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Halal but un-islamic, restoring the Ethical Core of Islam

Author: Sharif Hasan al-Banna | 28 Nov 2013

The last three hundred years of Muslim history has witnessed the gap between law and ethics widen. Throughout various intervals in history, the discipline of law lost its connection with the ethical paradigm of Islam. The Islamic faith has been reduced to a legal barometer, a code of halal and haram. The microscopic lens of our legal tradition which dissects and deciphers to offer creative legal solutions is the pre-eminent and predominant framework through which we analyse and make sense of the world around us. The result? More fatwas - legal opinions and verdicts – in dealing with our realities.

So how can the halal be un-Islamic? It can be and it is. This is when fiqh is divorced from its ethical setting. It is when the legal value of an action is the only concern, sometimes at the expenses of other considerations. In pursuit of halal, we forget that the Shariah, often thought of as a body of law, is foremost an encompassing ethos derived over time from the primary sources – of which legal norms (fiqh) derived in pluralist fashion (ikhtilaf) are only a part. We forget to recognize that Islam did not originate in a legal tradition nor are ultimate truths reached through legislation.

Let us take examples from three sectors to illustrate how the halal becomes un-Islamic:

Food:

The halal meat market is reported to be worth billions of dollars worldwide. When discussing the adab of consumption, the Quran refers to the concepts of ‘halal’ (permissible) and ‘tayyib’ (pure and good) – in other words, law and ethics (2:168). Both are to be taken into consideration. Muslims campaign to legalise the slaughtering animals as prescribed by Islamic law but are not troubled by the undignified treatment and living conditions of animals. Surely, Islam is not just concerned with the consumption of food and meat only but the complete animal eco-system. There is an adab in dealing with animals and other creations of the Divine. The meat maybe halal but can we confidently assert that our action – or lack thereof - towards animal cruelty is Islamic?

Finance:

The past two decades has seen a rise of what is termed as Islamic Finance. The underpinning philosophy of which is to serve faith-conscious needs across global Muslim markets. Shariah advisors are on standby to validate contracts and transactions. However, at a deeper glance one sees the same neo-liberal capitalist framework, but this time with an ‘Islamic’ validation. Deeper questions of economic justice, equitable distribution of wealth, access to capital, and ethical underpinnings of commercial contracts (i.e. harmful substances used in building constructions) are disregarded as in the conventional financial sector. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – be that in the name of Western capitalist free market economies or Shariah compliant finance. Even France, the bastion of Secularism in Europe, is fighting hard to introduce legal frameworks to make Islamic Finance a viable option. The current head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde was championing the case of Islamic Finance in France when she was serving as the French Finance Minister. Are these ethical considerations of an alternative economic paradigm or an attempt to attract investment from Gulf States in an ever-declining state of the euro? The question remains: what is ‘Islamic’ about ‘Islamic Finance’ beyond dealing with legal loopholes in order to frame it as Shariah-compliant?

Art and Culture:

Music is at the forefront of a cultural conduit which reaches and impacts millions. It is everywhere. Faith-conscious Muslim artists are now producing “Islamic music” as an attempt to provide an alternative to mainstream pop-culture. However, much of the same celebrity-obsession and a pop-culture which is no different to the mainstream showbiz culture (apart from the ‘Islamic’ lyrics), seems to be also evident in the Islamic cultural industry. Art continues to operate in the spiritually bankrupt and commercialised environment of modern hedonistic lifestyles. Art in the Islamic ethos is a spiritual experience, not one of self-gratification or mere entertainment. Lyrics changed to reflect direct Islamic teachings maybe a halal endeavour but can remaining subservient to a dominant culture which is driven by an obsession with fame, materialism and consumerism, be considered Islamic?

Islam’s Ethical Proposition

The essence of Islam lies in its ethical proposition. Adab (ethics of thought and behaviour), ihsan (spiritual excellence), and akhlaq (moral integrity) are three important terms which frequently appear across the Islamic scriptures. It is about the inner quality of an action and the state and manner of one’s behaviour which matters more than its mere ritual manifestation.

The Quran states that righteousness is:

“…not whether you turn your faces to the East or the West but righteous is he who believes in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets; and gives of his wealth for the love (of God) to relatives, orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and those who ask and for (the liberation) of slaves; and establishes the ritual prayer and pays the zakat; and those who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the truthful, and such are God-fearing.” (2:177)

Righteousness or birr is thus a synthesis of belief, worship, ethics of engagement, social justice and displaying inner spiritual strength.

“I only was sent for the perfection of ethical standards,” said Prophet Muhammad.

His was an ethical mission: to make us better believers and better humans. The Prophet reminded us that when sacrificing, the blood and flesh of an animal does not reach God, only our sincere intentions. God-consciousness is not limited to the external piety evident to the onlooker but the spiritual condition of our hearts and ethical standards of our actions. However, we have lost this sense of adab and have adopted an unauthentic approach to law and ethics.

It is this ‘loss of adab’, which one of the modern world’s leading Muslim philosophers, Professor Sayyid Naquib al-Attas eloquently articulated in his many writings. Adab in his parlance was defined in its all-embracing deeper meaning as “the recognition and acknowledgement of the reality that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically according to their various grades and degrees of rank, and of one’s proper place in relation to that reality and as in one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities and potentials.”

Post-Islamisation

The past four decades witnessed a period of Islamisation underpinned by a ‘Faruqian’ discourse (in reference to Dr Ismail Faruqi’s proposition on the Islamisation of knowledge). It resulted in adding the prefix ‘Islamic’ across many human disciplines and areas of knowledge and hence the terms ‘Islamic sociology’, ‘Islamic medicine’, ‘Islamic politics’, ‘Islamic economics’ and ‘Islamic management’ were introduced. There is little doubt that there were many positive outcomes of this intellectual endeavour and much to learn from. At the same time, it would be reasonable to assert that the Islamisation discourse has failed in not only capturing the public imagination but also in empowering the Islamic discourse with its moral credentials. We are in no need to ‘Islamise’ areas of life. Ours is the task of ‘ethicising’ realities according to Islamic principles. If Islam is synonymous to ethics in this context, then the debate is purely semantics.

Having said this, there are exceptions and it would not be difficult to support the contention that Islamic, Philosophy, Islamic Art, Islamic Spirituality (or Sufism) and Islamic Ethics have deep enough an intellectual framework and tradition to justify their labelling as ‘Islamic’. There are distinctive elements of art, philosophy, spirituality and ethics which render the adjective meaningful. In particular, the Moroccan philosopher and academic Dr Taha Abdur Rahman’s attempt to reframe the theory of Islamic Ethics modelling it on the Islamic spiritual and mystical tradition is both creative and fascinating. It is this acute methodology of rooting a discourse in our scholastic tradition (ta’sil) but concurrently projecting it in language relevant to our modern realities (tawsil) which is one of the key tasks required to be undertaken by proponents of the contemporary Islamic discourse.

What is “Islamic”?
So “what is Islamic” about any thought or action? Is it limited to scriptural legal validation or can it be determined by an ethical vision alignment? People generally fall into two camps - one which wants to Islamise everything and the other which harbours an inferiority complex in using the word ‘Islamic’ or sees a limited role for faith in the public space.

I would contend that the term ‘Islamic’ has both legal and ethical dimensions. If it is permissible in law, then it is ‘halal’ or ‘mubah’ and if it is validated by the ethical standards of Islam, only then does it become ‘Islamic’. Legislation and ethics are two sides of the same coin and should depend on each other as an integrated whole. Traditionally, this distinction did not exist and thus the master jurist Imam Abu Hanifa defined fiqh itself as ‘knowledge of the responsibilities and liabilities of one’s self.’ This definition encompasses both the legal and ethical facets.

This interpretation of the word ‘Islamic’ also entails acknowledging that whilst Islam’s ultimate quest, like all other monotheistic traditions, is the spiritual quest of the human self to the celestial, it does not hold back in providing insight into the mundane world. In some cases, the insight is detailed and scriptural like in the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance and financial transactions. However in other areas, the human mind, collective wisdom and experience is left to navigate through the complexities of life based on generic scriptural principles and maxims. Take, politics and management as an example. What is Islamic about them? What does the Quran or Hadith say about them such that we can term them Islamic? Very little actually in terms of detailed instructions. However, good politics and good management is ‘Islamic’.

Building on the logic of this argument, any thought or action which does not contravene Islamic principles, law or ethics can be deemed ‘Islamic’ even if the source is not Islam (though there is no need to term it as such). Seen in this light, the efforts of many responsible citizens across the globe to raise awareness about global warming and climate change, is an ‘Islamic’ initiative as it is a manifestation of Quranic environmental ethics. The legendary singer and songwriter Michael Jackson’s song Man in the Mirror for example, can be viewed as deeply ‘Islamic’ as it reflects values of self-change according to Quranic principles.

Professor Tariq Ramadan’s proposed distinction between “adaptive” and “transformative” reform is also relevant to this discourse in bridging the gap between law and ethics. If we merely seek to normalise our existence with the realities around us and adapt to it, then we need fiqh alone. However if we aspire to challenge, change and shape our realities, then we need an ethical construct from which to project our transformational vision for society. Islam thus becomes an actor and not just a passive onlooker.

In Islam, the primary ethical corpus is derived from Quranic and prophetic traditions and is interwoven with literary and social mores, as well as a robust intellectual tradition of which al-Muhasibi, al-Tusi, Miskawayh, Isfahani, al-Farabi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and Shah Wali-ullah are exemplars. The ethical tradition of Islam thus finds rich expression in the plenitude of virtually a millennium-and-a-half of historical experience. It is our sincere hope that CILE rises to the challenge of re-articulating the discourse of maqasid and ethics and contributes in restoring the ethical core of Islam in the 21st Century.