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Passing away of an ijtihadist

Will Javid Iqbal’s wish remain a distant dream?

Passing away of an ijtihadist

Justice (r) Javid Iqbal’s demise in October this year saddened many, despite his having lived quite a full life spanning 91 years. The faculty, staff and students of Government College University Lahore, his alma mater, felt particularly bereaved by the news of his death.

He had a special relationship with GCU. Whenever extended an invitation to lecture or to chair a seminar, Javid Iqbal always obliged the organisers, including the writer of this column. He was the most senior old Ravian along with Pran Nevile. Son of a great father, he had a charisma all his own, usually manifested through his humility but more so in his artful conversation. His speeches and lectures impressed people of all opinions and age groups because of the profundity of his knowledge and his wide-ranging erudition.

Besides being a jurist, a judge who rose to the rank of Justice of Supreme Court, a public intellectual, a senator and an accomplished writer, he interpreted Iqbal’s thought by deploying tools of rationality. This was a laudable feat in a scenario where Iqbal and his message had been appropriated by the clerics. He repeatedly urged us to read closely and with extreme care The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam because this, and not much of Iqbal’s poetry, provided an outline of ijtihad.

Asul al Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) was his forte in which he had earned his PhD from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. There, renowned orientalist and Islamic scholar, Arthur John Arberry, was his supervisor. Interestingly, Arberry was a student of Reynold Alleyne Nicholson who held the same chair from 1926 to 1933, which later on Arberry occupied in the 1950s and 1960s. But more significant is the fact that Nicholson was Allama Iqbal’s teacher at Trinity College Cambridge. Thus Iqbal and Arberry shared the same teacher. Nicholson later on translated Iqbal’s book of poetry Israr-i-Khudi as The Secret of Self.

Besides being an incisive scholar of Fiqh, Javid Iqbal was also a tremendous Urdu prose writer. Zinda Rood and Apna Gariban Chak speak volumes of his prowess as a biographer of highest quality. The former is by far the best biography of Iqbal, particularly those in Urdu, and is commendably contextualised and embellished with all the necessary details, making it a worthwhile addition to the books on 20th century Muslim South Asia. The book provides much more than the life story of the great laureate. Another merit of the book is the author’s impartiality, even though the protagonist is his father.

I also found Apna Gariban Chak, Javid Iqbal’s autobiography, to be a fascinating read, most notably for its candour.

But his fundamental intellectual preoccupation was to work out a modus vivendi for the revival of Islam for which he vehemently espoused ijtihad as the only gateway.

In a memorial event at the Old Ravian Union in Bokhari Auditorium, GC University, Lahore, Justice Javid Iqbal was lauded for his markedly original interpretation of Islam than that of the professional maulvis, whose creed is steeped in the hackneyed practice of taqlid (precedence). Taqlid, as most among the literati would know, is the method of remaining within the specific confines of a school of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Almost every speaker at the memorial underlined Javid Iqbal’s ijtihadi standpoint in an era in which Islam is (mis)represented as a religion spawning terrorism in the name of Jihad which ostensibly has produced more anarchy than order.

Contrary to Taqlid, ijtihad is defined as reason, progression, movement, and creativity used for applying Islamic Law to a current or new situation. It is one of the several tools (four and in case of Ithna-i-Ashari/Shia they are five) deployed by the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, along with the Quran, Hadith (traditions of the Prophet), and qiyas (analogy).

Huma Naz Shah in her brilliant dissertation entitled Interactions of Ijtihad: Tracing Islamic Legal Reasoning in South Asian Judicial Discourse, states, “in case of newly emerging issue(s) in Islamic Law, jurists were to look for answers within the foundational texts, the Quran and Hadith, then search for similar cases or analogies through which they could address the current one, before finally using ijtihad, or reason, to come with a new solution”.

In juxtaposition to ijtihad, taqlid is understood as “one way of describing Islam’s rigidity and stagnancy in intellectual terms”. Thus, these categories came to be perceived as binary opposites. Javid Iqbal like many before him (Syed Amir Ali, Faiz Badruddin Tayyabji, Sir Abdul Rahim and of course his own father, Allama Iqbal) saw the redemption of Muslims only in the opening of the gates of ijtihad.

But a close look at that prognosis would lay bare the problems impeding ijtihad to fructify. With sectarian fissures so pronounced among Muslims, is ijtihad even possible? Any analogy or inference drawn by any jurist or mujtahid from one sect would not be able to evoke a consensual response from the Muslims belonging to any of the various denominations. The absence of a unanimously agreed upon authority in religious matters makes it more intractable.

Ironically, sectarian fissures are not the only divisive wedge. Jurists dealing in Islamic law and trained in Western academy are not acceptable to the seminary-trained Ulema, with clear cut preference for precedence instead of the reason. They consider religion and all the issues attached to it to be exclusively their domain. Thus, without consensus, the possibility of ijtihad is nothing but an illusion. Political division in the form of nation states is yet another factor preventing consensus to come forth.

The biggest problem confronting Muslims is the sheer absence of consensus and not of ijtihad. To conclude, Javid Iqbal’s wish to open the gates of ijtihad will remain a distant dream, and, most likely, a stark impossibility.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • Dear Sir,

    Your column is very informative .I would like to request you to do some comparative study of ijtihad among different section of islam .As far as my knowledge is concerned ijtihad is still operating in shia version of islam as there Maraja are still doing whereas in sunni version of ijthiad they restricted ijtihad upto 4 aima that are bukhari ,hanifa ,shafi and ahmad bin hanbal .

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