The following is a transcript of a lecture Shaykh Amin Kholwadia delivered at a conference in Amman, Jordan in October 2017, The Impact of Maturidi Kalam on Bioethics. The transcribers have added section headers, a few additional points and corrections from Shaykh Amin, and explanatory comments are noted in brackets. The transcript has been edited for flow.
The Oral Tradition and the Written Tradition
Allah ﷻ in the Qur’an gave us, through the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, access to knowledge through waḥy [revelation]. Along with that knowledge through waḥy, we have access to the ‘aql [intellect]. We also have the five senses. In our tradition of Maturidi kalam [one of the schools of dialectical theology], we say “asbab al-‘ilmi thalatha” [the means of acquiring knowledge are three], as we agreed in the traditional texts. We use all three when we discuss theology.
We use the empirical method of evaluation and gathering data and knowledge, the mind, and waḥy (or the knowledge of waḥy). We use all three in order to come to terms with what is the murad [intent] of Allah ﷻ: what is the intent of God, vis-à-vis our lives and the issues we face in our lives?
In early Islam, there was the Prophet ﷺ who was the center, the be all end all of everything. For the sahaba [companions], he was everything and the authority. So if it was waḥy, they would follow. It didn’t make any difference whether it was recited waḥy (the Qur’an) or non-recited waḥy (which is the Sunnah): for the sahaba, the Prophet ﷺ was the embodiment of waḥy. They listened and they followed.
Thereafter, through what we call the oral tradition, we developed a sense of learning and teaching that did not require books. This ummah has been called the ummah that is ummiyyun, so we are from the ummi (unlettered) tradition. The Prophet ﷺ is al-Nabi Al-ummi (the unlettered Prophet) and the people who followed him were the ummiyyun. That constitutes a method of learning that does not require a pen and a paper. That’s how Islam was taught and spread.
Then came a period after the tabi’un [generation after the Prophet ﷺ and the sahaba], where there was a need to document what we knew from the Sunnah and what we understood from what we call al-mafhūm islami [the Islamic understanding] and put it on paper. That’s where the tradition of books came in: Imam al-Shafi’i, and just before him Imam Malik, then Imam Ahmed and Imam Bukhari and others, to do the documentation of waḥy ghayri matlu [unrecited revelation, i.e. the Sunnah]. This waḥy was then crystallized, and this began the written tradition: Imam Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan documented the fiqh of Imam Abu Hanifa. That became the written tradition in the Hanafi madhab [one of the Sunni schools of thought]. Likewise, Imam Sahnun documented the fiqh of Imam Malik in the Mudawwana which became the written tradition in the Maliki madhhab. Then the muhaddithūn [plural of muhaddith, hadith scholar] started writing and documenting, and that’s how the oral tradition and the written tradition became part and parcel of the learning process of Muslims throughout the world.
Today, we rely on both. We rely for the practice of Islam on the oral tradition, where if you go in to teach someone how to make wudu [ablution], you don’t get a manual and say this is how you make wudu. Your mother shows you, “this is how you make wudu.” That’s the oral tradition. When somebody converts to Islam, you teach them through the oral tradition; you don’t stack books of Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, and say based on these hadith, you are now going to make wudu or do the salah. The oral tradition is still very much alive in our communities, but a lot of the academic learning comes from the written tradition.
In our times, where the way to learn is through academia, colleges, universities, schools, etc., we rely heavily on the written tradition – which is fine, we don’t have a problem with that. At the same time, as a Muslim community we’re going to bring to the table all three of the tools we have in order to learn: the five senses, the ‘aql, and also waḥy. We bring everything to the table, and then we apply certain criteria and we apply certain methodologies. We treat knowledge – the corpus of knowledge that is Islam or Islamic – as something that is alive, something that is vibrant, and something that has to be not just revived but implanted in the lives and minds of people. We do this in a cultivated way. Through the preservation of knowledge through books, we teach people how to read and write. But the purpose of teaching people how to read and write in Islam is to understand the oral tradition. The purpose of reading and writing is not to understand the written tradition, it’s to understand the oral tradition, which is kind of paradoxical.
This is how we have formulated our methodologies. At Darul Qasim in Chicago, in our curriculum, we teach Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, we teach tafsir, etc. But the ultimate goal is to re-establish the principle that our deen is based on the oral tradition because we are the ummah of al-Nabiyul ummi, and we are followers of the ummiyyun.
When we apply this criteria to ilm al-kalam (dialectical theology), you will see that it developed after the second century as a science, as a discipline (there are many reasons why it developed at that time, and while the chronology is a necessary component of the discussion, we don’t have time for that here). What I’m saying is that the purpose of kalam was to defend the aqidah (creed) that was in the oral tradition. The purpose of kalam was not to bring new aqidah to the table. Ilm al-kalam is to prove that the methodology of learning through the books is to understand the oral tradition of the sahaba and the tabi’un. In order to preserve that tradition, we established a discipline so that people would not fall into the bida’ [plural of bid’ah, meaning heretical innovations]. These innovations were intellectual. These innovations were academic. It was because of those academic, intellectual innovations that the ulama [scholars], starting with Abul Hasan Al-Ash’ari and others with him, began to defend the true aqidah of the Prophet ﷺ, the sahaba, and the tabi’un.
In this vein, we see the emergence of Abul Mansur al-Maturidi. The Maturidi position in kalam is essentially from Imam Abu Hanifa. Imam Abu Hanifa being from the oral tradition, and his student Imam Maturidi being from the written tradition. The statements that Imam Maturidi came up with and the ideas that he presented primarily originated from Abu Hanifa himself. That is why Abul Mu’in Al-Nasafi says in his Tabsirat al-Adilla, “the custom of the people was to take from knowledge of Abu Hanifa and his views.” So we see that the Maturidi tradition really is a representation of Abu Hanifa’s positions on many issues. This is how we reconcile the idea between the written tradition and the oral tradition where Imam Abu Hanifa, being from the tabi’un, relied on the oral tradition in order to learn and to teach. We see the extension of that through the teachings of Imam Maturidi.
Bioethics and Theology
In Chicago, we have a group of scientists and medical doctors who meet on a regular basis and they talk about bioethics. I posed the question: what is your theory of cure? What is your theory of cure, or what is your theory of medicine? And they all sat there, with their faces on their hands, and they just looked blank, meaning the question never arose. Do we need a Muslim theory of medicine or theory of shifa [cure]? I presented to them six verses from the Qur’an that speak about shifa. I explained those ayat [verses] to them, and gave them the task to develop a Muslim theory based on their understanding of what is now the role of medicine in the contemporary world.
When we say this is a Muslim scientist, we concentrate on the word ‘Muslim’. Science, in and of itself, and medicine, in and of itself, is going to be universal. The rules of science and the rules of medicine do not apply separately and differently from a Muslim to a non-Muslim. Meaning, if a non-Muslim has a fever, you’re going to treat him the same way if a Muslim has a fever. Understanding the Muslim position on these very critical matters is necessary in order to be a Muslim practitioner.
At Darul Qasim, we proposed that in order for you to become ‘Muslim-ized’ in your approach to any field in academics or any profession, you first need to understand your epistemology. Without understanding your epistemology you will not bring to the table any Islamic value to the discussion.
Number two: you must understand, based on your epistemology, the value of your theology. What does your theology say, and how does your theology relate to your profession on a daily basis? For instance, if you were to see somebody that was on life support, how would you visualize the theology coming down to the level of whether or not you can pull the plug? “Can I terminate this person’s life?”
That theology is based on Allah’s ﷻ name, Al-Muhyi [The Giver of Life] and Al-Mumeet [The Bringer of Death]. If you were to be an abstract theologian and you were not really in a position to understand and articulate the discussions in kalam in such a way that it relates to usul al-fiqh [Islamic legal theory] and fiqh [jurisprudence], then you will say that only Allah ﷻ is the one who gives life and only Allah ﷻ gives death. Whether or not it addresses the issue of the patient in the hospital, it really would not matter. Through ilm al-kalam, we have methodologies and we have a construct within which we can come to terms with the usul and the fiqh, and give a responsible answer to the doctor and the patient’s family as to whether or not we can terminate this person’s life.
This all comes down to: what is the nature of theology in the ethical discussion of who gives life and who gives death?
Let’s apply the two ideas that we’ll present. One is of takhliq [the act of creation], and the other is the one of whether or not the mind is able to perceive the good and bad, the good and evil.
This case is where a person is on life support and the doctor and the family need a response from the Mufti as to whether or not they should pull the plug. So now, with takhliq and takwīn [the act of generation], we see that once you appreciate Allah’s ﷻ sifa [attribute] of takwin as being azali [pre-eternal], everything will be divided into whether or not something is Khaliq [the Creator] or makhluq [the creation].
You bring in the principle of takhliq in such a way that you allow human interaction to remain haadith [created], and you allow the divine interaction to remain eternal, and you bring the two together. Now, when we say Allah ﷻ is Al-Muhyi and Al-Mumeet, then we are not saying that we are committing shirk by keeping or removing a patient on life support, because Imam Maturidi has established this principle that the takwin is ghayr mukawwan [uncreated]. That the creativity of Allah ﷻ is not the creation, therefore we have a safe threshold, academic and theological threshold upon which we can base our decision and not move into the grey area of what might be termed as shirk. So this is one.
When we apply the other theory of tahsin and taqbih [whether the rational mind can arrive at moral truths of goodness and evil], it becomes even more apparent how the usul al-fiqh and fiqh will be relevant and related to this patient. Is the mind capable of evaluating and discerning the goodness and evil in this act? This approach gives us a very firm methodology and it gives us a foundation upon which we can build a theological construct and an ethical foundation for the Muslim practitioner.
Now we can develop a theory that is distinctly Muslim. When a Muslim physician or scientist is going to work and engaging with his duties in life, he’s energetic, motivated, and he’s contributing to the beneficence of the world, then he will be much clearer in his intention and he will be much more sincere. We have a plethora of doctors in the US, but very few ask the question: how do I serve the patients in an Islamic way, the Muslim way? If we bring this discussion up to a level where the discussion is intellectual and academic, I can foresee very quickly inshaAllah in the near future that many more physicians will be inclined to learning the legacy that is Islamic.
This brings us to another theory that Imam Maturidi has which is based on the tahsin and taqbih of the ‘aql [intellect], and that is the role of amr bil maruf wa nahi anil munkar [commanding the good and forbidding the evil]. In his Ta’wilat Ahl al-Sunnah, the name of his tafsir [exegesis],
“You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.” [Ale Imran 3:110, Saheeh International]
In the tafsir of this ayah, Imam Maturidi gives the role of the ‘aql to identifying what is mar’uf [good] and what is munkar [evil].
This is definitely important in a Muslim country, but why is it important in a non-Muslim country? In a non-Muslim country, if you are ukhrijat lil-Nas [referring to the verse above, sent as an example for mankind], you are therefore the people. Your role should be that you identify what is ma’ruf and what is munkar for people. Imam Maturidi says you can do this through the ‘aql: that the mind should be able to perceive and discern what is good, and what is bad. In a non-Muslim society you will engage in discussions with the non-Muslim. You will engage in discussion in mainstream society where you can build not only a foundation but build many bridges whereby you will have these fruitful discussions in legislation, policymaking, academia, in writing books and textbooks. We are part of not just the ummah, but also part of an-Nas [mankind]. This would be the way forward for Muslims, not just in bioethics but any ethics.
In life you’re going to have issues related to illnesses and cure and medicine, but if all of that is not funneled through a philosophy that is coherent and consistent with the Islamic ethos and Islamic theory, then we’ll just be participating in earning money. It won’t have an agenda that appeals to the intellectual mind and to the academic mind. This is where I feel we are losing many of our progressions. Since there is no philosophy or theory upon which they can practice medicine, law, business, or education, it’s just a job. We want to promote the idea of kalam in general, so that we can engage the ummah in something that is Islamic and pertains to their lives immediately.
This lecture was generously transcribed by Heraa Hashmi and Wassim Hassan.
About the Author: Shaykh Mohammed Amin is a Muslim scholar, mentor, and the founder of Darul Qasim, an institute of traditional Islamic higher learning headquartered in the Glendale Heights suburb of Chicago. Shaykh Amin is an active advocate of the classical Sunni tradition of Islamic scholarship and a passionate promoter of traditional Islamic sciences and methodologies of teaching and learning. He is regarded internationally as an expert theologian and an authority in the fields of Islamic philosophy and theosophy.