Chapter u65 Islam and Law

Preliminary Questions


Law and Practice

Interpretation of Law

The Five Pillars

8. Solidarity Through Institutional Unity

9. Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy

10. Formalism and Free Expression

11. "Medievalism" and   the Dawn of "Renaissance"

12.Islamic Resilience

13. Islamic Dynamism

14. Islam in Transition

15. Current Trends

16. Perspectives on Activist Islam

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

It is rather easy and "neat" to describe Islam and the requirements to be a good Muslim by reference to the Five Pillars.  If you were to summarize Christianity and its obligations what would be on your list?  (This becomes a practical issue when you are trying to decide what information can and cannot be included in the ten or twelve hours that you have with the catechumens and those who want to become Catholic.)

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Law and Practice

"When Muhammad asked the Quraysh to accept his revelation as coming from God, he did not demand that they assent to a creed or to a set of theological opinions.  As in Judaism, there is no cult of orthodoxy in Islam, where ideas and concepts about God are essentially private matters.  In fact the Qur'an is highly suspicious of theological speculation, which it sees as mere human projection and wish-fulfillment.  Such doctrinal thinking, applied to the transcendent reality of al-Llah, can only be 'guesswork' (zanna): this habit of idle conjecture about ineffable matters had divided the People of the Book in to warring sects.  Instead of promoting orthodoxy or right teaching, Islam and Judaism both insist upon orthopraxy, a common customal observance.  In the Qur'an, therefore, a 'believer' is not one who has made an assent to a list of propositions, like the various Creeds or the Thirty-Nine Articles.  He had acquired an immediate, heart shaking apprehension of the divine reality to which he had surrendered, expressing his Islam in the twin practices of prayer (salat) and almsgiving."  (Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, pg. 100)

Interpretation of Law

Types of Law

In the USA we are accustomed to Anglo-Saxon law (based on "cases" and "presidents"). 

It is often difficult for an American to become accustomed to Roman law (based on ideals and desired goals).
[The Canon law of the Church has the same theoretical basis as Roman law.  This often brings difficulties when trying to interpret Roman Catholic liturgical law.]

Islamic law has its own proper theory and characteristics.

Sources of law

1.  Qur'an

2.  Sunnah   [the exemplary conduct of Muhammad] as found in the canonical hadith

3.  Hadith 


Interpretation of Law

Islamic law is a "process" of discerning the Shari'a (literally a "path" marked out to water), that is, discerning God's will for God's human creation.  Shari'a is the way (or path) God wants people to lead their lives.  (Dr. Scott Alexander, class notes).

Law is interpreted (jurisprudence) by

1.  the exercise of interpretive opinion, especially analogical reasoning
2.  the consensus of the community, especially the legal scholars 

In interpreting Roman Catholic canon law, "look to the verb"  [one should,  one must,  It is forbidden to, it is not permitted to, it is invalid if, it is illicit to ... ]  
In Islamic law there are five ethical qualifications (Farah p  )

1.  wajib, fard  obligatory
2.  sunna, mandub  recommended
3.  mubah  indifferent
4.  makruh  reprehensible
5.  haram  forbidden

The Law of Necessity:

 Qur'an 5:3 "As for him, however, who is driven (to what is forbidden) by dire necessity and not by inclination to sinning, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace."

Text on a T-Shirt:  "Necessity makes the forbidden permissible."

There is a principle in Islamic Law that states "Necessities make forbidden things permissible". In fact this principle has become one of the important laws that govern Islamic Jurisprudence. Muslim scholars interpreting and formulating various regulations of Islamic Law have always taken into account this law of necessity.  Ayat 2:173 and 5:3 of al-Qur'an explicitly lay down this principle. The majority of scholars are of the opinion that these two references do not just cover cases of extreme hunger (which make the eating of otherwise prohibited categories of meat permissible) but also other situations in which overwhelming force beyond a person's control may compel him against his will to do something that is normally prohibited by Islamic Law.  (From:  The Muslim Law [Shariah] Council, London)

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Five Pillars

The Five Pillars [or five essential duties] of Islam.  (Islam is more about "right actions" than about "right beliefs".) One who surrenders to God is one who practices the following divinely ordained acts:

1. Shahada   the witness that there is no divinity but God [in Arabic the word "God" is "Allah"] and that Muhammad is his Prophet.

2. Salat    the ritual prayers, or worship services, performed daily during five specified intervals, facing Mecca, at (1) dawn, (2) midday, (3) mid-afternoon, (4) dusk, and (5) after dark.

See Sûrah 17:78-79

3. Zakat   the ritual almsgiving based upon the value of stipulated property.

4. Sawm    fasting during the daylight hours during the month of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Muslim [lunar] calendar). [For an explanation of the Islamic Calendar click here.]

TRR Comment  Fasting for the Muslim is not an act of "penance" as it is for the Christian.  The key to understanding the fast during Ramadan lies in understanding Muhammad's basic concern for human equality.  Every day millions of people are hungry.  During Ramadan we all experience that hunger equally, rich and poor alike.  (This is the same "radical equality" that lies behind everyone dressing in the identical garment for the Hajj.  Rich and poor are not distinguishable by their clothing.)  "It [excessive voluntary penance] also went against Arab tradition:  life had always been hard enough in Arabia without taking on extra risk and suffering."  (Karen Armstrong, A Biography of the Prophet, p 136)  [Goldbrunner (Holiness is Wholeness) makes this same point in Realization: Anthropology of Pastoral Care in his distinction between authentic and inauthentic suffering. 

5. Hajj   the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during the lifetime of each Muslim for those who can afford it.

TRR Comment   In Islam there are three major places of religious pilgrimage:  1) Mecca, 2) Jerusalem, and 3) Medina.  This pilgrimage is not some type of "vacation" or "trip";  it is a "pilgrimage", a return to origins.  Muslims today return to the founding places and try to reconnect with the founding vision of the revelation.  They return home changed.

6.  [A sixth pillar is sometimes added, jihad which means striving, or exertion in the way of God, either personally, by struggle against lack of faith and devotion, or publicly, by preaching, teaching, and, if necessary, armed struggle. The inner striving is the Great jihad.]

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Farah Chapter 8, pp 151-173

Solidarity Through Institutional Unity


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Farah Chapter 9, pp 174-201

Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy


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Farah Chapter 10, pp 202-233

Formalism and Free Expression


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Farah Chapter 11, pp 234-267

"Medievalism" and the Dawn of "Renaissance"


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Farah Chapter 12, pp 268-308

Islamic Resilience


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Farah Chapter 13, pp 309-345

Islamic Dynamism

In this chapter Farah discusses the rapid spread of Islam and gives some reasons for this Dynamism.

1.  Islam is a "big tent" and is receptive to a large diversity of ideas.  There is little "orthodox doctrine".  There is no centralized authority.

When we compare these ideas with our own experience, questions arise as to whether our own very strong centralized authority and hierarchy can cause our tent to be "small".  Is the centralized authority primarily "restrictive" or is there a sense in which it encourages new lines of thought?

Also one can think of the force of authority with which the church has often regulated orthodoxy and heresy.  While the extreme physical tortures of the Inquisition are a thing of the past, contemporary trials can be rigorous.

2.  Islam is a great "equalizer" -- all Muslims are brothers and sisters.

When we compare this reality with their own experience, do we take the doctrine of "the Body of Christ" seriously and act in the realization that we are all one in Christ?  Or has Catholicism become very stratified and hierarchical?  Hierarchy and laity.  Those with powers of jurisdiction and those without?  Compare the requirements to become a priest and bishop to Muslim congregation selecting their imam.  ( I remember when I was with the Muslims at the Branchville Training Center,  and their imam was released after serving his sentence, they simply elected a new imam to lead the assembly.  It is difficult to imagine the Catholics at BTC electing one of their members to be their bishop to oversee the community!) 

In the history of our Catholic community there are many instances which contrast the "radical equality" practiced by Muslims and that practiced by Catholics.  Slavery, for example.  When the Spanish missionaries "brought the faith" to this country they tried to baptized as many natives as possible, but the "higher" sacraments -- Confirmation and Eucharist -- were more restrictive.  Holy Orders was simply beyond the natives.  When I was with the Franciscans in Paris -- during the final days of the Vietnam War -- a young Vietnamese friar lived in the room next to mine.  He was the first native to study for a doctorate in theology.  While the French missionaries permitted some Vietnamese to be priests, only the French could study theology.  Knowledge is power.  Christianity is often seen as a "foreign" religion, that of the colonizers.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.  But our hospitality at this table of "full communion" is very different from what is required to become fully a Muslim -- simply the statement that there is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.

Are these some of the reasons for Islamic Dynamism? 

Do we believe that we should  "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) or is the Church to be a small, purified group, the "little flock" that Jesus speaks of in Luke 12:32?

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Farah Chapter 14, pp 346-387

Islam in Transition


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Farah Chapter 15, pp 388-419

Current Trends


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Farah Chapter 16, pp 420-456

Perspectives on Activist Islam


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To Think About


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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 10/23/13 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at