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Islam, Christianity and TraditionA Comparative Exploration$

Ian Richard Netton

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780748623914

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748623914.001.0001

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(p.vii) Preface and Acknowledgements

(p.vii) Preface and Acknowledgements

Islam, Christianity and Tradition
Edinburgh University Press

This is not an Introduction to Islam, nor is it a textbook. There are many excellent introductions and textbooks in the marketplace already. One notes in particular David Waines, An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Gerhard Endress, An Introduction to Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988), Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam: The Foundations of Muslim Faith and Practice (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996) and John L. Esposito (ed.), Oxford History of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). All of these, in their diverse and very attractive ways, play a significant and important role in introducing student and scholar alike to one of the world’s major religions.

This book is a research monograph which aims to do much more than that. It operates generally within the sphere of comparative religion and is, specifically, a comparative exploration of the role of tradition/Tradition within two distinct faiths, Islam and Christianity. Specific leitmotivs include the roles of authority, fundamentalism, the use of reason, ijtihād, and original comparisons between Islamic Salafism and Christian Lefebvrism. ‘Salafism’ refers to that strain in Islam which looks backwards to the thought, practices and traditions of the Salaf (pious ancestors); ‘Lefebvrism’ is a reference to the traditionalist thought and practices of the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905–91) who rejected much of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and what he perceived as that Council’s overthrow of tradition/Tradition. It is recognised in my text that the word ‘tradition/Tradition’ in both Islam and Christianity has a variety of senses and definitions.

While this volume is not an Introduction to Islam, it does aim to be accessible to the serious non-specialist as well as to the seasoned scholar in the field. It aims to make connections; it aims to add immediacy to the text by its use, among a variety of primary and secondary sources, of contemporary newspaper and journal articles, documents, letters and encyclicals. It aims to present a lucid and stimulating text which can be read with pleasure and profit by the scholar as well as by the serious, (p.viii) interested, non-specialist. It does so by drawing on the author’s intensive study of Islam and Christianity over a period of nearly forty years.

Methodologically, this volume recognises from the outset that Islam is not a monolith, and it seeks to explore at first some of the worn methodologies and vocabularies by which this faith has been articulated in the past, and to suggest new ones. Some of the originality of this volume lies in its proposal of a new vocabulary for the articulation of Islam, rather as M. G. S. Hodgson in The Venture of Islam (3 vols, Chicago, 1974) did many years ago, but in a more attractive form.

Islam is not, I repeat, a monolith. Vartan Gregorian, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003, pp. 112, 134), is at pains to stress this:

The fact is that there is no unified ‘Muslim World’ or unified Muslim ideology … Muslim diversity and division is a historical fact … Islam, like other religions, cannot be categorised or stereotyped because it is brimming with nuances, exceptions, divisions, contractions, and ambiguities.

This volume investigates certain aspects of that mosaic. It recognises that both Islam and Christianity, via their contemporary and diverse traditionalist adherents, have cleaved at times to a supposedly ‘golden age’ of tradition from the past. Like Sophocles, they have believed that ‘sometimes you have to wait until the evening to see how glorious the day has been’. The variegated splendours of the mosaic are unveiled in this volume with particular reference to the concepts of object (cf. Edmund Husserl, 1859–1938, and Martin Heidegger, 1889–1976), sign (Umberto Eco, b. 1932) and the sacred (Mircea Eliade, 1907–86). In other words, I deploy a triple methodological sieve of phenomenology, semiotics and what might be loosely termed ‘sacral science’. The overall structure is that of comparative tradition, the comparison being with Christianity. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of comparative focus, done in this way with the underlying substratum being that of tradition, has not been attempted before – though there have, of course, been many volumes of comparative religion published in the past which deal with the two faiths. These range from J. W. Sweetman’ s multi-volume classic Islam and Christian Theology (London and Redhill: Lutterworth Press, 1945–67) to James A. Bill and John Alden Williams, Roman Catholics and Shi‘i Muslims: Prayer, Passion and Politics (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and Anthony O’Mahony, Wulstan Peterburs and Mohammad Ali Shomali (eds), Catholics and Shi‘a in Dialogue: Studies in Theology and Spirituality (London: Melisende, 2004).

While sharing in the concerns and some of the subject matter of all of these books, my present volume differs profoundly from all of them in aim, theme, orientation and presentation. It articulates and illustrates a fundamental silsila or chain whose members have a common interest in ijtihād, independent judgement, or something like it. That chain, whether of discipleship, influence or study runs from the jurist Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (780–855) through the Ḥanbalī theologian and jurist Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) through the Arabian reviver of Ḥanbalism and propagator of the ideas of Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (1703–92) to the firebrand Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838/9–1897), who strongly influenced the Chief Muftī (p.ix) of Egypt and apostle of neo-ijtihād Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905), at whose feet sat the Syrian intellectual Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935), who taught the founder of the Ikhwān al-Muslimūn, Ḥasan al-Bannā’ (1906–49), who ‘mentored’ the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sayyid Quṭb (1906–66). In a magisterial article entitled ‘Was the Gate of Ijtihād Closed?’ (International Journal of Middle East Studies, 16 (1984), pp. 3–41; repr. Ian Edge (ed.), Islamic Law and Legal Theory (Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing Co., 1993), Wael B. Hallaq argued powerfully that it was not (see idem, Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 56 n. 143). This present volume of mine works within the framework of that denial drawing on past and present evidence, and highlights seemingly paradoxical, but very real, contrapuntal harmony between tradition/Tradition in Islam and ijtihād. Christian tradition/Tradition serves as a focus for contrast and comparison.

Finally, this volume is conscious of a yearning on the part of some movements in both Islam and Christianity for a ‘golden age’, whence all good traditions now derive, which some would claim never actually existed. Just as, over 1,500 years ago, St Augustine of Hippo (354–430) famously seemed to detect a goal just out of reach in his lament that nondum amabam, et amare amabam (‘I did not love but yearned to love’) (Confessions, Bk III, 1 (i), so many traditionalists and traditionists today – Muslim and Christian alike – yearn for the revival of an age in which all will be well once again. This volume, finally, is an articulation and lucid illustration of that yearning. It is an exploration of the imagination of tradition/Tradition and the Traditional Imagination in Islam.

I must acknowledge once again a profound debt of gratitude to my wife, Sue, and my family, who have had to put up with the vagaries of an author in full spate! I am grateful, too, to my excellent editors at Edinburgh University Press, especially Nicola Ramsey and Stuart Midgley, together with James Dale and Eddie Clark, for their care and help which lasted from first commissioning through to the final product. It has been a continued pleasure to work with EUP. Finally, I must pay a most warm tribute to my superb copy-editor, Ivor Normand. He has an eagle eye sans pareil!