Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D
Board Member,MCA, President of the Honolulu-based Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies

(The following article was published in daily Dawn,Karchi,Pakistan)

 The quintessence of Muslim conduct code, Shariah permeates the ethos – the very soul — of Muslim life. Thus, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990), sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Countries, affirmed the Shari’ah as the sole information source for guidance on Muslim daily living. This was the “Muslim response” to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Brainchild of five highly-respected imams — Jafar ibn Muhammad (702-765 CE) Abu Hanifah (699-767), Malik ibn Anas (711-796), al-Shafi (767-820), and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) — Shariah represents the fruits of their labor from perusing through the available hadith literature to enunciate their respective views on how Muslims should lead their lives in conformity with the Qur’an and hadith. Their writings elaborate on, for example, rituals (e.g., for prayers, fasting, and pilgrimage) and punishments (e.g., for adultery, apostasy, and pilferage). And while each imam worked independently, their writings were distilled by devout followers as Shariah (“The Way”). Some conservative Muslims consider Shariah to be “mandated by God”.
But I discovered that the six hadith compliers — Bukhari (816-878), Muslim (826-833), Ibn Majah (824-897), Abu Dawood (824-897), Tirmidhi (831-901), and Al-Nasai (836-925) – who collectively compiled the lion’s share of the known 12,000+ hadith, produced their compilations decades after these imams had died. Thus, the only hadith collection these imams could have consulted was al-Muwatta, a relatively small (1,800 hadith) collection of imam Malik ibn Anas. While dealing mostly with rituals, it also carries some hadith on other matters, including hadd (capital or corporal punishment for adultery, fornication, apostasy, drinking, and theft). For example, it carries six hadith on adultery in which the prophet prescribed rajam (stoning adulterers to death).
But, the other hadith collections mentioned above, also carry the following three hadith not found in al-Muwatta, and in which the prophet apparently forgave adulterers: Once, the prophet was so amused to learn that three men claimed to be the father of the son born to a woman with whom all three had sexual relations “in a single state of purity” (probably meaning the same menstrual cycle), that he laughed so much that “his molar teeth showed” (Abu Dawood 932, 933). Apparently no one was punished. In another case, on learning that some Muslims had killed an adulterator, the prophet asked: “Why did you not let him live? Perhaps he would have repented and been forgiven by God” (Tirmidhi 1010). And in a third case, when a man confessed to having committed a sin requiring hadd punishment, the prophet asked, “Haven’t you prayed with me?” The man said, “Yes.” The prophet said, “God has forgiven your sin” (Bukhari 8.812).
Why don’t we find these reports in al-Muwatta? Since imam Malik was a jurist, he was probably particularly interested in learning about specific punishments the prophet prescribed. Therefore, his question to his respondents, who were descendants of sahabis (prophet’s companions), could have been narrowly focused, such as : “What punishment did the prophet prescribe for adultery?” (this was about a hundred years after the prophet died). And since rajam was the answer, it became incorporated in the Shariah. On the other hand, questions such as: “How did the prophet handle cases of adultery?” or “Did the prophet ever forgive adulterers?” would probably evoke the type of responses that Dawood, Muslim, and al-Bukhari obtained in the above examples.
Conservative Muslim might argue that Shariah scholars knew all hadith. But then there would have been no need for Bukhari to have spent several years traveling around the Muslim world interviewing individuals whose ascendants had been the prophet’s companions. One could even argue he and other hadith compilers undertook their respective missions because they felt there must be more to the prophet’s life than conveyed through imam Malik’s small hadith collection. The changed prophetic response to adultery could also reflect the evolving nature of Qur’anic guidance.
While the unquestioned following of Shariah by some Muslims underscores the power of faith, the Qur’an also encourages ijtihad (introspection) when issues are unclear. Thus, Muslims might consider reviewing the 80-90% hadith that became available after the Shariah compilers’ death. This will probably suggest that hadith of compassion, forgiveness, and gender equality are more in line with Islam being a religion of peace than those of punishment. Underscoring hadith such as: “Avoid inflicting the prescribed punishment as much as you can, and if there is any way out, let a man go, for it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than in punishing” (Tirmidhi 1011), the updated Shariah will lead to Islam being truly called a religion of peace and compassion.
Then, unfortunate incidents such as the following (, July 20, 2012) might not occur: A 25-year old mother of five was stoned to death on charges of adultery filed with the local panchayat in Pakistan by an influential landlord. Earlier, she had reportedly rebuffed the landlord’s sexual advances. Her husband was apparently abducted to enable the assailants to implement the punishment in her home in the wee hours one morning.
And in western countries, where 13 U.S. states have banned the use of Shariah in judicial deliberations because of its “cruel and misogynic character”, “Shariah ban” will then become a non-issue; and Islamophobia, gripping USA and several European countries, might also gradually disappear.
The true spirit of Islam as religion of peace and compassion unfolds beautifully when we read the Qur’an and hadith keeping mind the context and chronology of revelation.

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