Tradition and Madinas of the Future

(To avoid confusion, it must be made clear that this has nothing to do with the ‘traditionalism’ of perennialists and esotericists.)

Recognising the catastrophe of the age and its cause in the loss of the tradition, the issue is not a simple one of returning to the tradition or restoring it. One must recognise that there was something in the tradition itself that led to its demise. Thus, respectfully, one must retrace it to its roots and then back to what it has become and what it has given rise to even in its apparent demise. 

For Heidegger, following on from Nietzsche, that meant going back to the Greeks and the pre-Socratics while examining the tradition at every point, as much as it is possible for any one person to do such a thing, showing the utmost appreciation in doing so. Few people have worked through the books of Hegel, Kant and Leibniz with greater respect. That doesn’t mean that the result is a restoration of the tradition – far from it – but perhaps the possibility of building something new for the future. When Heidegger talked about Being, this was not a new matter. In fact the tradition from the very beginning had dwelt on this matter and incorporated it into its theology and metaphysics. So what was Heidegger doing? Taking what everybody already admitted to be the very basis of the philosophical tradition, he began to think it through phenomenologically rather than theoretically and metaphysically. 

The parallels with our Muslim tradition are clear. The tradition collapsed, but was there something within it which contributed to the collapse, something more than the mistakes of the tradition’s followers or the machinations of its enemies? We note here that the Muslims had also incorporated the philosophical tradition.1 The peril that lies in the tradition itself is best illustrated by the fact that, for the unwitting, it leads to an embrace of the Catholic Church, whether actually or intellectually, which sustained Aristotelianism through Thomism, but which is a deeply problematic body and arguably the betrayal of the Prophetic inheritance. 

Following the matter of Islam back to its source takes us to Madina. Given the contemporary almost obsessive interest in things legal, it is possible to lose the importance of this by seeing it, for example, as a matter of madhhab. The essence of what became the so-called Sunni position – the acceptability of the four madhhabs of fiqh, the two schools of ‘aqidah and the tasawwuf of the Book and the Sunnah represented by Imam Junayd – is contained in Madina, but restating it as the ‘Sunni position’ has meant that something vital has been lost. If we were, because of this cross-fertilisation between Islam and the Greek tradition, to translate Madina into Greek, we would get polis. This is of course the word that gives us politics. The transformation from the rowdy Greek polis and their idea of direct democracy to our hollowed-out representative democracy is a story in itself. And it certainly impinges on the tradition, just as the transformation of the Muslim city from being mosque/market centred to a centre-less conurbation with mosques at intersections, and of course banks too, and streets lined with shops, has more than a little to do with both of the traditions and their decline and demise.

Now whereas the tradition, or rather these two inter-related traditions as outlined above, is the proper object for educational institutions, we must see that institutions are parts of a polis or Madina. The larger issue for us is not the restoration of the tradition in an institutional, academic and scholarly sense, but the restoration of our poleis–polities, cities and the larger civic order. By ‘city’, of course, one does not mean its architecture, but its people and their relations. Such relations comprise those between men and women, children, elders, family and relatives, strangers, the learned and the ignorant, the people of the Presence of Purity and the neglectful, the followers of the many religions and those who think they follow none at all. The issue of the tradition(s) we mentioned is the business of the people of knowledge and those who are learning. That is not about institutions. It is noteworthy that the Prophet, peace be upon him, founded two institutions visibly and a third implicitly. The two visible ones are the mosque and the market. We have founded mosques in abundance and ignored the market, preferring the market of usury to that of Islam. The third implicit institution is waqf, for both the mosque and the market are themselves waqfs, often sustained by other waqfs. 

More to the point, the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, did not establish a madrasah. He was himself a walking madrasah (just as in the hadith of ‘A’ishah he, peace be upon him, was the Qur’?n walking), and that model of transmission continued to be the tradition for people of knowledge until fatefully the Fatimids established a madrasah institution as a naked political act. The Seljuks saw the necessity of countering that activity and founded the first of the great Muslim madrasahs, the Nizamiyya, which was established in 1065 in Baghdad. In July 1091, Nizam al-Mulk appointed the 33-year-old al-Ghazali, may Allah be pleased with him, an immense figure, as a professor of the school. This fateful double moment decided the thinking of the millennium that was to come, and had a huge impact on Europe and Christendom. But the casualty, as is always the case when there is the introduction of something new such as a special garb for scholars, was a stepping back from our authentic deen which is transmitted from people of knowledge to people seeking knowledge, rather than from institutions to students. We must, however, respectfully and appreciatively examine the various steps that led to where we are today from the original source form. We examine these matters not because we think that we can put things right in the past, but in order to find what is useful for our future.

For that future, what I have outlined leads to the following: the need to know more about the polis and thus politics, republic (politeia), democracy, constitution (also politeia), banking and finance (in other words, usury), metaphysics (not because we need it but because we can’t do without knowing what it is and there is no way to engage with it today if one ignores Nietzsche and Heidegger), science and technology, and then Madina, mosque and market, mu’amalat i.e. daily everyday transactions as they are discussed in works of fiqh, ‘aqidah yes but not going to excess in it, and then all the personal relationships most particularly between man and woman, the personal relationship between the Shaykh of Instruction and those needy ones (fuqara) gathered around him, the nature of the jama’a (community, not just a body of strangers gathering to do the prayer together in a mosque), leadership and its counterpart, mutual counselling.

Intrinsically there are two parties addressed in all this: first, the Muslim umma, and second, whatever we allude to loosely as ‘the West’. There is considerable convergence here in our outline, and that must inform our thinking.

These are all ingredients, grist for the mill, that might be needed for envisioning a future for us, if indeed we have one. But, as in the Prophetic advice: “If the Last Hour comes upon you and you are planting a tree, continue to plant the tree.”


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Abdassamad Clarke is from Ulster and was formally educated at Edinburgh University in Mathematics and Physics. He accepted Islam at the hands of Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi in 1973, and, at his suggestion, studied Arabic and tajwid and other Islamic sciences in Cairo for a period. In the 80s he was secretary to the imam of the Dublin Mosque, and in the early 90s one of the imams khatib of the Norwich Mosque, and again from 2002-2016. He has translated, edited and typeset a number of classical texts. He currently resides with his wife in Denmark and occasionally teaches there. 14 May, 2023 0:03

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