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Bahaisation of Islam
(Book Review)

Toward an Islamic Reformation

By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im - expired link (before 2023-02-06) people.law.emory.edu

Published by Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990 (soft-cover edition by American University in Cairo, Egypt, 1992). Translated and published in Arabic (1994), Indonesian (1995) and Russian (1999).
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0815627068/ref=sr _aps_books_1_1/026

Book review by Hassan Radwan 30/7/2003

This book presents arguments for radical reform of Shari'ah (Islamic Law) which as An-Na'im says, "is perceived by many Muslims to be part of the Islamic faith." (Preface, xiii). However he questions this perception and asserts that although the Shari'ah takes the divine text of the Qur'an and Sunna as it's main source, the Shari'ah itself is not divine and is in fact based on the interpretation and reasoning of the early jurists. He argues that the use of Ijtihad (juristic reasoning) should not only be applied to today's conditions but that it's scope should be widened to encompass direct verses of the Qur'an and Sunnah, just as the early companions had done – in particular Umar ibn Khattab.

But perhaps the most radical of his assertions is what he calls "the evolutionary approach" p35 which he attributes to the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Taha who argued that there are two ʿlevels' or ʿstages' of the divine message in the Qur'an. "one of the earlier Mecca period and the other of the subsequent Medina stage… the earlier message of Mecca is in fact the eternal and fundamental message of Islam, emphasizing the inherent dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, religious belief, race… equality between men and women and complete freedom of choice in matters of religion and faith." (p 52)

But the nature of the harsh conditions in seventh-century Arabia meant that this message could not be implemented at the time. It was revealed in order for it to be preserved for the future generations, since the Qur'an was the last revelation and Muhammad the last prophet. As for the message contained in the verses of the later Medina period, they were an essential response to the immediate needs of the new and fragile Muslim community which had to survive the violent and hostile conditions that threatened to extinguish it before it had time to grow.

This accounts for the apparent contradiction of some parts of the Qur'an and explains why the methodology of ʿabrogation' was applied extensively by the early jurists to legislate Shari'ah law using the later verses that contradicted the earlier ones. An-Na'im argues that today we must now reverse this process and use the earlier Meccan verses to abrogate the later Medinan ones, for Shari'ah purposes, in order to reformulate the Laws based on the earlier and universal message of the Qur'an and Sunnah. He argues that this will resolve the conflicts that exist between the classical model of Shari'ah and it's application in today's conditions.

One example of this conflict is between the position of classical model of Shari'ah regarding "Offensive Jihad" – namely the use of force to spread the rule of Islam - and today's situation regarding international relations with modern and peaceful non-Muslim states. He says:

"Islam was born in an extremely harsh and violent environment and received a very hostile and aggressively violent reaction from the tribes of seventh-century Arabia. The first Muslims had to fight for survival until Islam prevailed throughout Arabia by the time of the death of the Prophet. The preexisting norms of intertribal relations were heavily, if not completely, dependent on the use of force by the claimant of any right, even the right to exist."

"The use or threat of force was also the norm among the various entities or polities of the region, including the two powerful empires to the northeast and northwest of Arabia, the Sasanian and Byzantine empires. Thus, when the first Muslim State was established in seventh-century Arabia, force was the basic method of conducting what is known today as international relations. It was therefore inevitable that Islam should endorse the use of force in Muslim relations with non-Muslims. In doing so, however, Shari'a introduced new norms to control the reasons for going to war as well as its actual practice."

"Whereas warfare among the tribes of Arabia and among the political entities of the region had been motivated by such considerations as tribal honor, territorial rivalry and economic greed, Shari'a restricted the use of force in international relations to self-defense and the propagation of Islam. To Muslims, these were the only legitimate reasons for war. Moreover, Muslims were constrained by certain rules regulating the actual conduct of warfare. For example, before using force in propagating Islam they were required to offer the other side an opportunity to embrace the faith without fighting. If it was necessary to fight, hostilities had to be restricted to enemy combatant soldiers and then only in the battlefield…" (p 142 – 143)

He goes on to explain that although this response was necessary and valid at the time, it is not necessary or valid in today's environment and that the Medinan verses requiring such use of force should be abrogated by the earlier Meccan verses that rightfully apply now to the situation today:

"To argue that Shari'a was fully justified in endorsing the use of force in international relations in that historical context, and that it did in fact restrict and regulate the use of force, is not to say that such use of force is still justified. Rather, since the use of force was justified by the historical context of violent intercommunal and international relations, it must cease to be so justified in the present context, in which peaceable coexistence has become a vital necessity for the survival of humanity. Besides the growing trend toward an enlightened view of human relations and in favor of peace, modern means of nuclear warfare have made hostile international relations unthinkable." (p 143)

The obvious criticism that can be leveled at this argument is that the changing needs of man cannot be the source of the Shari'ah. Otherwise it would simply become subject to the whims and desires of man rather than the decree of the Divine. He answers this by saying:

"It must be emphasized, however, that for Muslims the historical context, as such, can neither be the source of Shari'a in the past nor its source in the future. According to Muslim belief, Islamic law in the past, present, and future must be based on the Qur'an and Sunna. I fully accept this position and only wish to suggest that the historical context is merely the framework for the interpretation and application of these basic sources of Islam. In other words, it is not suggested here that Islamic law should simply follow the developments in human history regardless of the provisions of the Qur'an and Sunna. What is suggested is that the Qur'an and Sunna have been the source of Shari'a as the Islamic response to the concrete realities of the past and must be the source of modern Shari'a as the Islamic response to the concrete realities of today." (p 143 –144)

With this in mind he goes on to compare Mecca and Medinan verses, such as;

"verse 9:5, which may be translated as follows: "But once the forbidden months [the period of grace] are over then fight and slay the unbelievers [polytheists] wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem [of war]; but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and pay zaka [Islamic alms and religious tax] then open the way for them; for God is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful. The other verse of this chapter which should be quoted in full is verse 29 because it applies to the use of force against ahl al-kitab ("People of the Book," non-Muslim believers who have received heavenly revealed scriptures), mainly Jews and Christians. This verse may be translated as follows: "Fight those People of the Book who do not believe in God or the Last Day, nor hold as forbidden what has been forbidden by God and His Apostle [the Prophet of Islam], nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth [Islam] until they pay jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued." (p 147)

He concludes that the use of force against non-Muslims, "is an exclusively Medanese phenomenon" (p 147) and that "Before migration to Medina in 622 A.D., there was no authorization in the Qur'an for the use of force against non- Muslims." (147). On the contrary the earlier Meccan verses advocated "freedom of choice in religious belief." (p 147)

He shows that in order to resolve this conflict, the classical scholars used the process of ʿabrogation' so that - for purposes of legislation in the Shari'ah - the later Medinan verses replaced the earlier verses that advocated freedom of choice in religious belief.

However he explains that this exercise of judgement on behalf of the scholars – although appropriate for the conditions of the time – is not appropriate in our present conditions and he argues that in the example of international relations - as with all other areas of conflict between the classical model of Shari'ah and the realities of today's conditions – the solution is to be found within the Qur'an and Sunna, using "the evolutionary approach" outlined earlier:

"The only way to achieve the necessary degree of reform is to substitute as bases of Islamic law those clear and definite verses of the Qur'an and related Sunna that sanction the use of force in propagating Islam among non-Muslims and upholding it among renegade Muslims with texts of the Qur'an and Sunna that enjoin the use of peaceful means in achieving those objectives… the proposed reform would replace those elements of Shari'a based on the Qur'an of Medina and related Sunna, and on the practice of that stage, with modern Islamic law based on the Qur'an of Mecca and related Sunna." (p 158)

And he argues that:

"…it would be easily appreciated by all Muslims today that the quality of faith in Islam achieved through peaceful and completely voluntary conversion is far superior to that achieved through the use or threat of use of force. Moreover, the quality of the Muslim community, which is held together by genuine legitimacy and justice, is far superior to that of a community held together by repression of dissent and unorthodoxy. This would make the earlier texts of Mecca superior in content to those of Medina. Consequently, it was the Medina model of intercomunal and international relations which was transitional and tactical and not that of Mecca." (p 159)

Likewise An-Na'im goes on to examine issues human rights, inequalities of gender and religion and in particular the issue of slavery within the classical model of Shari'ah and argues that the ʿevolutionary approach' would resolve these issues by recognizing some texts of "the Medinan stage as having served their transitional purpose and implement those texts of the Meccan stage which were previously inappropriate for practical application but are now the only way to proceed."

He concludes:

"Although many contemporary Muslims would privately object to Shari'a's suppression of freedom of belief and expression, very few are willing to express their objections publicly for fear of being branded as apostates themselves – guilt by association. Other Muslims would find it difficult to admit their objections, even to themselves, for fear of losing their faith in the process. As long as (the classical model of) the public law of Shari'a continues to be regarded as the only valid view of the law of Islam, most Muslims would find it extremely difficult to object to any of its principles and rules or to resist their practical implementation, however repugnant and inappropriate they may find them to be." (p 185)


"It is my conviction as a Muslim that (the classical model of) the public law of Shari'a does not represent the law of Islam which contemporary Muslims are supposed to implement in fulfillment of their religious obligation. I also strongly believe that the application of (the classical model of) the public law of Shari'a today will be counterproductive and detrimental to Muslims and to Islam itself. I hope that this book, with the guidance of God, will contribute in bringing all Muslims to a clear realization of these facts and in enabling them to develop and implement the appropriate public law of Islam for today." (p 187)

I highly recommend this book, even if you disagree with his conclusions, he raises some important issues that Muslims need to discuss.

[Hassan Radwan]








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