9/22/2007

Tradition

Ali Eteraz is writing a three part series of posts, entitled Ramadan Reconciliation, on his renewed embrace of Traditionalism. The key background to his essay is this huge pan-Islamosphere debate about Traditionalism that took place over a year ago. Now, as an orthodox Shi'a of the Dawoodi Bohra sect I have loyalties to both Ibn Rushd and Ghazali, with a healthy indebtedness to Ibn Sina as well, so in the context of that debate I wasn't really able to align myself firmly on one side or the other. I think that the definition of Traditionalism by Yahya Birt that Ali quotes, namely

"Traditionalism, used in its normative sense, refers to that approach which allows for the authentic perpetuation and embodiment of the Islamic tradition and that contains a collective system of ongoing self-correction and refinement"


is not descriptive of what I perceive Tradition to be. The implication of "self-correction" and "refinement" is that there is some inadequacy in the Islamic tradition. If we equate Tradition with Deen, then this runs afoul of the Qur'an,

"This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion."


(5:3, revealed upon the plain of Ghadir e Khum).

So, if Tradition is not Deen, then what is it? This is a key question during Ramadan, in which the muslim seeks to amplify his observance and increase his piety. There are numerous ways in which one might exert themselves during Ramadan; increased recitation and memorization of the Qur'an, for example. Other actions include tarawih prayer (primarily Sunnis only), increased Zakat (alms and charity), and even atekaaf (spiritual retreat). Tradition plays a fundamental role in deciding when Ramadan begins, when it ends, and when major events like Laylatul Qadr occur within.

In all of these things, there is enormous variation between muslims. That diversity of opinion is not really usbject to refinement or correction; for the most part, each musim embraces their choice on the basis of their own tradition. Communities, from entire sects to individual congregations, standardize on one set of practices, and these are then largely immutable. In case my position on this is not clear, let me be explicit and say that I think this is a good thing; were Ramadan observance to be ever-shifting based on continual refinement and "correction", it would not be the source of stability and renewal that it now represents. Tradition to me means something fixed, anchored in belief but also in custom, and it is to that familiar embrace we return each year, to support us as we seek to improve ourselves.

3 comments:

Julaybib said...

I don't see an either/or - you can engage with texts defined as belonging to "tradition", but the minute questions of the kind posed by Arkoun et al are counted as "anti" tradition is the minute I leave the room. It's about the difference between conformity and belief.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

but there has to be some conformity if the beliefs are shared. there's a whole continuum ranging from tradition to minute details...

Yahya said...

A commitment to the scholastic interpretive legacy of Islam, or Traditionalism, equals an principled and rigorous engagement with the establishment of the proof-texts (nusus), the debate over the principles by which the authenticity of proof-texts are established, the debate about interpretive methods (usul al-fiqh) and the derivation of rulings (furu) which are various as a result. This results of this engagement are not absolutely fixed, they are various, and there is a sense in which a process of refinement goes on (because debates develop as more people contribute to them over time and ponder on previous interventions). Secondly there is process of self-correction which as I mentioned in the original article which relies on the mechanism of "moral and intellectual peer review".

But note all this is defining "traditionalism" not "tradition" itself, and the two should not be confused. Tradition is the totality of the canonical proof-texts of the religion.

wa s-salam Yahya Birt