By Izeth Hussain –
The abrogated verses of the Koran arising out of contradictions between verses are not negligible in number but are very substantial: according to one estimate they concern as much as 71 out of 114 Suras (Chapters) in the Koran. The question of abrogation has proved to be highly controversial. Most Christians, accustomed as they are to what is called I believe the Higher Criticism of the Bible developed since the nineteenth century, will conclude that the Koran does not consist only of the revelations provided to the Prophet but that there were later interpolations. But most Muslims won’t accept that because they hold that the Koran was put together in a final and definitive form shortly after the death of the Prophet, unlike the holy texts of other religions which took decades and more for final collation. However that could lead to the conclusion that Islam postulates a God who kept on changing his mind just like fallible human beings.
That of course is totally unacceptable to Muslims whatever the sect to which they belong. The only way out is to hold with proponents of the liberal critique of orthodox Islam that there are two dimensions to the Koran, one of which is eternal and universal and the other is temporary and locally specific. I quote again Montgomery Watt on the doctrine of abrogation: “The idea underlying the doctrine is that certain commands to the Muslims were only of temporary application, and that when circumstances changed they were abrogated or replaced by others”. As I have shown above there were three different Koranic positions on the drinking of wine within a single lifetime, that of the Prophet. How on earth are we to suppose that the provisions of the Sharia, formulated by four Islamic legists two centuries and more after the death of the Prophet, are sacrosanct and immutable for all time? The commonsense of the matter is that if God had wanted to prescribe a comprehensive legal code valid for all time, He would have done so in the Koran. He did not, and I find myself forced to accept the liberal critique that the Sharia is a human construct and not something Divinely ordained. The Divine Law is a misnomer.
I will now provide some instances to show that Koranic injunctions and recommendations have been ignored in Muslim practice even though the Muslims themselves regard them as the direct word of God, not mediated by the Prophet but conveyed by him to humanity. The most famous instance is that of the cutting off of hands for theft. It is an injunction not just a recommendation, a categorical and not a conditional injunction with no ifs and buts about it. And yet it has not been put into practice in the greater part of the Islamic world. That is not because of adaptation to the norms and values of modernity, but something that prevailed from the days of early Islam. The Caliph Omar, the second Caliph of Islam, ordered the cutting off of the hand of a man convicted for stealing food. Omar, famous for his fearlessness and uncompromising integrity, rescinded his order after he was told that that man had stolen food under conditions of famine. Therefore, even a categorical Koranic injunction, no less than the word of God, was not regarded as sacrosanct but as open to denial or modification according to conditions of time and place. How can we regard the provisions of the Sharia as sacrosanct and immutable for all time?
I will now provide instances of Koranic recommendations that are not put into practice. Slavery is allowed in the Koran but the freeing of slaves is recommended and the attitude towards it is thoroughly negative. According to the letter of the Koran, slavery should today be allowed while it is discouraged. But it is banned all over the Muslim world – Saudi Arabia being I believe the last country to ban it in the second half of the last century. Another instance is that of lex talionis, the retaliatory law of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth which is allowed in Suras 2:178; 5:45; and 16:126. I wrote of it as follows: “But no Muslim state will today allow its citizens to take the law into their own hands, obviously because lex talionis is appropriate only to societies without a centralized state providing police and judicial authorities. No traditionalist argues that lex talionis must be permitted today. This is a clear example of Koranic law changing with changing circumstances”.
It appears therefore that both the liberal Muslims on the one hand and on the other the traditionalists who are all for a rigid application of the Sharia are agreed in going against Koranic injunctions and recommendations that are outrageously out of sync with the modern world, such as the cutting off of hands for theft and slavery. But there is an exception: polygamy is outrageously out of sync with the modern world but the liberal Muslims and the traditionalists are polarized about it. We have to wonder about the reasons for that polarization.
I quote from my seminar paper: “But neither did the Prophet say that we must practice polygamy. It is known that the verse on polygamy was the consequence of the battle of Uhud in which Muslim males were decimated, and furthermore it is hedged by the important condition that all wives have to be treated equally. Yusuf Ali and others have argued that that condition is impossible of fulfillment, and therefore polygamy should be banned. It can also be argued on the basis of Sura 24:32 that monogamy is in reality preferred to polygamy. Nevertheless there has been a fierce insistence that polygamy is allowed by immutable Koranic law”. So, Koranic law that is mutable when it concerns theft and slavery suddenly becomes immutable when it concerns polygamy. What is the explanation for this inconsistency? The explanation, I believe, is that polygamy unlike theft and slavery concerns the position of women in relation to men. What the traditionalists really want is the continued unIslamic subjugation of women. And behind that is a fear of change and a conservative backing of the powerful against the powerless. I will be arguing that case later citing the views of the Algerian Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne, Mohammed Arkoun, and others.
I come now to the second source of the Sharia, namely the hadiths which are the Traditions of the Prophet, meaning the record of what he said and what he did. There are thousands of them and six books of the hadiths are accepted as having canonical status, with the ones by Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim being regarded as the most authoritative. I quote from my seminar paper: “It is known that in the vast corpus of the hadiths, most were apocryphal or worse, as they were motivated by inter-sect and inter-dynastic rivalries. Bukhari, Muslim, and the other editors of the six canonical books adopted what was regarded as a rigorous methodology so far as isnad (genealogy) was concerned, tracing back each hadith to the time of the Prophet through reliable witnesses. But it appears that they ignored matn (content), and consequently there are many contradictory hadiths. Their methodology has been criticized by Goldziher in the nineteenth century and several other European scholars. The work of Joseph Schacht is regarded as authoritative by some Muslim scholars”.
I proceeded to make the important point that it must not be supposed that European criticism of the hadiths was motivated by Orientalist ill-will towards Islam. Louis Massignon, generally regarded as the greatest of the European Islamologists, who became a devout Catholic through the impact on him of Islam, made critical observations on the hadiths in his work of dazzling scholarship establishing the historicity of Salman the Persian, one of the five original Companions of the Prophet. But it was in fact a Muslim, Sir Seyed Ahmed Khan, who in the nineteenth century first criticized the methodology used by Bukhari and others, and he did so in terms that were later used by Goldziher. In his The Traditions of Islam (1924) Alfred Guillaume quotes some pages from Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval historian, questioning the authenticity of the hadiths. He also quotes from Moulavi Cheragh Ali, a disciple of Sir Ahmed, questioning the authenticity of all the hadiths in a work published in 1885. The criticism of Schacht has been accepted by Professor Fazlur Rahman. It has also been accepted by Asaf Fyzee in his text book Outlines of Muslim Law (1987) which had gone into several editions since its original publication in 1947. I am providing these details to establish that the questioning of the authenticity of the hadiths has behind it a solid Islamic tradition going back to the great Ibn Khaldun in the Middle Ages.
To be continued…