The Objectives of Shari'ah

By Alwani, Zainab | Islamic Horizons, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

The Objectives of Shari'ah


Alwani, Zainab, Islamic Horizons


An essential methodology is needed for dealing with challenges faced by Muslim American families. BY ZAINAB ALWANI

One of the major challenges facing Muslim Americans is how to integrate into a society guided by Judeo-Christian or secular values while preserving and practicing their faith. Today, imams and scholars are called upon to answer crucial questions, especially those related to family and community issues.

This is nothing new, for as Islam expanded Muslim scholars had to search for methods that would enable them to comprehend the teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah so that they could apply them correctly to the social reality in which they had to function. Thus, there has always been a scholarly debate on how to understand the Qur'an and the Sunnah and how to apply their teachings to situations for which explicit texts do not exist. Out of this debate came the science and methodology of usul al-fiqh (the sources of jurisprudence), which emphasized maqasid al-Shari'ah (the Shari'ah's objectives) in deriving legal judgments.

One strategy for addressing those cases for which there was no explicit text was qiyas (analogy), which is based on similarity in cause ('illah). For example, alcohol is forbidden because it results in intoxication. Therefore, by analogy, all intoxicants are prohibited. This was Imam al-Shafi'i's methodology. However, this approach engenders certain problems, the foremost of which is the fact that the 'illah of many Qur'anic regulations (ahkam) are not stated in explicit terms. Thus, one has to depend upon secondary sources and knowledge to determine the commonality between the 'illah in the two situations being analyzed, as well as to determine the 'illah itself.

Ibn Hazm al-Zahri (994-1064 GE) rejected al-Shafi'i's understanding of qiyas on the grounds that it was enough to depend upon the explicit Qur'anic text. If nothing was found in the text, then a ruling based upon logic, comprehensive reading, and critical analysis of the hadith's narrators and content should be derived. The Maliki legal school emphasized istislah (seeking the good) and maslahah (public interest). This methodology was based upon the example of the Companions, some of whom formulated legal decisions in this way.

Imam al-Ghazzali (Abu Hamid Muhammad Ghazzali, 1058-1111 CE) provided the dearest definition of maslahah: It is the quest for something useful or the removal of something harmful. He further defined it as a means of preserving the five main objectives of the Shari'ah (viz., the preservation of religion, life, reason, descendants, and property) and divided it into three levels: essential (deals with the five main objectives), complementary (prevents that which leads to hardship), and improvement or perfection (related to worship).

Some scholars feared that maslahah may permit rulings to be formulated without reference to the Qur'an or the Sunnah - rulings based exclusively on rational elaboration in the name of a remote hardship. Thus, al-Ghazzali confined its role to applying qiyas, which, by its nature, requires a very close link to the text in order to extract the cause.

In his well-known book "Al-Muwfaqat," al-Shatibi set out several conditions for recognizing the public interest as a reliable legal source. He stated that the maslahah must not be contradicted by the Qur'an or the Sunnah, that the jurist must remove hardship and not cause harm, and that the maslahah must benefit the people and the society.

Certainly, God does not act randomly. His guidance forms a system and hierarchy of maqasid that seek to promote good and prevent harm. This is clearly the case in family and interpersonal relationships, for in these two areas the Shari'ah seeks to construct a preventive and protective model by providing a framework for healthy interpersonal relationships in all kinds of situations. Divine guidance elucidates values, establishes clear boundaries, and identifies priorities in relationships. …

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