Shari’a Law and a History of Interpretation in Islam

shari'a law

A 2016 Pew Research survey of Muslims in 39 countries found within 24 of those countries over 50% of Muslims surveyed wanted shari’a (interpreted as God’s/religious law). Of those surveyed, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunisia average 71% favourability.

However, those countries also hold different beliefs on whether the shari’a is man-made or the word of God, an average of 24% favouring the former and 65% favouring the latter.

Barring Egypt and Jordan, those countries also differed on interpreting the shari’a, with an average of 46% preferring a single interpretation and 42% preferring multiple interpretations.

This difference in opinion over what shari’a is and how it should be interpreted is nothing new however and can be traced back to the very beginning of Islam. The debate over what is halal (permissible) and what is haram (impermissible) has plagued Muslims since the time of the four Caliphs (the seceding representatives of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad’s death).

As the Islamic Empire expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula under the four Caliphs, so would the debate. It absorbed new cultures and new peoples requiring a broader application of shari’a (literal path to the water).

This difference in opinion over what shari’a is and how it should be interpreted is nothing new however and can be traced back to the very beginning of Islam. The debate over what is halal (permissible) and what is haram (impermissible) has plagued Muslims since the time of the four Caliphs.

Consequently, the shari’a would become a divisive and controversial topic among both Sunnis and Shi’as. If we are to understand this division, we must view Islam historically through two lens, one of tradition and the other of reason.

When Reason met Tradition

Abu Hanifa (700-767) was the first to oppose tradition under the Hanafi school of thought in Sunni Islam. Ra’y (reason) was central to Abu Hanifa’s Islam, he argued the Medina of the Prophet Muhammad occurred in a time and place that differs from any other period in history, therefore traditions implied in the hadiths (tradition) are limited in guidance.

Abu Hanifa suggested three approaches aimed to guide shari’a: qiyas (analogical reasoning), istihsan (legal preference for common good), and urf (local customs).

Consequently, the shari’a would become a divisive and controversial topic among both Sunnis and Shi’as. If we are to understand this division, we must view Islam historically through two lens, one of tradition and the other of reason.

From this basis, other schools would develop from thereon including the founders Malik Ibn Annas (710-795), Muhammad ash-Shafi (767-820) and most notably Ibn Hanbal (780-855).

As explained by Hadith scholar Muhammad Al-Azami, Sunnah and Hadith, though used synonymously are quite different, in that the former refers to a “mode of life” and the latter is based on communicated sayings and acts of both the Prophet and his Companions.

Sunnah thus, unless directly addressed by the Prophet, can predate Islam and refer to the community or local customs, such as the adhaan (call to prayer). Al-Azami states the Qur’an refers to as an ‘existing practice’ (62:9); this would support Abu Hanifa’s reasoning.

The Qur’an was nevertheless unequivocally the word of God (Allah) and so it was the hadiths which would prove to be problematic. As the implied extension of the Qur’an, the hadiths were compiled a century or so after the Prophet’s death due to, as Professor Herbert Berg states, the Prophet and the four Caliphs who feared it would be “confused with the Qur’an”.

This fear was vindicated by the schools of thought, which varied and developed divisive opinions on ambiguous hadiths, doing their best to ascribe it to a Qura’nic verse. Ibn Hanbal for instance was so adamant on following the hadiths word-for-word, as the Qur’an instructed Muslims to obey the Prophet, he refused to eat watermelons because they did not appear in the hadiths.

shari'a

He would further add “a flawed hadith is more preferable to me than a scholar’s opinion” and warn his students not to fall victim to the errors of reason.Unsurprisingly, Ibn Hanbal came to influence the Wahabis in modern day Saudi Arabia.

With these four schools, Sunni Muslims could now pick and choose which school they chose to follow depending on the circumstance. As Jonathan Brown explains in Misquoting Muhammad where one court did not grant permission another would happily do so.

Ibn Hanbal for instance was so adamant on following the hadiths word-for-word, as the Qur’an instructed Muslims to obey the Prophet, he refused to eat watermelons because they did not appear in the hadiths.

For instance, during the Medieval period in Egypt, when the Shafi and Maliki court opposed marrying a couple who did not have the permission of the bride’s father, the couple went to the Hanafi court.

In another example, in eighteenth century Bosnia, a woman abandoned the Hanafi school in favour of the Shafi school over the length of time a woman should wait before remarrying if her husband has not returned [from war].

When Philosophy met Theology

The most successful of these arguments concerning tradition however can be credited to the popular Sufi Muslim philosopher of the 11th-12 century, Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali, not totally opposed to reason, was equally critical of more traditional views among Sunnis.

He however, famously sought to refute the falsafa (philosophy) of Ibn Sina, particularly three claims, in his Incoherence of the Philosophers. Setting a dangerous precedent, he would declare a fatwa (ruling) that whoever teaches the ideas of Ibn Sina under Islamic pretences is a kafir (non-believer) and can be executed.

For Al-Ghazali, revelation and shari’a could not be demonstrated and/or scientifically proven) as it was above reason, and the attempt to do so led to apostasy. Reason was therefore with God-alone. This remains one of the most common beliefs among many Muslims today, as evident in the previously mentioned Pew Research survey.

In opposition to Al-Ghazali, the Cordovan Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd would later develop a counter-argument in the 12th century (On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy). Ibn Rushd explained that any fatwa (ruling) declared must be agreed upon by ijma (consensus) of the ulema (body of Muslim scholars).

He concluded that as there has never been a consistent position historically among the ulema which cited Ibn Sina’s view as being haram, Al-Ghazali’s fatwa was therefore haram, or rather Al-Ghazali did not state it as a legal fact.

For Al-Ghazali, revelation and shari’a could not be demonstrated (scientifically proven), as it was above reason, and the attempt to do so leads to apostasy. Reason was therefore with God-alone. This remains one of the most common beliefs among many Muslims today,

Ibn Rushd would apply his argument in other areas concerning the interpretation of shari’a. He would also face exile as traditionalists, imitating Al-Ghazali, accused him of being a kafir.

This type of exile is still a trend which continues today in some Muslim majority countries, such as the sentencing of the Muslim Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh in Saudi Arabia, who has been accused of apostasy and defaming the Prophet.

Ibn Rushd was doing nothing new of course, he was simply developing upon the arguments of the Hanafi school which put Ra’y before tradition, citing the Qur’anic verses – 13:3, 59:21, 10:24, 6:50 and 7:176, all of which end by asking the reader to reflect, consider, or think.  

Added to this is the hadiths on the Prophet which instruct Muslims to seek knowledge and to travel as far as China. In defense of reason, the Mutazilites argue, “that as God is all just, His justice would not be without reason.”

Oppose Tradition or Have Faith?

Abu Hanifa’s and Ibn Rushd’s opposition to tradition is often justified when we discover that throughout the hadiths the Prophet Muhammad’s recorded sayings are either inapplicable or at times confusing.

Even Al-Ghazali would experience some difficulty when a student asked him whether the hadith regarding Moses knocking out the Angel of Death’s eye was true. Al- Ghazali declared this had nothing to do with the core tenets of Islam and one should concentrate on other issues.

As Jonathan Brown writes, in a few hadiths, which greatly troubled an Egyptian Muslim doctor named Tawfiq Sidqi, the Prophet Muhammad is recorded to have advised on a fly landing in a drink.  The Prophet suggested to push it to the bottom and then throw it out before drinking it, explaining “on one of the fly’s wings is a disease, on the other is a cure”. 

In defiance, some traditionalists later justified this as being a metaphor, linking the hadith to snake venom which can cure and poison. However, in 1906 Sidqi, bemused by this statement, concluded the hadiths were specific to the Arabs of that age and only the Qur’an and reason alone were sufficient.

Another ambiguous hadith was the Prophet’s statement which implies the devil flees farting during the adhaan (call to prayer). Mahmud Abu Ra’yya, an renowned Egyptian scholar, refused to believe the Prophet would say such a thing.

Professor Berg, along with hadith scholar Al-Azami, stated that Muslims had already accepted the hadiths and that they were fabricated in some part. They believed not all the hadiths could be authenticated, but it is through the method of authentication that Muslims today have the most faith in.

Prophet Muhammad is recorded to have advised on a fly landing in a drink.  He suggested to push it to the bottom and then throw it out before drinking it, explaining “on one of the fly’s wings is a disease, on the other is a cure”. In defiance, some traditionalists later justified this as being a metaphor, linking the hadith to snake venom which can cure and poison.

This was also a concern for ninth century Arab-Christians in Baghdad who doubted the legitimacy of the hadiths. Even the ulema in Baghdad would admit thousands upon thousands of hadiths had been forged.

It was also apparent that medieval scholars had also encountered these problems, but as Jonathan Brown points out, to them it was nothing more than a “wrinkle on a page”. Therefore, this method which Muslims adhere to despite the ‘wrinkles’ is a system known as Isnad, which relied upon a “social network, more than a millennium long”.

Described by the 14th century Muslim sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, in his Al-Muqaddimah, he explained that the authenticator of hadiths would firstly scrutinise the person transmitting the traditions, secondly he would rank the transmitter, and lastly he would assess the way in which a transmission took place. This included the date of transmission, familial connections, the transmitter’s place of birth, religious beliefs, date of death, and so on.

shari'a lawIn nineteenth century Europe, Ignác Goldhizer, the Hungarian scholar of Islam, would identify some errors within these Isnads. Whilst he did not doubt that the Companions preserved the Prophet’s deeds and sayings, he did however doubt what came after them. In his Muhammadanische Studien, Goldhizer argued that the change from the Ummayad Dynasty to the Abbassid Dynasty would have politically influenced the Isnads.

Goldhizer noted that later hadiths contradicted earlier hadiths; younger Companions knew more of the Prophet than the older Companions who knew him longer. Some of the transmitters would have had to been a couple of hundred years old, as they claimed direct contact with the Prophet.

In the end, however, the victory remained with the ahl al-hadith (people of tradition) as they were. According to Berg, they were “extremely successful in establishing hadiths as the primary source of law and discrediting ra’y”. Further adding, “even the advocates of ra’y were eventually persuaded or cajoled into accepting the authority of the hadiths”.

Rubel Mozlu

Rubel Mozlu

Rubel Mozlu obtained an MSc International Relations from the University of Bristol in 2015. His research focused on ‘Liberal Democracy and Culture’ with a particular focus on Egypt’s revolutions and Bangladesh’s election boycott. His current interests are in the MENA region, Islamic history, Western and Eastern Philosophy and Culture.

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