By Dr. Ali Gomaa
Originally published at Ali Gomaa
There is a difference between change and creating change. The difference between them is intention and will, which require the formation of a plan and its implementation. Change happens automatically with the passing of time, the change of people due to life and death, the flow and intertwining of events, and the discoveries made, both in the sensory realm, as well as through the flashes of realization by which God provides openings to His servants in the realm of ideas. These discoveries later affect individual and group relations between people, and between countries and blocs. As for creating change, it involves studying reality and noting something that needs to be changed. This is where intention and will for that change appear and a person forms a suitable plan, which he implements to achieve his purpose or part of his purpose.
The expressions “reform” and “renewal” both fall into the category of “change”. Some authors of contemporary literature, according to their use of these two expressions, consider them to be synonymous, and use them interchangeably. I consider there to be a difference between reform and renewal. Reform assumes there is a deficiency in the world, which could reach the extent of a flaw, and which necessitates a certain amount of demolition and rebuilding. This is why reform also demands that one not submit to that which has been passed down, but consider that an error has been committed by those who have preceded us either in their understanding, their application, or both. This is the reason and justification for the process of demolition and rebuilding that puts an end to the current deficiency. With this concept of reform the idea of either a partial or a complete “epistemological rupture” can be accepted, based on the vision of the reformer, the extent of the reform, the extent of the desire, will, and intention to create change. Through this epistemological rupture the sources and tools of knowledge are criticized and new criteria for evaluation are formed. Thus the process of reformulating knowledge is carried out. All these are the first and essential steps in a plan of reform. Reform understood in this way usually faces strong resistance because firstly, it clashes with the prevailing culture, secondly, it puts forward an idea that hasn’t been tested before so there is fear of accepting it, thirdly, it formulates that idea in an original manner that differs from the formulations of established disciplines that have been studied and passed on from one generation to the next, and fourthly, because it describes a part of inherited knowledge as being deficient. Therefore, the task of reform is more difficult, and requires more time.
As for renewal, it is a process of adding something new that does not require demolishing or nullifying older knowledge, instead, it provides new things that are required by the times. The relationship of these additions to that which preceded is based on the concept of carrying out the duties called for by the times, that the predecessors successfully carried out the duties of their times based on the requisites of their era and their lives, and that you have duties of your time different from the duties of previous times. Therefore, although we respect inherited knowledge, we do not stop at it, and we do not oppose it, on the contrary, we respect it, add to it, and reformulate its methods to make them consistent with the new methods that we have added.
This is based on the idea of separating issues from methods. The issues are defined in our studies of grammar and syntax as the “complete sentence”, which consists in the Arabic language of a subject and a predicate, or a subject and a verb. A careful examination of the nominal sentence and the verbal sentence reveals that they are made up of two parts: a subject that we speak about, and something that we attribute to that subject, this is why we hear scholars of grammar refer to the subject (musnad ilayhi), the predicate (musnad), and predication (isnad). There are many different issues, they are as numerous as human expression, but when a person carries out the process of predication, they must apply certain methods or groups of methods in order to attribute the proper ruling to the subject. These methods vary based on the different fields that the issues fall under, such as the field of life where we say: the sun shines, or fire burns; or the mental and rational field with mathematical or geometric facts, which also have a sensory aspect in their application and benefits. There is also the transmitted field, where we say: the subject is in the nominative or indicative, or the object is in the accusative, which is not something that comes out of our creation or desire but has been transmitted to us in our inherited language. Similarly, there is the field of creation (al-wad’), where we agree on certain terms and expressions, such as formulation (ta’lif) in various sciences. Finally, there is the field of Islamic law, where we learn the commandments of shari’ah through detailed indications, such as when we say: prayer is obligatory, or bribery is prohibited. Therefore, the relation between the predicate and the subject is proving or refuting one towards the other.
Each field has its sources, its instruments that enable reaching its issues, and the conditions that must be satisfied by any researcher in this field. In fact, these three factors constitute methodology, that is why we see those who describe “usul al-fiqh” (principles of Islamic jurisprudence) as a methodology, since this science demonstrates the overall sources of evidence of fiqh (the sources), how to benefit from them (the instruments), and the state of the beneficiary (the conditions that must be satisfied by the researcher). The idea of not stopping at issues using methodologies, while sometimes reformulating them when needed in order to highlight them and explain their facts to the prevailing culture, is an important basis of the meaning of renewal.
Anyone aware of the current complex reality must reject the idea of dualities. Reform and renewal are not two contradicting concepts that cannot be combined; one should not side with reform and oppose renewal, or side with renewal and oppose reform, and people should not be classified as reformers or renewers, for the desired change could need both reform and renewal. In some cases, different ratios of the two may be needed at different times, where we might need more reform than renewal in a certain case, or vice versa, or they might both be needed in equal ratios. This liberation of these two terms is something that I consider to be of the utmost importance if we wish to examine the religious conditions in Egypt from the end of the eighteenth century until the present times. An awareness of these conditions enables us to understand the present in order to build for the future. We can try together to classify the events that occurred as “reform” and “renewal”, as well as categorizing reform further into a criticism of inherited knowledge or a deficiency in inherited knowledge.
We can begin by discussing a great scholar who represents a milestone in fiqh in Egypt and the Islamic world, Sheikh Abul-Barakat Ahmad Al-Dardir, born in 1127 Hijri and died in 1201 Hijri (1715 – 1786 AD). He was one of the leading scholars of the Maliki school of law, and was the religious authority for the country since he was the Grand Mufti of Egypt. This is mentioned in Al-Yawaqit Al-Thaminah” (“The Precious Pearls”), and he was mentioned by Al-Jabarti in the second volume of his history of modern Egypt. Followers of Sheikh Al-Dardir’s history will find that he carried out all three authorities: the legislative, the judicial, and the executive. This is a condition related to his times that has changed so that the concept of separating the powers was accepted, then implemented, and then became a necessity that could not be done without. This is not a kind of objectionable change or alteration; rather it is a requirement for the establishment of justice, order, and equality amongst humanity. The state has now become a state of institutions that agreed on a constitution that represents a social concept that disciplines and restrains human society in the manner desired by God the Almighty. These restraints on human society can be found in the Quranic chapter entitled “Women”, may God help me in deriving some of them in order to demonstrate the commandments of Islam regarding this issue.
Sheikh Al-Dardir was buried in his now well-known mosque, west of the Al-Azhar mosque. His home was near that mosque, and I have seen amongst its ruins something that resembled a gallows. Our teachers would explain to us that he used to carry out verdicts of execution, for he was a judge and an executor, and he was the commentator on Mukhtasar al-Khalil so he also acted as a legislative authority. Sheikh Al-Dardir was famous for following an ascetic and moral lifestyle, characterized by a strong opposition to the injustice imposed by rulers on their subjects. This was one of the main factors that combined all these authorities in his hands. There was one instance where Murad Beik, one of the Mamluks during the Ottoman era, attacked the homes of some Cairo residents and confiscated their possessions. The people then turned to the Sheikh, who led a revolution to recover the their usurped rights. When news of this reached Ibrahim Beik, who was Murad Beik’s partner in governing the country, he feared that this revolution could intensify, and sent to Sheikh Al-Dardir, seeking conciliation and apologizing for the actions of his partner, assuring him that he would return everything that had been pillaged, or pay compensation for it. There are several other similar situations where the Sheikh stood up to Ali Beik Al-Kabir, another leading Mamluk. The point of this story is that one hundred years later this situation of having the legislative, judicial, and executing powers in the hands of one person required much reform and renewal. This is why we call for any study to transmit consciously and to clarify the positive aspects of this situation and to attempt to strengthen them or reproduce them, as well as the negative aspects, in order to resist or change them.
Other examples worthy of being studied are those of Sheikh Hasan Al-‘Atar, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Bajuri, Sheikh Salim Al-Bishri, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah Darraz, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Sadek Arjun, Sheikh Abd al-Mut’al Al-Sa’idi, and Sheikh Abd al-Halim Mahmud. These scholars have not been studied and researched as they deserve to be as has been the case with Imam Muhammad Abdu, may Allah have mercy on his soul.