Hudud: Central to Islam?
By Chandra Muzaffar
[The article below was first written fourteen years ago and
published in the Aliran Monthly (12:6 1992). It is now a chapter in
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar's latest book Rights, Religion and
(Routledge Curzon) which will appear in London]
The proponents of hudud laws have created the erroneous
impression that hudud laws are central to Islam, that they define
the character and identity of an Islamic state and society.
If we examined the growth and spread of Islam, how Islamic
civilisation sustained its dynamic spirit for centuries, and what
led to its eventual decline, we get a different picture of the role
of hudud in the religion.
The spread of Islam from Spain to China within one hundred years
of Prophet Muhammad's death more rapid than the spread of any other
religion in history was not due to some inherent attraction to hudud
laws. Islam came as a liberator to all sorts of people suffering
from oppression and persecution. This was how the religion was
perceived by the Persians, for instance, just as it brought a
measure of equality to the Egyptians who for centuries had been
groaning under the yoke of unjust social structures maintained by
the Greeks and Romans. The promise of justice, equality and freedom,
enhanced no doubt by the compassion and tolerance of Sufi saints,
played a major role in the diffusion of Islam as a faith, an
ideology and a way of life. Or, in the words of H.G. Wells,
"Islam prevailed because it was the best social and political
order the times could offer. It prevailed because everywhere it
found politically apathetic peoples, robbed, oppressed, bullied,
uneducated and unorganized and it found selfish and unsound
governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the
broadest, freshest and cleanest political idea that had yet come
into actual activity in the world and it offered better terms than
any other to the masses of mankind."
It was primarily because of what it did for human dignity and
social justice that Islam flourished as a great world civilisation
between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. There was, however,
another reason too. At its zenith, Islam exercised overwhelming
command over all types of knowledge. A vast corpus of knowledge
applied to commerce and the economy, science and education, the
military and administration gave Islamic civilisation the strength
and resilience to withstand various trials and tribulations. Hudud,
understood today as modes of punishment associated with criminal
law, cannot claim to have helped preserve the quintessence of
Even the decline of Islamic civilisation has no direct or
indirect link to the observance or non-observance of hudud laws. As
distinguished Muslim thinkers like Shah Waliullah have pointed out,
elite corruption and oppression, apart from the devastation wrought
by external invasions, were largely responsible for the downfall of
Muslim empires in history. It is worth noting that most of these
empires and kingdoms faithfully carried out hudud ordinances. But
this could not save them from decline and dissolution since they had
ceased to be loyal to the fundamental spirit of justice embodied in
In fact, there are a few examples of Muslim regimes today which
adhere strictly to hudud and yet their people remain trapped in
poverty, ignorance and ill health. One of these hudud oriented
societies in West Asia has an incredibly high rate of illiteracy, in
spite of its huge oil revenue. It is also totally autocratic, does
not even observe minimal public accountability and denies the
ordinary people any form of participation in government. The ills of
this and other Muslim societies cannot be overcome through the mere
imposition of hudud laws.
Though it is only too obvious that the colossal challenges
confronting most Muslim societies today, ranging from poverty and
exploitation to authoritarianism and foreign domination, cannot be
resolved through the promulgation of hudud ordinances, a significant
segment of the ulama continues to believe that allegiance to these
laws demonstrates fidelity to the faith. This is why they are even
prepared to label as "murtad" (apostates) those who question the
relevance of hudud to the eternal Islamic mission of protecting
human dignity and promoting social justice.
Before we try to understand this attitude of some contemporary
ulama, it is important to emphasise that by questioning the
relevance of the modes of punishment prescribed in hudud one is not
challenging the notion of right and wrong that underpins Islamic law
or the Shariah. For a Muslim, murder or theft or adultery or
consuming liquor would always remain morally reprehensible.
Preserving and protecting the basic moral structure of the Quran
embodied in its eternal values and principles is essential to the
defence of Islam's fundamental ethical foundation and framework.
Muslim reformers who regard various types of punishment in hudud
ordinances as contextual have never been known to raise doubts about
the validity and the authenticity of Quranic values and principles.
Indeed, some of them would even argue that the obsession with meting
out punishment in Hudud legislation in various Muslim countries
today is inimical to the spirit of encouraging the wrongdoer to
repent and reform which is germane to the Quran and the example of
the Prophet (the Sunnah). After all, hudud itself is essentially a
reminder to the human being of the importance of observing certain
boundaries, certain restraints, in one's personal and social
conduct. It is a way of persuading the human being to function
within a moral realm. Hudud, in its philosophical sense, is not a
rigid, dogmatic set of rules and regulations.
Unfortunately, an important section of contemporary ulama do not
see hudud or Islamic law from this perspective. The vast majority,
whatever their sect or inclination, adopt a legalistic,
traditionalist approach to Islam. Laws -- not universal values or
eternal principles -- in their opinion embody the sanctity of the
religion. It explains why laws though only about 300 out of 6666
verses in the Quran deal with various types of laws are given so
much prominence in the writings of the ulama. By overemphasizing
laws, the ulama, who alone exercise authority over interpretation,
enhance their own power. It is a power derived to a great extent
from their role as the custodians of the whole tradition of Islamic
law. And, in applying the Shariah to the contemporary situation, the
ulama invariably adopt an unthinking, uncritical approach.
Consequently, the Shariah in its entirety, and not just its Quranic
root, is seen as divine and sacred. Indeed, there are rules and
regulations in the Shariah, including some pertaining to the hudud,
which are not in consonance with either the letter or the spirit of
the Quran. For instance, the Quran does not prescribe any specific
punishment for sukr (intoxication) but hudud laws do.
Similarly, the Quran does not lay out any punishment for apostasy,
though it condemns it in the strongest terms. In hudud, it is
punishable by death. It is significant that most Muslims today
accept these hudud punishments as divinely ordained. It goes to show
that in reality legalist, traditionalist Islam has a more powerful
grip upon the Muslim mind than the Quran itself.
This is not an accident. It is a product of both history and
contemporary developments. As the compassion and egalitarianism of
early Islam slowly declined, Muslim rulers sought to legitimize
their power through the manipulation of Islamic forms, symbols and
laws. Very often, the ulama who served these rulers helped to
buttress the latter's authority by formulating harsher modes of
punishment for certain crimes or by providing more rigid
interpretations to existing laws which often went beyond what the
Quran, the primary source of legislation in Islam, and the Sunnah,
its ancillary source, had intended in the first place. Consequently,
a certain rigidity began to develop vis-à-vis the Shariah and public
The situation was exacerbated by a catastrophic event which has
had a profound impact upon the entire development of Islamic
civilisation after the thirteenth century. This was the wanton
destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by the Tartars led by Hulagu Khan.
Baghdad was not only the greatest centre of learning in the Muslim
world. In its time, it was undoubtedly a beacon of knowledge for the
whole world. According to the Sri Lankan jurist and scholar, C. G.
Weeramantry, "the great House of Learning (library) in Baghdad
accommodated 800,000 volumes." But once the devastation took place,
the spirit of learning and inquiry, of research and scholarship,
began to wane. For it was not just Baghdad which was destroyed. The
Tartars, in an earlier wave of attacks, had annihilated other
illustrious centers of art, culture and learning like Bukhara,
Khwarizm, Samarkand, Balkh, Merv and Nishapur. As a result of these
invasions which "shook the world of Islam to its very foundations,"
a conservative mood took root within Muslim communities in that part
of the world. Because they had lost so much of their intellectual
and cultural heritage, they were determined to preserve and protect
what was left. They became afraid of reform and change. They were
reluctant to question the wisdom of certain laws in the Shariah
formulated by their ulama.
Another major setback occurred a few centuries later. The
colonization of almost the entire Muslim world by Western powers
starting from the sixteenth century onwards, further strengthened
the conservative trend within the religion. Having lost control over
their lands and their destinies, Muslims became very cautious
towards ideas and practices from alien sources which might erode
their collective identity as a religious community.
This fear of losing their identity has become even more
pronounced in the post-colonial period. It is a fear which is not
without justification. For Western domination and control of Muslim
societies continues unabated. Indeed, Western cultural and
psychological penetration of Muslim and other non-Western societies
today is so much deeper than what it was at the height of
colonialism. A huge portion of the Muslim populace has chosen to
respond to the challenge by re-asserting what it perceives as its
Muslim identity via attire, food, laws and so on. Adhering strictly
to hudud and Shariah as they had evolved in the early centuries of
Islam is part of this re-assertion.
While it is important to re-assert one's identity as a way of
protecting Muslim autonomy and independence, it does not follow that
this should lead to an unthinking, uncritical acceptance of each and
every aspect of hudud and Shariah. Such an attitude will be
disastrous for the Muslim community. For there are elements in the
Shariah connected with basic human rights, the roles and rights of
women, the rights of non-Muslim minorities and international
relations which have to be re-appraised in order to bring them into
some harmony with the eternal, universal Quranic commitment to human
dignity and social justice. Hudud laws and other aspects of criminal
justice should also be seen in that light.
This is a position which has been taken by some of the most
outstanding thinkers in Islam. Shah Waliullah, for instance, argued
that "every age must seek its own interpretation of the Quran and
the traditions." He believed that "one of the major causes of Muslim
decay was rigid conformity to interpretations made in other ages."
Muhammad Iqbal was also of the view that "each generation, guided
but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted
to solve its own problems in accordance with the level of its
consciousness and the demands of the time." For Iqbal such an
approach to the Shariah was important since the Quran itself teaches
that life is a process of progressive creation.
Like Waliullah and Iqbal, Ali Shariati was also very critical of
"traditional, formalistic Islam." He wanted to liberate the religion
from the grip of those Ulama "who had imprisoned Islam by
monopolizing it." Another contemporary thinker, Mohammad Arkoun, has
often lamented in his writings that "the general Islamic
consciousness remains content with dogma."
It is because of this consciousness that the ulama and their
followers insist upon the implementation of hudud laws as they are.
But, as another recent thinker, noted for his brilliant scholarship,
the late Fazlur Rahman, points out, "To insist on literal
interpretation of the rules of the Quran, shutting one's eyes to the
social change that has occurred and that is so palpably occurring
before our eyes, is tantamount to deliberately defeating its
moral-social purpose and objectives. It is just as though, in view
of the Quranic emphasis on freeing slaves, one were to insist on
preserving the institution of slavery so that one could earn merit
in the sight of God by freeing slaves. Surely the whole tenor of the
teaching of the Quran is that there should be no slavery at all."
It is this sort of fundamental re-thinking that is urgently
needed in the Muslim world today.