Tradition & Change: To Reform or not to Reform?


Tradition is here defined as an intellectual tendency or social perspective of continuing the preservation of values, statements, norms and the like from one generation to the next. In contrast, modernity is the social outlook on life which is inclined to break with tradition. It is driven by the force to repudiate traditional values, customs and beliefs in favour of more radical ideas. A delineating feature of modernity is constant change whilst tradition is identified by continuation. Where do we stand regarding these two polarities as religious people?

Religious people often labelled as traditionalists, are not immune to the sociological norm of the above two trends in human behaviour. Some religious people are traditional and vocalise the need to continue with the tradition of their pious forbears, whilst others voice a need to change and adapt to changing customs and times.

Whilst I understand that these broad generalisations are not homogeneous; traditionalists differ amongst themselves as to how they must preserve tradition, as do modernists on how radical their change and reforms must be, and some might even identify themselves as a mixture of both tradition and modernity. Nonetheless, these two trends do exist and what I intend to do in a series of upcoming blogs is to explore this theme from a historical perspective on how scholarly intellectual activity dealt with these two broadly defined categories.

The scriptures themselves allude to both traditionalist and modernist outlooks. In the Old Testament we find the following verses:

“My son, do not forget my law. Keep my commands in your heart.

My commands will bring you long life. They will bring you wealth.

Never let love and trust leave you. Wear them about your neck.

Write them on your heart. You will win love and honour. God and people will show you love and honour.

Trust in God with your whole heart. Do not depend on your own intelligence!

Wherever you go, think about God. He will clear the path for you to follow.

Do not be proud about your own wisdom. Respect God and refuse to do evil actions.

This will bring health to your body. This will bring strength to your bones”                               (Proverbs 3:1-8).

This indicates that human reason is fallible and the only path to Truth is to trust on the infallible nature of God’s reason. Corroborating the traditionalists point of view that the only path to success is by divine guidance; human being’s own reason and intellect is prone to error and thus not an assured path to Truth.

But a contrary vein is promoted in chapter eight, where it states:

” Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things. For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination on my lips. All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them. They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.” (Proverbs 8: 1-9).

It seems as if both Tradition and Modernity are valid sources of knowledge. Or in other words, both Reason and Revelation are given an equal footing. Modernity here is taken as synonymous with reason and revelation with tradition. Both are deemed epistemologically valid; and both have the potential of guiding us to the truth. But it still leaves the predicament when both contradict. How are religious people to manoeuvre themselves when Reason dictates one thing and Revelation another? What are the limitations to each of these faculties? What has the final say? Do we have to have deference for Divine Holy Writ and no matter what our intellects dictate just submit to scripture? Or do we adopt a rational approach and listen to reason no matter what Divine Laws we disobey as a result?

What I propose to discuss in the upcoming weeks in a series of blogs is how the Islamic scholars have dealt with these issues. These issues are not new issues. They have been around since time immemorial under different names, garbs and particulars. They are also not exclusive to religion vs. modernity but are a sociological norm. That is to say that right from the earliest phases of human development, wherever and whenever there existed a tendency for a continuation of tradition there has existed, at some point thereafter, a tendency to break with tradition. One prefers the continuation of the heritage of the forebears, whilst the other to answer the necessities of the times.  What follows then is a historical approach of how Muslim scholarly literature has attempted answering these time-old questions.

I have mentioned biblical quotes above only to show the normative nature of these problems but upcoming blogs will be restricted to the Islamic tradition because that is what I identify with.

These issues are also pertinent for us today as both trends still exist and, as is the wont of such tendencies, are at odds ends. One calling for reformation of Islam to conform to modernist/liberal outlooks whilst the other deems all such changes as heresy.

Allah alone grants success.

Shazad Khan


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