Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

Jamadi Awwal 1424 H
July 2003
Volume 16-07 No : 199

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Finer Aspects of Fiqh


Finer Aspects of Fiqh

Following the example of academies in some Arab countries, Europe and North America,
The Islamic Fiqh Academy in Delhi has been reforming the teaching and understanding of Fiqh.


By Yoginder Sikand

Madrasas were originally intended as institutions for the preservation and transmission of the Islamic religious tradition as a whole. In contemporary India, they focus largely although not exclusively, on the teaching of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. Most Indian Muslims adhere to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence and so most madrasas in the country teach only the books of Hanafi fiqh. Almost all these books were written between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries, in a context very different from that of India today. Most of their authors lived and worked in Central Asia, Iran and parts of the Arab world.

Consequently, their under-standing of fiqh was naturally shaped by the particular environment in which they lived. The questions that they raised and the answers that they provided were a product of the concerns of their own times. Not surprisingly, their books do not deal with many issues of contemporary concern and relevance. Despite this, most Indian madrasas continue to employ these texts in the teaching of fiqh. Because of this, madrasa students are often left unaware of and unable to respond to questions that the modern world forces us to contend with. Consequently, the teaching of fiqh has been gradually distanced from real-world concerns.

An interesting and innovative experiment to reform the teaching and understanding of fiqh is the Delhi-based Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA). Following the example of similar academies in some Arab countries, Europe and North America, the IFA believes that ijtihad or creative interpretation of fiqh is absolutely essential in order to provide Islamically suitable answers to issues of contemporary relevance, on which the corpus of traditional fiqh is silent. Thus, it questions the widely held assumption of taqlid or 'blind imitation' of the earlier jurisprudents or fuqaha, stressing on the inherent dynamism of Islamic law. In contrast to past precedent, it believes that ijtihad on many issues is no longer possible on the part of a single alim. Because many questions of contemporary concern involve a range of disciplinary boundaries, it argues for what it calls 'collective ijtihad', bringing together ulama trained in the traditional Islamic sciences as well as experts in various fields of modern knowledge to deliberate on various issues and provide Islamically acceptable solutions to them. Interestingly, and in contrast to many traditional ulama, the IFA does not identify itself with any particular school of thought (maktab-i fikr). It stands for tolerance and respect of differences between the different Sunni mazhabs or schools of fiqh.

The IFA's activities are wide-ranging, including publishing books, organising lectures and training programmes and holding seminars. It has published several books on a variety of contemporary issues, from insurance and birth control to modern commercial transactions and organ transplants, offering opinions on these based on collective ijtihad. It has held a number of seminars in different parts of the country, in which ulama and modern scholars, both have participated to collectively discuss various issues which the traditional books of fiqh are silent on, but which Muslims have increasingly to face today.

A major focus of the IFA's work has been the promotion of new understanding of fiqh in the Islamic madrasas in the country. One of the most successful of its initiatives in this regard was its madrasa training programme, which, however, has since been discontinued. The concept of the programme emerged at the IFA's annual seminar at Bangalore in 1990. The next year, it sent out letters to various madrasas in the country, offering to arrange, at its own expense, for extension lectures by university lecturers in their campuses on various modern subjects. The lectures would cover a range of disciplines, including the social and natural sciences, modern medicine, philosophy, comparative religion and so on, but presented in a suitable Islamic form and located within the contemporary Indian context. It proposed that these lectures should later be collected and published as textbooks, which could then be incorporated into the madrasa syllabus. It saw this initiative as helping to bridge the gap between madrasa-trained and modern-educated Muslims, and to dispel what it saw as the wrong, though widely-held, notion of religious (deeni) knowledge as being somehow distinct from 'worldly' (duniyavi) knowledge.

Between 1991 and 1993, the IFA organised training camps at some 40 madrasas in different parts of India, to acquaint students and teachers with issues of contemporary relevance, about which they generally know little or nothing. At these programmes, professors of different subjects from different universities, including the Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Lucknow University, in addition to some leading ulama, spoke to and interacted with students and teachers of the madrasas on a range of issues. Although most madrasa students who attended the lectures responded enthusiastically, some madrasas, says IFA's secretary Amin Usmani, were not very welcoming, fearing that this might 'distract' the attention of the students from religious studies. Unfortunately, the programme was discontinued two years after it was launched, primarily because of shortage of funds.

Usmani opines that unless the teaching of fiqh in the madrasas is reformed, they can play little role in enabling the Muslims to deal with the challenges of modernity. He suggests major curricular reforms in this regard. He says that the focus of the teaching must be on the usul (basic principles) of the Qur'an and the Hadith, rather than, as at present, on the furu or minor details of fiqh. He notes that while madrasas generally place great stress on the teaching of intricate details of ritual purity, the nitty-gritty of marital relations and the minute intricacies of divorce and so on, they tend to neglect what he sees as the 'basic spirit' of the Qur'an and the Hadith, reflected, for instance, in their commandments related to animal rights, relations between Muslims and others, social service etc.

The teaching of fiqh, and the Islamic tradition more generally, must, Usmani argues, take the contemporary Indian context seriously. Thus, he suggests, madrasas must equip their students with the knowledge and skills needed to operate in a modern religiously-plural society. For this, he stresses the need for madrasas to introduce the teaching of other religions from a non-polemical perspective so that Muslims and people of other faiths can understand each other in a more sympathetic way. He advocates the introduction of 'Peace Studies' as a regular subject in the madrasas, through which the students could be taught the importance of peace and ways of working for it in accordance with the Qur'an and the Hadith.. He laments that books on modern fiqhi issues, such as those published by the IFA as well as by leading ulama in Arab countries and the West, are taught in very few Indian madrasas, although many of them have these books in their libraries.

Usmani places his hopes on the younger generation of madrasa students, who, he feels, are more open to alternate views and willing to critically engage with issues of modern concern so as to develop more relevant, and, therefore, more authentic understanding of Islam, including fiqh.

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