Traditionalism: Yahya Birt responds

I am honored that Yahya bhi Birt left a comment in response to my earlier post, where I disputed his definition of traditionalism. The full text of the comment is as follows:

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

I am sympathetic to this clarification, and agree with Yahya bhai that the subset of who is qualified to engage in this process is highly limited.

What is more, there is a modern component to the term Traditionalism as used in intra-Sunni religious discourse in the West, as he explains at his original post (which I had not read, I had only requoted from Ali Eteraz):

Outside of its more general and normative sense, what is more often referred to in the West today as traditionalism is a particular and recent manifestation. Around the beginning of the nineties, a set of scholars in the West attempted to defend traditional Islam against the polemics of the political Islamic movements and the Salafis. For a young generation in Britain and North America, traditional Islam was in danger of losing serious ground. It was accused of being either backward, hidebound or even unorthodox and heretical. This group of scholars restored the conviction of many in this generation in the intellectual validity of traditional Islam and initiated them in the wellsprings of its scholastic and mystical traditions.

The article as a whole is a fascinating read, and I have not done it proper justice yet. Coming from the Shi'a (and specifically, the Ismaili) perspective, I am somewhat of an outsider to the debate, but I think that on the broad issue of the value of tradition (and the importance of a genuine religious authority to police it) we are on very much the same page.

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