For reasons that I’d say were mostly political, a response or argument for justifying particular conceptions of the sharī’ah tends to be:
- “What will non-Muslims say?!”
- “But non-Muslims will laugh at us!”
- “But people are leaving Islam!”
Whilst I acknowledge there can be sincere sentiments behind these and other statements, shaping a shar’ī understanding that is fixated on seeking approval is very misplaced and leads to both falsehood and ruin. Not only is it ungodly, but it’s also unproductive. The palpable result tends to be a focus on issues that are of little concern to the believers and their growth but of great political importance to non-Muslims. Now before I proceed to expand on what God says on this, I’d like to provide some nuance and differentiate between two things here: (a) the substance of the sharī’ah and (b) its form.
(a) On substance: the contents of the sharī’ah, that’s to say how we understand what God wants, cannot be dictated by what others might say, how they feel, or what they’ll do. Our interests ought only to be theocentric (centred around God).
(b) On form: this is to do with the presentation of the substance and thus the opinions/views/attitudes/cultures etc of others need to be considered. It’ll depend on who is being addressed, and as Ali b. Abi Talib put it: “Speak to people in a way they understand, do you desire that God and His messenger be rejected?!” This doesn’t only go for the language used, but also how things are framed so that unnecessary impediments to understanding/acceptance are not imputed into the conversation.
So what does God have to say about a fixation on placating non-shar’ī sentiment, on shaping discourse to satiate non-believers, or advocating shar’ī understandings merely to save ‘Muslims’ who take umbrage with defining features of subservience to God?
1. Our motives must be theocentric and our concerns for articulating the sharī’ah ought to be to provide practical guidance for the believers, defined as the people of scripture – not those who, through speech or actions, care little for God nor holistically consider what He has told us: “Do not yield to those whose hearts We have made heedless of Our Quran, those who follow their own low desires, those whose ways are unbridled. Say, ‘Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so and let those who wish to reject it do so.’ (18:28-29) Further, our motive isn’t to champion a ‘religion’ as a cultural construct but to seek true guidance. It is in this sense that God said to the Prophet: “The Jews and the Christians will never be (theologically) satisfied unless you follow their ways. Say, ‘God’s guidance is the only true guidance.’” (2:120)
2. We ought to shun a saviour complex. Firstly, God guides whom He wills and secondly, we cannot misrepresent what God wants or dilute His intent for the sake of some contrived inclusivity, or to have people superficially ascribe to ‘Islam’. On the first point God says, “If you find rejection by the disbelievers so hard to bare, then seek a tunnel into the ground or a ladder into the sky, if you can, and bring them a sign: God could (compellingly) bring them all to guidance if it were His will, so do not join the ignorant. Only those who can hear will respond.” (6:35-36) On the second point, “Say, ‘Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so and let those who wish to reject it do so.’” (18:29)
3. Seeking accommodation from those unreasonably opposed to Islam out of fear of what they might do, is no valid strategy. God says, “You will see the perverse at heart rushing to them saying, ‘We are afraid fortune may turn against us.’ But God may well bring about triumph or some other event of His own making: then they will regret the secrets they harboured in their hearts.” (5:52) In such scenarios we must trust in God and continue the march towards progress, “who strive in God’s way without fearing anyone’s reproach.” (5:54)
4. Mockery and them (whoever they might be) “laughing at us” is absolutely irrelevant when deducing the substance of the sharī’ah, for God tells us, “The wicked used to laugh at the believers, they would wink at one another when the believers passed by them, joke about them when they got back to their own people, and say, when they saw them, ‘These people are misguided'” (83:29-32) However, there are situations in which some Muslims invite mockery by (a) speaking from a point of ignorance, presenting the sharī’ah as some absurd proposition and using weak/irrational reasoning, and (b) due to a lack of integration they have little cultural capital with wider society and consequently have no idea of how to make themselves reasonably understood and consequently sound foolish. The Companion Abdullah b. Mas’ud put it, “It is problematic to speak to a new people [where Islam is novel to them] with things they cannot make sense of.” (Muslim)
As we ought to see, dealing with the shari’ah requires differentiating between substance and form, but my general objective is to speak about the substance of the shariah in a way that cares little to satiate secular sentiments/aspirations, although I actively strive to present things in a way that will hopefully resonate with all.