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 Quran — moral or legal code?


Farzana Hassan


Many of the Quran's legislative measures were impromptu responses to circumstances. Some were so specific so as to exclusively and expressly concern only the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his household. Such injunctions couldn't possibly be regarded as having universal applicability


The Quebec government recently issued a decision disallowing Islamic courts to operate as parallel legal systems alongside the Canadian justice system. While some in the Muslim community have welcomed this decision, many believe that it amounts to a denial of their constitutional right to freely practise their religion. Conservative Muslims feel compelled to follow what they consider the Quran’s legally binding dictates, believing firmly that the slightest deviation from its most obvious and literal application would amount to blasphemy or sinful behaviour.


Some in the Muslim community on the other hand, contend that the Quran’s moral principles of justice and egalitarianism must of necessity supersede its legislative injunctions - should a conflict emerge between the two. Citing incidents of discrimination due to various recent applications of shariah, these Muslims are calling for a suspension of shariah law in Muslim countries as well as in Ontario. With overwhelming statistics to support their stand, they also justify their position on religious grounds, stemming largely from the following rationale.


It is acknowledged that the Quran did not purposefully create the social conditions to which it responded. Social dynamics governing gender relations, societal pressures, tribal dynamics or polygamous marriages were already in existence at the time it was revealed. Its recommendations produced the effect of modifying prevalent behaviours and social practices, but did not entirely eliminate their negative impact on society. Consequently, these modifications did not result in the creation of a perfect society, but only one that was able to deal with its exclusive demands in a relatively more efficient manner. Whereas Quranic reforms produced a community which embodied some rudimentary elements of modern society, tremendous effort, creativity and vision would still be required to achieve the standards of gender equality, pluralism and social justice acknowledged today.


Many of the Quran’s legislative measures were impromptu responses to circumstances. Some were so specific so as to exclusively and expressly concern only the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his household. Such injunctions couldn’t possibly be regarded as having universal applicability with the potential of resolving the complexities of modern living. Indeed applying these time-specific injunctions with a literalist approach, would amount to stripping the Quran of its dynamism, as it would greatly reduce its capacity as a book of guidance to address changing circumstances.


Through a process of analogical deduction, successive generations of Muslims then sought to extend, eternalise and universalise these injunctions. From the skeletal legal framework of the Quran, an entire corpus of shariah law was formulated through processes and mechanisms, which were flawed due to their excessive reliance on unauthenticated secondary sources. The Quran, for instance, promulgated laws criminalising adultery and fornication, but left the issue of rape to be addressed through analogical deduction. An interpretative snag therefore emerged for classical and modern jurists, as both adultery and rape came to be treated as more or less the same offence. In Pakistan, for example, even the terminology employed for the two offences is close – fornication and adultery are termed zina, and rape, zina bil jabr, or “adultery/fornication under duress”.


It is apparent that the Quran was not meant to be a comprehensive legal code but rather, dealt only with specific circumstances. Since adultery was rampant in the society, its responses warranted segregation of the sexes and the criminalising of adultery and fornication. On the other hand, the Quranic text does not include statutory injunctions on rape, sexual assault, paedophilia etc. Injunctions pertaining to manslaughter were also of a discretionary nature whereby the affected family could either forgive the perpetrators or demand blood money. Similarly tribal laws that recognised only the rights of male agnate relations were replaced by laws of inheritance that were comparatively more favourable towards women. Since usury was an exploitative practice at the time, the response warranted its total prohibition. Thus while the Quran provided legal recourse for certain contingencies as they arose during the span of the revelation, it omitted other areas of human activity that would warrant legal responses in other societies.


While Muslims believe in the eternal message of the Quran, those who call themselves traditionalists and those who espouse a more progressive viewpoint, differ on what this means in legal terms. The latter group feels that it is the Quran’s principles, not their specific seventh century applications that are permanent and eternal. The principles can be expressed more equitably as laws that will deliver justice to all, particularly the weak and downtrodden in society. Progressive Muslims from the Muslim Canadian Congress and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, believe that Canadian law is well suited to their particular needs and must not be replaced by a faith-based system which may put entire segments of the population at risk of being discriminated against. They regard Canadian law as being in consonance with the Quran’s moral principles. They, therefore, welcome the decision of the Quebec government and hope that the Ontario government will also review the Arbitration Act as a necessary step towards eventually banning faith-based tribunals. They also advocate repealing discriminatory hudood laws in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.


Farzana Hassan-Shahid is a Toronto-based freelance writer

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