Islamic Law (Part 8)

 

Indonesians reading the Qur’an
Reading the Qur’an in an Indonesian mosque after prayer
(Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata, Wikimedia CC)

 

Continuing with my summary of the nature and sources of the shari‘a:

 

This is important because Islamic law covers a far wider range of actions than anything we know of as law in our own experience. After centuries of analysis and refinement, Muslim legal thinkers worked out a system in which all possible human acts were placed into one or another of five classes. Some were “obligatory” These actions must be done by every person. (Prayer might serve as a good example.) Others were merely “desirable.” It would be good to perform these acts, but a person would not be punished if he or she did not do so. While becoming a scholar of Islamic law is a good thing, for instance, a peasant will not be punished because he is not such a scholar. Nor, among educated people, will a doctor or an engineer be condemned simply because he or she has chosen a dif­ferent but respectable career path. A third category comprises acts to which the law is “indifferent.” Whether a man or woman per­forms one or another of these acts is of no concern to Islam. (Should Mahmud work as an accountant, or should he seek to be a doctor? The law doesn’t care.) There are also actions that the law considers “objectionable.” People who act in such ways will not be punished, but it would be better if they avoided such actions. (Slurping one’s soup is not a moral offense and will not land any­body in Hell, but it is still not exactly admirable behavior.) Finally, there are actions like adultery and murder that are simply “prohib­ited.” This fifth category of actions consists of things that all people should avoid and for which, if they do not, they will be punished.

Only two of these five categories of action fall within the scope of enforceable law, either in the West or the Middle East.[1] Our own legal system speaks of things that are obligatory (paying taxes, for instance) and of things that are prohibited (such as murder), but it is generally silent when it comes to mere recommendations and cer­tainly has nothing to say about matters of indifference. The shariah, however, speaks explicitly about all these things and thus includes much more than our Western law. It makes no real distinction between legal matters as we understand them and things that we would tend to think of as purely religious. Its provisions cover reli­gious duties—what Muslims call “acts of worship,” such as ablution, prayer, and pilgrimage—but also embrace criminal law and rules of inheritance. It is a remarkable construction, and even where I dis­agree, I must confess that I admire the shariah’s vastness and intri­cacy, its comprehensive effort to show, in all aspects of life, what is involved in being a true Muslim. We might therefore think of it as a “grand ideal,” a portrait of the ideal human life and the ideal human society. And even though such ideals have certainly not been reached in Islam any more than they have been achieved in the West, it can be safely said that the shariah permeates all social life in Islamic countries even today and affects all aspects of their cultures.

 

[1] Adultery no longer seems to fall under this category in Western law—although it once did, and although it seems to be a clear case of breach of contract at the very least.

 

 

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