Monday, August 18, 2008

Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 11

The Concept of Naskh

The principle of naskh or abrogation is recognized, in one form or another, by many religious scholars and theologians. Allegedly, this principle refers to the manner in which certain later manifestations of revelation are believed to nullify or overrule certain earlier instances of revelation.

Some people cite the following Quranic ayat in support of this approach to the Qur’an:

“Whatever communications we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?” [Qur’an, 2:106]

However, an assumption is being made concerning the precise identity of the communications to which God is referring in the foregoing verse.

For example, let us suppose that a people of an earlier time were given a revelation, and, then, over time, this revelation was forgotten by the people to whom it was given. Let us further suppose that God in his mercy then sent another revelation to replace the previous guidance.

According to the Quranic ayat noted earlier, the second revelation may be better than the first revelation in certain ways, or it may be like the revelation which had been sent previously. If the second revelation is better than the first in certain ways, only God knows what these ways are, and if the second revelation is like the first revelation, again, only God knows the nature of the likeness between the two.

Furthermore, in neither instance can one assume that anything in the first revelation has been replaced or nullified by aspects of the second revelation. The second revelation may be better than the first revelation because something has been added rather than taken away. Or, if the second revelation is like the first revelation, then, we are dealing with variations on certain themes rather than one revelation nullifying another.

So, even in the case where a second revelation wholly replaces a previous revelation in accordance with the foregoing scenario, one cannot assume that anything has been nullified in conjunction with the first revelation. Rather, the first revelation was forgotten, and, therefore, God sent another reminder to the people in question and, thereby, provided those people with, yet, another opportunity to be guided toward realizing life’s purpose.

Another Quranic ayat which sometimes is cited by those who believe that abrogation is a working principle inherent in the Qur’an is the following verse:

“And when We change one communication for another, and Allah knows best what He reveals, they say: You are only a forger. Nay, most of them do not know.” [Qur’an, 16. 101]

As is true with respect to the earlier Quranic ayat – namely, 2:106 – concerning the issue of God’s replacing of one Divine communication by another, people who understand this ayat in terms of the idea of abrogation or the nullification of an earlier Divine communications are making certain assumptions in relation to such an understanding. The fulcrum which leverages the guidance of the verse is this: “God knows best what he reveals” and the other side of this principle is that “most of them do not know”.

In what way is God changing one communication with respect to another such communication? Unless God discloses the nature of such a change, then, clearly, one is only guessing concerning such matters.

Does change necessarily give expression to a principle of abrogation? No, it doesn’t. There may be an array of changes which complement, supplement, enrich, or modify a given communication without abrogating or nullifying that which came previously.

Among those who accept the principle of naskh or abrogation, there are those who wish to argue that within one and the same revelation – for instance, the Qur’an -- later portions of the Divine communications which make up the contents of such a revelation are believed to nullify or abrogate certain earlier expressions of the Divine communications which are part of the same Book of Divine guidance. As an example of what such people have in mind, consider the following Quranic verses:

In 2:219 one finds: “They ask you [Muhammad] about wine and gambling. Say: In both there is sin and utility for people.”

In 4:43, one finds:

“O ye who believe, do not come to pray when you are in a state of intoxication, till you know what you utter.”

In 5:90 one finds:

“O ye who believe? Intoxicants and games of chance and sacrificing to stones set up and divining by arrows are only an uncleanness, the work of Shaitan; shun it therefore, that you may be successful.”

Those who accept the idea of abrogation as a working principle maintain that the last of the three ayats given expression here nullifies the first two verses of the Qur’an that have been listed. In other words, Ayat 2:219 indicates that there are both bad features as well as beneficial features which are associated with the consumption of wine or participation in gambling, but nothing is specifically said about abstaining from drinking wine or gambling.

One might note, however, that even in the case of 2:219, there is an indication that there are problems inherent in such activities. Perhaps, a reflective mind and heart might begin to consider what those problems were and what implications, if any, they carried with respect to how one went about living one’s life.

Ayat 4:43 informs people that one should not engage in prayers when one is in an intoxicated state – that one should know and be aware of what one is saying while one offers prayers. Despite this cautionary note, nothing is specifically said about abstaining from the consumption of intoxicants.

On the other hand, as was true in the case of verse 2:219 discussed earlier, there is a subtle hint given in Ayat 4:43 for those who might wish to reflect on the matter. More specifically, all of life is intended to be a matter of worship – indeed:

“And to your Lord turn all of your attention.” [Qur’an, 94:8]

And, as well:

“Whoever submits one’s whole self to Allah and is a doer of good has grasped the most trustworthy handhold.” [Qur’an, 31:22]

So, although there is no specific prohibitions in Ayat 4:43 about either consuming intoxicants or becoming intoxicated, and although the guidance is ostensibly only about staying away from prayers when one is in an intoxicated state, nonetheless, there is more to think about in conjunction with that verse than that to which one’s attention is being drawn with respect to the specific caution that is being given expression through the ayat in question. For example, among other possibilities, one might ask oneself the following: If one’s goal is God, and if one considers all of life a matter of worship, then, is it not the case that whenever one is intoxicated, there is a sense in which one is engaging the issue of worship in an intoxicated state?

Does this mean that one must refrain from the consumption of intoxicants? As far as verses 4:43 and 2:219 are concerned, no, it doesn’t. Does this mean that one must not become intoxicated? As far as verses 4:43 and 2:219 are concerned, no, it doesn’t.

Ayat 90 of Surah 5 indicates that if one wishes to be successful spiritually, then, consuming intoxicants and participating in games of chance should be avoided all together. Has anything really changed among 5:90, 4:43, and 2:219?

The difference is that what has been implicit in both 4:43 and 2:219 has now been made explicit. More specifically, if one wishes to, God willing, achieve spiritual success, then, one should refrain from consuming intoxicants and participating in games of chance.

The imperative mood of this directive in 5:90 is intended to influence the behavior of those who will listen to such guidance. The grammatical constructions in verses 4:43 and 2:219 are also intended to influence those whose hearts are receptive to what is being said.

In each of the three verses, warnings, cautions, and guidance are given. In two of the three verses one is being informed about the relationship between, on the one hand, intoxicants and gambling, and, on the other hand, what may be in one’s best interests with respect to living life, while in the other verse one is being informed about the relationship between the condition of intoxication and its potential effect on the quality and propriety of one’s prayers.

Can one choose to drink and gamble? Yes, one can because none of the three ayats nullifies or abrogates one’s freedom to accept or reject guidance.

However, if one is at all concerned about pursuing the actual purpose of life and, God willing, becoming spiritually successful in that pursuit, then, in all three of the foregoing ayats one is being guided in similar ways. Nothing has been abrogated or nullified.

The implicit has been made explicit. Something which already was present in the earlier two verses has been made manifest.

Another example of what is considered to be an instance of naksh or abrogation involves the issues of bequeaths, inheritance, and debt. In 2:180 of the Qur’an, one finds:

“Bequest is prescribed for you when death approaches one of you, if he leaves behind wealth for parents and near relatives, according to usage, a duty incumbent on those who guard against evil.”

In addition, Surah 4, verses 11-12, contains a detailed set of specific parameters laid out for distributing inheritance in conjunction with whatever debts and bequeaths may have been made previously. Indications are given that debts and bequeaths need to be given priority – although there is an allusion to the idea that one needs to take into consideration the possibility of harm which may arise out of the paying of a debt. In addition, a large set of permutations are set forth in these verses concerning possible scenarios of what should be done according to who survives a deceased individual.

Some jurists have come to the conclusion that verses 11-12 of Surah 4 abrogate or nullify the guidance of 2:180. This is especially so since some of these jurists site a hadith based on a solitary report attributed to the Prophet which indicates that there should be “no bequest in favor of an heir.”

Taking the last point first – namely, the idea that the Prophet is reported to have said that there should be no bequest in favor of an heir – if one believes in the relevance of taking into account what the Prophet says, then, the Prophet also has said that he wanted all collections of his sayings destroyed so that no one would possibly confuse or conflate what he said with God’s decrees. Consequently, while I believe that what the Prophet told people directly is important to those individuals being directly addressed, I believe the Prophet also placed a limit on the potential sphere of applicability of such sayings when he also indicated that collections of his sayings should be destroyed.

Secondly, when the Prophet said what he is reported to have said concerning the idea that there should be “no bequest in favor of an heir”, do we know whether, or not, the Prophet was addressing a particular individual or a group of individuals with the intention that what is reported to have been said by the Prophet concerning the issue of bequests and heirs – if it actually was said by the Prophet – was intended to serve as counsel for the person or persons who were being addressed and no one else? The answer is: ‘No, we don’t know what the intention of the Prophet was in this respect.’!

Is it possible that the Prophet may have meant that no single heir should be favored or be given priority over other heirs in the matter of bequests or that heirs should not be given preference to others in the matter of bequeaths? Possibly, but, once again, we really have no way of determining the intention with which the Prophet said what he is reported to have said concerning bequeaths and heirs.

Furthermore, whatever the Prophet may have meant with respect to the indicated solitary report, the Prophet also indicated – via his directive to have collections of Hadith destroyed -- that the context of applicability of what he may have said in this respect should remain with those who lived in his times and who were part of the Muslim community at that time. Otherwise, the Prophet would not have ordered that collections of his Hadith should be destroyed, thereby, limiting the sphere of applicability of what he said to those whom he directly addressed and who had committed such counsel to memory.

Beyond the foregoing considerations, I’m not sure there really is any conflict between the verses cited in relation to Surah 2 and Surah 4. The first verse [2:180] indicates that one should make plans for distributing one’s wealth as the time of death approaches, and that verse also indicates that leaving behind wealth for parents and near relatives is an important thing to do. However, the wealth which is to be left behind for parents and near kin need not be in the form of bequeaths.

Another consideration in the foregoing is that not every permutation concerning the possible combinations of heirs who might survive a deceased individual is listed in verses 11-12. So, how should one handle those cases which fall outside the boundaries which are indicated? -- maybe in accordance with the provisions of 2:180 in the Qur’an -- that is, to distribute one’s wealth in as equitable a manner as one is capable of doing.

Or maybe the reason for the existence of two instances of Quranic guidance [i.e., 2:180 and 4:11-12] concerning the issue of distributing wealth in the case of actual or approaching death is to provide people with options concerning these issues. These options are the parameters which help define the limits which God is establishing with respect to justice and equitability.

On the other hand, however one goes about the process of distributing one’s wealth and whichever option one chooses in dealing with this manner, the underlying counsel is that one should distribute one’s wealth in an equitable manner. One way – but not necessarily the only way -- of satisfying the issue of equitability is in conjunction with the method outlined in Surah 4, verses 11 and 12.

Thirdly, Muslims are enjoined by the Qur’an to be equitable. Since there may be additional issues of fairness, need, and differing contingent circumstances which should be taken into consideration with respect to dealing equitably with heirs, bequeaths, debt, and any possible harm which may arise out of such interacting variables in a particular set of circumstances, one may feel the need to bring such additional considerations of equitability to bear on these matters in order that the greatest quality and quantity of justice possible be done with respect to all affected parties.

The specific provisions outlined in Surah 4, verses 11-12 may be guidance for the individuals who lived in and around the times of the Prophet Muhammad. Those specific provisions may have been intended to serve the particular circumstances of Arabian society at that time, but when historical, cultural, and other contingencies change over time, then, one acts in accordance with the essential default principle concerning the importance of distributing wealth which is inherent in both Quranic excerpts -- 2:180 and 4:11-12 – although each of these sections deals with the same underlying issue from different directions and in relation to different contingencies.

Finally, irrespective of whatever specific decisions which may be reached by an individual as she or he seeks to comply with what that person believes to be true and just with respect to matters involving bequeaths, heirs, debt, possible harms, and equitability, nevertheless, these matters are, for the most part, not the purview of a government’s regulation of public space unless the manner of distribution chosen by individuals has a substantial potential for leading to the oppression of some by others. Indeed, the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few inevitably does lead to the oppression of others, and, perhaps, this is one of the reasons why God indicates to humankind, through the Qur’an, that the distribution of wealth has a potentially central role to play in helping to place obstacles of equitability in the way of the sort of accumulation of wealth that all too frequently tends, in time, to lead to oppression of one kind or another.

I believe the foregoing considerations tend to shape the basic operating principles in such matters except, as noted, when the potential for the emergence of oppression is demonstrable as the result of some person’s decision to distribute wealth in a certain, possibly problematic manner. Even in the event of such potential for oppression, a preferred manner for handling such problems may be through mediation among various parties rather than through legal pronouncements or injunctions which are forcibly imposed on people.

However, such considerations notwithstanding, how a person handles these matters is, generally speaking, between the individual and God. God is the One Who will hold a person accountable for either fulfilling or not fulfilling the requirements of shari‘ah – not governments or religious jurists and courts or imams.

A third example mentioned by some as an expression of the principle of abrogation which, supposedly, is at work in the Qur’an is said to concern the issue of Qibla or the direction of prayer. For instance, in 2:144, one finds:

“…so we shall surely turn you to a qiblah which you shall like, turn, then, your face to the Sacred Mosque, and wherever you are, turn your face towards it…”

The foregoing guidance doesn’t really constitute an abrogation, per se, of anything. At the very most, it constitutes a slight modification of the way in which something already established is to be done.

More specifically prior to the foregoing revelation, Muslims sought to worship God through, among other possibilities, the act of prayer. After the revelation, Muslims still sought to worship God through, among other possibilities, the act of prayer.

Changing the direction of Qibla did not alter anything of an essential nature with respect to the basics of Islam. An external feature of the form of worship was modified.

Prior to the night journey and mi’raj of the Prophet, prayers did not have any specific external form. During the Prophet’s ascension, one of the gifts given to the Prophet, specifically, and to Muslims, in general, was the external form of the prayer.

This new form of worship did not alter or nullify any aspect of the essence of what is involved in prayer. As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

“Prayer is the sacrifice whereby every believer comes closer to Allah.”

Every instance of prayer is an exercise in sacrificing the interests of one nafs in order to remember God, and through such a sacrifice, one becomes purified so that one may enter a condition of taqwa through which, God willing, one may be brought closer to the reality of things through whatever truths God may disclose to the individual.

Similarly, in the case of the change in the external direction of Qibla, none of this altered the internal direction of Qibla which has always been to God. Indeed, the true Sacred Mosque is the purified heart of every believer, and one concentrates on the external form in order that one may be guided to remember that the external is but a reflection of the metaphysical realities within us. The true Qibla is the realization that:

“Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God.” [2:115]

As well as:

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

In reality, what has occurred with respect to the issue of the change in Qibla is not a nullification of a prior Divine communication, but, rather Muslims were being informed that a timeframe of appropriateness had come to an end or had passed by with respect to the activity of prayer. That is, the external form of an activity – namely praying -- which had been entirely appropriate for Muslims to observe before the revelation concerning a change in the direction of Qibla was being modified and, as a result, the previous external form was no longer the appropriate external form through which to observe prayers.

The principle involved in the foregoing is not that of nullifying or overturning what previously had been sent. The principle is that everything has a context of appropriateness, and this principle is operative throughout the Qur’an.

In short, the revelation concerning the change in Qibla gives expression to an important principle involving the nature of Quranic guidance. What is appropriate is not a function of that which is unchanging with respect to understanding, but, rather, what is appropriate is a function of taking into consideration the manner in which guidance changes as a function of contingencies.

Attention is being directed to the importance of context. Attention is being directed to the importance of the manner in which the criteria of appropriateness changes with the nature of contingent factors and forces which surround historical and existential circumstances.

Just as, in some cases, subsequent revelation may alter one’s understanding of past verses or changes how one understands or engages spiritual practice, so, too, different God-granted insights into one and the same verse may change over time in a way that informs faith and practice and affects the manner in which one engages or understands other verses of the Qur’an in a manner that is different from what previously had been the case. This is how faith, knowledge, and wisdom increase – not through nullification, per se, but through the supplementing, complementing, modification, and enriching of one’s previous understanding concerning Divine guidance.

There is some indication that several of the Companions understood things in the foregoing sense. For instance, consider the following cases.

Despite the specific guidance of 9:60 in the Qur’an which stipulates who is to be a recipient of state funds – an ayat which includes the idea that winning over the hearts of certain people for the Muslim community is to included among such uses -- and although the Prophet, himself, always directed a share of the state funds toward such a purpose [namely, winning over the hearts of certain people for the benefit of the Muslim community], nonetheless, Hazrat ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) refused to direct a portion of community funds to such a purpose. He argued that during the time of the Prophet, Muslims were weak and in need of such support, but those times had passed, and the community no longer was in need of such assistance, and, therefore, the guidance inherent in 9:60 was, in the indicated sense, no longer relevant to the Muslim community – although this could change again, depending on contingent circumstances.

Hazrat ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) wasn’t abrogating or nullifying verse 60 of Surah 9. Rather, he was taking into consideration the appropriateness of the context or timeframe for the application of a given facet of guidance.

On another occasion, during the conquests of Mesopotamia and Syria, Hazrat ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) did not observe the requirements of 59:6-10 in the Qur’an which governed the distribution of ghana’im [booty or spoils of war]. Instead, he indicated that the state was more in need of such resources than individuals were, and if this were not done, then the Muslim armies in various territories could not be equipped or maintained.

Here, again, a decision was made that required one to compare the character of contingent circumstances in relation to specific provisions of the Qur’an which, superficially, may have been thought to govern such matters. The task faced by Hazrat ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) was to determine whether, or not, the character of the latter actually addressed the character of the former.

Apparently, Hazrat ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) decided that the nature of the hukm of the historical circumstances and contingencies with which the Muslim community was faced at that time was different from the nature of the hukm inherent in the guidance of Surah 59, verses 6-10. In doing this, he was not abrogating or nullifying this aspect of the Qur’an, but, instead, he was seeking to determine the conditions of appropriateness for applying one facet of Quranic guidance rather than some other aspect of such guidance.

Along these same lines, consider the following excerpt from Bukhari which is narrated by Nafi’:

“During the affliction of Ibn Az-Zubair [which took place after the Prophet had passed away], two men came to Ibn 'Umar and said, "The people are lost, and you are the son of 'Umar and a companion of the Prophet, so what stops you from coming out and joining the conflict?" He said, "What stops me is that Allah has prohibited the shedding of my brother’s blood."

They both said, "Didn't Allah say, 'And fight then until there is no more affliction?’

Ibn ‘Umar said "We fought until there was no more affliction and so that worship would be for Allah Alone, while you want to fight until there is affliction and until the worship becomes for other than Allah." (Volume 6, Book 60, Number 40)

Once again, the foregoing tradition brings home the point that the task facing human beings is not just a matter of looking in the Qur’an and applying whatever one likes. One must try to understand the hukm – that is, the reality or governing principle – of both the situation in which one is involved, as well as strive to discover that hukm of the Qur’an which best serves the hukm of life’s circumstances.

This is an expression of ijtihad. This is not an expression of naksh or abrogation.

The issue of trying to struggle toward establishing what is an appropriate frame of reference for tying together certain existential contingencies with various facets of Quranic guidance is a theme which occurs again and again throughout the Qur’an. There are times and circumstances when it is appropriate to apply certain facets of guidance, and there are times and circumstances when it is not appropriate to apply such aspects of guidance.

Everything is about discernment and doing what is appropriate at the right time, and in the right way, and for the right length of time, and with the right intention before some other principle becomes more appropriate for one to pursue as circumstances change. Context and the nature of the contingency of events which come together and give that context the structural character it has is of fundamental importance. It is the context which calls out for relief from Quranic guidance and, therefore, it is, in a sense, the context which establishes the conditions which must be satisfied through the appropriate application of Divine guidance.

If one understands a situation, then, one also understands what one is looking for in the way of spiritual relief. By opening oneself up – in the unbiased manner of taqwa -- to the Divine Word, then, God willing, the solution to that context is given through what is most resonant in the one doing ijtihad in relation to a given situation.

The times for fasting, hajj, prayer, wuzu, zakat, and so on are all to be observed from within a given timeframe of appropriateness. When a given timeframe of appropriateness has passed, then certain guidance is no longer necessarily applicable.

For example, the Qur’an indicates that:

“Worship at fixed times has been enjoined on the believers.” [Qur’an, 4:103]

When the timeframe for a particular instance of worship has passed, then, one moves on to what is appropriate with respect to the changed timeframe. The ritual fast only occurs during the month of Ramadan, and when that timeframe has passed, then, the ritual fast cannot be observed -- although there are provisions for making up what may have been missed due to, say, travel or ill-health or for expiating the transgression of intentionally not fasting during the indicated timeframe. Hajj only occurs within a fixed timeframe, and when that period has passed, the rituals of Hajj are no longer operable – although one still can perform the lesser pilgrimage. The times for saying the five daily prayers exist within a fixed timeframe, and when that window of opportunity passes, then, one has missed the prayer – although one can offer prayers at a later time in the hope that such offerings will be accepted by God in exchange for the fixed prayers that were missed.

Appropriateness changes with circumstances, contexts, peoples, and contingencies. Therefore, the timeframes for the conditions of appropriateness pass into and out of existence. This is not to say that everything is relative or that there are no boundaries of propriety, because there are such boundaries, and God is continually warning people in the Qur’an not to transgress due boundaries. For example:

But whoever seeks to go beyond that, these are they who exceed the limits; [Qur’an, 23:7]

However, there is no principle of naksh or abrogation which is operative in the Qur’an. What is operative is a principle of appropriateness in which as the hukm or reality of circumstances change, then, one must go in search of the appropriate Quranic hukm to address and reflect such changes.

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