Author: Ammar Baksh
A short, humble, witty old man has been creating tremors in the world of Islam that a few have noticed and many do not want to. He has explored almost every old school and has set out to restructure the age-old narratives of Islam. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is a force to be reckoned with in the realms of Islamic Sciences. So rarely does history give us the opportunity to witness the likes of Ghamidi. It would be a grave misdoing to ignore his presence.
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is a Pakistani Islamic scholar who has for the past four decades questioned and sought to answer the status quo within Islam and Muslims. Born in 1951, he grew up in a Sufi household. His father wanted him to have both traditional and modern education, splitting his time between school and learning Arabic and Persian. His first exposure to traditional Islamic studies was in the Sufi tradition. He went on to graduate from Government College, Lahore, with a BA Honours in English Literature in 1972. His initial interests were in literature and philosophy. An avid reader, it was during his usual excursions to the library that he stumbled on the works of Imam Hamiduddin Farahi, a prodigious scholar of Quran. It was in this work did he find the mention to Amin Ahsan Islahi, the then torch bearer of Farahi’s thought. Knowing that Amin Ahsan Islahi was resident in Lahore during those days, he set out to meet him the very day he had first read his mention. It was this meeting that changed Ghamidi from a man of philosophy and literature to a man of religion. It was this fortunate meeting that made Ghamidi the man we know today.
Two distinct and usually rival fluxes of Islamic thought, i.e. traditionalist and modernist, brewed up in the Muslim Subcontinent and virtually all over the Muslim world. Since its exposure to western civilization and the ultimate fall of the so-called Ottoman Caliphate, all Muslim revivalist movements have been reactionary, to say the least. The traditionalists pitched against the modernists and vice versa. Both produced their giants, each trying to dominate the general thought process of the masses. Scholars like Qasim Nanotwi, Rashid Ahmed Gangohi, Mahmood ul Hasan Deobandi, Anwar Shah Kashmiri and Ashraf Ali Thanwi from the sub-continent were mammoth figures representing the traditionalists. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Viqar ul Mulk, Ross Masood, Raja of Mahmudabad, Rafiuddin Ahmed, to name a few, were the fathers of the Aligarh Movement, a movement to plunge the Muslims of South Asia into the “modern” world.
It was Allama Shibli Nomani who raised a third front within the ranks of religious thought. This front was progressive and revivalist yet it claimed to carry the burden of tradition as well. Allama Shibli was undoubtedly the first voice in Subcontinent asserting the need for modernization of speculative theology. Syed Sulaiman Nadwi, Abul Kalam Azad, Abul Ala Mawdudi, Allama Iqbal and Abdul Majid Daryabadi reiterated and built their work on this line of thought. However, it was Imam Hamiduddin Farahi that can be called the ideal manifestation of this doctrine. His works on the Quran makes him the only one dedicating his life in truly nurturing this line of thought. His student Amin Ahsan Islahi carried forward the project of his mentor and climaxed it in the form of Tadabbur-i-Quran – a nine volume commentary of Quran based on the principle of Nazm (coherence). Javed Ahmad Ghamidi remained under the tutelage of Islahi and worked with him on various intellectual projects. Islahi is no more, but the Dabistan-e-Shibli (Garden of Shibli) still continues to live in the form of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and others who have been learning directly and indirectly from him. It is important to note the Dasbistan-e-Shibli is not a formal school of thought. Thus, it might be that scholars, who can be categorized or associate themselves with it, can have immense ideological and methodological differences.
The works of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi are an extension of Imam Farahi’s work and the ultimate manifestation of the Dabistan-e-Shibli. The call for the “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” by Allama Iqbal has also been answered in his works, thus, making him by far the most rational and radical thinkers within the theology of Islam. His works have spanned and affected almost all the spheres of Islamic thought. He has been developing and formulating a counter-narrative, of sorts, to the one that is presented of and within Islam. To get an understanding of the scope of his work let’s look at some of his major contributions:
Separation of Shariah and Fiqh
His first work was the highly debated “Ahkaam ul Meeras fil Qur’an”. This work looked into the dubious law of inheritance in Calssical Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) which has mathematical flaws in it. It was in this book that he first presented the idea that the Shariah (law) and its interpretation are two different spheres and should be taken as such. Within the study of secular law this difference is obvious, but within the Islamic tradition, it has usually not been so. Great jurists of their time tried to understand and judge according to their interpretation of the Quranic law. Many of these interpretations and judgments that have not been reviewed and have stuck through the generations and have become problematic for the whole of the Muslim world. Ghamidi presents an unbiased unadulterated version of this law as it is in the Quran and removes many mathematical anomalies present in the traditional fiqh. He argues that the misinterpretation of the law is due to the lack of knowledge of the Classical Arabic of the Quran and the unwillingness of the future jurists to reconsider the interpretations of their predecessors. Ghamidi shows that, if a person has a flair for relishing the finer aspects of the language of Quran, there is absolutely no need to employ the “Doctrine of Increase” (‘awl) to proportionately decrease the shares. All the shares can be perfectly distributed as per the values provided in the Quran itself.
The attitude of taqleed (blind following) has also eclipsed the source of law – the Quran, and has presented traditional fiqh as the sole source Islamic law. This attitude has been handed down to generations of Muslims and thus has disfigured the Islamic law and has affected the Muslim religious thought process as well.
A single interpretation of the Quran
As monumental the works of Imam Hamiduddin Farahi were, they did not receive the slightest of recognition during his lifetime. Until much later when people got introduced to him due to the works of his illustrious student, Amin Ahsan Islahi, Farahi can undoubtedly be counted among the few original and insightful scholars of the Quran. His works are based on decoding the way the language of Quran functions. The structure or nazm of the Quran was an issue not many scholars had even tried to touch in their works. This path-breaking work led him to an immense discovery, the coherence (nazm) of the Quran. Farahi argued that Quran is not a haphazard collection of verses and chapters but a book set up in an orderly fashion in which chapters and verses network with each other. This single find and its formulation were the bases of his student Amin Ahsan Islahi’s work, which changed the approach to the Quran as we know it today. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi learnt under Islahi and furthered the concept of coherence in the Quran and applied it to understand the laws and other directives of the Quran, such as the law of “Itmam al-Hujjah” (completion of proof), which Quran does not present explicitly but through deliberation and taking into account the coherence within the Quran, one can see it in action in almost all the pages of Quran. The concept of coherence also provides the concept of determining the addressee, thus specifying a Quranic discourse to its intended audience. These seemingly small but profound details have helped render a single interpretation of the Quran. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, in his work “Al Bayan”, has sought to present this.
The separation of Sunnah and Hadith
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi maintains that the Sunnah is the religious tradition initiated by the prophet Abraham on the command of Allah and has reached us through continous and concurrent transmission of the generations. Ghamidi is the first person in the tradition of Islamic thought to have clearly categorized and further enumerated the Sunnah in Islam. He defines it as – “Those religious traditions of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), after revising and adding certain parts to them, established among his followers as religion, and which has reached us through the consensus of generations by their perpetual adherence to them”. The Sunnah is thus the manifestation of the covenant with God which makes it the part of the religion. This is in contradiction to the established view that the Hadith essentially contains the Sunnah and thus things like wearing a kind garment, eating of some kind of food stuff, walking in a certain manner, constitute the Sunnah. The Hadith literally means “Narrations” in the Arabic language and were taken as such. The Hadith is thus an account of the life and times of the prophet through various narrations by the people who accompanied him. It is an invaluable source of knowledge regarding both the Quran and the Sunnah but it cannot be regarded as an independent source of Islam like the Quran and the Sunnah.
Separation of Philosophy, Religion, and Mysticism
Philosophy seeks to understand the universe and our relation to it through reason. Mysticism seeks to experience the universe maintaining that direct knowledge of God or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience. Both these thought processes, over the period, have greatly influenced the Muslim religious thought. Ghamidi maintains that humans do not have the capacity to directly experience or rationalize God relating to their own experiences or reason. He argues that it is the realm of the divine revelations to answer these specific question. The final revelation, the Quran introduces God through His attributes and exhorts man to observe the signs of God in the heavens, the earth and in his own inner self. The Quran introduces God as the standalone unique solitary creator and does not further go on to specify God as the mystics do. It gives a clear cut agenda for creation. God has created man to give him a place in His heaven for eternity but He shall first test him through trials and tribulations. Those that do good deeds shall be rewarded and those that do not shall be penalized. This he maintains is the goal of creation and nothing can satisfy the human mind other than this doctrine. To explain about our relation with nature is bound to have limitations as one might take into account one’s own aspect of life and belittle the other and thus not always provide a complete or even rational answer to the question it raises. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi reiterates that philosophical and mystical notions about God and our existence cannot truly explain their reality. Religion, as he defines, is a set metaphysical notions and practices that exemplify those notions. Since religion’s basic premise is God, then this religion needs to be from God Himself and cannot be a unguided human rendering of something that man cannot fully comprehend. Man, he says, needs to accept his inability to comprehend God completely but must submit to His existence. This argument has become now become unavoidable within Islam due to the onslaught of Greek and modern philosophy on one hand and mystical monopoly and renditions on spiritual experience on the other. Ghamidi insists that the three are different fields of knowledge and should not be intermixed, especially when approaching religion.
Islam and the State: A counter-Narrative
Though he is not first but certainly the most vocal in pointing out that the purpose of Islam, as a religion, is not to establish a world order, let alone an Islamic state. And his approach is certainly different from others who have dealt with this issue such as Wahiduddin Khan. He asserts that this obligation is not the objective of the Quran. On the contrary, he presents that the purpose of religion is the purification of one’s self to be a part of God’s paradise. He presents that the state established by the Prophet was not out of necessity to fulfill a divine command but it was natural outcome when the people of the city of Medina accepted the message of the prophet and called him to be their leader. Thus, it was only natural that it be called a Muslim state rather than an Islamic state.
Islam however, he says, calls for Muslims to follow some guidelines if and ever they become the ruling class of an area. This does not in any way establish that the objective of Islam is to create a state or establish shariah over the world. He also argues that the notion that within a Muslim state it is impeding to define that sovereignty of the land belongs to God alone is utterly foolish. The view of some scholars is that the establishment of an Islamic state is one of the directives of Islam. However, as an argument they only present the narratives of historical events relating to the Prophet’s life and the Muslim history in general. Historical events, however, can be subject to narrative differences as well as they do not form the religious principles, and hence, don’t make a basis for a good argument. Ghamidi argues that the Quran cannot be subject to different narratives and thus makes it a point to make the Quran as the basis of the argument. This approach makes it clear to understand and harder for any one to push the varying narratives otherwise. He presents that a nation needs to build a democratic, not a religious or secular state. In a democratic state, the law of the land will be framed on the consensus of the people within the state through majority’s decision but the minority would have the right to fearlessly propagate their views.
Qanoon-i-Risalat and Itmam Al Hujjah
According to Ghamidi, the guidance of the Almighty in the era of messengers works on the basis of the concept of Itmam-al-Hujjah. Itmam-al-Hujjah means completing the reasoning for the truth so that no excuses remain. When Itmam-al-Hujjah is done on a group of people, they can no longer claim that they genuinely did not become convinced by the message of truth. After Itmam-al-Hujjah the only reason that a person may reject the truth will be the person’s own arrogance. Itmam-al-Hujjah is the basis of worldly reward and worldly punishment of the believers and rejecters who have been the direct addressees of messengers of God. For these groups, the worldly reward or punishment continues into the hereafter. According to Ghamidi, the conquest of the neighboring empires by the sahabas (the companions of the Prophet) after the demise of the prophet, was based on the same concept of Itmam al-Hujjah. This argument further points out that this law is implemented in one of two ways, by God himself or by the hands of the companions of the respective messengers, as happened in the case of the Moses and Muhammad. Thus, this law become an evidence for the hereafter where the people would be rewarded for their good deeds and be punished by God for their evil deeds. This is a profound argument to make. It is the misunderstanding of this specific law, Ghamidi asserts, that has led to an ideology within Islamic studies to justify acts of war or aggression against non-Muslims and present it as God’s will. He maintains that it is evident that this law is specific to the prophets, who were also messengers of God to their respective nation, just like Moses was sent to Egypt and Muhammad to the Arabs. This does not, however, undermine the universality of their message but only specifies this law to the people who were their direct addressees.
This by no means is a comprehensive list of the contributions of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi in the field of Islamic theology. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi’s finds have been an extension of the thought of his predecessors but they have been unique in bringing out and challenging many notions within Islamic studies. His sense of academia is rarely found within the Islamic circles of study of these days. His magnum opus, “Meezan” (English – Islam: A Comprehensive Introduction), takes into account the whole of the religion of Islam. Ghamidi has presented his understanding of religion directly from the original sources free from fiqh (jusrispudence), philosophy, and mysticism. His approach to learning religion is systematic and scientific. He does not jump to conclusions with the premise he presents in his book. He presents a thorough methodology and convinces the reader in a very logical manner.
Ghamidi is not your average scholar, who takes in all the information and does not process it. What sets Ghamidi apart from the rest of his peers is his ability to take criticism and at the same time be an excellent critic. His ideas thus have been an ever evolving. In one of his early lectures, he analyzes the creed of Sufism in the most logical, methodical and controlled manner without even a slight hint of passion. What makes this criticism more remarkable is that fact that he grew up in a household steeped in Sufi tradition. That is the case with each of his analyses and the lectures he gives, they are balanced and hit on every nerve of the audience, without ever deviating from the course.
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and, more importantly, his thoughts are the need of the hour for the Muslim world as well as to the broader interfaith community. His thoughts have the right cure for prevailing ailments of the world. What Javed Ahmad Ghamidi really exemplifies and propagates is that the culture of passion needs to be rooted out of religion and a culture of reason needs to be ushered. If nothing else, then at least this tradition, which he upholds, should be adopted by all of us.
Ammar Baksh is Bachelor of Technology in Electrical Engineering from Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached on his email id email@example.com. This article was first published on Al-Mawrid Hind’s Facebook Page on 8th April, 2016 and has been been adapted from it.