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Tendency of Rationalizing the Laws of the Shariah

"Why do we have to pray five times a day?" "Why are dogs and hogs regarded
unclean (najis)?" "Why is an animal slaughtered in a non-Islamic way forbidden (haram)
and unclean?" These are but a few of the many questions asked by our youngsters
about the laws of the Shari’ah. They want to "rationalize" each and every law of
the shari’ah; they want to know the reason and purpose of the legislation of
these laws. Before explaining the validity or otherwise of the "rationalization"
of the shari’ah, it seems necessary to clarify the fundamental attitude of a
Muslim towards the shari’ah.

"Why do we have to pray five times a day?" "Why are dogs and hogs regarded
unclean (najis)?" "Why is an animal slaughtered in a non-Islamic way forbidden (haram)
and unclean?" These are but a few of the many questions asked by our youngsters
about the laws of the Shari’ah. They want to "rationalize" each and every law of
the shari’ah; they want to know the reason and purpose of the legislation of
these laws. Before explaining the validity or otherwise of the "rationalization"
of the shari’ah, it seems necessary to clarify the fundamental attitude of a
Muslim towards the shari’ah.

Islam is a Deen – religion. Deen means a complete system of life consisting of
beliefs and laws. To know the Islamic attitude towards the laws of the shari’ah,
we have to study the Qur’an and Hadith. In the Qur’an and hadith, we find two
different attitudes towards two different aspects of deen. These two aspects of
deen are: a) the fundamental beliefs known as Usul ud-Deen, the roots of
religion; b) the laws of the shari’ah, known in general as Furu ud-Deen, the
branches of religion.

In regard to the "roots of religion", Islam expects Muslims to hold our belief
in the fundamentals of our religion after attaining conviction of their truth
through examination and reflection. The Qur’an clearly condemns those who follow
others blindly in matters of beliefs: "There is no compulsion in [accepting the] religion [of Islam because] truly the Right Way has become clearly distinct from
error." (2:256) Again, the Qur’an says: "And when it is said to them, ‘Come to
what Allah has sent down, and the Messenger,’ they say, ‘Enough for us is what
we found our fathers doing.’ What, even if their fathers had knowledge of naught
and were not rightly-guided?" (5:104) This strong condemnation of the
idol-worshippers is repeated elsewhere: "And when it is said to them, ‘Follow
what Allah has sent down,’ they say, ‘No, but we will follow such things as we
found our fathers doing.’" (2:170 and 31:20) Islam says that one may consider
the views and opinions of others, but that one should only accept that which is
reasonable to believe: "So give (O Muhammad) good tidings to My servants who
give ear to the word and follow the fairest of it. Those are they whom Allah has
guided, and those are men possessed of minds." (39:17)

Likewise, in the books of narrations, we find the Prophet and the Imams of Ahlul
Bayt (peace be upon them) using intellectual arguments in matters of beliefs to
convince their opponents or the seekers of truth. This itself is an example and
Sunnah for the Muslims to base our beliefs on understanding and conviction. But
when it comes to the "branches of religion", Islam expects absolute obedience
from Muslims. The reason of this expectation is very obvious: once a Muslim has
believed, by his own free will, in Allah as the Creator and the Wise Author of
laws, in Muhammad as the infallible Messenger of Allah, and in the Qur’an as the
message of Allah, it follows as a necessary consequence that he must adhere to
the shari’ah. This absolute obedience regarding the shari’ah can be inferred
from the following verses:

"It behooves not a believing man and believing woman that they should have any
choice in their affairs when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter; and
whosoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he surely has strayed off a manifest
straying." (33:36)

"O you who believe! Do not take precedence before Allah and His Messenger [in
matters of the shari’ah] and fear Allah; surely Allah is Hearing, Knowing."
(49:1)

"O you who believe! Obey Allah, obey the Messenger, and those who are in
authority among you (i.e., the Imams)." (4:59)

"We have not sent a Messenger but to be obeyed." (4:64)

To summarize: In Islamic beliefs, a Muslim is expected to believe only after
reflection; and in Islamic laws, he is expected to follow them without any
reservations.

Now, we come to the problem that why such and such law of the shari’ah was
legislated. Considering the reasons and purposes of the laws, the shari’ah can
be divided into four categories:

The First Category

The laws whose reasons and purposes are self-evident, like helping the needy is
highly recommended, killing is forbidden, paying taxes like khums and zakat is
obligatory. One does not need any expertise or extraordinary intelligence to
know that helping the needy is good, paying taxes is necessary for preserving
the financial equilibrium in the society, and killing and lying is evil.

The Second Category

The laws whose reasons and purposes have been explained in the Qur’an and hadith,
like intoxicants are forbidden, interest is prohibited, fasting in the month of
Ramadan is obligatory, and prayers is obligatory.

The Qur’an and the hadith have said that intoxicants are among the main causes
of evil, because an intoxicated person is no longer in control of himself.
Although it took the world a long time and a bitter experience to realize the
harm of drunkenness, Islam declared its harm and evil 1400 years before by
saying that "its sin is greater than its [financial or other] profit." (2:219)

Interest is prohibited. The Qur’an and hadith have explained the harm of
interest. Interest leads to destruction of the poor section of the society, and
all wealth gravitates towards the already wealthy group. [1]

Fasting is a physical and spiritual training which brings the servants of Allah
nearer to Him and makes them more obedient to the shari’ah.

Prayer is a means of expressing our gratitude to Allah. "O you who believe! Eat
of the good things that We have provided you with and thank Allah." (2:172) It
is an important way of achieving peace of mind. "Surely by Allah’s remembrance
are the hearts set at rest" (13:28). And it is also a very effective method of
making the believer more obedient to the laws of Allah. "Surely prayer keeps
(one) away from indecency and evil." (29:45)

There are many traditions of our Imams explaining the reasons and purposes of
many laws of the shari’ah. Shaikh as-Saduq has collected many of these
narrations in his ‘Ilal ash-Sharaya.

The Third Category

The laws whose reasons and purposes have not been explained in the Qur’an or
hadith, but the rising horizons of human knowledge have helped in understanding
their purpose and usefulness, for example, why the meat of hog is forbidden, why
circumcision is highly recommended by the shari’ah, and why only the fish which
has scales is permitted in Islam. [2]

For the benefit of circumcision, we quote Sherman Silber who says that: "There
are a number of reasons why circumcision is beneficial and why it ought to be
performed in infancy. First, it prevents cancer of the penis in later life.
Cancer of penis generally occurs when there has been carelessness in taking care
of one’s foreskin. A second benefit of circumcision is that the wives of
circumcised men are less commonly afflicted with cancer of the cervix. The most
common benefit of circumcision is that it prevents accumulation of oils and
secretions (called smegma) under the foreskin, which lead to infection,
swelling, and sometimes contraction of the foreskin so the tip of the penis is
trapped inside." [3]

About the fish, it has been said that the fishes that do not have scales are
harmful to human beings. Based on that research, American troops in the east
were directed that "tropical marine fishes without scales were to be left
alone."

It must be mentioned here that the reasons of the shari’ah laws which have been
discovered by human knowledge cannot be regarded as the actual reason (ratio
legis) for the legislation of those laws, because the human knowledge is still
in its infancy whereas Islam, the final shari’ah of Allah, is to stay in
practice up to the end of this world. However, the scientific facts can be used
to explain the usefulness and benefits of the laws of the shari’ah.

The Fourth Category

The laws whose reasons and purposes have neither been explained in the Qur’an
and hadith, nor the new advancement in human knowledge has been able to explain
them. For example, why four units in Dhohr, Asr, and Isha prayers, while only
three in Maghrib, and two in Fajr?

As far as the first three types of laws are concerned, there is not much problem
in explaining their reasons and purposes. The problem arises when one starts to
rationalize the laws which come under the fourth category.

Regarding the laws of the fourth category, the only thing which can be said is
that a Muslim should have complete faith that there surely are useful purposes
in these types of laws. The purposes can be of material or spiritual nature, or
both. Why we should have such a confidence in these laws of the shari’ah?
Because we, the Shia Ithna Asharis, believe that all the actions of Allah have
purpose, and that they are for the benefit of human beings; and this includes
the laws of the shari’ah. [4] On basis of this belief, we must have confidence
that all His laws (including the ones whose purposes are still unknown to us)
have a purpose and benefit for human beings.

One more thing which must be clarified at this point is that it is not the
responsibility of the scholars to discover and explain the purpose and reason
underlying the laws of the shari’ah. Their only duty is to explain the laws of
the shari’ah. The people responsible for discovering and explaining the purposes
of the laws of the shari’ah are those Muslim intellectuals who are experts of
modern science. Unfortunately, very few of them are interested in this aspect of
the shari’ah, and those who are interested lack the knowledge of Qur’an and
hadith.

The belief that although we might not know the reason and purpose of a certain
law of the shari’ah it surely has a good reason and useful purpose behind it can
be understood from the following episode in the Qur’an. This episode also shows
that if we are made aware of its reason, we would readily admit that it was the
very right thing to do.

One day while preaching to his people, Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) thought
that Allah has given him a great privilege and that he is the most learned among
mankind. Allah was not pleased with even such a slight indication of pride in
the mind of Musa, and so Jibrail was sent to inform Musa that there is a person
among the servants of Allah who is more learned than him. He was also given an
address to go and meet this more learned person. Musa, along with one of his
disciples, went to meet the learned person who is named in our narrations as
Khidr. The Qur’an narrates the details of their meeting:

Musa: Can I follow you so that you may teach me the right knowledge of
what you have been taught [by Allah]?
Khidr: Surely you cannot have patience with me. How can you have patience
in [the things or actions] of which you do not have a comprehensive knowledge?
Musa: If Allah wills, you will find me patient, and I shall not disobey
you in any matter.
Khidr: If you would follow me, then do not question me about anything
until I myself speak to you about it.

So they went their way until they reached a river where they embarked in a boat.
When they were in the boat, Khidr made a hole in it.

Musa: Have you made a hole in it to drown its inmates? Surely you have
done a grievous thing!
Khidr: Did I not say that you will not be able to have patience with me?
Musa: O Khidr, do not blame me for what I forgot, and do not constrain me
to a difficult thing in my affair.

Then they went on until they met a boy. Khidr slew that boy.

Musa: Have you killed an innocent person who had not killed someone
else?! Certainly you have done an evil thing.
Khidr: Didn’t I say to you that you will not be able to have patience
with me.
Musa: If I ask you about anything after this, then do not keep me in your
company; indeed, you shall then have found an excuse in my case [to dismiss me
from your company].

They went on until they came to a township. They asked food from the people of
that town, but no one accepted them as guests. In that town they found a wall
which was on the point of falling in ruin, so Khidr repaired the wall and put it
into the right state.

Musa: If you had wished, you might certainly have taken a payment for
this work.
Khidr: This shall be the parting between you and me. But before you
leave, I will inform you of the significance of my actions which you could not
understand:
– As for the boat, it belonged to some poor men who worked on the river. I
wished to damage the boat because a king was coming behind them who seized every
good boat by force.
– As for the boy, his parents were believers, and I feared lest he would oppress
them by rebellion and disbelief. And we desired that their Lord might give then
in his place a better one than him in purity and nearer to having compassion.
– As for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was
beneath it a treasure belonging to them, and their father was a righteous man;
so I rebuilt the wall because your Lord desired that when they attain maturity,
they should take out their treasure, which was a mercy from your Lord.
And moreover, I did not do it of my accord. This is the significance of that
with which you could not have patience. (18:60-82)

If such a great prophet of Allah like Musa could not understand the significance
of the actions of a fellow human being who was more learned than him, then how
can we expect to know the wisdom and purpose of each and every law which has
been legislated by Allah, the Wise, the Omniscient and the Omnipotent?!

References:

[1] For a detailed discussion on interest, see Allama Tabatabai’s al-Mizan
(translated by S.S.A. Rizvi), vol. i, Wofis, Tehran 1982, pp. 295-303.

[2] For a detail discussion on pork, see Pork by S.S. A. Rizvi, published by
Wofis, P.O. Box 2245, Tehran.

[3] Sherman Silber, The Male. New York, 1981, pp. 115-116.

[4] Allama Hilli, al-Babu ‘l-Hadi ‘Ashar, (translated by W.M. Miller), Luzac,
London 1958, pp. 45-46.

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