This is the fifth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.
You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.
QUESTION #5 – WHAT IS SHARIA?
WITHIN 150 YEARS OF the advent of Islam, Muslims had expanded an empire from the Atlantic Ocean to India. Significant changes had transpired in their leadership and governance, as Muslims had also fought multiple civil wars and the seat of the caliphate had moved to Syria. It was at this time that Muslims began to record in writing the life and sayings of Muhammad.
Why had they waited so many years before doing so? The answer is not entirely clear, but it may have to do with the novelty of writing long works in Arabic at that time. The Qur’an was the first Arabic book ever put into writing, and the Arabic script of the seventh century remained too deficient to capture the richness and complexities of its text. Muslims’ desire to write the Qur’an drove the development of the Arabic script. This is the charitable answer to the question of why Muhammad’s life and sayings were recorded so long after his death; a growing opinion in scholarship is that the traditions were being fabricated, but Qureshi leaves that discussion alone.
Whatever the reason, Muslim biographers began to write about Muhammad’s life around 797 AD, the warrior ascetic Abdallah bin al-Mubarak had compiled his text, The Book of Jihad, specifically documenting the development of Islamic warfare between Muhammad’s day and his own. It was a precursor to similar books that would be found in the canonical hadith collections.
THE HADITH COLLECTIONS
By the middle of the ninth century, there were more than 500,000 traditions of Muhammad’s life in written and oral circulation, and Muslim scholars decided to undertake the effort of sifting through them and distilling the most authentic accounts. Since the teachings of Muhammad are essential to Islam, it was necessary to distinguish accurate teachings from pretenders. Among Sunni Muslims, who today make up approximately 80 percent of all Muslims in the world, six collections of hadith are considered more reliable than any others: Those of Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Daud, Ibn Majah, al-Nasai, and al-Tirmidhi. These are not the only collections used by Muslim scholars, but these collections are considered the most reliable, especially the collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim. The titles of these two collections reflect this, as they are called the “Sahih” – “authentic” collections.
Each of these collections contains at least one book on jihad, collecting Muhammad’s purported statements about strife and warfare. These teachings are not presented systematically, however, but as collections of individual sayings or accounts of Muhammad’s deeds. The systematization of these teachings ultimately came with the great Muslim jurists, and the formalization of Sharia was the result.
WHAT IS SHARIA?
As Qureshi explained in Week #4, it is necessary to know the context of the Qur’an in order to understand its teachings. Islamic jurisprudence is the effort to understand all the teachings of Muhammad systematically, so that Muslims can know how to live. The end product, or the point of discovery, is Sharia. The word sharia literally means “path” or “path to water.” This imagery is strong, especially for a desert people. Following Sharia is what preserves the life of the believer as water preserves the life of the thirsty.
Not just anyone can engage in Islamic jurisprudence, called ijtihad. Since there are thousands of verses in the Qur’an and hundreds of thousands of hadith, it is expected that only trained Muslim jurists can engage in determining what Sharia teaches. The jurist must give primacy to the Qur’an, then consider the actions (sunnah) and sayings (hadith) of Muhammad, followed by reviewing the consensus of Islamic scholars, or ijma, before using his own reasoning (qiyas). By following these four steps, a Muslim jurist can make a decision, or fatwa, about what Sharia teaches on a given matter. The ultimate goal is to apply the teachings of Sharia to Muslim life, and that is called fiqh. This process may seem straightforward, but there are many complicating factors that give rise to significant disagreements among Muslims. One such important factor is abrogation.
According to Islamic tradition, as the Qur’an was being revealed during Muhammad’s life, certain teachings and passages cancelled previous revelations. For example, most classical Muslim jurists were convinced that the verse of the sword (Surah 9:5) cancelled peaceful passages of the Qur’an such as chapter 109. This process of cancelling teachings is called abrogation, and classical Muslim scholars believed there were multiple kinds of abrogation, wherein either the text or the application of a Qur’anic verse has been cancelled.
Perhaps the most problematic category of abrogation comprises those Qur’anic commands that still apply to Muslims even though the text itself has been abrogated. In other words, the Qur’an is believed to contain teachings that are not found in its pages any longer. To find these teachings, one must know the appropriate hadith traditions. A famous example that hadith traditions record is the verse of rajm, stoning. Although the Qur’an appears to teach that lashing is the appropriate punishment for adultery (24:2), hadith indicate that a text of the Qur’an has been abrogated, but that the punishment of stoning still applies (Sahih al-Bkhari 8.82.816).
This feature of abrogation in the Qur’an, called al-masikh wal mansukh in Arabic, is the great complicating factor in Sharia. How is one to know whether a command has been abrogated? Is there agreement on when a command is to be followed even though its text has been abrogated?
SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT AND THE AVERAGE MUSLIM
Historically, not all jurists agreed with one another on matters of Sharia, and they began to pronounce differing fatwas. Throughout the expanse of the Islamic empire, pockets of Muslims followed various schools of thought: Shafi, Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi, or Shii. The last school was so different from the rest that it is now considered its own branch of Islam, the Shia branch, which leaves the other four as the major schools of Sunni thought. The scholars in each school developed complex legal decisions and precedents, all building upon one another over the centuries. Until the twentieth century, Muslims often found themselves in one or another school of thought and had to take their civil or criminal matters to their respective courts for judgment. For example, the decision of whether a woman would be allowed to divorce her husband had to be made by a jurist in her school, and the different schools had different rules.
As is probably clear by now, at no point was the average Muslim expected to read the Qur’an to decide upon correct Islamic practices by himself or herself. Not only is Islam not a faith that upholds the sufficiency of scripture alone, the complexity of its foundations virtually necessitates a reliance on jurists and scholars for proper practice.
SHARIA AND THE APPLICATION OF SURAH 9
Sharia is not a book, and its laws are unclear until we reach the level of individual schools of thought. Even then, specific decisions need to be regularly explicated by Muslim jurists to this day. Traditionally, therefore, Muslims have received their religion from their leaders and scholars. To assume that Muslims must live a certain way because the Qur’an or hadith command it misses a crucial step in the Islamic worldview, the distillation of Sharia through Muslim authorities. If jurists and imams say that Surah 9 does not apply with their Jewish, Christian, and polytheist neighbors, then it is entirely appropriate for a Muslim to follow his imam and live peacefully. Whether the imam is making the decision honestly or consistently is another matter.
Even though Surah 9 of the Qur’an is very clear in what it teaches, and even though it is the final marching orders that Muhammad left for his people, and even though it strongly accords with the hadith on jihad, Muslim leaders in various schools of thought do not teach their followers to act upon its teachings today. Because of the expansive number of Islam’s foundational teachings, and because of complication factors such as abrogation, Muslims do not determine fiqh for themselves but receive it from their imams. So they ought not be faulted for believing Islam is a religion of peace, especially if they have never confronted the violent verses of the Qur’an and the hadith. Yet the legitimacy of their personal, peaceful practice does not mean Islam itself is a religion of peace. We must remember that we are not defining Islam as the practice of Muslims, but rather as the teachings of Muhammad. There is a tension between the reality of violent jihad pervading Qur’anic sources and the peacefulness of many lay Muslims on account of Sharia, which Qureshi will return to at a later date.
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #6 – Was Islam Spread by the Sword? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.