Monday, August 18, 2008

Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 1


In order to pre-empt, to some extent, some of the concerns which might arise in conjunction with the main focus of this essay concerning Sacred Law and shari‘ah, a few things need to be said in order to try to place things in an appropriate perspective before proceeding with the commentary proper. I am a Muslim, I love Islam, and I strive -- although God knows best with what degree of success -- to wholly submit myself to God because I accept as true that God: "created humankind and jinn only to worship" [Qur'an, 51:56] God.

I bear witness that God is one and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. I make efforts to observe my prayers on a daily basis. I participate in the fast of Ramazan. I give zakat in accordance with my circumstances. I have, by the Grace of Allah, performed the rites of Hajj. In addition, I have faith that God is one and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. I also have faith in the reality of angels, and I have faith in all the Books of revelation which have been sent to various messengers of Allah, and I have faith in the lineage of prophets who came prior to the appearance of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad (peace be upon him). I also have faith that there is a Day of Judgment during which most of us will be held accountable for our deeds and misdeeds, and, as well, I have faith that God is the sole determiner of good and evil.

I believe in Sacred Law and shari‘ah, but I do not approach these issues in a manner that is consonant with many traditional modes of engaging such matters. The fact that I do not share the belief of certain others concerning the nature of Sacred Law and shari‘ah does not make me – or those with whom I have differences on this subject -- an unbeliever, but rather this merely means that I have an alternative method for engaging the themes which are entailed by Sacred Law and shari‘ah.

For approximately 35 years, by the Grace of God, I have sought to serve the Muslim community in my own way and according to whatever abilities and opportunities God has given me. What I am seeking to do in the present essay, God willing, is to continue to serve the Muslim community, although I am sure that there will be those who will choose not to see things in this light.

I am not asking others to necessarily accept the perspective which is about to be put forth. Rather, I only ask people to reflect on what is being said and to strive for the truth of whatever issues may be raised through the following considerations.


A Brief Overview

I will begin by providing a set of brief overview statements concerning the themes that are to be explored in this essay. These are summary statements of the perspective which will be delineated, God willing, during the course of the essay which follows, but the order of appearance of these statements does not necessarily reflect the sequence in which issues will be engaged through the main body of the essay.

(1) The ways in which Sacred Law and shari‘ah are understood by many Muslims, in general, as well as by a variety of Muslim religious scholars, in particular, are often problematic, if not incorrect, in a number of respects;

(2) Sacred Law gives expression to the principles, realities, and truths [physical, spiritual, psychological, etc.] through which the Created Universe operates;

(3) Shari‘ah refers to the individual’s realization of that portion of Sacred Law which enables an individual to grasp truths, as God wishes, concerning one’s essential identity and spiritual capacity that, God willing, lead to the fulfillment of an array of rights concerning all manner of being – including those rights which are inherent in the individual himself or herself … and this is what is meant by the idea of being God’s vicegerent or khalifa on Earth;

(4) To the degree that shari‘ah is correctly understood and applied, it becomes a manifestation of Sacred Law;

(5) The journey toward shari‘ah is an individual pursuit, not a collective one – although the degree to which shari‘ah is properly realized may have ramifications for the social collective, and, as well, the manner in which the social collective is organized may have ramifications for the way in which shari‘ah is understood and/or pursued;

(6) While the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) constitute the two most essential primary resources through which to engage and understand the nature of Islam, many of the customary ways of describing just what is entailed by this process are problematic, if not incorrect;

(7) Qiyas [analogical and rationalistic reasoning processes] tends to have a distorting and therefore, misleading way of construing the teachings of the Qur’an;

(8) The issue of ijma – consensus – is generally misunderstood and misapplied with respect to the issue of shari‘ah;

(9) Using naksh or abrogation as a methodology for engaging the meaning of the Qur’an is – in relation to the manner in which this concept is generally understood by many Muslim religious scholars – untenable;

(10) The idea of ijtihad – that is, striving to secure a spiritual determination or judgment in a given set of circumstances – is improperly understood as well as improperly used by many Muslim religious scholars;

(11) The five major madhhabs or schools of jurisprudence do not exhaust the ways through which one may legitimately engage Islam, and, moreover, none of these schools – or any other such school – may be used to compel people to behave in particular ways when it comes to matters of shari‘ah; moreover, no one is under any obligation to align herself or himself with any given school of jurisprudence, or, stated in another way, the various schools of Muslim jurisprudence do not necessarily have the requisite spiritual authority to impose judgments on others that are binding;

(12) One of the primary purposes underlying governance is not to enforce shari‘ah but, rather, one of the essential purposes of governance is to ensure that a community – or, more specifically, the public space or commons of that community -- is free from oppression of any kind [including religious] so that people will have an unhindered opportunity to engage the gift of choice which God has bequeathed to them -- providing such an exercise of free will does not interfere with a like gift which also has been bequeathed to others;

(13) Two of the other primary tasks of government are to establish principles of equitability and justice to help prevent the injury, exploitation, and abuse of the members of a community by forces from within or from without that community – and this includes a responsibility to ensure that spiritual abuse will not be permitted to be perpetrated through the political imposition of religious theories of jurisprudence;

(14) The specific guidance given expression in the Qur’an concerning issues like punishment, fighting, and even such matters as inheritance, are subsumable under, and capable of being modulated by, other principles of general guidance given in the Qur’an, and, in addition, such specific injunctions may not have been intended as a form of universal guidance – that is, for all peoples, all times, and all circumstances – but, instead may have been intended to guide a specific group of people during, and shortly after, the period during which the Prophet lived;

(15) None of the foregoing fourteen statements undermines, removes, or alters the basic duties of care one has to oneself, others, creation, or God that are being taught through the Qur’an and for which sharia‘ah is intended as a spiritual journey of striving to understand and apply the truth of such issues during the course of one’s life.


Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 2

A Few Thoughts Concerning the Idea of Schools of Jurisprudence

Although there have been more than five madhhabs, or schools of jurisprudence, which have arisen over the last 1300 years, or so, five such schools are generally recognized today as constituting the major, mainstream approaches to issues of so-called Islamic law. These are the Hanifa, Maliki, Shafi‘i, Hanbali, and Jafari madhhabs.

The four surviving schools of Sunni jurisprudence were established during the early Abbasid era [the Abbasids had challenged the Umayyad rule on the basis that the latter was not Islamic enough in its form of governance]. The Umayyads came to power after the rule of the four righteous caliphs came to an end with the assassination of Hazrat ‘Ali [may Allah be pleased with him] around 40 A.H. [660 A.D.]

There is an essential, potential difference between the idea of Sacred Law in Islam and schools of jurisprudence which purport to give expression to the former. Oddly enough, this realm of difference revolves around the fact that Sacred Law does not necessarily have anything to do with theories of jurisprudence.

Generally speaking, jurisprudence is defined as a collection of rules that is imposed on a community or nation by someone who, legitimately or illegitimately, claims to have authority to impose such laws upon others. The collection of rules being alluded to here concerns the manner in which the public space or commons of a community or nation is to be regulated with respect to what people will and will not be permitted to do with, or in, that public space, as well as in relation to what rights and principles of justice the people of a given community are to be entitled, along with a specification of whatever duties and obligations are believed to accrue to different individuals under various circumstances.

Sacred Law – in the sense of that to which Divine revelation [such as the Qur’an] gives expression and in the sense of the operating principles through which Creation is manifested – is a function of the reality or truth of being and Being. To say that such and such aspect of life is a facet of Sacred Law is to make a claim concerning the order, nature, and purpose of that aspect of life in terms of the manner to which it allegedly gives expression to truth and the reality of things as ordained by God. Sacred Law is a function of the manner in which God has arranged Creation, including whatever degrees of freedom are inherent in the structural properties and principles of Creation, as well as in terms of the purposes for which Creation has been so arranged by Divinity.

As such, Sacred Law is not necessarily a legal system per se. For example, the physical principles that govern the manner in which the physical/material dimensions of Creation operate are not legal rules in the sense of statutory provisions that have been established for purposes of judging the conduct of the physical world and whether, or not, that conduct conforms to, or deviates from, the established statutory provisions in question.

Physical principles give expression to the reality or truth of their nature by manifesting God’s truth concerning their modes of being. By acting in accordance with their essential nature – that is, the properties and qualities which constitute the reality of that which God has ordained them to be -- physical principles are manifestations of Sacred Law. Sacred Law is simply the way things operate in relation to that facet of created existence or being.

The law of gravity does not refer to a legal set of rules. When one fails to exercise due diligence in relation to such a law, one has not violated a legal rule, but, rather, one has failed to take into consideration the way reality operates within certain circumstances, and, as a result, one must suffer whatever consequences ensue from such a failure.

The reality of gravity is an expression of Sacred Law. Every aspect of Creation is a manifestation of Sacred Law.

Human beings are also governed by Sacred Law. Such Sacred Law concerns the potentials, capacities, faculties, qualities, and possibilities which are inherent in the human form – a form which ranges from: physical, mental, and emotional properties, to: spiritual qualities.

Once again, as was the case with gravity, such Sacred Law is not necessarily a matter of determining what statutory injunctions apply to human potential and behavior. Moreover, as was the case with gravity, such Sacred law becomes a matter of trying to understand the reality or truth with respect to the manner in which some given dimension of existence operates – in this case, human beings.

To whatever extent a given school of jurisprudence does not reflect the totality of the Sacred Law concerning the nature of how a given aspect of existence gives expression to the Sacred Law, then, to that extent such an approach to jurisprudence tends to introduce errors and problems into a person’s understanding of Sacred Law. Therefore, one issue which arises when attempting to ascertain the relationship, if any, between a given school of jurisprudence and the Sacred Law becomes a matter of seeking to establish or adjudge the degree of accuracy contained in a given perspective of jurisprudence with respect to the capacity of the latter to be able to reflect the truth of the reality of some dimension or dimensions of Sacred Law in relation to human beings.

Schools of jurisprudence give expression to a set of methodologies which proponents contend will permit an individual to ascertain the nature of Sacred Law in any given set of circumstances involving human beings. Such schools of jurisprudence use the aforementioned methodologies to construct hypotheses which are said to be able to capture the governing principles of Sacred Law which an advocate of the school believes are at work in a given set of circumstances and, thereby, permit an individual to come to understand how to engage those circumstances in a manner which is consonant with Sacred Law.

In order to be able to generate a context for beginning to explore the relationship, if any, between the idea of a school of jurisprudence and the Sacred Law of God, it may be of value to briefly take a look at some of the ideas entailed by some of the different madhhabs or schools of jurisprudence. This discussion is not intended to be exhaustive but, rather, is merely intended to provide some food for thought before proceeding on in other ways.


Abu Hanifa al-Nu‘man ibn Thabit [80 AH/699 A.D. – 150 AH/767 A.D.] is credited by some as being among the first to put forth some of the working methods for engaging Sacred Law in order to try to understand the nature of one’s relationship to Sacred Law [a process which is now referred to – and, in fact, has been referred to in such terms for some time -- as a madhhab or school of jurisprudence]. Interestingly enough, there are a number of incidents which transpired during the lifetime of Abu Hanifa which give rise to some important questions concerning how one might approach the issue of understanding and applying that understanding to matters governed by Sacred Law.

More specifically, at one point in his life, Abu Hanifa had decided to turn down an offer to serve as chief judge – an offer which had been extended to him by Marwan ibn Muhammad, an Umawi caliph. As a result of this rejection, Abu Hanifa received a public punishment consisting of 110 lashes.

The reason which Abu Hanifa gave with respect to his refusal to serve as chief judge is relatively simple and straightforward. He did not want to be in a position where he would be required to pass legal judgment on other individuals.

When the ‘Abbasis overthrew the opposing Umawi caliphate in 132 AH, a new caliph – Abu Jafar al-Mansur [died in AH 158] – came to power. The new caliph wanted Abu Hanifa to be in charge of judicial proceedings in Baghdad.

Once again, Abu Hanifa declined an invitation that was being extended to him which would have required him to assume responsibility with respect to making judgments concerning others in relation to legal issues. Once again, he was punished – this time with imprisonment – and he remained in prison until he passed away in 150 AH.

Abu Hanifa believed in the importance of seeking to arrive at determinations concerning what the nature of Sacred Law may have been in a given set of circumstances. However, he apparently did not believe in the appropriateness of using such determinations to pass legal judgments on others.

Consequently, very early on in Muslim history we encounter a situation in which someone who is cited as being, in a sense, the founder of a school of jurisprudence did not believe that determinations involving the Sacred Law were necessarily a matter of jurisprudence. Instead, the individuals who were seeking to use Sacred Law as a system of jurisprudence were certain leaders who were attempting to impose a particular kind of authority and control over other human beings and using the Sacred Law as justification for what they were attempting to do in those respects.

One of the methods which Abu Hanifa emphasized in his approach to engaging issues of Sacred Law involved shura or consultation with others. Oftentimes, he would present a problem, case, or question concerning Sacred Law and, then, encourage his students to discuss the matter with one another while they analyzed and reflected on the challenge before them. Over a period of time – and this might last for a number of weeks – the group finally would reach a decision concerning the issue in question, and this would be a reflection of all that had gone into the process of consultation.

However, Abu Hanifa once counseled his students by saying: “Anyone who utters a fatwa based on my sayings is only permitted to do so if that individual knows what I used as proof [dalil].” The fatwa being referred to here was not a legal obligation incumbent on all who heard it, but, rather it was a pronouncement about a spiritual determination which had been reached concerning what Abu Hanifa believed was the nature of Sacred Law in a given set of circumstances.

For Abu Hanifa, truly knowing the roots of the proof of something is not at all the same thing as being able to read an account concerning that same something. Proof is in the experiential heart-knowledge and understanding of the hukm -- or the authoritative and governing spiritual principle(s) -- of whatever aspect of Sacred Law that was being explored.

Unless someone understood a given matter in the same way as Abu Hanifa did, then that individual would not understand the nature of the proof upon which Abu Hanifa rested his determination. If one lacked such an understanding, then Abu Hanifa did not want an individual to blindly make a fatwa or pronouncement concerning something which the individual did not properly understand and, then, merely use the name of Abu Hanifa as justification for what was being said.

To the extent that a true ‘proof’ existed concerning the matter at hand, the authority was not Abu Hanifa. Rather, the authority was in the extent to which a given ‘proof’ reflected a truth concerning the nature of Sacred Law in a given set of circumstances.

The fact that Abu Hanifa offered a proof in a given case does not necessarily mean that the issue for which a proof was being provided was correctly or fully understood by him, any more than it necessarily follows that because a ‘proof’ is offered by any given individual, then, therefore, such a ‘proof’ must be correct. Be this as it may, at this point I am far less concerned with whether Abu Hanifa was right or wrong with respect to the ‘proofs’ offered in this or that instance than I am concerned with some of the methodological considerations which appear to have shaped certain features of his perspective.

The features which seem to stand out for me in this respect are two in number. The first methodological principle involves the manner in which Abu Hanifa seemed to be disinclined to use the process of seeking spiritual determinations concerning Sacred Law as a basis for passing judgment on others in any sense which carried legal ramifications. A second methodological principle revolves around the importance of acquiring an understanding of, and insight into, the precise nature of a ‘proof’ which is being offered in conjunction with some given spiritual determination concerning the Sacred Law – blind adherence to such a determination or citing someone’s name as the authority for such a determination is not enough.


Malik ibn Anas, a second name with which a major school of jurisprudence or madhhab is associated, was believed to have been born somewhere between 90 AH and 97 AH. He died in 179 AH [796 AD].

Apparently, Malik ibn Anas did not leave any explanation concerning the specific methodology which he used for making a determination or judgment concerning the Sacred Law in any particular case. His students indicated that he used a variety of tools through which he sought to assess a given problem, issue, or question concerning what he believed to be the operative aspect of Sacred law in any particular case. These tools included: the Qur’an, the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the practices [or amal] of the people of Medina, a form of analogical reasoning, as well as considerations of public interest [that is, maslaha] and various kinds of custom.

Of course, all of the major madhhabs considered the Qur’an, along with the sunna of the Prophet, to constitute two essential sources to be utilized in seeking determinations concerning the way Sacred Law might be related to a given set of circumstances. However, citing these two sources as having central importance to any process of spiritual deliberation is one thing and demonstrating that the manner in which one understands and applies those sources is another matter altogether.

Malik was not only very much aware of the foregoing difference, but he also realized that there could be more than one way of utilizing the Qur’an and the sunna to arrive at a spiritual determination in any given instance. For this reason, Malik sought to indicate to the ‘Abbasi Caliphs that his approach to attempting to understand the nature of the Sacred Law in any particular case should not be the only methodology considered when trying to solve a problem or resolve a conflict.

Once again – as was also the case in relation to the previous discussion involving Abu Hanifa -- I am not as much interested in the specific determinations which Malik may have reached in any particular case as I am interested in a certain dimension of his general approach to the process of trying to understand the nature of the Sacred Law. To this end, one of the most important themes which I see being given expression through his approach to such matters is his willingness to acknowledge that there could be more than one way to pursue Sacred Law, and, as such, there should be no one “official” position concerning how to go about trying to understand the nature of Sacred Law.

Malik was not attempting to establish a systematic and definitive legal code with respect to the nature of Sacred Law. Rather, he was trying to provide food for thought which might be reflected upon by others in relation to various problems, questions, and issues.


Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a third name with which a major school of jurisprudence is associated, lived from 164 AH to 241 AH -- that is, 780 A.D. to 855 A.D.. Like Malik before him, ibn Hanbal also sought to dissuade others from attempting to systematize the latter’s modes of thinking about various matters concerning the nature of Sacred Law.

He was opposed to the idea of codifying shari‘ah. In fact, ibn Hanbal’s teachings often can be understood as a reaction against the tendencies to codify matters of shari‘ah that had been emerging not only during his lifetime but in earlier times, as well.

For instance, Ibn Hanbal was strenuously opposed to the practice of taqlid – that is, blind obedience – which was beginning to become commonplace during his lifetime. Consequently, as one means of countering this tendency toward blind obedience, he instructed his students that none of his deliberations and determinations concerning any particular case should be written down.

For ibn Hanbal, the Qur’an and the sunna were the preeminent authorities in all efforts of spiritual deliberations. In fact, he was inclined to give preference to a weak Hadith rather than use some form of analogical reasoning in order to reach a spiritual determination concerning the Sacred Law in a given set of circumstances.

On the other hand, sometimes ibn Hanbal would encounter issues in which neither the Qur’an nor the sunna seemed to provide a solution in conjunction with a problem or question that was being considered. On such occasions, ibn Hanbal might use analogical reasoning as a tool of last resort.

Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 3

The Issue of Ijma

Ibn Hanbal also was often very deferential to the various pronouncements of the results of a given spiritual deliberation concerning the nature of the Sacred Law which were given by some of the Companions of the Prophet – often referred to as a fatwa. However, he attached an important caveat to using such pronouncements as aides to arriving at a spiritual determination in a given issue or problem, and this proviso stipulated that the Companions had to have been unanimous in their agreement with such a pronouncement in order for it be accepted as a possible resource to use in seeking spiritual determinations concerning the nature of Sacred Law.

This foregoing idea of ijma, or consensus, is more complicated than it appears. First and foremost, one faces the question of: Who is going to be counted as a Companion of the Prophet?

For example, is mere acquaintanceship sufficient to qualify someone as a Companion? There were likely to have been many individuals – especially during the later Medina period -- who may have seen and heard the Prophet but who might not thereby necessarily have satisfied the conditions – whatever these may be -- of what it means to be a Companion of the Prophet.

Furthermore, and irrespective of how one decides to identify who is a Companion of the Prophet, one also must deal with the methodological problem of determining whether, or not, all Companions were actually in agreement with some given fatwa issued by one of the other Companions.

If someone does not speak in relation to some given spiritual determination, does such silence necessarily imply consent? Maybe someone who may disagree with such a pronouncement remains silent for personal reasons or out of a wish not to generate dissension or further problems.

Moreover, can one be sure that all Companions knew about such a pronouncement or that they had been asked to give their opinion in relation to that pronouncement? Can one be sure that all of the Companions continued to be in agreement concerning such a pronouncement throughout their lives?

Aside from the foregoing considerations involving the issue of consensus, there is another aspect of ibn Hanbal’s approach to seeking to understand the nature of Sacred Law. For him, the issue of ijma or consensus only had relevance and importance in relation to those individuals who lived in the time of the Prophet. Consequently, a consensus of opinion among religious scholars who lived at some point after the time of the Prophet did not necessarily carry much weight as far as ibn Hanbal was concerned.

One of the major reasons why questions like the foregoing are important to raise is because they should induce one to pause and reflect on just what relevance the idea of ijma or consensus has with respect to the issue of determining how one might approach Sacred Law and shari‘ah. For example, if there were consensus concerning some matter of Sacred Law, then, possibly, such a state of affairs might carry considerable spiritual authority in shaping how one proceeds with respect to engaging the nature of Sacred Law.

Many people refer to a hadith which is attributed to the Prophet in which he is reported to have said that “my community will never agree in error.” Consequently, if some facet of shari‘ah is unanimously agreed upon, then, one might conclude, on the basis of what has been attributed to the Prophet, that whatever has been agreed upon must be free of error and, therefore, true.

Unfortunately, there are those who define ijma, or consensus, in terms of the religious or theological teachings of certain groups, religious scholars, mullahs, and so on who came after the lifetimes of the Companions of the Prophet. In other words, according to this kind of an understanding, if some post-Companion group decides unanimously that such and such is an important facet of, say, shari‘ah, then, those who advocate such a perspective claim that this sort of consensus has a binding authority upon other members of the Muslim community.

Furthermore, individuals who think in this manner often cite the aforementioned Hadith which has been attributed to the Prophet – namely, ‘my community will never agree in error.’ The primary problem with this approach to things is that assumptions are being made concerning what the Prophet meant when he is reported to have said the foregoing statement.

Was the statement of the Prophet concerning his community only intended to refer to decisions made by his Companions? If so, the fact of the matter is that available historical records indicate there were very, very few instances in which the Companions were all asked a question concerning some facet of the shari‘ah and with respect to which they all answered in, more or less, the same way, and, as well, none of the Companions responded by silence with respect to such questions or changed their position concerning such a question.

Did the statement of the Prophet about his community never agreeing in error refer only to certain religious groups or scholars or legal experts who would arise in subsequent times? If so, what is the basis for such a claim, and why would the Companions be excluded from consideration in such matters? Moreover, if the Companions are not to be excluded, then, surely, one is brought back to the default position in which, relatively speaking, there were very few issues which could be shown to have enjoyed unanimous agreement on the part of the Companions, let alone on the part of the Companions as well as whatever subsequent group one wished to cite.

If a group of religious scholars, theologians, or jurists reaches a consensus – that is, a unanimous agreement – on some issue concerning the nature of the Sacred Law, this, in and of itself, says nothing at all about the correctness of what is being agreed upon by that group. The value of such consensus becomes even more suspect if there are other groups of religious scholars, theologians, or jurists who do not share such a perspective on the matter in question.

On the other hand, there may be those who might wish to argue that ijma, or consensus, doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity of agreement. For those individuals who might want to argue in this fashion, they are going to have to come up with an authoritative argument from the Qur’an which indicates that such is the case, and these sorts of individual are also going to have to plausibly justify and explain just what the Prophet meant when he said that his community would never agree in error if ijma does not mean unanimity of agreement on any given point being addressed.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with considering various positions on a given issue and trying to determine which, if any, of the positions being engaged may be giving expression to the truth. However, the fact that some group has reached consensus on something carries no prima facie binding authority over one unless what is being said can be shown or proven to be stating the truth of a matter, and this means that it is not consensus, per se, which is the source of such binding authority, but rather, it is the truth which carries binding authority upon one – although even here, one has a choice to accept or reject such truth.

Finally, although one can certainly take into account the conduct of the Companions as a possible guide in relation to how one might proceed with respect to understanding and engaging the issue of Sacred Law, there is nothing in any of the foregoing considerations which requires one to follow their example. More specifically, the Companions of the Prophet pursued their particular modes of seeking the truth concerning the nature of Sacred Law according to their individual experiences, historical circumstances, life histories, cultural influences, capacities, needs, and so on. The understandings which arise out of all of this may, or may not, be relevant to the task of struggling toward finding a viable mode of understanding the nature of Sacred Law for life in today’s historical circumstances according to the varying needs of different peoples in different historical and cultural circumstances with varying spiritual capacities – there are many, many factors to consider when engaging such matters.

Consider the following verse:

“And whoever acts hostilely to the Apostle after that guidance has become manifest to him and follows other than the way of the believers, We will turn him to that to which he has [himself] turned.” [Qur’an, 4:115]

The foregoing ayat is given by some as support for the idea of ijma -- that is, there is an equivalence being established between the idea of ijma and the Quranic phrase: “the way of the believers”. However, the way which is being alluded to refers to Divine guidance concerning the path to truth, and this becomes ‘the way of believers’ only when those believers follow the indicated path.

As such, this is not a matter of God giving authority for believers to define what that way is and, then, permitting them to proceed to impose that path, so defined, on others. Secondly, the ayat makes clear that the warning being given only becomes operative after proper understanding has come to someone [that is, become manifest] concerning the truth of the guidance, and, then, such an individual proceeds to not only pursue some other path but to do so in a manner which is hostile to the Prophet. Only at such a juncture will God close the path to truth and allow the individual to stray in error along the path which he or she has chosen.

Although there are various exceptions to what is about to be said, for the most part, ijma or consensus is irrelevant to matters of shari‘ah because the latter is an individual pursuit not a collective activity. To be sure, the pursuit of shari‘ah carries ramifications for the collective, because through such a journey or struggle, the individual, God willing, may acquire qualities of character, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, faith, and adab that can be shared with others and which, God willing, have a constructive, beneficial impact upon society. However, the actual spiritual journey does not require the consensus of others in order for one to be able to proceed even though such consensus, if and when it does occur, can help inform the spiritual journey of the individual, and, moreover, such an individual would be well-advised to carefully consider what has been established through such consensus.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations and given that in the time of the Prophet, or shortly thereafter, there were very, very few issues on which consensus had been reached, it is unlikely that consensus will ever be meaningfully established in any way which extends beyond the consensus reached by people during the times of the Prophet. To be sure, there is consensus about the importance of the five pillars, but there are both agreements on, as well as differences concerning, how, specifically, to go about implementing these pillars and the nature of any degrees of freedom one may have in relation to such implementation.]. There is consensus about the importance of the Qur’an, even while, once again, there is no consensus with respect to what the Qur’an necessarily means – although there may be agreement on this or that ayat/verse. There is consensus about the importance of loving the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and having love and respect for the other members of the Prophetic tradition, but there is no consensus on how one should give expression to this love. There is consensus on the importance of the basic principles of faith or iman, but there are differences of understanding with respect to how such faith is to be incorporated into one’s life. There is consensus that everything one does should be done for the sake of Allah, but there are differences about how all of this might fit in with a person’s understanding concerning the nature, purpose, and potential of life. There is consensus that one must strive and struggle with life … that one must make efforts and that one has been given the capacity to choose between good and evil, but there are differences of opinion about what constitutes the good and what constitutes the evil or how to make the best use of the freedom one has been given.

Beyond the foregoing sorts of consensus, one is likely to find very little consensus in relation to matters either public or private. So, rather than canvassing 1.3 billion Muslims, or canvassing this or that group which seeks to arrogate to itself – rather arbitrarily -- the title of “consensus authorities” and allocate to themselves the sole right to establish, or not establish, spiritual consensus -- one might be better off to realize that shari‘ah really is an individual journey during which one may consider this or that perspective of others but with respect to which one will, by and large, find no consensus, and, therefore, as indicated earlier, the notion of ijma is relatively unhelpful when it comes to pursuing and struggling with shari‘ah.

“No soul benefits except from its own works, and none bears the burden of another. Ultimately, you return to your Lord, then He informs you regarding all your disputes." [Qur’an, 6:164]


As was the case in relation to both Abu Hanifa and Malik, my primary interest with respect to ibn Hanbal has little to do with whatever spiritual determinations may have been reached by him in conjunction with some particular problem or issue involving the nature of Sacred Law. In fact, as was pointed out previously, ibn Hanbal gave specific instructions that his spiritual determinations and judgments concerning particular cases not be written down in order to deter people from blindly adhering to whatever conclusions might be generated by ibn Hanbal, and in this respect he is advocating a position which is very similar to the one voiced by Abu Hanifa, and noted earlier, concerning the importance of properly understanding an issue rather than seeking to blindly apply a determination or judgment with little or no understanding of what one is doing.

Like Abu Hanifa and Malik, ibn Hanbal was not interested in establishing a codification of the Sacred Law. Like Abu Hanifa and Malik, ibn Hanbal was not trying to make claims that his particular approach to understanding the nature of Sacred Law was the only way of making spiritual determinations or judgments. Like Abu Hanifa and Malik, ibn Hanbal had his own unique way of approaching the challenges of life, and he engaged such sources as the Qur’an or the sunna of the Prophet from his own perspective of appropriateness and correctness. Like Abu Hanifa and Malik, ibn Hanbal sought to do what he could to constrain the tendency of people to try to generalize a given spiritual determination arrived at in conjunction with a particular set of circumstances to cases which were beyond the specific situation being considered.


The birth of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i is said to have occurred in 150 AH on the very same day that Abu Hanifa passed away. al-Shafi‘i died in 204 AH.

During his various travels and studies, al-Shafi‘i spent time with Malik in Medina. He also is said to have spent time and studied with an individual who had been a close student of Abu Hanifa.

al-Shafi‘i rooted his perspective in the Qur’an and especially the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). al-Shafi‘i believed that what the Prophet said constituted a law which was incumbent upon the community. He felt that the Prophet’s sayings did nothing more than to explain, complement, or particularize the teachings of the Qur’an.

However, in the Qur’an, God says: “And if all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea, with seven more seas to help it, were ink, the words of Allah could not be exhausted.” [31:27]. Therefore, since the Word of God is infinite in nature, that Word cannot be exhaustively explained nor exhaustively particularized – not even by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Saying the foregoing does not in any way diminish or denigrate the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but, rather, it is a way of trying to allude, however inadequately, to the greatness and plenitude of the Divine mystery. In fact, this is a perspective which the Prophet would have been the very first to acknowledge as having priority over everything else.

In addition, this issue of the possible relationship of the sayings of the Prophet in relation to the meaning and significance of Quranic teachings points in the direction of a further matter of considerable importance. More specifically, in a tradition or Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him), the messenger of God was informed that some people were writing down his sayings. The Prophet took to the pulpit of the mosque and said, "What are these books that I heard you wrote? I am just a human being. Anyone who has any of these writings should bring it here.” Abu Huraira said we collected all these writings and burned them.

Ibn Saeed Al-Khudry (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

"Do not write anything from me except Qur’an. Anyone who wrote anything other than the Quran shall erase it."

Abu Bakr Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with) had a collection of some 500 hadiths of the Prophet. However, upon hearing about the dire consequences which might befall anyone who perpetrated untruths concerning what the Prophet said, this close Companion of the Prophet -- after he had spent an entire night struggling over the issue of whether, or not, to retain his set of traditions -- burned his collection of Prophetic sayings.

In another tradition, some thirty years after the Prophet had passed away, Zayd Ibn Thabit, another close companion of the Prophet, visited the Khalifa Mu'aawiyah and related a story about the Prophet which Mu'aawiyah liked. Mu’aawiyah ordered someone to write the story down. But Zayd said: "The messenger of God ordered us never to write down anything of his hadith."

The Qur’an does say:

“He who obeys the Messenger obeys God, and whoever turns back, We have not sent you as a keeper over them.” [4:80]

And again:

“Whatsoever the Messenger ordains, you should accept, and whatsoever he forbids, you should abstain from.” [Qur’an, 59:7]

Thus, if the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gives a specific directive to someone, then, according to the foregoing two verses of the Qur’an, complying with what the Prophet indicates in such a matter is something that is sanctioned and encouraged by God. However, when one attempts to move from, on the one hand: instances in which the Prophet directed people to whom he was speaking or to people in his immediate physical community to do something, to, on the other hand: concluding that, therefore, such directives are intended for all people and all times and all circumstances, then, one is making a very sizable assumption – an assumption which needs to be demonstrated as viable or which can be proven to be correct.

The clearest evidence which stands in opposition to the viability of making an assumption along the foregoing lines with respect to questions concerning the identity of those to whom the Prophet, on any given occasion, is giving specific directives or which stands in opposition to jumping to conclusions with respect to identifying those who are being addressed by the Prophet is given expression through the Prophet’s act of prohibiting the writing down of his sayings. If the Prophet had wanted his specific directives to carry over to the circumstances, times, and conditions which would arise after he passed away, then, he would have indicated that what he said should be written down and passed on – yet, such an indication is just the opposite of what he actually instructed the people in his physical community to do.

Furthermore, however one wishes to understand such matters, nonetheless, as the remainder of Surah 4, Ayat 80 cited previously indicates, neither the Prophet nor the believers have been given the responsibility of assuming the role of keepers over those who turn back from following the Prophet. Even if one were to accept the idea that what the Prophet said more than 1400 years ago still applies to Muslims living in today’s world, the Qur’an is also giving an indication that God has not authorized anyone to be a keeper over people with respect to such issues.

When the imperative mood is used in grammar, many people wish to interpret this to mean that whatever is being said in this manner constitutes an obligation, command, ordinance, duty, order, or law. Generally speaking, however, the imperative mood is meant to give expression to an intention which is designed to influence a listener’s behavior or understanding.

To say that something is a command, ordinance, duty, order, or law certainly all constitute ways intended to influence another person’s behavior or understanding. Nevertheless, to urge someone to do something, without commanding or ordering that person to perform such an action, or to try to persuade someone, or to indicate to someone, or impress on someone concerning the importance of some given activity – all of this still gives expression to the imperative mood because one’s intention is to influence the behavior of the individual being addressed, but doing things in this way is not necessarily in the form of a command, order, ordinance, or law.

If there is a cliff toward which someone is unknowingly running, and I seek to influence the behavior of that individual to stop running in the problematic direction, I am not necessarily ordering or commanding or ordaining that the individual should stop running. Furthermore, I am not necessarily saying that there is a law which stipulates that one must stop running when approaching a cliff, nor am I necessarily saying that the person has a duty to stop running.

What I am trying to do is somehow impress on the individual that difficulties may lay in store for that person if she or he continues to run in the same direction and, thereby, fails to give proper cognizance to the warnings being given. What I am trying to do is impress upon the individual in question that there is a potential benefit associated with listening to what is being said.

God has said: “There is no compulsion in Deen.” [Qur’an, 2:256] To place someone else under an obligation, duty, ordinance, or legal injunction are all forms of compulsion.

On the other hand, if one chooses to heed the counsel, advice, or warning which is given, then, one is acting in accordance with the information which has been communicated, but one is not necessarily acting in this manner in order to fulfill a perceived duty or obligation or because what is being communicated is a legal injunction of some kind which is incumbent on one to obey. One has chosen to comply with some warning, advice, counsel, or guidance because one has been persuaded – for whatever reason -- by what has been said to the point where one is willing to permit one’s behavior to be influenced in a certain way.

When one sees the truth of something, one is not obligated to act in accordance with such truth. At the same time, when one comes to understand the truth of something, one is not necessarily inclined to act contrary to the manner in which such a truth informs one’s understanding and manner of engaging certain facets of life.

There is a difference between, on the one hand, stating that something is an ordinance which is incumbent on the individual who is listening to what is being stipulated and, on the other hand, stating that performing certain actions would be in a person’s best interests. The former invites one to do little more than obey without necessarily having any understanding as to why she or he is doing something, whereas the latter approach to things invites a person to explore the relationship between what one is being advised to do and the issue of trying to determine what might constitute one’s best interests.

If one comes to understand the operative principle involved in what might happen to someone if he or she runs off a cliff, then, such understanding tends to shape one’s way of engaging certain aspects of existence. However, once this sort of understanding takes root, one does not necessarily feel under some duty or obligation to keep such understanding in mind, nor does one necessarily consider such understanding an ordinance or command or legal injunction of some kind even as one does understand that acting in accordance with such an understanding may be in one’s best interests.

Divine guidance is not necessarily about duties, ordinances, legal injunctions, commands, or obligations. True guidance is about assisting an individual to come to an understanding of the way things are and to help such a person to learn how to act in accordance with such an understanding.

One is free to accept such guidance or reject it. However, one rejects the guidance at one’s own risk because the guidance is seeking to communicate to one something of essential importance about the nature of how things are with respect one’s potential and the relationship of that potential with respect to the rest of existence.

Aside from the fact that the Qur’an indicates that there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen, the Qur’an also indicates that “tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter”. [2:191]. To seek to impose Sacred Law onto people is to oppress them even if one’s intention is a matter of seeking to do that which one believes will be of assistance to them. Sacred Law is something which must be realized, not something which can be imposed.

Whatever one does in the way of assistance with respect to other individuals, this cannot involve oppression. One can talk with people. One can debate in good ways with them. One can seek to persuade others provided that one does not exceed due limits. One can engage in research and discussion in the hopes that people may see the value of what one is saying … but one cannot oppress them.

Moreover, God has not given authority to anyone to oppress other human beings. Rather, the guidance is precisely the opposite – to struggle against oppression and to help terminate the latter.

Or, if one engages the issue of the Sacred Law from the perspective of justice and equitability, then, one is not doing justice to others if one takes away their freedom to choose between good and evil. Life is meant to be a struggle, and it is a struggle in which not everyone may succeed so far as spiritual issues are concerned.

One of the rights which others have over us is the right to be free from being oppressed by us. When shari‘ah – which is, in actuality, the spiritual journey toward seeking to understand the nature of Sacred Law -- is imposed on others, then one is violating such a right, just as much as someone who rejects shari‘ah is violating the rights of others when the former seeks to impose his or her way of doing things on those who wish to pursue shari‘ah.

People have the right and they should have the freedom to choose between good and evil. People do not have the right and they should not have the freedom to impose such choices on others.

The basic right to choose between good and evil is integral to the path of shari‘ah. The issue of providing the sort of environment in which people are free from any sort of oppression, exploitation, or abuse which would interfere with, or undermine, such a basic right is the province of governance – that is, the regulation of the public space or commons so that the freedom to pursue shari‘ah is protected.

Whatever force is used – and one cannot transgress due limits here with respect to the use of force – such compulsory measures can only be used to ensure that no one is oppressed with respect to the right to choose as they please as long as their choices do not spill over into the lives of others and, thereby, introduce oppression into the community. Indeed, one of the primary tasks of any government is to protect the public space so that it is free from oppression of any kind. The task of government is not to ensure that people follow a particular understanding of Sacred Law or to compel them to pursue a particular spiritual journey [i.e., shari‘ah] toward understanding the nature of Sacred Law.


Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 4

Sunna and Hadith

The Prophet is reported to have said: “I have bequeathed to you two things; if you hold fast to them, you will never go astray. They are the Qur’an and my sunna.”

There is a general confusion in many parts of the Muslim community concerning the issues of sunna and hadith. Unfortunately, this confusion tends to perplex all too many religious scholars.

Hadiths have to do with the sayings of the Prophet. sunna has to do with the conduct of the Prophet.

The Qur’an encourages believers to follow the example of the Prophet not necessarily his hadiths. The Qur’an states: “Say: If you love Allah, then, follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your faults, and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” [Qur’an, 3:31] The Qur’an also says: “You indeed have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern of conduct [us‘wat hasanah] for anyone whose hope is Allah and the hereafter and who engages much in the praise of Allah.” [Qur’an, 33:21]

Other than those instances in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gives someone a direct instruction or directive [for example, through a dream or some other form of spiritual unveiling] which the individual in question knows is specifically intended for him or her, then, the Divine guidance to follow the Prophet is a reference to the Prophet’s general pattern of conduct through which his beautiful character is being manifested. In other words, one is being encouraged by God to follow the example of the Prophet with respect to: repentance, humility, compassion, friendship, tolerance, forgiveness, courage, patience, gratitude, balance, equitability, charitableness, nobility, integrity, honesty, sincerity, spiritual excellence, dependence on God, steadfastness, seeking for knowledge, adab, purifying oneself, and justice. Follow this multifaceted example of the Prophet – which, truly, is a beautiful pattern -- according to one’s capacity to do so, then, God willing, Allah will love one and forgive one one’s faults.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) placed a ban on all written documentation of, or collections involving, his sayings. Naturally, such a ban could not erase people’s memories concerning what they had heard, or believed they had heard, in relation to what the Prophet may have said on this or that occasion, and, consequently, those who had a memory of what had been said to them by the Prophet were reminded by the Qur’an – as noted earlier -- that those who obey the Prophet are obeying God and, therefore, such individuals should try to act in accordance with what was being said to them by the Prophet.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, whatever else the Prophet may have meant with respect to his banning of making compilations of hadiths, the ban effectively placed constraints on people of a later time being able to try to use people’s memories as a definitive and authoritative guide to what the Prophet said, did, and, most importantly, understood and intended with respect to any given set of circumstances. In other words, the Prophet’s ban on compiling hadiths tended to create a degree, or more, of separation between, on the one hand, what the Prophet actually said, did, understood, or intended, and, on the other hand, what people remembered or understood concerning what the Prophet is reported to have said, did, understood, or intended.

The foregoing degree of separation introduces an important cautionary principle into this issue which would not have been present if the ‘hard evidence’ of documented words were to have been permitted by the Prophet to continue. People can say that I heard so and so say that he or she heard so and so say that such a person heard so and so say that the Prophet is reported to have said “X” – but this is not at all the same thing as saying that the Prophet did, in fact, say and intend X in such and such a way.

Consequently, one should be extremely careful about putting words and intentions into the mouth of the Prophet that could have ramifications for people’s understanding of the nature of Sacred Law or which might lead to attempts by some people to seek to impose [forcibly or otherwise] such an understanding on others. Indeed, this sort of cautionary principle is likely to have been among the sorts of considerations which may have induced Abu Bakr Sidiq (may Allah be pleased with him) to destroy his own collection of hadiths out of fear concerning the possible consequences for misleading others with respect to what the Prophet may actually have meant, understood, or intended whenever he said something.

Some have argued that the reason why the Prophet placed a prohibition on the writing down of hadiths is because he wanted to ensure that there would be no confusion in the minds and hearts of people concerning the difference between, on the one hand, the Word of God and, on the other hand, the words of the Prophet. Oftentimes there is an implication in such an argument that while the people who lived during the time of the Prophet were, apparently, incapable of differentiating between the two categories of words – and, thus, the prohibition -- yet, somehow, later generations were fully capable of making correct distinctions between the two, and, therefore, the ban may be lifted.

One has difficulty understanding the nature of the authority on which the foregoing sort of judgment rests – i.e., to lift the ban on compiling hadiths. One has even greater difficulty trying to understand why people believe that such an arbitrary judgment should, in turn, be able to justify the kinds of uses to which various hadiths have been put such that in all too many places people are forced – under penalty of punishment - to live in accordance with this or that interpretation of those hadiths.

There are those who may wish to argue that a Hadith merely constitutes one of the modes of conduct of the Prophet and, as such, should be considered as part of the sunna or example of the Prophet which the Qur’an has counseled people to follow. I would maintain, however, that the ban which the Prophet placed on all attempts to collect and document his own sayings indicates that such a perspective is untenable – especially, since, as far as can be ascertained -- this is a ban which the Prophet did not subsequently revoke.

Furthermore, one encounters something of a puzzle here. On the one hand, one is encouraged to take note of all the other sayings of the Prophet. Yet, on the other hand, apparently, one does not need to take note of the saying of the Prophet which concerns the voicing of a ban with respect to any compiling of such sayings in a written form. How is one to reconcile the two?

The Prophet is reported to have said: “May Allah bless a person who listens to what I say, memorizes it, understands it, and applies it.”

In one sense, I have never listened to what the Prophet said during his lifetime on earth because I was not physically present at the time during which he lived. In another sense, I have always striven to listen to the spirit of the Prophet – a spirit which has not passed away – as the Qur’an indicates: “Think not of those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are living.” [Qur’an, 6:97]

In this latter sense, I have striven to listen to the spirit of what the Prophet has said about not maintaining collections of hadiths. I have memorized what he is reported to have said in this regard, and I believe – although Allah knows best if this is so -- that I understand it to mean, at the very least, that one should not be using hadith as a means of trying to impose on others either the sunna or hadith of the Prophet.

Without the presence of the Prophet, without explicit indications as to whom is being addressed by a saying of the Prophet, without knowing what the intention of the Prophet was within a particular set of circumstances, and without knowing whether, or not, the Prophet would have provided a different counsel in relation to current circumstances which may share some similarities with the circumstances in which he was heard to say something, then, one really is not in a position to do anything but oppress people if one tries to impose one’s interpretation of Prophetic traditions on others.

I do try to sincerely listen to the spirit of the one to whom various hadiths are attributed. According to what resonates with, and according to what may be verified by, my heart during this process of listening, I strive to develop a feeling or sense of empathy for a variety of issues through which to inform my own personal, individual spiritual understanding of, and approach to, life.

However, there is no expectation on my part that whatever facets of this process of sincere attending to the sayings of the Prophet which may inform my individual perspective should, therefore, also inform the perspective of other individuals. In this sense, my perusal of hadiths is intended to assist my individual struggles and striving toward understanding the nature of the Sacred Law as part of my own, personal, spiritual journey, and none of this is, or should be, intended to seek to compel others to go in any particular spiritual direction.

If it is a mistake for me to, say, even read the hadiths because of the ban which has been placed on compiling them, or if I make mistakes in conjunction with the way in which I may come to understand such sayings of the Prophet, then, these are mistakes for which I personally may, or may not, be held accountable by God. However, the mistakes which I may, or may not, make with respect to hadithic literature will never, God willing, spill over into activities which induce me to try to compel others with respect to how, or whether, they should engage the sayings or the sunna of the Prophet.

I believe such a position is consonant with what the Qur’an teaches. I also believe such a perspective is consonant with the spirit of what the Prophet was seeking to place constraints upon when he banned the compilation of hadiths – namely, that what he said should not be subsequently used as a way of trying to lend the authority of the Prophet to any attempt to compel people to act in one way rather than another with respect to matters involving the seeking of Sacred Law.

I believe the example of the Prophet gives expression to the sort of sunna to which the Prophet wanted Muslims to adhere. The character of the Prophet is what is truly breath-taking – how he consistently interacted with people through courtesy, patience, honesty, integrity, compassion, love, friendship, humility, generosity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, gratitude, equitability, sincerity, self-sacrifice, and dependence on God in all things.

Surely, if a person held fast to the Qur’an and to the extraordinary example of the Prophet– his real sunna – one will never go astray. At best, one peruses the hadith literature in order to glean some understanding of the quality of character through which the Prophet engaged life and not in order to try to determine what he said on this or that occasion which was in response to specific circumstances existing then and not now.


Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 5

The Issue of Qiyas

Previously, I briefly explored the idea of hadith and ijma as two of the major resources which usually are cited in many discussions concerning Sacred Law and shari‘ah. Earlier, I also outlined some important problems revolving about such ideas. Such problems are especially important to keep in mind when people – as, unfortunately, all too many theologians and religious scholars seem inclined to want to do – seek to use either Hadith and/or ijma as a basis for trying to impose on others some given approach to Sacred Law and shari‘ah and claim that the religious determinations that emerge through one’s use of such resources are obligatory or a duty or a Divine ordinance or compulsory and with which, therefore people must comply or to which people must submit.

Qiyas is another methodological source cited by some religious scholars as having authoritative weight when it comes to trying to determine the nature of Sacred Law and shari‘ah. While not all of the four schools of jurisprudence noted earlier accept or use the methodology of qiyas to help reach their determinations concerning the nature of Sacred Law in any given situation, most of the aforementioned schools do, under certain circumstances, employ qiyas as a basic tool.

Qiyas is a word which, in literal terms, means measurement. In effect, when a qiyas is used in discussions concerning religious legalisms, the word is meant to give reference to a standard, metric, or method of establishing a similarity, analogical relationship, or a logical connection between two situations, objects, or issues.

The idea of qiyas gives expression to a form of reasoning or logic which seeks to link two situations or sets of circumstances and focus on the similarities and/or logical relationships between the two. In other words, qiyas is a measuring device, of sorts, which has been constructed in accordance with a mode of logic or discursive thinking which is to be used as a means for comparing the results generated by such a measuring device, standard, or metric that is being used to assess or analyze the structural character of whatever situation, problem, issue, or question that is being considered and to which the qiyas mode of measurement or logic is being applied.

Inherent in the nature of this sort of logic is the idea that if one constructs such a ruler, standard, or measure and lays that measure against one object [or case, issue, question] of interest and, thereby, obtains a measure or assessment of some kind, then, one may be able to take that same mode of measurement or assessment and lay it against other objects [cases, issues, or questions]. Furthermore, if such a mode of measurement generates, with respect to the new object or case, a similar kind of result in relation to the new object/case as was obtained during the first application of the standard, then, the principles inherent in the mode of measurement or logical relationship are considered to be reflected by both objects or cases which are being compared, and, on the basis of such a measurement or application of a standard, one proceeds to argue that the two cases or objects are similar in a certain way or that the two cases/objects share a logical link which is tied to the mode of measurement or assessment – that is, qiyas -- being used.

Thus, suppose one is seeking to measure a cat with a ruler, and, then, one places this same ruler against another object. Suppose further that there are similarities detected by one’s mode of measurement in the new object which are reminiscent of what one found in the case of the cat. According to the logic of qiyas inherent in such a situation, one has grounds for arguing that the new ‘object’ is a cat – even if that new object is not a cat but, instead, turns out to be a rabbit, mouse, dog, or some other life-form.

Obviously, one needs to understand what one is trying to measure, and one needs to understand whether the units of measurement of the ruler or metric being used are appropriate to that which one is seeking to measure. One also needs to know whether one’s mode of measurement actually reveals anything of significance concerning the issue of similarity or logical relationship between two objects or cases – beyond, that is, the manner in which one’s ruler or standard of measurement is constructed and has been used in both instances of measurement or analysis.

The logic of any measuring device is that such a device will find, or not find, only that for which it is looking. Furthermore, if a measuring device captures what it has the capacity to establish in the way of a measurement, this finding, in and of itself, does not necessarily say anything about the nature of that which is being analyzed through such a process of measurement except that one’s method of measurement or assessment is capable of reflecting certain facets of the situation to which it is being applied.

If, for example, one understands that a measuring device can only tell one about the length, width, or height of a given object, then, one knows that when one finds two, or more, objects which exhibit common properties that can be measured by the metric or ruler being used, then, all one has found is a reflection of one’s own method of measurement concerning length, width and height. One has not necessarily discovered anything about the actual nature of that to which such a measuring device has been applied other than that, within certain limits, one’s measuring device can generate a quantitative description concerning the height, breadth, or width of that something.

To say that a cat is ten inches long or three inches wide or six inches tall says nothing about what it is to be a cat other than the fact that some cats come in such a size. If one wishes to know what cats actually are, one has to find a method for assessing the structural character of ‘cat-ness’ that is far more complex than a simple ruler which measures inches and feet.

Quantitative measurements constitute one kind of similarity or logical relationship among certain objects and situations. However, qualitative measurements constitute a very different way of trying to compare two situations, objects, or the like.

To say that two objects share similar physical properties as determined by the measuring or logical process which links the two objects or cases, is one thing. Such quantitative measurements and subsequent comparisons often tend to be fairly straightforward – although using a foot ruler to measure light years could become a little unruly.

However, trying to measure the qualitative properties of two objects or cases tends to be much more problematic. This is especially so when one is trying to say that two objects or cases are similar in some way and that such similarity is sufficient to justify treating the two objects or cases in similar ways or that such similarity is sufficient to justify drawing conclusions concerning how to treat the two objects or cases.

For example, even if one were to come up with a complex measuring metric with respect to cat-ness, nonetheless, determining the nature of a cat will not necessarily tell one very much about the nature of a bird or dog or human being. Furthermore, even if one could construct a measuring device which would permit one to instantaneously calculate similarities and logical relationships among, say, mammals, birds, reptiles, marsupials, and bacteria, none of this might be very helpful in understanding what significance any of these species carried with respect to God’s understanding of Creation.

There are a variety of assumptions inherent in the use of qiyas which tend to suggest that if one believes one knows how God wishes one to engage one situation, case, or object, then, as long as one can demonstrate that a relevant similarity exists between a new case and the already established case, then, whatever behavior, prohibitions, permissions and the like which apply to the former set of circumstances also are said to apply to the latter set of circumstances. Yet, the basis of the alleged similarity or logical relationship which has been put forth through the use of qiyas and which, allegedly, ties together two situations, cases, or objects in question is claimed by the proponents of this method to be a valid way of arguing or justifying what is being claimed.

One assumption permeating the foregoing mode of thinking is the contention that one knows how God wishes one to engage the original set of circumstances at issue. If one misunderstands the nature of the original exemplar, then whatever similarities, analogical relationships, or logical features one points to as being held in common by the two cases will not have much value.

Another assumption inherent in the foregoing way of approaching things is that one is claiming one knows what constitutes a ‘relevant’ similarity or logical relationship when seeking to link two different sets of circumstances. Two objects, cases, or situations are likely to have many things in common, but such commonality does not necessarily justify treating the two objects or cases in the same way or interacting with the two objects or cases in the same way.

In short, the method of qiyas presumes to know what constitutes the most appropriate way of linking things in terms of logical relationship and similarity. Moreover, the use of this qiyas presumes to know which properties and qualities among various objects or cases are the ones which God wants human beings to focus on, or to be measured, or to be shown to be similar, or to be linked through some logical relationship.

Qiyas is a proposal or hypothesis. This proposal or hypothesis claims, in effect, that the manner of arguing through the use of such a method is something which gives expression to the truth of things in a given set of circumstances. Yet, there is nothing independent of such a claim which is necessarily capable of demonstrating the truth of what is being alleged through the use of the tool of qiyas.

Qiyas is nothing more than a rational argument claiming that a given similarity or logical relationship which is established through the use of such a tool is a possible way of thinking about a given issue, problem, or question. That argument may make sense in its own terms, but having an internal consistency with respect to its own mode of logic doesn’t necessarily mean that this form of reasoning has captured the truth of things or that it will lead to a correct understanding of the truth of things in terms of how God understands the situation. As such, the use of qiyas gives expression to a theory of things which stands in need of independent proof that the theory underlying such a use of qiyas reflects the truth of matters in relation to the Sacred Law or shari‘ah.

Consequently, at the very least, an individual needs to exercise caution concerning the use of qiyas. This caution should be exercised not only when one is concerned with one’s own spiritual journey, but, as well, such caution should be exercised even more rigorously when it comes to offering advice to others about how one believes they should lead their lives in relation to matters of the Sacred Law and shari‘ah.

One needs to engage the Sacred Law in a way which provides one with the best opportunity of becoming open to God’s communication and being able, God willing, to discover a condition which will permit one to be led back to the hukm – that is, the authoritative and governing principle with respect to the reality of something -- inherent in some given aspect of a Divine communication as that hukm relates to the problems and questions with which one is grappling. However, if one relies on qiyas, then, one may be trusting in something involving human theoretical constructions rather than Divine disclosure.

To give some intimation of the dangers which may be inherent in using the method of qiyas, I will put forth an example which, although ridiculous in nature, nonetheless, fits into the logical form of a qiyas. More specifically, through the use of qiyas, I am going to demonstrate that I am a Prophet of God.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a man, and I am a man. The Prophet lived to at least the age of 63, and I have lived to at least the age of 63. The Prophet had a beard, and I have a beard. The Prophet spent time in Mecca, Medina, and Taif, and I have spent time in Mecca, Medina, and Taif. The Prophet traveled across the desert between Mecca and Medina, and I have traveled across the desert between Mecca and Medina. The Prophet prayed, fasted, and went on Hajj, and I have prayed, fasted, and went on Hajj. The Prophet spent time in seclusion, and I have spent time in seclusion. The Prophet spoke to people about Islam, and I have spoken to people about Islam. The Prophet had no male children who survived him, and I have no male children who survived me. The Prophet had a sense of humor, and I have a sense of humor. The Prophet sought to live in accordance with the Sacred Law, and I seek to live in accordance with the Sacred Law. The Prophet passed away, and I will pass away.

I could continue on along the foregoing lines, pointing out other similarities between the two of us. Therefore, if similarity is the fulcrum through which such logic is leveraged, then, based on such similarities, I must be a prophet … which, as we all know, is not the case.

The Qur’an says: “…he (Muhammad) is the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets;” [Qur’an, 33:40]. In this case, the Qur’an serves as an independent source to demonstrate that the foregoing exercise in qiyas is not tenable. Moreover, the hukm – that is, the authoritative and governing principle with respect to the reality of something – which is operative here is that the status of being a prophet is rooted in Divine appointment and not the presence of similarities.

One can point out as many similarities between two situations as one likes, but if those similarities do not go to the heart of the matter, and if those similarities do not touch upon the appropriate hukm or authoritative principle which governs such situations, then, despite the existence of similarities or logical links between two cases, one cannot necessarily use the presence of such similarities as a basis for drawing conclusions concerning how to think about the two cases in question.

Being able to point to similarities or logical relationships between two cases does not necessarily mean that one understands a situation in the way that God understands that situation. In short, similarities or logical relationships, in and of themselves, are not necessarily sufficient to be able to discover what may be most resonant with the Sacred Law and/or shari‘ah in any given case.

Consequently, in the light of the foregoing indications, the use of qiyas is a potentially problematic tool. This is especially the case when one takes into consideration that qiyas is usually only resorted to when people are not able to find the guidance which they are seeking in either the Qur’an, the sunna of the Prophet, or consensus of opinion concerning some question or issue.

Under such circumstances, the individuals who have not found what they are looking for in the Qur’an, the sunna, or through consensus are not likely to possess some independent source – such as the Qur’an or sunna -- which is capable of showing that the similarities or logical relationships being noted through a given use of qiyas are either viable or untenable … a case which stands in contrast to the previous thought experiment in which I sought to demonstrate that I am a prophet through applying the tool of qiyas. Fortunately, however, I did know of an ayat of the Qur’an to which I could point to demonstrate the fallacy of the thinking inherent in the qiyas which had been constructed by me.

To be sure, God encourages human beings to think about, and reflect on, the communications which are being expressed through the Qur’an.

“Did they not consider [yanzuru] the Kingdom of the Heavens and Earth … ?” [Qur’an 7:185)

Do they not reflect [yatafakkaru] that their companion has not unsoundness of mind [Qur’an, 7:184}

“Do they not reflect within themselves …” [Qur’an, 30:8]

“… thus do We make clear the communications for a people who reflect. [Qur’an, 10:24]

“Had We sent down this Qur’an on a mountain, you would certainly have seen it falling down, splitting asunder because of the fear of Allah, and We set forth these parables to humankind that they may reflect.” [Qur’an. 59:21]

If one considers, thinks, and reflects, then, God willing, one may arrive at certain general realizations concerning the nature of truth and one’s relationship with that truth.

However, these truths which may come to be realized through thinking and reflecting have a resonance with the nature of such Divine disclosures that is not a matter of establishing similarities or analogies concerning such truth. Rather, the nature of such realizations has to do with the truth of certain limited aspects of the nature of reality itself being made manifest to one – to be understood according to one’s capacity to do so and according to the Grace which is conferred on such understanding.

One is, for example, asked in the Qur’an to think and reflect upon the experiences of past peoples and nations. Think and reflect upon how all peoples, empires, and nations have eventually crumbled and lost all that they had acquired in life … is there not a lesson here – a lesson which does not involve similarities or analogies but a certain stark expression of the truth of things that is relevant to one’s life?

So it is with all of the things about which God asks the individual to think and reflect upon. Open oneself, God willing, to what is being communicated and, as a beginning, permit thinking and reflective faculties to operate in an undistorted and unbiased manner so that one can understand, according to the capacity or limits of thinking and reflecting to do so, what is being communicated to one.

In the Qur’an God may use analogies and likenesses in order to communicate with human beings. For instance, consider the following examples:

“The likeness of the two parties is as the blind and the deaf and the seeing and the hearing: are they equal in condition? Will you not then mind?” [Qur’an, 11:24]


“The likeness of this world's life is only as water which We send down from the cloud, then the herbage of the earth of which men and cattle eat grows luxuriantly thereby, until when the earth puts on its golden raiment and it becomes garnished, and its people think that they have power over it, Our command comes to it, by night or by day, so We render it as reaped seed; produce, as though it had not been in existence yesterday; thus do We make clear the communications for a people who reflect. “ [Qur’an, 10:24]

And, an analogy or simile with which many Muslims are familiar, God also says in the Qur’an:

“Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; a likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not -- light upon light -- Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is Cognizant of all things.” [Qur’an, 24:35]

Reasoning by analogy may be used by an individual, but one has to be aware of the potential for error which is present in that practice. More specifically, while God does employ similes, metaphors, parables, and analogies in the Qur’an, an important consideration to keep in mind is that God knows the precise meaning of such similes, metaphors, parables, and analogies, whereas human beings do not understand their meanings unless God chooses to disclose such understanding, insight, and knowledge to a given individual.

Therefore, when humans use analogies of their own construction as a basis for trying to establish the nature of the deen, then, there is a potential for considerable error. Only when one understands the structural character of God’s use of simile, metaphor, parables, and analogy, can one hope to tread a straight path, God willing, with respect to understanding and being able to gain access to the hukm – that is, the authoritative and governing principle with respect to the reality of something -- of whatever is under consideration.

One might approach the issue of qiyas in another, perhaps, more direct manner than the foregoing. Consider the following verses from the Qur’an:

“This, then, is Allah your God, the Lord, the Truth [your true Lord].” [Qur’an, 10:32]

“That is because Allah is the Truth.” [Qur’an, 22:62]

And God speaks the truth and leads [guides] to the way. [Quran, 33:4]

“Do you not see that God created the heavens and earth through [with] Truth.” [Qur’an, 14:19]

“He did not create the heavens and earth and what is between them except through [with] Truth.” [Qur’an, 30:8]

If God is truth, and if the Word of God is the truth, and if everything which has been created in the heavens and earth, as well as between them, is the truth, then what is one trying to accomplish when one seeks to construct a qiyas which attempts to establish a certain dimension of similarity between two things or which attempts to show the logical relationship of one thing to another? Presumably, one is trying to use qiyas as a means of elucidating, or giving expression to, the nature of a truth governing such situations.

However, if a given use of qiyas is incorrect, then, surely, as the Qur’an indicates: “What is there after truth but falsehood [error]?” [10:32] Moreover, according to the Qur’an: “Allah’s is the conclusive argument,” [Qur’an, 6:149] so, one must look to God in order to gain access, God willing, to the nature of such a conclusive argument with respect to any given application of qiyas.

As such, a qiyas is something which, itself, stands in need of further proof – from God – concerning the extent, if any, to which a particular use of qiyas gives expression to truth. A qiyas, in and of itself, is nothing more than a proposal concerning a possible truth about, say, Sacred Law or the shari‘ah, and one needs to have such a proposal confirmed by God rather than by human beings.

One may be able to follow the logical mapping entailed by some analogical relationship between two situations which is being proposed by this or that religious jurist, but this is not enough. One must know whether, or not, what is being proposed in the form of such a qiyas is acceptable to God as an appropriate manner of linking two situations with respect to helping one to better understand the nature of Sacred Law or the nature of shari‘ah.

The use of qiyas in any given set of circumstances often operates with a hidden presumption. The presumption is that the analogical relationship or logical relationship which is being set forth through such use of the methodology of qiyas carries a Divine sanction, but this sanction is not demonstrated merely by putting forth a qiyas – one needs a further conclusive argument from God concerning the matter which only can come through spiritual disclosure and not rational argument.

In the Qur’an, one finds:

“Indeed there have come to you clear proofs from your Lord; whoever will therefore see, it is for his own soul and whoever will be blind it shall be against him, and I am not a keeper over you.” [Qur’an 6:104]

Proof is a matter of understanding and seeing … of having wisdom … of being taught by Allah. Furthermore, this understanding is for each individual soul and is not something which is to be imposed on others.

The proof is in the understanding which comes to one’s heart. Moreover, when one comes to understand the nature of the Divine proof, it becomes incumbent upon one – as a requirement of the way things are -- to act in accordance with that truth.

Unfortunately, some individuals are blind to this understanding even as they suppose that they see the truth. When one comes to understand how gravity operates, it behooves one to take into consideration the nature of gravity when dealing with physical reality. Similarly, when one comes to understand the nature of some spiritual principle, then, it behooves one to take into consideration the nature of that spiritual principle when dealing with Being.

Such an understanding reflects part of the order of things. Once one knows something of that order, then, one departs from that order at one’s own risk.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, none of what has been said so far necessarily rules out, or automatically invalidates, using the methodology of qiyas as a possible aid in relation to someone’s spiritual deliberations concerning the nature of the Sacred Law. On the other hand, while the use of qiyas in any given situation may appear to be persuasive to an individual when it comes to the making of judgments and choices in his or her own spiritual journey, the method carries little authoritative, spiritual weight, in and of itself, unless one can demonstrate – in the sense of the sort of conclusive proof which belongs to God – that the qiyas in question reveals an important truth concerning the nature of the Sacred Law and/or shari‘ah. More importantly, there is nothing about the logical force of any attempted use of qiyas, considered in and of itself, which has the capacity to justify trying to compel anyone to comply with the logic of such a qiyas, and this would be true even if the Qur’an had not already indicated that there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen.

In legalistic approaches to: the Qur’an, Sacred Law, and shari‘ah, one is taught that the nature of the authoritative, governing principle of something’s reality – that is, determining its hukm -- tends to be a function of deductive, inductive, and analogical modes of reasoning. However, one cannot use such rational methods to arrive at the hukm of a verse of the Qur’an – one must be taught this directly through spiritual means … the depth and character of understanding being determined by: (1) the faculty through which one is taught or through which one comes to understand; (2) the extent of the Grace of disclosure which is manifested through that faculty, and (3) the character of one’s spiritual capacity in such matters.

The surface meaning of a Quranic ayat is related to the hukm of that ayat. Nonetheless, the latter cannot be reduced to the former.

Whatever is plainly communicated in the Qur’an is the surface meaning of that verse, and God has given every human being the freedom to accept or reject what is being communicated through such surface meanings. At the same time, in order to understand the full guidance of the Qur’an, one must be led to the nuances of how the collective meanings of the Qur’an may be most harmoniously and efficaciously brought together and be applied as one moves from one circumstance in life to the next, and this involves being brought back to the roots of things by God. One needs to be shown the hukm or reality or spiritual authority of something, and only God can do this … only God can teach this.

“If you are godfearing (have taqwa), He will give you discrimination.” [Qur’an, 8:29]

“Be Godfearing [have taqwa], and God will teach you [Qur’an, 2:282]

One cannot use the capacity of reason to penetrate through all levels of meanings inherent in God’s communications. Beyond the capacity of reason are the capacities of heart, sirr, kafi, and spirit, and these additional faculties have capacities for knowing and understanding which transcend the capabilities of rational modes of knowing and understanding.

At best, rational methods may only grasp -- according to their capacity and only if God wishes -- something of the surface features of revelation. However, as indicated earlier, the surface meaning of an ayat is but one mode of resonance or wave length or frequency arising out of the hukm of the Qur’an taken as a whole.

Just as light consists of an array of frequencies that give expression to the phenomenon of light, so, too, the Qur’an gives expression to an array of meanings which give expression to the hukm of any given Quranic ayat in a given instance of applied guidance. Furthermore, each of these meanings has a reality which is resonant with the overall reality of the Qur’an.

In the Qur’an one finds: “So learn a lesson, O ye who have eyes.” [Qur’an, 59:2]

The term for “learning a lesson” here is: i‘tabiru. The imperative form of i‘tabiru comes from a verbal noun ‘ubur which conveys a sense of “crossing over” as in from one bank of a river to the other, or as in making passage from one place to another.

Literally speaking, the term ‘itibar’ gives expression to a metaphor of sorts which involves a process of seeking to engage a mode of transport which takes one beyond the original or actual context of a given issue. In the context of the Qur’an, when one is trying to ‘learn a lesson’ one is seeking to cross over from the particulars that are being expressed through a given aspect of the external form of revelation to the underlying hukm or governing principle which is inherent in that external form.

Thus, to learn a lesson in the foregoing sense is to begin one’s journey with the structural character of a given situation in terms of its facts, particularities, and contingent circumstances, and, then, use such a starting point to struggle or strive to gain insight into the nature of such a situation. To learn a lesson is to cross over from the surface features of a situation to its hukm – its governing principle, reality, or truth.

Virtually anyone may be able to see the external, surface features of a given set of circumstances, but not everyone may be able to grasp the spiritual meaning, significance of, or principle inherent in such a situation. Those who, by the Grace of God, successfully have made such a transition are those who have learned a lesson concerning that to which God is directing one’s attention through this or that facet of revelation … these are the ones who have eyes … these are the ones who can accomplish the process of crossing over from worldly facts to a spiritual understanding concerning those facts.

The use of rational faculties – such as in the use of qiyas -- is one mode of crossing over. However, it is not the only mode of doing so, and, in fact, spiritually speaking, rational methods are the most limited, constrained, and problematic forms of crossing over because such methods tend to introduce a variety of distortions and biases into the crossing-over process – problems and distortions which reflect the form of logic inherent in the rational methodology which is being imposed on reality and which filters or frames what we experience by means of the logic of that methodology.

The crossing over process of learning a lesson from a given set of Quranic circumstances is more deeply and thoroughly understood when the faculties which are used to make passage from the external realm to the internal realm is done through, for example, the heart (especially the dimension of the heart known as fo’ad), sirr, kafi, and the spirit. All of the foregoing faculties are mentioned in the Qur’an – for example in conjunction with sirr and kafi, one finds: “God knows the secret (sirr) and that which is more hidden (kafi)” [Qur’an, 20:7] -- but, unfortunately, many theologians, religious scholars and jurists tend to restrict themselves to purely rationalistic methods when engaging the Qur’an, and, as a result, run a very real risk of developing skewed understandings concerning various Quranic passages.


Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 6

The Qur’an

Many people want to treat the ayats of the Qur’an as an absolute list of injunctions which serve as rules for life that must be applied by everyone in the same way – which usually means ‘their’ way – with respect to the contingencies of life. In addition, all too many believe they have a God-given right to police the manner in which others go about pursuing shari‘ah.

There are, of course, certain themes in the Qur’an which are absolute and, as such, do not change. For example: There is only one God, and Muhammad is a messenger and Prophet of God; the Qur’an is a Book of truth; there is a purpose to life; all of life involves a struggle of choosing between good and evil; human beings will be held accountable for what they do and do not do; purifying oneself plays an integral role in an individual’s spiritual journey; acquiring, and acting in accordance with, character traits such as humility, equitability, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, generosity, integrity, honesty, gratitude, love, friendship, compassion, dependence on God, courage, sincerity, and steadfastness are essential tools for not only dealing with the difficulties of life but assisting one in one’s search for truth, justice, essential identity, and the realization of one’s unique spiritual capacity; faith is not only a condition which constitutes more than an exercise of blind belief but actually gives expression, if God wishes, to an array of modalities of understanding, insight, and wisdom concerning the nature of existence; empirical observation and reflecting or contemplating on what one observes is something which God encourages rather than discourages; one’s intention should always be to serve God in whatever one does; one should seek to oppress neither others nor oneself; daily prayers, the fast of Ramazan, the payment of zakat, and the observance of the rites of Hajj all have the capacity to assist one to make progress along the spiritual path.

All of the foregoing is entailed by the process of shari‘ah. Nevertheless, there is not just one way to engage such challenges – nor is there anything in the Qur’an which indicates that one must either reduce the possible ways of engaging shari‘ah to what has been decided by, say, the five major madhhabs (i.e., schools of jurisprudence) or that one must necessarily insist that shari ah should be construed in terms of a legal system, or that one is entitled to impose one’s understanding of shari‘ah onto other people … even if there may be a majority of people in a community who wish to oppress and compel others in such a manner.

The Qur’an is not a collective revelation but an individual event. This is true not only with respect to the life of the Prophet, but this is also true in the life of anyone who seeks to engage the Qur’an in a sincere manner … even though, from time to time in the Qur’an, individuals are being referred to collectively -- both generally [O humankind] or in particular circumstances [O Ye who believe].

It is individual fitra – that is, one’s primordial spiritual capacity -- which responds to Divine disclosure. We come to understand our duties of care with respect to all of Creation through our relationship with God. It is through our individual commitment to God that we are prepared to acknowledge the right which other aspects of Creation have over us, as well as the rights which we have over other facets of Creation.

Divine guidance is directed toward helping individuals to engage life as best they can and to apply such guidance to their individual lives as best they can. Forbidding the evil and encouraging the good are part of the discourse of community for, as the Qur’an indicates, one should “enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and bear patiently that which befalls you; surely these acts require courage.” [Qur’an, 31: 17]

However, these actions of forbidding evil and encouraging good carry no authorization which justifies a person seeking to enforce onto others one’s expectations concerning evil and the good with respect to how such people will conduct themselves in relation to matters of Deen. If this were not so, the Qur’an would not be indicating in the same context that forbidding evil and encouraging good must be pursued through patience and courage.

Forbidding the evil and encouraging the good must be done in accordance with an adab through which one uses kindness, respect, wisdom, and a beautiful form of communication that is alluded to in the Qur’an when speaking about such matters with others – namely, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations with them in the best manner.” [Qur’an, 16.125]

Moreover, when one comes to discover that such communications are not welcome, then, one should say peace and leave those individuals alone. As the Qur’an indicates:

“So turn away from them and say, Peace, for they shall soon come to know.” [Qur’an, 43:89]

“And the servants of the Beneficent God are they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace.” [Qur’an, 25:63]

In asserting that Sacred Law and shari‘ah primarily involve an individual struggle and not a collective one – although it is an individual struggle which has implications for the collective -- I am seeking to encourage the good. In claiming that Sacred Law and shari‘ah should not be forcibly imposed on people I am seeking to forbid the evil.

“And (as for) those who follow the right direction, He increases them in guidance and gives them their guarding (against evil). [Qur’an, 47:17]

The words of Allah are the forms which issue forth from Kun and give rise to the manifest and the unmanifest. The hukm – that is, the governing principle of a given facet of reality – of such words is the authority of the truth of meaning which is being given expression through the names or linguistic forms of the Qur’an.

Authority for anything can only be given via the truth. One must grasp the truth to grab hold of the hukm or authority or governing principle of a given portion of text or word of the Qur’an.

Truth cannot come through human interpretation. Truth can only come through an understanding which is granted by Divine Generosity. As the Qur’an indicates:

“We raise by grades whom We will, and over every lord of knowledge, there is one more knowing.” [Qur’an, 12: 76]

“We shall show them Our signs upon the horizons and in themselves, until it is clear to them that God is the Real [Qur’an, 41:53]

“The Real has come, and the unreal has vanished away. Lo! Falsehood is ever bound to vanish.” [17:81]

When human beings seek to interpret the Qur’an, human conceptual constructs are being imposed upon Divine guidance. As long as human interference is present, then, the unreal will not vanish away.

To interpret the Qur’an is to interfere with the process through which God discloses the Divine signs upon the horizons and within us. It is the Real which banishes falsehood, not the interpretive efforts of human beings.

It is God Who raises by degrees and grades of knowledge. This process of being raised is not done through the process of interpretation but through the act of sincerely listening to that which God is communicating to humankind.

The hukm or the governing authority of a given truth or reality influences the heart through the qualities of that truth and not through the need for compulsion or force. This is why there is ‘no compulsion in Deen’ because there is no need for compulsion when the heart is attracted by truth, and when the heart is not so attracted, no amount of compulsion can bring such a heart to an understanding of the truth.

Linguistic forms of Arabic are not the bearers of meaning, but, rather, they are portals through which Divine meanings may enter one’s life. Linguistic forms constitute the structural character of the portal that gives expression to part of the Divine meaning which encompasses but extends beyond the portal through which one initially accesses that Ocean of Truth lying beneath the linguistic surface. In short, Quranic words are portals to a non-linguistic wisdom which, if God wishes, informs a person’s understanding of the linguistic form that serves as a covering for the portal.

“The Faithful Spirit has descended with it upon your heart that you may be of the warners … in plain Arabic language.” [Qur’an, 26:193-194]

The warnings inherent in the Qur’an are in plain Arabic language, but much more descends on the heart than just warnings. As the Qur’an informs us:

“O humankind! There has come to you a direction from your Lord, and a healing for the diseases in the hearts, and a guidance, and a mercy for the Believers.” [Qur’an, 10:57]

The Qur’an means ‘that which is recited’. The word: ‘Qur’an’ is an active verb.

The Word of God is recited by God to the heart of the receptive individual, and, as an active verb, that recitation gives expression, if God wishes, to a process of acting on the heart of the individual. The recitation of the Qur’an is a process of mediating between the receptive heart and the Author of such communications.

As an active verb, the Qur’an speaks to us now. The Qur’an is not a book of the past but, rather, it is a form of communication which is taking place in the present.

The Qur’an is perpetually new in its descent upon the receptive heart, but for those who are not properly receptive, then, their hearts are made to engage the Qur’an in a distorted manner that filters the Divine communications through the biases of unbelief and conceptual or ideological and theological idol-making – that is, through the filters of that which hides the truth which is shining forth. This is the nature of unbelief … to hide the truth, and this is what a reciter of the Qur’an does whose heart is not receptive with his or her whole being with respect to what is being communicated by God through the Qur’an.

In this respect, the Qur’an states: “What? Is the person whose heart Allah has opened to Islam, so that such an individual is in a light from his Lord, like the hard-hearted? Nay, woe to those whose hearts are hard against the remembrance of Allah, those are in clear error.” [Qur’an, 39:22]

God indicated that the heart of His believing servant does contain Him. This descent of the truth of God’s Word into the heart of the believing servant is at the heart of nuzul or descent, for God is truth, and that which resonates with the truth when it has descended and is present, does contain God to whatever extent that truth has been realized.

The Qur’an continually brings new, better understandings and knowledge to the heart of the sincere believer without annulling any of the truths which have been brought to the hearts of believers previously. Moreover, all such meanings, knowledge, and truth have been inscribed from the beginning within the infinite plenitude of the Word.

Each believing heart has a different structural capacity – or fitra -- for hearing the Qur’an’s Ocean of Truth. The Truth of God’s Word does not change – indeed, “The Words of God do not change [la tabdila fi kalimati Llah]” [Qur’an, 10:64]. Nonetheless, the unchanging truth is engaged by different capacities which leads to an array of understandings which give expression to various dimensions and facets of that unchanging Word – all of which are true to precisely the extent to which those understandings give expression to such truth.

The Qur’an says: “And do not make haste with the Qur’an before its revelation is made complete to you and say: O my Lord! increase me in knowledge.” [Qur’an, 20:114]

One is being counseled to not make haste or to not be in a hurry with the Qur’an. One must exercise patience, diligence, sincerity, and have taqwa, or piety, concerning the process of laying oneself bare to be able to be open to what is being communicated through the Qur’an. One must allow oneself to marinate in the juices of Divine communications before their meanings will be made complete to one – that is, before understanding will descend from God to the heart of the individual.

The true reciter of the Qur’an is Allah. Consequently, the individual must wait for God’s recitation to enter one’s heart in the form of understanding and knowledge.

One cannot force this issue through compulsion. Moreover, no power of reflection, in and of itself, is capable of grasping truth.

Truth must be bestowed through a Divine recitation to the heart. One recites to provide an opportunity for the Reciter – that is, God -- to communicate through the Divine recitation in a manner which will move and influence one’s heart.

The knowledge must come from God and not from interpretation. When we interpret God’s communications, we actually leave the truth and/or hide that truth in the meanderings of one’s own meanings.

The Qur’an says: “And who is more unjust than he who forges a lie against Allah or gives the lie to His communications; surely the unjust will not be successful? [Qur’an, 6:21]. To interpret the Qur’an is, in effect, to forge a lie with respect to the Word of God.

In a sense, there is something like a spiritual vibration which is set up between the recited word of God and the internal faculties of the individual. When an individual is receptive to being guided – that is, when the individual has taqwa or piety -- then, God willing, there is an entrainment process which occurs wherein the faculties of the individual are shaped and colored by the resonances of Divine guidance, and the resulting condition is a species of knowledge which comes from Allah. In this regard, the Qur’an states:

“O humankind. We have created you from a male and a female and made you tribes and peoples so that you may know each other; surely, the most honorable among you with Allah is the one who has taqwa.” [Qur’an, 49:13] –

that is, the one who is most careful with respect to one’s Deen or relationship with Divinity.

All tajalli – that is, all flashes, disclosures, or manifestations of truth -- arise from encounters with the Word of God. The two books of the Word of God – i.e., revelation -- are the Qur’an and Creation or Nature. The individual must seek to open himself or herself up to the truth being manifested through both … for this is what revelation is – the disclosure and manifestation of truth.

The spiritual capacity of the individual must be freed from all biases and sources of distortion in order to be open to the delineation of truth which shines through Nature and the Qur’an. Indeed:

“Those will prosper who purify (tazakka) themselves and glorify the Name of their Guardian Lord and lift their hearts in prayer.” (Qur’an, 87: 14-15)

The Qur’an and Nature/Creation are barazikh. Barazikh is the plural of barzakh which refers to any juncture that simultaneously separates and joins two things – in this case, Divinity and humanity.

Considered from another direction, manzil is an Arabic term which, literally speaking, refers to a place where one gets off. In the current context, a manzil is the place through which God descends, via the Qur’an, toward the individual such that the Divine communication, in a sense, gets off at the point of human engagement.

The letters, words, phrases, sentences, verses, and chapters of the Qur’an are all manzil. They are the portals or stations through which Divine communication descends to the individual.

In addition, the heart of the individual is also a manzil or place of descent for Divine revelation. Indeed,

“Wa huwa ma’akum aynama kuntum. (And He is with you wherever you are.” [57:4]

When the individual’s faculties of understanding are purified, then, according to the individual’s capacity and the Grace of God [who gives by degrees], what is grasped is an understanding of truth on a certain level and not an interpretation of that truth. In other words, such understanding is a truth limited by individual capacity, degree of purity, and God’s Grace. There is a resonance which is present between the individual’s purified faculties and the truth – a resonance which is not present in the usual sense of understanding concerning someone’s rational interpretation of something.

If the Qur’an does not descend upon the heart, then, it descends no further than the throat. To comply with the Sacred Law or Truth – which is the purpose and task of shari‘ah -- is to submit to the truth of things according to one’s purified capacity to understand such truth as this is communicated through the Word of God … whether this is in the form of the Qur’an or Nature/Creation.

As such, Sacred Law is not a matter of judicial rulings, pronouncements, and/or the compulsory imposition of such rulings and pronouncements on other human beings. Rather, Sacred Law is about the Truth, and Deen is the way prescribed for allowing human beings – each according to her or his capacity and the degree of God’s Grace -- to approach, engage, and come to understand the nature of such Sacred Law as it is manifested in any given set of circumstances.

Truth, of whatever kind and on whatever level, is the Sacred Law giving expression to the order, nature, and potential of Creation. In the Qur’an each article, verb, particle, word, or phrase constitutes individual portals of truth which manifest, if God wishes, tajalli -- flashes or expressions of truth – to the individual. This is why letters, phrases, and parts of sentences in the Qur’an communicate guidance not only in and of themselves but, as well, in the context of the verses and surahs in which they appear.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is the paradigm of human perfection [uswa hasana], was described by his wife, ‘Ayesha [may Allah be pleased with her] as having a nature which was the Qur’an. To reflect [in understanding, action, and character] the Qur’an according to one’s spiritual capacity is to submit to the Sacred Law.

The realized fitra is that primordial spiritual capacity upon which the Qur’an has descended and through which God has made truth manifest according to the capacity of an individual’s fitra and God’s Grace. The realized fitra recites the Qur’an in the form of applying the communications from God to the circumstances of life and, in doing so, gives expression to the Sacred Law. This is the qirat, or mode of Quranic recitation, which is most pleasing to God.

“Most surely it is an honored Qur’an, in a book that is protected. None shall touch it save the purified ones. (Qur’an, 56:77-79)

The Qur’an gives expression to the truths which are capable, God willing, of assisting the sincere seeker to recover the internal order or sacred law governing spiritual identity, capacity, and purpose with which human beings have lost contact … and with which we no longer resonate. The Qur’an is intended as a means of guidance to assistance human beings to reclaim an understanding of our original status as God’s Creation and all that this entails.

The Qur’an applauds “those who are constant at their prayers” [Qur’an, 70:23], but these prayers are not just the five daily prayers. Rather, true prayer or remembrance is the constant state of immersion in God’s presence, and, more importantly, there needs to be a realization that the prayers do not belong to the individual but, rather, are acts of God which are being manifested through the individual as a locus of manifestation.

“Lo! Ritual worship preserves one from lewdness and iniquity, and verily, remembrance of Allah is more important. [Qur’an, 29:45]

Problems associated with any of the foregoing tend to arise from two sources. The first problem involves the condition of al-ghafla [forgetting, distraction, or inattention]. This condition or state refers to the inclination of human beings to lose focus with respect to our relationship with Divinity. For example, Surah 20, verse 115 of the Qur’an indicates that Adam “forgot” the pact which had been made with God – a forgetfulness which alludes and resonates with the Quranic ayat in which the spirits are asked: “Alastu bi Rabikkum – “Am I not your Lord?” And the spirits answered: “Yes, we testify” [Qarbala]. [Qur’an, 7:172]

The second source of problems which may arise in conjunction with the process of seeking to realize one’s essential and primordial spiritual nature is entailed by the idea of al-isti‘jal – that is, haste. As the Qur’an indicates:

“And man prays for evil as he ought to pray for good, and man is ever hasty.” [Qur’an, 17:11]

‘Ubuda is a spiritual station through which perfect expression is given to the Sacred Law according to the capacity of an individual’s God-given fitra. The true servant, or ‘abd of God, is one who experiences a knowing awareness that the character of truth which is being manifested through that station of servanthood or locus of manifestation belongs wholly to God and not to the individual.

He who knows himself knows his Lord – man ‘arafa nafsahu ‘arafa rabbahu. Such knowledge discloses the condition of ‘ubuda in which there is the realization that a‘yan thabita – the fixed form of one’s created nature -- is no more than a locus of manifestation for giving expression to Divine realities in accordance with the God-given capacities and limitations of such fixed forms.

Each of us has always been what we are in terms of the possibilities which are encompassed by our fitra or primordial spiritual capacity. However we have not always realized the nature of the truth concerning the modality of our potential for giving expression to such Sacred Law and all that this Sacred Law entails.

The Qur’an is a source of guidance which, if God wishes, assists an individual to struggle toward the full, active realization of the Sacred Law which is inherent in the essence of every human being. The Qur’an maps out the nature, principles, warnings, possibilities, understandings, wisdom, insights, limits, and adab of the shari‘ah, or spiritual journey, through which one struggles and strives for realization of the Sacred Law, and as such, the Qur’an – and, therefore, shari‘ah -- is an expression of the Sacred Law.

The Sacred Law gives expression to the Qur’an which, in turn, delineates the nature of the way through which human beings may, if God wishes, come to realize the nature of truth to varying degrees. This process of shari‘ah leads back, if God wishes, to a condition of spiritual realization concerning the manner in which the Sacred Law gives expression to all truths under appropriate circumstances – including:

“O people, you are the poor toward God, and God is the Independent, the Praiseworthy.” [Qur’an, 35:15] …


The tradition of tafsir deals extensively with what is known in Arabic as asbab al-nuzul [the circumstances or occasions through which revelation emerged]. It is supposed by some that without reference to this context of revelation, then, most of the verses of the Qur’an would be susceptible to any and all forms of interpretation.

However, the occasion surrounding the emergence of a given instance of revelation only serves as the locus of manifestation for such instances of revelation. Therefore, one must distinguish between the locus of manifestation and that which is manifested through that locus.

However, to make revelation a function of the circumstances of revelation would be inappropriate. If one reduces the former [that is, what is manifested] to the latter [that is, the locus of manifestation], then, the locus of manifestation tends to become that which determines, restricts, shapes, and orients revelation. Approaching things in this manner seeks to assign a greater role to the lesser reality while relegating the greater Truth to becoming a servant of, and irrevocably limited by, a lesser realm of being.

Is there a relationship between the locus of manifestation [i.e., historical circumstances] and that which is manifested [i.e., revelation]? Yes, sometimes – but not necessarily always – there is a resonance between the two, and certainly, there are aspects of that locus of manifestation [i.e., the circumstances through which revelation is manifested] which are illuminated by the light of guidance which is being given expression through those circumstances. Nonetheless, the lights of guidance have their own reality, and once manifested, those lights communicate truths beyond that which is being illuminated with respect to any particular locus of manifestation or immediate set of historical circumstances.

Contrary to the worries of some individuals – worries which were alluded to earlier -- not just any understanding of revelation becomes appropriate if one leaves aside the particulars of the historical context through which a given instance of revelation arose. The task of the individual is not to interpret the Qur’an, but, rather, one should be struggling to open oneself to objectively receive what God is seeking to communicate to one through revelation.

If one permits God to teach or guide one through revelation – which is, after all, the whole point of revelation – then one understands the truth according to one’s capacity, and, as such, there is no interpretation. What occurs, if one proceeds in this fashion, is an understanding or insight which comes from the light of revelation and is limited only by one’s current spiritual condition, along with one’s ultimate spiritual capacity, and, most importantly, by the degree to which God chooses to disclose aspects of that truth to the individual.

One does not have to use the historical context through which revelation emerges to place limits on the possible meanings of the Qur’an. Divinity is the One Who infuses the Qur’an with its meanings and, therefore, limits of appropriateness or degrees of freedom.

Some of these degrees of freedom are imposed by Divinity in terms of the extent to which Grace is conferred on a person during an individual’s engagement of the Qur’an, and vice versa. Some of these limits of appropriateness or degrees of freedom are introduced through the spiritual condition and the spiritual capacity of the individual.

Consequently, when the Qur’an is sincerely engaged, one cannot place just any meaning one wishes onto the Qur’an, and this remains true irrespective of whether, or not, one understands the historical circumstances surrounding the occasion of revelation. Understanding is a function of the truth – whether written large or small – and there are dimensions of all revelation which extend beyond the historical occasion of revelation.

In fact, I think that expecting people to learn the entire history of the occasions surrounding revelation in order to be able to understand revelation is somewhat impractical. God is communicating the nature of Sacred Law to each human being through the Qur’an, and such nature has meanings that may be considered independently of the occasions of revelation.

Obviously, a person’s understanding might be deepened and complemented through knowledge of the historical circumstances which are transpiring at the time of revelation. However, the scope of any given instance of revelation is not restricted to the particulars which are occurring when such revelation issues forth.

Moreover, oftentimes, the closest that some commentators are able to “place” certain revelations is in terms of whether a given revelation took place during the Meccan period or during the Medinan period. I am not certain how such a general placing of the occasion of descent of revelation can necessarily inform one about “the” necessary meanings of the revelation … although some of the meanings of such revelation may address various aspects of such historical circumstances.

There were many, many things that were happening during the general period of time through which the Qur’an was made manifest … politically, legally, culturally, socially, individually, and among different communities. Consequently, why should one select just one small facet of such events and proclaim that those circumstances should have the predominant controlling authority with respect to meanings and truths in relation to the nature of Quranic guidance?

Even in those instances where a given revelation can be historically placed in a precise manner with respect to what was historically transpiring at the time during which a given instance of revelation descended on the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the meaning of such guidance cannot be circumscribed by those historical events. The created particular [that is, historical circumstance] cannot circumscribe or exhaust the significance of the uncreated universal [that is, Divine Guidance].

The Qur’an says: “What is with you comes to an end, but what is with God remains.” [16:96]