Casting Aside the Clutches of Conjecture: the Striving for Religious Certainty at Aligarh

In: Islamic Law and Society
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  • 1 University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany

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Why did the famous North Indian modernist and founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh, Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (d. 1315/1898), lash out against emulation (taqlīd) in Islamic law (fiqh)? The usual explanation is that he wanted to shift religious authority away from the religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ) toward ordinary Muslims. Countering this claim, I argue that his goal and that of his followers and associates at Aligarh was not primarily to ‘democratize’ Islamic knowledge by doing away with the traditional edifice of Islamic law in general and the four established Sunni legal schools in particular. Rather, Sayyid Aḥmad Khān and his associates attacked taqlīd because, in their view, it failed to yield reliable, certain knowledge (yaqīn). Drawing on Urdu writings, I demonstrate that these modernist thinkers did not engage with the inner logic of Islamic law but rather measured it according to higher, theological, and philosophical standards. In their quest for certainty, they were inspired both by a scientific worldview as well as colonial conceptions of law.