The Objectives of Islamic Law
  • Wed, 04/04/2007
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Allah says: “Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that you may receive admonition.” [Sûrah al-Nahl: 9]

This verse presents to us in broad terms the objectives of Islamic Law. It calls for justice in legislation, for precision, quality and ethical conduct in interpersonal conduct and industry, and for generosity in the flow of wealth. This verse expresses the noblest values for life and the greatest concern for the general welfare.

The objectives of Islamic Law are the purposes and goals that it aspires to achieve through its laws, especially with respect to human welfare. Among Allah’s many names are al-Hakîm (the Wise) and al-Khabîr (the Well-Acquainted). Whatever he does in the heavens or on Earth is always founded in great wisdom and for a good purpose.

With respect to this topic – the objectives of Islamic Law – we find that certain people have gone to one of two extremes.

At one extreme, there are people who use this idea as the basis for overturning the laws of Islam, even the essential religious obligations that constitute the pillars of Islam. They argue that the purpose of our worship is to develop the soul, and some people might attain a level of spiritual excellence whereby they do not need to offer prayers or fast or perform the pilgrimage. Such people, in fact, are renouncing Islamic Law altogether and severing it from its basis in revelation. Islam, in its essence, is to submit ourselves to Allah in obedience. “Whoever submits his whole self to Allah, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy hand-hold: and with Allah rests the end of all affairs.” [Sûrah Luqmân: 22]

Justice – for instance – is not a concept of purely human effort, but rather it is implicit in the teachings of Islam. A Muslim cannot hope to achieve perfect justice divorced from the laws and principles of Islam.

At the other extreme are those people who regard the objectives of Islamic Law to be the various rulings themselves, denuded of context, divorced from human understanding, and closed to scrutiny. By approaching Islamic Law in this way, they let their narrow, personal understanding of a hadîth or a Companion’s statement or a passage in a legal text besiege the general principles of Islamic Law and undermine its goals.

True, we must not turn away from the rich legacy of Islamic scholarship that has preceded us in the various fields of jurisprudence, law, commentary, and history. However, we must use that legacy to guide us in engaging with the sacred texts: the Qur’ân which “no falsehood approaches from before or behind, a revelation from the Wuse and Praise-worthy” and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who “does not speak of his own desire.”

The way to understand the Qur;ân and Sunnah is through its clear, decisive statements and broad injunctions that safeguard and secure human welfare in this world and the Hereafter.

We can see this where Allah says: “He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation, but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none will take heed except those who have understanding.” [Sûrah Al `Imrân: 7]

The objectives of Islamic Law are to be found in the reasons behind particular legal rulings, reasons that appear time and time again. These are the considerations of welfare that are enshrined in Islamic Law and that surface as a consistent pattern when the rulings are studied in conjunction with one another and not in isolation. Scholars who specialize in the study of the purposes of Islamic Law, like al-Shâtibî, insist that it takes a broad survey of Islamic Law to discover these purposes.

It is through understanding these general purposes that the scope of Islamic Law is broadened, so that the needs and aspirations of the people can be fulfilled in accordance with Islam and within a legal framework that upholds the sanctity of the sacred texts. It is through these purposes that humanity can carry out its sacred duty of developing the world.

Allah says: “Allah hath promised such of you as believe and do good work that He will surely make them attain succession in the Earth even as He caused those who were before them to succeed (others); and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He hath approved for them, and will give them in exchange safety after their fear.” [Sûrah al-Nûr: 55]

The exercise of juristic reasoning (ijtihâd) in our contemporary context needs people with the acumen for approaching the texts with insight and understanding as much as it needs them to have knowledge of the texts themselves. This acumen can only be developed through focusing on the purposes of the Law, the purposes of specific rulings, and the purposes of the people who carry out those laws. Otherwise, the exercise of juristic reasoning will be pedantic and superficial, and it will yield results that are contrary to the very objectives that Islam came to bring about.

We should consider how one of the Companions understood the verse telling us when to stop eating and start our day’s fasts: “…until the white thread becomes distinct from the black thread of dawn.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 187]

He took it to mean strings of thread and took a literal black thread and white thread and thought that he should begin fasting when the day became bright enough for him to distinguish between the two.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said about this Companion: “His understanding is limited.” How many are the people today who are equally limited in their understanding of Islamic Law. They put people into great hardship over the minutest and most tertiary of issues, and, without realizing it, undermine the purposes of Islamic Law.

There can be no true exercise of juristic reasoning without taking the objectives of Islamic law into consideration. This is why al-Shâtibî considered knowledge of these purposes to be as essential a condition for juristic reasoning as knowledge of Arabic. This is because only through such knowledge can a jurist hope to recognize the necessities, needs, and niceties of life that the religion of Islam seeks to preserve. A person with limited understanding might look in isolation at a ruling regarding a certain need or nicety without bringing it into context of the broader necessities that Islamic Law seeks to uphold.

Scholars of Islam have investigated these necessities, and determined them to be five: life, faith, reason, honor, and wealth. Some contemporary scholars have suggested a sixth, proposing things like justice, liberty, and fraternity. I believe it is more precise to refer to this sixth necessity as something like “society” which embraces all aspects of social justice, liberty, equality, and human dignity.

We can clearly see how Islamic Law makes “society” a primary consideration, sometimes at the expense of other considerations. We can see this in congregational prayer, in the Friday prayer, and in Hajj.

We see how the Prophet (peace be upon him) took this as a matter of necessity when he refrained from rebuilding the Ka`bah on its original foundations.

It is essential for a jurist to take these principles into consideration when dealing with issues, especially those that are exceptional and that require extra diligence in determining what is best. When jurists fail to take these things into account, it causes the public to doubt the value of Islamic Law, but really what the public is seeing is a misrepresentation and misapplication of the Law.

The purposes of Islamic Law are not all equally evident. Some are clear to the general public, like basic ethical principles and the essential necessities of life. Others, however, require a trained jurists eye, because they are more subtle, and require deeper investigation to discern. This is where juristic reasoning really needs to be exercised. This is where the jurist qualified to engage in juristic reasoning – the mujtahid – comes into play, someone who can understand the sacred texts in conjunction with the broad purposes of Islamic Law and then apply this knowledge to the actual circumstances of the outside world in order to come up with an appropriate legal ruling.

Our present need is all the more acute due to the paucity of understanding that Muslims have regarding what Islam wants for Muslim society and for the people – the protection of their liberties, the effective management of their affairs, the cultivation of virtue among them, the prohibition of vice, the development of their resources, the advancement of their capabilities, and the inculcation of the value of being a productive member of society. Today’s Muslims are in need of all of these things, people who often know a lot of Islamic legal rulings but know very little about the purposes behind them.