Shariah and Religious Absolutism.
By: Farzana Hassan
Although the wrangling over proposed Shariah tribunals in Ontario ended with Premier Dalton Mcguinty’s surprise decision on September 11th this year, many troubling issues still linger around the controversy, among various Muslim groups. Shariah, regarded by orthodoxy as a complete code of behavior regulating both personal and public life, continues to be championed by these groups, posing potential challenges to Ontario’s recent decision. Although seen by many as patriarchal and inflexible, most Muslims consider it an obligation to abide by its dictates as part of their religious observance.
Opponents of Shariah, on the other hand, have acted on the pretext that it discriminates against women and minorities, due largely to its pseudo-Islamic content. Not only have they argued against the inappropriateness of Shariah law within the Canadian context, they have also invoked its unconstitutionality under Canadian law, asserting a parallel legal system would create inequities in society by placing entire segments of populations at risk of discrimination.
Islamically, the polemics on both sides of the debate hinge on whether the Quran’s message, in all its doctrinal, moral or legislative aspects can be considered eternal and immutable in the absolute sense. Most Muslims believe it is. Since they consider it Divinely inspired, they assert it cannot be tampered with, nor abandoned in favour of secular laws. According to this line of reasoning, those opposing Shariah relinquish their right to be considered “practicing” Muslims, if at all.
Such religious absolutism which endorses literal applications of the Quran without examining their antecedents, tends to be resistant to the slightest change or reform. The “Islamization” of Pakistan by the late president Ziaul Haqq, for example resulted in the introduction of Quranic punishments for adultery and fornication, the barring of women from testifying in murder and adultery cases, and the institutionalization of half deeyat or blood money as compensation for women victims of manslaughter. Elsewhere in the Muslim world such as Saudi Arabia, the institutions of hijab and seclusion have resulted in the social and economic marginalization of its female citizens. In Canada, Shariah law would have been confined to dispensing divorce and alimony cases, but with negative consequences for women due to its inherent patriarchal character.
Religious absolutism must therefore be questioned not only for its rigidity but also for its practicability in modern times. A belief in the immutability of the Quranic message cannot and must not be understood in an absolute sense. Absolutism endorsing literal applications of the Quran could function only if one rejected the view that societies evolved. Yet, change is inevitable. And while the doctrinal and moral principles of the Quran can be regarded as eternal, its legislative injunctions must be revisited from time to time in accordance with modern challenges.
Ironically earlier Muslims understood the notion of the Quran’s immutability far better than successive generations. When Omar, the second caliph of Islam suspended Quranic punishments for theft during times of economic hardship, he exercised practical wisdom while still holding sacrosanct, the principles of justice and equity expounded in the Quran.
It is about time the tradition of ijtihad , understood as independent reasoning, were revived within Islam as a force for change. Women and minorities continue to suffer injustices under puritanical Islamic regimes. It is essential that these policies be reviewed in order to bring Islamic societies in line with modern standards of gender equity and universalism.
Dalton’s Mcguinty’s decision is a step in the right direction.
Farzana Hassan is a freelance writer and member of the Progressive Muslims Union.