Soure: Alislam eGazette – November 2011 Issue
Author: Atif Munawar Mir
What is Shariah?
Shariah is the set of principles and rules outlined in the Holy Qura’n. The Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, further elaborated and illustrated these rules and principles through his deeds also called Sunnah (ways of the Holy Prophet) and his words also referred to as Ahadith (oral traditions of the Holy Prophet). Like the Holy Quran, Sunnah and Ahadith are considered primary sources of Shariah by Muslim scholars. But in order of importance, the Holy Qura’n outranks Sunnah and Ahadith. This is because the Holy Qura’n is the Divine word.
It has been preserved in its original form as the Quran itself states and also as history bears witness and is thus considered authentic. The authenticity of Sunnah and Ahadith is sometimes subject to the test of authenticity. Such dissection is not required in all situations. Sunnah and Ahadith are deemed inauthentic, when in conflict with the Holy Qura’n simply because the actions of the Holy Prophet cannot be in conflict with Divine principles. In the West today, Shariah is identified as a source of oppression, violence and tyranny. This misconception of Shariah stems from actions that arise from an out-of-context reading of the Holy Quran and reliance on inauthentic traditions of the Holy Prophet. A study of the Holy Quran suggests that the Holy Quran preaches justice, freedom of conscience and compassion. For instance, the Holy Quran says:
O ye who believe! Be strict in observing justice, and be witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves or against your parents or kindred. Whether he, against whom witness is borne, be rich or poor… (4:136)
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East or the West, but truly righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets, and spends his money out of love for Him, on the kindred and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and those who ask for charity, and for ransoming the captives; and observes prayer and pays the Zakat… (2:178).
There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong…(2:257)
Granted that some teachings of Shariah are not in line with liberal western values but the truth is that Shariah, in its essential form, helps Muslims to observe justice, tolerance and charity. The gap between Shariah and western liberal values, however, is often portrayed larger than it really is, thanks to out-of-context reading and distortion of the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Holy Prophet. The out-of-context reading and distortion occurs due to a variety of reasons. For example, in Pakistan, clergy wants to radicalize Muslims to increase their own street and electoral power. It is easier to create blindly obedient followers when the teachings of the Holy Qur’an are presented in black-and-white manner. The ordinary Muslims find themselves too powerless to challenge the twisted interpretation of clergy out of fear and/or ignorance. In some cases, the ordinary Muslims are inclined to believe in twisted interpretation of clergy because such interpretations give legitimacy to centuries-old local customs, which might give these ordinary Muslims power over vulnerable segments of society. For example, President Zial-ul-Haq in 1980s introduced discriminatory legislation against women such as the set of Hudood Ordinance. This feudal-based ordinance ensured the lashing of raped women while acquitting their rapists. The ordinance, which represented twisted interpretation of Islam to preserve local customs, intended systematic subordination of women in Pakistan.
Similarly, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are often used by some Muslims to settle personal scores. The blasphemy is not punishable in Islam as per the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and traditions of the Holy Prophet. Nonetheless, the clergy fights hard to defend laws that prescribe punishment for blasphemy because such laws give them power over minorities as well as control over those Muslims who might be considered a threat to the authority of clergy by insisting on Quranic teachings of religious tolerance, political peace and human dignity. All in all, in today’s Muslim world, Shariah is rarely a source of justice, tolerance or charity. Instead it has become the chosen tool of oppression and savagery. In the earlier centuries of Islam, it was Shariah that had fostered religious tolerance, socioeconomic justice, legal excellence and scientific achievements. Simply put, it is not Shariah but its twisted interpretation by Muslim clergy that is the real problem.
Flexible Nature of Shariah: Ijtihad, Ijma and Qiyas
How did Shariah, which should be a source of justice, charity and tolerance, become a form of oppression? Ironically, it is the flexibility embedded in Shariah that led to its distortion. The primary and earliest sources of Shariah are the Holy Qura’n, Sunnah and Ahadith. With the passage of time, however, new sources of Shariah emerged such as ijtihad (independent rational analysis) supported by ijma (consensus of scholarly opinion) and qiyas (analogy). The purpose of these new sources was to find suitable responses to challenges posed by ever-changing social conditions and scientific progress in light of the Qura’nic text, Sunnah and sayings of the Holy Prophet (saw).
Ijtihad is the use of reason and judgment to decide which course of action is most in keeping with the spirit of Qura’n and Ahadith. To be more precise, ijtihad refers to exercising independent juristic reasoning to provide answers where the Qura’n and Sunnah are silent.
The basis for ijtihad comes from a conversation between the Holy Prophet and Hadhrat Muadh ibn Jabal upon his appointment in Yemen as a judge. Prior to his departure, the Holy Prophet asked him, “According to what shall you judge?” Hadhrat Muadh replied, “According to the Book of God.” The Holy Prophet then asked, “And if you find nothing therein?” Hadhrat Muadh went on, “I shall judge according to the Sunnah of God’s Messenger.” The Holy Prophet further asked, “And if you find nothing therein?” Hadhrat Muadh answered, “I shall not fail to strive (ajtahidu) to reach an opinion.” Satisfied, the Holy Prophet concluded, “Praise be to God who has guided God’s Messenger’s messenger to what pleases God’s Messenger.”
According to this Ahadith, the legal methodology of referring to the Holy Qur’an and then the Sunnah and then engaging in ijtihad, was a result of God’s guidance to Hadhrat Muadh.