Shariah in the Current Relativistic Age
We are necessarily different from each other, occupying discrete points in various domains, be they physical, emotional, or influential. It makes sense that our value system be elastic enough to account for the differences this reality entails. We are also necessarily similar to each other, sharing common spaces, be they spiritual, moral, or metaphysical. It also makes sense that our value system be unified to attest this singular reality. These two value systems may appear complementary but are commonly seen as antagonistic, one being hedonistic and self-centered, and the other being hidebound and ideological. History is littered with different philosophies and “isms” that have tried to explain reality and influence human behavior, but none have harmonized the two to the extent that shariah, the jurisprudence of Islam, has done. This claim requires justification regarding the universality and practicality of shariah.
The aims of shariah—it linguistically means “a trodden path” to life-giving water, spiritually referring to life-giver that is divine—are five-fold; protection and promotion of every individual’s faith, life, reason, property and honor. Therefore, all the rules and laws that hold true, protect and promote: (i) everyone’s right to their faith, worldview, rituals, and places of religious practice, (ii) life by nourishing and securing it and holding it sacrosanct, (iii) freedom of thought and reason through various forms of expression, (iv) wealth and its dealings, individually and collectively, and (v) honor and dignity through presumption of innocence and freedom from slander are considered part of shariah. Conversely, any law that doesn’t guarantee preservation of the above five universals is not a part of shariah and is rejected.
It is easily seen that these five shariah principles are in common with most if not all of the purported value systems practiced today, though weighing of one principle against another may vary. For example, shariah prohibits intoxicants because it considers their use detrimental to protection of reason (third principle), whereas other systems may consider this a matter of individual liberty (first principle). Conversely, shariah would allow different faiths to practice their law through their own courts (first principle), whereas other systems recognize only secular law.
One of the common misunderstandings is that shariah is a constant and there is no room for different interpretations. In fact, shariah has constants and variables, and this is in harmony with the human nature. We are both physical and spiritual. Our physical realms are varied, and shariah is flexible to reflect this variety. The laws derived by Islamic scholars have varied depending on people, time, location, or condition, and are subject to modifications. For example, a person who is sick need not fast, a society may elect leaders in whatever method they see fit, a victim is entitled to different types of compensation according to his/her wishes, etc. The differences of opinion are encouraged in shariah by promising celestial rewards even for scholars who reach wrong conclusions despite best efforts. This worldly portion of shariah has jurisdiction only if the society chooses it as its law. Hence, the resolutions on ballot in various states to exclude shariah make no sense and reek of scaremongering. This ignores the commonality that already exists and demonizes everyday Muslim religious practice.
On the other hand, our spiritual realm is unified and timeless, from realizing that there is One God (The Real) to knowing that being truthful, generous, helpful, etc. is right. To reflect this reality, shariah has constants. For example, loving and worshipping God, being merciful by preferring others over oneself, taking care of parents, fighting against evil, etc. cannot change. These are some of the loftiest human qualities and lead to spiritual perfection. These laws of shariah will always be applicable because the human spirit is the same at every place and time. Naturally, their accountability is in the hereafter, the timeless domain.
Therefore, the goal of shariah is not only harmony and growth in physical realm through choice and freedom, but also ennoblement and perfection in spiritual realm through exhortation and religious teachings found in Quran and practices of God’s Messenger, Muhammad. The same goal existed for shariahs of previous Messengers, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, peace and blessings be with them, and numerous other Messengers from around the world. In this relativistic age where timeless human values are being eroded and human worth is measured in materialistic terms, shariah offers pristine universal realities and means of spiritual perfection while promoting wholesome life, intellectual liberty, and pursuit of contentment.