“The teaching of the Qur'an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.” [Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam]
However, our religious establishment works very hard to maintain its grip on its followers by throttling any descent from its sectarian ideology. When questioned, the simplistic response is that we need to follow Islam presented by our past Imams because they were true interpreters of Islam.
To support this claim, they refer to books of Hadith. The important point to note is that these books (from which most of the Sunnah is derived) were compiled after almost two hundred years after the Prophet’s death from verbal accounts of recollections from past memory of a long chain of narrators whose reliability – as accepted by Hadith scholars – no matter how high can never be one hundred percent. Every hadith begins with “Qala Rasul Allah” i.e., “The Messenger of Allah said” and ends with “Au Qama Qala Rasul Allah” i.e., something like this the Messenger of Allah said. Nevertheless, our religious leaders present sayings attributed to the Prophet (PBUH) from these books as if they were his actual spoken words. These statements are repeated over and over again from every pulpit so much so that they enter people’s subconscious mind.
No wonder, most of us tend to find solace in following blindly whatever is presented to us from the past in the name of Islam. Busy with the pressing needs of daily life we have no time or the desire for critical thinking. Most of us don’t even know (or care to know) that critical thinking is requirement of the Quran (34:46) as well as the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH): “The search for rational foundations in Islam may be regarded to have begun with the Prophet himself. His constant prayer was: “God! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things!” [Ibid]. But we feel happy simply to practice the rituals, if at all, and hope for Heaven.
Nevertheless, for Muslims who have a burning desire to dig deeper and to find the truth about Islam, life is no smooth sailing. They find that Islam has been made so complex and intricate by covering it up with layers upon layers of works and thoughts that it becomes a challenge to undertake such a task. Therefore, in frustration, many simply give up and join the crowd. As for those who do not, the religious establishment does its best to coerce them to follow the ancestors.
This is how defenders of religious status quo keep masses under check – by a form of ancestor worship. In this mode of practicing Islam people only look back but never ahead. No wonder these religious scholars and their followers live in the past. One may or may not earn the wrath of God, but one cannot escape earning their wrath if one dares to question the past. All their talk of God being forgiving and merciful evaporates in thin air when it comes to those who beg to differ with them.
However, this is nothing new. It has been going on throughout human history. The peoples of all the great Prophets such as Noah (23:23-24), Saleh (11:61-62), Abraham (21:53), Shuaib (11:87), Moses (10:78), and Muhammad (38:7), Peace be on all of them, behaved that way when their past was questioned. “We will follow our ancestors,” was their usual reply when asked to follow the divine message (43: 23-24). Their reason was the same – as we give now – that the new message is an innovation in our belief (2:170, 5:104). Our religious establishment keeps insisting that we have to follow our ancestors and tells us that any innovation from their path is a deviation in Islam that will lead to Hell (Kullo bid’atin dalalah, kullo dalalatin finnar). It does this despite the fact that past Imams never claimed that anyone has to follow them unquestioningly or that one cannot deviate from them. It seems we think that by defending the past we are somehow defending the Prophet (PBUH).
Nevertheless, the Qur’an tells us otherwise. It is one thing to follow something with due thought and understanding but quite another to follow it blindly so much so that Qur’an tells believers not to accept even its verses blindly (25:73). So, how can history be accepted blindly?
The Qur’an exhorts all believers (and not just a selected few scholars) to think in the Qur’an (4:82, 47:24). In fact, it warns us that we will be questioned by God on the Day of Judgment as to whether or not we used our own mind to understand His Book (17:36); and that we will be punished and sent to Hell if we failed to do that (7:179). Therefore, it is everyone’s duty as well as a God-given right to think in the Qur’an and offer an interpretation if it is based on sound reasoning, even though it might differ from the past. We must respect our past Imams and try to benefit from their work as much as possible. But that does not mean they are beyond question or that we have to follow them blindly; that anyone who disagrees with them should be labeled “ignorant” or “dangerous” and ridiculed. The Qur’an has kept its door of Ijtihad open to everyone. No one has the right to shut that door.
When it comes to the Qur’an, blind leading the blind leads to nowhere but Hell (7:179). This can be avoided only if we let the light of the Qur’an come directly into our hearts. But before that light can enter we will have to unlock our hearts and remove our blinders.
“Do they not then think deeply in the Qur’an, or are their hearts locked up (from understanding it)?” (47:24).
We, instead of deep pondering and reflection in the Quran and be guided by its pure message, have made it subservient to the past beliefs and customs. Let us pray that we are not be among the ranks of those about whom the Prophet (PBUH) will complain to Allah: وَقَالَ الرَّسُولُ يَا رَبِّ إِنَّ قَوْمِي اتَّخَذُوا هَـٰذَا الْقُرْآنَ مَهْجُورًا (25:30) – And the Messenger (Muhammad SAW) will say: "O my Lord! Verily, my people deserted this Quran (neither listened to it, nor acted on its laws and orders). [Hilali & Khan]