The news of the passing away of Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani reminded me of the words of Imam Hasan al-Basari: “The death of a prominent scholar leaves a vacuum which is hard to fill.”
Dr. Alwani was not an ordinary scholar; rather, he was a luminary—a pioneer and visionary whose contributions to Islamic thought and jurisprudence will be sorely missed by all – students and scholars alike.
Before proceeding, let me extend my heartfelt condolences to his bereaved family and pray in the manner of our beloved Prophet, “may the Beneficent Lord console your hearts, inspire you to meet His will with patience, and forgive your beloved one who has passed away.”
I knew Dr. Alwani while I served on the Fiqh Council of North America and had the honour of meeting him on several occasions at ISNA conventions. The last time I met him was in an elevator at one of the conventions, where he congratulated me for the initiative of starting the Islamic Institute of Toronto for training students and promised support and cooperation for our new initiative. I was deeply impressed by his humility, sincerity and selfless commitment to the Islamic cause.
Dr. Alwani was one of the few scholars deeply grounded in Islamic sciences while being aware of modern thought currents and ideas. Trained at al-Azhar in Egypt, where he earned his doctorate for his dissertation on usul al-fiqh, he served as a professor and academic at various universities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere; he headed the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)—one of the most prestigious institutions in the USA—where he joined the late Dr. Ismail Faruqi in charting a new course in the rejuvenation of Islamic thinking and in a rereading of the Sources.
Dr. Alwani produced a number of works that provided initiatives for critical thinking – essentially, developing the spirt of ijtihad. While doing so, he never departed from the tradition of Islamic scholarship; rather, he tried to reform the tradition from within by using the accepted tools and methodologies. Through his books and fatwas, he set an example for a new generation of scholars on how to be creative while being faithful to Islamic traditions and methodologies. He demonstrated that Muslims did not need to resort to following agnostic methodologies in order to revive Islamic thinking and reform.
Dr. Alwani’s experience of, and exposure to, the challenges facing Islam and Muslims prompted him to revisit some thorny issues including the standard rulings on punishment for apostasy and Muslims serving in the US military, etc. He reviewed these rulings through a holistic reading of the scripture (in the model of Imam Abu Hanifah), critically evaluating the traditions and thus formulating new rulings. His approach to the Qur’an emphasized a holistic reading, delineating the fundamentals of Islamic epistemology, stressing the importance of the joint reading of the scripture and nature, and delineating the Islamic view of man’s position vis-à-vis the world to provide new insights.
Dr. Alwani’s fatwas on current issues drew the ire of scholars who were bent on repeating the static rulings of the past without any regard for changing circumstances and times. His fatwas and articles served as examples for scholars living in the west; he did not simply regurgitate statements from books, but rather reworked them in light of new circumstances. Thus he took to heart the dire warning of Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, the eminent scholar:
“Whoever issues rulings to the people merely based on what is transmitted in the compendia despite differences in their customs, usages, times, conditions and the special circumstances of their situations has gone astray and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live in, and their physical conditions but merely in accordance with what he finds written down in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. Such is an ignorant physician; the other is an ignorant jurist-consult but more detrimental.”