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The Shariah’s Lost Soul: Boko Haram and the Crisis of Authority in the Muslim World

By Maryam Sakeenah, New Age Islam

06 July, 2014


‘Shariah’ (Islamic law) has become one of the most spine chilling, sensational words in contemporary lexicon. In the United Kingdom with its sizeable Muslim population, fear of the Shariah is palpable as we hear of alarmist articles about ‘creeping Shariah’ all over the UK, 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.

But it is not just the Islamophobes and sensationalist media con artists who make the Shariah seem grotesque and terrifying. In Nigeria we have the Boko Haram on the job. In Somalia the Al Shabbab and in Pakistan the Taliban, to name a few.

And yet, crazy as this sounds, the demand for Shariah is not just understandable and legitimate but also an aspiration shared by an overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. The PEW Research Centre’s 2013 survey finds 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 Shariah to be recognized as the official law of their country. Solid majorities in most of the countries favour the establishment of Shariah, including 99% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt, 84% in Pakistan and 89% in the Palestinian territories.

To make sense of this, one needs to understand that the Prophet (SAW) was a successful head of state and lawgiver, and that in statehood did Islam find culmination as an established system and way of life. The Islamic State flourished and ruled over continents for centuries. In fact, for most of Islam’s history before the colonization of Muslim lands, Islamic law was established as the law of the land. This has left an indelible impact on Muslim collective imagination, imbuing it with nostalgia in the narrative of a 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 has intensified this nostalgia. The decadence in post colonial Muslim societies is seen now as the result of the absence of Shariah law. Given the fact that many areas across the Muslim world writhe under oppression, tyranny and the systematic suppression of religious aspirations by corrupt secular regimes, this nostalgic longing has at times fuelled militancy and violence by rebel groups. The demand for Shariah is used by these militant and violent Islamist movements vying for political control and power. Secular political ambitions are sanctified with the holy battle cry for the restoration of Shariah law.

‘Whose Shariah?’, however, is a contentious, tricky question we do not have many answers to- but it is the very heart of the matter. The implications of this are seriously damaging to the wider interests of Islam.

Because this gives a distinct religious colour to the violent, attention-seeking tactics used by these groups, 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 makes harder the task of peacemakers, healers and arbiters engaged in toning down the precarious polarization 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 and the raw drive for winning power to redress perceived disempowerment by fringe groups.

Speaking of Boko Haram, it has been heartening to see Muslim opinion leaders and scholars speak out against its methods, emphatically dissociating it from mainstream Islam. However, highly needful as it was, what was found wanting was a more specific refutation of the textual basis from where such actions of such groups seek justification.

In fact, there is a vital and basic understanding almost missing from Muslim collective consciousness- that many minutiae of Islamic law are rooted in cultural context. They were neither revealed laws nor stipulated as universal, absolute unalterable laws by divine will. The Quran and Sunnah directly address and legislate for a few matters, and these texts are but few compared to the entire volume of Islamic juristic literature which was compiled and developed over the historical evolution of Islamic civilization.

The fairly modest content of Islamic laws in the Quran and sunnah means that for deriving the rest of the laws recourse has to be made to jurisprudence through scholarly consensus over the ages. More importantly, it means that such lawmaking has to be guided and inspired by the essence and ethical guideline of the principles of the Quran and Sunnah.

That egalitarianism, establishment of justice, protection of rights and an interest in ending human misery to make possible higher ethical and spiritual functions of human existence is a core objective of Islam cannot be doubted. Islam had to deal with a society in which slavery- predating Islam- was a basic social institution. Islam regulated it by law, defining parameters and setting ethical guidelines. Wars involved sexual abuse victimizing women of the enemy side. Here too Islam set down rights and responsibilities to prevent such abuse. It is this humane dimension and ethical orientation Islam gave which shines through and endures over these temporal pre Islamic cultural traditions and practices. In this day and age when human progress has achieved the legal abolition of slavery and its associated practices, it is utterly ludicrous to invoke these ancient traditions as part of Islam. The rights of people recognized and protected in this day and age are sacred to Islam which teaches supremacy of law and human progress through constant social reform. Violating these established principles on which a silent global consensus exists, is sinful. It is important here to remind ourselves of the fact that the Prophet (SAW) wistfully remembered the signing of a pre Islamic document of rights (Half ul Fazul) and expressed his full endorsement of it as a prophet of Islam.

The failure of contemporary Muslim jurisprudence has been the inability to put the spirit at the core of the letter of the law and to make Muslims understand that the law exists to protect the essential values; that it is the protection of those values that are the heart of the matter, while laws are often bound by culture and historicity. This explains the unseeing literalism and fanaticism for restoring the letter of the Shariah in corrupt and decadent Muslim societies and the preoccupation with juristic nitpicking in the Muslim world.

It is the crisis of authority in the Muslim world due to which random groups pining for the return of Muslim glory make bold claims as to what constitutes Shariah law and give their own misconstrued versions tracing them back to sacred texts or early Muslim culture. Those who got together to condemn Boko Haram’s actions as un-Islamic 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 context. It is a long haul, but unless such a juristic magnum opus is initiated, twisted, grotesque and soulless versions of ‘Shariah’ will keep haunting us like a spectre. Authority as to who interprets religious law and how has to be won back.

Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) writes of the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls:

“... the whole atrocity underscores the crisis of leadership which is now a grave problem for global Islam. The Boko Haram abductions have been condemned by all the traditional authorities: Nigeria’s chief sultan, the grand muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading Islamic universities, the main Islamic bodies here in Britain. It’s been a moment of unity.

"Unfortunately, we can’t pretend that it has helped. 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. Present-day leaders recall this, as they struggle to find ways of fighting terrorism.

"So this scandal cuts more deeply. How to restore the authority of the mainline leadership, among embittered young men who trust no-one? Spies and bullets will not, in the long term, defeat these aberrations: the religious leadership must find some way of regaining its moral authority in an age of rapid change and rampant injustice.”

If the ethical spirit of Muslim law is not reinstated, if the textual bases for inhuman, brutal and violent practices not refuted, routine condemnations from Islam’s defenders will serve no more than as rhetorical generalisations. 

Maryam Sakeenah is a social worker, teacher and columnist