Sir Syed as Interpreter of Islam
Prof. B. Sheikh Ali
Sir Syed was a great leader, a liberal, reformer and a thinker whose vision transcended time and space. His firm grip over the past with full knowledge of the present enabled him to plan for the future. His fertility of mind made him realise reason and knowledge were man’s imitation of divinity. His nobility of soul made his whole life a long saga of service and sacrifice. His intense hard work brought about a radical change in the Muslim community in his own life time. His heart to God, mind to think and hand to work melted the frozen rigidities and washed off the accumulated dust of inhibitions. It was he who warned the Millat that stagnant pools activated no mills. Unless we change with times to face the new realities, time would destroy us.
Sir Syed was supremely successful in his mission of social change, moral change and intellectual change. But there were two areas which became controversial, one was his religious thought, and the other, his political views. In theology, Sir Syed belonged to the school of Shah Waliyullah’s ideas of fundamentalism and liberalism. He agreed with Ibn Taimiya’s thesis that ijtehad or rationalism existed in Islam. Of the three disciplines of Islamic thoeology, tafsir, hadith and fiqh, Sir Syed thought that the last one, fiqh had been too rigid, too traditionalistic, and too conservative in interpretation of the Islamic law. Sir Syed’s first theological work, Rah-e-Sunnat-o-Rah-e-bidat, elucidated the principle of rationalism in Islam, and was quite in line with the Mutazila, te Ikhwan-us-Safa and Shah Walliyallahi thought.
Sir Syed regarded religion as an essential discipline for the establishment of ethical criterion. Its essence is truth rather than faith and truth requires a constant search for reality and does not consist of mere faith or belief in a particular dogma. Faith is one of the ingredients of this truth, and should be based on comprehension and a knowledge of what is rational.
Sir Syed went on to say that truth was identical with nature and its laws which determined the causality of all material and non-material phenomena. These natural laws support a moral code which constitutes the basis of social ethics. The logic of natural laws would necessarily indicate a final cause, a Prime Mover, which is God, and it is faith in this God which is the cardinal principle of Islam. Thus, Sir Syed’s interpretation of Islam was so much based on rationalism and nature that his critics called him a heretic, a kafir, a mulhid. He disagreed with the close association of the fiqah with concepts such as mujiza or miracles.
In his commentary on the Qur’an (tafsir) Sir Syed says that such concepts as an ijaz or miracle should be taken not in the literal sense but in the allegorical or symbolic sense. They must be interpreted in the light of the Arabic idiom of the Prophet’s time. He outlined the basic principles for his own tafsir. They are, first, the omnipotency of God to create what He pleased, second, His mercy seen in guidance through Prophets who were sent from time to time, third, the authenticity of the Qur’an as the word of God conveyed through revelation, fourth, the revelation made to Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) through intuition and spontaneity and not necessarily through Archangel, Jibrail, fifth, the accuracy and validity of all statements of historical nature in the Qur’an, sixth, the attributes of God mentioned in the Qur’an are to be taken as His essence and abstractions without any subject or form, seventh, these attributes are eternal, eighth, God’s commands are nothing other than the laws of nature, ninth, revelation to the Prophet was by slow degrees, and it was not as if the whole truth was imparted in a single flash, and lastly, research relating to different languages was required to study the sociological possibilities of the development of different groups, more so of the language like Arabic which excelled in allegories and allusions at the time of the Prophet.
In this framework of ten points which Sir Syed has formulated, there was nothing to dispute with him on any issue except the fourth which related to Wahy or revelation. His main idea was to prove that Islam is very rational and natural religion, and yet there were one or two difficult questions which the critics of Islam had made much of, and that they needed to be rejected. One such concept was Wahy or revelation, and the other was, Mi’raj or ascension; the third is the concept of heaven and hell. Sir Syed took pains to remove the inconsistency involved in these concepts, when judged rationally. Therefore, he argued that Wahy and natural laws are identical. Wahy operates as a natural instinct in higher forms of life, and the Prophets are used as the medium for that purpose. Wahy is nothing but human rationality given as a moral code to guide humanity on the right path. Reason is helpful in knowing God’s creations on earth as well as God Himself. Philosophers, mystics and Prophets know God in a fuller sense than others, because they apply their mind more intensively to this subject. Sometimes knowledge comes to them as a sudden flash to which has been attributed many names in oncology including Jibrail. There are true Prophets and also false Prophets. False are those, whose messages do not conform to the laws of nature and reason. Sir Syed used nature as a close system of the universe which obeys certain laws of mechanics and Physics and conforms to a pattern and principle.
Sir Syed was perhaps the first Muslim to believe in the Darwinian Theory of Evolution, and to say that it is confirmed in the Qur’an which proclaims that one species of creation is related to another, and that man is the last creation prior to whom the animal kingdom and the vegetative were brought into existence. He views the soul as a pragmatic reality which is present both in animal and in man, the difference being the degree of consciousness given to either. The human soul can range from scientific research to gross inhumanities. It exists in essence and is therefore immortal.
The soul in its immortality is accountable to God, which is m’aad. The soul is answerable to God for the good or evil it does on this earth. This account it has to render on the Last Day of Judgement, on which day all souls will be resurrected in a different physical sense. On the question of miraj or ascension, Sir Syed said that it should not be interpreted in the literal sense. The Prophet did not experience the physical ascension, and not even a spiritual one, but rather a dream. On this issue Sir Syed became the target of virulent attack from the traditionists, but he stuck to his guns. On the Islamic angiology (Malayakas) and demonology (Jinnath), he said angels were the properties of the created things like hardness in stone, fluidity in water, and intuitive congnition in man. He rejected a good part of ahadith which were in conflict with reason and said that authentic hadith should conform to three principles. First, they must be in consonance with the Qur’an second, they should be related to those legal formulations which were not touched by the Qur’an and the third, they should explain the Qur’anic injunctions. He discussed such sensitive points of Islam as jehad, polygamy and slavery. On Jehad, he thought Islam sanctioned only defensive wars, and that man has the right to fight when others wish to destroy him. Jehad in literal meaning means struggle, to strive, to attempt, to labour, and only by implication it becomes fighting for the cause of Islam. It can more usefully be applied to mean intensive search for truth which would lead to new ideas and deeds. On the question of slavery, Sir Syed said that man was created free endowed with reason, and if he was his own master, he could not be anybody’s slave. Islam indicated the ways and means through which slaves can be freemen. When Islam stands for the unity of God and unity of man, there was no room for one to be master and the other to be slave.
In short, Sir Syed made four main contributions to religious thought. First, he removed the western misunderstandings about Islam, second, he advocated Islam was a true religion, based on reason and natural laws, third, he washed off the accumulated dust of the centuries from the body of Islamic practices, and the fourth, he offered some fresh interpretations on a few Islamic beliefs in the new light of the age. He was supremely successful in the first three of his efforts, but on the fourth the Muslims had their own reservations. He thought of reconciling religion with science on the basis that science was truth, and religion was also truth, but people thought otherwise. Science is matter, religion is spirit. Science is relative, religion is absolute. Science is knowledge and religion is faith. Science is the intelligent understanding of the world, and religion is the intuitive contemplation of the universe. Science functions in time and space, religion penetrates time and space. Sir Syed did not make these distinctions. He thought science entered the domain of Divinity to explain the laws of nature which are nothing but the manifestation of Divine Will.