Friday, November 21, 2014

Tracing the Paths

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim.
Man yahdillahu fa huwal muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida.
Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

The title of my khutbah today is “Tracing the Paths”.

The subject of my khutbah is my struggle with shari’ah because when I hear the word shari’ah I have this instantaneous gag reflex. So, I am struggling to find a better definition for myself, and this khutbah is a reflection of my personal struggle.

My struggle started with a definition of shari’ah that really made me think and ponder.  Shireen Hunter defined shari’ah as “the path of life that it has traced.” (p 291 Reformist Voices of Islam). Her definition is in contrast to fiqh, “Islamic law as produced by Islamic scholars”. Part of my problem is that I have always conflated the two, but they are actually distinct.

What is a path of life that has been traced? Many people use the analogy of a river. If your life is the water and the path your life takes is the river, then eventually all rivers lead to the ocean, or all lives/souls lead to God.  Which river you choose to go down has certain consequences.  When you have well defined river banks, it is obvious which way you will flow.  But if the banks are too constrictive, the water may become stagnant or flow underground, or if the water exceeds the bodrders of the riverbanks, floods over the land, then chaos and destruction can result. This is why some Islamic scholars, such as Muhammad Khatami, have said that “Islam totally rejects fascism while it offers a critique of liberalism.”

I think the argument against fascism example is pretty self-evident, but I would like to expand on this notion of a ‘critique of liberalism.’, well, I would actually call it libertarianism, but whatever you want to call it, the idea is of having complete freedom to do whatever you want. I would argue, that this kind of freedom is not always a true freedom. Let me give a personal example to illustrate this point.

Right now I have a cousin who is dying of liver failure caused by decades of alcohol abuse. He lives in a society where he has the freedom to drink alcohol, he had a choice whether or not to drink, and he drank. He had a choice whether or not to get help, and he chose not to fight his addiction. Yes, he had the freedom to make his choices, to make bad choices, but in the end, did these choices give him freedom? He hasn’t had a driver’s liscence for thirty years, his daughter won’t see him, he hasn’t held a job and the only cure for his liver disease is a liver transplant, which he absolutely cannot get because he shows no sign of sincere rehabilitation, so he won’t get on the transplant list.  He has been free to choose addiction, but has addiction given him freedom? To me, no it hasn’t.

It sounds paradoxical, but sometimes following rules which appear restrictive can actually help you achieve true freedom.  I’m not saying this very eloquently, so I will quote from Wendell Barry who wrote a beautiful essay on marriage and poetry.

Barry argues that marriage and poetry are both bound by particular ‘forms’,  poetry by the restriction of meter and rhyme, marriage by the vows you take. He says:

“In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.” (from Poetry and Marriage: the use of old forms)
Just to get back to the topic of shari’ah, I’m trying to make the argument that these ‘forms’ are like paths, the same paths or rule sets as ‘shari’ah’.  The first surah that starts the Qur’an is called, “Al-Fatiha” – the Opening. The Qur’an is giving us the invitation to open our hearts to its poetry and to experience it. But what will we be opening ourselves up to?

Barry writes:
“The second aspect of these forms is an opening, a generosity, toward possibility. The forms acknowledge that good is possible; they hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome — though they dare not require it. These two aspects are inseparable. To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility. To give up the form is to abandon the hope.”

In Al-Fatihah, the Muslim is asking for God’s guidance, not demanding guidance, but hoping for it. Once you accept the path, then there will be some restrictions placed on you. However,  when you follow those rules some pretty interesting things can happen.

Barry says: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.    
     In this way the keeping of the form instructs us… The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.”

Sometimes, we do not always choose what is best for us. We have expectations that may not be realistic or healthy. We work towards goals or ideals, that often when realized, leave us feeling hollow. How many times have you found it was the unexpected surprise or circumstance that gave you the most joy? As it says in the Qur’an, “God is the best of schemers.”

Given human nature, we don’t always follow rules or good advice. We make mistakes, sometimes very bad mistakes. Wendell Barry writes:
Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives-within the one life of their troth and household — periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to “feel together,” to “be of the same mind.” Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives."  
Failure happens, rules get broken. Sometimes there is forgiveness, sometimes not. But I believe, as Louise Erdrich says in her book “The Round House”, "The only thing that God can do, and does all the time, is to draw good from every evil situation."


Wa barik ‘ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala ‘alee Muhammad kama barakta ‘ala Ibrahim wa ‘ala alee Ibrahim. Fil ‘alameena innaka Hameedun Majid.

Send Your blessing upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad in as much as you blessed Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim. You are the Majestic in the whole universe.

I look at the Qur’an as a source of guidance. There are rules, but some of these rules are eternal and some of them are bound to a particular society at a particular time and place. Just as in a marriage, you might have certain expectations for who is going to be the breadwinner, and that might be true for a while, but things can change and roles can change in a marriage. What is important to look at is what are some of the consequences that these different paths will take.

So for instance, what are we to make of the Qur’anic injunction that  “a woman’s testimony is only worth half of a man’s.” What happens in a society, or a marriage for that matter, when women have no say in the justice system? What happens in a society when certain people are privileged over others because of their class rank, race, or gender? What happens to a society where class, race, and gender are irrelevant to the justice system, where all are treated equally under the law?

This Quran’ic surah has problems for Muslim societies. What are we to make of hadith that are narrated by women, particularly hadith that then go on to form components of Muslim law, fiqh? Are we only to accept hadith if they are narrated by two women? Furthermore, what are we to do with female judges? Must their opinions be signed off by a male judge? There have been well respected and eminent female judges during the early years of Islam and their opinions stood firm and were not disputed. I will only mention two today Amrah bint Abdur Rahman and Umm al-Darda. Both of these women are Tabi’een, or Successors, the name for the generation that came after the Companions of the Prophet.

Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was a student of Ayesha bint Abu Bakr, and a specialist in hadith as well as giving respected opinions in law. The Umayyad Caliph, Umar bin Abdul Aziz said, “No one remains alive who is more learned in the Hadith of Aisha than Amrah.”  Another example of the respect accorded to Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was once a judge in Medina ruled in a case involving a Christian thief who had stolen something. The judge had ordered that his hand to be severed. When Amrah bint Abdur Rahman heard of this decision, she immediately told one of her students to tell the judge that he cannot severe the man’s hand because he had stolen something whose value was less than a single gold coin (dinar). As soon as the judge heard what Amrah had said, he ordered that the man be released, unharmed. He did not question her authority, nor did he seek a second opinion from other scholars, who were quite numerous . This incident is recorded in the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, and this ruling is also his opinion in such cases.

The second female jurist I want to mention is Umm al-Darda, also of the Successors generation who lived in Damascus and Jerusalem in the seventh century. Her husband, Abu Darda, was a companion to the Prophet. Umm al Darda lectured in the male section of the mosque, and was a teacher to many students, including the caliph of Damascus. One story I like about her is narrated by Ibrahim ibn Abalah. He said that a man came to Umm Al Darda and reported to her that someone had criticized her in front of the caliph. Her reply was, “If we are rebuked for something that is not found in us, then very often we are also praised for something that in not in us.”

Both Amrah bint Abdur Rahman and Umm Al Darda were well respected scholars of hadith and law, whose opinions set legal precedents. Their authority was not questioned because of their gender, their intelligence and wisdom was recognized and valued by their communities.

Shari’ah is the path our lives trace in accordance with our religion’s injunctions and guidance. Our choices and their consequences create a record which we will be judged upon by God on the Day of Judgment. But we must keep in mind that these rules and guidance must be tempered to the context of the times in which we are living and must never violate the eternal message of Islam: the respect for justice, mercy and human dignity.

Our Lord! Pour down patience on us, and make our steps firm and assist us against the folk, the ones who are ungrateful (2:250)

Rabbana afrigh ‘alayna sabran wa thabbit aqdamana wansurna ‘alal-ghawmil kafirin.


No comments:

Post a Comment