By Saleem Ahmed
October 12, 2012
SHARIA, the Muslim code of conduct, permeates the ethos — the very soul — of Muslim life.
Thus, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990), sponsored by the Organisation of Islamic Conference, affirmed the Sharia as the sole information source for guidance on Muslim daily living. This was the ‘Muslim response’ to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Started by five highly respected imams — Jafar ibn Muhammad (702-765CE), Abu Hanifa (699-767), Malik ibn Anas (711-795), al-Shafi’i (767-820), and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) — the Sharia represents the fruit of their labours from perusing through the available hadith literature to enunciate their respective views on how Muslims should lead their lives in conformity with the Quran and hadith.
Their writings elaborate on, for example, rituals (for prayers, fasting and pilgrimage) and punishments (e.g. for adultery, apostasy and pilferage). And while each imam worked independently, their writings were distilled by devout followers as Sharia (‘the way’). Some conservative Muslims consider Sharia to be ‘mandated by God’.
But I discovered that the six hadith compilers — Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawood, Tirmidhi and Al-Nasai — who collectively compiled the lion’s share of the known 12,000 plus hadith, produced their compilations decades after these imams had died.
Thus, the only hadith collection these imams could have consulted was al-Muwatta, a relatively small (1,800 hadith) collection of Imam Malik ibn Anas. While dealing mostly with rituals, it also carries some hadith on other matters, including hadd (capital or corporal punishment for adultery, fornication, apostasy, drinking and theft). For example, it carries six hadith on adultery in which the Prophet (PBUH) prescribed rajam (stoning adulterers to death).
But the other hadith collections mentioned above, in addition to hadith prescribing rajam, also carry the following three hadith not found in al-Muwatta, in which the Prophet apparently forgave adulterers: One example is cited by Abu Dawood in which it seems that no one was punished.
In another case, on learning that some Muslims had killed an adulterer, the Prophet asked: “Why did you not let him live? Perhaps he would have repented and been forgiven by God” (Tirmidhi, 1010). And in a third case, when a man confessed to having committed a sin requiring had punishment, the Prophet asked, “Haven’t you prayed with me?” The man said, “Yes.” The Prophet replied, “God has forgiven your sin” (Bukhari, 8.812).
Why don’t we find these reports in al-Muwatta? Since Imam Malik was a jurist, he was probably particularly interested in learning about specific punishments the Prophet prescribed. Therefore, his question to his respondents, who were descendants of the Sahaba (the Prophet’s companions), could have been narrowly focused, such as: “What punishment did the Prophet prescribe for adultery?” (This was about 100 years after the Prophet died).
And since rajam was the answer, it became incorporated in the Sharia. On the other hand, questions such as: “How did the Prophet handle cases of adultery?” or “Did the Prophet ever forgive adulterers?” would probably evoke the type of responses that Dawood, Muslim, and Bukhari obtained in the above examples.
Conservative Muslims might argue that Sharia scholars knew all hadith. But then there would have been no need for Bukhari to have spent several years travelling around the Muslim world interviewing individuals whose predecessors had been the Prophet’s companions.
One could even argue that he and other hadith compilers undertook their respective missions because they felt there must be more to the Prophet’s life than conveyed through Imam Malik’s small hadith collection. The changed prophetic response to adultery could also reflect the evolving nature of Quranic guidance.
While the unquestioned following of Sharia by some Muslims underscores the power of faith, the Quran also encourages Ijtihad (introspection) when issues are unclear. Thus, Muslims might consider reviewing the 80-90 per cent hadith that became available after the Sharia compilers’ deaths.
This will probably suggest that the hadith of compassion, forgiveness, and gender equality are more in line with Islam being a religion of peace than those of punishment. Underscoring hadith such as: “Avoid inflicting the prescribed punishment as much as you can, and if there is any way out, let a man go, for it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than in punishing” (Tirmidhi, 1011), the updated Sharia will lead to Islam being truly called a religion of peace and compassion.
Then, unfortunate incidents such as the one in which a 25-year-old mother of five was stoned to death on charges of adultery filed with a local panchayat in Pakistan by an influential landlord might not occur. Earlier, the victim had reportedly rebuffed the landlord’s sexual advances. Her husband was apparently abducted to enable the assailants to implement the ‘punishment’ in her home in the small hours of the morning.
And in western countries, for example in the US, where 13 states have banned the use of Sharia in judicial deliberations because of its ‘cruel and misogynist character’, Sharia bans will become non-issues and Islamophobia, gripping the US and several European countries, might also gradually disappear.
The true spirit of Islam as a religion of peace and compassion unfolds beautifully when we read the Quran and hadith keeping in mind the context and chronology of revelation.
Saleem Ahmed is the author of Islam: A Religion of Peace? and president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies.