Intro to Theory of Limits

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 17, 2020


This part explains the existence of limits in Muhammad’s message.

It also shows that Islamic legislation must be based on the principles of ijtihad that govern a controlled renewal and flexible adaptation of legal rules to changing historical circumstances. It offers an alternative view to the current attempts to regard sharia law as an eternally fixed body of rigid rulings which allows neither additions nor modifications, and whose strict rules must be followed by every Muslim to the letter. Our alternative reading of Muhammad’s message allows us to reinterpret the rules of sharia law as constantly evolving and, at the same time, to accept the Sunna of the Prophet as a model in applying Allah’s laws flexibly to the ever Changing circumstances in a variety of different cultures and economic systems. We will start by explaining what we mean by ‘change of Islamic legislation’ and why we still adhere to the belief in the eternal validity’ of Muhammad’s message. We will then introduce the concepts of ‘straightness’ and ‘curvature’ as they apply to sharia law and specify the upper and lower limits of Islamic legislation. A detailed application of our theory of limits to the area of Islamic inheritance and family law will follow in the next video series.

The Need of Change in Islamic Legislation

Let us start by revisiting the distinction between Islam and Eman: to believe in Allah’s existence and the Last Day are the quintessential elements of Islam, culminating in the creed that ‘there is no god but God’. Being the root and stem of its three main sub-branches— ethics, law, and rituals— Islam also contains the area of sharia law which is, as we defined previously, the area of Eman, of Muhammad’s messengerhood (since Islam is the eneric type of the particular Eman). Followers of Eman believe that ‘Muhammad is God’s Messenger’ and are, thus, Muslim-Believers (mu”minun).

As law and legislation are sub rooted in Islam and as Islam is eternally valid, Muhammad’s message is also eternally valid. The question is, of course, how does this square with our notion of an ever-changing legislation and its flexible adaptation to human development?

We need to recall the historical truth that the more knowledge and expertise human societies accumulate and advance technologically, the more intense will they feel the impact of social, cultural, and economic change. And the more human societies change the more flexible and adaptable must be the law to accommodate its rules to the changing parameters of people’s daily life. Think of the time when car manufacturers improved their assembly lines so that cars could be mass produced—this not only changed the way people travelled, commuted, and went about their daily routines, it also required new legislation that regulated entirely new areas concerned with traffic control, the issuing of driving licenses, and prosecution of driving offences. Or think of the legal consequences when it became possible for several nations in the world to produce nuclear weapons in the 1960s and 1970s; international law had to be adapted to this new technological advance, and the United Nations had to

adjust their legislation accordingly. Or, when mobile phones became affordable consumer goods for all in the 1990s, new legislation had to regulate whether it was legal to use mobile phones at work, during public events, or at the steering wheel while driving a car. These few examples are enough to show the link between technological progress and the need to follow suit with new legislation. They also provide an illustration of the dynamics between prophethood and messengerhood during the time of the prophetical epoch, that is, before the death of Prophet Muhammad. We know that there were more prophets than messengers in the history of humankind. The many, different prophethoods represented the constant accumulation of knowledge over long periods of time.

What was then required was a messenger, ending the historical chain of prophets, who would bring new developments in line with official legislation by introducing new codes of behavior. However, today we have been told not to wait until a new messenger arrives and issues a new message, because—and this is final—Muhammad was the last messenger. How can we, citizens of the twenty-first century, an era of fast developments and epistemological-technological progress, deal with a message that was revealed to people in the seventh century?

The answer lies in the fact that the Book did not stipulate the sharia in the form of a codified law that is eternally unchangeable. Instead, Allah set the limits for the law whose upper and lower boundaries encompass the scope of legislation that human societies are allowed to explore freely. For the first time in the history of humankind, the messenger, Muhammad, did not introduce fixed regulations that accurately reflected the achieved accumulation of knowledge and technological progress of his time. Instead, he conveyed, in terms of its civilizational qualities, a highly advanced form of legislation that stood in sharp contrast to the existing abysmal economic situation and primitive tribalism of Arabian society. It was clear from the beginning that some verses of the new legislation were impossible to implement there and then because of the primitive backwardness of Arabian tribes. We hear that: The desert Arabs are the most stubborn of all peoples in their disbelief and hypocrisy. They are the least likely to recognize the limits [hudud] that God has sent down to His Messenger. God is all knowing and all wise. (Tawba:97) …

This acknowledgement by Allah of the Arab’s incapability to fully recognize the impact of the new law implies that the needed recognition could be achievable in more advanced societies. This is why the possibility of advanced recognition has been built into the text of the Book, because accumulation of knowledge never ends, technological development never stops, and legislation will never remain the same. We are today in a much better position to understand the legislative verses of the divine message because of the advances that human and natural sciences have achieved. And we can confidently say that we have surpassed the Prophet’s companions in doing so, with the exception, of course, of the area of rituals. This is the only part of Muhammad message that the companions knew best because they saw how Muhammad performed them. It is the only area of law where innovations are illegitimate.

The Messenger said, ‘whoever brings up new things in this matter of ours, is to be rejected’ and ‘every innovation is deviation and every deviation is in the Hell fire’; and the Book says: ‘The Messenger has said: “Lord, my people treat this Quran as something to be shunned” (Furqan:30).

In order to understand the legal message of the Book and the dynamics between its eternal validity and historical temporality, it is necessary to introduce two contradictory yet complementary concepts that form the basis of our theory of limits. These are ‘straightness’ (istiqama) and ‘curvature’ (hanifiyya): they represent the internal dialectics of human life between the constant acquisition of new knowledge, leading to social and economic changes, on the one hand, and on the other, the introduction of new legislation as a proactive response to these changes and developments. We believe that the two concepts of ‘straightness’ and ‘curvature’ allow the full recognition of such dialectical dynamics without which no true contemporary understanding of Islamic law can ever be achieved.