Field Notes article

A Response to Damian Howard, SJ

As I read Damian Howard’s comments in his recent blog entry, I started to engage in my own self-critical assessment.  In my previous blog entry I may have given the impression of being a thoroughgoing supporter of rationalism in order to provoke Muslim exclusivist legal-juridical discourse to consider a more universalist, text-based argument that suggests a default secularity of Islamic religious thought.

With the absence of the “church” and ecclesiastical body, even the juridical sources have intrinsically accepted the default separation of human-divine and human-human jurisdictions in the overall orthopraxy of Muslim tradition.  Close reading of my endnotes will suggest my overwhelming reliance on the tradition to derive correlation (mulazama) between revelation and reason.  I regard myself an active traditionalist who firmly believes that the multivalent nature of the tradition itself calls for reason-based hermeneutics to demonstrate its relevance in changed times and places.  I affirm time and again that revelation cannot be mono-dimensional because it claims its scriptural validity as long as there is human life on the planet.  Hence, human intellectual endeavors should not aim at unseating the tradition (I take this to be the entire revelatory sources in Islam); rather, whether jurists or theologians (both are in large numbers in Islam) one must undertake to rediscover the divine purposes by searching for the universal aspect of a specific ruling in the Tradition (i.e., the Quran and the Sunna).

This universal aspect is extractable right in the heart of Islamic legal methodology: the usul al-fiqh, which in its entirety depends on the morality of a case to derive its interpretive strategy.  Thus, the principle of “No harm, no harassment” is a traditionally derived principle from the Tradition, which superbly correlates with a rational judgment that one should cause no harm to anyone nor should one reciprocate harm with harm.  In the academic venture of two studies on human rights and bioethics, I have demonstrated the critical role that the tradition plays in guiding reason to derive universal rulings that can be applied across the traditions and even in secularly derived public space with its own public reason.  What Howard describes about Catholic tradition is naturally so in Islam.  Muslim jurists could not have derived their list of “dos and don’ts” from the scripture alone.  Their outreach in the area of ordinary language and its ability to rationally derive solutions to the pressing contemporary situations is visible in the juridical corpus.

The questions that Howard asks are natural, and although I can go on scribbling a long response, I need to take our discussion one step forward.  I don’t take religion in the modern sense of belief located in the private domain of an individual, deep inside her being.  Rather, in the Islamic sense I take it to include belief, practice and attitude — a total worldview.  Hence, I may have given an unintended impression of tension between spiritual and temporal in my approach to Islamic tradition.  Near Eastern cultures rule out a narrow approach to religion that continues to dominate conceptions of religion in the post-Enlightenment era.  The function of a theologian-practitioner like myself is not only to engage in new retrieval and interpretation of the tradition by taking into account the historical exegetical literature that provides the necessary link to the past, as well as opportunities to evaluate the present state and stature of inherited tradition; it is also to engage in self-critical assessment of the present orthopraxy that ignores the essential revelatory exposition of the practice that must remain constant to provide legitimacy to the claim of membership in the faith community.

The Qur’an never accepted faith as sufficient in itself to achieve salvation.  It required action to validate the inner commitment that came with the belief in one God and the prophetic agency of Muhammad.  I am anchored on the ground at a vantage point of knowing the tradition in the text and its practice in the community.  To restate my stance in this debate, I am an active “traditionalist”, not a “liberal” modernist.  I practice and encourage the practice through spiritual and moral development in the community.  Like my own teacher, Dr. Ali Shariati, I am a practicing Muslim in search of ways to make the knowledge about my tradition relevant to the times without losing sight of authenticity that provides me necessary credibility to carry on my work both in academia and in the community.


Abdulaziz Sachedina
Abdulaziz Sachedina, Ph.D., is Professor and IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His research and writing focuses on the field of Islamic Law, Ethics, and Theology (Sunni and Shiite). More recently, he has concentrated on social and political ethics, including Interfaith and Intrafaith Relations, Islamic Biomedical Ethics and Islam and Human Rights.

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