Is the Qur`an a historical document...

Egypt's Dar Al-Ifta

Is the Qur`an a historical document or can it be applied to all times?


Is the Qur`an a historical document or can it be applied to all times?


This is not a new claim against religion and its ability to solve societal problems. It goes back to the Age of Enlightenment in which European intellectuals viewed the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as containing stories that are factually wrong. These stories, they argued, can only provide symbolic meanings from which general moral lessons can be derived. Some even went as far as to hold that religion is merely a state in the constant development in the history of man with each state superseding the next, leading to a higher form in each generation. This theory which developed during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, saw religion in many ways as a primitive mode of understanding. Religion was seen as based on beliefs that could not be rationally or empirically proven. While this might have helped people in the past, man has become too sophisticated for such beliefs. It would take a great deal of time to enter into a discussion on this phenomenon and would take us off the path we have started. However, it is important to know this very basic historical lesson in order to place the conception that Islam or any other religion for that matter is not up-to-date with events in its proper context.

The conception under discussion is focused more on the rulings of religion dealing with human interactions and not necessarily on devotional acts. The legal injunctions, the specific rulings of Islamic law, are derived from the Qur`an, Prophetic reports, and Muslim scholars who apply their reason and knowledge of current society to the primary texts. This is to say that the Qur`an and corpus of Prophetic texts contain principles that govern the conditions of man, principles of morality and virtue and principles on the human constitution and man's strengths and weaknesses. The task then is to have these principles analyzed by trained scholars who are erudite in the Arabic language and memorized the Qur`an and enough Prophetic texts, about 400,000 of them, to be able to synthesize the principles and derive rulings that apply to all times and conditions. Islamic legal theory is not subject to change, but the ahkam, the rulings themselves, can change depending on the conditions. This allows Muslims to obey God in a way that is practical for each period.

Accordingly, there are two types of rulings—those that do not change and those that can change. It is this duality that preserves morality and at the same time changes its manifestation as needed. This balance, according to Islam, is necessary for human survival. Man needs to be morally guided by the Divine but at the same time man needs the flexibility to adapt to new conditions. For example, what would the world be like if killing innocent people were one day considered acceptable? One might think that this is a situation that would never happen, but if one considers the number of murders today compared to the number of thirty or forty years ago, one would only wonder what has caused the dramatic increase. The same may be said about theft. Even though everyone admits that theft is wrong, is there a difference today between how a gang theft is perceived as being different from the theft of an executive of a big corporation wearing a fancy suite and stealing money from his employees and government? Moral truths remain true in every day and age and this means that society has a greater sense of shame and accountability. Good qualities and character are praiseworthy and are never outdated.

The other kind of rulings that can change over time take into account the customs and traditions of people. This deals with human interactions. The concept of “public interest” that is part of Islamic legal theory is taken into account when new rulings are derived. This gives the Islamic law the malleability to be coherent and tangible for all people in every age.

As for the conception that women inherit less than men, it is important to keep in mind that the rules of inheritance are very detailed. So much so that inheritance is considered a science in its own right and is not always taught in conjunction with Islamic law. According to the laws of inheritance, a woman does not always inherit less than a man, as we will shortly demonstrate. The statement that "women inherit half of a man", which is a partial citation of verse eleven of the fourth chapter of the Qur`an has added to this misconception. The verse clearly states, "Allah thus directs you as regards your children's inheritance, to the male a portion equal to that of two females ... ." This refers to a specific case where the father dies and leaves children of both genders. It is in this case that the sons inherit double the portion of daughters. However, the verse dictating the general rule of inheritance is as follows, "From what is left by parents and those nearest related, there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large, a determinate share" (4:7). Here the "determinate share" applies to both men and women and no distinction is made between genders as is commonly perceived. Rather the determining factor of the amount of the "determinate share" is:
1. The degree of relationship to the deceased.
Those closest to the deceased receive a larger share than those who are further removed.
2. The generational level in relation to the deceased. For example, the son of the deceased, being relatively young, receives a greater portion than the father of the deceased who is relatively older. The reason is that the son is younger than his grandfather and carries a greater financial responsibility towards his family than his grandfather whose financial obligations are less since his son has passed away. It is also interesting to note that this scenario depicts two males each inheriting different amounts.
3. The financial responsibility of heirs. It is in this case that a male, the son of the deceased, receives double the portion of his sister, the daughter of the deceased. The male's financial responsibility in this case is greater than the female's since a male son will have a family to look after, hence the extra share. However, a female/daughter does not have this extra financial responsibility since she will be either under her brother's financial care or under her husband's. In this case, the inheritance she receives is hers to dispense as she pleases.

When all these circumstances are considered and if a chart of all the possibilities were drafted, what we would see is that, in over thirty cases, women inherit an equal share to or more than men. It is in only four cases that the inheritance of men are double that of women.

With regards to the claim that a woman’s testimony is half of that of a man, a much more detailed discussion can be found in the following chapter but it suffices to say that this is only true in areas where men are known to have more experience. The testimony of a woman is accepted in this case but the testimony of two women is needed to verify each other’s since it is an area that is unfamiliar to them. However, in situations where women are more knowledgeable and have more experience than men, their testimony is equal to and ever surpasses that of men. In some situations, the testimony of a man is not accepted at all and only that of a woman is accepted. The misconception that a woman's testimony is half of that of a man is largely due to verses 282-283 in the second chapter of the Qur`an which state: “O ye who believe! When ye deal with each other, in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties: let not the scribe refuse to write: as Allah Has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him fear His Lord Allah, and not diminish aught of what he owes. If they party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her. The witnesses should not refuse when they are called on (for evidence). Disdain not to reduce to writing (your contract) for a future period, whether it be small or big: it is more just in the sight of Allah, more suitable as evidence, and more convenient to prevent doubts among yourselves, but if it be a transaction which ye carry out on the spot among yourselves, there is no blame on you if ye reduce it not to writing. But take witness whenever ye make a commercial contract; and let neither scribe nor witness suffer harm. If ye do (such harm), it would be wickedness in you. So fear Allah, for it is Allah that teaches you. And Allah is Well-Acquainted with all things, if ye are on a journey, and cannot find a scribe, a pledge with possession (may serve the purpose). And if one of you deposits a thing on trust with another, let the trustee (faithfully) discharge his trust, and let him fear his Lord conceal not evidence; for whoever conceals it,¬ his heart is tainted with sin. And Allah knoweth all that ye do.”

Upon reading this, the restrictions of a woman's testimony is assumed to apply to all cases. However, this is not how Qur`anic injunctions are understood by jurists. This verses speak of specific circumstances in which a specific business transaction requires a specific contract with specific types of witnesses; this is not applicable to all cases. In fact, within the verses themselves, it is stated, "But if it be a transaction which ye carry out on the spot among yourselves, there is no blame on you if ye reduce it not to writing." This reinforces the specific nature of the first half of the verse. The verse, thus, excludes cases of witnessing trade transactions, in which there is no limit to the number of testimonies. The verses then go on to address the person who seeks to protect his transaction, allowing him to call witnesses regardless of their gender or number.

This discussion is also found in the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328 C.E/l661-728 A.H.) and his student Ibn al-Qayyim (1262-1250 C.E./l691-751 A.H.) both of who maintained that these verses are not meant to set limitations to all transactions but rather serve as advice to preserve people’s property. 12. It is well-known that Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780-855 C.E./164-241 A.H.) maintained that a man's testimony is equal to that of two women in areas where he is more knowledgeable and that a woman's testimony is equal to that of two men in areas where she is more knowledgeable. There is nothing, then, in Islamic law, that restricts testimonies but rather the issue centers on knowledge and experience. The point of testimony is to establish clear evidence, which is used by the judge to arrive at a decision based on certainty.

The essence of the Qur`an lies in providing Divine principles to guide mankind. The detailed application of these principles, however, is left to the trained jurist who is tasked with adapting these principles to any given situation. It is this that has allowed the message of the Qur`an to manifest itself through Islamic law in every age. Any verse relating to legal matters cannot be read and interpreted by an unskilled reader. Doing so not only causes a gross misunderstanding but worse, it leads to erroneous practices that contradict the very principle they claim to uphold.

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