Sunday, July 06, 2014
Ramadan 2014 - Day 7, Learning about Shari'a
Over the last few days I’ve been reading my book on Islamic Jurisprudence. Can be a bit challenging to read legal works when you’re tired from fasting but so far I’ve learned quite a few things about Islamic Law:
There are four sources of Shari’a, in order of importance:
- The Qur’an
- Consensus (ijma)
- Analogy (qiyas)
There is not complete agreement on this list. All agree that the Qur’an is the most important followed by the Sunnah but some dispute the level of importance of either ijma or qiyas.
Then came a chapter on the Qur’an itself.
The order of the verses within each surah and the order of the surahs was determined by the Prophet Mohammed shortly before he died (I didn’t know that). The arrangement results in many unrelated topics being combined together in the same surah and passages on similar topics being split up amongst many surahs, the Qur’an is not even arranged chronologically. It is thought that this was to make people look at the Qur’an as a whole rather than relying on discreet parts. You would need to be well-versed on the entire Qur’an to be able to find all the relevant passages on a topic since they could be in many places.
I also didn’t realize that the timing of the revelation of a particular passage is important because it can supersede other passages. Muslims accept that some laws were introduced gradually in a series of passages where the newest one supersedes the previous ones. If you weren’t aware of that it could look to the casual reader that some passages are redundant, or contradict one another, but in truth the passage that was revealed last takes precedence.
The prohibition on alcohol was used as an example. In the early days of Islam there were no restrictions, then a passage was revealed that alcohol is harmful (2:219) but didn’t prohibit consumption, later a passage prohibited offering prayers while under the influence of alcohol (4:43), then later came the outright ban on consuming alcohol (5:90) that we are most familiar with. To the casual reader it would seem redundant to ban alcohol and also mention that you can’t offer prayers under its influence but the ban was revealed last.
The book then goes on to discuss “definitive” versus “speculative” passages in the Qur’an. Definitive are those that are not subject to interpretation, while speculative passages can have multiple interpretations. Speculative passages can result in differences between the various schools of Islam. For example one passage notes as a punishment for a transgression to feed ten hungry persons. Must it be ten different people or can you feed one person in need ten times? Scholars differ in opinion by drawing conclusions based on other areas of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Factor in that many hadiths are not accepted universally by all schools of Islam and you can see where complications arise, a scholar may support an interpretation based on Sunnah that other scholars don’t accept as authentic.
Metaphorical interpretations are rare in Qur’anic analysis and most scholars do not encourage it. This makes some sense to me as the Qur’an does not have the lengthy stories that one finds in the Bible – the Qur’an is around 1/10th the length of the Old + New Testaments so does not have the lengthy narrative of Biblical storytelling from which a lot of metaphorical analysis derives. The Qur’an refers to many of these stories (Noah’s flood for example) but the references tend to be short and seem to infer that the reader is already familiar with the circumstances.
Finally, it is important to understand the circumstances around which the passages were revealed. Called “asbab al-nuzul” in Arabic it can be vital to understand the situation at the time of the revelation to be able to interpret the passage. Many Qur’anic passages were revealed in response to particular events or questions people had about key issues. Some non-Muslims have criticized Islam by pointing out that revelations “conveniently” occurred when guidance on something was needed at the time but Islam accepts that many passages were in response to events, and grateful Allah provided guidance, so don’t have an issue with this. Thus Islamic scholars will see if there are any historical circumstances around the revelation of a passage when they try to interpret its meaning.
Only a tenth of the way through the book. It’s not an easy read, I need to go to the glossary frequently to figure out the various legal terms, but it has provided some insight that I did not know before.
[Part 2 of "Learning about Shari'a" can be found here on Day 12 of Ramadan 2014]