Islamic scholarship in Ghana

Islamic scholarship has played a major role in the growth and development of Ghana. However, it witnessed lacked socio-cultural legitimacy since the 1960s. This is because many traditional Muslim scholars who got the opportunity to study abroad have ignored the task of rethinking legal methodology to this effect.

It can be observed that a lack of interest in the theological-ethical underpinnings of the Ghanaian social setting is a major setback to seminary education in most of the pure Arabic or Islamic schools (Madrasas) in Ghana. The situation is worsened by the anti-rationalist approach of many of the returnee scholars. This is because many of them do not show any interest in defining the peculiarity of the Ghanaian social structure in their religious teachings and propagations.

For more than a decade, Islamic scholarship in Ghana has largely been led by legalistic Traditionalists. These individuals strictly adhere to the views and opinions of the classical and pre-modern Muslim jurists and theologians known as (at-Tābi’ūn Wa tābi’ at-Tābi’īn). Also, they uphold their interpretation of the Islamic sacred texts. Therefore, any ‘new’ opinion is considered a grave contradiction to the principles and tenets of the Islamic faith. Moreover, an attempt to ridicule the classical and pre-modern Muslim jurists whose works have been canonized in many Muslim societies across the globe.

Importance of Ijtihād

The legalistic Traditionalists, the classical and pre-modern Muslim jurists, and theologians are endowed with knowledge of the faith. And this shows an overflowed cavernous warehouse is the epitome of Islamic sciences (Hum ar-Rijāl). They are equipped with the knowledge that enables them to provide answers to ‘all’ religious questions. Therefore, Muslims across the globe must embrace their teachings. Especially when the gate of Ijtihād has been closed.


Ijtihād helps in issuing an Islamic legal opinion to solve issues or answer questions that have not been dealt with by the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (PBUH). This kind of legal initiative is not an open beach for anybody who thinks she or he can swim. However, a Mujtahid (person who makes Ijtihād) should have an in-depth knowledge of the Qur’an.

Also, she or he must know the traditions of the Prophet, the Arabic Language, the customs, and the traditions of the society in which she or he lives. Importantly, she or he must be conversant with the nuances of the intent of the Islamic Law (Maqāsid ash-Shar’iyya). It is through possessing the aforementioned qualities that will enable one to dive into the subject of Ijtihād.

As practiced by classical and pre-modern Islamic scholars, the Legalistic Traditionalists engage in text-based Ijtihād.

Therefore, when faced with a new problem, these scholars search for a possible Qur’anic verse and, or the traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) and apply it to the given issue. This is to ensure conformity with tradition. Thus, a literal interpretation of the literature is strictly followed.


Political Ulamā

Additionally, the legalistic traditionalists and political Islamic scholars believe in initiating projects that will reinstate, spread and concretize the ‘original’ position of Islam as well as its role in society.

Thus, the subject of loyalty is the staple that binds their sermons and is vigorously taught to their followers.

Islam – society relationship was eroded as a result of westernization according to scholars. According to them, the legitimacy of the state is divine. For this reason, only people with superior Islamic knowledge must be allowed to form the government of a state. In the Ghanaian case, people with superior Islamic knowledge must occupy all the chieftaincy positions in Muslim communities.

Since political offices are meant for the public good, only adherents of their brand of Islam can plan, organize, coordinate, make, and take decisions for the general good of Muslim societies.


Political Ulamā are heavily tenacious to religiosity, which is an engagement in an open show of piety all in an attempt to adduce their superior level of faith. To this end, the stereotypical response is their modus operandi in the propagation of the Islamic faith. They would make no attempt at engaging in intellectual discourse to clarify the legal rulings of certain ‘complex’ and ‘controversial’ issues but will quickly hail a flurry of attacks on any person whose interpretation of such issues contradicts their understanding.

These usual fiery reactions have occasioned the silence of the highly educated Ghanaian Muslims who fear being attacked ad hominem, a situation that has caused Islamic scholarship in the country to suffer a relapse. The reason they engage in this vitriolic tactic is to muffle other voices and preserve the literal interpretation of the sacred texts, a badly thought-out scheme from political Ulamā clutching at straws.


This development led to a ‘crisis’ in Islamic scholarship, a situation that still characterizes Islamic discourse in Ghana. Contemporary Islamic discourse has tried to come to terms with this ‘crisis’ by constructing a new place for Islam within the rapidly changing environments of the globalized world. The crises led to a new crop of Muslim scholars known as the revivalists.


These scholars saw the need to [re]activate the concept of Ijtihād to pave way for the re-interpretation of certain Islamic norms and principles to conform to the Ghanaian socio-cultural setting, meet the challenges of the globalized world, and revive the enviable Islamic culture and disciplines that have eroded in Muslim communities in Ghana. These groups of scholars categorically rejected the notion that the gate of Ijtihād is closed and Muslims across the board must adhere to nothing other than the teachings of the classical and pre-modern scholars.


In their attempt at modernizing Islam to meet the challenges of the modern world, they promoted Islamic pluralism by encouraging Muslims to move away from their rigid positions to a more flexible state of accepting new, modern, radical, and different interpretations of the sacred texts. This they did by considering the general interest of the Ghanaian state (al – Maslahatu al- ‘Āmma) and the pressing needs of the Ghanaian Muslim societies (Awlawiyyātu-l Muslimīn).

Progressive Ijtihādists

This effort led to the emergence of Islamic Intellectualism; a concept I use to denote Islamic scholars who sprouted in the late 1990s. The progressive ijtihādists constitute contemporary Muslim scholars who joined the Islamic discourse from diverse educational backgrounds and orientations.

These groups of scholars cannot be found under any one umbrella, but rather spread across spaces and fields expressing their intellectual Islamic opinions on how to get the religion not only to conform with contemporary times but also to adapt to nuances of globalization while still preserving the true state of the faith.

The experimental spirit of the progressive ijtihādists vanguard pushed Islamic discourse to a more critical analysis of issues. Under the hallowed cloak of superior secular education, progressive Ijtihādists expressed themselves freely and continuously made it very clear that the progressive approach to the sacred texts is the only method that could save Muslim intellectuals from schizophrenia.


The Progressive Muslim scholars engage in context-based Ijtihād. Thus, when a new issue emerges, they begin by doing an extensive analysis of it and find out the dynamics, characteristics, and implications to the general Ghanaian society and the globalized world.

Therefore, even if they realize similar issue had existed during the reign of the Prophet (PBUH) or his successors (al-Khulafā ar-Rāshidūn) and a solution was found, these scholars will consider the realities of contemporary times and adopt a ‘strategic’ way (Ijtihād) of ensuring the general interest (al-Maslahatu al-‘Āmma) of the Ghanaian society.

Public interest (al-Maslahatu al-‘Āmma) is the situation in Islamic law where a particular solution is chosen over another mainly because the chosen one is possibly the best in relation to the issue under review, although it could be the weakest on technical ground. This shows how the welfare of the society is paramount in the Islamic legal discourse of progressive Muslim scholars.

The upshot


Under the teachings of legalistic traditionalists and political Islamist scholars, Muslims live a life characterized by a binary impulse. This is where Muslim communities are engulfed in a jingoistic state and intuitions of “us” whose Islam is the true religion of God, and “them” who are virtually lost and practicing an untrue religion, or and most probably, are people of no religion.

With the advancement of the lives and works of progressive Muslim scholars, this negative psycho binary impulse is gradually reforming the Ghanaian Islamic scholarship into an “us” “us”. Progressive Muslim scholars project the concept of at-Ta’āruf which is used in the Qur’an to mean good social intercourse, excellent human relation, and a generous sense of humor that needs to govern human relations of all people without regard to race, color, or religion.

To ensure at-Ta’āruf is achieved, individuals are highly encouraged to be self-discipline in their dealings with others, be open-minded and honest in their discourse, avoid unnecessary provocations, spying and eavesdropping, abstain from fallacious and ill-conceived conclusions, and generally “do unto others what they expect others to do unto them”. It is only when at-Ta’āruf is fervently pursued that humanity can live in peace and prosperity, which is the primary objective of all the three Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

The writer is the Founding President: of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Civilisation


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