[This essay is part of the Critiques series.]

The affiliation of ISIS with the Wahhabi school of thought (prevalent in Saudi Arabia) is well documented in the media. What’s less well known, are the commonalities between mainstream sharia and such ‘radical ideologies.’ Sunnis and Shias try and distance themselves from ISIS-type expressions of ‘sharia law’ by claiming that their own beliefs are vastly different. But how different are they really? The most contemptible crime committed by ISIS is fully sanctioned by all mainstream sectarian sharia codes, as I’ll show. But this is not a fault of Islam. None of these ‘sharia codes’ are Islamic, because they can be clearly proven to contradict the Quran.

All the major schools of ‘islamic jurisprudence’ list the Quran at the top of their orders of priority for deriving law, followed by the sunnah/hadith, with caveats added by each school according to its own criteria of hadith authenticity.1 This sounds reasonable. The Quran is considered to be authentic, even by modern Western scholarship (despite some fringe claims) so we don’t have to worry about it.21 The hadith; however, is a different story. Which is why the jurists claim that the law they derive from the hadith does not contradict the Quran… But is this actually true? I’ve presented some cases in previous essays which prove this claim to be false, and will present another case here.

But first, let’s examine the authenticity of hadith in general, since it is the basis for the “major bulk”of sharia law.2 The most authentic class of hadith is known as mutawatir. This is the only class of hadith which is considered fool-proof, because its been narrated by enough independent sources that the probability of its fabrication and/or incorrect transmission is very low. If we had a lot of these mutawatir hadiths, we would have something to work with. But we don’t.

One modern scholar who has done a lot of work in this area is Wael Hallaq. Hallaq has been described as: “one of the most prominent, talented, prolific, and influential scholars in the field of Islamic studies, living or dead… Suffice it to say that when Wael B. Hallaq speaks, historians of Islamic law listen.3  Hallaq is fan of Edward Said and shares his disdain for Orientalist scholarship, which he labels as “essentially imperialistic.” I say all of this, so the reader does not label Hallaq as just another biased Westerner who is critiquing Muslim beliefs. Hallaq wrote about the search for mutawatir hadith by traditional ‘islamic scholars,’ among whom was one Ibn al-Salah (1181 – 1245), a very well known and respected sunni scholar. Regarding this wild goose chase, Hallaq comments:

“He (Ibn al-Salah) argued in categorical terms that the mutawadtir is a rarity. ‘He who is asked to produce an example of a hadith that transmitted in a mutawdatir [fashion] will be exhausted by his search.’ In his own search for such hadiths, he could cite only one, presumably narrated by more than a hundred Companions: ‘He who intentionally lies concerning something I [viz., the Prophet] have said will gain a seat in Hellfire.’4 … “When these formal methods of inquiry were applied, Ibn al-Salah himself found that the mutawatir is virtually non-existent… “5 Other scholars also tried to search for this class of hadith, but without much success: “Therefore, it is possible that the total number of mutawadtir hadiths he (Abd al-Shakfir) cited may even be less than four, with the possible result that the number of such hadiths in toto (in total) may fall short of even eight or nine.”6

So there’s the problem. The only authentic class of hadith, (according to the mainstream’s own criteria) numbers only a handful of narrations, one of which is strictly warning us not to attribute false information to the prophet. Ironic coincidence? I doubt it. Imagine how many people must have heard the prophet say this in order for this exact command of the prophet to make it into this actually authentic category of hadith, which only has less than ten narrations in total. Obviously, the prophet must have kept repeating this command over and over again to many people around him. He was an intelligent man, and the historical mistakes of the Jews and Christians were before him. He would’ve realized that the easiest way to corrupt Muslims would be to lead them astray via false narrations attributed to him, since corrupting the Quran wasn’t an option. The early companions of the prophet made sure of that. Yet, that still didn’t stop our juristic scholars from completely ignoring this prophetic order, as we will see.

Ibn al-Salah didn’t stop there. Knowing how rare mutawattir hadith were, he then argued (completely ignoring the prophet’s order that he himself discovered) that any hadith which is present in both the Bukhari and Muslim hadith compilations should be considered as certain truth.7 Hallaq states that this claim “cannot be taken seriously by modern scholars” for two reasons: 1) The claim was highly controversial even among traditional scholars for logical and epistemological reasons, by a significant majority. 2) If hadith is elevated to a level of certainty by consensus of the scholars, then hadith can’t sanction the authority of consensus, because the logic of that is circular, and the scholars were fully aware of this fallacious reasoning. In fact, those scholars themselves, by in large, did not consider ‘sahih hadith’ as certain. For example, Al-Nawawi “vehemently argued” that unless the sahih is of the mutwattir category, it will always remain “probable” and “never attain the level of certainty.8 This is why Hallaq has argued that “Muslim jurists themselves have long acknowledged ‘the precarious epistemological status’ of hadith texts.9

So why don’t we hear about this at our Friday sermons? All we hear from the sectarian imams is how important hadith is. If their own jurists have “long acknowledged” the insufficient veracity of the hadith, why are they telling everyone to blindly follow it? Moreover, why have they elevated hadith to such a high stature in the first place?

This is where I diverge from Hallaq’s sympathies for the mistakes and errors of the ‘muslim world.’ Shortly after 9/11, Hallaq wrote a paper in defense of Muslims, blaming the forced modernity imposed upon our lands due to colonialism as the root cause of “Muslim Rage.”10 He argues that the authority and influence of the traditional jurists on the community was so swiftly cut away by the modern nation-state that it forced a backlash, which caused the mess that we are in today. I appreciate Hallaq’s intentions, just as I appreciate others like him. What makes them genuine intellectuals, is that they are not afraid to focus on the faults of their own civilization before they fault others.

This is what we Muslims should be doing. Instead, what we usually do is hijack their arguments to excuse our own weaknesses. That’s not what’s supposed to happen. The question we should be asking is: If the traditional jurists and their jurisprudence was so stellar, then why did our societies become weak and suffer defeat and humiliation? I’ve made the case in previous pieces and will continue to fortify this general point in future essays that: The reason for our debasement is that we have not been filtering out the nonsense in our societies using the axioms of the Quran. We abandoned the Quran, so God abandoned us.

It must also be made clear here, that if anyone argues that the Quran is too ambiguous, and unclear, or that it leaves out details required to derive laws, then that claim itself contradicts the Quran. There are many verses in the Quran which make this apparent:

  • “And We have revealed the Book to you, a clarification/explanation of everything, and a guidance and mercy and good news for those who submit.” (16:89.)
  • And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers” (5:44.)
  • Shall I then seek a judge other than Allah? And He it is Who has revealed to you the Book (which is) made plain; and those whom We have given the Book know that it is revealed by your Lord with truth, therefore you should not be of the disputers.” (6:114.)
  • Further examples: 41:3, 7:52, 75:16-19, 2:185, 15:1, 39:27, 24:46 etc.

Blaming the Quran for ambiguity or incompleteness is a ridiculous mistake for anyone who claims to be a Muslim. You might as well just give up on Islam instead, because if you believe the Quran is insufficient for deriving a complete set of laws from its axioms, then you’re basically saying that these verses above are false. A much better and logically consistent argument is that anything that God left out of the Quran, was purposeful omitted in order to prevent the formation of counter-productive laws. This follows directly from the verses presented above, according to which, all Islamic law has to be directly derived from the Quran. This is the only deductive conclusion one can reach without incurring a contradiction with the above verses.

Now let’s look at that example which shows how closely related the ‘radicals’ are to the mainstream schools of jurisprudence: Slavery. Many mainstream ‘muslims’ wonder how ISIS can be so insane when they hear reports of ISIS running amok in the Levant, capturing women and forcing them into sex slavery.11 However, ISIS is merely applying rules that their own sectarian jurists have created. According to mainstream sharia law, non-Muslims can be forced into slavery by conquering their territory.12 Moreover, sex-slavery is condoned by mainstream sharia law, which contains “elaborate regulations” and justifications for it, including arguments like the following: “it is a means for satisfying the sexual desire of the female slave and thereby preventing the spread of immorality in the Muslim community13 Yes, you read that right. According to mainstream justifications, sex slavery is a means to prevent immorality in society! In colonial times, slave owners actually used ‘sharia courts’ and ‘Islamic law’ to resist colonial antislavery efforts.14 The problem was especially pronounced for female slaves, for which sharia laws are even more confused, because of the differentiation applied to ‘concubines.’ Slave owners tried to and take full advantage of these sharia laws as well.15 So while Hallaq can blame his side for forcing Muslims to abandon traditionalist jurisprudence, we must do our due diligence and examine the crazed content of what our jurists were actually telling us to follow.

Just keep reminding yourself that this is mainstream sharia law we’re talking about. This isn’t ISIS. These ‘radical’ groups are drawing inspiration for their sex-slavery from standard sharia systems which condone such practices.16 The only reason we don’t see this behavior in the mainstream today is because the rest of the world pressured the ‘muslim world’ to abandon slavery and sex-slavery. Lest we forget, famous mainstream scholars like Mawdudi fiercely resisted the international calls for abolition of slavery even as recently as the late 1970s.17

Finally, let’s analyze how mainstream jurisprudence on slavery and sex slavery contradicts the Quran. Right off the bat, the first thing to accept is that the Quran never once mentions the buying or selling of slaves by Muslims.18 The mainstream jurisprudence instead allows captured non-Muslims (i.e. prisoners of war) to be turned into slaves. Yet this legal ruling can be easily shown to contradict the Quran. W. G. Clarence-Smith has cited G. A. Parwez as being a significant figure who opposed this mainstream view.19 Parwez cited the verse 47:4: “So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates.” (By the way, this verse is referring to defensive engagements, not aggressive imperial conquests which are not allowed by the Quran.) It is apparent from this verse that prisoners of war must be either freed “as a favor” or released via ransom while the war is ongoing. No where in the Quran will one find the allowance of turning prisoners of war into slaves or sex-slaves. This verse is so critical to this issue that Parwez stated in reference: “The door for future slavery was thus closed by the Quran forever.”

The mainstream jurists; however, ignore all of this. They would rather focus on the many hadiths within the Bukhari collection where the prophet (allegedly) distributed prisoners of war as property, discouraged freeing of slaves and owned slaves himself (e.g. 1:8:367,  3:41:5983:47:765, 3:43:648 and many others.) Except that this clearly violates their own orders of priority, where the Quran is supposed to be at the top, and any hadith which contradicts the Quran is automatically supposed to be invalidated. Reality is that the jurists have used the hadith to over-rule the Quran, because fabrications suit vested interests much better. Whenever they point to the Quran to find a basis for slavery, they can only find verses which are referring to the remainder of slaves in society who were to be freed gradually, or outright misinterpretation of the phrase “those who your right hands possess.20 But there is simply no law that can be derived directly from the Quran where a person can be sold into slavery or captured in war and turned into a slave.

Ignorantia juris non excusat (“ignorance of the law excuses not,”) that’s the principle against which the sectarian mainstream must defend itself. Why are they unaware of their own sharia laws and their contradictions with regards to the Quran? How can they criticize ISIS while blindly following their own counter-Quranic doctrines, which sanction the worst crimes committed by ISIS? It almost seems as if the only difference between the mainstream and the ‘radicals,’ is that the latter are crazy enough to openly act on their doctrines. While the ‘mainstream’ sunnis/shias hypocritically hide behind a veil of voluntary ignorance and apathy. Every Friday they go to their mosques and hear sermons based mostly on unauthentic hadiths, that have been used to derive their sharia laws. Yet, they never bother to verify the credibility of those derivations, nor dare to openly reject their sectarian schools of thought. Lamenting the lost glories of some past ‘golden age,’ while vying for victimhood in the present, this is neither honorable nor dignified, let alone a valid solution for the future.

Postscript: I was advised that I should directly address the standard mainstream response to the line of reasoning presented in this essay. I’ve done that in a follow up essay: The Hidden History of Our ‘Islamic Jurisprudence’

  1. Ramadan, Hisham M.  (2006). Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary. Rowman Altamira. pp. 26-29 
  2.  Hallaq, Wael. “Muslim Rage” and Islamic Law.” University of California, Hastings College of the Law UC Hastings Scholarship Repository. 2002. pg 1708-1709. 
  3.  Powers, David S. “Wael B. Hallaq on the Origins of Islamic Law: A Review Essay.” Islamic Law and Society 17 (2010) p. 126, 129 
  4.  Hallaq, W. (1999). “The Authenticity of Prophetic Ḥadîth: A Pseudo-Problem.” Studia Islamica, (89), pg 87. (via JSTOR. although I think this paper is available online for free, search for it on google.) 
  5. ibid, page 89. 
  6. ibid, page 88. 
  7. ibid, page 89. 
  8. ibid, page 85. 
  9. ibid, 128. 
  10. Hallaq, Wael. “Muslim Rage” and Islamic Law.” University of California, Hastings College of the Law UC Hastings Scholarship Repository. 2002. pg, 1708-179, 
  11. Lima, Mauricio. “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape: Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool.” The New York Times, AUG. 13, 2015 
  12. Sikainga, A. (1995). Shari’a Courts and the Manumission of Female Slaves in the Sudan, 1898-1939. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 28(1), pg 6. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/221303 
  13. ibid, pg 7 
  14. ibid, pg 1 
  15. ibid, pg 14. 
  16.  Forte, D. (1992). Calling for an Islamic Reformation. The Review of Politics, 54(1), pg 161. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1407935 
  17. W. G. Clarence-Smith (2006). Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford University Press. pp. 188 
  18.  Jonathan E. Brockopp (1 January 2000). Early Mālikī Law: Ibn ʻAbd Al-Ḥakam and His Major Compendium of Jurisprudence. BRILL, pg 131. 
  19. W. G. Clarence-Smith, p. 198. 
  20.  Parwez, G.A., Lughat-ul-Quran, Quranic Education Society, Norway. Toul-e-Islam Trust, Pakistan. Vol 2, pg 537-538, 760 
  21.  Francis E. Peters (1994). Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. SUNY Press. pp. 257–. ISBN 978-0-7914-1875-8