By Maryam Sakeenah
September 04, 2014
Decadence in post-colonial Muslim societies is seen primarily as a result of the absence of Islamic law
Sharia has become one of the most spine-chilling, sensational words in the contemporary lexicon. In the UK, with its sizeable Muslim population, fear of Sharia is palpable in alarmist articles about “creeping Sharia” and concern over the proliferation of Halal meat or veils. Often the fear is irrational, used by xenophobes, racists and supremacists who resent multiculturalism and are uncomfortable with diversity. It is not just Islamophobes and media con artists who make Sharia seem grotesque and terrifying. The spurious ‘caliphate’ of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and its bloodcurdling atrocities in the name of Sharia, Nigeria’s Boko Haram with its brutal misogynistic practices, these are all groups that defile Sharia’s sanctity and continue to proliferate all over the crisis-ridden Muslim world. And yet, crazy as it sounds, the demand for Sharia is not just understandable and legitimate but also an aspiration shared by many Muslims worldwide. The PEW Research Centre’s 2013 survey found that most Muslims are deeply committed to their faith and want its teachings to shape not only their personal lives but also their societies and politics. Many express a desire for Sharia to be recognised as the official law of their country. Solid majorities favour the establishment of Sharia, including 99 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan, 71 percent in Nigeria, 72 percent in Indonesia, 74 percent in Egypt, 84 percent in Pakistan and 89 percent in the Palestinian territories.
To make sense of this, one needs to understand that from its earliest history, Islam found culmination in an established system and way of life through statehood. The Islamic caliphate flourished for centuries. In fact, for most of Islam’s history before the colonisation of Muslim countries, Islamic law was established as the law of the land. This left an indelible impact on the Muslim collective imagination, imbuing it with nostalgia in the narrative of bygone glory. The introduction of “Anglo Muhammadan Law” in British-ruled South Asia and the displacement of traditional Muslim Fiqhi Madhabs (juristic schools) in favour of colonial legal systems in other parts of the Muslim world intensified this nostalgia. Decadence in post-colonial Muslim societies is seen primarily as a result of the absence of Islamic law. Given that many areas across the Muslim world reel under oppression, tyranny and the systematic suppression of religious aspirations by corrupt regimes, this nostalgic longing has at times fuelled militancy and violence by rebel groups. The demand for Sharia is used by these militant and violent Islamist movements vying for political control and power. Secular political ambitions are sanctified with a holy battle cry for the restoration of Sharia.
Whose Sharia, however, is a contentious question we do not have many answers to, but it is the heart of the matter. The implications are seriously damaging to the wider interests of Muslims. Invoking religion and using religious rhetoric gives a religious colour to the violent, attention seeking tactics used by these groups. Hence, Islam is perceived as either intrinsically violent or with a dangerous potency to fuel religious violence. Simplified, reductionist stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are strengthened. This complicates the task of peacemakers and arbiters engaged in toning down the precarious polarisation between Islam and the west. The media shows such violence and militancy as essentially religious, not seeing it for its secular/materialist socio-political underpinnings or the raw drive for power to redress perceived disempowerment by fringe groups.
Speaking of Boko Haram and IS, it has been heartening to see Muslim opinion leaders and scholars speak out against their methods, emphatically dissociating them from mainstream Islam. However, needful as it was, what is needed is a more specific refutation of the textual basis from where such actions derive justification. In fact, there is a basic understanding missing from the Muslim collective consciousness: that many minutiae of Islamic law are rooted in cultural contexts. They were neither revealed laws nor stipulated as universal, unalterable laws by divine will. The Quran and Sunnah directly address and legislate for very few matters, compared to the entire volume of Islamic juristic literature compiled and developed over the historical evolution of Islamic civilisation. The fairly modest content of Islamic laws in the Quran and Sunnah means that for deriving other laws, recourse has to be made to jurisprudence through scholarly consensus. More importantly, it means that lawmaking has to be guided and inspired by the essence and ethical guidelines of the principles of the Quran and Sunnah.
Egalitarianism, establishing justice, protection of rights and an interest in ending human misery to advance the higher ethical and spiritual functions of human existence is a core objective of Islam. The rights of people recognised and protected in this day and age are sacred to Islam that teaches supremacy of law and human progress through constant social reform. It is important here to remind ourselves of the fact that the Prophet (PBUH) wistfully remembered the signing of a pre-Islamic document of rights (Halaf ul Fazul) and expressed his full endorsement of it as a prophet of Islam. The failure of contemporary Muslim jurisprudence is the inability to put the spirit at the core of the letter of the law and to make Muslims understand that the legal process exists to protect essential values; it is the protection of these values that are the heart of the matter, while laws are limited by culture and historicity. This explains the unseeing literalism and fanaticism for restoring the letter of Sharia in Muslim societies and a preoccupation with juristic nitpicking in the Muslim world.
It is the crisis of authority in the Muslim world that allows random groups pining for the return of Muslim glory to make bold claims about what constitutes sharia and give their own misconstrued versions, tracing them back to sacred texts or early Muslim culture. Those who condemn IS and Boko Haram’s actions as unIslamic must also with a single voice present a blueprint of Islamic law that is relevant, practical and applicable today, in tune with contemporary cultural and socio-political contexts. It is a long haul but, unless such a juristic magnum opus is initiated, twisted, grotesque and soulless versions of Sharia will keep haunting us like a spectre.
Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) writes of the plight of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls: “The whole atrocity underscores the crisis of leadership, which is now a grave problem for global Islam. For the last decade or so, across the Muslim world small but ferocious factions have defied the traditional leaders and taken religion into their own hands. In every case the result has been a disaster for communities and even whole countries. The use by these factions of religious rhetoric to validate what is often a political or economic grievance has left many religious leaders at a loss. In some cases the imams have been assassinated for speaking out against the extremists; this has happened in Nigeria, as elsewhere. So what should they do? The founder of Islam had no time for extreme zealotry. ‘May the fanatics perish,’ he once commented. If he detected extreme or hateful behaviour in anyone he would condemn it immediately.” If the ethical spirit of Muslim law is not reinstated, if the textual bases for inhuman, brutal and violent practices are not refuted, routine condemnations from Islam’s defenders will serve as no more than rhetorical generalisations.
Maryam Sakeenah teaches Literature, Islamic Studies and Sociology in Lahore