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Sharia: product of human interpretation

October 5, 2005

Last week I went to a guest lecture by Prof Abdullahi An-Na’im. The title was:

“Two difficult problems in the Islamic debate about human rights: position of women and of non-Muslims”

I expected to hear more about things like female genital mutilation etc, so I was surprised when he started with Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, I find his lecture concerning shari’a very refreshing, so here we go…

He progressed to mention that there’s no single foundation of human rights, since there’re multiple values, commitments, concepts and contents available. Due to the fact that human being everywhere is different, human right would also mean the right to be the same and to be different.

Then the audience was asked to see every Muslim as human being instead of as entity, as state or political organs. Muslim is always a human being living in a local/ regional cultural and political context.

To speak of human rights in the context of Islam, it’d be impossible not to mention shari’a. According to him, to coerce shari’a is inconsistent with the idea of shari’a itself. He explained that shari’a, historically seen, is a product of human interpretation process of the Qur’an, and collection, verification and interpretation of the Sunnah during the first three centuries of Islam. From the very beginning, there’re much disagreement and disputation among the scholars and the jurists in their interpretations. Since the Qur’an does not speak, the people speak for it, while the limited human understanding of Qur’an can not be divine.

In his view, Muslims do have a right to self-determination, including the right to define and express their Islamic identity as they deem fit. But that cannot be on the basis of enactment and enforcement of shari’a as such, because whatever norms are enforced as positive law is the political will of the state, and can never be shari’a as commonly understood by Muslims to mean the expression of divine will.

If Muslims stress the importance of self-determination, the enforcement of shari’a will necessarily mean denying some Muslims citizens the right to personally conform with what they accept as valid interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead of realization, the coercion negates the possibility of an Islamic way of life.

His closing remark, in accordance with the topic of human rights, impresses me very much:

The debate concerning human rights of women and non-Muslim is most critical and more resistant, since they are power and privileges dressed up in religious verses.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 6, 2008 13:22

    Due to the fact that human being everywhere is different, human right would also mean the right to be the same and to be different.

    This idea of multiculturalism is indeed problematic as it negates and accepts the universal– such as individual free will and his/her dignity — at the same time. Zizek and Ayn rand talk about this in their writings.

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