Friday, August 14, 2009

The Changeable and the Unchangeable in Islamic Sharia

A simple but adequate definition of Sharia, commonly referred to as “Islamic law”, is the application to Muslim communities or societies of all that Muhammad said or did. This comprises the Quran (although Muslims believe that Allah and not Muhammad was the author), the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and the Sira (his biography). These elements collectively are known in Islam as the “Sunnah” and their application to Muslim society is the “Sharia”.

The subject of a recent edition of Al-Jazeera’s weekly program “Sharia and Life” was what elements of Sharia can or cannot be changed. As is often the case in such programs, what was left unsaid was more interesting than what was said.

The guest scholar was Syrian Dr. Wahbah al-Zuhaili, a member of the International Islamic Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) Academy. He introduced the subject by defining the three distinguishing characteristics of Sharia: it is sacred, it is intended as a guide for human behavior, and it is Allah’s final message. Sura 5 of the Quran specifies, “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”

Dr. Wahbah emphasized that the “essential elements” of Sharia can never be changed. Quran 6:115 says that no-one can change the words of Allah, and Quran 33:62 adds that no-one can change the way of Allah.

There are, however, “partial elements” of Sharia that are open to interpretation and change. These are seen as “amendments”, items that are “attached” to the essential elements, and can be changed for numerous reasons. During the lifetime of Muhammad, these changes appeared in the Quran as “abrogations”, revelations that opposed and cancelled out earlier revelations. Abrogation ceased with the death of Muhammad, but was followed by the principle of “ijtihad” in which learned scholars adapted elements of sharia to an ever-changing world. In recent years, for example, scholars have ruled that Muslims who are flying during prayer times can pray quietly in their seats on the aircraft and are not required to kneel towards Mecca as Muslims normally do. According to Dr. Wahbah, these rulings are based on two complimentary principles. One is the rule of “taysir”, or making things easy for Muslims. The other is “darura” or necessity. When necessary, things that are “haram” or forbidden can become “halal” or allowed. As an example, Quran 2:173 allows Muslims to eat pork during extenuating circumstances.

When the interviewer asked a second participant, Dr. Kamal Imam from Egypt’s University of Alexandria, what could be changed in the Sharia, Dr. Imam was adamant that the text of the Sunnah, that is the words of the Quran and the authentic hadith, was not open to modification or change. All that could be changed were rulings that earlier scholars had made on those texts. Although not disagreeing with Dr. Kamal, Dr. Wahbah noted that some of the hadith, even if authentic, were not applicable to modern life.

Dr. Wahbah emphasized that Muhammad was both a prophet and a political leader. As a prophet, what he said and did was not open to abrogation or change. As a political leader, however, his ideas could be advanced and developed. Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab, for example, developed the details of the Muslim kingdom far beyond the basic principles laid by Muhammad.

Frankly speaking, the interview did not seem to give much leeway to any substantial change or reform in Islamic thought. Examples given of ijtihad or change were as always trivial, limited to whether or not one needs to face Mecca when praying in an airplane. Serious matters that are considered essential elements of Western society, such as the choice to believe whatever one wants, to marry whomever one chooses, to have equal legal standing regardless of one’s gender or religion, seem to be untouched by the elements that are open to change in the Sharia.

31 comments:

no one said...

let us assume there was a golden age under muslim rule. Even if it was short --how do you explain it?

(i am refering to around the first calif until about 1061

ChrisLA said...

Human progress is linear, going from past to future. The Muslim view of progress, however, is circular -- measured by how near or far Muslims may be from realizing the idealized Salafi period of the "rightly guided" colleagues of Muhammad. (Most of them, by the way, were murdered.)Anyway, back to the point, rather than striving to make this year better than last year, Muslims are focused on the pursuit of the brass ring on a never-ending merry-go-round.

But when you juxtapose the ancient sacred texts of Islam on the actual 21st Century reality, it is obvious that Sharia Law and the Quran have no place. An American artist is opening an exhibit in California showing pages of an English version of the Quran illustrated with contemporary American scenes. For example, Surah 44:10 says, "Wait for the day when the sky will pour down visible smoke, enveloping all men: a dreadful scourge." The illustration shows the World Trade Center billowing smoke. Mohammad Qureshi of the Islamic Center of Southern California isn't very happy, needless to say.

See: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/08/a-new-image-for-the-koran.html

Here is the website posting for the Gallery: http://www.koplindelrio.com/birk2/birk.html

I'm sure there will be pressure to close the exhibit and squash the forthcoming book. I think if people really see the implications of the words of the Quran (and Sharia Law) in today's society, they will be aghast.

no one said...

Chris LA: thank you for your answer--but still i find it curious that the first caliphs were open minded and if not progress at least there seems to have been a somewhat open society.
were the caliphs open to aristotle and plato against their own religon?
Now I admit you have given a partial answer saying that that was not ideal to muslims and that they would prefer to return to the ideal period of mass murder of the very begining of islam. But still why and how did a relativaly open period begin---and the further question is if perhaps something could be done to help muslims return to tolerance and humanity?

6p00e009949db88833 said...

"perhaps something could be done to help muslims return to tolerance and humanity"

Seems a bit condescending. After all, why should proud Muslims need anyone's "help" returning to the tolerance and humanity supposedly inherent in Islam? Especially if Islam claims to be the "perfect, peaceful, best, etc. religion"? But the fact that there's been NO return to a "golden age" of Islam in centuries (and would even need "help" from non-Muslims to get there today) shines an even more embarrassing spotlight on the deficiencies of Islam and its grandiose claims.

6p00e009949db88833 said...

Also, re: the open period or "golden age" of Islam....are we certain it was "golden" because of Islam? E.g. there are former Muslims from Iran who'd argue that Islam took credit for the success of their country in the Middle Ages, and that Persia (Iran today) was a greater empire in the pre-Islamic days of Cyrus and Zoroastrianism than it ever was under Islam.

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