Tradition Versus Traditionalism

Mohammad Ali

June 20, 2017


For a society, culture, and civilization, tradition functions like a sword, depending on of its use, it can be a shield or a catastrophe to its wielder and other fellow beings, too. Tradition should always be understood as a long continuum, compatible with progress and innovation. Holding it stagnant and unchangeable renders society dead, unable to move along with the time. When we say society is dead, it connotes that the living people who make it up are no longer able to use their reason. The horizons of their minds are not ready to shoulder the responsibility (i.e. interpretation of the tradition) that comes along with change with the passing of time. While considering it alive and continuum gives hope and spirit to its adherents for a magnificent future linked with their glorious past.


The Industrial revolution and globalization have brought the so-called rupture between the past and the present—and it was called modernity. Tradition always keeps changing gradually and silently, this time the change was big and brutal though, tending to engulf the whole world. Consequently, societies split into groups: those who insisted upon what they have been practicing, that is tradition, and those who opted for, or say were compelled to, the change, modernity. Modernity proved to be ruthless to tradition. A narrative was created that the past no longer works today, it is out-dated, and in view of the fact that tradition links with the past, it must be rejected in the present modern world. The claimants to tradition were scared, confused and helpless, tried to isolate themselves from the evil modern world and sought shelter in tradition. There are reasons which explain why those who uphold tradition had/have fear of change; that lest tradition will be corrupted or the fear of the unknown which will come up in future. Moreover, the change did not spring from within rather it was imposed in order to modernize/civilize people, as it was held by the guardians of the change, the imperialists.


Logically, modernity, as a whole cannot be condemned as evil. Everything in the world has its side effects, so does modernity. Likewise, not every adherent to tradition rejects change. Many of them regard tradition as organic, adaptable, that are needed to be interpreted to adjust in the time of change.  Therefore, on the basis of this understanding, there must be a distinction among the upholders of tradition. In this essay, I have preferred the distinction made by Prof Mahan Mirza: those who believe tradition as organic are distinguished as traditionists from those who hold tradition as stagnant as traditionalists.


To traditionist, tradition is like a monument, which requires care and, as time passes, renovation, and inspires architects of a new generation. Tradition authenticates innovations without damaging the sense of identity of the innovators. Many instances are there that testify this claim. Muslim history is rich, particularly in this regard. Prof Fazlur Rahman in his article, Social Change and Early Sunnah, has scholarly gathered the instances demonstrating the progressiveness and adaptability to change of the early generations of Islam. Syed Ameer Ali in his book, The Spirit of Islam (1891), has also eulogized the readiness of the early Muslims for change. One can count Muhammad Abduh, Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Iqbal, etc. and many others among the following generations who, in this sense, were at the same time traditionists and modernists. By glorifying the excellent enlightened tradition that adapted the recurrent changes throughout the years, these scholars exhorted tradition-loving Muslims to tread the same path. They believed that Muslim tradition was never opposed to innovation, interpretation, and change; it was rather spirited and living. Prof. Ebrahim Moosa, himself a traditionist and Islamic scholar, says, ‘in order for a tradition to be vibrant, it has to pulsate with a living faith. It does not matter if the faith practice were of those who are long gone.’


However, as a matter of fact, there exists a group of traditionalists who views change as an epidemic to tradition. Their faith is bound to the literalist interpretation of the tradition. To them, tradition remains stagnant, and abhorrent to interpretation in all places, at all times.     This attitude towards tradition, as Jaroslav Pelikan has termed, is traditionalism. In The Vindication of Tradition, he has famously described ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.’ For instance, those who still believe in the tradition of Sati (burning forcefully a recent widow on the funeral pyre of her dead husband in the Hindu tradition), the dead and horrifying tradition of dead people, are traditionalist.


As in any other faith tradition, traditionalism has always found its proponents among the followers of Islam. They restricted to the literalist interpretation of tradition diminishing it to impracticality, hence, coerciveness. Interpreting tradition, to them, implies committing bida’h, which is interpreted as innovating something (in Islam) without having any prior example (in Quran and hadith). Yes, it is strictly prohibited in Islam, but this implication cannot be held as correct.  If interpreting tradition implies committing bid’ah, Islamic tradition could not survive in so many different cultures and geographies for so many years. While interpreting Ghazali, Ebrahim Moosa says, that ‘a heretical innovation, bid’ah, is a practice or teaching that creates an aversion to the required norms provided by the prophet. As long as any new practice does not create aversion to the norms of the prophet, it is acceptable.’ Which innovation is good and compatible with the spirit of Islamic tradition is acceptable.


Traditionalism makes tradition coercive and exclusive while considering tradition as living and interpretable makes it open and inclusive, which is the beauty of tradition.


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