in academic circles has come to signify old fashioned customs, archaic
cultural practices, ossified ideas handed down from the past and articulated
to the letter by naïve, simple minded neo-Luddites. In popular
discourse, to be traditional is to adamantly cling in the past. Those
espousing traditional values are often lumped into the same category
as the tree-huggers and angry protesters hurling insults at the towers
of free-trade, liberalization and globalization and in the process braving
the batons and pepper-spray of heavily armed policemen.
perspective, tradition is not only diametrically opposed to modernity;
it represents a distinct historical period from which modernity saved
the world by liberating itself from the shackles of tradition. Thus,
anyone who consciously clings to the profound and perennial "Truths"
or "Virtues" if you wish, embodied in all sacred traditions,
is regarded as "backward looking," anti-progress or worst,
Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and Islam," Katherine Pratt
Ewing eloquently explains and historically illustrates that what has
come to be regarded as "traditional" was never static nor
monolithic, but was instead varied and constantly evolving over time.
The accusation of rigidity was hurled at tradition, she argues, by the
architects of colonization in order to establish the colonizer’s hegemony
over the colonized. Ultimately, in order for the colonizer to succeed
in his colonization, the modern had to be cast as superior to the existing
order. And thus the only reason why civilizations of old were destroyed,
the argument goes, was because they failed to develop, progress, and
to change. In other words, leave the old and dilapidated and get with
the new program.
many Muslims today have swallowed the false discursive assumption that
tradition is something static. Therefore, in order to move forward,
they have to tear themselves away from the past and embrace the modern,
and by extension, the post-modern, with all its technological gadgetry,
and its shifting house of virtues and ethics.
of this charge has produced some rather abnormal collective behavioral
traits among us. We find in the murky water of contemporary Muslim reality
those who feel the need to label themselves: modernists, progressives,
reformists, fundamentalists; and even when there is absolutely no need
for other categories, they nevertheless continue to pile up.
particular juncture, when young Muslims in the west are feeling a burning
desire to understand and perhaps also experience something of the intellectual,
spiritual, ethical and virtuous ambiance of earlier generations, it
is important to clarify what we mean by the term "traditional."
to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, executive director of Zaytuna Institute in Hayward,
CA, traditional Islam is the "plumb line", the trunk of the
Islamic tree, if you prefer, whose roots are firmly buried in the soil
tributaries sprout from the "plumb line" and eventually die
out, but the line continues because ours is a tradition based on isnad
– sound, authentic, reliable transmission of sacred knowledge.
in the West, I believe, are responding positively to the call of "tradition"
because they are a tad fed up with the many tributaries that have fractured
from the "plumb line." They want to experience an Islam free
of ideology, statist or otherwise, an Islam free of political affiliations,
organizational goals, and market driven visions hatched in lofty towers
by engineers and doctors.
by "tradition" we mean the "Sunnah" of our Noble Prophet Muhammad, upon
him be peace and blessings, in all its timeless,
and sacred glory. The Sunnah here is the worldly manifestation of the
divine revelation which has been codified and preserved in the sacred
text of Al-Qur’an.
this sacred tradition means to stake all claims, whatever they are,
in the two sources of Truth: The Qur'an and the Sunnah. In our Ummah,
no one, regardless of what category he puts himself in, will argue to
the contrary. Some may choose to stress only the intellectual, cultural,
social, or spiritual aspects of the Islamic tradition instead of treating
the tradition as an integrated whole. Regardless of what is given priority,
it must be based on the explicit "Truths" evident in the Qur’an
and the Sunnah for it to be regarded as within the parameters of the
is the whole of Islam (al-din) and whenever an attempt is made to compartmentalize
or divide it up into edible portions, for whatever reasons, that effort
will never survive the test of time. Having said that, we should recognize
that those who emphasize one aspect of the tradition may be doing it
out of a need and not an attempt to split the tradition into parts.
for speak of a sacred tradition there must be a model that serves as
its reference point. We therefore recognize that the community of our
Beloved Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, was established
with divine guidance as a model, and at no time in history will there
ever be another community like it. Further, the Islamic sacred tradition
has been from its inception a living tradition and rigorously documented
for the tradition to remain valid it has to be transmitted in a way
that will stand the test of time. A sacred tradition cannot survive
without transmission and the key to transmission is isnad, or sound
and verifiable links that stitches each generation of believers to the
preceding one all the way back to the Blessed Messenger.
Hamza Yusuf, has often said that "isnad" is the secret of
this Ummah and a gift from Allah. Without "isnad" the entire
tradition could very well collapse. The system of ijaza (teaching licenses)
is intricately linked to isnad in that one takes his knowledge from
noble men and women who took their knowledge from those who took their
knowledge from those….all the way back to that model community and to
the blessed Messenger himself, whose knowledge, without a shadow of
doubt, came from the Lord of the Divine Throne through his messenger,
the angel Gibril, upon him be peace.
a tested and established tradition aimed at preserving and transmitting
sacred knowledge within the overall tradition of Islam. We recognize
its validity and importance today especially when the "sacred"
has been relegated to an inferior position in our modern educational
system. Zaytuna Institute in California, and a host of other well-established
organizations in the U.S.A., Canada and the UK, have dedicated themselves
to preserving and re-establishing the traditional educational method
of teaching the Islamic sacred sciences to the present generation of
Muslims in the West.
that the tradition must be transmitted to remain valid, necessarily
entails that it cannot be static because time does not stand still and
the world is certainly not one big snapshot. The established Truths
of the Islamic tradition will always confront and must reconcile itself
to new situations, events and circumstances.
A lot of
the divisions and acrimony we find in our communities today is as a
direct result over a problem in determining exactly what is an "authentic"
tradition in modern Islamic thought" Daniel Brown points out: "…it
is also evident that tradition is frequently appealed to as a way of
defending against perceived innovation, as a way of preserving threatened
values. Alternative uses of tradition are thus a major battleground;
there is fierce competition to control the process by which the content
of tradition is defined, and for modern Muslims, sunna has become the
bitterest point of conflict. Thus, the modern problem of sunna arises
out of conflict among Muslims over the definition and content of the
authentic tradition, and over the method by which the tradition is to
be defined." (page 3)
way to effectively deal with the thorny issue of what constitutes an
authentic application of our tradition is to recognize that the mujatahid
Imams, and by extension the `ulama who follow in their methodological
footprints, are the final arbiters. This applies to fiqh as well as
to the other branches of the Islamic sacred sciences.
of opinions and interpretations in our sacred tradition is not a sign
of weakness in the tradition, but instead, they attest to its richness
live according to the Sunnah today we are preserving our tradition and
ensuring its continuity and validity in time by handing it down to the
next generation in much the same way as it was given to us by the pervious.
The point here is that we act upon the tradition, not impose our modern
sensibilities upon it, in the hope that the divine barakah may trickle
down on us.
we are aware that the Islamic tradition, handed down to us over the
years, is our link to the historic Prophetic community. By living it
we are confirming that the way of our noble Messenger is as valid today
as it was when Allah The Almighty sent him as a Mercy to all of mankind
1400 years ago.
what we mean by "tradition" and so when reference is made
to the work we do as being "traditional," it is not an attempt
to label, but to identify a focus that’s broad enough to include all
Hossein Nasr, in his "Traditional Islam in the Modern World"
offers the following comprehensive definition of tradition and one that
I think works well as a summary:
is at once al-din in the vastest sense of the word, which embraces all
aspects of religion and its ramifications, al-sunnah, or that which,
based upon sacred models, has become tradition as this word is usually
understood, and al-silsilah, or the chain which relates each period,
episode or stage of life and thought in the traditional world to the
Origin….Tradition, therefore, is like a tree, the roots of which are
sunk through revelation in the Divine Nature and from which the trunk
and branches have grown over the ages. At the heart of the tree of tradition
resides religion, and its sap consists of that grace or barakah which,
originating with the revelation, makes possible the continuity of the
life of the tree. Tradition implies the sacred, the eternal, the immutable
Truth; the perennial wisdom, as well as the continuous application of
its immutable principles to various conditions of space and time."
Baksh. Nazim is a television journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation in Toronto, Canada. Over the last five years he has been
involved in organizing Deen Intensives, Rihlas and other traditional
programs in North America).