Democracy and the Importance of Methodology

What is a Methodology:

To understand why a particular jurist (e.g. Shafi’) reached a particular opinion (e.g. touching a woman nullifies ones wudu’) it is essential that we understand the methodology behind the process through which such opinions were reached. Methodology refers to those set of assumptions that guide the jurist in interpreting a particular phenomenon e.g. a verse from the Qur’an of narration from the Prophetic tradition. In fact, assumptions are part of our day-to-day thinking-process. Any proposition one makes, no matter how mundane, is always grounded in a set of underlying assumptions. And while we are quick to address certain propositions we seldom address the assumptions behind them. For example, both Shafi’ and Abu Hanifa both cite the following verse in establishing what type of contact [with women] nullified ones wudu:

“O you who have believed, …And if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and find no water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and your hands [with it]…” [Surat an-Nisa; 43]

And yet, Abu Hanifa was of the opinion that if one was to merely make physical contact with a women, for example, bumping into a coworker, does not nullify wudu whereas for Shafi’ any form of contact resulted in its nullification. Why, then, would they disagree? The answer, again, lays in a difference in the two methodologies employed by these great scholars. In deducing opinions from a legal-text (an-nas) scholars had two differing principles in relation to language. For al-Shafi’, the default (al-asl/the original) meaning of any word is its literal meaning (al-asl fil-kalam al-haqiqa) whereas Abu Hanifa held that the default meaning for any word was its metaphorical meaning (al-asl fil-kalam al-majaz). Now, back to our aforementioned example regarding wudu and its nullification. Notice that the word used in the verse – in lamastum – can carry two meanings: a literal meaning i.e. physical contact and a metaphorical meaning i.e. sexual discourse.  And thus, given that Abu Hanifa’s methodology contains the assumption that words are to be understood metaphorically, the term lamastum refers to sexual intercourse whereas Shafi’ would – given his distinct methodological assumptions – conclude that lamastum refers to any form of physical contact. In other words, these differing assumptions explain the differences in fiqh – and that is why scholars refer to them as Usul al-Fiqh, the basis upon which fiqh is built.

Why Knowing Methodologies Matters:

Why is this important? It is important because it illustrates the fundamental role which a methodology – or lack thereof – can have on one thinking process. It also demands that we shift our attention from the particular instances of ikhtilaaf (differing) to the underlying methodologies and their assumptions. Having said that, let us take this point – regarding the need of having methodological assumptions – to another level. The fundamental basis, the ultimate reference point of any methodology is a worldview. That is to say, a series of assumptions about man, God and the universe. Returning to Shafi’ and Abu Hanifa, their assumptions about language and shari’ rulings is grounded on three other assumptions; (1) there is a Creator who is all-knowing i.e. a metaphysical assumption (2) the Creator revealed the Qur’an and the Qur’an is the word of God i.e. an epistemological assumption and (3) the validity or invalidity of an action is judged by that Qur’an i.e. an axiological assumption. These metaphysical assumptions are what scholars rightly and accurately referred to as Usul ad-Din; the ideas upon which the totality of the din is established.

Methodology and the Debates on Democracy:

This brings us to a final but critical point. The importance of knowing a methodology in order to understand the opinions it produces applies to not only Islamic methodologies – such as ijtihad – but also non-Islamic methodologies. Let us take the idea of a Parliamentary Democracy as an example. Contrary to popular opinion, the idea of Parliament and Democracy are not neutral ideas that emerged out of some-sort of ideological vacuum. For example, when John Locke made his case for Parliamentary Democracy, he did so based on certain assumptions: (1) man lacked direct access to the will of the Creator (2) however the Creator expressed his divine will through nature and thus (3) man must employ his rational faculties to derive public law from those laws of nature and lastly (4) man possessed the objective and rational mental faculties needed to ascertain certain and objective laws. Simply put, if man is a rational being, an assembly of men amounts to an assembly of rational beings who in turn can produce objective laws that are in accord with a certain standard of truth (e.g. the laws of nature).

This brings to fore the problem in trying to absorb ideas such as Democracy into Islam. In trying to establish an argument for the compatibility of Islam and Democracy, scholars selectively draw on a series of evidences without dealing with the more fundamental assumptions. To ask whether or not we should vote presumes an awareness of the assumptions behind the proposition that “voting is a civic duty” and the proposition that Democracy and Islam are compatible presumes an awareness that not only is Democracy based on a set of assumptions emanating from a non-Islamic worldview but also that such assumptions are true. In short, the point I am trying to make here is quite simple; Muslims must adopt critical and enlightened modes of inquiry in order to properly address some of the pressing issues facing the Muslim world.=

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