Notable Muslim thinkers

With thanks to Reza Aslan and Ziauddin Sardar.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) wrote many works, including Revival of the Religious Sciences in which he argues that God is movement itself. Another work is The Alchemy of Happiness. He criticised al-Hallaj for publicly disclosing that he had reached a level of spiritual unification with God.

Ibn Sina, aka Avicenna (980-1037) considered God’s attributes to be nothing more than ‘guideposts’ that merely reflected the human mind’s understanding of the Divine and not the Divine itself.

In the 1990s Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a professor at Cairo University, argued that while the Quran was divinely revealed, it was a cultural product of the seventh century.

A renowned Sudanese legal reformer, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-85) claimed that the Meccan and Medinan texts differed so greatly because they were targetted at historically specific audiences and should so be interpreted as such.

Shah Wali Allah – 18th century writer and philosopher who strove to strip Sufism of its ‘foreign’ (Neoplatonism, Persian mysticism, Hindu Vedantism) influences to restore it to an older, unadulterated form of Islamic mysticism, bound to Sunni orthodoxy. Also interested in reasserting Islamic values in the social and economic spheres of the state. India’s Deobandi and Afghanistan’s Taliban movements were inspired by him.

Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan formed the Aligarth movement to fuse Europe’s enlightenment with Islam.

Mohammad Iqbal, poet and philosopher, also influenced by Wali Allah and saw the need for Muslims to rise up against colonialism.

Chiragh Ali (1844-95) was ‘incensed at the way Islam had been portrayed by Europeans as ‘essentially rigid and inaccessible to change”. He charged that it was a fiction created by the Ulema that specific precepts could neither be added to nor taken from.

Mawlana Mawdudi, founder of the Jama’at-i Islami (the Islamic Association) countered the Aligarth movement by arguing that Islam requires that ‘the law of God should become the law by which people lead their lives’.

Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) was convinced, after having been in India at the time of the War of Independence, that the Muslim world had arise against European colonialism and that Europe’s enlightenment values were nothing but words. Saw Islam more in civilisational terms than religious. He argued that ideals such as social egalitarianism, popular sovereingty and the pursuit of and preservation of knowledge had their origins not in Christian Europe but in the Ummah. It was Muhammad’s revolutionary community that had introduced the concept of popular sanction over the ruling government while dissolving all ethnic boundaries between individuals and giving women and children unprecendented rights and privileges.

Like Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Al-Afghani blamed the self appointed guardians of the Islam, the Ulema, for stifling independent thought and scientific progress. He criticised Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan, however, for being a tool of the colonisers and considered it a waste of time for the Ummah to mimic Europe. The Ummah had to internalise the enduring Muslim values which founded the first Muslim community for lasting social, political and economic reform.

Namik Kemal (1840-88), a poet and playwright, had, along with other Young Ottomans, developed a reformist agenda based on fusing Western democratic ideals with traditional Islamic principles. They also wanted to unite the Ummah under a Turkish Caliphate.

Muhammed Abdu (1845-1950) – Every manmade source of Islamic law and the Quran must be subject to rational discourse. Founded Egypt’s Salafiyyah movement with al-Afghani. Abdu redefined shura (tribal consultation) as representative democracy; ijma (consensus) as popular sovereignty; bay’ah (oath of allegiance) as universal suffrage. Wanted Pan-Islamism.

Sa’d Zaghlul (1859-1927) – began his career as Abdu’s disciple. Accepted Salafiyyah’s aspirations of Islam as civilisation but rejected the argument that imperialism could be defeated by religious solidarity. Saw a secular nationalism, Pan Arabism, as the answer to imperialism.

Sati al-Husri (1880-1968), another Pan-Arabist, reasoned, “Religion is a matter between the individual and God, while the fatherland is the concern of us all.”

Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) – influenced by al-Ghazali, al-Afghani and Abdu. Rejected the Modernist approach (Sayyid Ahmed Khan was a Modernist) to mimic the social principles on which the West was based. Rejected nationalism because he saw it as inciting hate and the cause of the murderous first world war. Believed in internalising Islamic values and started the Islamisation of a village near the Suez Canal where the lives of the inhabitants were stripped of dignity by the English colonialists. Also started social welfare and what Aslan calls Islam’s first socialist movement. The movement later grew exponentially and his followers were known as the Muslim Brothers.

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) – also known as the father of Islamic radicalisation. Was disgusted by the USA on his visit in 1948 when he went to research its educational system. Discovered a nation dedicated to indlvidual freedom ‘devoid of human sympathy and responsibility . . . except under the force of law.’ Disgusted by the ‘materialistic attitude’ and its ‘evil and fanatical radical discrimination’. Joined the Muslim Brothers on his return to Cairo. In prison wrote Milestones, a revolutionary manifesto in which he argued that preaching alone (as was practiced by the Muslim Brothers) was not enough; a revolution was needed to found an Islamic state. The only ruler would be laws defined according to Muslim values.

Abd al-Wahhab (1703-66) – influenced by Shah Wali Allah, believed Islam had to be stripped of its ‘superstitious innovations’ (was an enemy of Sufism and Shi’ism) to its original Arab purity. His ideology gained importance because he made an alliance with a tribal chief who was to become the founder of Saudi Arabia.


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