Socio-Historical Contexts in the Interpretation of Religious Doctrines in Classical and Contemporary Islam (Edition no. 9/2016)

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Marrakesh-DeclarationBy Ustaz Dr. Nazirudin Mohd Nasir

In the traditions of Islamic jurisprudence, there are varied conceptions of the status of non-Muslims in Muslim contexts.

This variety in juristic interpretation in structuring interreligious relations within multi-religious contexts reflects the inherent diversity (ikhtilaf) within Islamic law as an outcome of unique scholarly backgrounds and leanings of individual scholars and the role of socio-historical contexts in juristic reasoning.

In the most recent example of how such considerations influence religious rulings at a collective level, a group of Muslim scholars gathered in Morocco (January 2016) to state in clear terms the doctrines of freedom of religion in Islam, and hence its protection of religious minorities, by referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s Sahifah Al-Madinah. In this instance, the historical contract is read with a contemporary perspective that weaves tradition with modern political realities.

Many other examples abound in the history of Muslim jurisprudence, and this article cites two, specifically concerning the status of dhimmis.

First is the case of the fourteenth century Hanbali scholar Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah (d. 1350 AD). In his time, interreligious relations, particularly those between Muslims and Christians, were at a low ebb. For example, when Cypriot Christians wrote to Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Abi Talib Al-Dimashqi in 1316 AD and 1321 AD respectively, the former responded with his Al-Jawab Al-Sahih Li Man Baddala Din Al-Masih.

Given a tensed and volatile socio-political environment with constant reports of atrocities committed by Christian crusaders towards Muslims in the Holy Land, Ibn Qayyim, like his teacher Ibn Taymiyyah, favoured a stricter interpretation of rules relating to dhimmis, as recorded in his commentary on the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’ entitled Ahkam Ahl Al-Dhimmah.

When discussing the Qur’anic verse on jizyah (The Qur’an, 9:29), he classified the payment as a form of punishment (‘uqubat) meant to subdue and humble non-Muslims.

Ibn Qayyim opposed physical acts of humiliation and abuse perpetrated upon dhimmis during payment, including the imposition of unaffordable taxes, but maintained that Islam’s superiority over such communities must prevail, and this included the prohibition to build new places of worship for the dhimmis in cities conquered by Muslims (except those in agreements concluded before the conquests). He also took after the Caliph ‘Umar’s prohibition imposed upon the dhimmis from wearing the type of footwear (al-ni‘al) of the Prophet and his companions.

Contrast this view with that of the seventeenth century Hanafi sufi-jurist `Abd Al-Ghani Marrakech_Declaration_image3Al-Nabulusi (d. 1731 AD). He lived in a time remarkably different from Ibn Qayyim’s in terms of social relations. Interreligious relations were generally positive, and it was common for different religious communities to intermingle and join in certain religious celebrations.[1] This context sheds light on Al-Nabulusi’s relative tolerance towards the dhimmis.

Al-Nabulusi wrote a short treatise entitled Kitab Al-Qawl Al-Sadid Fi Jawaz Khulf Al-Wa`id Wa Al-Rad `Ala Al-Rumi Al-Jahil Al-`Anid,[2] and argued there that Jews and Christians gain sa`adah (happiness) by paying the jizyah. When this view was disputed by a Turkish writer, Al-Nabulusi responded with the following:

“[T]hey (i.e. the Jews and Christians) are legally (syar`an) assured of happiness by agreeing to pay the jizyah and then giving it to the Muslims, because by this, they save their lives and protect their property and honor. With this, they become like Muslims: It is forbidden to fight against them, to interfere with their property and children, to slander, curse or defame them, or generally to harm them. A Muslim who kills a dhimmi is to be put to death, and it is reported that the Prophet executed a Muslim for unjustly killing a dhimmi.”[3]

He went further to maintain that a dhimmi’s refusal to pay the jizyah does not render the dhimmah contract void. For him, the jizyah has two implications. First, it makes the dhimmis akin to Muslims and hence, endows them with equal rights and duties. Consequently, they should not be discriminated against in any manner. Second, they enter paradise alongside Muslims in the hereafter, because they become Muslims according to the laws of the hereafter (and thus gain happiness).

According to Al-Nabulusi, dhimmis who pay the jizyah were able to do so as they were granted the “inner faith (al-iman batinan) by God.”[4]

Prophet_Muhammad_Charter_of_Privileges_to_Christians_AD628Al-Nabulusi added that “[f]aith (iman) is believing in the heart only, according to the Ash`aris and the Hanafis, whose schools are the true ones” and some dhimmis fall within this category.[5] Al-Nabulusi’s generous attitude towards non-Muslims could be further attributed to several factors, such as the mystical vision of God that his master Ibn `Arabi had espoused, as well as his own conception of religious truth.[6]

In his Al-Fath Al-Rabbani Wa Al-Fayd Al-Rahmani, Al-Nabulusi’s explanations of the al-haqiqah (ultimate reality or truth) explain his concept of sin—that those who lived in dar al-harb and have not migrated to dar al-Islam could not be regarded as sinful. Furthermore, he maintained an image of a merciful and forgiving God, whose doors of forgiveness are open to Jews and Christians “up to the hour of their death”.[7]

The examples above seek to illustrate the complex nature of juristic thought in the Muslim tradition. The diverse ways in which knowledge is acquired, coupled with the operative environment of scholars, are crucial factors in determining juristic views.

Consequently, students of classical Muslim thought ought to approach texts with intellectual rigour by reading them within these broader contexts.

This permits a critical engagement with classical views and fosters growth and development in Islamic thought, making contemporary scholars as contributors to, and shapers of, tradition, rather than mere recipients and imitators.

The latter will only ossify tradition and hinder Muslim societies from effectively addressing their current and future challenges.


Note:

[1]For example, it was customary for Al-Nabulusi to gather with Christian groups in his travels to cities like Nazareth and Bethlehem. He had also engaged the Patriarch of Antioch, Athanasios Dabbas, in a theological discussion on the nature of God in 1712, describing the Patriarch as “brothers in the spiritual journey, whose noble selves and soft nature are like moons in the theological sky.” See Bakri Aladdin (1987-88), ‘Deux fatwa-s du Sayh `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (1143/1731): présentation et édition critique’, Bulletin D’etudes Orientales 39-40, pp. 9-37.

[2]Translated as “The pertinent discourse concerning the possibility that God will not carry out his threats (to punish the infidels with Hell fire) against the ignorant and stubborn Turk.” See M. Winter (1988), “A polemical treatise by `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi against a Turkish scholar on the religious status of the dhimmis”, Arabica 35, pp. 92–103.

[3]Al-Nabulusi, fols. 12b-13b, cited in Winter (1988), p. 98.

[4]Winter (1988), p. 99.

[5]Ibid.

[6]For further discussion on his defence of Shustari’s usage of Christian symbols and images in the latter’s poetry, see Omaima Abou-Bakr (1997), “The Religious Other: Christian Images in Sufi Poetry”, Images of the Other: Europe and the Muslim World Before 1700. ed. David R. Blanks, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, pp. 96–108.

[7]E. Sirriyeh (2005), Sufi Visionary of Ottoman Damascus: `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi, 1641-1731, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, p. 33.

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