Prof Jasser Auda delivered an Al Qalam lecture, entitled ‘Maqasid Al Shariah as a project for Islamic Renewal’ on 28 July at the UKZN Senate Chamber (Westville Campus). Below is an edited extract of his presentation
It is important to differentiate between the term “Shariah” and the term “Fiqh”. Shariah is an Arabic word for a high road of the Divine message. The Qur’an calls the Shariah a way of life set by God (Qur’an 45:18). On the other hand, Fiqh is an Arabic word for understanding and perception; a human interpretation.
The difference between the divine message and the interpretation of the divine message is the difference between God, with all of His perfect attributes, and humans, with all their deficiencies. The divine message, for believers, is immutable, but human interpretations are subject to error and change. This is a fundamental difference that cannot be ignored, because not every interpretation of the Shariah is correct or fixed. Now the question is: How do we judge?
The Qur’an sets a group of fundamental values, which are technically called the “objectives” of the Shariah (Arabic: Maqasid al-Shariah). These are values and principles that differentiate between the correct and incorrect opinions and the valid and invalid interpretations.
Ibn al-Qayyim’s (d. 748/1347), one of Islam’s great scholars of all time, has this to say about these principles:
Shariah is built on a foundation and a structure that about wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife. Shariah is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good. Thus, any opinion of Fiqh that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is an opinion that is not Shariah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation (I’lam al-Muaqi’een, vol. 3).
This means that an interpretation does not necessarily define the Shariah, the behavior of a certain Muslim does not define Shariah, the opinion of a certain scholar does not define Shariah, and the action of a certain group or a party or a state that calls itself “Islamic” does not define the Shariah. Shariah is defined by the moral objectives and the ethical principles set in the Qur’an. An interpretation that defies those principles is simply wrong and non-Islamic.
It is essential for Muslims around the world to stand up against the wrong interpretations of the Shariah that go against the ethical principles of Islam and humanity. We are witnessing in our time a growing extreme and very small group of Muslim, from various streams of thought, grabbing the spotlights with some outrageous behavior and messages of divisions and hate. We should not allow these folks to hijack the Islamic Shariah in a way that only serves our enemies.
When the principles of the Shariah govern its interpretation, as mentioned here, the rules and edicts become means to an end and not ends in their own rights. This opens up the practicing of Islam and its divine way of life to the evolution of state and society. Shariah is not equal to a “law”, in the sense of a particular coded of rules that are enforced by the state. Shariah is an ethical system of values, some that are coded and enforced and many that are left to people’s consciousness. Ethics could certainly have an impact on the law, in any culture or society. However, the law of the land that is “Islamic” is means to achieving the ethical ends of the Shariah; justice, mercy, wisdom and good. This means that the closer a society gets to these principles/maqasid of the Shariah, the closer it is to being “Islamic”.
Ibn Taymiyah (d. 728 AH/ 1328 CE), another great scholar of Islam writes:
In this life, people prevail when justice prevails in their society even if they fall into various kinds of sins. However, people will not prevail when injustice and lack of rights prevail in their society. That is why the saying goes: God upholds a state established on justice, even if it were a nation of disbelievers, and would not uphold a state established on injustice, even if it were a nation of Muslims. The other wisdom goes: This world lives with justice and disbelief, and does not live with injustice and Islam. The Prophet, peace be upon him, had said: ‘No sin has a faster Divine punishment than the sin of injustice’. Thus, people of injustice fail in this life, even if they were to be forgiven in the hereafter. This is because justice is the universal law of things (Kutub wa Rasa’il, vol. 28).
Professor Auda is Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, a global think tank based in London, and a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at Carleton University in Canada