Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The search is the Straight Path

Khalid Abou El Fadl, author of a seemingly more scholarly text than "The Great Theft" (which has no index), "Speaking in God's Name" makes the connection between the Straight Path and the search for knowledge of the Divine Will. This, he argues, is the underlying ethos of the Shari'ah:

" Islam's central organizational document, the Qur'an, does not clearly resolve the issue of authority in Islam. There is no question that the Qur'an regards itself and regards God as authoritative on most matters, but the Qur'an does clearly explicate the dynamics of the interrelation ship and appropriate balance between God, text, the collectivity, and the individual. Admittedly, this is not the way that Muslim jurists understood the Qur'anic discourses. They argued that the Qur'an does in fact delineate the proper dynamics of authority. They contended that there is no question that accountability and liability in the Hereafter is personal and individual, and that the individual is personally responsible for ascertaining and implementing God's law. Gos' law represents the abstract notion of God's Will, but the nature and purpose of this Will, as will be seen later, is subject to debate. The individual's pursuit and implementation of the Divine Will is a manifestation of a person's submission to God. God's law as an abstraction is called the Shari'ah (literally, the way), while the concrete understanding and implementation of this Willis called fiqh (literally, the understanding). The Shari'ah is God's Will in an ideal and abstract fashion, but the fiqh is the product of the human attempt to understand God's Will. In this sense, the Shari'ah is always fair, just and equitable, but the fiqh is only an attempt at reaching the ideals and purposes of Shari'ah (maqasid al-Shari'ah). According to the jurists, the purpose of Shari'ah is to achieve the welfare of the people (tahqiq masalih al-'ibad), and the purpose of fiqh is to understand and implement the Shari'ah.

The conceptual distinction between Shari'ah and fiqh was the product of a recognition of the inevitable failures of human efforts at understanding the purposes or intentions of God. Human beings, the jurists insisted, simply do not possess the ability to encompass the wisdom of God. Consequently, every understanding or implementation of God's Will is necessarily imperfect because,as the dogma went, perfection belongs only to God. Muslim jurists had a particularly humble way of acknowledging this assertion. They would often write at the conclusion of their legal discussions the phrase, "And, God knows best" (wa Allahu a'lam). Symbolically, this meant that while the jurist was submitting his or her efforts for consideration, ultimately, only God knows what is right and wrong. This invocation was much more than a rhetorical device - it was an articulation of the very epistemological foundation of Islamic law. It ultimately justified the practice of juristic diversity and the culture of juristic disputations. In fact, the Islamic juristic tradition is replete with similar statements expressing the same epistemological idea. For instance, Muslim jurists repeatedly cited the traditions attributed to the Prophet stating, "Every mujtahid (jurist who strives to find the correct answer) is correct" or "Every mujtahid will be (justly) rewarded."

Every adult Muslim, man or woman, is obligated to understand and implement the Shari'ah. Accountability is personal and individual, and no single person or institution may or can represent the Divine Will. Hence the individual is directly responsible for seeking and learning the way of God - the Shari'ah. In this context, Muslim jurists would often quote the tradition attributed to the Prophet stating that, "Seeking knowledge (talab al-ilm) is a mandatory obligation upon every Muslim." Importantly, although Muslim jurists did not explicitly contend that the "knowledge" addressed in this tradition is exclusive to religious knowledge (ilm al-din), they did argue that the effort to attain knowledge of the Divine Will is superior to any other form of learning. The mark of the search for the Divine Will is the dalil (pl. adillah). A dalil is the indicator, pointer, mark or evidence of the Divine Will. God, for the purpose of edification, and in order to test human beings, and as a sign of His mercy and compassion, demanded that human beings exert an effort in seeking the evidence of His Will (badhl al-juhd fi talab al-dalil or talab al-ilm). God, the jurists argued, placed indicators (adillah) pointing toward God's Way. God placed these indicators specifically so that human beings will engage them in an (al-sirat al-mustaqim). The purpose of the search, however, is not simply to locate the Path, but is the very act of engagement, and the very involvement with the Will of God. A large number of jurists even argued that the reason for the search is the search, and not necessarily to locate the Straight Path at all. In other words, the search is the Straight Path." (2001, pp. 32-33).

~ Excerpted from "Speaking in God's Name - Islamic Law, Authority and Women" by Dr. Khalil Abou El Fadl.

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