Addressing the Problem of Dual Revelation in Islam – Part 3: Traditionalism

by Leslie Terebessy

Traditional education requires reform, for it has been found wanting. There is excessive emphasis on memorization and not enough on reflection.

Now, our traditional system, for all its virtues, is sharply criticized by the western academia as lacking in faster critical ability and for relying largely on rote learning and parrot fashion repetitions. The traditional scholar, they contend, is hardly fit for the contemporary world. We cannot deny the truth of this judgment, as it is the most glaring characteristic of our system. Most of our religious institutions still lie in the era inspired by the famous booklet of Ibn Rajab Al Hanbaly, entitled Fadlu Ilmi Al-Salaf ala Ilmi al Khalaf, The Superiority of the Knowledge of the Ancestors over that of the Descendants. I call it the Ibn Rajab Manifesto. Though the author belonged to the eighth century of Islam or the 14th century of the common era, his views are still a powerful influence in most of our religious circles. The burden of his message is that we should learn as little as possible about worldly aspects lest we be diverted from our main concern, which is the hereafter.  Thus, he says that we learn no more arithmetic beyond what we need to apportion a dead person’s estate among the heirs. As for geography, it is sufficient to have the knowledge to identify the right road to Makka and the direction of its Kibla. Astronomy should not occupy us beyond being able to tell the beginning of the lunar month. Surprisingly, he discourages us from learning Arabic grammar and style beyond what is absolutely essential to read the Qur’an and the Hadith. Such little equipment as suggested by Ibn Rajab hardly helps anyone to tackle the complex issues of today’s world, let alone the problems of a community planted in the middle of a strange and not altogether welcoming environment.[1]

Traditionalism is unhelpful in the present age.

The larger part of the specialists are affected with the disease of traditionalism (taqlid). They believe and then demand proof, but only on condition that the proof shall agree with their belief. If they are confronted with what counters their belief they will have nothing to do with it. Indeed: they oppose it tooth and nail, even if it means jettisoning rationality altogether. The way of most of them is first to dogmatise and then to lay claim to proof. Rarely one finds among them any who first prove and then believe.[2]

An examination reveals a range of problems. The traditional methods are riddled with problematic presuppositions and practices. Prominent among these is the sacralization of tradition. This took place when the sunna was treated as revelation. In the words of John Esposito:

The Indonesian reformer Nurcholish Madjid has referred to this phenomenon as the “sacralization” of tradition in Islam and called for a “de-sacralization” of tradition.[3]

A different jurist put it this way:

Another shortcoming in traditional methodology and those who attempt to apply it is their view that the sayings and opinions of the salaf (predecessors) are nothing short of sacred. This is especially true in regard to the understanding, ijtihad, and interpretations of the salaf some of which have been elevated by the traditionalists to the status of revelation itself. So, in spite of our acknowledging…that nothing other than divine revelation is sacred, we find Muslims studying the works of the salaf…and then follow, by means of legal analogy, the rulings that they had prescribed centuries ago. Without our even sensing it, the false understanding we have of what it means to respect the salaf has been transformed into a whip with which we flagellate ourselves. Such faulty perceptions obstruct our attempts at reform and progress. This is also why we find many of the enlightened ideas and thinking of contemporary scholars being distorted by those traditionalists who believe that all ideas must agree with those held by the salaf.[4]

It is advisable to refrain from  reliance on the salaf.

As long as Muslims refuse to deal realistically with the heritage left by the salaf and continue to bestow upon them and their work a sort of sanctity, the latter’s ideas and experiences cannot be used to solve contemporary problems or help Muslims to relate Islam to the actualities of contemporary human life and society.[5]

Zaki Badawi put it as follows:

The conservative reaction favours the status quo of the Muslims and abhors change in whatever form and under whatever banner. The upholders of this view are those scholars who accept the works of some authors (generally belonging to the 8 – 9th century A.H.) as the final and unquestionable authority on Islam. Any deviation from their stated opinion is regarded as a deviation from Islam itself…The door of ijtihad, they contend, is firmly closed because on the one hand no one is any more qualified for it and on the other there is no need for it. The authoritative books in use contain all the satisfactory answers to all the valid questions.[6]

In this way, Muslim thought stagnated for centuries. It is time for a change. It is time for reform. (Part IV: Breakdown of the Religious Sciences).

[1] Badawi, M.A. Zaki “Islamic Studies in British Universities: Challenges and Prospects,” in Islamic Studies in World Institutions of Higher Learning, Islamic University College of Malaysia, 2004, p. 9.

[2] Muhammad Abduh, Theology of Unity, translated by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg, London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1966, p. 66, accessed on 24 Apr. 2018;


[3] John L. Esposito, “Rethinking Islam and Secularism,” ARDA, Association of Religious Data Archives, p. 17, accessed on 3 Mar. 2018:

[4] AbuSulayman, AbdulHamid, Crisis in the Muslim Mind, transl. by Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo, The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1993,
p. 39, accessed 1 Nov. 2020;

[5] AbuSulayman, AbdulHamid, Crisis in the Muslim Mind, transl. by Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo, The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1993, p. 39, accessed 1 Nov. 2020;

[6] Zaki Badawi, The Reformers of Egypt: A Critique of Al-Afghani, Abduh, and Ridha, The Open Press, 2005, accessed on 20 Apr. 2018:

Part 2: Jihad al-Talab: Bane of Militant Islam Radicalisation

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