Sunday, March 14, 2010

SHARIAH: A Vigorous Debate Throughout Islamic History

Dr. Usama Hasan
“Establishment” - Arabic: shar - of religion refers to the essence of all religion: the love and worship of the Divine.
Related words are shari', meaning both “lawgiver” and “road” (road signs in the Arab world proclaim a shari' at every corner), and shari'a, a path or way; in classical Arabic this particularly meant a path to water in the desert and hence the Sacred Law of Islam, the moral code and ethical path to God, who alone quenches all thirst with mercy. 
The Sharia is based on both universal and specific texts, principles and judgments from the Koran and the Sunnah, the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Far from being set in stone, the problem of specifically applying universal principles in Sacred Law has led to a vigorous debate throughout Islamic history and the complex evolution of an extremely diverse body of legal schools and opinions.
Within three centuries of the founding of Islam, there were dozens of legal schools, of which about seven remain influential across the Islamic world, both Sunni and Shia. An important early debate that continues today was between traditionalists and rationalists over whether the universal principles of God's law were to be known by revelation or reason, or both. The four main areas covered by classical Sharia were: ibadat (ritual worship), mu'amalat (economics), munakahat (marriage, divorce and family) and jinayat (crime and punishment).
A significant development in Islamic law between the 11th and 14th centuries CE was the approach to legal purpose known as the Maqasid theory. Imam Ghazzali (died 1111) argued from a holistic reading of the Koran that the purpose of Sharia was fundamentally to preserve five matters: faith, life, wealth, intellect and family.
Over the next three centuries after Ghazzali, theologians such as Ibn Taymiyyah added a number of other “fundamental purposes” of law: preservation of reputations, neighbourhoods and communities; fulfilment of contracts; moral purity; trustworthiness; the love of God. The culmination of this theory came with Shatibi (of Jativa, Andalusia, died 1388), who explicitly synthesised traditionalist and rationalist approaches. But Islamic legal theory and practice, once centuries ahead of other civilisations, fell into relative decline for the next half-millennium.
The last century of Islamic legal thinking carries more hope, however. Recent thinkers such as Tariq Ramadan in Europe and Hashim Kamali in Malaysia have suggested that the following are “legal purposes” that must be protected and promoted by Sharia: fundamental human rights and liberties; public welfare; education; scientific and medical research; the environment.
Anyone familiar with this rich history of Sharia is left bemused by the ignorant and prejudiced notions that often dominate debates about it, especially the strange assumption that the last of the Abrahamic faiths has values that are somehow radically different from those of Judaism or Christianity…
An article in the Times [U.K.] triggered by the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks on Islam and Shariah in 2008. Read more:

Dr Usama Hasan is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, an amateur astronomer, former Planetarium Lecturer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and a part-time imam at Tawhid Mosque, Leyton.

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