By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
12 March, 2014
Often we come across in literature on Islam phrases/concepts such as “the Islamic tradition” (Turath) or “Islamic authenticity” (Asala). This literature also, especially that of non-academic nature, more often than not, does not attempt to clearly define what is meant by these concepts despite their obvious importance. How should we understand these concepts? What are their respective natures? This short article aims to provide a concise discussion on this issue. It is a modified version of part of my book Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam (Palgrave, 2011) sections of which can be read here: http://malaya.academia.edu/AdisDuderija/Papers.
1. How Should We Understand Islamic Tradition As A Concept?
The word tradition or heritage (Turath) in classical Sunni Islamic thought is usually linked to concepts such as continuity, stability, authenticity and authority. It literally means ‘handing over’ of Islamic practices and beliefs. In its broader sense, Turath can be characterized as a cumulative religio-historic construct with a central intellectual core, primarily the Qur’an and Sunna, and a number of later developed doctrines derived from its core pertaining to philosophy, theology, ethics, jurisprudence, legal theory, mysticism as well as certain sociological and political attitudes and notions.
The concept of tradition includes the idea that it consists of a number of competing interpretations which, at times, can be mutually exclusive, all of which, nonetheless, are regarded as being constitutive of it. These competing interpretations are result of differences in the nature of ‘communities of interpretation’ which engage in the interpretation of the textual sources of the tradition. These communities of interpretation can be historical, sociological or textual. What is common and thus gives rise to these communities is the fact that they “share certain epistemological assumptions, concerns and basic values”. This, in turn, enables them to share and objectify their own subjective experiences by sharing particular epistemological assumptions, linguistic practice and/or overlapping way of talking about meaning”. Communities of interpretation, however, “do not necessarily agree on a whole host of determinations of meaning.”
Tradition is therefore like a rich, dense tapestry consisting of many interlacing or at times parallel running threads all of which put together give the tapestry its unique design. To use another metaphor, tradition is like a flowing river emanating from its source (in the case of the Islamic tradition the Qur’an and Sunna), and its tributary streams, and all those who drink from this river, regardless how far they are from the spring, are seen as part of the tradition.
Moosa uses an apt analogy from the science of biology to describe this nature of the concept of tradition in a following manner:
Tradition is unlike palingenesis where certain organisms only reproduce their ancestral characters without modification. Rather tradition works more like kenogenesis: it describes how in biology an organism derives features from the immediate environment in order to modify the hereditary development of a germ or organism.
According to this view every tradition, Islam included, is viewed as a tradition-in-becoming. Hence Islamic tradition as employed in this article is seen as a result of a fluid exchange of ideas and acknowledges a wide spectrum of interpretations which are inherent to it. Thus, the nature of the concept of tradition is not seen as being static but something that is subject to vicissitudes of human history, something that is subject to interrogation, correction, and advancement.
In line with the genealogical approach to history, the Islamic tradition is conceived as consisting of contending forces and ideas, not as a picture perfect and flawless entity. In particular, the ideologically vulnerable legal discourses embedded in the larger framework of culture, are seen as ideologically –laden and arenas where power relations are constantly (re)-negotiated.
2. What Is Inslamic Authenticity As A Concept?
Given the dynamic, discursive concept of the Islamic tradition outlined how should we understand the concept of “Islamic authenticity”? The question of authenticity (Asala) of the Islamic tradition is outlined well in the Fourth Statement of the Final Declaration on the question of heritage and authenticity by the Arab Muslim intellectuals who convened in Kuwait in 1974. With its emphasis on values and the importance of creativity and criticality of the human spirit the statement it asserts that:
Authenticity does not consist in literal clinging to the heritage but rather in setting out from it to what follows and from its values to a new phase in which there is enrichment for it and development of its values. Real revivification of the heritage is possible only through a creative, historical ,critical comprehension of it; through transcending it in a new process of creation; through letting the past remain past so that it may not compete with the present and the future; and through a new assimilation of it from the perspectives of the present and the future.
From the above it is obvious that defining Turath and Asala as concepts have important implications on how we understand many aspects of Islam and its fountainheads, the Qur’an and Sunna. Therefore, next time we come across literature which makes reference to concepts of the “Islamic tradition” and/or “Islamic authenticity” we should keep the aforementioned discussion in mind.
Adis Duderija is a Visiting Senior lecturer at the university Malaya. His academic and non-academic works can be read here: https://malaya.academia.edu/AdisDuderija. He blogs at : Critical-Progressive Muslim Thought: Islamic Hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue.