As a human rights lawyer, you have studied sharia law. What is your reading of sharia?
There’s a very important distinction between certain concepts, which needs to be understood from the outset. The word ‘sharia’ in Arabic means ‘path’, and, more specifically, a path towards water. In the seventh century, that was understood to be the best path that you would take. To a desert people, it was very important to find a way to water, and metaphorically, it means the route you will take towards salvation. The English equivalent, I would say, is the straight and narrow. So, it’s a general notion of the right thing to do. Justice, if you will. And that’s how most Muslims understand the sharia. Even many liberal Muslims. I was listening to an Egyptian opposition figure, who was talking about “our sharia”, and how it must not involve compulsion, must not involve violence. So, the word ‘sharia’ to a Muslim is the right thing to do by God, and that is inviolable. You don’t argue against the sharia, no matter what your beliefs are about liberalism or conservatism.
But there’s another word — fiqh — which means understanding, and that has been understood for centuries by Muslims to be the human attempt to understand God’s purpose and to understand how to achieve this ‘justice’ that is the sharia. Muslims have always understood that fiqh is open to discussion, and it took the collection of the hadiths, the statements about what the Prophet said and did, 250 years to be written down, and there are a number of versions, both Sunni and Shia, which all led to different schools of law coalescing. They all approach the question of how to interpret the sharia in different ways. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that this is my interpretation. This is actually how it has operated for more than a thousand years. If you look around the world today, I think you would be crazy to believe that there is one understanding of sharia. There are many, and it is that chaos that’s part of the problem. But another way of looking at it is the diversity and richness of the tradition. And this richness of tradition is also a great source of strength; it’s the reason why sharia is still so important 1,400 years after the death of the Prophet.
In the session on sharia, Asghar Ali Engineer talked about there being two types of verses in the Quran: normative and contextual. Could you explain the distinction?
What he’s argued is effectively a similar thing to what I’m saying, that there are certain verses in the Quran, which must be understood as being absolute for all time. There’s a word in Arabic for that called nas, which means that they are inviolable obligations. Then there are certain verses which are clearly revealed in the seventh century for a specific aspect of the Prophet’s life. For example, there are verses which relate to his relations with his wives. Engineer referred to the permission that is given to men to marry up to four times, but the Quran does say that you have to be in a position to keep them, and if you can’t, then you shouldn’t marry more than once. If one wants to look at them in a contextual way, this was a time when everyone was going to war very often, and the number of war widows and orphans was very large. So, polygamy performed a valuable social function. But that valuable social function doesn’t apply in the same way in advanced industrial societies, and it does hold a potential for being greatly abused. So, if one puts that into the historical context, the verses supporting polygamy may have had relevance then, but do not have relevance today.
But who decides whether a verse is normative or contextual?
Well, this is the huge problem. It’s a strength and a weakness of Islam, because Islam obviously does not have a Pope. It doesn’t have a central figure who decides that this is the way that it is. Obviously, some hardliners will say that of course it’s got a central figure — God — and that God has told us what is what. But then, they’re the people who are interpreting what God is saying, and they’re making that decision by cloaking themselves with the authority of God. The reality is that there isn’t a central figure, and I think in this context one has to fall back on the notion of humility. One can’t simply state that one knows what is best for all of humanity. So there isn’t an answer to your question. There’s no point in claiming that Asghar Ali Engineer knows the answer and that his interpretation is absolutely correct. I happen to agree, obviously, with his interpretation about polygamy, and a large number of Muslims would. But when you’re talking about who has the ultimate spiritual authority to decide that, there isn’t anyone.
Is the prescriptive nature of Islam a weakness?
No, I don’t think it is a weakness at all. I think there are certain prescriptions which no longer should be applied. I’m a human rights lawyer; I’m not going to justify amputations of hands for the act of theft. And I’m not alone. The number of Muslim countries which actually carry out these penalties is minimal. That is precisely because people are contextualising this and recognising that one has to take account of economic and social factors as well as the fact that we have moved 1,400 years, and certain standards and expectations of justice have changed in that time.
How important is it to read the texts of other religions in order to enrich your own?
There are many people who would say that it isn’t important at all, because the Quran is entire in itself. My personal view is that it is very important, in fact, to read other texts, because texts don’t exist in isolation, just as human beings don’t. A text only has meaning because of what you bring to it and the society you come from. That is precisely why the interpretations of the Quran will differ from place to place. Because these interpretations differ, I think it is important to recognise that one is a product of one’s influences. There is a famous hadith where the Prophet said, “Seek knowledge even unto China.” One has to be open to experiences. We are living in a world where there are huge amounts of dangers, and there are also huge amounts of opportunities. We have to learn from each other, and if we don’t, we’re doomed. There are people in all other religions who are open to dialogue, and so are Muslims. Anybody who says that Muslims uniquely are not or should not be open to dialogue is wrong in my opinion.
Kadri is a human rights lawyer and author of Heaven on Earth, an examination of sharia law