Maulana Shibli Nu’mani (1857-1914) and His Rational Approach To Islam
(Islam and Modern Age, July 2013)
The popular belief about Islam is that it is a religion that has not reformed at all and had no renaissance. “Where are the reformists in Islam?”, we are asked. There have been reformists who have been invisiblized in the public discourse, in our media and even in our education system. Partly this is a strategy followed by hard core right wing ideologists who pro-actively want to convince the people that Islam and Muslims are not only backward, but also inimical to the interests of the country, who practice the doctrine of jehad against non-believers. However, lack of information is also due to apathy for the Muslim minorities in India and due to sheer laziness. Our education ought not to ignore the life and history of minorities in order to better understand them and promote harmony. It is for this purpose that we will be trying to outline the understanding of Maulana Shibli Nu’mani about Islam.
Maulana Shibli Nu’mani was foremost figure of modern Muslim society, one whose individuality, depth and multifaceted personality has not been properly appreciated. Maulana Nu’mani was a great scholar of Islam, who in matters of theology, law and politics showed modern, rationalist and liberal tendency. Maulana Shibli contributed to the Islamic world after the failure of the first war for independence in 1857 and the consequent loss of power of the Muslim elite. However, Maulana Shibli was less worried about the loss of power and more worried about the truth and validity of his belief that were being threatened by modern science.
Response to the 1857 revolt and the brutal revengeful massacre of the Muslims who participated in the revolt were two – 1) establishment of Darul Uloom Deoband by Maulana Nanautvi in 1866 for studying of Qur’an and the Sunnah, the Shari'ah and the Tariqah; and 2) the reform movement led by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan which came to be known as the Aligarh movement. The latter movement was an answer to the conflict between religion and scientific thought. The challenge before the modernists like Sir Sayyid was to save religion from the relentless challenge posed from the modern thought and western sciences. Sir Sayyid reinterpreted Qur’an. The basic foundation of his tafsir (interpretation) was that there could not be any contradiction between the word of God (Qur’an) and work of God (nature). Contradiction would tantamount to falsifying the word of God as work of God was undeniable and self-evident. Sir Sayyid found the solution in exercising human reason in harmonizing both and overriding the principles of the interpretation of the Qur’an and formulating modern theology.
Maulana Shibli, Sir Sayyid’s colleague, proposed a different solution to the problem. He distinguished modern science and modern philosophy on one hand, and religion on the other hand. Matters that were definitely and indisputably established on the basis of observation and experiment were called science, and those which were beyond the grasp of experiment came in the category of philosophy. He therefore found no conflict between science and religion as they had nothing to do with each other, and they addressed entirely different subject matters. For example the problem of weight of air, number of elements, chemical composition of water and such other matters did not concern religion but were in the domain of science.
Religion on the other hand was concerned with issues such as ‘did God exist?’ or ‘was there life after death?’ or reward and punishment and concepts of good and evil. The popular understanding of the majority of people is that religion cannot be scientific and rational on the one hand and science or rationalism is on the other hand, irreligious. One can therefore be either religious or rational. Maulana Shibli points out that religion can be rational, and indeed his understanding of Islam was that it was a rational and human centric religion. Religion guides followers in matters of notion of good and worthy life, laws to build harmonious societies, notions of justice and rights and duties of members of the society towards each other. Science may not be equipped to be concerned with these aspects. Science may discover laws of nature and properties of various elements which, for example, may equip human beings to harness nuclear energies. However, having discovered the impact of nuclear fission and fusion and measured the energies unleashed nuclear fusion and fission, humans still need to figure out what would be the good purpose for which nuclear fusion and fission are to be employed – for manufacturing nuclear bombs or to harness nuclear energy or neither? The latter comes within the domain of religion. The boundaries and demarcation of science and religion therefore has to be properly understood. Religion can be irrational, if the followers are required to follow its tenets blindly and without applying their mind or questioning the doctrines. However, religion can be rational if the followers are encouraged to apply their mind and critical faculties on various doctrines propounded and understand its meanings as times and context change.
Confusion arises when either science or religion steps into the others territory. In Europe, religion transgressed into the territory of science and consequently priests denounced all kinds of scientific inventions as acts of heresy and apostasy. Among Muslims too, the practice of charging with unbelief for petty matters was widespread. However, no one was charged with unbelief on the account of scientific discoveries and investigations. Prophets’ only concern was refinement of morals and they do not concern themselves in explaining natural phenomena.
Maulana Shibli with the above background set about affirming the tenets of Islam against contemporary philosophy. The distinction was not neat and easy though. Maulana Shibli crossed the main hurdle and set himself apart from Sir Sayyid, who had sacrificed the ‘irrational’ in Islam at the altar of science and nature. Maulana Shibli however did not divest Islam of other-worldliness and did not have to lose his transcendental touch. He positioned himself at once as admirer of science and believer in religion. Islam to him was thus a natural religion in consonance with the tenets of reason. The utility of reason was more than in science. Reason is given paramount role in judging the truth of religious beliefs. To him, Islam was the only religion that called upon man to use his own reason and investigate nature. Qur’an enjoins upon believers to think intelligently and to study nature as the signs of God.
There are two schools in Islam – the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites. Mu’tazilites were more rational and human centric while the Ash’arites were traditional and more God centric. Maulana Shibli was attracted towards the Mu’tazilites. The Mu’tazilites believed that God’s commands are always based on reason, justice and goodness; things are possessed of inalienable properties both in moral and physical sense, and there is in operation, an unbroken chain of cause and effect in this world; and, finally, man has freedom of will and action. Mu’tazilites tended towards spiritual interpretation of the supernatural. Thus Shibli demonstrated natural rationalism and reasonableness of Islam. According to Mu’tazilites and Muslim philosophers such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, composed of atoms, the world is eternal; that motions of atoms is essential to matter; that there are various laws of nature in accordance with which these atoms meet and coalesce so that faculties and properties are born into them. Maulana however falls short of imagining world without creator. He sees role of God in harmonizing numerous laws of nature, since harmony is not essential property of these laws. To him, eternal world (as he believed that matter was indestructible) means eternal God.
Prophet, for Maulana Shibli, has many faculties, particularly spiritual faculties (quwwaten) to perceive ultimate realities and moral concepts, for the compelling purposes of social organization. These special faculties may enable them to take care of the others by standardizing the law of morality. This power is not perfected through intellect and learning. Prophets are just like geniuses in other fields of human activities. Prophets are more of moral and spiritual geniuses. It is this genius or perceptive power that can be termed as ilham or wahy (revelation). Thus Maulana Shibli turned God-human relationship into a human-God relationship – where human reaches out to God rather than God to human. It is human being who is the centre of religious activity rather than God. It is not only Qur’an, but also the character of the Prophet that establishes prophecy.
Since the guidance of common people is the paramount object of a Prophet’s teachings, their level of understanding has been taken into consideration in the Shari’ah (laws). One should not forget that the Shari’ahs prior to the prophet and even the Shari’ah brought through the Prophet incorporate many local customs and practices which can be open to change.
Maulana Shibli was influenced by mystical rationalism of Rumi whose kalam was based on eclecticism that refused to regard any religion as absolutely false, but considered religions as mixed in various proportions with elements of falsehoods and truth.
To Maulana Shibli what mattered was not scientific certainty in the matter of religious beliefs. He attempted to differentiate between the quality of scientific and religious truth. Religious truths could never be established in scientific sense. Religious truths were emotive. Religious truths were needed to weaken the materialism, consumerism, greed, selfishness, etc. in the minds of people and to motivate them to be concerned for others and to build a harmonious society and live a moral and spiritual life. This did not mean that religion need not be based on reason, wisdom and human thoughts using rational faculties, understand the word of God in changed context.
Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai, India