It will surprise many to know that the most definitive proof in Islamic law is NOT the Quran, nor is it the Sunnah (the prophetic tradition), it is the consensus (ijma) of the body (or Ummah) of Muslims. Obviously the Ijma must be based on sound Quranic or hadeeth evidence, but where interpretation of these have differed, religious scholars turn to ijma for direction. Although the exact interpretation of what constitutes consensus has varied, this remains a profound statement by our Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him.
In Judaism and Christianity, the faith and law of God has, over time been subservient to political and social expediency. This has been at the judgment of a small educated elite within the religion. Let us assume that these groups (who were typically the most learned and pious of the full body of believers) acted with the best intention and in accordance with the most refined instruments of their faith, to interpret the religion for their Ummah. Despite this and without exception it has been an unmitigated disaster for both religions. Each renovation of the faith has required further ecclesiastical surgery, always unauthored and frequently contradictory. Take for example the recent reversal on the Catholic doctrine of ” limbo” (limbus infantium), i.e that an infant who dies before being baptized is condemned to everlasting hell (one would have to concede that this is less than sporting). If the Catholic priesthood has got this wrong over 2000 years, what else will change next?. One feels that with a little more pulling of the ecclesiastical loose thread of limbo, the whole concept of original sin will unravel.
The central tenet of criticism in the Quran of both the Jews and Christians is precisely that. The second temple period (of Solomon), the first council of Nicea and the second Vatican Council, are all examples in which a small elite changed their religion, not because of a perceived threat to it, but rather a threat to them. The concept of limbo is so central to Catholic doctrine that we can only assume that it was changed freshen up theology to woo “soccer moms” back into the church.
Islam’s answer to this is place the faith in the hearts and minds of the believers directly, without a clergy and to make scholarship based on merit rather than position, i.e. a competitive public religious scholarship. An Alim is known by the quality of his or her opinions and determinations by a public already well versed in aqeedah, and jurisprudence. The principle is simple but profoundly effective. It has preserved orthodoxy over 1,400 years, without a priesthood or rabbinical class. Religion cannot be altered in private, away from an population of believers who are required by Quranic command to be educated, literate and to ponder matters of faith deeply.
Like most things from the antiquity of classical Islam, it has simultaneously been forgotten by modern “educated/progressive/dinner-party acceptable” Muslims whilst being “discovered” by contemporary society. James Surowiecki’s (should be but won’t be) influential book The Wisdom of Crowds describes the impact of this in society, scholarship and economics. Contemporary achievements such as the corpus of peer reviewed scientific literature, Wikipedia, and Linux are all examples of the fruits of the wisdom of large groups. The 21st century’s greatest achievements will flow from this dynamic. The Muslim community throughout antiquity used collective/competative wisdom to understand and preserve the tenets of faith.
A perfect example of this was the very public debate between Abu Hamid Al Ghalzali and Ibn Rushd. Al Ghazali wrote a seminal work on the limits on Aristotelean philosophy in orthodox Islamic theology; Tahafut al-Falasifa (Incoherence of philosophers). Modern Muslim “activists” should note that defense of orthodoxy was not conducted by the elite of Islamic government (indeed the theologically heterodox Mu’tazila position was the violent public policy of a Khilafah), nor was it done through violence or simply by shouting the loudest outside Regent’s Park Mosque, as modern discourse runs in our Ummah, It was left to the Ummah to choose two views on Islam, and it chose correctly. Ghazali’s work marked a defeat for the neo-platonists, not because it was enforced by government, but simply that his was the more correct opinion, with the fewer internal contradictions. The general community, already well versed in their own religion, and each individually accountable to Allah chose which they wished to take to their grave.
Indeed it was such a landmark opinion in defense of the theistic concept of divinity that european christians such as Thomas Aquinas copied it whole.
The insistence on personal knowledge (as well as individual action that flows from it) and its consequent democratization of knowledge in Muslim society, was one of classical Islam’s gift to humanity, a gift that comes straight out of the Quran.
It is still as effective today as it was 1,400 years ago. For example, when the French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at the gates of Al Azhar requesting a bespoke religious opinion that Muslim women should partially undress to live in France, a scholar provides one. The vast sisterhood of Muslim women read this opinion and make their own determination (as they are obliged to by Prophetic tradition) and in large part chose to forgo the religious dispensation; judging that their own circumstances are not yet that dire.
So when the West demands a new Islam that is pleasing to it, rather than to its adherents and small enough to fit into a cafe latte, they may very well cajole some Muslim quislings to alter their beliefs, but their influence over the great logo-centrism that is the ummah will be miniscule.
Unlike the other theistic traditions, orthodoxy within Islam lies in the fidelity of the texts over time, the compulsory religious education of the believers, their personal and direct responsibility to God, and the entrusting of religious doctrine to the ummah. Islam will not be rescued by a small group of revolutionaries but rather by a returning to the Quran and Sunnah and the instruments contained within each, that preserve them.
Muslims do not need protect Islam (nor can they) they simply need to learn it and do it.