Ta’ḍhīm ash-Shari’ah or esteem for the law has always defined the Muslim community. Familiarity with the language of the law and its categories among non-specialists is a unique feature of our community. If truth be told, as a student of Shari’ah, I express a quiet joy each time I encounter Muslims who negotiate the realities of day-to-day life through the use of terms like: ḥarām, halāl, makrūh, obligatory, permissible, recommended, etc. Whether we have training in Islamic law or not; deploy the language of the law with precision and clarity or not; simply invoking the law expresses some of our deepest moral commitments. Namely, that the God we serve is concerned about us and has given us guidelines by which to lead good lives. Additionally, a concern with law articulates a faith that is relevant in the lives of believers.
However, upon observation I think the actual substance of how we navigate our religious lives as American Muslims is a combination of law and a less defined, but no less real, subjective sense of right and wrong. Imam Muslim has recorded in his esteemed collection of Prophetic traditions: “The sin is that which wavers in the heart, and that which you dislike for people to find out about.” In other words, the Prophet (upon him be peace) is encouraging us to develop and trust our moral intuition. Conscientiousness is invaluable. And yet when we express conscientiousness or moral intuition as though we are referencing law, a great deal of confusion ensues. We inevitably come to see our individual practice of Islam, which like everyone else probably has its own places of greater stringency and also permissiveness, as the standard. I fear that I might be mistaken for offering a “Hakuna Matata,” “live and let live” appeal to the more practicing within our ranks. Quite the reverse, conviction is inspiring and should be expressed persuasively. The Qur’ān contains a chapter entitled “al-Mujādila” which references the petition of Khawla bint Tha’laba, who was married to Aws ibn Ṣāmit and objected to his divorcing her according to the terms of pagan custom. She appealed to God on the basis of personal conviction and God responded. Nor do I think it a healthy communal ethic that everyone be shamed into silence through recognition of their personal moral contradictions. Rather, my hope is that by being better acquainted with the crazy, unsystematic, at times not amenable to explanation reality of being a Muslim of conscience in the present context, we can engage with greater sensitivity and mutual understanding.
From the vantage point of the Shari’ah, our context provides a number of interesting (and sometimes even a little humorous) mash-ups. For example, a bar is an establishment dedicated to the sale and consumption of alcohol but many bars also serve food. A restaurant is an establishment dedicated to the sale and consumption of food but many restaurants also serve alcohol. It is common to find Muslims who eat at restaurants which serve alcohol but regard it as disagreeable/impermissible to socialize in bars. This is actually the position to which I adhere so I understand the distinction. However, I’ve had the benefit of some reading in traditional fiqh. I know the distinction is not the Islamic legal ruling which maintains the impermissibility of sitting in places where alcohol is consumed—for this would also include many restaurants. We live in a majority non-Muslim country and dining at restaurants which serve alcohol is a compromise I accept. However, a bar is where I draw the line. I have cultural/experiential knowledge that warrants classifying bars differently. This realization offers self-awareness. When attempting to persuade a fellow Muslim that attends networking events or meets with clients at bars that it would be better to meet elsewhere, how can I use the term ḥarām with any integrity? My own practice represents a departure from the dictates of the law. Make no mistake, I would still offer advice but hopefully free of the misplaced legal ruling. I would offer my advice for what it is: A principled and experienced position on the cultural status of bars and why we should stay away from them as opposed to other places that may also serve alcohol like restaurants, sporting events, etc.
The Islamic legal maxim which states “lā mushāḥata fī at-tasmīyya” is difficult to translate. The general meaning is that the legal status of an act does not change by simply changing the name of the act. When pondering rulings of Shari’ah, this maxim protects us from falling into the error of confusing arbitrary distinctions with legally determinative distinctions. For instance, some of us oppose the display of photography (which represents living images) on account of a general prohibition against image-making. However, it’s rare to see that prohibition extended to the same digital images beamed into our homes on televisions (which, ironically, are now hung from walls just like picture frames!) Along the same lines, there is no consistency in forbidding the display of portraiture and representational art but embracing the viewing of animation and cartoons. It’s well-known that Islamic Law interdicts transactions which include gharar or “susceptibility to deception.” As a result, agreements that involve probability (e.g. X pays Y an agreed upon price in exchange for Y possibly offering X a good or service) are prohibited. Nonetheless, the topic of insurance generates myriad responses within our community. Car insurance is a necessity because of its legal requirement. Health insurance is also treated as a necessity on account of the impracticality of not having it. However, the permissibility of life insurance is debated vigorously. Couldn’t one convincingly argue that not having life insurance is similarly impractical? And I don’t even need to start on holidays! Neither Halloween nor Thanksgiving is expressly connected to a particular faith tradition and both have dubious origins. However, for many of us Halloween is strictly off-limits but we look forward to dinner, football, and family on Thanksgiving!?
And yet, I’m not saying that these seemingly arbitrary distinctions—like those cited above—are without merit. There is a substantive basis for the different ways in which I understand Halloween and Thanksgiving. Perhaps it’s best to say: My heart responds to Thanksgiving differently. In spite of the fact that Thanksgiving represents a celebratory feast that initiated a sustained campaign of expropriating indigenous lands; in my direct experience, it has come to mark a day of family and gratitude. The memories I associate with Thanksgiving are things I would like to pass on to my children. And thus my position toward Thanksgiving is much more conciliatory and permissive. Halloween, on the other hand, induces mostly memories of the frivolities of my youth! We were partly masqueraders and partly marauders—snatching the “trick or treat” bags of other unsuspecting kids! I won’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed Halloween; however, I can’t say that I remember anything particularly wholesome or virtuous about Halloween. And then there were days of eating all of that sugar-filled, malnutritious candy, I honestly don’t even know how I survived it! Clearly, I would see much less merit in making Halloween a part of the culture of my family. So we sometimes gather with friends and family for Thanksgiving, but much to the chagrin of my young children, we don’t celebrate Halloween. That’s my position and I’m content with it. Conversely, it would be disingenuous to attempt to convince others to adopt the same position by saying Halloween is ḥarām and categorically un-Islamic. We are encouraged to follow our hearts but we must be able to distinguish them from the law.