Islamic Ummah & Sharia

Islam; Ummah & Sharia

All Muslims are part of the ummah. Its formation was accomplished under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Ordained by God, it ties together Muslims of various cultures through their common faith. Its laws were developed by scholars as an attempt to align Muslims with the path of God, called sharia. The ummah is of central importance to Islam and is governed by divine law.

The ummah is the global community of all Muslims. Its concept inspires many to attempt to create politically Islamic states and it influences the government’s role in Islamic affairs even within relatively secular administrations. According to Islam, “the Muslim community (ummah) is a transnational community of believers, God ordained and guided, whose mission is to spread and institutionalize an Islamic Order, to create a socially just society: ‘You are the best community ever brought forth for mankind, enjoining what is good and forbidding evil’ (Q. 3:110)” (WRT, 216). The entire Muslim population makes up the ummah which is guided by God and should, according to the Qur’an, forbid evil. This implies that the ummah needs to understand which things are evil, and then also have the power to forbid it.

Accordingly, “Islam took on political form with the establishment of an Islamic community-state at Medina” (Eastman, 403). Before this, Muhammad and his followers may have felt like they could adequately distinguish between good and evil, but in Mecca they were far from authoritative. Quite the opposite seems to have been true; under the harsh rule of the Quraysh, Muslims “were beaten, denied food and drink, and exposed to the intense heat of the day to induce them to deny their beliefs” (Esposito, 226).

After ten years of such treatment, the community in Mecca moved its settlement to neighboring Yathrib, later renamed Medina: “‘city’ of the prophet;” this event is called the hijra or, emigration (Esposito, 226). Having been “invited to serve as arbiter or judge, for Muslim and non-Muslim alike, Muhammad became the religious and political leader of the community” at Medina, thereby alleviating his previous lack of political authority (Esposito, 226). Muhammad had thusly obtained the power necessary to adhere to God’s description of ‘the best community ever brought forth for mankind.’ Concerning the perceived importance of this event: "To appreciate the central significance of hijra and the birth of the Islamic community, the ummah, one has only to note that when Muslims devised their own calendar, they dated it not from the birth of the Prophet or from his first revelation but from the creation of the Islamic community at Medina" (Esposito, 226).

This system of dating seems to make clear that the most important occurrence to Muslims in the development of the Islamic faith was the founding of the ummah; Muhammad’s first opportunity for political influence. With the settlement at Medina established, “Muslims constituted an umma whose primary identity and bond were no longer to be tribal ties but a common religious faith and commitment” (Eastman, 404). With the authority half of the requirements for forbidding evil attained, next was a deeper and more extrapolatory understanding of evil’s constitution.

Sharia is the divine law used to govern the ummah; generally in terms of fatwas issued by members of the ulama. With the ummah established, “all were called by Muhammad to repentance, to turn away from the path of unbelief and false practice and toward the straight path (sharia) of God” (Esposito, 226). Islamic law developed during the Umayyad dynasty with the aim of “taking control out of the hands of the caliph or his appointed judges” in “response to real religious and political concerns and issues” (Esposito, 237). It seems obvious in our law-based culture that the rules of society should be concrete and universally applicable; the alternative being various consequences for similar crimes, depending potentially on the temporal disposition of the judge or maybe the social status of the accused. Effecting a more theoretical and philosophical system, Islamic “law did not develop primarily from the practice of courts or from government decrees but through the interpretations of scholars, the ulama who set out a religious ideal or blueprint based on four official sources of Islamic law: The Quran, the Sunnah, qiyas, and ijma” (Esposito, 237).

The ulama are responsible for modern Islamic law. They began as “the guardians of religion, its interpreters, and as such often served as advisers to caliphs and sultans” (Esposito, 253). In this sense, they began influencing the rules of society even before the law existed. Unlike many western religious scholars, the ulama were not “ordained clergy, nor were they associated with organized ‘congregations.’ Rather, they were a major intellectual and social force or class in society” (Esposito, 253). When compared to the alternative, this seems as though it would have incited greater freedom among individuals to independently interpret the law. The ulama eventually came to play “a primary role in the state’s religious, legal, educational, and social service institutions” and had by that time become “theologians and legal experts, responsible for the application of the law and the administration of sharia courts.” (Esposito, 253) Having early on been advisors with no direct influence, the ulama have presently progressed to “regarding themselves as the guardians of Islam, the conscience of the community, its only qualified interpreters” (Esposito, 279-280). Regardless of their historical progression, their interpretations are significant. An official interpretation of Islamic law is called a fatwa and depending upon the legal inclinations of the interpreter, some or all of the four ‘official’ sources of Islamic law might be consulted (Esposito, 238).

The Qur’an is God’s word, the Sunnah is stories about Muhammad’s life, qiyas are extrapolation and Ijma is consensus. The Qur’an being “the eternal, uncreated, literal, and final word of God revealed to Muhammad as guidance for humankind (Q. 2:185)” (Esposito, 228), it is easy to see why it “is the primary material source of Islamic law” (Esposito, 238). It is the obvious place to look for God’s laws. Next in line is the Sunnah which “consists of the volumes of hundreds of thousands of narrative stories or reports (hadith) about what the Prophet said and did,” gathered variously “from the Quran, early biographies, and especially prophetic traditions” (Esposito, 238). After the literal instructions of God, it seems reasonable to use the life of his prophet as an example for how to live. Qiyas is “analogical reasoning;” “when confronted by a question or issue not addressed specifically and clearly, in the Quran or Sunnah, jurists looked for similar or analogous portions of scripture to identify principles that could be applied to a new case” (Esposito, 238). When an issue comes up that is not specifically identified in either of the first two sources, it seems intuitive that if analogous rulings can be found, they should be applied. The final source “Ijma, or consensus, in theory was based on a statement traditionally attributed to the Prophet: ‘My community will never agree on an error’” (Esposito, 238). This last one is the answer to anything which cannot be solved using the previous three. The relative importance of each source is disputed along with its potential for specific implementation.

Concerning such implementation and general legal interpretation, “although categories are not clear-cut and overlap at times, four general Muslim orientations or attitudes toward change may be identified: secularist, conservative traditionalists, Islamist or neofundamentalist, and Islamic reformist or neomodernist” (Esposito, 278). Constituting the first and simplest category, “Secularists believe religion is a personal matter that should be excluded from politics and public life” (Esposito, 278). This mirrors the attitude of western secularism and promotes the separation of church and state.

Conservatives, who make up the majority of the ulama and its followers, “are wary of any change or innovation that they regard as deviation,” arguing “that since Islamic law is the divinely revealed path of God, it is not the law that must change or modernize but society that must conform to God’s law as formulated in past centuries” (Esposito, 278). Although the beliefs and customs are different, the concept of change resulting in detriment is familiar to western conservatives who would also like to modify modern behaviors to fit old laws. Traditionalists hold similar views but “believe that Islamic traditions based primarily on human interpretation rather than a sacred text can be reinterpreted, changed, or expanded in light of new social, economic, and political realities” (Esposito, 278). Halfway between custom and innovation, they hold fast to a core of written teachings but are amiable with indirect interpretation and traditional analogy.

Islamists (or fundamentalists) are “not wedded to the classical formulations of law” and “speak of purifying Muslim belief and practice by a rigorous and literalist embrace of the past,” with an emphasis on “the self-sufficiency of Islam over compatibility with the West” (Esposito, 278). Seemingly clinging to tradition for tradition’s sake, fundamentalists seem to emphasize practicing old ways over adherence to the law. Neomodernists feel similarly about classical law but believe that “certain historically and socially conditioned practices and institutions […] can and should be subject to widespread change to meet contemporary circumstances” (Esposito, 279). “Reformers focus on the need to distinguish between the sharia, God’s divinely revealed law, and fiqh (‘understanding’), including the areas of human interpretations and application that are historically conditioned” (Esposito, 279). This doesn’t sound so different from the Traditionalist view. Even with so many distinctions, certain aspects of Islam serve to collect a diverse population of Muslims into a single ummah.

The Five Pillars help to reinforce a now-diverse ummah by providing common practices. “The two main divisions of Islamic law concern a Muslim’s duties to God (ibadat), which consist of obligatory practices such as the Five Pillars of Islam, and duties to others (muamalat), which include regulations governing public life, from contract and international law to laws on marriage, divorce, and inheritance” (Esposito, 238). While many may disagree over aspects of muamalat, they are all bound together by ibadat. On a larger scale too, even though some might argue, they argue over a common set of laws which further links all Muslims. This is how, “despite vast cultural differences, Islamic law has provided an idealized blueprint that has instilled among Muslims throughout the ages a common code of behavior and a sense of religious identity” (Esposito, 237). Governed by sharia, the globally diverse ummah is unified by Islam’s Five Pillars.

Works Cited

Eastman, Roger, ed. Ways of Religion; An Introduction to the Major Traditions. Third ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Esposito, John L., Darrrell J. Fasching, and Todd Lewis. World Religions Today. Third ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.