Interpretation of the Islamic Law
During the lifetime of the last Messenger (s.a.w.) of Allah, the interpretation and application of the Islamic Laws was not a problem whatsoever as the Messenger (s.a.w.) was vested with the Supreme Judicial Authority and his interpretation and application of the Islamic Laws was final and definitive. It was rightly so because he was the direct recipient of the Divine Code from the Almighty and no one could know and understand better than him the letter and spirit of the Word of God. There was no question of disagreements among his followers in this regard during his lifetime as obedience to his judicial as well as executive authority was fundamental and foundational to their Beliefs as well as their being and staying a Muslim.
The problems of interpretation and application of the Islamic Laws or Sharia sprang up after the Messenger (s.a.w.) departed from the ephemeral world, particularly when Islam began to swiftly spread around the globe and new situations and circumstances began to arise. While the Quranic Text was being recorded and preserved with painstaking vigilance and diligence under the patronage of the Messenger (s.a.w.) himself, there was no formal system of authorized recording and preservation of the judicial proceedings during the life of the Messenger (s.a.w.) which could serve as the judicial precedents for the later generations.
While the patronage for the preservation of the Quranic text continued at the Governmental level throughout the period of the rightly guided caliphs [Abu Bakr (r.632-634 AD); Umar (r.634-646 AD); Uthman (r.646-656 AD); Ali (r.656-661 AD)] and even beyond, such a Governmental level support and patronage was not available to the preservation of any other texts. However, with some ‘private’ and ‘individual’ efforts, a record of the sayings and deeds of the Messenger (s.a.w.) was compiled later on.
The Messenger of Allah breathed his last in 632 AD, whereas the records of his saying and deeds, considered the most authentic today, were compiled much later than even the caliphate of the rightly guided caliphs – Mawta by Imam Malik (d. 795); Masnad by Imam Ahmed (d. 855); Sahih Bukhari by Imam Bukhari (d. 870 AD); Sahih Muslim by Imam Muslim (d. 875 AD); Sunan Ibn-e-Maja by Imam Ibn-e-Maja (d. 887 AD); Sunan Abi Dawud by Imam Dawud (d. 889 AD); Jamia At-Tirmizi by Imam Muhammad bin Isa (d. 892 AD); and Sunan Nisai by Imam Nisai (d. 915 AD). Almost all of the record of the sayings and deeds of the Messenger (s.a.w.) that we have today was compiled during the Abbasid period (750-945/1258 AD), i.e. much after the caliphate of the rightly guided caliphs (632-661) and the rule of the Umayyads (661-750 AD).
While the Umayyads introduced several un-Islamic notions of their liking in their rule and the Abbasids inserted a lot of Iranian ideas and practices in their Government and there was a steady secularization of the political system and a distinct partitioning of the public and private matters, the significance of three arguably distinct bodies of people gradually grew in the concerned public eye, viz., Muhaddiths, concerned mainly with the collection, sifting and recording of the precedents of the Prophet; Ulema, concerned mainly with the rituals and personal morality of the people; and Fuqha or jurists, concerned mainly with the legal matters. These scholarly men had, of course predominantly, a fair intention of inculcating the true Islamic impression upon the state of affairs according to the Quran and the Sunnah (traditions/precedents) of the Messenger of Allah, as understood and interpreted by them. Eventually, different schools of thought emerged, with different individuals and regions adhering to a particular school: the Hanafi school based on the understanding of Abu Hanifa (d.767) who was based in Iraq; the Maliki school following Malik bin Anas (d.795) who was based in Medina; the Shafi’i school following al-Shafi’i (d.820); the Hanbali school following Ibn Hanbal (d.855) based in Baghdad; and the Jafari shi’ite school following Jafar al-Sadiq (d.765) which later split into Isma’ili (sevener) and Imami (athna ashri/twelvers) schools. Ever since, these schools of thought have had several offshoots, with many newer schools of thought emerging and perishing from time to time.
As the things stand today, there are many schools of thought based on certain ‘personalities’ or ‘individuals’ and represented by certain ‘personalities’ or ‘individuals’ among the Muslims around the globe. These personalities or individuals can be likened with the modern-day legal experts, lawyers or advocates who could never agree on a single interpretation of the constitution or a body of law. The modern world has successfully solved the issue of interpretation and application of the law by establishing ‘institutions’ like the Supreme Courts whose interpretation and application is considered final and definitive. The Muslim world also needs to ‘institutionalize’ the interpretation of the Islamic law or Sharia rather than resorting to ‘individual’ scholars or Islamic Law/Sharia experts, who would never agree among themselves till the doomsday.
At the nation-state level, Muslims could have Supreme Courts vested with the ultimate judicial authority for the interpretation of the Islamic Law or Sharia. The scheme of studies and curricula or syllabi of the judges of these courts may of course be revised so that they become well versed in the modern-day jurisprudence as well as the Islamic jurisprudence with adequate expertise in the Quran, the Sunnah and the major Islamic schools of jurisprudence without any prejudice. At the international level, there could be an International Islamic Court of Justice for the final verdict concerning the collective issues of Muslims Ummah as a whole.