I was recently blessed with another opportunity to attend a course with Shaykh Muhammad Akram Nadwi (may Allah bless, preserve and increase him); namely a one-day study of Imam Tahawi’s al-‘Aqidah at-Tahawiyya, in London on 3 August 2008. This man is a rare entity: an expert scholar who can communicate directly and effectively in English. The nature of such a rarity means that it provides a fascinating case study for observing how the English-speaking Muslims react and treat such scholarship; and the major feature of the intensive – of which I want to focus on – provides more foundational material for analysis of future trends: namely, a growing absence of involvement in elitist academic polemics for common Muslims.
The Tahawiyya is a special book, hence its universal propagation amongst varying aspiring-Sunni groups, from the Salafis to the Ash’ari-Maturidis. It was the text’s potential for uniting such Muslims that led Shaykh Iqbal Azami to have it translated and published in the 1990’s. In further pursuit of that goal – that much lauded and poorly defined ideal – Shaykh Azami (may Allah bless him with good) only encouraged the study of a commentary for one who wanted to be a ‘scholar’; but the common Muslim, in his opinion, could suffice with the mere text alone.
Our intensive with Shaykh Akram reminded me greatly of that decade old advice of Shaykh Azami’s. It is not surprising that they both have an intimate connection to the Indian institute of Nadwatul-Ulama – which was so grandly represented by the lofty late and great Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (may the mercy of Allah be upon him); and the life of the latter exemplified a method of Muslim unity. The essential advice of the intensive was to maintain a minimalist theology that stays closely linked to the texts of the Qur’an and hadith, and to thereafter focus on practical aspects of law and the strengthening of the general practice of the religion in the world. Although the teacher did cover numerous historical theological controversies because of our setting in a course on theology; however, he was wont to stress, time after time, the need to keep theology simple.
Such a minimalist approach is simply ‘Sunni’ and nothing else. Nevertheless, the teacher praised the ‘Sunni’ efforts of Abul Hasan Ash’ari and Abu Mansur Maturidi. There was an encouragement to stop at the texts without going further. This was highlighted when he was asked about the statement contained in the Risala of Ibn Abi Zaid Qayrawani: ‘He is on the Throne bi dhatihi [by His ‘Essence’]’; and the Shaykh said that it is Ibn Abi Zaid who must bring an evidence for such an additional point that is not from the source texts, and not the Shaykh himself. Moreover, it is worth noting that polemical theological writings are much more than just the texts of such works as the Tahawiyya. For proof of the last point, see debates about the uncreated speech of Allah and some of the highly philosophical points mentioned in addition therein by Salafis and Ash’ari-Maturidis (cf. An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan by Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi in contrast to Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained translated by Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf and Abdullah bin Hamid Ali’s article on Divine speech). [Note: Shaykh Akram, during the intensive, disavowed the attribution of al-Fiqh al-akbar to Imam Abu Hanifah.]
The reality of an approach like the one emphasised at the intensive is that it points to a way out of the ‘Salafi’/‘Ash’ari-Maturidi’ theological battles for common Muslims – a debate that is practically unsolvable for most Muslims, anyway. Nonetheless, the Shaykh did not discourage scholars engaging in higher theological discussions, despite the fact that his own personal approach is to refrain from such activity. Hence the development of theology is welcomed amongst the class of people who are primed for it.
Consequently, after establishing a minimalist theology of such tenets of faith, we are then left to wisely strive for a ‘theology’ that was once explained by our dear ustadh Suhaib Webb in a recent lecture that he gave in England on his last tour – a story I’m reminded of after the L’Oreal scandal last week concerning ‘whitening’ of pictures. A story was narrated concerning a man who said that he wasn’t concerned with a ‘theology’ detailing the meaning of the Divine ‘hand’ or ‘establishment on the Throne’; but he was concerned with a ‘theology’ that was going to help him stay away from his secretary who looked like Beyonce and who wanted to give him ‘the digits’. For me, Shaykh Akram’s advice was really in line with this sort of sentiment. We need to focus on a comprehensive piety (including definitively-proven theology) that is founded on certainty, and not a theology that is filled with philosophising and endless argument – a state that tends to rent asunder the unity of the community and lead to some of our best non-scholarly minds ‘playing guardians of scholarship’ on the basis of pure taqlid on matters that Imam Tahawi didn’t consider necessary to include in his work. Our nascent state in the West requires such realism in the immediate future. Allah knows best.