By Yousef Seifi & Somaye Rezaei 

Four characteristics of the concept of ‘Return to the self’ in Shi'ism

January 10, 2018

TEHRAN -Islamic fundamentalism is a kind of revivalism (Salafism) which has turned into one of the most significant regional and international threats; even though, the fundamentalists talk about expanding the Islamic territory and guiding humankind toward redemption.

Flagrant violence against ordinary people – as one of the most prevalent tactics used by the fundamentalist groups - is justified within the theoretical framework of certain contemporary Islamic ideas. These ideas are redefined in fundamentalist-revivalist thought and have lost their original meaning. The superannuated and prominent concept of ‘return to the self’ is among the most significant concepts in this line of thought. The Salafists have introduced this idea as a means to justify returning to an imagined past. They are inspired by the history of the idea of recovering the ideal ‘self’ in Islamic thought; however, they have exploited this idea to their personal advantage. 

Seyyed Javad Miri, is a professor at The Humanities and Cultural studies Research Center who works on the idea of ‘return to the self’ in Islamic thought. He stated that this idea has been shaped contemporaneously with, and influenced by the colonial era and influenced by a sense of identity crisis in Islamic societies. As Seyyed Fakhorddin Shademan has mentioned, the alienation was the result of the Muslim subject being subjugated by the western civilization; a subjugation by the western Other that resulted in Us losing ourselves. In other words, the Muslim world was subjugated by its Other and we lost our own subjectivity and became the object for the West, a cultural subject. He added that under these circumstances the Islamic thought was confronted with such questions as "who we really are?" And consequent attempts to answer these question ensued in searching for the ‘the self’ – as Muhammad Iqbal explained. The reformist movement started with Al-Afghani and the idea of ‘return to the self’ gained momentum in this line of thought. The ‘self’ and the ‘return to the self’ are ideas discussed not only by Iqbal and Shariati, but also by thinkers such as Malik-ibn-Nabi and Hussain Alatas. 

Discussing genuine theoretical backgrounds for the concept of ‘return to the self’, Miri stated that there is a movement, among others, that tries to westernize all Islamic societies, that wants Islamic societies abandon their identity and embrace modernization. There is another line of thought that wants to ignore modernity and stay isolated, or wants to reverse what we have now to a previous state. However, what prepared the ground for the ‘return to the self,’ is the third way that wants to interact with tradition and modernity and recover the contemporary Muslim ‘self’ in relation to tradition and modernity. 

He added that return to ‘the self’ with a revivalist approach is a reminder of human ambition to travel in time. Time is one of the elements that humans have never been able to rule over and has been among the long-desired human wishes. Rashid Reza and other Salafist thinkers' interpretation of the concept of ‘return to the self’ is a reductionist one. In this sense, ‘return to the self’ is a return to a past life-style. Instead of having an active encounter with the western civilization and trying to impose our life-style on it; they ignore all the progress and want to return to a previous era.

This member of The Humanities and Cultural Studies Research Center maintained that revivalist interpretation of the concept of ‘return to the self’ is an aberration and added that return to the self has never been a call to go back to the past, nor an invitation to retreat. ‘Return to the self’, is in fact recovering and exploring ‘the self’ in relation to tradition and modernity. What Iqbal meant by ‘return to the self’ was in fact revitalizing religious thought in modern times and not an invitation for going back to the past. The Salafist thought abandons ‘the self’ that must be revived for the contemporary world; therefore, in this line of thought, the ‘return to the self’ project is nipped in the bud. It is because, ‘the self’ that the Salafists are talking about is not a contemporary self, but a 1400-year-old self

 Obstruction of rationality in Salafism 

Seyyed Javad Miri added that the main issue that results in the deviation of the concept of ‘return to the self’ in Salafist thought is the relationship that this line of thought established between the competency of human mind and using the Islamic reference texts (naghl). In Islamic religious terminology, there are two prophets: internal and external. The discussion on the role that rationality can play in relation to reference texts or naghl has experienced extreme ebb and flows and have been through different stages. These changes became so extreme in the Sunni Islam that resulted in the cessation of Ijtihad (a jurist’s (faghih’s) independent reasoning). In a sense, the Sunni jurists can only refer to their quadruple Imams and search for the rules based on their works. However, on a more significant note, it closes the door to mo’aserat. Mo’aserat means that one considers contemporaneity and identifies contemporary trends as legitimate.

Miri pointed out that throughout the history, among different Muslim sects, rationality has paled in comparison to other quadruple sources of Islamic thought including the book (Quran), tradition, Ijma (consensus among jurists) and rationality. Although among the Shia, rationality was still acknowledged. However, it was a rationality justified within naghl. In other words, even in Shia Islam, rationality is not an independent source and it is used as a tool for Ijtihad. It should also be noted that neither Sunnis, nor Shia consider naghl as having divine or revelatory origin. 

He continued to say that in fact, Quran is one part of naghl and naghl, itself has a cultural history. Naghl emerged among the Bedouin Arabs and it was practiced during the short periods of prophet’s and Imam Ali’s rule in early years of Islam; however, later during the long Umayyad Caliphate it was established as the foremost source in Islamic thought.  I have said before that naghl in Islamic thought is more cultural than divine or based on revelation; one can even claim that it is an Umayyad product and it has an Arabic hue. We have inherited such a naghl. 

Anti-Intellectualism for ‘Return to the Self’

The writer of the book Cultural Iran: Iran’s Opportunities and Challenges in Tatarestan (The Arab World) mentioned an intellectual tradition within the Sunni and Shia Islam that has gained a historical identity. This tradition has tried to ignore rationality as a source of knowledge. He added that the tendency to use reason among the Middle Ages scholars was based on the influence of Shia thought. 

Miri pointed out that a contesting tradition was the existing philosophical tradition throughout the Islamic history; a philosophical line that was exclusive to cultural Iran and influenced by Shia rationalism. He clarified that when one talks about being Shia in this context, one is not referring to Shia Sharia. For instance, Al-Biruni had a teacher called Abdol-Samad Hakim who was executed as he was found guilty of being a Shia Muslim. Al-Biruni was also accused of being a Shia. However, I do not think that Al-Biruni followed Shia jurisprudence. At that time, whenever someone had rationalist tendencies and made use of rationality in his religious beliefs, he was called Shia. In this sense, Al-Biruni’s idea in particular and the philosophical tradition in Islamic history in general, have Shia roots. This prevailed as far as the Safavid Dynasty. 

Seyyed Javad Miri went on to say that in contemporary Islamic thought, the sects that have more affinities with rationalism and independent reasoning are located further from revivalism and fundamentalism – whether they are Shia or Sunni. This intellectual movement gives a more genuine account of the self. 

He concluded that there have sometimes been convergences between Shia rationality and Sunni rationality. For instance, the Sunni Scholar, Hamid Abuzeid believes that we must reconstruct Shia or Mu’tazila rationalism. The same idea can be traced in Shahid Motahhari’s thought that regrets Mu’tazila’s disappearance. It seems that there is a growing tendency among the Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims to use reason in understanding religion; a rationality similar to the one that Al-Farabi talks about it. This kind of rationality gradually degraded in Sunni and Islam after Al-Farabi; when it was metamorphosed into Salafist response to modernity. 

Different “Selves” that “Really” exist

Ghasem Pour Hasan, a professor of the Department of Philosophy at the Allameh Tabataba'i University said that there are different views on ‘the self’ in the Islamic thought. Salafist and fundamentalist interpretations stem from the Sunni Islam; meanwhile, the traditional rationalism in Shia Islam prevents from emergence of Salafists tendencies.  

Pour Hasan pointed out that a correct understanding of the concept of return to the self requires a look at the different renditions of this concept throughout the history of the Islamic thought and examining the modern interpretations in the contemporary era. As an idea, ‘return to the self’, have been used by Muslim scholars in five different meanings. Historically, it can be traced back to the ideas of theologians such as Al-Ghazali, who posed this idea against Greek rationality; which is different from what for instance, Iqbal ascribes as ‘the self’. In Al-Ghazali’s time, ‘return to the self’ implied a cleansing of the heresies brought on by the rationalist and philosophical traditions of the fifth and sixth century and a return to the early Islamic era or the original Islam. 

Pour Hasan stated that the first phase of “return to the self” was concurrent with the dominance of Ash’ari theology. He pointed out that the second phase began with Ibn Taymiyyah, which was distinct from the first phase. During the Ibn Taymiyyah’s time, the main discussion was around anti-rationality and an opposition to rational arguments. Although, some like Al-Ghazali supported logic and used it to prove their ideas. Back then, ‘return to the self’ found a Salafist form and was a summons to anti-intellectualism. The third meaning of ‘return to the self’ is synonymous with what Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab said. He wanted to remove the manifestations of polytheism from the Islamic beliefs, a wish more important to him even compared to his Salafist concerns. What Wahhabism implies by ‘return to the self’ is a return to monotheism; not a return to the era of Salaf-e Salih (the good past). Abd al-Wahhab followed this line in his book, The Book of the Oneness of God, however, he started to believe in a form of determinism and became concerned with the extreme forms of monotheism and polytheism. 

Pour Hasan, as a philosophy professor believes that the idea of ‘return to the self’ is the most important groundwork for the development of the fundamentalist thought. Fundamentalist sects consider art and artistic work polytheistic and as a result, for instance, ISIS, has shown a destructive approach to historical monuments and artworks. 

In Pour Hasan’s opinion, the fourth meaning of ‘return to the self’ is the popular perception among the Shia thinkers who did not believe in Salaf-e Salih. He elaborated that such a movement is associated with Al-Afghani in the Islamic World. In this movement, a short period in the Islamic era known as the Golden Age of Islamic Thought is proposed as an antithesis to Salafism. This Golden Age refers to the time span during which scholars like Avicenna and Al-Farabi disseminated rationalist ideas; the first ‘return to the self’ phase was in fact a reaction to them. 

He also mentioned a fifth meaning that can be found in Tabataba’i and Motahhari’s ideas, which is, in fact, a summons to return to Quran. In this sense of return to the self, our contemporary lives have distanced itthe self from Quran to such an extent that the escape route is a return to Quranic teachings. This approach values rational awakening. 

Shia rationality against Akhbarism

Pour Hasan, the writer of Comparative Hermeneutics: A Study of the Similarities in Islamic and Western Philosophies of Interpretation, mentioned that there is considerable difference between the ‘the self’ in Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. He said that in Shia Islam’s ‘return to the self,’ Akhbarism [which reject the use of reasoning in deriving verdicts, and believed Quran and hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad and Twelve Shia Imams) as the only source of law] is considered a aberration which leads to an aborted project of recovering ‘the self.’ What is called Salafism and Akhbarism in Shia Islam, is in fact traditionalism; it is not an endeavor to return to a certain era in the past. ‘The return’ proposed by the Shia is supposedly an intellectual one. This means that Shia Islam acknowledges the modernity, however, it wants to embed Islamic inheritance (ideas) in this era and tries to modernize the Islamic ideas. Traditionalists like Hossein Nasr have emphasized on this point. The Shia Islam contemplates a way out of this present state of decadence, however, it does not negate the contemporary world; it tries to find a solution for the degeneration of the era. 

The four characteristics of the concept of ‘Return to The self’ in Shia thought

Pour Hasan finds four excellent characteristics in Shia thought in regards to the concept of ‘return to the self’:

1. ‘Return to the self’ in Shia thought is related to proposing a discussion of the Golden Age of Islam or the era that philosophical thought was prospering. This Golden Age in the Sunni thought refers to the early Islamic era and Salaf-e Salih (the good past). 

2. The revivalist Shia thought is a revolutionary one and wants to change the existing conditions. This revolutionary thought does not exist in the Sunni Islam. As Tabataba’i pointed out, in the early Islamic era and the prophet’s time, there was no intellectual improvements; in fact, the Islamic thought was immature and trivial. In other words, Shia thought is a critique of the Salafist thought. 

3. Shia Islam’s concept of ‘return to the self’ is rationalist. The Shia scholars’ criterion for recovering ‘the self’ is reasoning and wisdom. Meanwhile, in Sunni thought the main role belongs to fideism. 

4. The Shia concept of ‘return to the self’ does not prescribe revivalism; it wants to recover past traditions in accordance to the contemporary world. It wants to find its ‘self’ now by rereading Tarath and Badaye’a. In contrast, traditional Salafism demands a rupture from contemporary era and modernity. 

In the end, Pourhasan pointed out that rationality in Shia thought is not synonymous with Greek rationality and autonomous reason. It is a rationality shaped by religion and within Islam. The anti-intellectualism of Akhbarism and Salafism target Greek rationality. Pour Hasan maintained that Shia rationality is a religious one; it is not autonomous and independent. This type of rationality that is used by the dynamic Shia jurisprudence has prevented from the development of Salafist and fundamentalist tendencies in Shia scholars. 

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