Anyone who ever takes the intellectual history of religion seriously is bound to deal with the notion of originality either directly or obliquely.
And perhaps more than any other religion, the originality of Islam, of its intellectual history, of its scripture, and even of its founder, has long stood at the centre of Western scholarly discourse. That the textual foundations as well as the originator of this religion were studied, and indeed questioned, in terms of originality need hardly be stressed. The Prophet’s originality was often doubted, and the Qur’an was seen as no more than a poor reproduction and disorderly imitation of earlier monotheistic scriptures. The attribute of imitation, as a binary opposite of originality, was thus attached, if not made inherent, to Islam from its moment of birth. In the rest of its history, Islam was to receive the same indictment. Its intellectual history, like virtually all other facets of its life, was predominantly perceived in orientalist discourse in terms of influences, debts, borrowings—terms that persistently negate the quality of originality. Speaking of borrowing, a prominent orientalist declared that ‘No cultural history lends itself better to studying this [phenomenon of borrowing] than does that of the Muslim peoples.’ The possible debt of Islam to other religions and cultures has often been deemed not as a hypothesis to be proved or disproved, but rather as an established fact only to be taken for granted. Evidence thus becomes unnecessary, and indeed superfluous. In his discussion of the ‘sources of Islamic civilization’, and of Islam’s indebtedness to other legal systems, von Grunebaum was able to announce with resounding confidence: ‘It is, I believe, only our lack of familiarity with Sassanian law which prevents us from uncovering its traces in the fiqh.’ Accordingly, foreign influences on Islamic civilization are certainly out there; the only problem is that we cannot always identify them.
Even the formidable growth and developments during the first three Islamic centuries, recognized as relatively impressive by Islamicists, are none the less not credited as achievements comparable with those of other cultures. Islam in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries was, Brunschvig maintains, ‘a system that had grown very substantial in various directions During this fruitful formative period, Islam was already—it is undeniable—a powerful factor; but this factor, whatever originality it had in some points and in its texture as a whole, still resulted from multiple components drawn heavily on older civilizations.’ Whatever ‘texture’ means here, and wherever those ‘points’ are, the verdict is clear: the originality of what is thought to be the best centuries of Islamic cultural and intellectual contribution is seriously marred (if not negated altogether) by Islam’s penchant for appropriating from other cultures. ‘To borrow a well-expressed formula’, Brunschvig continues, Muslims ‘”turned in a horizontal spiral around their techniques”. It was the same for their thinking. It is well known today that “proliferating detail” characterizes civilizations that are moving their feet in one spot but not going beyond themselves.’ He advises us that this ‘failure to go beyond oneself or ‘stagnation or stiffening of the joints in Islamic history’ (generally characterized as ankylose) must be studied.’ It is curious, to say the least, that rendering a judgement on the ‘stagnation’ of Islamic culture was possible despite the acknowledged fact that the phenomenon still awaits further study and thus is not within the realm of established knowledge. As we have noted earlier, discourse on things Islamic does not take the form of a hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is to be tested, but rather of a postulate, only to be posited, affirmed, and reaffirmed, whatever its true epistemic value. More curious, if not astonishing, is the daring generality and universality of the judgement, for it offers neither distinctions nor exceptions. It is categorical, yet it is confident.
Title: Usūl Al-Fiqh : Beyond Tradition
Author: Wael b. Hallaq
Published in: Journal of Islamic Studies 3:2
Length: 30 pages