Sharia Compliant

A User's Guide to Hacking Islamic Law

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Rumee Ahmed
Encountering Traditions
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , May
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $22.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781503605701.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It has been mentioned in one of the verses of the Holy Qur’an: “And whenever Our manifest revelations are rehearsed unto them, those who hope not for the meeting with Us, say: bring us a Quran other than this, or change it. Say thou: it lieth not with me to change it of my own accord; I only follow that which is Revealed unto me; verily I fear, if I disobey my Lord, the torment of the Mighty Day.” (Q. 10: 15). Another verse in the Qur’an translates as: “And were the truth to follow their desires there would have been corrupted the heavens and the earth and whatsoever is therein. Aye! We have come to them with their admonition; so it is from their admonition that they turn away.” (Q. 23: 71). Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said: None of you [truly] believes until his desires are subservient to that which I have brought.” (Nawawi, Arba‘in).

These Qur’anic verses and Prophetic tradition indicate that human beings in general, and the Muslims in particular, are required to follow the truth revealed in the Qur’an, and explained and lived by the Prophet, so much so that even their inner desires and intentions are subservient to the same and not vice-versa. There is no parameter in the Islamic tradition for twisting the truth to accord it with one’s wishes and whims, rather one is required to mould his desires and interests according to the truth. While one is at liberty to accept or reject the truth of Islam, the Islamic tradition does not afford its followers the liberty of subverting the truth to their own ideals; it sets the ideals for them and asks them to pursue the same. Rumee Ahmed’s Sharia Compliant can be critically reviewed in the light of these premises. A brief summary of the contents of this book is given below followed by some critical remarks and questions.

Sharia Compliant is divided into seven chapters excluding “A Letter to My Muslim Readers” and an “Afterword.” In his “A Letter to My Muslim Readers,” Ahmed introduces his most important keyword —hacking— and highlights the role of the collective wisdom of the Muslim community in hacking the Islamic law, thereby making a passionate call to his fellow community members to undertake this (ig)noble endeavor for, according to him, “each one of us has as much right to Islamic law as anyone else” (xv). In the first chapter, while discussing what the sharia is, Ahmed projects false contradictions given that different scholars define or interpret sharia in different words (2, 3). In itself, a difference in words, or the highlighting of differing aspects of a specific text while introducing it does not necessarily indicate a contradiction. If ibn Taymiyya defined sharia as Muhammad’s (pbuh) practice and ibn Qayyim interpreted the same in terms of “justice, mercy, benefit and wisdom,” there is no contradiction between the two. Does this mean that Muhammad’s (pbuh) practice was against or devoid of such lofty ideals? Rather, in defense of his hacking the Islamic law, Ahmed fabricates unwarranted contradictions and excludes mutually inclusive concepts from one another. In the second chapter, Ahmed declares the different visions of sharia that are embraced by different people in different contexts as the rationale for the hacking of Islamic sharia. The remaining five chapters of the book are then devoted to discussion  of the who, how, when, and where of the hacking and patching of Islamic law in accordance with Ahmed’s proposed argument.    

At the outset, it must be made clear that there is no denying that Islamic Law is amenable to change with the ever-changing spatio-temporal conditions of the human society, but it is not meant to be “hacked” to suit the collective wisdom of the Muslim community. Ahmed calls for a wholesale hacking of the Islamic law in an effort to right the prevailing wrongs of the Muslim community, and he invites the whole of the Muslim community to also challenge the monopoly of these religious elites. Ironically, he then draws upon the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “my community will not agree upon error” (x). It is wrong of Ahmed to exploit the words of the Prophet of Islam to advocate a reform of Islamic law, as per the aspirations of the Muslim community. Is Islam meant to serve as the guidance for the members of Muslim community? or is it the other way around? Secondly, does Muslim community include only the Muslims living in the 21st century? or should it encompass all members of the community through the ages? If a poll indicates that most Muslims living today do not offer the daily obligatory prayers or do not consider them necessary, should Islamic law be hacked to change the status of these prayers in the Islamic Sharia? Why has Ahmad stooped to the degree that he seeks to hack the Islamic Sharia in order to bring consensual, non-marital sex out of the ambit of zina; arguing that zina should be understood only as “rape,” irrespective of whether it is marital or extramarital? To substantiate his position, Ahmed assumes that in the hacking of Islamic law the pre-colonial Muslim jurists may have used the word zina to refer only to nonconsensual sex or rape (221). It is questionable as to why Ahmad feels this hacking is necessary at all, finding justifications for his dubious conclusions if he is confident that the aspirations of the Muslim community—and its collective wisdom—represent the sharia. In the Muslim community (to which I belong), even those members who may have participated in “sinful,” consensual sex hundreds of times do not, in the remote recesses of their minds and hearts, consider this act as “normal,” let alone think of hacking the sharia to justify it. Moreover, for the sake of argument, if Ahmed’s proposed hacking of sharia law are valid, they cannot, therefore, be vetoed by Ahmed—or his assumed Muslim community; future Muslim communities should have an equal claim on it. Ahmed, as a radical egalitarian, cannot deny this. In such cases, future Muslim communities—whose collective aspirations may be altogether different from our own—will need to hack Ahmed’s version of sharia even more drastically. How then can Ahmed arrive at “the truest expressions of Islamic law” (xv)? 

In short, I can say that Ahmed’s Sharia Compliant is a confusing work, full of inconsistencies and self-contradictions. If Ahmed were to call for a community poll about his work, he would surely come to know that the aspirations of Muslim community reflect a hacking of his book, rather than Islamic law. Interestingly, this sharia hacker is not, himself, good at such hacking as his subversive and perverse assertions are overly obvious and will not go unnoticed, even to the lay reader. Keeping in mind his discourse on zina, Ahmed’s work can be regarded as an attempt at shaming Islamic law into compliance, rather than shaming the Muslim community into compliance.   

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gowhar Quadir Wani is Senior Research Fellow in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University in Utter Pradesh, India.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rumee Ahmed is Associate Professor of Islamic Law and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of British Columbia.

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