Below you will find my notes and random observations from the book indicated by the title of this post. It is hoped that it will be effortless to differentiate between those locations in which I provide information from the book proper and those in which I offer personal observation, illumination or pose further lines of inquiry. Whenever any doubt is evident it should be assumed that anything even remotely factual should be attributed to the author of the book and anything that would be construed as otherwise can be attributed to me personally.
Links to related posts: (Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 [Part 1][Part 2][Part 3])
The Muslim faith distinguishes itself from the Christian one very simply. Christians, Esposito says, are focused on “belief.” The main point of salvation is one of belief in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his gift of salvation. Muslims, contrarily, focus on actions. One cannot simply believe in the oneness of God but must also act according to God’s laws. Belief without action is meaningless to the Muslim. Personally, I would argue with the lackadaisical portrayal of Christians though I do see a difference in main focus between the two faiths.
One of the early formative questions of the Muslim faith is that of sinners. Is a sinner or even one who does not sin explicitly but simply does no good works truly a Muslim? Opinions on this differ, as we saw for the Kharijites earlier they would say that a sinner is not a Muslim while the Murjiites would claim, as many Christians do, that no one on Earth is fit to judge and that only God will be ultimate decider of such matters. Muslims also struggle with the question of free will as Christians have historically. If there is no free will, then how can man’s actions possibly be judged? If there is free will then how can God still be omnipotent? It’s unclear that any consistent answer for this paradox is ever arrived at.
The author goes on to describe a third set of Islamic beliefs in addition to the Murjiites and Kharijites. Contrarily to both these sects, the Mutazila strived for compromise. To them the Quran is metaphorical rather than literal. They used imported Greek philosophy and science to argue that the Quran was illustrative in scope but not to be taken verbatim. Contrarily, the Asharite argued against the rationalization of the Quran with the idea that some things are simply beyond human reason and understanding. Even this brief snapshot will help, I hope, to illustrate the diversity of the Muslim belief system. It is unclear (at least to current reading) how prevalent any of these sects are in the modern day.
After this brief overview of the players, Esposito goes on to talk a bit about the history of the Islamic law. Early on, of course, while the Prophet Muhammad was still around, he could (and often was) just asked his opinion. Unfortunately, this convenient state of affairs couldn’t exist indefinitely. After the death of the prophet the Umayyad Caliphate set up qadi or regional judges to determine such items of the law. This proved unsatisfactory, however, as it was argued that too much human opinion and regional difference was being inserted into what should have been very straightforward and uniform God-given law. Under the Abbasid Caliphate a further attempt was made to iron things out and gain some consistency. Now rather than leaving the determination of law to individual judges, Schools of Law were formed and tasked with determining exactly what the law should be. Somewhat predictably though, since the schools too were regional in nature, they also fell to petty squabbling and disagreement.
This continued until the appearance of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shaffi (d. 819) the father of Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Shaffi wrote that there were four sources for Islamic law:
1. The Quran itself – The Quran does have some legalistic content but of course doesn’t cover every conceivable situation. Where it does speak to an issue, however, it is given absolute preeminence.
2. The Sunna (example of Muhammad) – at varying times ‘The Sunna’ was extended to mean the accepted behaviors of any group of Muslims but with al-Shaffi it was determined that only the acts and example of the Prophet himself constituted this second source of law. The argument for the position of the Prophet as the prime example flows from the very natural supposition that he was guided closely by God in his actions. Unfortunately, after the prophet’s death the corpus of literature which claimed to represent the Sunna blossomed into hundreds of thousands of documents which comprised a monumental task to actually validate. Esposito goes to great lengths to defend the Sunna as it’s currently accepted against Western critics who claim that it is almost entirely apocryphal.
3. Local consensus – Where the Sunna and the Quran are silent, local precedent and tradition must be heard. These tend to create regional differences and common examples given are centered around policies for divorce and dowry establishment.
4. Analytical Reasoning – Lastly, law can be established by logical deduction from stated laws that are deemed analogous to the situation being looked at. The example given was the establishment of a minimum dowry. The Quran doesn’t have anything to say about how much of a dowry should be given but the problem was solved logically in this way: when a woman is married, they argued, the loss to her is that of her virginity. To put a price on this, we make a correlation between the woman’s virginity and the amount goods that must be stolen in order to warrant the amputation of the thief’s limb. So the minimum dowry amount is the same as the amount of money one would have to steal in order to justify hacking off one’s arm. Let’s hope that the wedding night is slightly more pleasurable than an amputation.
With the help of al-Shaffi’s writings, Islamic law was completed by the 10th century and (based on current reading anyway) seems to have remained relatively fixed since that time.
Continued in Part 2…