Written by Dr. Said Ramadan
“Which in your opinion, are the major problems of the Muslim world, the problems upon which the attention of the workers of Islam should be focussed, and to the solution of which they should devote all, or the greater part of, their endeavours?” This was my question to my friend who has been working for Islam, for the last thirty years. For a while he remained silent and then replied: “I consider three problems to be responsible for the disastrous state of affairs in the Muslim world;
first, the failure to distinguish between what God laid down in His Book and the Tradition of His Prophet, and the elaborations derived there from by our legists;
second, the plight of womenfolk in Muslim society; and third, the perversion of the meaning of “obedience to those in authority” to denote abject subservience and shameless acquiescence to rulers, regardless of the extent of the wrongs that they might commit and the injustices which they might perpetrate”.
This observation was followed by a long discussion which centred upon these questions, with a view to the full appreciation of the importance of these problems, and the realisation of the need for earnest, unrelenting endeavour toward their solution. During the discussion, I found myself keenly responsive to the need for appreciation of the importance of these problems, and as my learned friend held forth on the subject, I had the feeling of a doctor’s fingers probing sore spots. For these three problems do indeed occupy a pre-eminent position among those numerous maladies, which afflict our body-politic. Moreover, these maladies are becoming chronic ones and as time passes we are getting used to them.
The first of these problems is our failure to distinguish between what has been laid down by God in His book and the Tradition of the Prophet(Sunnah) on the one hand, and the elaborations on their basis by our jurist, on the other hand. In deploring this failure, we neither wish to deny the value of the opinions of our Fuqaha nor to slight these venerable men in any way. On the contrary, we believe their work to constitute a great asset, a prized treasure of which we should feel proud. We believe that we should pore over the subtleties of their learning, and should derive the utmost benefit from it. What is necessary, however is that we should at the same time be very clear about the following important points:
1. That the Quran and the Sunnah constitute the Shariah (Islamic law) of God, which is binding on Muslims: that these two alone form the ideological and practical basis of life for the Muslim nation.
2. That there is nothing strange in the fact that dis-agreements exist among people with regard to the interpretation of certain Quranic verses, or the authenticity of certain Prophetic traditions or their rendering, so long as people do not abandon the use of their intellects. What is important is that these disagreements should remain subject to arguments based on the texts of the Quran and Sunnah, and that the opinions of particular schools of Muslim Law on controversial points should not, either owing to negligence or ignorance, be elevated to the points where they begin to be considered more authoritative that the texts of the Quran or Sunnah. Such a distorted view impairs our proper attitude towards the injunctions of God and His Prophet, as laid down in the Quranic Verse:
Judge between them by that which, God hath revealed and follow not their desires(V;49)
Moreover, we should be careful that our attitudes on controversial points do not harden to such a degree that they prevent Muslims applying their minds to the understanding of the Shariah, although the Shariah itself remains the criterion for all differences of opinion; and every generation of Muslims has an ordinance from God to remain in direct and constant contact with the Shariah, as embodied in the Quran and the Sunnah:
…and if ye have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to God and the Messenger(IV:59)
Abandoning reference to the Quran and attaching an exaggerated importance to the opinion of one’s own school of law implies also the adoption of irrational attitude towards our Fuqaha of past generations who, though they disagreed among themselves, did not claim infallibility for their opinions. Their disagreements were based on the texts of the Shariah available to them, and with regard to its interpretation. It never occurred to our Fuqaha, however, that they would become an impregnable wall preventing the radiation of the light of the Quran and the Sunnah, or that they would be depriving all other Muslims of the right to applying their intellects to the understanding of the Quran and Sunnah. Imam Malik has epitomised his view on the question in these fine words;
I am a human being. I can be right and I can be wrong. Examine every one of my opinions: accept those, which conform to Quran and Sunnah; reject those, which do not conform to Quran and Sunnah.
3. That the Shariah of God, as embodied in the Quran and Sunnah; does not bind mankind in mu’amalat (worldly dealings) except by providing a few broad principles of guidance and a limited number of injunctions. The Shariah only rarely concerns itself with details. The confinement of the Shariah to broad principles and its silence in other spheres are due to divine wisdom and mercy, for the divine knowledge embraces human life in its totality: in all its spheres, in all stages of its development, in all periods of human history. Now, God was not incapable of laying down, had He considered it good to do so, an injunction for every minor issue and a law for every new problem that might arise. The fact that the Shariah is silent on these points – and we should bear in mind that, as the Quran remarks, “God is not forgetful”- means only that the application of the general injunctions of the Shariah to the multifarious details of human life, and the confrontation of new problems according to the dictates of maslahah (public good) have been left to the discretion of the body of conscious Muslims. Moreover, if the Shariah has refrained from laying things down definitively in the form of clear-cut injunctions regarding matters about which God knew that people would disagree, and if it has not fixed regulations in respect of the problems which, of course, God knew would arise in human existences, all this is due to God’s mercy, for He wanted comfort, not discomfort, for human beings, and breadth, not narrowness in human life. the Quran has said:
God desireth for you ease: he desireth not hardship for you(11:185)
The Prophet explained this by saying:
God has enjoined certain enjoinments, so do not transgress them. He has prohibited certain things, so do not fall into them. He has remained silent about many things, out of Mercy and deliberateness, as He never forgets, so do not ask me about them.
The Prophet-peace be unto him-stressed this point repeatedly. Most illustrative of this basic characteristic of the Shariah, is his authentic saying:
Leave me as long as I leave you. Too much questioning brought only disaster upon people before you. Only if I forbid you doing anything, then do not do it, and if I order you to do something, then try to do whatever you can of it.
Since God has granted this freedom, and has left a wide margin of choice open to human beings from sheer beneficence and mercy, it would be utter ingratitude and stark disregard for the spirit of the Shariah, to impose upon its ageless and merciful features, the variety of rigorous regulations in matters of minor detail which have been formulated by our legists in the past. These interpretations and elaborations of the Fiqh have been gradually misconceived as matters of indisputable validity, so much so that as soon as the word ‘Shariah’ is mentioned they come instantly to mind and impair the eternal freshness of the beauty and grace of divine mercy.
We who strive for Islamic regeneration should make it abundantly clear to people that: this is the Shariah-the lenient Shariah-embodied in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and God binds you to this and nothing else. As for our juristic heritage, handed down to us by our great ancestors who earnestly endeavoured to interpret the Shariah in the face of continually new problems of life regarding which the Shariah had observed silence, in the light of maslahah(public good) and with a due regard for the circumstances of their age while profiting from this heritage, our attitude towards the Shariah should nevertheless be the same as that of our ancestors. Following in their footsteps, we should apply our minds to understand it. We should also treat the circumstances of our epoch as they did theirs, and try to face our special problems in the light of maslahah, as they did and bearing all this in mind, our recourse to the vast, rich Fiqh heritage at our disposal should serve to strengthen our bonds with the Qur’an and the Sunnah, rather than preventing direct reference to these two original sources. It should help us to apply the Qur’an and the Sunnah to the circumstance in which we live in the same way as our ancestors did for their part. It is altogether unrealistic to seek from our legists of the past solutions to the problems of our own age-an age of which they could have no knowledge-or to impose upon ourselves regulations devised to fit circumstances which no longer exist. And it is altogether unworthy to abandon the use of our intellects to understand Islam(for it is that power of rational discernment, with which each one of us has been endowed, which makes us answerable to God) thereby reducing ourselves to the position of parasites, living perpetually on the fruits of labour bequeathed to us by our ancestors-by their heavy intellectual toils, unrelenting efforts and patient endeavour.
It can be asked: “where do you draw the line of demarcation between the Quran and the Sunnah, and the interpretations there from of the Fuqaha? Are the interpretations not the attempts of the Fuqaha to arrive at the true intent of the Quran and the Sunnah?” Those are certainly reasonable questions. The reply is that our desire to distinguish between the two does not mean that we wish to dispense with Fiqh as such. On the contrary, all we want is for it to be clear that the texts of the Quran and the Sunnah are the true sources of guidance, the norms for our lives; that they alone constitute the Shariah which is binding upon us; that all opinions must be weighed with the Quran and the Sunnah as criteria; that every human being after the holy Prophet is fallible; that in every matter where there are no texts to bind us, the consideration of maslahah alone is binding; and that the precepts for maslahah change with changing circumstance and ages-as earlier Fuqaha have said: “Where there is maslahah, there is the path of God.”
This distinction between the divine Shariah (as embodied in the Quran and the Sunnah) which is eternally binding and the details opined in its light by the Fuqaha should have a thoroughly healthy influence on contemporary Muslims, in a number of ways. It invests Islamic ideology with simplicity that should help cultivate deep in the hearts of Muslims genuine faith in their Lord and in their Prophet. It restores the clarity of the original message of Islam. It restores also the lustre to the Islamic ideology which it owes to the words of God and His Prophet. It provides a rallying ground for all Muslims, notwithstanding the existence of various schools of thought among them. Moreover, it should keep Islam intact in its original broad and vigorous form, in a form which provides scope and ease for human mind, and not discomfort and restriction.
It may also be asked: “do you want to make the Quran and the Sunnah as tool of any imposters who step forward to interpret them according to their whims and desires once the door for their interpretation is flung open?” The reply, obviously, is “No.” For when we talk of ‘opinions’ in Islamic matters, we mean ‘opinions’ and not whims and desires, and we presume piety and godliness to be basic with regard to problems relating to I s l a m. Further, there is no harm in trying to devise sound rules, of a scientific as well as of an administrative nature, which could effectively ensure specialisation in studies relating to the Shariah as embodied in the Quran and the Sunnah, just as is attempted by all legal systems the world over. Rather, it is our duty to ensure this. We shall thus have saved the Shariah from pollution by the whims and desires of false claimants to its interpretation. At the same time, however, we should try to ensure that specialisation does not lead to the creation of priesthood in Muslim society, and that the door remains open for the consideration of all opinions, whatever their sources, purely on the basis of their intrinsic worth.