Every religion revealed by God was, in its original form, eternal in character, just as the sun and the moon, the air and the water have a timeless character about them. Religion, in fact, is another name for eternal values, which in their nature are timeless and uniformly applicable in all situations and at all times.
A religion loses its relevance in succeeding ages when it is no longer preserved in its pristine form owing to human additions and interpolations. The Prophet of Islam who came in the 7th century, did not bring a new religion. His mission in fact was aimed at sifting the divinely revealed parts from the human additions, which had swept into the ancient religions over the ages. The divine religion thus needed to be established in its original form. This reality has been expressed thus in the Quran:
“I will show mercy to those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in the Torah and the Gospel, he enjoins on them good and forbids them evil, and makes lawful for them the good things and forbids them the bad things, and removes from them their burden and the shackles that were upon them. So those who shall believe in him, and honour and support him, and help him, and follow the light that has been sent down with him shall surely triumph.” (7:157)
In this verse “burden” and “shackles” mean human addition. It is these human additions, which make a religion irrelevant in succeeding ages. When a religion is purified of human additions, the question of irrelevance with the time automatically vanishes. Since Islam is free from all these additions, there is no possibility of Islam being irrelevant at any time or in any situation. In actual fact the commands given in Islam are totally timeless in character. As the Quran says:
He has prescribed for you the religion which He enjoined on Noah, and which We have revealed to you, and which We enjoined on Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying, ‘Remain steadfast in obedience, and be not divided therein. (42:13)
In this verse the believers are commanded to follow those teachings of religion, which were given to all prophets. These are: monotheism, sincerity, good virtues, character, and good deeds for the Hereafter. We learn from this verse that there are four parts of religious teachings sent down by God. One part encompasses all that is common to all the prophets sent to any part of the world. These teachings do not change with the changing times. These are the basic essence of religion. If we have to follow this real part of religion, the question of relevance or irrelevance does not arise, whatever the age. For its tenets are based on eternal values.
Another part of God’s religion covers Shariah (Law) and Minhaj (Method) (see the Quran, 5:48). In this second part of the teachings some concessions had to be made according to the age and situation in which the teachings were revealed. That is why the prophets were given different Shariah at different times.
In the above verse, Shariah means detailed law and Minhaj means its method. Since these two things relate very much to circumstances, they change with the changing situations. For instance, the principle of marriage between Adam’s sons and daughters were different from the principles given to other prophets. Similarly, the respective political methods followed by Yusuf (Joseph) and Musa were different from one another. This difference was due to the difference in time and circumstances.
If we look at the teachings of Islam from this angle, we shall find that there is no conflict between these teachings and the demands of modern times and that Islam is practicable in the modern age in the full sense of the word.
The real and basic demand of Islam is that man should believe in one God. He should worship Him alone. He should embody truth, honesty, justice and other moral values. In short, within his own private sphere, he should fully obey God. Obviously, these teachings of Islam do not clash with the demands of modern times, which are equally practicable today.
Another part of Islam pertains to social laws. For instance, deterrent punishments. These kinds of laws similarly do not clash with the demands of modern times. For commandments such as these do not mean that Muslims should start implementing these commands in whatever circumstances they find themselves. On the contrary, the prerequisite for the enforcement of these commands is that first of all they should be acceptable in society. As long as they remain unacceptable they will remain in abeyance.
Then there is Minhaj, that is, method. In this field also there is no clash between Islam and modern times. For, in social matters Islam will adopt whatever method is worthy of being implemented according to the spirit of the age. For instance, no attempt will be made to impose the system of caliphate by force in a country, which has a democratic system. Rather by cooperating with the times, peaceful Islamic dawah work will be performed as demonstrated in the lives of the various prophets. In such matters, there is no single method, which emerged among the prophets or the pious caliphs. We deduce an important principle from an incident in the life of the Prophet of Islam. A person named Musaylama rose in Yaman, who falsely claimed to be God’s prophet and to have been appointed as co-prophet along with the Prophet Muhammad. Musaylama sent a two-member delegation to Madinah to meet the Prophet of Islam and ask him to acknowledge his prophethood. The Prophet asked the delegates what opinion they had about Musaylema regarding his claim to prophethood. They said that they believed in his claim. At this the Prophet of Islam replied that, had there been no rule in this world that envoys should not be harmed, he would have had both of them killed. (Seerat ibn Hisham).
From this incident in the life of the Prophet of Islam, we learn a very important principle of shariah. That is, if a principle is generally accepted, at the international level, then the relevant Islamic principle will also be the same as that of other nations. This decision of the Prophet of Islam shows that in matters of age-old customs the law of the believers as well as of other nations would not be separate, provided the matter in hand did not pertain to some unlawful act, for instance, the eating of pork. It is obvious that if Islam followed this principle in international matters, then there would be no conflict or clash in the practical sense between Islam and other nations in respect of changing times.
One important teaching of Islam is that, with the exception of matters of worship and beliefs, no command is absolute so far as social matters are concerned. Commands can change with changes in place and time. The Shariah law can be changed as per the rule framed by our jurists. “Commands change with the change of time and place.” This teaching establishes at the outset that in no circumstance we should clash with the times. Rather, in keeping with the demand of the times we are free to carve out our path. In such a situation there is no possibility of Islam ever appearing to be irrelevant with the change of time. Obviously, when we are not supposed to go against circumstances, how could Islam ever become irrelevant due to the changed situation.
From a study of the Prophet’s life we may adduce the important congregational principle that Islam does not encourage us to clash with the prevailing political status quo but urges us instead to pursue our goal by accepting the status quo. This teaching solves the problem of Islam ever becoming irrelevant with the changing times. A system becomes irrelevant only when it is at variance with the changing times. When there is no such clash, the question of irrelevance does not arise at all.
The guidance of the Prophet of Islam has been gathered together in books of traditions, one part of which is found in Kitab al Fitan. In these traditions Muslims have been commanded, in no uncertain terms, that in any circumstance and in any age when they find political corruption among the rulers, they must sedulously refrain from opting for a policy of confrontation with them. Totally avoiding political confrontation with them, they must continue working in non-controversial spheres, for instance, in the fields of education, dawah, economics, social work, etc. The aim of this teaching of the Prophet is to make Islam relevant at all times.
The actual target of Islam is the intellectual, spiritual and moral rectification of the individual. This task is wholly related to the sphere of individual freedom. Today the principle has been accepted all over the world that every individual should be granted full freedom in his own personal sphere. He is free to think and act as he likes. This is the actual sphere of Islamic action. And when in this sphere every individual is granted total freedom, no objection can be raised that Islam has lost its relevance in modern times.
Another sphere of human action is that which concerns social matters. This is the sphere in which confrontation takes place with others, raising the question of relevance and irrelevance. Islamic teaching for this sphere is action in accordance with circumstances. If circumstances are not conducive for an action, we have to follow the path of persuasion and counseling, strictly adhering to peaceful means.
There are also certain matters where the teachings of Islam apparently go against the prevalent custom. For instance, the justification of wine, interest-based economy, deterrent punishment, different workplaces for men and women or secular democracy in place of the Khilafat, etc. The teachings of Islam in such matters are clearly different from the prevalent custom of modern times. And as we know, the majority today is not at the moment willing to accept the teaching of Islam in these matters.
This would appear to show that Islam has become irrelevant in modern times. But it is not right to draw this conclusion in haste. It is true that the teachings of Islam in social matters are different from the custom of the age. But this is a matter, which pertains to ideological difference. Islam does not enjoin its followers to set about changing the status quo at the first instance, in order to replace it with the Islamic system. The teaching of Islam in this matter is to opt for the way of patience. That is, refraining completely from launching oneself on a collision course and rather communicating one’s point of view in the language of persuasion. In this way an atmosphere can be created which is favourable to Islam and the relevance of Islam can be proved purely on a rational basis, so that it may find acceptance in due course.
In modern times there are two aspects to a religion becoming irrelevant, one ideological, another practical. Becoming irrelevant from the practical point of view means that a religion gives such commands to its adherents as are impracticable from the point of view of the age factor. As mentioned above, no such command exists in Islam. In its practical aspects, Islam is a religion of adjustment, giving ample concession to circumstances. There is enough flexibility in Islam in this regard. That is why Islam could never become irrelevant, whatever the age, so far as practical matters are concerned.
When we look at this issue from the ideological point of view, we do find on certain occasions, that the demands of Islam and the demands of the age are diametrically opposed to one another. But as mentioned above, in matters of ideological differences the way of peaceful persuasion alone will be adopted. At all events, no practical initiative be taken, when the circumstances are unfavourable. In such a state of affairs, ideological difference can never create any problem in any age or in any situation.
One thing is worth remembering in this connection, and that concerns Ijtihaad. One role of Ijtihaad is that whenever any teaching of Islam appears to be going against the demands of the time, the religious scholars are duty-bound to strive by exercising Ijtihaad to seek a reapplication of the teachings of Islam to changing situations. Ijtihaad is in fact another name for seeking reapplication of Islamic teachings to the changing needs of the time. (See chapter on Ijtihaad).
Muslim scholars of modern times, feeling the need to exercise Ijtihaad have made an effort to reapply the principle of Islam in this matter. For instance, on the Indian subcontinent Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad said that since in modern times the nationality was linked with the homeland, Islam would also follow the same principle. That is to say, in whichever country Muslims lived, they would be regarded as co-patriots like other citizens. And they would not insist on a separate nationality for themselves.
The aim of Ijtihaad is that in all ages the gap between Islam and the age may continue to be filled. In no circumstance should the impression be formed that Islam has become irrelevant in the changed circumstances. It was due to the importance of this matter that the Prophet of Islam encouraged Muslims to continue the process of Ijtihaad, even at the risk of making mistakes. In no circumstance was the door of Ijtihaad to be closed.
The actual goal of Islam is to bring about an intellectual revolution among the people. Such a task is eternal in its nature. That is why along with eternal laws goes the principle of flexibility in Islam. Along with azimah (commands) Islam gives ample space for concessions and exemptions. Along with the observance of form Islam gives equal importance to the spirit.