by H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid
Published by Oxford University Press (Silenced)
and Yale University Press (Abraham’s Children)
In its original Qur’anic sense, the word shari‘a refers to “the way,” the path to God, and not to formally codified Islamic law, which only emerged in the centuries following Muhammad’s death…. The historical development and use of the term shari‘a to refer to Islamic law often leads those unfamiliar with this history to conflate man-made law with its revelatory inspiration, and to thereby elevate the products of human understanding – which are necessarily conditioned by space and time – to the status of Divine.
Shari‘a properly understood, expresses and embodies perennial values. Islamic law, on the other hand, is the product of ijtihad (interpretation) which depends on circumstances (al-hukm yadur ma‘a al-‘illah wujudan wa ‘adaman) and needs to be continuously reviewed in accordance with ever-changing circumstances, to prevent Islamic law from becoming out of date, rigid and non-correlative – not only with Muslims’ contemporary lives and conditions, but also with the underlying perennial values of shari‘a itself.
Throughout Islamic history, many of the greatest fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) scholars have also been deeply grounded in the traditions of tassawuf, or Islamic mysticism, and recognized the need to balance the letter with the spirit of the law. The profoundly humanistic and spiritual nature of Sufi Islam facilitated the accommodation of different social and cultural practices as Islam spread from its birthplace in the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant, North Africa, the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Persia, Central and South Asia, and the East Indies archipelago. By many estimates, a majority of the Muslim population in most of these regions still practice a form of religious piety either directly or indirectly derived from Sufism. And the greatness of traditional Islamic art and architecture – from the wonders of Fes and Grenada, to Istanbul, Isfahan, Samarkand and Agra – bears testimony to the long line of Sufi masters, guilds and individual artists who strove to ennoble matter, so as to transform our man-made environment into “the veritable counterpart of nature, a mosaic of ‘Divine portents’ revealing everywhere the handiwork of man as God’s vice-regent.”
Indeed, the greatness of classical Islamic civilization – which incorporated a humane and cosmopolitan universalism – stemmed largely from the intellectual and spiritual maturity that grew from the amalgamation of Arab, Greek, Jewish, Christian and Persian influences. That is why I wept upon seeing Ibn Rushd’s commentary on the Nicomachian Ethics lovingly preserved and displayed, during a visit some years ago to Fes, Morocco. For if not for Aristotle and his great treatise, I might have become a Muslim fundamentalist myself.
Among the various factors which have contributed to the long decline of Arab and Muslim civilizations in general, and greatly hindered their participation in the development of the modern world, was the triumph of normative religious constraints, which ultimately defeated the classical tradition of Islamic humanism. Absorption of “alien” influences – particularly in the realm of speculative thought, and the creation of individual, rational and independent sciences not constrained by religious scholasticism – was defeated by internal control mechanisms exercised by religious and governmental authorities, thus paralyzing Muslim societies.