Reconsidering Shariah

By Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D.

Shariah continues to drive a wedge among Muslims and also isolates Muslims from others. What some Muslims regard as religious obligations - or “Words of God” - are looked upon by others possibly as violent and misogynic practices. Stoning adulterers to death, cutting hands of thieves, beating drunkards, and requiring women to wear the veil are the most commonly mentioned “questionable” practices.

Trying to trace these practices historically, I recently discovered an anomaly: While the Shariah is supposedly based on hadith, it predates about 90% hadith. Please consider:

The Shariah was formulated by the following five imams on the basis of hadith available to them: Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE); Jaʿfar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (702-765); Malik ibn Anas (711-795); al-Shafi’i (767-820); and Ahmed bin Hanbal (780-855). Working independently, each is honored for his particular contribution, leading to what are known as Hanafi, Ja’fari, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali schools, respectively.

The six scholars who compiled about 90% hadith (Bukhari, 810-870; Muslim, 817-874; Abu Dawood, 817-889; Tirmidhi, 824-892; Ibn Majah, 824-887; and al Nasai, 829-915) were either born after the Shariah formulators had died, or were toddlers when these formulators died. So, our five Shariah formulators could not benefit from the valuable information these hadith compilers gathered subsequently through their interviews and extensive conversations with descendants of the Prophet’s companions then spread over the vast Muslim empire.

The only hadith collection available to Shariah formulators was that of Malik ibn Anas, a fellow Shariah compiler. Referred to as Al-Muwatta, this collection contains roughly 1,800 hadith - about 10% of the total hadith collection. It focuses mostly on rituals, warfare, trade, and crime and punishment.

Carrying several punishment-prescribing hadith (probably due to Imam Malik’s judicial background), al-Muwatta woefully lacks forgiveness-inspiring hadith found in other compilations. Thus, while the Shariah prescribes stoning adulterers and beating drunkards (al-Muwatta 41.1 and 42.1), it mentions no hadith in which Muhammad forgave adulterers and drunkards (e.g., Abu Dawood 1010 and 2110). And while the Shariah requires women to be veiled in public (al-Muwatta 36.20), Aisha, Muhammad’s widow, led her army unveiled against caliph Ali in the Battle of Camel (656 CE), 24 years after Muhammad died.

Inspired by hadith such as “Allah guarantees either the Garden (i.e., Paradise) or a safe return to his home with whatever he has obtained as reward or booty for the one who does jihad in His way” (al-Muwatta 21.2), extremists welcome death as “Passport to Paradise.” However, sadly lacking in the Shariah are hadith such as “Avoid inflicting the prescribed punishment as much as you can and, if there is a way out, let a man go, for it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than in punishing” (Tirmidhi 1011).

With all Qur’anic verses being considered snapshots frozen in time (because the context and chronology of the Qur’an’s 6,200 revelations often remain unknown), verses chosen for implementation depend upon one’s own inclination. Thus, while some Muslims generally follow Qur’anic verse 5.51 forbidding Muslims from trusting Jews and Christians, others follow verse 5.5 permitting Muslims to eat and intermarry with them.

Fortunately, Ibn Ishaq’s classic book, The Life of Muhammad, written within 150 years of the Prophet’s death and some other writings inform us that verse 5.51 was revealed when a vulnerable Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina (622 CE) and faced enemies all around; and verse 5.5, after he had conquered Arabia (632 CE) and neutralized opposition. And with verse 2.106 clarifying that later guidance superseded earlier guidance, we can conclude that verse 5.5 superseded verse 5.51. Or peace superseded war. Indeed, verses 5.3 and 5.5, probably the last guidance to Muhammad, sum it all: “This day have I perfected your religion . . . and have chosen Islam as your religion… The food of the People of Book is lawful unto you and yours lawful unto them… (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book.” Following this, the Prophet’s last advice to his followers was: “A Jew or Christian who becomes a sincere Muslim is a believer with the same rights and obligations. If he holds fast to his religion, he should not be turned away from it” (Ibn Ishaq, p 647-8). The Prophet died shortly thereafter.

While the Shariah’s unquestioned acquiescence by some Muslims underscores the power of faith, the Qur’an’s encouragement for ijtihad should inspire Muslims to review the 20,000+ hadith not available to Shariah formulators and issue Shariah II. Then, extremists might realize that suicide bombing and other violent attacks are against Islamic teachings.

This will not belittle the Shariah formulators’ yeoman’s work as their writings unified, for the first time, diverse practices in the Muslim empire, then often mixed with local pagan customs and traditions.

I humbly present this to fellow Muslims with the hope that we might consider discussing this issue dispassionately. Rational humans make decisions on the basis of information they have. Thus, if we take any action on the basis of information not available to our esteemed Shariah formulators, we will not belittle their laudable contribution in any way.

We will be honored to offer Honolulu as a venue for any international conference organized to discuss this issue in an objective manner, possibly in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of 2014. I invite your discussion and comments below.

Saleem Ahmed: Author, Beyond Veil and Holy War: Islamic Teachings and Muslim Practices with Biblical Comparisons (2002) and Islam: A Religion of Peace? (2008); President, Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies, Honolulu. Contact:

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