Comprehensiveness, The Absolute, And The Evolution

Wherever they find themselves, Muslim women and men try, in their practice and daily lives, to conform as much as possible to Islamic teachings. In this they follow the path of faithfulness, “the path towards the spring,” of which we have just spoken. In other words, in the West as in the East, they try to actualize the Sharia as we have defined it beyond its merely legalistic form. In Europe and in North America, as soon as one pronounces the shahada, as soon as one “is Muslim” and tries to remain so by practicing the daily prayers, giving alms, and fasting, for example, or even simply by trying to respect Muslim ethics, one is already in the process of applying the Sharia, not in any peripheral way but in its most essential aspects.

This practice and moral awareness are even the source and heart of the Sharia, which is personal, faithful commitment. Beyond that, the Way itself exerts its own influence more comprehensively, with regard to the guidance that marks the elements or the actions. It touches all the aspects of existence, even if not in the same way, and we must mention this essential factor here, with regard to the methodologies, norms, and details of application of various regulations. This characteristic of Islam is contained within the concept of shumuliyyat al-islam, the comprehensiveness of Islam, which we could translate in a more immediately expressive form as “the comprehensive character of Islamic teaching.” We certainly find in the sources regulations that touch on the intimate personal dimension (with regard to spiritual practices whose culmination is mystical experience) and religious practice, but there are also directions concerning individuals’ behavior with regard to the self, the family, and others, and again general principles pertaining to the management of interpersonal relations and of the community. It seems difficult to draw a line of demarcation here between the private and the public spheres, between the realms of faith and reason, between the religious and the political, so interconnected and mingled do these areas appear under the sole transcendent authority of the Book and the Prophetic traditions. Many Muslims have continued down the ages to say formulaically, as if they were presenting evidence: “There is no difference, for us, between private and public, religion and politics: Islam encompasses all areas.” Many orientalists have fallen into step with them and affirmed, and still affirm, that Islam does not think in distinct categories and that all areas are governed by the same authority. Moreover, often, because of this kind of approach, it is assumed that Muslims are by definition “not capable of integration” into secularized societies because their religion prevents them from accepting modern demarcations between the categories we have mentioned.

But one has the right to ask whether these statements are based on sound evidence. Islamic teaching certainly has “a comprehensive quality” that one cannot fail to notice even upon one reading of the Qur’an, but can it be so easily asserted that no distinction exists between the various realms of human activity? In other words, does the fact that there is one source necessarily require a similarity of approaches? Nothing is less certain, and Muslim scholars such as Abu Hanifa and al-Shafii, who in the earliest times tried to set the norms for reading and deducing rules, were deeply intuitive. For it must be said and remembered that the formulation of universal principles and the elaboration of a basic frame of reference, which give “the way to faithfulness” its meaning, were produced by human intelligence. It is from the reading of the scriptural sources, with the internal limitations this imposed (e.g., the Arabic language, grammar, the practice of the Prophet), that they decided upon the normative parameters from which it was possible to extrapolate principles, formulate regulations, and elaborate rules of morality faithful to the guidance of the Qur’an and the Sunna. It is human intelligence that formulates the universal and elaborate methodologies, which vary according to the object of study to which they are applied (e.g., religious practice, social affairs, sciences), by working on the Qur’an and the Sunna. In other words, the Sharia, insofar as it is the expression of the “the way to faithfulness,” deduced and constructed a posteriori, is the work of human intellect. The Source and undisputed reference is the Book and then the Prophetic traditions: we have already said that these texts touch upon every area of life in ways both general and diverse and summon human intelligence to discern the difference between the categories, as well as the logics that underpins religious regulations, and to try to bring the whole of the message into harmony and make its guidance more accessible. This harmonization is rational, and, insofar as it tries to be faithful to the wisdom of Revelation, it does its utmost also to be reasonable.

The work of categorization left by scholars through the ages is phenomenal. Specialists in the foundations of law and jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), who labored at this exercise of extrapolating and categorizing rules on the basis of a reading that was both careful to be faithful to the norm and profoundly rational have bequeathed to us an unparalleled heritage. A careful reading of these works reveals that very precise modes of grasping the sources were set down very early. Consideration of the language was supported by a double process of distinguishing on the one hand between the unequivocal and the equivocal and on the other between the presence (explicit or implicit) or absence of a causal link (illa) in the pronouncement of rules. The other essential side of this work was the elaboration of methodologies differentiated according to the area being studied. Thus, in the area of religious practice (al-ibadat), it was determined that it was the texts that were the only ultimate reference because the revealed rites are fixed and not subject to human reason: here one can do only what is based on a text, and the margin for interpretation is virtually nil. In the wider area of human and social affairs, the established methodology is the exact opposite: bearing in mind the positive and trusting attitude of the Qur’anic message, as we have seen, toward the universe and human beings, everything is permitted except that which is explicitly forbidden by a text (or recognized as such by the specialists). Thus, the scope for the exercise of reason and creativity is huge, in contrast with the situation in matters to do with religious practice, and people have complete discretion to experiment, progress, and reform as long as they avoid what is forbidden. So the fact that the fundamental principles of Islam, and its prohibitions, are stated can never allow Muslims to dispense with a study of the context and the societies in which they live. This is the price they must pay for their faithfulness.

It is on the basis of these same logical categorizations that it has been possible to differentiate, through reading the scriptural sources, between the universal principles to which the Muslim consciousness must seek to be faithful through the ages and the practice of those principles, which is necessarily relative, at a given moment in human history. We are here confronting the fundamental distinction that should be established between timeless principles and contingent models, a distinction that is a direct consequence of a normative reading of the sources and, as such, is in itself fundamental. So, a distinction should be made, in the case of the society of Medina, for example, between the fundamental principles on which it was established (e.g., the rule of law, equality, freedom of conscience and worship) and the form in which that society historically appeared. Faithfulness to principles cannot involve faithfulness to the historical model because times change, societies and political and economic systems become more complex, and in every age it is in fact necessary to think of a model appropriate to each social and cultural reality.

For example, one could investigate further the areas of custom and culture, because these concern Western Muslims very directly. The methodological distinction between religious practice and social affairs, like the difference in nature, as far as the basis of reference is concerned, between universal principles and historical, temporal models, brings out another demarcation—that which distinguishes between the religious judgment and its cultural garb. Al-urf, custom, has been considered one of the sources of law in the sense that all that is recognized as “established for the good” (maruf) in a given culture (and that is not in contradiction with any prohibition) is, in practice, integrated into the local Islamic sphere of reference. In fact, as we have seen, even if the forms of religious practice do not change with changes in time and space, some religious commands related to the affairs of the world naturally take on the color of the culture of various countries: the principles remain the same, but the ways of being faithful to them are diverse. So the concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed but to dress according to the principles (of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics, and modesty) that underlay his choice of clothes.

We have now moved beyond the pronouncement of slogans that, because they relied on one source (the Qur’an and the Sunna) ended in a necessary similarity in commandments, methodologies, and, finally, rules of behavior. All this assumed that the absolute origin of the scriptural sources embraced all areas of life in one logic to the point of denying development, rationality, and diversity in human societies. But we have just seen that this is not so, and the situation is clearly very different: the Revelation and the Sunna call on human intellect to determine the categories, methodologies, and rules for reading and deduction, allowing it to identify first the absolute and universal at the heart of them, to establish the specifics of religious practice, and to open up a vast area to rational investigation, which, in order to remain faithful, must be creative in the matter of relations with the societies and cultures within which and upon which it is working.

For there is indeed a difference in Islam between creed and rationality, the private and the public, the religious and the political: it is true that the Transcendent One through His Revelation refers to all the areas of life and shows “the Way,” but the scriptural verses and the Prophetic traditions, which are very precise and compelling (insofar as they refer to our relationship with God and to religious practice), are distinct from those that fix universal and general principles concerning the affairs of the world and the ultimate ideals that the believer must try to achieve, as well as he can, in the future. Sustained by faith, strong in reasoning ability, and guided by ethical injunctions, a believing consciousness must live with his own time, at the heart of his society, among other human beings, and put his energy into this constant dialectical movement between the essential principles determined by Revelation and actual circumstances. In practice, the “Way to faithfulness” teaches us that Islam rests on three sources: the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the state of the world, or of our society (al-waqi). It is through a study of the Texts and the deep understanding of the context that all the pairings and unions of which we spoke in the first chapter come into being and are fulfilled—those between oneself and one’s self, oneself and the Other, and, more broadly, with the whole of humankind. The “way to the source” is never confused with the Source itself: the latter declares the absolute and the universal outside of time, but everything along the way must consider itself in time, in change, in imperfection, immersed in the reality of humankind—their rich humanity as well as their disturbing deceits. It really is a way, a way toward the ideal, and anyone traveling along it is invited to make a constant effort to reform in the light of the universal, without ever claiming that one has attained the Truth of the universal. The three sources, the Texts as well as the universe, teach one this humility.



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