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Really understanding Shariáh

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Shariáh has never been about anger or lack of compassion.

IT is my view that two of the most over-worn words in the English vocabulary today are “democracy” and “jihad”. Democracy has gained currency through the aspirations of people everywhere, whether it be my home country, South Africa, or Egypt after the “Arab Spring”.

Most of us understand the theoretical objectives of democracy – responsible government and basic civil liberties. Most of us understand too, that jihad has something to do with a struggle.

With its literal meaning “to exert oneself to one’s utmost” – and its primary application the self – the modern perception of jihad has, unfortunately, been coloured by its worst examples.

No sane jurist, for example, would ever condone self-immolation or the blowing-up of civilians as justifiable in terms of its precepts, as some extremists tend to do. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) expressly taught that soundness of reason, moderation and mercy had to underlie human behaviour.

Those who dislike Islam struggle to comprehend this. They often accuse academics such as Tariq Ramadan – who has openly addressed the issue on various platforms – of talking with a forked tongue.

However, in recent months I’ve come to the conclusion that another over-worn word is “Shari’ah”. Also served today by its worst examples, the word “Shari’ah” sends a collective shudder down the spine of those commentators whose inborn prejudices make them see Muslims as savage and uncivilised.

Even those who proclaim humanism, which I define here as those who support human rights secularly, will express aversion to the idea of Islamic Sacred Law – whose English term, curiously, seems to intimidate far less than the Arabic one.

As a journalist who covers Muslim affairs daily, my opinion – after thousands of interviews across the Islamic world – is that most of us don’t understand what Shari’ah, let alone Islamic rule, really is.

But let’s give some context as to why Shari’ah has become a critical part of the Muslim debate. For those communities suffering in places such as the sub-Sahara, Asia or the Middle East, their understanding of the Shari’ah – via its most drastic form of Hadd (or punishment) – offers a quick fix.

This is because unstable societies bedevilled by the failure of leadership and social justice, and by grinding poverty, IMF economics, institutionalised corruption and hopelessness, clutch onto desperate straws.

It’s here that the hard line ideologies find fertile ground, brandishing their AK47’s (the modern sword or alif) and their crude flags of Shari’ah (the cure-all codicil). When you’re the underdog, these jihadists can be a seductive group of ideological vigilantes.

But the problem here is that their understanding of Islam (inspired by the 18th century cleric, Ibn Abd ul-Wahhab) is ritualistic, literalistic, reductionist and politically primitive, if not despotic.

For not only is classical scholarship spurned in this model, but also the four schools of Islamic legal thought that inform Sacred Law. Diversity, paradoxically the cornerstone of social unity, is not tolerated at all.

And significantly, the claim of this camp that jihad should be the sixth pillar of Islam sets an unheard of precedent in the faith. This is a precedent regarded as an abominable innovation by the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars.

However, a lack of classical Islamic learning in the Islamic world (a problem too complex to discuss here) ensures that the extremists can operate unchallenged, and sometimes with disastrous, tragi-comic effect. This is why the Taliban could blow-up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, or Al-Shabab could ban the consumption of three-cornered samoosas in Somalia.

With basic Islamic knowledge in the street withered and stunted, the world around us is seen in simplistic terms – “them” and “us”. It is a stark contrast to the embracing and inclusive outlook of the great Caliphs such as ‘Umar the Great and Suleiman the Magnificent.

This “them” and “us” mindset is a legacy of 20th century thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, who – reacting to secular imperialism – divided society into the saved Muslims and the unsaved ignorant, non-Muslims.

This saw concepts like Dar ul-Islam (the domain of Islam) and the Dar ul-Harb (the domain of war) taking root. For those in this school, the Dar ul-Harb is emphatically the West.

For those who see justice in society exclusively as Shari’ah under Islamic rule, the shoe doesn’t fit here. There are significant Muslim minorities living peacefully in the West with a proud full-house of constitutional rights, as in South Africa. It could be argued that these communities exist in a state of Dar ul-Shahadah, a place where their belief can be freely expressed.

In this case the Mardin fatwa of Ibn Taimiyyah, the doyenne of the literalists, applies. He ruled that Muslim communities could live under peaceful, non-threatening non-Muslim governments.

Given the light of recent elections in the Arab world, the idea that justice can only exist in a Shari’ah-centric milieu needs further examination. Shari’ah ends up meaning different things to different people, especially in the highly-charged political arena.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, the 13th century Hanbali scholar, once stated that Shari’ah – based on Qur’an and the ways of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) – had to be defined as a relief and a mercy to all people.

Imam al-Ghazali, the 12th century colossus, felt that Shari’ah – incandescent with Allah’s kindness preceding his anger – could only be effectively applied if it reflected compassion. This was something echoed by Salahuddin Ayyubi, the conqueror of Jerusalem in 1187.

The “Arab Spring” has already seen an Islamic, if not Shari’ah-centric ethos emerging through the ballot boxes. This is an inevitable consequence. The Arab world is, after all, predominantly Islamic. And if these new governments wish to define their future course in the light of Shari’ah, it will have to be in the context of a modern world.

Endemic social problems, the economy, jobs, the challenges of the military-industrial complex and rising expectations will loom like Mount Everest. Democracy, if it’s ultimately going to mean something, is a tough climb. This is a humbling lesson that we’ve learnt in South Africa.

In this respect I hope that the “Arab Spring” governments will embrace the idea that if Shari’ah is ever going to enjoy relevance, it will have to reflect even-handedness, mercy and empathy. It will have to be based solidly on the classical four legal schools of Islamic thought, and not the mediaeval whims of an obscurantist scholar.

Finally, I believe Shari’ah will not be able to stand on its own in a vacuum. It will need a solid, universal constitutional framework embracing all diverse citizens – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – based on the most common values dear to man such as freedom, equality and justice.


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