What do we mean when we say Islam is good for all times? How could it be applied in our time?
Islam, exactly as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu
alayhe wa sallam, and without any changes or alterations, is the religion that
Allah chose for all people from the time he sent His Messenger till the end of
Islam is thus for recent times just as it was for earlier times.
But while the texts of this religion are immutable, people's conditions are not.
What can we do? In answering this question, people these days have been,
basically, divided into two main camps: the faithful and the revisionist.
THE REVISIONIST SAYS: Keep the religious texts as they are but
give them meanings that suit contemporary culture just as those before you gave
them meanings that suited their particular cultures. The texts are divine
revelation, but their understanding is a human endeavor. Divine words are
absolute, but their human understanding is relative.
THE FAITHFUL ANSWERS: But the Qur'an was revealed in clear Arabic
words whose meanings are well known to Arabic speaking people, "we send it down
as an Arabic Qur'an in order that you may understand." [12:2] The Prophet,
sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, explained the Qur'an verbally and by example. All
the Prophet's words and deeds are considered to be a living commentary on the
Qur'an. The companions of the Prophet were better placed to do so than later
generations because Arabic was their mother tongue, and because they had
knowledge of the occasions on which the verses were revealed, and the situations
in which the Prophet's words were uttered. Then came generations after
generations of great leading scholars whose extant works are a living witness to
the fact that they understood the basic meanings of the verses of the Qur'an in
generally the same way as they were understood by the first generations. Your
claim that each generation gave the words of the Qur'an and those of the Prophet
meanings that suited their contemporary cultures is one that history belies.
REVISIONIST: Are you saying that they never differed?
FAITHFUL: They differed only slightly as far as the basic meanings
of the verses and the ahadeeth are concerned. But they naturally differed sometimes on matters like what was to be deduced logically from the text or the
way rules were to be applied to a new situation. What is important here, is that
the differences, whatever they were, did not come as a result of differences in
culture. They were individual differences that accurred even among
contemporaries living in the same cultural milieu. True, there were drastic
differences, but they were among those who adhered to the correct method as well
as those who adopted irrational methods.
REVISIONIST: Are you claiming that there is a scientific method
for the interpretation of Islamic text?
FAITHFUL: I am saying rather that there is a scientific method for
the basic understanding of every text, Islamic or otherwise.
FAITHFUL: If you want to understand a poem by say, Shakespeare,
what do you do?
REVISIONIST: I consult the books that explain what Shakespeare
meant by it.
FAITHFUL: Do you mean that you do not understand it in the light
of your contemporary culture?
REVISIONIST: No, because my aim is to understand what
Shakespeare meant by his poem.
FAITHFUL: Do you mean that you give his words and phrases the
meaning that he meant by them at the time that he wrote his poem, even if they
differed from what current English usage might suggest?
REVISIONIST; Of course; because my aim, as 1 said, is to
understand what Shakespeare actually meant. If 1 give his words meanings that he
did not intend by them, I would be attributing to him something that he did not
FAITHFUL: Do you follow this same method if you want to be, say,
an Aristotle's expert? Do you try, for example, to learn ancient Greek in
which he wrote his philosophy?
REVISIONIST: I certainly would, and would try not to confuse it
with Modern Greek, because my aim again is to understand what Aristotle
FAITHFUL: Are there any ways, besides his language that you
think would help you in understanding his philosophy?
REVISIONIST: Yes, I would, for example, try to see how his
contemporaries understood it because they were better placed to do so than I am.
I would also consult the works of the experts who preceded me, and so
FAITHFUL: Well, that is the method that we called scientific,
and it is the method we advocate for understanding Islamic texts.
REVISIONIST: But you are now ignoring the great differences
between ordinary texts and Islamic texts.
FAITHFUL: Would you please elucidate those differences for
REVISIONIST: One of them is that I can understand what humans
like myself really mean because I am human being, and because they address me in
words that are human; therefore limited. But God is absolute and what He means
is absolute, and cannot therefore be couched in limited human words. But if
every reader of Islamic text is given the right to interpret them the way the
reader understands them, there will be a multiplicity of meanings which
approaches the absolute.
FAITHFUL: Leaving aside your vague talk about the limited and
the absolute, the gist of what you are saying is that while human beings have
the ability to successfully communicate their meanings through a medium like
Arabic, God fails to do so. This is despite the fact that He himself says that
he used this human language so that those who speak it may under stand his
REVISIONIST: This looks like a good argument. But related to
the difference we just mentioned is another important one. Islam, we say, is
good for all times and places. If we give the words of its texts the same
meanings that an earlier generation like the Prophet's companions gave, we would
be limiting Islam to a particular age.
FAITHFUL: So, what is the alternative?
REVISIONIST: The alternative is what I propounded at the
beginning of our dialogue. Every generation of Muslims should give them the
meanings that suit their culture.
FAITHFUL: Is this the understanding of the principle of the
suitability of Islam for all times and places?
REVISIONIST: It is, and I don't see how it can otherwise
FAITHFUL: If the characteristic of the suitability of a
message for all times and places is what you take it to be, then any message,
even one that is advocated by the most stupid of human beings can fit it.
REVISIONIST: / think you're exaggerating.
FAITHFUL: I am not, suppose that some one called Mr. Donkey
formulated what he thought was a comprehensive ideology that consisted of many
doctrines on different aspects of life. Suppose that, to make it suitable for
all time and places Mr. Donkey concluded his ideology with this statement; I
hereby give all believers in this world ideology the right to make any changes
in it they deem necessary to make it suit their different times and
REVISIONIST: Change will start to be made in donkeyanism soon
after it is issued so much so that after a short lapse of time nothing remains of it except that concluding statement.
But the Donkeyans will continue to boast of the suitability of their ideology to
all times and places.
FAITHFUL: Is this how you conceive Islam to be?
REVISIONIST: Of course not. But then, what is your conception
of this characteristic of the Islamic religion?
FAITHFUL: I conceive it to mean that Islam, as it was revealed
to Muhammad, and without the slightest alterations, is good for all times and
places. What makes this miracle possible is that Islam is not a manmade
religion. It is a message of guidance from the Creator of mankind who knows who
they essentially are, and who thus addresses them as human beings, and
irrespective of their different cultures, colors, times, places, standards of
living and so on.
REVISIONIST: What do you then mean by the phrase 'Islam for our
FAITHFUL: I am saying that though the religion does not
change, people's circumstances and problems do change. And so, to make the
immutable religion relevant to their special circumstances, we need to present
it in a language that our contemporaries understand, evaluate, in the light of
it, any new ideas or ideologies that have a bearing on it, refute any claims
that throw doubt on it, find in it solutions for new intellectual problems.
Finally it is important to make use of scientific discoveries to
strengthen the faith of its adherents, and to use them as means of invitation to
Islam. And many other things, all of which are made possible because though the
texts are limited, what can be deduced and learnt from them is