Those who listen to the Word (Al Quran) and follow the best meaning in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided and those are the the one’s endued with understanding (Al Quran; 39:18).
The American Muslim community is in its formative stages and is facing many contentious issues, such as whether to participate in American politics, how to deal with non-Muslims, what kind of citizen a Muslim should be in a secular democracy and how to redefine gender roles in postmodern times. Needless to say there are many different perspectives competing to gain legitimacy and leadership to guide the emerging direction of the new community.
This process is further compounded by the resonance of Islamic resurgence in the Muslim Diaspora. Many Islamic movements are experiencing strong revival in the traditional homelands of Islam and are also influencing Islamic life in the US. Some of the different movements include, Islamic political movements seeking to establish the Islamic state, puritanical movements seeking to purify the faith, Sufi movements seeking to revive their tariqas (ways) and sectarian movements renewing old and forgotten disputes.
The enormous energy released from these movements is galvanizing Muslims everywhere leading to intense, heated discussions and debates about how Islam and the global Islamic revival should be understood and implemented in their local context. In all these contentious discussions, more and more people are turning to the tradition of Islamic law to settle disputes and give decisive verdicts on what is right and what is wrong. Usually this is more in the form of who is right and who is wrong.
It is in this discursive environment that I wish to share some reflections about Islamic law in order that in invoking it we do not do injustice to Islam or the spirit of Islamic revival.
Before we consider the nature of Islamic law let us reflect on the relations between Islam and Islamic law. Let me make it clear straight away that the two are not identical. Islamic law is a subset of Islam. In other words there is more to Islam than just legal injunctions. Being a Muslim means a lot more than just a legal entity.
Islam is the “shar”, the way or the path revealed by God that will lead to success in this life and in the hereafter. Islam is about enlightenment above anything else. It makes a human a civilized being. Islam brings knowledge to the ignorant and discipline and direction to his/her life. Most importantly, Islam brings answers to the mysteries of being. As humans we all seek answers to perennial existential questions such as who am I? Where do I come from? What is life? What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of life and death? What happens after death? What is the nature of the eternal and how do I relate to it? What are my obligations to the divine? Why am I obligated to the divine? What is Good and what is the meaning of a good life? What is the relationship between Knowledge, Good, Happiness and Success?
Islam provides rational, substantive, empowering, enlightening and inspirational answers to all the above questions. Islamic law is just one of the many elements of Islam. The purpose of Islamic law is not to present a set of arbitrary hurdles to test the belief of Muslims. It is a set of norms that direct an individual towards a materially and spiritually good life. It also provides constitutional principles that will help ensure justice and welfare for all as society develops political and legal institutions to manage the ever-increasing complexity of life and human interactions.
Islamic Law or the Shariah is not a clearly articulated set of rules available for immediate reference. This is the point where Muslims with a superficial understanding of Islamic law, or a rigid attitude towards Islamic traditions err, often with dangerous consequences. Islam law and the extant traditions are essentially an interpretation of revealed sources, The Quran and many of the Prophet’s (pbuh) guiding traditions.
There are many interpretations of the Shariah. Muslims recognize five different schools, the Hanafi, the Shafii, the Maliki, the Hanbali and the Jaffari schools as equally valid and legitimate. Islamic legal tradition practices epistemological pluralism that allows it to maintain that these schools may differ in their legal opinions but in spite of the difference the opinions are valid and equally Islamic.
This enlightened quality of Islamic legal tradition is unfortunately missing from the contemporary Muslim discourse and it has been replaced by an intransigent, rigid and bellicose attitude that diminishes the virtues of the legal tradition. The spirit of “this is what I believe Allah expects of us, but it is possible that you may be right and I may be wrong” has been replaced by “this is Islam’s ruling, I am right, you are wrong, in fact I alone am right and you are a Kafir (nonbeliever) because you disagree with me”.
The contemporary Islamic revival is taking place when the human history itself is in tremendous flux. We are experiencing the simultaneous play of traditional, modern and postmodern forces. In this atmosphere, when Muslims debate the essence of Islamic identity and Muslim place in the global public schema, the present attitude towards assuming that any interpretation of Islamic law is absolute and non-negotiable, acts as a barrier rather than a facilitator of Muslim-Muslim dialogue.
If Muslims wish to unite and revive the great spirit of Islam and its civilizing ethos, then we must learn to be more tolerant and more open minded in our approach to contending arguments. Strength, legitimacy and vitality come from openness, tolerance of difference and from the willingness to bridge rather than burn bridges.
As more and more Muslims turn towards Islam in search of meaning and direction, there will be a powerful need to reexamine Islamic tradition and Islamic message in the light of our present existential conditions. Muslims now come from different cultures and different political and economic conditions. Their interpretations of what it means to live according to Islam (not some medieval Islamic scholars conception of Islam) will differ. While there will be a need for consensus on some issues like political governance, there can be room for difference in other areas.
For all this to work it is important that Muslims develop an ethics of discourse. The present rigid and inflexible approach to Islamic legal opinions of the past must be discarded and replaced with a more open and compassionate understanding of Islam.
Islamic law is supposed to serve the Muslim society. It cannot do so by imposing itself on the society. Remember God is not a tyrant, he is most merciful and most benevolent. It is those who are supercilious enough to speak on his behalf that often suffer from this affliction.