk of denying that which can be correctly defined as ‘Islamic’ or approving of that which can be correctly defined as ‘unIslamic’ in whatever pursuit they are engaged in.

In my humble opinion, it is worse to be purposefully weak in the Islamic tradition and engage in such work, rather than to serve Islam intellectually while being deficient in the understanding of the tradition. I use the word ‘purposefully’ here for a reason: to demonstrate that these individuals always have the option for acquiring a traditional Islamic Studies background via the many local and online educational services available today. Learning Islam has never been easier, and it’s a disservice to themselves and to the community for them to speak about Islam without sufficient knowledge of it, not to mention a grave sin as understood by almost all traditional scholars of Islam.

The problem with traditionalists

Just like how Muslims do not necessarily indicate a causatively linked problem within Islam, neither do the mistakes of traditionalists necessarily indicate a causatively linked problem with traditionalism. Unfortunately, many Muslims seem to have done just that, which is to not understand tradition and traditionalism before debating the problems with traditionalists. This has resulted in many Muslims believing traditionalism to be outdated, problematic or unnecessary. Let us discuss some of these mistakes and understand why this conclusion is untrue:

1) Poor political acumen – Ever since the Arab Spring – for our generation at least – traditionalists have been under intense scrutiny by both ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ Muslims for their betrayal of the public in correcting the course of Muslim states headed by corrupt, despotic and oppressive leaders and their respective bureaucracies. Many a traditional scholar has been rightfully ‘exposed’ often in self-incriminating rhetoric or guilt by association in their support, aid or cooperation with rulers who have otherwise caused much grief to either their own constituents or others in Muslims lands.

But the truth – as most students of traditional knowledge know from experience with their teachers – is that this is not true of all traditional scholars. Many are the scholars who have left positions with the government or avoided joining them to prevent themselves from being taken to account by the Creator. Still too are the many scholars such as in Malaysia, India, Turkey or Qatar who do have a voice and use it quite effectively.

One should also not forget how many scholars either sit behind bars or are afraid to voice their political views out of fear of being thrown in jail or worse. Others have chosen the ‘wiser’ approach, engaging in rectification of Muslim minds or giving subtle reminders to rulers, realizing that a drastic public engagement with these tyrants is often unproductive or even destructive. It is unwise and foolish to judge an entire scholastic community with the examples of just a handful of outwardly problematic figures.

The poor political choices made by some do not demonstrate any problem with traditionalism, rather they demonstrate a poor grasp of politics and dealing with politicians in general, or a general naivete in dealing with practical problems that the ummah faces. Also, academically minded people in general don’t always have a good sense for the viciousness of politics. This leads us into our next point.

2) Intellectual ossification and traditionalist culture – One of the core problems of traditionalists is their fear of change in the tradition. Brought about by a century and a half’s worth of unhealthy exposure to the rhetoric and antagonism of foreign colonial powers and Muslim liberals, secularists, modernists, progressives and salafis, many traditionalists have retreated into their own bubbles and isolationist ideologies, fearing rebellious and drastic measures by some to either drastically revise or effectively neuter tradition.

But a contemporary understanding of Islam that is effective in demonstrating the sophistication, applicability, utility and relevance of Islamic tradition – as well as granting it philosophical and civilizational strength, power and transformative capability – must by necessity incorporate elements of the contemporary world.

Tradition MUST continue to evolve, and traditionalists MUST be a part of that process. In fact such an understanding is clearly demonstrated in the early half of Islamic history. Otherwise the people who will be most involved are the same people lacking a traditional background that are intruding into Islamic understandings in the first place.

An absence of this understanding has contributed to a traditionalist ‘culture’ in many places. Although now it is starting to change alhamdulillah, for the most part most traditionalist scholars and institutions display a strong disregard and dismissal of the need for traditional knowledge to be combined with contemporary fields of study. The most effective example of this is the Islamic seminary. Although seminaries – especially the larger ones – should be applauded for their excellent traditional curricula. But the graduates emerge with an intellectual chasm obstructing them from the mind and life of the contemporary Muslim. Not only have they been locked away in a seminary for years, they will often enter the world of religious work – being an Imam or otherwise that will continue to isolate them from real people and real-world experience. This leads us into our next point.

3) A poor grasp of the contemporary world – Most traditionalist students and scholars unfortunately do not end up learning much about the contemporary world. Although they do acquire systematic knowledge and understanding of traditional Islamic knowledge, very few will do so for the natural or social sciences. Few are those also who will study tradition but continue to live and exist in the real world.

This creates an understanding of tradition that is irrelevant and disconnected to Muslims, thus cutting them off from tradition and rendering them vulnerable to ideologies such as salafism, liberalism and progressivism.

Traditional curricula must be merged together with contemporary ones. The mutakallim who hasn’t studied contemporary epistemology and philosophy of logic and language, the faqih who lacks a systematic understanding of contemporary law and ethics, and the muhaddith who falls short in contemporary historical method and critique will all be somewhat capable in their own fields, but will be unable to deliver much to the average educated Muslim who is in desperate need of relevancy and applicability in their Islam.

Ignoring this problem may be intellectually convenient for many, but it will result in a failure to bring back a globally significant Islamic civilization and renders any hope for a future Islamic state or polity useless and fantastical. It is also without precedent – Muslim Imams and scholars were known not just for their mastery of traditional Islamic disciplines, but also of their polymathic abilities across different fields, whether they be philosophy, Greek metaphysics, medicine, mathematics or even the social sciences in rare examples like Ibn Khaldun.

4) Traditionalists without tradition – Another problem common in many traditionalists is a poor understanding of traditionalism, leaving them traditionalists in name only rather than substance. If you read this article, you will see an example where traditionalists are not following the example of Imams that they themselves champion and portray as legendary intellectual figures.

There are many other examples of this. Students of fiqh who don’t understand how fiqh evolved over time or who over-utilize شذوذ from the madhhabs, students of kalam and usul who can’t think logically, understand the effects of their philosophical environments and make irrevocably ridiculous claims, students of hadith who deny the authenticity of Bukhari or students of the Arabic language who can’t understand the difference between linguistic and legal analysis.

Seminaries themselves are often at fault for this. Attempting to squeeze traditional curricula into a crowd-pleasing space of 4 or 5 years is a disaster in the making. I personally have met students who have completed a study of the Hanafi fiqh manual al-Hidayah, as well as attended readings of the six famous hadith texts, yet have barely studied a text or so in usul-ul-fiqh, Arabic syntax, rhetoric or literature. Students who emerge from such poorly designed and destructive curricula are effectively drones, not muftis or scholars as they are often celebrated to be. For intellectually sophisticated madhhabs such as the Hanafi and Maturidi schools, this is a neutered education where the graduate bears little resemblance to the traditional legacy he or she claims to have studied and become a part of.

This is of course, not even mentioning the many Muslims who characterize themselves as ‘traditionalists’ but have little to show in terms of traditional study, understanding or character.

5) Ego – Lastly, and probably the most unfortunate characteristic common in some traditionalists, is the ego and poor adab that naturally accompanies all the previous problems listed. As traditionalists are forced to defend their contracted understanding of tradition, they often develop ego problems out of their constant defense and debate for the sake of what they rightly perceive is the best way to study and understand Islam.

I have seen it all unfortunately – whether it be a takfirist attitude towards Imam ibn Taymiyyah and salafis in general, an exclusionary attitude towards Atharis and Hanbalis, a fondness for overly conservative and ‘hard’ positions on social issues, a resistance to being corrected on the aforementioned, or a condescending perspective towards the common public or those who find it difficult to understand the importance of traditionalism.

And this is in stark contrast to many of traditionalist legends in tasawwuf and character. Those how demonstrated a softness towards the average Muslim and a resentment to judging others too harshly. It’s problematic nature could also be compared to our jadal tradition and openness to critique that many of the early Imams possessed.

In conclusion, these problems show not a problem with traditionalism, but that many traditionalists are not good examples of how traditionalism should look like in a scholar. There are numerous historical, political and social reasons for these problems, and they do not indicate that traditionalism in itself is necessarily a problem. If anything, they indicate that traditionalism manifested in its true form among traditionalists is what is really needed and missing.

And Allah is more knowing.

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