Enforcing the Shariah: Some Critical Considerations

Enforcing the Shariah: Some Critical Considerations

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

Most present-day ‘revolutionary’ Islamic movement have as their foremost priority the enforcement of the shariah as state law. Based on an extremely simplistic and romanticized vision, these movements believe that the cause for the decline of the Muslims, and, indeed, for all the manifold problems is the fact that Muslim societies and countries are presently not ruled by the shariah. Hence, they regard the imposition of the shariah as state law is the master-key, as it were, to solve all their problems. They take it as something that must at once be implemented by order of the state. They believe that when this happens, the Muslim ummah will once again walk on the path of progress, strength and glory and would, in fact, establish its domination all across the world.

It is undoubtedly true that the shariah exists in order to be implemented. It is also true that Islam is a way of life, and not simply a bundle of rituals to be followed by individuals in their personal lives. Islamic life must, indeed, be regulated by Islamic law and morality. If, for some reason, it is not possible for Muslims to abide by all shariah rules, or if some Muslims themselves choose not to do so, at the very least they ought to believe in them.

Today, especially in the West, efforts are underway to manufacture new interpretations of Islam in which the shariah has, if at all, only a minimal role to play. This is particularly unfortunate. But, in my view, this attempt can be seen, in part, as a reaction or response to the strident calls on the part of certain Islamist groups for the immediate and total enforcement of the shariah as public law across the Muslim world. These Islamist circles are perturbed as to why the West is so scared and opposed to the enforcement of shariah in Muslim countries. Despite this, they have failed to seriously think about this opposition to the shariah and about how the fears regarding establishing the shariah it can be allayed.

It cannot be denied that these very same ‘revolutionary’ Islamist groups are primarily to blame, through their words and deeds, for creating an image of Islam as a tyrannical or oppressive system, rather than as the source of mercy that it is, if it is interpreted properly. A good example in this regard is of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the name of enforcing the shariah, they sought to impose, using brute force, inflexible medieval fiqh rules on the hapless people of their land, both Muslims and others. Now, their successors, the ‘neo-Taliban’ in Pakistan, are trying to do the same. The barbarism they are indulging in, in the name of Islam, simply has no parallels in the modern world. Likewise, in the name of acting according to the dictates of the shariah, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini passed a fatwa calling for the death of the controversial author Salman Rushdie. The only thing this fatwa was able to achieve was to convert Rushdie into a hero in anti-Islamic circles and to reinforce the misplaced image of the shariah as an unsheathed sword that is a major threat to the entire world. Likewise, in countries such as Egypt and Algeria, radicals who pose themselves as ardent champions of shariah rule or what they call the ‘Islamic system’ have played no small role in creating enormous chaos that has led to untold violence and the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Undoubtedly, many of these activists were horribly tortured by the Muslim regimes they were opposed to who, are closely allied to the West. But, still, this did not justify their engaging in violence and oppression.

Islam does not consist simply or even primarily of laws. It also includes morality and spirituality. In this regard, it is striking to note what the Prophet once said—that he had been sent by God to lead to the culmination of morality.  That is why even in times of war Islam insists that Muslims must abide by certain moral codes, practices and values.

In contrast to what some simple-minded Islamists, swayed by emotionally-driven sloganeering, might think, the enforcement of the shariah in all spheres of society is far from being a simple matter. After all, this effort must deal with the fact of modern society being very complex and highly plural, consisting of people with different mentalities, outlooks and worldviews. For people to accept to be ruled by the shariah requires a long and gradual process of training and nurturing that will need to pass through various stages. Without going through these stages, trying to enforce the shariah would be like trying to produce a chick without an egg.

If one takes an objective view of efforts to enforce the shariah by various movements in the Indian subcontinent over the last three hundred years or so, one would have to conclude that they have produced no results at all. Indeed, these failed efforts have only resulted in strife and destruction. The foremost such example was the movement launched in the early nineteenth century by Syed Ahmad Barelvi and his disciple Shah Ismail. These leaders sought to impose the shariah at once, without any regard for the consequences of doing so. Therefore, the ‘Islamic government’ that they managed to set up near Peshawar, through which they sought to enforce the shariah, came to an abrupt end in a very short while, leading to the complete destruction of their movement.

For any such movement to succeed it is, clearly, not enough that its leaders be motivated by sincerity and firm faith in God. After all, there have always existed such movements consisting of sincere believers, but most of them have not been able to succeed one bit in achieving their goals. The fact remains that efforts to establish the shariah must take cognizance of various factors, particularly various Islamic principles. One of these is the principle of gradualism. It was in reference to this point that Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet, noted that in the beginning of the Prophet’s mission, those verses of the Quran were revealed to him that spoke of heaven and hell. After people repented of their ways and accepted Islam, and their capacity to follow divine commandments was strengthened, verses dealing with rules regarding forbidden (haram) and permissible (halal) things began to be revealed. Ayesha added that if, for instance, the commandment to abstain from alcohol had been revealed in the first stage itself, people would have refused to ever abide by it. Likewise, she said, if in the first stage the Quran had forbidden them from engaging in adultery, they would have insisted that they would never abandon it.

The Quran did not ban the consumption of alcohol in one go. Rather, this commandment was a gradual one, which passed through several stages. This point, and the statement of Ayesha mentioned above, well illustrates the principle of gradualism in seeking to establish the shariah. This principle is also clearly evident from the fact that when the son of the Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz asked him why he did not openly and directly crush strife and oppression and immediately impose shariah rules in this regard, he replied, ‘Son! Do not be in a hurry because God condemned the consumption of alcohol twice in the Quran and [only] on the third occasion declared it forbidden. I fear that if I try to make people follow the right path fully they might abandon the true path, leading to terrible strife.’

Another important Islamic principle that must be kept in mind when seeking to establish the shariah is that of properly choosing priorities. This is to say, one should be clear as to which issues need to be taken up and worked on first and which later. This principle is well illustrated in the life of the Prophet. Thus, in Mecca he focused only on inviting people to Islam and on spiritually nurturing his disciples. When some of his followers wanted to go to the Ka‘abah to pray, he advised them against it because, he said, the Muslims were still small in number. When he shifted to Medina, the Prophet focused all his energies on peaceful missionary work and on the moral, intellectual and spiritual training of new converts to Islam so that a community of Muslims could be formed qualified to fulfill the personal and collective responsibilities required of them by Islam. In this way, the Prophet exemplified the principle of setting priorities in his effort to establish the shariah.

A third key principle in this regard is to create ease when seeking to engage in some effort. This applies to efforts to establish the shariah as well. In this regard, the Prophet said, ‘Islam [din] is easy, and you [Muslims] have been sent as people who create ease, not those who create harshness and difficulties.’ This is why, for instance, the Prophet brought into the fold of Islam some people who insisted that they would not pay the zakat.

A fourth principle to be followed with regard to social reformation and the establishment of the shariah in society is to tolerate a lesser evil in place of a larger one. This principle was well exemplified by the Prophet, who did not reconstruct the Ka ‘abah on its original lines as laid down by the prophet Abraham, even though he could have done so after he returned to Mecca in victory and had gained full control over the town. When Ayesha asked him why he chose not to reconstruct the Ka‘abah on the pattern established by Abraham, he replied that her people (by which he meant the Meccan Quraish) had only recently become Muslims, and so they might resent it if he did so.

To bring a single wayward individual to the right path needs much time, tolerance, patience, and determination. How much more of all these is needed to reform an entire society or country can only be imagined. The most deadly fault of ‘revolutionary’ groups whose slogan is ‘the enforcement of the shariah’ is their misplaced belief that this task is very simple and can be immediately accomplished simply by grabbing political power. They regard the capture of state power as the most important and basic step in this regard. If this were to happen, they fondly imagine, they can easily impose the shariah on their people and and their countries can hereby be transformed into ‘Islamic states’. The fact of the matter is that most of the activists of such groups are driven by strong emotions and have no idea of the difficulties and sensitivities involved in such a task as seeking to establish the shariah in complex modern-day societies. They mistakenly believe that if they capture state power and impose the shariah as the law of the land, their societies will automatically become Islamic in the true sense of the term.

A ‘revolutionary’ Islamist ideologue, who is immensely popular in Islamist circles, has written in one of his many books that the state is like the engine of a train, which can take the passengers sitting inside the bogies of the train in whichever direction it likes, even against their will. Hence, he insists, ‘revolutionary’ Muslims must first capture the ‘engine’—the levers of state power—after which they can enforce the shariah and force people, even against their will, to abide by its rules. In this way, he says, the ‘Islamic system’ can be established.

This, to my mind, is not at all a truly Islamic way of thinking. It does not represent the intention of the Quran and the Prophet’s practice. In fact, this type of thinking is deeply influenced by Communism, which Islamist ‘revolutionaries’ consider as one of their principle foes. This distorted way of thinking is based on force and compulsion, which are clearly and sternly forbidden in Islam. Islam seeks to transform people’s thinking and behaviour not through coercion but through appropriate moral, intellectual and spiritual training and nurturing and by convincing them of its stance. When, gradually, individuals begin to observe the rules of Islam in their personal lives as a result of such training, a truly Islamic society can come into being.  Such a society cannot be expected to be created by state diktat, as ‘revolutionary’ Islamists imagine. Social change can come about only through the transformation of individuals, not through imposition of laws by the state on people against their will. This is what the Quran teaches us when it says:

‘Allah does not change a people’s lot unless they change what is in their hearts’ (13: 11).

The conditions of today’s Muslims are such that even though they might believe in the shariah laws and in the need for their enforcement in political and collective affairs, their minds are not ready to accept this enforcement in practical terms. They do not want their entire lives to be guided and controlled by the shariah. That is why if an effort is made for this purpose they will be the first to revolt against it. The fate that met the movement launched by Syed Ahmad Barelvi and Shah Ismail is ample testimony to this—it was violently opposed by the very Muslims they sought to rule according to the shariah.

A crucial point that needs to be noted here is that many aspects of the available corpus of fiqh are in urgent need of review in the light of ijtihad. Without reviewing and suitably reformulating these prescriptions, efforts to establish the shariah (which is mistakenly seen by some as synonymous with traditional fiqh) are bound to fail. This, in turn, will give the shariah itself a bad name. To make the issue of establishing the shariah as state law even more complicated is the existence of different, sometimes competing, interpretations of the shariah that are upheld by different Muslim sects and schools of law. This is an issue that is yet to be resolved. Another crucial matter is to convince non-Muslims, not just through our claims but also in practice, that establishing the shariah will indeed lead to justice. The noted classical Islamic scholar Allah Ibn Taimiyah rightly remarked, ‘An infidel government that practices justice can survive, but a Muslim government cannot survive if it practices oppression.’ The pathetic state of various Muslim governments in power throughout the world today can be properly understood in the light of this assertion.

In today’s context, it is imperative that Islamic movements place the matter of the formal enforcement of the shariah at the end of their list of priorities, and, instead, focus on solving the various social ills that are so widespread and deeply-rooted in Muslim communities and countries—issues such as illiteracy, economic exploitation, mounting inequalities, corruption, gender injustice, gross violation of human rights, and so on. Among their foremost priorities should also be raising the awareness and intellectual standards of the people so as to enable them to think about issues rationally instead of being driven simply by emotions and empty sloganeering. In this way they will be able to make a major contribution in addressing and removing widespread misunderstandings about Islam and the Islamic shariah, and will also help pave the way for a meaningful establishment of the shariah in their societies.


Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.


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