Innovation & Creativity: How to Get Islam Moving Forward

There is something common to modern liberal and Sunni-Salafi education: They teach students answers rather than how to ask questions - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the unique features of Islam as an intellectual system is that it possesses a mechanism for renewal and revival within itself. This mechanism is the instrument of ijtihād- independent legal reasoning- that allows a trained and licensed jurist to develop new rulings and judgements for situations that are unprecedented, nuanced, and, in a way, of a troublesome nature. There is a lot of literature within Islamic legal tradition that explains the vast contours of ijtihād. Familiar discussions outline the common set of must-know legal rules and principles, interpretive tools used to unlock meanings within the primary texts, and auxiliary disciplines needed in order for one’s ijtihād to be effective and within the broad limits of orthodoxy. These are standard in any work that discuss the instrument of ijtihād. There are other discussions, however, that one comes across from time to time that shed a little more light on the psychology and mindset behind the person engaging in ijtihad, namely the mujtahid. One interesting description, courtesy of Imam Ghazali (d. 505/1111), is the need for the mujtahid to have vast amounts of creativity. The more creativity a mujtahid has, the more creative thinking they can bring to bear on a particular issue, the better they will be able to come up with right solutions and right answers; especially solutions that will last the test of time. To be creative in this context, therefore, is to think outside the box and dare to be innovative. It is to ask the right questions, not just memorize standard answers.

The formative period of Islam was a time during which these kinds of ideals and tools were being used copiously. A time when leading jurists and thinkers were asking themselves how best to preserve, protect, and pass on Islam to those after them. It is no wonder that some of the greatest books ever written in Islamic intellectual history come from this period. These are books that we not only continue to study and use, but surprisingly remain extremely relevant and current. This was Ghazali’s point that the more one could be creative and capture the true essence of an intellectual issue, the better chance their response to it would continue to be relevant and useful for years to come. To further facilitate this type of thinking, new disciplines and sciences were invented to carry forward the process of renewal and revival. This combination of creativity and innovation is one of the critical ingredients for Islam’s success throughout the ages and how Islam ultimately came to us today.

While it is easy to write these lines, and equally easy to say verbally, it needs to be kept in mind that this is not easy to actually do. Itjihād requires years and years of study, practice, and application. It is not for the faint of heart, and it’s certainly not for those looking for a quick fix. In our modern condition, we often expect answers now, solutions quickly, and results immediately. For serious issues, this is not always possible and the shallower and narrower our thinking becomes, the shallower and narrower our responses become. When this happens, we descend from questions to memorized answers.

One of the greatest examples of this amongst contemporary Muslims is the discussion and treatment of bid‘a. Many Muslims have become so afraid of innovation that they simply argue that anything and everything new is a bid‘a, and therefore it must be feared, opposed, and discarded. While this can certainly be the case with certain things, it is not the case with all things. In the process, this type of intellectual laziness stunts creativity and seeds the idea that anything “new”, “foreign”, “from the outside” is bad and antithetical to Islam. We all know where this has taken some people.

Why do some modern Muslims take this approach while the salaf (pious ancestors) were fearless in their appropriations, creativity, and thinking? A lot of it has to do with how they understood bid‘a. The famous jurist al-‘Izz Ibn ‘Abd al-Salām (d. 660/1262) defined bid‘a as any innovation after the age of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) that must fall within one of the five rulings of Islamic law (necessary/wājib-recommended/mandūb-permissible/mubāḥ-disliked/makrūh-forbidden/ḥarām). Ibn Rajab al-Hanbanli (d. 795.1393) argued that anything newly innovated that went against a Sharia principle is a bad innovation. Ibn Athīr (d. 630/1233) said in his al-Nihāya fī Gharīb al-Ḥadīth that bid’a is two kinds: misguidance/ḍalāl and guidance/huda and largely based his argument on the statement of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) calling newly invented good action a sunna hasana (good and blessed sunna)-this hadith is found in the collection of Muslim. As for the well-known hadith in the collection of Muslim that is used in the introduction of sermons stating that, “every innovation is misguidance, etc.,” Imam al-Nawawi (d. 676/1277) said that this is “a general statement with restrictions and it refers to most bid’a,” but not all. He further argued that the word kull (every) in this particular hadith is used in the Quran with similar restrictions, 46:25 for example. As a matter of fact, this matter is so important in Islam’s interpretive methodology-what I typically refer to as Usuli Islam-that Imam Taqiyy al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 752/1352) wrote a whole book on the word kull, Aḥkām Kull wa mā ‘Alayhi Tadul just to demonstrate this point: that words have different usages and sometimes their usage is restricted and not open ended and literal.

I realize that this previous paragraph is a bit technical and that some of these names and sources might not be familiar to English-speaking Muslims as much as others they are used to hearing. This is, perhaps, one of the problems. Collectively, we have become too lazy and too afraid to think outside the box that we have whittled Islam down to a tiny, tiny fraction of what it really is. One of the signs of this, as the opening quote from Taleb states, is that we are too focused on memorizing answers than we are with formulating the write types of questions. Usuli Islam, and specifically the instrument of ijtihād, is about asking the right questions: how do I solve this issue, what part of inherited Islamic law is this issue similar to, what legal principles are at play and why, etc? And once an answer is brought forward, the jurists then asks, how do I know I am right, how do I demonstrate the validity of my legal thinking, etc.? Like I said, this is not easy and is certainly not for everyone, however one place we can start is not be afraid to be creative and to see innovation as an essential part of our lives. If we do this, we can use innovation and creativity to our advantage, rather than stymie our collective intellectual growth.

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