What is missing in Brunei’s Shari’ah adoption story

“Our school is correct, but it may be wrong; the school of those who disagree with us is wrong, but it may be right.” – Islamic Juristic aphorism (quoted in The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson. P.207).

The quote above captures the general attitude among Islamic legal scholars, when it comes to legal issues. While the Qur’an is considered the word of God and its epistemological truth certain, the way it is interpreted is varied and even among scholars, there is consensus that this diversity of opinion is valid, as long as it doesn’t go against the intentions of the Shari’ah (maqasid e Shariah) which are: to establish justice, order and flourishing of society. While there are some nation-states such as Saudi Arabia that deploy only one (narrow) interpretation of Shari’ah, in much of the world, this plurality of interpretation is understood, acknowledged and respected as the norm. The Saudi method of Shari’ah interpretation and implementation, that is often very strict, owing to a rather literalist interpretation, rooted in Wahhabi Islam may be the exception, rather than the norm. I argue here that what is missing in the media portrayal of Brunei’s adoption of Shari’ah is simply this: There is not just ONE way to interpret and apply Shar’iah laws (translates as ‘the way’) but multiple. And it is not necessarily all about amputation and stoning to death. As much as CNN would like to portray it as such, there is much more nuance and complexity to this debate, than is presented to lay audience. The noise needs to give way to genuine discussion and understanding of Islamic legal norms that are often not understood, even by well-meaning activists and ‘educated’ liberals.index

Every few weeks, there is a news headline about the ‘dangers of implementing Shari’ah’ or ‘creeping shariah’ in the U.S. While much of the rhetoric about the ‘dangers’ are crafted by those who have little or absolute no knowledge of Islam or Islamic jurisprudence, what is even more shocking is the amount of ink-space that these news items that this gathers, thanks to ill-informed and extremist loud-mouths. The leader of Boko Haram and the Brunei issue are but two instances, in the past week. While the former is a criminal, who is using any excuse to bolster his claims, the latter seems to be a political move, though I do not have a total understanding of why the country is moving in the direction that it is. While I am not attempting to defend the move of Brunei’s leader -that is an altogether different discussion- I am simply arguing for greater nuance to be applied to the discourse of Islamic law. While this issue demands that several books be written about it, and of course, there are many that exist, the key fact is that within the mainstream Islamic schools of jurisprudence – four in Sunni Islam: Shafii, Hanafi, Maliki and Hambali and about three main schools in Shii Islam, there is vast plurality of interpretation about all aspects of how the divine law enshrined in the Qur’an is to be interpreted.

 One Qur’an, multiple interpretations

While Shari’ah is understood as the ‘divine law’ that is meant to guide human conduct ( for Muslims), among scholars and legal experts, there is a general consensus that there are multiple interpretations of the same verse of the Qur’an. Ingrid Mattson, one of the foremost Islamic Scholars in North America points out in her book that the ways in which Islamic law is derived from Qur’an and Sunnah (life of prophet) are complex and varied. Entire bodies of knowledge and disciplines exist, that engage scholars in lifelong learning and scholarship. Fiqh is the study of interpretation of the Qur’an and formulation of laws in accordance with it. This is a complex and ever-evolving field that has continued to evolve in the Muslim world, trying to keep up with the challenges of modernity. As Ingrid Mattson says in her book : “The barriers to sound comprehension of the Qur’an are many, but generally fall into two categories: intellectual and spiritual….if one wants to understand the normative implications of these verses, much more work needs to be done. To derive norms from the Qur’an – moral injunctions, legal rulings and ethical imperatives – it is necessary to consider the way different parts of the Qur’an relate to one another.”( p.185). She further points out that Qur’an exegesis, known as ta’wil or tafsir (explain) is a vast field of Islamic studies. “From the time of the Companions until today, Muslims have tried to understand the meaning and implications of the Qur’an and have taught, lectured and written on the subject. Exegesis comprises of many sub-genres including Qur’anic vocabulary, rhetoric, grammar, occasions of revelation, and stories of the prophets, legal content and scientific indications and hidden meanings.” ( P.186 )

Universal Human Rights and Shari’ah – can the twain meet?

Abdullahi An’naim, of Emory Law School and one of the foremost scholars of Islamic law in the world has written extensively about Islamic law and its intersection with international human rights laws. The gist of his arguments is that any serious engagement with human rights laws should take into consideration the religious norms that are in place in any society. To ignore or to dismiss them is to not be sensitive to the organizing frameworks prevalent in that society. Especially in the former colonies of Africa and Asia, where the wounds of colonialism are still too fresh, these sensitivities should inform this debate. Also, one must keep in mind that the notion of separation of state and religion is a post-enlightenment ideal that has been realized only in Europe, and partly in the U.S., with great difficulty and centuries of struggle. There are instances where religion has actively helped promote civil society and greater social cohesion. This fact must also not be dismissed, in our rush to remove all facets of religion from the public sphere.

Here is an interesting discussion between An’naim and Talal Asad, a world-renowned scholar, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate School and who has focused on developing an ‘Anthropology of the Secular.’ Asad says that “One has to be careful in investing too many of our hopes on the rights discourse, as it is addressed to and linked necessarily to a regime of law, which is invested in the state. The modern states and its allies such as international corporations, are not to be trusted and use human rights for their own purposes.” For this reason, Asad says he is suspicious of the rights discourse. With a rhetoric of universality, it is vested in the state’s agenda – and serves either national or economic interests. This claim to universality is linked to a reality of particularity and one should be more aware of, he argues. Also, the question of power relations in the international arena is key, he says. “Who would dare bring the U.S. for its violation of rights?. It is the way that rights are invested in power-politics, on a regular basis, he adds. “Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, the situation of modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.

Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity, since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”

Asad further says that everybody in the world, educated or uneducated has a sense of right and wrong and legal capacity, and inalienable human rights. It is possible for religious principles to come to politics. Using the example of the lobby system, Asad argues that it is difficult to separate out legislature from these special interests. “The state has to define what is religion, in order to protect it. The state has to define what is to be protected, so to that part, it cannot be separated out. Historically, this has shifted in the way things have shifted what is essentially religious,” Asad contends.

Intolerance from the state disturbs both scholars. “The idea of separating political authority with spirituality raises certain questions and requires further elaboration. The possibility of re-thinking Shari’ah is important and I am in agreement with An’naim and this is happening in various parts of the Middle East.” Pointing to the example of abolition of slavery in the Muslim world, Asad says that Shari’ah has been re-thought. There are principles of Shari’ah that may contradict equality, but there is a lot that is consistent with the principles of human rights, Asad points out. This is similar to what Ingrid Mattson has argued in her book The Story of the Qur’an that our search for the true meaning of the Qur’an and its application to our lives cannot be too narrow and rooted only in one school of thought or tradition. “Only a truly open-minded, critical engagement with the diverse schools of thought and approaches to the Qur’an will be sufficient to claim the exercise of due diligence.” (p.231). She warns of the dangers of parochialism in outlook and life, as being barriers to our true understanding of life and the meaning of what the Qur’an is telling us.

 Which Shariah and for whom?

The point that is crucial for us to understand is that Shari’ah can take many different forms in every society. In fact scholars of Islamic law argue that even geography impacts how laws are interpreted and that some laws in a country cannot be applied exactly as in another context.  Further, the question of minorities, those who do not believe in Islam is also complicated. While blasphemy laws in Pakistan for instance can be misused ( and have been, for a while) to target political dissidents and minorities, again, these are egregious instances of misuse of Shar’iah, rather than the norm. Even among Western scholars, there is  differing opinion on how these issues ought to be handled and how much the nation-states should be pushed to ‘reform.’

Abdullahi Ani’naim is more vocal about the incompatibility of Shari’ah and modern legal systems. He has called for a ‘Secular’ state in all Muslim countries and has hence run into greater intellectual challenges, while Asad does not see a conflict between Religious norms and political values. One could say that An’naim is more influenced by the enlightenment understanding and liberal notions of ‘freedom’. As he says: “Who is the human in human rights,” is an important starting point. The self-determining self is at the core of the definition of humanity, argues An’naim. For An’naim, it is a people centered idea, and there should be no need for us to depend on the state to defend human rights. The self-determination of the human is key. “It is humans who make the state do what they want. It is the people who run the state and are subjects who make it or fail to do what it does.” This means that practically, we can change our legal, political systems, with activism and effort.

On the other hand, Asad seems more optimistic that there need not be this negation of religious values. In the aforementioned discussion, Asad says “ One has to pay attention to what is going on in the Muslim world, where people are struggling for greater openings, spaces and should not be labelled ‘Islamists’ and those committed to political order. It is unfair that all of us learn from experience, but Islamists don’t.” So, this projection of negativity that often happens in media discourse as well as (some) scholars who write about political Islam being necessarily a backward project is harmful and not conducive to looking at the transformative possibilities that exist, even if it comes from quarters that we don’t like to deal with or engage. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political activism is a case in point.

Finally, it may make sense to end with a topic I started this discussion, i.e., Brunei. The official stance of the government is mentioned on their website, which states: The implementation of Islamic laws is not unprecedented in the country. It was ever carried out during the Islamic glory days a few centuries ago, but was halted with the presence of foreign powers which reduced the strength and effectiveness of Islamic legislation. It is thereby hoped that the implementation of this order would be able to restore the status of Islamic legislation in the country, such that it befits Brunei Darussalam’s stature as a nation that practices the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept, a historic Nation of Zikir shaped by the more-than five centuries of Malay Islamic Monarchy.” So, while each country has its sovereign right to implement the laws that fit its social conditions and needs, and as long as it abides by (most), if not all, Universal Principles of Human Rights – then it should be ok. The particularities of the laws should be discussed, debated and negotiated, rather than making blanket statements about ‘barbaric’ Shari’ah and the like, which are not only ignorant, but also deeply offensive to people who hold their religion and way of life very dear. And more importantly, the gaps, inconsistencies in every legal system should be kept in mind too, before one criticizes Shari’ah that is as complex as any other legal system, perhaps more so, given the global reach of Islam and the way laws are interpreted around the world. A final word of caution: We need more thinking, scholarly understanding and reasoned arguments, not noise, that distracts us from the real issues at hand.


Further resources:

Islamic reform – Conference at Oxford University. Talk by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadhan. Accessible at – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY17d4ZhY8M

Islam, Human Rights and the Secular- discussion with Talal Asad and Abdullahi An’naim – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiTaE863jBI

The Future of Shari’ah is the Secular State – http://en.qantara.de/content/abdullahi-ahmed-an-naim-the-future-of-sharia-is-the-secular-state

Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003)



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