Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #73

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Shari’a in a Plural Society

The issue of the Islamic state is needlessly consuming the energy of many Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is also the platform of the Islamic Party (PAS), its reason for being. Yet when challenged on the specifics, PAS is sorely unprepared. Surely after championing the issue for the past half a century, its leaders should have a pretty clear idea of their goals. If by Islamic state they mean one based on the ideals of justice and morality of the Quran, then all Muslims and many non-Muslims would agree. But if they want a state based on the Shari’a (Islamic law) in its current form, many Muslims and certainly all non-Muslims would demur.

The Shari’a took three centuries to formulate and consumed the best intellectual talent of the Muslim world at the time. Although based on the Qur’an and sunnah (ways of the prophet), the Shari’a remains the creation of mortals and as such, carries all the imperfections implicit in such endeavors. For Muslims to ascribe to it the reverence and perfection reserved only for the Quran means that we ascribe those very same qualities to the mortals who crafted the Shari’a.

Shari’a literally means, “the road to the watering hole,” the right or straight path to be followed. To Muslims, Shari’a refers to the body of Islamic laws that are perceived as being part and parcel of the faith. It thus assumes the same rightful place as the Quran and sunnah. To criticize the Shari’a is to criticize the faith itself. And therein lies the problem.

There are over 6,000 verses in the Quran; of these less than 600 are concerned with the law. And most of those cover such matters as prayers and rituals. Only about 80 verses deal with such traditional legal matters as crime and punishment, contracts, and family law. Clearly the Quran is not a legal tome but a general guidance on how to build a moral and ethical society.

It is a magnificent tribute to the intellect of those early Muslim scholars that they were able to fashion out of the Quran and the sunnah a coherent and consistent body of laws that is the Shari’a. In its time the Shari’a represented a giant leap in intellectual, social, and legal achievements. Its treatment of women in particular was light years ahead of its time. The status of women accorded by the Shari’a was of the order of magnitude a thousand times better than the prevailing practices. Then women were not even recognized as humans. Whereas women are granted a share of the inheritance in the Shari’a, in the then prevailing culture, women were the inheritance. They were chattels and properties of their husband, to be passed on or traded accordingly. The Shari’a represented a grand emancipation of women. In this regard Islam was centuries ahead of Western civilization. The codifying of divorces too was truly an inspiration, considering that the concept did not even exist then. Wives were not divorced then; they were simply discarded, traded, or handed over to their husband’s heir. The Shari’a’s treatment of criminal justice was similarly light years ahead of the prevailing ethos of “an eye for an eye;” likewise the treatment of slavery and indentured labor.

While the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in achievement of early Islam, in its present form it is clearly incompatible with many of today’s universally accepted norms, in particular with respect to human rights, criminal justice, public law, gender equality, and hosts of other areas.

I do not say this lightly seeing that to many Muslims, any criticism of the Shari’a is blasphemous. But I cannot look at my daughter and tell her that she is worth only half that of my son, as the Shari’a would have it. I love all my children equally and my inheritance to them should and will reflect that sentiment. Nor do I find such cruel and inhuman punishments as stoning to death a woman for adultery and the chopping of hands for thievery compatible with an All Compassionate and All Merciful Allah. Similarly I find the death penalty for apostasy as prescribed by the Shari’a not only abhorrent but also incompatible with the Koranic admonition that there shall be no compulsion in matters of faith.

As a Muslim I take the Koran to be Allah’s revelation. Its message is infallible and immutable, and for all mankind at all times. That is a matter of faith. Being Allah’s words, the Koran takes precedence over everything else, including the Shari’a and the sunnah.

That is a heavy statement. Having said it, a much-needed pause for clarification. Muslims consider the Koran and the sunnah as co-equal parts of the faith. One cannot separate the message (the Koran) from the messenger (the prophet – pbuh); they both form an integral part of the faith. I agree wholeheartedly. The main issue I have is differentiating between the actual practices and sayings of the prophet (pbuh) and what scholars say they are. I will revisit this important differentiation a few pages hence. Meanwhile back to my original discussion.

Societies change, and so too must the laws. There is nothing in the Shari’a that mandates we give it the reverence due only to the Quran. Thus the pertinent question, and one rarely asked, is not whether the Shari’a should be applied to modern society, rather how can we adapt and modify it to meet current needs. A body of laws that was an enlightened piece of legislation for 7-10th Century Arabia is clearly not suitable for the present. When the Shari’a was formulated, the Arabian society was just emerging from the Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance), a period of rampant female infanticide, slavery, and tribalism. A millennium later, the problems are of a different order. The challenge today is to enhance the freedom and dignity of humans. That these freedoms and rights are emphasized by Western civilization is no reason for Muslims not to co-opt and adopt them.

Today’s Muslims should emulate our illustrious predecessors. Had ancient Muslims been like their present-day counterparts and considered everything originating outside of Islam as “un-Islamic,” Islam would not have expanded. Muslims today should be equally receptive to and be welcoming of new ideas and innovations regardless of where they originated. That Allah chose a Christian to reveal His secret on gravity, a Jew on the nature of the atom, a Confucian on the explosive power of gunpowder, and a Hindu on the concept of zero, is not for us to question. It is however, for us to appreciate that such wisdom and insights are for the benefit of all.

Next: Reform in Islam

  1. #1 by Tom Peters on Friday, 15 July 2011 - 6:43 pm

    Dear Dr. Bakri, a heavy read deserves a preamble and I found a hook in there.

    “While the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in achievement of early Islam, in its present form it is clearly incompatible with many of today’s universally accepted norms, in particular with respect to human rights, criminal justice, public law, gender equality, and hosts of other areas.”

    Well said Dr. and given your stature, no apology to modern day Muslims, let alone the literalist, is required.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Saturday, 16 July 2011 - 10:35 am

    //That Allah chose a Christian to reveal His secret on gravity, a Jew on the nature of the atom, a Confucian on the explosive power of gunpowder, and a Hindu on the concept of zero, is not for us to question.//

    According to umno, He is also very biased in choosing non-muslims when awarding the Nobel Prizes year after year. If he were able to, Jibbie would like to impose a ruling that 30% quota of the above prizes be reserved for umnoputras. Otherwise Ibrahim Ali will warn the non-bumis to “stock up on their food supplies”

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 16 July 2011 - 11:06 am

    You’d get the picture if you look at the relative progress/development between Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Sudan, and in the Taleban-era Afghanistan (in which Sharia dominates) – compared to (say) Turkey & Indonesia (secular) or Lebanon, United Asian Emirates (Dubai) and Malaysia based on tripartite streams of civil, criminal and Sharia laws where the latter is not all encompassing.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 16 July 2011 - 11:09 am

    When the late Ayatollah Khomeini came unto the scene and demanded Sharia’s ascendancy in both civil and criminal matters (just like Saudi Arabia) based on a priestly hierarchy (justified on basis that they know God’s intent better than ordinary men) and its assumption of ultimate authority in the state. How can this ever be compatible with democracy if it means the voice of the common people and the right of representation in government? Surely Abraham Lincoln Gettysburg’s clarion call for “government of the people, by the people, for the people” cannot be reconciled with Khomeini’s government of the Almighty, by the people who knows the intent of the Almighty, for the Almighty. This is something PAS got to think about when it talks about championing democracy and yet have its Kedah state govt ban various entertainment activities during Ramadan.

  5. #5 by Tom Peters on Sunday, 17 July 2011 - 4:33 pm

    Dr. Bakri’s commentary and the 25-article Cairo Declaration, ratified August 1990, are linked.

    Articles 25 “The Islamic Shari’a is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration”

    Article 24 “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a”

    The above renders the preceding 23 academic.

    Ratified by Malaysia without permission of Parliament, the declaration is simply a promise amongst members to install the Islamic legal code in their respective countries. This promise was underscored September 2010 when Turkish OIC Secretary refreshed the organization’s commitment to it.

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