April/May 2006
The Alternate Voice

The Immutable Shariah

by Mansoor Alam

And now have We set thee (O Muhammad) on a clear road (Shariah) of (Our) commandment; so follow it, and follow not the whims of those who know not [45:18]
-- M. Pickthall translation
The above verse leaves no doubt that the Shariah the Prophet (PBUH) was commanded to follow - and hence Muslims in turn are supposed to follow - must provide a clear road (or code) for leading our individual as well as collective lives. Since Islam is universal in scope, its laws must reflect that universality. Therefore, it is wrong to refer to a shariah that applies only to a particular group or sect as 'Islamic.' In fact, attaching the Islamic label to a sectarian shariah negates its very universality. Similarly, imposing the shariah of a particular sect (or Madhab) on all Muslims is also wrong because there is no compulsion in Islam.

So why the apparent contradiction where everyone wants to impose his or her interpretation on everyone else? And is there a way out of this conundrum?

Yes, there is and that involves re-opening the closed door of ijtihad that has remained shut tight for centuries. The self-appointed custodians of the religion guard it passionately, issuing fatwas against those who do not step in line with their sectarian shariah and even declare them as heretics or kafirs. These custodians waged war to get rid of the M'utazilah. Their Crime? Belief in human free will (what you sow is what you reap), fairness in justice, and utilizing reason to understand the Qur'an. The stigma remains, so much so that even today anyone advocating to uphold these Qur'anic ideals is branded with this label by the proponents of this man-made sectarian shariah.

But time is the ultimate arbiter. There has been recent debate on the issue of opening the door to ijtihad, not because they want to do it, but because they have been forced into it by the challenges that confront Muslims today.

The Prophet (PBUH) first planted the seed of ijtihad and nourished it as commanded by Allah (SWT) - [Qur'an 4:135]. This he did as an integral part of the Islamic way of life (Shariah). The Rightly-Guided Caliphs continued the Prophet's tradition by their continuous cultivation of ijtihad, resulting in the phenomenal flowering of the Islamic civilization.

In accordance with the universal nature of Islam, the world was offered the fruits of these efforts in areas of science, art, philosophy, architecture, jurisprudence and medicine. As the early Muslims were dedicated to the spirit of inquiry and establishing schools in many branches of knowledge, the West benefited well from the fruits the tree of ijtihad yielded. Muslims however ceased to nurture the root of inquiry that had proved so vital to their vigorous development. Once felled, the loss of ijtihad starved the Ummah of a means to propagate the intellectual inquiry so integral to the early Islamic tradition.

This single act may have contributed to the downfall of Muslims more than anything else. We are limited now to recycling and regurgitating old commentaries. Any discussion of progress evokes fear of innovation and must automatically be labeled as haraam (forbidden) according to this sectarian shariah.

There is definitely a way to get out of our present abyss, but that would require opening the door of ijtihad, enabling the present Ummah to debate, and apply the principles of ijtihad, in the manner of our noble predecessors, to all issues, in the light of Qur'anic guidance. Life, according to the Qur'an, is nothing but ijtihad or struggle - persistent struggle, continuous exertion [29:69]. This is the only way we can reclaim Allah's universal Shariah [22:78]. Only then will we be able to realize the true and full potential of Islam. It was done before and it can be done again. This is the promise of Allah and Allah does not break his promise [30:6].

According to Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher of the East and one of the greatest scholars of Islam:

Persistent struggle gives maturity to the elixir of life
O ignorant ones! This is the secret of immortal life

Dr. Mansoor Alam is on the Editorial Board of The Alternate Voice. P.O. Box 350863, Toledo, OH 43635-0863 USA

Sir Abdullah Suhrawardy, "The Sayings of Muhammad," February 1905

"Sharia or Islamic Law," The Wisdom Fund

Reza Aslan, "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," Random House (March 15, 2005)

Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, "The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists," HarperSanFrancisco (October 1, 2005)

Richard N. Ostling, "Scholar says this generation's Muslims face a momentous choice," Associated Press/The Manila Times, November 5, 2005

Anouar Majid, "A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America," Univ Of Minnesota Press (September 18, 2007)

[The country's powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.--Robert Piggott, "Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts," BBC News, February 26, 2008]

[Much of Sharia law is based on the hadith and not on the Koran, which is the literal word of God for Muslim believers. A substantial body of hadith is used to justify the oppression of women, the stoning of adulterers and other controversial aspects of Sharia law. Compilations of hadith were collated two centuries after the ProphetÕs death in the 7th century.--Vincent Boland, "Turkey's fresh look at Prophet nears end," Financial Times, February 26, 2008]

[AUDIO: . . . the outrage about according a degree of official status to Shariah in a Western country should come as no surprise. No legal system has ever had worse press. To many, the word "Shariah" conjures horrors of hands cut off, adulterers stoned and women oppressed. By contrast, who today remembers that the much-loved English common law called for execution as punishment for hundreds of crimes, including theft of any object worth five shillings or more? How many know that until the 18th century, the laws of most European countries authorized torture as an official component of the criminal-justice system? As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them - hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.

In fact, for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.--Noah Feldman,"Why Shariah?," New York Times, February 26, 2008]

back button