Why such difficulty? Because religious scriptures don’t necessarily stand on their own, especially not when they’re approached like a novel, with no methodological tools at hand. Even those Christians who believe in sola scriptura have elaborate hermeneutics that clarify how the Bible should be approached and interpreted. Furthermore, holy texts only come to life in human communities, which determine how to interpret and apply them. Islam is the same way. For a non-Muslim in the West, the challenge of approaching Islam is even greater than Christianity, because most of us lack the background knowledge and historical context to make any sense of the Qur’an whatsoever. To even approach the Qur’an or the subject of Islamic beliefs, you need to know something about the sources of Islamic authority and how they actually work.
I don’t have the time or space to go into great detail about the subject. For those who are interested, there are plenty of good books on the subject, written by authors who possess far more expertise than I ever will. But I’d like to present a very basic sketch, which will help guide us through future posts.
I think of Islamic belief and practice as a series of concentric, expanding circles:
(1) The Qur’an
(2) The sunna, which consists of the words of the Prophet (hadith) and his actions
(3) Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence
(4) What Muslims today actually claim to believe
(5) What Muslims actually live out in the real world
These circles get consecutively larger, offering increasing room for diversity. Note that I do not just consider static texts, but how these texts are believed and applied. This is essential to understanding the Islamic world today, and is one place where rabidly anti-Islamic writers go wrong when they focus primarily on medieval texts. Let’s briefly consider each circle:
(1) The Qur’an: Nearly all Muslims believe the Qur’an is the inviolable revelation of God and thus holds absolute authority over believers’ lives. However, the Qur’an can be difficult to interpret because its verses are not ordered chronologically and can only be understood by knowing the specific context in which they were revealed. The Qur’an is thus inseparable from early Islamic history. Despite the Qur’an’s authority, there is room for interpretation. For one thing, Muslims believe that some verses abrogate or override other verses, but there is no consensus on which verses abrogate which. For another, many verses–particularly those revealed in Medina, where Muhammad led a political community–were revealed in response to specific problems in a specific time and place. Muslims today disagree about how these verses should be applied. Should they apply literally? Are there underlying principles that should apply today, but adapted to suit modern circumstances? Should Medinan verses apply at all?
(2) The Hadith: After Muhammad died, he left behind many companions who had seen him, known him, and heard him speak. In the following centuries, scholars traveled the Islamic world scrupulously collecting memories passed down by those who knew the Prophet. These hadith explained the circumstances in which the Qur’an was revealed, and helped to interpret it and elaborate upon it. A rigorous science developed to trace the lineage of these hadith (plural ahadeeth) and test their authenticity. Thousands and thousands of hadith were collected. Six primary hadith collections are used today, the most famous being those known as Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. Many Muslims today believe that both collections are authentic and inviolable, but even pious Islamic scholars sometimes disagree. The complexity of hadith science, the widespread problem of hadith forgery, and the lack of a fixed canon means that there is room to disagree about the authenticity of specific hadith. Many Muslim reformers and progressives use this to their advantage. In some cases, they argue that hadith collection occurred in medieval or tribal, and reflect the biases of the age. In other cases, they outright dispute the authenticity of hadith that seem to endorse intolerance, violence, or misogyny.
(3) Fiqh: If the early Muslim community had a specific question about an issue, the solution was easy: they could ask the Prophet. After the Prophet died, Muslims were on their own. What should they do if they faced a new situation, for which the Qur’an didn’t provide clear answers? Islamic scholars who were well versed in the Qur’an and sunna did their best to make rulings, based on what knowledge they had. They would look for an answer in the Qu’ran, then in the hadith. If the situation wasn’t addressed, they would try to derive a ruling from analogous principles. They also considered things like prior rulings, consensus among other scholars, and the general interest of the community. Finally, they relied on their own reason. This methodology, which varied slightly from school to school, was known as usul al-fiqh (origins or foundations of jurisprudence). In short, usul al-fiqh gave scholars the tools to interpret the Qur’an and sunna and explain how they should be applied in Muslims’ lives.
Fiqh is extremely complicated. Sunni Islam has never had a formalized clergy, so fiqh grew from the bottom up–from diverse scholars in diverse places, who were learned in the Qur’an, hadith, and existing jurisprudence. However, fiqh has always taken consensus seriously, so prior rulings by top scholars were often considered authoritative. This meant that over time, Islamic jurisprudence took on a general shape and direction. Out of the hundreds of early schools, four main ones survive in Sunni Islam today: the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i schools. Most traditional Sunni Muslims belong to one of the four schools, although they believe that all are legitimate.
Muslims emphasize how diverse Islamic jurispudence is. Islam’s critics claim the opposite; they believe that there is such a thing as Islamic orthodoxy, as attested to by Islamic law manuals and the writings of scholars, and that the differences between the four schools are minor. This body of law, they say, endorses such problematic rulings as the death penalty for unrepentant apostates, the stoning of adulterers, the dhimmi system for non-Muslims, and Islamic government. When Islam’s critics warn that Muslims are trying to impose “shariah” or “Islamic law”, it is this body of fiqh that they are referring to. I will examine some of these claims in my next post.
(4) What Muslims today actually claim to believe: Islam’s critics often focus heavily on the first three circles–the Qur’an, hadith, and fiqh–and believe that these are absolutely determinative for Muslims today. I disagree. If you actually spend time among Muslims, you find that they draw their beliefs from many different sources, just as anybody else does. We are all shaped by our upbringing, our relationships, our education, our political affiliations, our religion, our life experience, and our intuition. Sometimes our beliefs exist in harmony with one another; other times we live with a great deal of cognitive dissonance. We are not perfectly rational beings, and we go on living with complex, ever-changing belief systems. Muslims are of course no different. So it is important to recognize that the beliefs of present-day Muslims will look different than what is codified in ancient texts, and will vary greatly within different Muslim communities and even among individuals.
(5) What Muslims actually live out in the real world. If we are not perfectly consistent in our belief systems, we are even less consistent in how we live. Few of us–probably none of us–genuinely live in accord with our belief system each day. Actual behavior will vary tremendously among people, so when we consider the implications of belief systems, religions, and ideologies, we need to consider how adherents of those beliefs actually live and act.
If all of this sounds overly dry and theoretical, I will try to bring it together in future posts as I begin to evaluate some of the claims made by Islam’s defenders and its critics.