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.