By Omar Farahat
Rumee Ahmed’s Sharia Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law is a unique book in that it tackles some of the most difficult questions in the clearest and most accessible language. In doing so, it pushes us out of the comfort of our specialized research and jargon, and forces us to engage with matters of immediate importance.
To my mind, the book’s central message can be summarized as follows: The Islamic legal tradition has always contained within it the tools necessary to strike a critical balance between authenticity and practicality. This process of internal adjustment (referred to as “hacking”) has historically been monopolized by a class of scholars, but today can be exercised by many “fiqh-minded” Muslims at various social levels. This proposition is both conservative and subversive. On the one hand, it wishes to preserve the tradition by tapping into the dynamics of evolution necessary for its continuation. On the other hand, it aims to release it from the structures of authority that have historically controlled it and that are no longer adequate.
To me, this proposition raises two sets of questions. First, to what extent does Ahmed’s account of precolonial Islamic substantive law (fiqh) correspond to what we may consider legal, as opposed to purely religious or aspirational, to use Ahmed’s terms? This inquiry, as further elaborated below, may have implications on our assessment of the uneasy place of the Islamic legal tradition in today’s legal systems. Second, why should the tradition be preserved at all? This question can be easily answered from the “internal” standpoint: Every tradition needs to adjust to its surroundings in order to survive. But, from an external standpoint, one might ask, why bother hack it at all? Why not upgrade, or replace, rather than hack? And, somewhat relatedly, how can you continue to improve a system independently of the very structures of authority that have made it possible? . . .