When Tariq Ramadan wrote “The Call”, calling for a temporary suspension (moratorium) of certain injunctions in the Islamic penal code, he was met with a hysterical reaction by both Muslim scholars in the West and in Muslim majority societies. For Ramadan, the Call was a response to, “Islam…being used to degrade and subjugate women and men in certain Muslim majority societies in the midst of collusive silence and chaotic judicial opinions on the ground”. In contemporary times the idea of what the Sharia constitutes and how it is to be implemented (if implemented at all – some scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl and Abdullahi An Naim propose that the Sharia cannot be codified and refers to a much wider ethical experience rather than just a framework of legal norms) produces a heated exchange.
In the UK, within my own generation there is a discussion going on in university campuses and mosques about what is the very idea of Sharia. There are some who try and relate the ethical substance of the Sharia to the practice of being a good citizen in a democratic state - in other words the Sharia is a basic ethical appeal to resolve universal human concerns. Ideas about education, healthcare, human rights and justice are all part of the ethical imperative of the Sharia. In other words, the Sharia is re-imagined as a moral vision for a just society going beyond dry and literal textual injunctions. A more holistic approach is needed and that is the Maqasid Al Sharia (the aims and objectives of the Sharia).
The problem with groups like Hibz-ut-Tahrir, Jamaat-e-Islami and other conservative Islamic movements is the obsessive focus on punishment. Punishment has become the mainstay of contemporary Islamic discourse in many countries – ideas about revenge, honour and violent retribution have become ingrained in the national psyche. The disagreement on the implementation and meaning of the punishments collectively referred to as the hudud boils down to a very simple question.
Is the priority for a criminal justice system operating under the parameters of the Sharia punishment or reform? It is interesting to note that within the Quran the idea of reform, repentance and changing one’s behaviour is linked closely to the idea of hudud. Conservative religious groups simply define the hudud through the lens of punishment and revenge without considering the other dimensions outlined in the Quran. Ideas of mercy, reform and rehabilitation are forgotten – because it is easier to punish a person but much harder to rehabilitate and reform them.
This dispute within contemporary Islamic thought is a more universal clash – it is a clash between the ideas of retributive justice vs. transformative/restorative justice. The whole argument once again can be boiled down to a fundamental point – what is justice? What vision of justice does the Sharia encompass – is it about revenge and retribution or is about the awesome transformative power of God.
In Pakistan, quite clearly the presence and politicisation of the hudud in the public sphere as a symbol of incontrovertible Islamic identity has fostered a culture of revenge and blood thirst. Add to this the overall failure of the State to provide basic welfare, rights and services and a harsh dehumanising atmosphere has been created. The lack of prosperity and the increasing difficulties faced by people in their daily lives are forcing them to more extreme models of justice away from the transformative vision of the Sharia.
By referring to the Maqasid instead of observing literal injunctions, the underlying problems can be addressed. Cultures of retribution are born in times and periods of great suffering and national calamity – if liberal proponents in Pakistan wish to address issues such as the blasphemy law then the underlying causes must be dealt with. The autocratic nature of party politics and the dysfunctional nature of civilian governance in Pakistan’s so called “democracy” have all contributed to the current state of affairs today. A failing economy and a bleak outlook on social prosperity have all contributed to a discourse of revenge.
In other words, the priorities must be set out. Do we wish to talk of punishment when people cannot afford basic healthcare, food, shelter and welfare? How can conservative groups think that punishing the very poorest, most vulnerable and violently oppressed of our society is the right thing to do? What does God gain from persecuting women and minorities? What part about imprisoning and abusing the rights of women, the poor and minorities can God possibly take pleasure in?
Instead we should divert our attentions to finding practical solutions to the daily problems people face. The Prophet (pbuh) spent more time addressing the everyday needs of his community (Muslim or non-Muslim – it doesn’t matter) than imposing coercive laws. The Prophet’s vision of justice was centered on dealing with universal human concerns rather than restrictive religious dogma.
More time could be spent on thinking about creating a sustainable regime of harnessing clean drinking water and electricity. The whole idea of using the law and coercive power of the State to impose religious norms instead of protecting human rights and delivering welfare is an absurd distortion and one which is happily perpetuated by conservative Islamic groups and movements.
In the end, we can dream about the “ideal Islamic State” (whatever that is) or let the moral ideals of the Quran and Sunnah inspire us to think and care about our fellow man. It is time to revive the old ideas about ihsan (to do beautiful things, or “doing the beautiful”) and put aside restrictive legal formalism in pursuit of the greater quest for capturing the Maqasid of the Sharia.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.