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Is Shariah All About Outward Acts?

In Islam, faith is not an abstract theological dogma, nor an intellectual creed, nor a philosophical proposition. It must spring forth into action in day-to-day life.

So, it extends from inner to outer, from individual to social, from moral to legal.

It is the Shariah which translates faith and moral ideals into clear, definable, viable, and concrete goals, forms, and codes and brings them within the grasp of every ordinary man and woman. This is why it is one of God’s greatest blessings and one of the greatest vehicles for human progress.

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Men have groped endlessly to translate faith and moral ideals into viable actions and deeds. Some have been tempted to separate the two, others have been led into a never-ending philosophical quest. They have not been able even to define what is ethical, moral, or good.

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But can ordinary men and women wait for such definitions and answers?

If man has to live a morally good life, if he has been created with a purpose, if he has to meet his Maker – the moment he opens his eyes and becomes aware and conscious –  he must know what to do and what not to do. And he must act in the certain knowledge that what he is following is universally and absolutely true and will please his Creator.

Source of Guidance

Who else, then, other than his Creator should he look to for those answers?

Herein lies the beauty of the Shari`ah. Every man knows what his outward conduct ought to be to conform with his faith, his moral ideals. He has an answer to the eternal question, what is “good?”

It matters not whether he is illiterate or a scholar; he can confidently act.

Not that all ethical and moral problems have been solved and buried for ever. So long as man is alive, he will continue to face difficult choices and dilemmas, old and new.

This is a natural corollary of a worldview where man has to battle incessantly for good against evil. But, in the Shariah, he has the means to find the best way to ease and facilitate his task.

Inner Dimensions

To think that Islam emphasizes submission to God merely in the outward conduct of man’s life would be a gross misunderstanding.

As the name used for the totality of the man-God relationship, Islam grips man’s inner self in equal, or even more emphatic, terms. Significantly, the Quran prefers to address Muslims more as “those who believe”. It treats iman, faith, and `amal salih, good conduct, as an integrated whole.

Indeed, the Quran and the Prophet, at almost every step, stress the importance of the inner relationship to God as compared to mere outward conformity. The true heart of the Shariah is not at all formalistic. For example:

– Although prayers cannot be performed without turning to Makkah, the Quran says, {It is no virtue merely to turn your face to the East or the West} (Al-Baqarah 2:187).

– Charity is ardently desired, but an act of charity done for the benefit of the doer will bring no reward (Al-Baqarah 2:264).

– It is not the “flesh and blood” of a sacrificial animal that God desires, but {the taqwa (God-consciousness) inside you} (Al-Hajj 22:37), says another verse of the Quran.

– The Prophet declares, “There are many who fast during the day and pray all night but gain nothing except hunger and a sleepless night” (Ad-Darimi).

– And, finally, only those who return to God with a pure and wholesome heart, qalb salim, will deserve salvation (Al-Shu`araa’ 25:89).

Shariah and Tariqah

Some in Islam, naturally enough, have concentrated more on developing ways and means of purifying the inner self and of strengthening the relationship between man and God. Leading exponents of this approach-known as Tariqah-have been the Sufis.

Much has been said about the conflict between the Shariah and the Tariqah. But what we have said above gives the lie to the often propagated idea of any inherent or continuing dichotomy and tension between the two terms-both of which, interestingly enough, are of latter-day origin. (Early Islam used only Islam or deen which encompassed every aspect of man’s self.)

Special circumstances may have led this or that person to lay more emphasis on a certain aspect: A few may have even been sufficiently misled to try to generate tension and conflict between the two or extol one at the expense of the other.

One Path

But there were never two different paths or two different expressions of man’s relationship to God. Interestingly, both Shariah and Tariqah have exactly the same meaning-“the way.”

According to Ibn Taymiyah, a person observing only the law, without its inner truth, cannot be called truly a believer; and, similarly, a person claiming to possess “truth” which is at odds with the Shari`ah cannot even be a Muslim.

Even, historically speaking, in early Islam, the two streams, of Sufis and the jurists never flowed separately. Al-Hasan Al-Basri, the doyen of Sufis, is a major pillar of fiqh and tafseer (jurisprudence and exegesis); whereas Ja`far As-Sadiq, Abu Hanifa, Malik, Ash-Shafi`I, and Ahmad-the founders of the main schools of Muslim jurisprudence-find pride of place in Fariduddin `Attar’s classical Tadhkira al-Awliya (The Book of Saints).

In the Quran and the hadiths both inward and outward are inseparably intertwined. For example, when the Qur’an says {who in their prayers are humble} (Al-Muminun 23:1), then prayer is what one is likely to categorize as the Shariah, humility as the Tariqah.

Or, when it says {…those who believe, love God most} (Al-Baqarah 2:165), love is likely to be taken to belong to Tariqah; but, at the same time, the Quran emphasizes {Say: If you love God, follow me}. Thus prayer and humility, love and obedience are inseparable, two sides of the same coin.

Based on the book Shari`ah: The Way to God, Published by The Islamic Foundation (1981).