Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Considerations of Islamic Law

The two primary sources of Islamic law are the Quran, the revealed teachings themselves, and the Hadith, or the records of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad - may peace be upon him. Islamic Law is contained in principle in the Quran, which is to say that generally speaking it is implicit rather than explicit. The interpreter of Islamic law for the original Muslim community was the Prophet himself and direct access to his teachings and actions enabled a degree of homogeneity to prevail over the community during his lifetime. As Islam spread to other lands and a temporal distance was created between the existing Islamic communities and the original Islamic community following the passing of the Prophet, it became necessary to codify Islamic Law such that the degradation that naturally follows upon a distancing from the source might be guarded against. Islamic law gradually became codified into several distinct schools with different emphases and interpretations based on the same primary sources. This diversity of interpretations and applications of Islamic law is seen in Islam as an unfoldment of the possibilities of the Islamic revelation as sanctioned by the Quran which refers to it as a blessing to us and an expression of the Divine Mercy. Therefore each of these schools of law is considered to be orthodox, and together they have enabled Islam to be suitably adapted to the different cultural and racial types of humanity in the various lands in which it spread.

Although the differences between the schools are minor, there are differences nonetheless, a situation which has given rise to two distinct perspectives. There are some people who believe that it is necessary to adhere to the prescriptions of one school exclusively and without consideration for the others. There are also some who, more explicitly acknowledging the orthodoxy of all schools, believe that in addition to the school that one is primarily identified with, particularly through the form of prayer that one uses, it is permissible to consider the various rulings of the other schools and to draw upon them where it is deemed necessary according to individual circumstances. Farasha has made it explicit that she accepts this latter possibility for herself, calling it "Intra-religious Syncretism", and emphasizes the various manifestations of Islamic law within the Shi'ite tradition and its subsidiaries. In this case, it is not a matter of rejecting divine laws or otherwise creating one's own laws, but rather of choosing between the various orthodox manifestations of Islamic law according to individual circumstances.

I would also like to comment upon the idea that you expressed as "following Islamic law completely rather than piecemeal." Islamic jurisprudence as a whole generally adheres to the consideration of five types of acts, those which are obligatory and therefore incumbent upon all Muslims, those which are recommended and therefore superogatory, those toward which the law is neutral, those which are discouraged, and those which are forbidden. The first and last classifications comprise the essential elements of Islamic law while the second and fourth classifications pertain to the domain of voluntaristic piety. Within the perspective of Islamic esoterism, there is an emphasis on sanctity and from the standpoint of the law this is not determined a priori by the quantity of outward acts as with the perspective of voluntaristic piety, but rather with the quality of the inward state obtained and expressed in conjunction with essential acts. Exoteric piety and esoteric sanctity are both salutary expressions of the spiritual life, and although by no means mutually exclusive, the one tends to emphasize the horizontal dimension while the other tends to emphasize the vertical dimension. In this sense, an understanding of what it means to follow Islamic law completely may be broadened to include the dimension of depth in addition to that of breadth. From the esoteric standpoint, the first is generally given precedence over the second.

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Due to the multitude of different perspectives represented by the various divisions of the 'Spectrum of Islam' (see Nasr's Heart of Islam for details on this), it is only natural that disagreements should occasionally arise in the discussion of something as fundamental as Islamic Law. Each of the divisions of Islam contain scholars and gnostics who possess different criteria concerning the judgment of the authenticity of individual hadith from which juridical rulings are derived as well as unique perspectives concerning the manner in which Islamic Law should be emphasized, whether in the proliferation of its details or the perfection of its essential elements. It is precisely because of this spectrum of possibilities that I believe Islam is capable of being followed by all people, in all locations and conditions, at all times.

It is also due to this diversity and dynamism that Islam allows for a significant degree of individual initiative and personal creativity in the discernment and application of the Sharia. This is not to say that the law can be changed with regard to its fundamental principles, but rather that it is capable of being adapted according to individual needs and unique circumstances. Seyyed Hossein Nasr made some pertinent remarks on this subject in Ideals and Realities of Islam. He wrote,

Some may object that accepting the Shari'ah totally destroys human initiative. Such a criticism, however, fails to understand the inner workings of the Divine Law. The Law places before man many paths according to his nature and needs within a universal pattern which pertains to everyone. Human initiative comes in selecting what is in conformity with one's veritable needs and at the same time living according to the Divine norm as indicated by the Shari'ah. Initiative does not come only in rebelling against the Truth which is an easy task since stones fall by nature; initiative and creativity come most of all in seeking to live in conformity with the Truth and in applying its principles to the conditions which destiny has placed before man. To integrate all of one's tendencies and activities within a divinely ordained pattern requires all the initiative and creative energy which man is capable of giving.

Although I would not go so far as to say that the Sunnah has very little meaning in my daily life, especially as pertains to its essentials, I too have tended to focus more on the teachings of the gnostics than on those of the jurists. However, considering that many if not most of the gnostics were learned in Islamic jurisprudence and even considered masterful jurists themselves, I have gained much additional exposure to the Sunnah through their writings. Overall, I tend to follow the approach to Islamic law described by Al-Ghazali, as explained by Sachiko Murta and William Chittick in The Vision of Islam, one of the first books through which I learned about my religion. They wrote,

Because the existence of five categories instead of three, Islamic law goes into all sorts of details about everyday life that would not otherwise be discussed. It has many branches and subfields, expertise in which can require years of study. Many Muslims accord so much importance to the Shariah that it seems to become for them the whole of their religion, at least in practice. Nevertheless, many of the greatest Muslim authorities have warned against spending too much time studying the Shariah, since this can blind people to the other dimensions of the religion which are also essential to Islam.

Al-Ghazali, one of the most famous of the great authorities, held that each Muslim must have enough knowledge of the Shariah to put it into practice in his or her own life. But if Muslims do not need a given injunction in their circumstances, they have no need to know about it. There will be, in any case, people who devote their lives to the study of the Shariah, and they can be consulted when the need arises. This explains the basic function of the jurists in society; to explain the details of the Shariah to those who need to observe it in any given circumstance.

With regard to my own personal emphasis, I have derived my knowledge of the essentials from the Hadith of Gabriel of which the entirety of The Vision of Islam comprises a commentary, and the teachings of Mulla Sadra in The Elixir of the Gnostics. According to Mulla Sadra in the chapter "On the Knowledge which is individually incumbent upon man and must be learned for his subsistent existence",

This is certain knowledge of the encounter with God, of His unity, His attributes, and His acts, then knowledge of the human world and the manner of its first and second configurations. Anyone ignorant of these two sciences will fall short in the establishment of his existence and the perfection of his reality, even if he is proficient in the other sciences. He is like an infant, or like a sleeper who sees diverse forms in his sleeping and then, waking up from his sleep, finds no trace of them. So also is the property of the forms that man sees with his outward senses in this world or that he imagines with his inward senses. All these are unreal affairs and vanishing properties and dreams that have no subsistence in the wakefulness of the world of the afterworld - except for the true sciences, which are afterworldly forms and have entities fixed at God. And what is with God is better for the pious. [3:198]

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