25th November 2005, 00:59
Finding the Shaykh (what is the Shariah?)
Recent discourse reminded me of one of the essays in Khaled Abou el Fadl's Conference of Books - Finding the Shaykh. While I don't agree with el Fadl on any number of things, I found this oddly cute and too much in divergence with what I have read from classical sources elsewhere (as opposed to contemporary/reformist sources) and indeed believe myself:
Somewere in Cairo, Egypt ...
Sometime after the Zuhr Salat (the Muslim Noon prayer) ...
A disciple describes an encounter with his esteemed Shaykh (Teacher) ...
(The following is an excerpt from Dr. Khaled Abou ElFadl's book titled "Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam", Chapter 48, Pages 219-223
After prayer, I sat beside him waiting, but I did not wish to rush him, so I avoided looking at his face and stared at my lap instead. I had been attending the Shaykh's halaqah (a study circle), but I only had the Shaykh for the summer, so I wanted to read some additional text. He had asked me to think of possibilites, and I relished his company, and so there I sat. The Shaykh was often quiet, and seemed to enjoy the company of his own mind. When he spoke, it was as if his words drizzled, but before long, his words would develop into a tempestuous storm.
The Shaykh eventually looked my way, and said, "So, have you chosen your text?"
"A book of ahkam (postive commandment or law) -- Shaykh, a book of ahkam, I think." After a short pause, I feared what he might suspect, so I added, "I want to study all of Shariah so perhaps al-Hidaya by Al-Marghinani or as much of al-Muhalla by Ibn Hazm as you see fit."
He smiled as if possessing a secret, "You want to study Shariah," he repeated, but then asked, "but what is Shariah?"
I was puzzled by the question, fearing that this was the beginning of a test. "Shaykh,", I said. "Shariah is the way to God -- the truth of the Divine Will."
"Yes, yes," he exclaimed, "but what is its nature? What is the vision?"
Puzzled, again I commented, "Well, the purpose of Shariah is to achieve the welfare of the people (tahqiq masalih al-'ibad)."
"Yes, yes, that is what the sources state, but the nature of something is not its function. For example, I have many functions in life, but are these functions the essence of my nature? Furthermore, if I give you a pound, I have promoted your welfare, but have I necessarily brought out the essence of Shariah?"
I must have looked confused because he looked at me with anticipation, but then continued, "If we are confused about something, we start with the book of God. So, how many times does God use the word or a variant of the word Shariah?"
I felt my mouth dry up, and the eczema on my fingers become irritated by my sweat, "Four times, Shaykh -- twice as nouns and twice as verbs?"
"Yes, that is correct, and how does God use the word?"
I struggled with my memory, but finally responded, "I believe God uses the word to indicate something like a blessing and gift -- like a right way -- the source of goodness." I stopped, but then thought that I might as well throw everything in, so I added, "And, the linguists say Shariah means a water spring."
The Shaykh smiled, "You want to study the ahkam -- the positive laws, the legal enactments, the rules that tell you, do this or don't do that -- but are the ahkam the extent of God's gift?"
I felt that whatever comment I made would lack the necessary depth. But I also knew that Shaykh Husayn had once said that the issue is always the right question. As to the right answer, only God knows best. I paused again, and thought to myself, "At least I am not the one posing the questions." I gathered my strength and offered, "Well, the law is most certainly God's gift. It is what guides us to God's pleasure."
"Most certainly, yes, but that is not what I asked. Let me ask you this, Is it possible for someone to follow the law, but not gain God's pleasure?"
"Yes," I responded. "the person could be insincere or imbalanced or sacrifice a major law for a minor law."
"Okay, good, but then we ask, is it possible for someone to ignore the law and gain God's pleasure?"
"No," I said, "to ignore the law is offensive. It is as if saying to God, I don't care about Your will."
"Okay, and so we ask, is it possible for two people to disagree about the law, while each practices what he believes to be correct, and yet, for their disagreements and respective practices to be blessed?"
"Yes," I said, "And, each will gain God's pleasure if they are diligent and sincere."
"Okay, so we must ask, what is the basis for that?"
Once again, I did not see it, and so simply stated, "Shaykh, I don't understand."
"Khaled, before we get to the law, what do we consider first? What do we engage before we can say we know the law?"
"Shaykh," I said, "I believe it is the dalil or dala'il, the indicators and pointers to God's Will. The evidence that creates a reasonable belief that God wants such or such -- the signs that flag the Divine Will."
"All right my son, so far so good. What if the person honestly and sincerely follows the dalil and does not reach the law?"
"Their effort is blessed," I said, "and God is pleased."
"All right, what if a person whimsically or blindly follows the law, but cares little for the evidence or dalil?"
"I don't believe that blind imitation is blessed." I responded, "There must at least be a reasonable basis for believing that the law is, in fact, what it is. To just follow the law without some evidence seems to be whimsical, ignorant, and arrogant."
"So then, if you live a life consumed by the search for the Divine Will, are you living your life in the light of Shariah?"
"It seems to me to be so," I answered.
"What if you live a life adhering to the laws? Is that, by itself, sufficient for you to say you lived your life persuant to Shariah?"
I was confused because I could not locate the direction of the argument. But I knew that the Shaykh did not speak in vain, so I was silent. The Shaykh looked intently at me as I rubbed my eczema-plagued fingers.
Sensing my hesitation, he said, "Shariah, my son, is not just the ahkam or positive commands, Shariah is a way of life. It is the full process of the law -- the positive command is simply the by-product of the process. Shariah is the way with its signs and posts, with its evidence and indicators, and with its purposes and ends. The positive commands are like the rules of the road, and the rules are part of the Divine way, but the rules, by themselves, are not the way. The positive laws, the ahkam, are the bare minimum for staying on the road; they set the outer limits. But it is possible to follow all the rules and still lose your way. The law does not define justice, it simply sets some of the outer limits of justice. The law does not define morality, it sets some of the outer limits of morality. And the law does not define beauty, it sets some of the outer limits of beauty. Hence, it is possible to follow the outer limits and still be unjust, immoral, and ugly. On the other hand, if you have no regard, even for the outer limits, then you are not just, moral or beautiful."
"Shaykh Husayn," I asked, "are you saying I should study beauty and morality in addition to the law, or are you saying I should study the process of the law?"
Shaykh Husayn smiled at my impatience for the bottom line. "Khaled, my son, I am saying this is the age of ahkam. Every one of your brothers and sisters is interested only in positive commands, but very few are interested in the process of searching for God or God's Will."
I felt that I was disappointing him and so I defensively said, "Shaykh, you mean usul (jurispudence)? I have taken halaqas with ..."
"I know, I know," he cut in, "but I want you to know that the adilla (indicators, plural of dalil) are like the words of the language, and the usul is its grammar. The ahkam are like the full sentences of a language. If you memorize full sentences but do not comprehend the grammar, you will not be able to use a language. The reality is that you simply don't know a language if you memorize the sentences and ignore the vocabulary and grammar. I will put it to you in a different way. The ahkam are like the medicine and the usul its doctor. How could you study the medicine but have no idea how or when to apply it? Could you memorize the types of medicines but ignore the art of prognosis or diagnosis? Importantly, medicine and doctors cannot be equated with a state of good health. You could follow the advice of doctors and take their prescribed medicines, but still be in poor health. To be in good health, you will need to do more than see doctors and take medicines. You need to eat right, exercise, rest, and perhaps do other things as well."
"Now, we have to remember that the outer limits of goodness -- the ahkam -- have an intricate system of proof, cause and purpose. You cannot claim to know the law if you do not understand the proof, and cause, and purpose of the law. And, you cannot equate the law to the full and total Divine way; the law is but the boundaries of that way."
"My son, what I am saying is, we must live a life of total service to God. But we should not serve the law just with our bodies and will, but serve the law with our conscience and intellect as well. Compliance requires the submission of the body, but the process demands the engagement of the intellect. However, the engagement of the body and intellect should not mislead you into thinking that the conscience can now rest. The mind can navigate the road, and the body can walk the road, but it is the conscience, my son, that can tell you if the Divine Will has been fulfilled."