Q: In one of your answers, you posited that modern Muslims ought to study the Qur'an in terms of its philosophy, and how that philosophy may be applied to today's society, rather than seek to apply the laws in their exact form as stated in the Qur'an. Are you suggesting therefore that in such principles as zakat, saum, salat, and hajj, we should perhaps change the rules? And what about North American Muslims sometimes we do not have anyone to whom to pay the zakat, so should we give the resident Imam? What happens if we do not trust the Imam, should we send it back to our home countries? And on what authority do you take your position which seems to be an abandonment of the stance taken by the ulama of all the different madhahib, namely that the Qur'anic laws are immutable?

A: I must respond to the last question first, since that answer forms the foundation for all the other responses. The authority on which I base my position is the Qur'an itself. Nowhere in that document does it state that the laws are immutable, and as I have shown elsewhere, Umar, within the first few years of the Prophet Muhammad's death, changed the law regarding those to whom stipends had to be paid. The scholars also formulated the principle of "taghyir al ahkam li taghyir al azman" -- the changing of rulings based on the difference of time. The Qur'an also asks us to use our intellect. Now this is a significant development, for in the majority of the previous scriptures, the communities are asked to rely on their prophets' guidance and upon faith. But in Allah's last scripture, the culmination of our intellectual and spiritual evolution takes place. We are now mature enough, as the human race, to look around us and make such empirical surveys as may be necessary, and use the data in the universe around us to make judgments. We know that rules cannot be static; they must change according to time and clime. The Qur'an is inimitable, it is God's guidance expressed in the language of human beings, and this uniqueness is the sole claim of the Book. It is for this reason the Qur'an challenges us to produce a sura like the ones therein, and tells us that we are not able to do so, even with all the non-divine help that we may get.

This inimitability is what allows for its mutates mutandis usage of its rulings, for no matter what the changes may be, and which are made within the parameters of an Islamic weltanschauung, the Divine plan will still be maintained. No one in his right mind would suggest that since the Qur'an speaks about slavery, it should be enforced today simply to keep in harmony with the letter of that Book's verses. As Fazlur Rahman has put it, the Qur'anic laws have to be understood in their proper historical context. In the case of polygamy, several interpreters have tried to somehow show that the permission for the plurality of wives was allowed only when the number of widows had increased because of wars. However, this is contrary to historical facts -- monogamy may indeed have been the moral goal of the Prophet, but polygamy was a legally enshrined reality in seventh century Arabia. Were one to attempt to excise it in toto from the society of the Prophet's time, it would have been an impossible task. "The Qur'an, therefore, accepted polygamy at the legal level, restricted it, and put as many safeguards against it as possible, but at the same time the moral ideal was enunciated as that of a monogamous society towards which the Prophet may have hoped the Muslims would move. History, however, proved otherwise and the vast conquests after the Prophet's death which brought a tremendous influx of women and slave girls into the Muslim society helped to thwart the very purpose of the Qur'an from this point of view." (cited from Fazlur Rahman: "The Impact of Modernity on Islam" in Islamic Studies, June 1966, p.120).

Having said this, I am not advocating a wholesale and pell-mell change by all and sundry. The Muslim community has never been able to face a particular problem: the aspect of change. The first generation of Muslims seemed to understand the Prophet's message in quite a different way to the later communities: and as such, we see certain changes that occurred. With the advent of tradition, and the formulation of the concepts of "authority of sunna" etc., we created for ourselves a pitfall from which we have never recovered. For tradition is what binds us to the past and the authority of the past. How dare one change certain things? In the collective Muslim consciousness, certain changes would be tantamount to heresy. One is therefore forced to do certain rituals, and even though in certain cases, we may argue for the pure symbolism of a ritual, we must still observe it, since, in the absence of the Prophet, we can only surmise -- and surmise does not grant certainty. It is for this reason that I say that whenever change is implemented, it must only be by those who can support their positions with logic and the authority of irrefutable arguments.

Let us look at the question of zakah that you mentioned. What is the purpose of the zakah? The the proceeds of the zakah is clearly for social benefit, and this is as per Qur'anic text. The rate set by the Prophet and the early scholars indicate that they thought such amount was adequate for the needs of the society. But in today's society, we have several other factors that have to be considered -- schools, roads, health, social welfare, foreign aid, etc. These are not considerations that are restricted to the Muslims. Indeed every self-respecting citizen of North America who falls into the category of a tax-payer has deductions either made from paychecks, or makes remittances by some other form to the Internal Revenue Service which uses such taxes for the benefit of all. Is this not the same thing as the zakat? Such payments are made irrespective of one's religion, and surely nothing is more Islamic than this? For a Muslim to pay taxes and then to pay an "Islamic" zakat on top of that is an act of imprudence. And in doing so, the Muslims create a "dar al Islam" and "dar al harb" mentality that is totally against the better interests of modern Islam. Therefore, these considerations make the questions regarding lack of trust in your resident Imam, etc. superfluous. All Muslims in the Western world -- or at least the majority -- adhere to a central system of taxation and the monies are used for this purpose. Perhaps the most telling and yet unsavory example is the fact that there are several Muslims on welfare, and to the best of my knowledge, they do not collect this assistance from their local mosque administration, but from the government. If one, out of the goodness of his/her heart, wishes to send remittances back to a home country, this is fine, but the zakat / tax is preferably for the community in which one lives. That which one chooses to send to another country better falls under the category of "sadaqah" which is a voluntary donation, as opposed to the zakah which is a mandatory tax.

In the case of the siyam, we know that the duration of the days (as opposed to night) differ: in the Middle East, an average long day would be twelve hours, whereas in the Arctic, or at least in Northern Canada, daylight could be for a full 24 hours. What happens to a Muslim then? Does s/he fast for more than 24 hours? Does s/he not fast at all since there is no clear marker between day and night? Scholars differ on this -- some advocating the Arabian day measurement be used as a standard. I personally disagree with this since it grants some geographical status for setting legal precedent. I feel that the average day should be measured -- which should be on the premise that one does know that s/he is fasting -- maybe 12 hours -- but no more than this. Allah does not want hardship for us. And we know that prolonged fasting is forbidden.

In terms of prayer, this is also an area of great problem, perhaps most demonstrated by the fact that many people leave the prayer entirely, or in some cases, combine all five at one time. There is no need for any revamping or restructuring of the prayer: the Prophet's example has left for us the solution, although we make it difficult on ourselves. We are allowed, for any reason whatsoever -- to combine our prayers. This means that we can make three prayers per day. In terms of wudu, we are also allowed to wipe over our socks/stockings for a certain time. This means that before we leave our houses in the morning to go to work or school, if we make our wudu before wear our shoes, we do not have to take off the shoes to wipe our feet -- we simply wipe over the shoes. This means that at work or school, we simply wipe over the shoes. We may combine the prayers during our lunch period, and then after returning home at dinner-time. While it is better to do the ritual form, certainly Allah allows us to perform the prayer in a manner that is compatible with security and peace. We may therefore pray standing, sitting, or in any manner that allows us to concentrate on our Lord.

The hajj is conditional on several things, and I think that many Muslims desecrate this ritual. Once someone has done the hajj once, the duty is over. The world population of Muslims and the visa system necessary to travel to Saudi Arabia means that for every person granted a visa, someone is denied. Once a person has performed the hajj once, s/he is relieved of the responsibility afterwards. We should observe this and it will lead to less chaos, and will allow more Muslims to observe a ritual that is cherished. I am quite aware that many Sufi groups reinterpret the concept of hajj. While I am not comfortable with their perception, I am not averse to stating that at certain times, it is better to perform certain deeds that benefit humankind rather than spend the thousands of dollars to go for a pilgrimage. Only then will we have understood the full ethical message of the Qur'an.

Islam is no longer limited to the geography of the Middle East, and we therefore have to understand that the Qur'an allows for all different cultures, lands, and civilizations to have their own applicable, functional Islam. A woman in seventh century Arabia gave one message when she covered her hair and her bosom; a woman in present day New York, in doing the same action, conveys a different message. These things ought to be considered by each and every Muslim. After all, Allah has given us each a brain, and we will be questioned individually on the Day of Judgment. Certainly there are certain things that we do communally, and it is for this reason that I have, on some issues, stated that the weight of tradition may be given precedence to personal opinion. In a case where a person works a midnight shift for example, to make the dhuhr prayer would be perhaps a stress on such an individual that is far removed from the day worker praying the dhuhr. What happens then? I cannot advocate any "right" position except to say that such a person must analyze his/her situation, knowing that Allah is a loving God and will understand. If this means changing the five times of prayer to coincide with his/her sleep/wake schedule, then certainly it would be a departure from the general Islamic norm. Or one may combine the prayers at a suitable time.

In the end, one has to realize that Islam is not only a religion of ritual, but of ethics, and our religious outlook must encompass all these different facets. Certain changes that we make to our personal definition and practice of Islam may be kept between God and us; the general public need not know of those departures from the perceived norm. This is in keeping with a concept of Maliki law which states for example that if a person sees the moon to end the fast, but does not have a supporting witness to make his testimony acceptable to the general public, or if the word has already gone out that the fast is not to end -- then such an individual may cease fasting, but keep his actions private. This is to prevent any confusion and lack of unity. It is a wonderful concept which ought to be put into practice on a large scale.

A final observation that is appropriate here refers to your claims that the ulama of all the different madhahib agree that the Qur'anic laws are immutable. I do not agree. That the majority of Muslims hold that position is unquestionably true, but the majority of Muslims are not specialists in Islamic studies, and in many cases, object to the findings of certain ulama. Dr. Taha al-Alwani, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and Muhammad al-Ghazali are some scholars who are well versed in the different sciences of traditional Islam, yet they have called for changes and in some cases have been condemned for their counsel. Even an arch-traditionalist such as Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani has seriously examined several customs and rules against their correctness. Therefore, it follows that every Muslim has a duty to read the Qur'an and seek to understand it to the best of his/her ability. After all, the purpose of the Book is specifically for individual reading and understanding, which must be enhanced by discussions with bona fide scholars whose findings can withstand both academic and faith-based debate. Only then will Islam live up to the Qur'anic statement: "Verily the religion with God is Islam." And our good God has shown us this by stating: "And if my servants ask you about Me, indeed I am near, answering the supplications of those who ask Me."

Posted October 28, 2001