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8 June 2017 No Comment


Imam Dr. Zijad Delic

There are two broad approaches among Muslims in relation to how scholars interpret the ethico-legal content of the Islamic text in our modern period: Textualists (literalists) and Contextualists (modernists or post-modernists).
Classical and modern textualists rely in interpreting the texts and the traditions on the linguistic criteria to determine the meaning of the text. They are dominated by the linguistic tools and criteria developed by the scholars of classical fiqh (jurisprudence).
They consider the early generation as the most authoritative and thus the early scholars and imams have spelt out the limits to the interpretation. These rules spell out in the classical books must be followed in our modern times regardless of changed circumstances. Any attempt to deviate from the already established rules is considered tantamount to subversion of Islam.
They ignore the socio-historical context of the text, the reasons for revelation, as well as the purposes of it in their interpretations.
Textualists rely on three principles in their understanding, interpretation and application of the texts. First, the text provided a fixed and objective foundation to understand the Qur’an or Islamic law. Second, many texts in the Qur’an and Sunnah indicate that the religion of Islam is completed. And three, since individual and social conduct were contained in the texts, there was no need to seek further elaboration, clarification or justification regarding the texts, based purely on reason.
Islamic legal thought at the early stages of Islamic thought was led by the textualists who were preoccupied with concerns over conformity to the letter of the divine text. Their theory of usul (methodology) has advanced against maqasid (purpose of Shari’a) and ijtihad (independent reasoning) to the large extent. This textualist tradition extended its mission of seeing Sahari’a (Islamic law) as a set of rules, commands and prohibitions for three centuries that followed the early days of Islam thus ignoring the place of maqasid until the tenth century.
Textualists hold that Shari’a is immutable and thus must remain unchanged. Rather, Muslims must change according to Shari’ah. This approach and line of thinking has some flaws that need to be mentioned here.
First, what do we mean by the term Shariah? Do we mean Qur’an and Sunnah or Islamic law based on these two sources?
Second, if by Shari’ah we mean the laws and rulings mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, then it is noted that significant changes throughout Muslim intellectual and legal history have undeniably occurred.
Third, Muslim scholars in all times throughout Muslim history have debated changes and in some areas changes were negotiable and in some others changes were unacceptable. For Shatibi (d. 1388), laws related to the social spheres are formulated in the public interest and thus mutable. Some have gone even further in these debates and advocated changes to existing laws of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Tufi (d.1316) argued that the Hadith “No harm shall be inflicted or reciprocated” supports the absolute priority of public interests. For him, “the laws, even those drown from the Qur’an and Sunnah, could be changed if the changes serve the public interests.” However, his ideas remained ignored.
Contextualists approach is a more flexible approach to interpretation of Qur’anic texts that are considered ethico-legal in nature such as those, for example, related to the family matters and women’s equality in Islam, Muslims relation with non-Muslims, interfaith relations, etc.
Contextualists take into consideration socio-historical context of the Qur’an at the time of revelation in the seventh century, (Hijazi context) the purposes of the revelation as well as the contemporary needs of Muslims today. They emphasise the socio-historical context of the ethico-legal content of the Qur’an and its subsequent interpretation.
They also argue for understanding of political, social, historical, cultural and economic contexts in which the content of the texts was revealed, interpreted and applied.
They believe in the degree of flexibility provided to Muslims even in the reading of the Qur’an (the case of the Caliph Omar on the booty mentioned below) and by analogy in the interpretation of the word of God.
The main point made by contextualists of the twenty first century is the degree of flexibility in the revelation that was entertained by the Prophet to meet the needs of Muslims of his time. The first generation of Muslims who lived with the Prophet enjoyed the flexibility of the rules of Islam, and today the same flexibility in interpretation of the texts should be available for the needs of today’s Muslims.
Thus, contextualis argue for a high degree of freedom for modern Muslims scholars in determining what is mutable and what is immutable in Islamic law in the areas of ethico-legal content of the texts. Contextualists are found among those that Fazlur Rahman call neo-modernists as well as ijtihadis.
The arguments of textualists that Muslims of the twenty first century have no autonomy to change or even interpret Shari’ah appears weak since the changes and interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah occurred during the time of the Companions. This autonomy in interpretation was practiced by many Muslim scholars and jurists in the earlier centuries.
For the sake of clarification and argument, let me mention the example of the Caliph Omar who changed a number of rulings noticeably and explicitly stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah. One example would suffice here. The Caliph Omar refused to distribute the land of Iraq as booty to the Muslim army after the conquest even though there is an instruction in the Qur’an (8:41) that appears to command Muslims to distribute such booty. As it appears, the Caliph Omar believed that when circumstances change and the public interest demands change, he could choose a different way from one mentioned in the formative text.
Modern scholars of Islam could extrapolate from this example the following: if a practice or ruling fulfilled a specific social function, reinterpretation was possible if the context of ruling changed.
The socio-historical context of the text shows us in which circumstances the text was revealed as well as how the first generation of Muslims received it. Knowing this will assist Muslims in determining which area of the ethico-legal content remains relevant to us today and which parts may have been somehow less relevant.
Institutions, ideas and practices that may have been significant in the context of the seventh century Hijazi Muslim community may or may not enjoy the same significance today, for example here in Canada. Even though this socio-historical context is an important aspect of Islamic law and understandably of Islam, it has received little attention in contemporary discourse on Islam until recently.

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