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The Framework of Reference

We have seen that the universal message of Islam directed human intelligence toward the quest for justice and provided the faithful with an ethical teaching so that they could follow the “way of faithfulness” (al-Sharia). In new situations, not envisaged by the sources, the establishment of a political strategy has been defined by some ulama in the course of history as arising from al-siyasa al-shariyya or from fiqh al-muwazanat; the first concept refers to the elaboration of political reflection faithful to the general requirements of Islam, while the second relies on studying and weighing the options on the basis of their faithfulness to the sources, their adaptability to the situation, and so on. If we look at them more closely, we can see that both approaches are directly linked to the study of the common good (al-maslaha), which we have already considered. When the sources are silent on a specific issue (maslaha mursala), it is for the experts to study the details of the situation in order to make a statement of legal opinions that must both respect the objective of the message (and of justice) and be faithful to its ethical content (to achieve the common good—tahqiq almasalih—and resist all that may oppose it (daf al-madar). All the revealed Islamic teachings have been understood as possessing this double quality, and there is a well-known scholarly formula: “Maqasid al-ahkam masali alanam” (the objective of the Islamic legal rulings is the well-being—the common interest—of human beings). So this is the spirit in which our thinking should be pursued.

Scholars of the fundamental principles of law and jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) have added a second fundamental recommendation: in real situations, as opposed to the ideal model, one must strive when making choices to give preference to the better of two goods, or, in difficult circumstances, to the lesser of two evils. The measure of which is the better of two goods or the lesser of two evils is established on the basis of the moral teaching of Islam, which should inspire scholars in the formulation of directives as it inspires citizens or politicians in the framework of their actions. And, beyond this, the causes and conditions that could bring moral improvement or degeneration to concrete situations should be considered. We find in the works of specialists in the foundations of law and jurisprudence a series of rules that stress not the character of the action itself but the objective conditions that lead to it or encourage it and that therefore themselves take on the same positive or negative moral quality as it (al-dharai).

Finally, it must be added that a specific legal injunction may also be utilized to preserve the general public interest, and one must be careful not to rush to judgment, as some literalists do, if the injunction or action appears at first glance to contradict an explicit text. In the area of social affairs in the broad sense, as in the virtually all matters of religious ritual, faithfulness to the principles is measured not by equating the literal meaning of a text with the apparent meaning of a given action, but, more subtly, on the basis of its intention (qasd) and the means it employs (wasail), keeping the comprehensive message in mind. So, taking into account the ultimate objective of an action in light of the general message requires that we go beyond a restrictive interpretation based on literal faithfulness to a text with no consideration to the context and with no sense of priorities. It is incontestable that we should refer to ethics, but that makes sense only if we also apply an active intelligence well versed in the affairs of the world and capable of understanding the situation, judging the extent to which the action is to be measured on the scale of moral faithfulness, setting priorities, and establishing the objectives of the action according to the ultimate aims of the message. All these considerations are implicit in the scholastic formula “al-umur bi-maqasidiha” (matters are to be judged by their final objectives), which informs us that we must be aware of our responsibility to know the objectives of the message to which we are committed in order to set the direction for our lives and, in light of moral teaching, choose actions and methods that are in harmony with our conscience.

Western Muslims can profit from these overall theoretical and specialized considerations. Bearing in mind the general message and its ethic, which directs their conscience, wherever they are, to defend justice, promote the good, and reform their society, Muslims have a duty to make an appropriate study of their society in order to determine the features of the common good (al-maslaha), the main achievements to be preserved, the injustices to be fought as a priority, and the means at their disposal and, at the same time, to identify the actors and the key points in the social and political dynamics of their society. It is then a matter of applying concretely the body of directions put forward by scholars: to work for justice and against every form of injustice, to choose the best possible of the good things available and the least evil, and never to forget ethics when evaluating the causes, consequences, and means of carrying out an action and in all circumstances to evaluate the ultimate purpose of one’s deeds.

Even if the legal instruments we have used to present this frame of reference are the same as those used by the Muslim jurists in ancient or recent times, the way things are presented here is quite different: we want to read the reality of the world from the starting point of the requirements of the universal message of Islam, with the idea not that, in case of difficulty, under domination or in minority, we have to compromise (though it goes without saying that this is sometimes necessary) but that it is necessary in all circumstances to understand, master, choose, and reform. This is not simply a difference of style.

This critical effort to understand the scriptural sources and the world, this ijtihad, cannot be the work only of the ulama and of specialists in law and jurisprudence. The world has become too complex, in every area, for us to be satisfied with theoretical studies “outside real life.” It is time to promote councils that would bring together on an equal footing ulama and experts from various fields (the human sciences as well as the natural sciences) to make it possible to formulate legal positions in step with our time. On the level of political involvement, on the basis of the general [Islamic] principles, it is for the Muslim communities in each country to open up an internal debate bringing together ulama, intellectuals, associational bodies, and [ordinary] citizens in order better to study their political environment, taking their Islamic frame of reference as the starting point and then, as appropriate, deciding on one or more general and/or specific strategies that make it possible to be faithful to both the essential principles and ethics. We are here in the realm of social and political action, and each organization, even each individual, can, while respecting the common Islamic frame of reference (if one feels connected with it), freely determine its priorities and civic and political choices. It is not for the community of faith to come up with a uniform communal political commitment.

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