By Dr Yamin Cheng
(This is part of a longer essay by Dr Yamin)
OF all human beings, there is a class of persons known as Rasul and Nabi, Prophets and Messengers, who stand out as the uswah hasanah and insan mithali, model example and modality of being, of the unity of existence. They are the ayat par excellence, lanterns that point to heaven and transcendent but also signposts that point to earth and human. They are the confluence of dunya and akhirah, the jannah of here and hereafter, and therefore the insan kamil or complete human being. They are through whom human beings see and copy the wisdom of their intellect, replicate the wisdom in their own intellect, and radiate the intellect into other beings that co-exist with them.
Prophet Muhammad, in this regard, is the epitome of Prophets, and although he is the last of them in terms of Prophetic succession, he is foremost among them in terms of Prophetic wisdom. It is in him that the wisdoms of all the Prophets gather and converge, so that it is with him that divine revelation culminates. With Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an as divine revelation or wahy becomes the living testimony of human meaning, its ayat or verses that run into the thousands the basis for reasoning as well as guidelines for living. It is no wonder that when Our Lady Aishah, wife of the Prophet, was asked to describe him, said, ‘The kernel of his human essence is the Qur’an.’
The Prophet, himself the meeting point between heaven and earth, now becomes the standard for human living, meaning, and being. His every speech, every movement, and every action serve as the benchmark for human activities. These were collectively called Sunnah, practices of the Prophet. The Sunnah is thus the Qur’an in action, the Prophet spelling out its details through his everyday living of it.
‘My companions are like the heavenly stars,’ the Prophet was purported to have said. ‘Whichever of them you follow, you will be guided aright.’ The Prophet’s companions, namely, those who lived during his time, saw him as the living ayat of the Qur’an, and stood by him in times of trials and troubles, are called Sahabah.
The Sahabah followed the Prophetic tradition during his lifetime and continued his tradition after his demise. A singular feature of the Sahabah in relation to the Prophet’s Sunnah is that it is not one of blind following, but following in ways where they could distinguish between one of obedience and one of opinion. In the Battle of Badr, Al-Hubab ibn al-Mundhir enquired from the Prophet concerning the place for stationing the army. He asked, ‘This place where we are now stationing, is it a decree from heaven or is it your personal opinion?’, and to which the Prophet said, ‘It is but my opinion.’ Hubab then suggested another site, citing his reasons, and after the Prophet listened to his arguments, agreed to Hubab’s suggestion. On yet another occasion, when the Prophet arrived in the city of Madinah, he observed some of the residents there pollinating their palm-trees. The Prophet then told them that it would be better if they did not do it. The residents took his advice at face value but the produce was not as expected. The Prophet got to know about this and said, ‘I am but a human being. Only when I asked you to do something decreed by religion should you then do it. But if it is my personal view, then it is only an opinion and I am only human. Nay, you know better your worldly affairs.’
The Prophet consulted the Sahabah on many day-to-day matters, and he used to say, ‘Advise, for in the absence of revelation, I am like you.’
Even with regard to religious matters, the Sahabah had differing opinions on how best these should be carried out but they all agreed on the fundamental nature of these matters. Take solat or prayer as a case in point. The obligation to perform prayer at the appointed time(s) was never disputed. Once, the Prophet told his Sahabah who were travelling to a certain place for their war campaign to pray when they reached their destination. It so happened that while on their journey, the time for prayer came. Some companions were of the view that they should pray since the time for prayer had arrived lest the time should lapse when they reached their destination. Others said that they should stick to what the Prophet said, literally. When this matter came to the attention of the Prophet later on, the Prophet did not favour one over the other. Needless to say, both were right. One wanted to remain obedient while the other was right in their opinion. Both, in fact, were trying to stay loyal to their religious obligation.
Obedience and opinion are the twin pillars of the Shari’ah. To be obedient but without opinion is likely to cause one to practise religion without wisdom, and to practise opinion without obedience is likely to make one to practise religion without direction. A person who is obedient but not engaging in discussions about the things affecting his life is likely going to end up being an idiot, and a person who argues all the time without understanding respect is likely going to be a bigot.
But how can one give his mind on matters of obedience when obedience presupposes inflexibility of the mind, and how can one be obedient and yet be free to express his thoughts when freedom of expression presupposes flexibility of the mind?
On the one hand the Prophet was reported to have said, ‘Leave me as long as I leave you. Too much questioning brought only disaster upon people before you. Only if I forbid you doing anything, then do not do it, and if I order you to do something, then try to do whatever you can of it.’ And, ‘The worst guilt of a Muslim against other Muslims is that of him whose inopportune question caused the prohibition of what would have been left permitted had he not asked.’
These statements would appear as if asking is not really a good thing.
On the other hand, the Prophet said, ‘God has enjoined certain enjoinments, so do not abandon them. He has imposed certain limits, so do not transgress them. He has prohibited certain things, so do not fall into them. He has remained silent on many things, out of mercy and deliberateness, as He never forgets, so do not ask me about them.’
This statement seems to suggest that there is room to probe into many things since God has remained silent on them, and the Prophet was circumscribed from saying more than what God himself has spoken, and so it is free to express one’s thoughts absolutely?
On the occasion of his appointment as governor to Yemen, Mu’az bin Jabal was asked by the Prophet about how he would carry out his duties. Mu’az said, ‘I will first consult the Qur’an.’ The Prophet then asked, ‘And what if you do not find anything therein?’, and to which Mu’az said, ‘I will then look into the Sunnah of the Prophet.’ The Prophet again asked, ‘And what if you still do not find anything in it?’ This time Mu’az said, ‘I will exercise my own judgment and I will not sway from the right path.’
The above conversation, I think, has given a clear understanding about how we reach a consensus between obedience and opinion. In obedience, it lies in finding the wisdoms behind why a thing is permitted, or why it has to be implemented, or why it needs to be forbidden. The same way, opining must be undertaken within a systematic method of inquiry, looking into the principles, causes, and consequences upon the things we opine about.
In short, obedience and opinion means that there needs to be a meeting point between instructions issued, reasons sought, and views given. That venture would eventually come to be known as Fiqh, literally meaning ‘understanding,’ namely, to understand the Shari’ah with regard to the statements of behaviours and actions, the reasons for such statements, the consequences of such behaviours and actions, and their implications for life, thought, and culture. Fiqh is therefore the systematic and organized knowledge of Shari’ah, putting the guidelines for living into perspective, and setting them into motion through the social institutions as well as we personally following and living these guidelines.
To conclude, Fiqh touches on four aspects of the Shari’ah. These are (1) Fiqh Rules (2) Fiqh Roots (3) Fiqh Relations, and (4) Fiqh Relevance. Fiqh Rules or Ahkam Fiqh consists of statements about how we should go about with life. Fiqh Roots or Usul Fiqh, deals with the backgrounds, contexts, causes, and wisdoms of these statements in relation to their applications in our everyday living. Fiqh Relations or Qawa’id Fiqh, also called maxims, are the broad statements distilled from the rules and roots and presented as general guidelines for living. Fiqh Relevance or Munasib Fiqh is the relevance of local histories and cultures in relation to the suitability of the rules and practices of Shari’ah. Together, they constitute the Shari’ah methodology of decision-making for the realization of the Shari’ah objectives for the purpose of maslaha, and are aimed at the attainment of a refined personality, the personality of jannah - a person who has come to realize that he is simultaneously a being with four selves - one who knows the uniqueness of his own self, but who exists in synchronicity of togetherness with other fellow humans, as a symbiosis with the environment, and in equilibrium with heaven, earth, and transcendent - as an ensemble, all at once.
About the author : Dr Yamin Cheng is a Malaysian Chinese Muslim and he has taught at the Department of Usuluddin and Comparative Religion, International Islamic University Malaysia. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Law from International Islamic University Malaysia, a Master's degree in Religion from George Washington University,Washington DC, and a PhD degree, also in Religion from Temple University, Philadelphia,USA. He has been an adjunct instructor at the Department of Religion, Temple University, where he taught undergraduate courses in religion. He also headed the Islamic Studies Department of an Islamic College in Melbourne, Australia.