The last three hundred years of Muslim history has witnessed the gap between law and ethics widen. Throughout various intervals in history, the discipline of law lost its connection with the ethical paradigm of Islam. The Islamic faith has been reduced to a legal barometer, a code of halal and haram. The microscopic lens of our legal tradition which dissects and deciphers to offer creative legal solutions is the pre-eminent and predominant framework through which we analyse and make sense of the world around us. The result? More fatwas – legal opinions and verdicts – in dealing with our realities.
So how can the halal be un-Islamic? It can be and it is. This is when fiqh is divorced from its ethical setting. It is when the legal value of an action is the only concern, sometimes at the expenses of other considerations. In pursuit of halal, we forget that the Shariah, often thought of as a body of law, is foremost an encompassing ethos derived over time from the primary sources – of which legal norms (fiqh) derived in pluralist fashion (ikhtilaf) are only a part. We forget to recognize that Islam did not originate in a legal tradition nor are ultimate truths reached through legislation.
Consider the following examples:
Art and Culture
So “what is Islamic” about any thought or action? Is it limited to scriptural legal validation or can it be determined by an ethical vision alignment? People generally fall into two camps – one which wants to Islamise everything and the other which harbours an inferiority complex in using the word ‘Islamic’ or sees a limited role for faith in the public space.
I would contend that the term ‘Islamic’ has both legal and ethical dimensions. If it is permissible in law, then it is ‘halal’ or ‘mubah’ and if it is validated by the ethical standards of Islam, only then does it become ‘Islamic’. Legislation and ethics are two sides of the same coin and should depend on each other as an integrated whole. Traditionally, this distinction did not exist and thus the master jurist Imam Abu Hanifa defined fiqh itself as ‘knowledge of the responsibilities and liabilities of one’s self.’ This definition encompasses both the legal and ethical facets.
This interpretation of the word ‘Islamic’ also entails acknowledging that whilst Islam’s ultimate quest, like all other monotheistic traditions, is the spiritual quest of the human self to the celestial, it does not hold back in providing insight into the mundane world. In some cases, the insight is detailed and scriptural like in the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance and financial transactions. However in other areas, the human mind, collective wisdom and experience is left to navigate through the complexities of life based on generic scriptural principles and maxims. Take, politics and management as an example. What is Islamic about them? What does the Quran or Hadith say about them such that we can term them Islamic? Very little actually in terms of detailed instructions. However, good politics and good management is ‘Islamic’.
Building on the logic of this argument, any thought or action which does not contravene Islamic principles, law or ethics can be deemed ‘Islamic’ even if the source is not Islam (though there is no need to term it as such). Seen in this light, the efforts of many responsible citizens across the globe to raise awareness about global warming and climate change, is an ‘Islamic’ initiative as it is a manifestation of Quranic environmental ethics. The legendary singer and songwriter Michael Jackson’s song Man in the Mirror for example, can be viewed as deeply ‘Islamic’ as it reflects values of self-change according to Quranic principles.
Professor Tariq Ramadan’s proposed distinction between “adaptive” and “transformative” reform is also relevant to this discourse in bridging the gap between law and ethics. If we merely seek to normalise our existence with the realities around us and adapt to it, then we need fiqh alone. However if we aspire to challenge, change and shape our realities, then we need an ethical construct from which to project our transformational vision for society. Islam thus becomes an actor and not just a passive onlooker.
In Islam, the primary ethical corpus is derived from Quranic and prophetic traditions and is interwoven with literary and social mores, as well as a robust intellectual tradition of which al-Muhasibi, al-Tusi, Miskawayh, Isfahani, al-Farabi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and Shah Wali-ullah are exemplars. The ethical tradition of Islam thus finds rich expression in the plenitude of virtually a millennium-and-a-half of historical experience. It is our sincere hope that CILE (Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics rises to the challenge of re-articulating the discourse of maqasid and ethics and contribute in restoring the ethical core of Islam in the 21st Century.- Sharif Hasan al-Banna
Shaykh Hasan al-Bana will be delivering one talk only on “Halal but Unislamic” at the Suleman Lockhat Auditorium, Mariam Bee Islamic Centre on 222 Kenilworth Road, Durban on Sunday 21 October from 9am-12 noon. Admission is free but hand-out is R50. Register at www.islamicforum.org.za
Sharif Hasan al-Banna is a scholar, author and entrepreneur. He is the Founding Director of the Islamic Institute for Development & Research (IIDR) in the UK and an Advisory Board Member of the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, a think tanked based at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar Foundation. He is also a Board Member of Maqasid Institute (USA) and teaches courses on Islamic Law and Ethics at Oxford University.
Shaykh Sharif al-Banna is passionate about social transformation and impact through knowledge, entrepreneurship and civic engagement. From his early days as a university student, he has been challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. He resides in London with his wife and three young children.
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