For Muslims, the Quran, revealed over a period of 23 years, between 610 and 632 CE, is the Word of God bestowed from on High through the intermediary of the Angel Gabriel. In this sense, of course, the Quran represents a world of absolutes since it was Revealed by the Creator of the heavens and the earth, of space and time. In the Quran, Believers will find, beyond the events and contingencies of history, the profound and essential message of Tawhid: there is only One God and human beings must answer His call.
This was the quintessential Message revealed to all previous Messengers: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and all other Prophets in the course of history. The Quran, then, is a Reminder, the last one, which is preserved by God Himself.
Behold, it is We Ourselves who have bestowed from on high, step by step, this reminder: and, behold, it is We who shall truly guard it (from all corruption) . (Quran 15:9)
The heart of this Divine teaching, constituting the foundation of all Revelations, is present in the Quran with all its implications for us humans: there is One God, He has created everything, from Him we come and belong and to Him we shall return, everyone will be Judged according to his Faith, his intentions, his sincerity and his behavior: this life is not the Life but a passage,, of a very short time. Basically, this life is a test:
He (God) who has created death as well as life, so that He might put you to a test (and thus show) which of you is best in conduct. (Quran 67:2)
All revealed religions are based on this understanding of what life means. According to Islamic teaching, God, along with this fundamental teaching, provided diverse peoples with a specific way of worshipping Him, adapted to a certain era and in a certain context and that this consequently explains the diversity and coexistence of the various creeds, wanted by the Creator:
And unto thee (0 Prophet) have We vouchsafed this Divine writ setting forth the Truth, confirming the Truth of whatever there still remains of earlier Revelations and determining what is true therein.
Unto every one of you have We appointed a different law and way of life (shir'a, shari'a). And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works!' (Quran 5:48)
Thus, religious diversity is wanted by God and He gave a specific Message to each people. However, these Divine Messages, in the course of history, were, in one way or another, modified and altered by human hands. So much so, that every successive Revelation had to rectify what was wrong and falsified in its predecessor.
For the Muslim, the Quran confirms what was sent previously and, at the same time, it corrects and rectifies the errors and alterations which according to the Quran itself had been introduced within earlier Messages. As it is the last Revelation, the Quran represents the last guidance, the last frame of reference whose teachings are suitable, henceforth, for all places and times to come, until the end of human history. Thus the Quran, the very Word of God, conveyed by the Angel Gabriel, is the first and essential source for Muslims in both religious and juridical fields. Nine tenths of it deal with spirituality in the widest sense of the term: the presence of' God, creation, Faith, worship, morality, the Hereafter, etc. We also find general rulings concerning social affairs: in its last Revelation, God fixed a global frame within which Believers have to exert themselves in order to find the most appropriate law which is both faithful to the Quran and which also fits their context. More >>
According to some 'ulama', there are only about 250 verses (out of 6,632) which deal with legal issues and they were, for the majority, a response to specific problems encountered by the community during the time of Revelation. From these verses, the fuqaha al usul (jurists of Islamic principals) have extracted global rulings which should direct both 'ulama' and Believers' comprehension and behavior. This is what the Prophet's Companions first, and then Muslim jurists, soon understood and they tried (the latter basing their works on Quranic studies), to expound the general rulings behind the revealed responses given to Muslims during the 7th century CE.
To assist them in this work they also referred to the Prophet's teachings, his Sunna. The latter contains all that is narrated from the Prophet, his actions, sayings and whatever he tacitly approved, The Sunna, the second source of Islamic jurisprudence, confirms, specifies and, more rarely, adds some elements to what is already present in the Quran The hadith, whose process of authentication has over time become an independent study, permit the 'ulama' to understand the Divine teachings more completely and deeply and they further assist Muslims along the path they should follow. Together with the Quran, the hadith provide a complete and global frame of principles which express the Shari'a's teaching regarding the juridical domain. In fact, this global frame, these general principles and rules are what, in the Muslim's belief, has to be considered as absolute and immutable: revealed by God in His last Revelation and through his last Messenger, they are suitable whenever and anywhere. This partakes of the Islamic belief and it is one of the most important principles and teachings of Tawhid: that is for Muslims to remain faithful to the revealed path, the Shari'a.
Nevertheless it must be clear that faithfulness to such absolute principles is an important and permanent work of the 'ulama' from whom it is expected that they formulate specific and precise rules and laws tuned to the historical and geographical context. This is exactly the function of ijtihad: we will come back to this concept in a specific section but suffice to say here that, just as the fuqaha' of the Muslim community have to provide their fellow Believers with appropriate answers fitting their environment, so they must also exert themselves in forming individual or community judgments so as to preserve the essential link between the absoluteness of the sources and the relativity of history and geography. They must set about a two fold work: a deep and precise interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna along with an appropriate analysis of the social, political and economic situation they are facing. They have to determine the Islamic Law which is the product of rational human elaboration based on the unchangeable rulings of the Shari'a but with responses, adaptations and formulations which are in constant evolution.
These remarks allow us to clarify at least two confusions concerning the Shari'a, its contents and scope. First, the Shari'a is not restricted to the penal code; in our typology and classification, it is an element, a part of a global path, methodology and philosophy of life. To consider one element out of the context which gives it meaning is not only unfair but methodologically incorrect. The teachings of the Quran and the Sunna give shape to a complete way of life and this is, in fact, the Shari'a we are commanded to follow: from performing daily Prayers to defending social justice, from studying to smiling, from respecting nature to helping an animal. The second confusion has to do with the Shari'a and Fiqh being taken as one and the same thing when, in fact, there is an essential difference between them. Fiqh represents the product of human thought and elaboration; more precisely, it is the state of juridical reflection reached by Muslim scholars at a certain time and in a certain context in light of their study of the Shari'a. Thus, if the Shari'a is the revealed and immutable path, it is quite different from Fiqh which, to be faithful to its function, has to be dynamic, in constant elaboration since evolution is the characteristic of our world. To be faithful to the Message of the Quran in no way means to confine oneself to a very restrictive and lazy reading of the two main sources and their commentaries made by great 'ulama' in the past, but, on the contrary, to exert one's intelligence to provide solutions which, by fitting the social and political reality, will express our individual and community intention to be genuine Muslims. More >>
By knowing the function of Islamic sources and understanding the scope of the Shari'a, one can more easily understand the different spheres and stratum of Islamic thought. God alone decides the path, the direction and the ends, and within the general and global rulings He revealed to them, Muslims have to develop their knowledge and understanding of both sources as also the social reality so that they can implement these teachings in a faithful way. God has decided the way to worship Him, to pray and also what is lawful and what is not: human beings cannot modify this, yet at the same time they cannot merely rely on the general rulings of the Shari'a to solve their problems in a world which becomes more complex every day. We have, for instance, to study, understand and consider the ten verses which deal with economy in the Quran, but it is impossible to propose an alternative economy, a specific system, appropriate to our contemporary situation, without directing all our efforts and resources intellectual and financial. Only then can we bring to the fore the priorities, the steps and prospects which could let us hope for a future free from the domination of capitalism.
The Prophet's Companions were afraid to give rulings which could have been in contradiction with the Quran and the Sunna. To determine what is lawful (halal) and unlawful (haram) is the exclusive prerogative of God:
Hence, do not utter falsehoods by letting your tongues determine (at your own discretion), "This is lawful and that is forbidden", thus attributing your own lying inventions to God: for, behold, they who attribute their own lying inventions to God will never attain to a happy state!)
0 mankind! Partake of what is lawful and good on earth, and follow not Satan's footsteps: for, verily, he is your open foe, and bids you only to do evil, and to commit deeds of abomination, and to attribute unto God something of which you have no knowledge.
The Companions' fear of making such errors was, in fact, salutary and it shows the two aspects of their understanding which are the specific qualities of the Muslim scholar ('alim): a deep and absolute respect of God's and the Prophet's teachings coupled with an intense fear of betraying them. At the same time, they never hesitated to formulate rulings where they did not find an appropriate answer in the sources. Linked with God, they knew that they were living in a world in perpetual evolution. They knew, and that is perhaps their greatest gift, that to be a genuine Believer does not mean to neglect our mind, that to seek God's proximity with our heart does not mean to forget intellectual elaboration. Through them we learn that an intensive Faith does not mean a deficit of intelligence. We need both, a heart and a mind, a Faith and an intellect in order to draw our path and to stipulate rulings in accordance with the direction He gave to mankind.
Excerpted with some modifications from the book "To be a European Muslim" by Tariq Ramadan
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