In my view, the most important crisis that Muslim society miserably failed to handle during Islam’s sojourn into modernity is diversity. By diversity, I mean religious heterogeneity in any form, may it be the pronouncement of legal injunctions, opinions regarding societal norms or something as personal as individual religious practices.
Therefore, whether it is the abundance of contradictory fatwas on issues as diverse as women leading prayers to Muslims attending Christmas celebrations to Islamic prohibition of images to what constitutes death, Pakistani brothers arguing about the bare heels of a Chinese sister during Hajj or my grandma’s queasiness while watching me pray in a manner other than our family’s religious school, there is an invisible urge to see a kind of religious monism; a CONSENSUS based on an almost Utopian unity of intelligibility, opinion and action.
I would go as far as contending that pluralism, when it manifests itself in any of the above forms does not resonate well with the conventionally perceived absolute nature of religious discourse. And this perception, while breeding religious exclusivism and thus extremism, also undermines the true rationalistic nature of Islamic legal tradition.
One of the foremost reasons for this intellectual aversion to disagreement is the nature of Muslim law itself. While majority of traditional Muslim jurists – and I prefer to restrict my comment to Sub Continent as I am aware of some exceptions outside – seem perfectly at ease with it, western legal sociologists have always struggled with the antinomies of permission and prohibition that exist for a single issue. Max Weber, for instance, while attributing these “variety of norms” to the irrationality of the law, stated:
The priestly approach to the law aims at a material, rather than formal rationalization of the law. The legal teaching in such schools, which generally rests on either a sacred book or a sacred law fixed by a stable oral or literal tradition, possesses a rational character in a very special sense. Its rational character consists in its predilection for construction of purely theoretical casuistry oriented less to the practical needs of the groups concerned than to the needs of the uninhibited intellectualism of the scholars – its casuistry, inasmuch as it serves at all practical rather than intellectual needs, is formalistic in the special sense that it must maintain, through re-interpretation, the practical applicability of the traditional, unchangeable norms to changing needs. But it is not formalistic in the sense that it would create a rational system of law.
Needless to say that these comments by Weber in Economy and Society generally pertain to any religious law and do not specifically consider the dynamics of Muslim positive law. However, while Weber scarcely commented on Islam (except of course his formulation of Kadijustiz), above analysis while comprehensively illuminating the problem of “variety of norms” as construed by the post-Cartesian mind also highlights the kind of confusion that still prevails regarding contextual literacies of the pre-modern Islamic legal tradition.
While some attribute this characteristic of variety of verdicts in Islamic law to quasi-irrational nature of Islamic law, others argue that normative pluralism has a perfectly established pedigree in Islamic law and that new norms are perpetually created and recreated through a perfectly reasonable process that is an intrinsic part of the law itself.
The key question thus, in my view, can be formulated in this way: When a jurisconsult – a mufti, mujtahid or a faqih more specifically – adjudicate according to new circumstances thereby adding to the already existing variety of norms, is it a symptom of irrationality of law, per se or the change thus driven can be attributed to some rational interpretive method called Ijtihad.
to be continued…