The Muslim community is theocratic; everything in it is regulated by religious law, the most trivial actions of the individual as well as its institutions but religious knowledge is not considered to be a means of knowing God better, or of serving Him more intelligently.
The individual is brought to the conception of Islam by a whole network of measures and enactments which were woven by the doctors of the faith in the second century of the Hijra,
The Quran is written in a dead language that a Muslim cannot understand without special study; and so, to simplify the task, he has to be content, in many cases, with reading the sacred text without seeking to understand it. To read well, to pronounce the words correctly is the objective of the nations of Islam.
Moreover, it would be of no service to a believer to be able to understand the ‘divine word,’ since he is not allowed to interpret it, nor to take it as his rule of conduct by applying it to current events. The interpretation of the Quran has been fixed once for all by the orthodox commentators; this interpretation is final, and no Muslim may modify it under penalty of apostasy. This formal and irrevocable prohibition shuts the Muslim nations off from all progress.
The Quran is, in principle, the source from which Muslims have drawn their inspiration; but Muhammad had neither time, nor possibly inclination, to establish an exact doctrine settled in all its details. In his anxiety to attract followers, he tried to do his best to please everyone. According to circumstances, he expressed an opinion which he had no hesitation in repealing the following day, if the interests of the moment demanded it. The consequence is that the Quran is a singularly confused code, and the successors of the Prophet, charged with its application, were sometimes very much embarrassed. The more scrupulous of them surrounded themselves with counsellors chosen from among those who had lived on intimate terms with the ‘Messenger of God’ and were supposed to know his mind. Others acted on the inspiration of the moment, often according to their own will and good pleasure. When the tide of Arab conquest had extended the Empire, the Caliph, finding it a physical impossibility to dispense justice by himself unaided, had to delegate his powers, and as it would be dangerous to leave each of these delegates at liberty to interpret the ‘sacred texts’ for himself, the necessity of drawing up a code sufficiently precise for their use was recognised.
The work roughly drafted by the earlier Caliphs and continued after them in different parts of the Empire, was finished by certain jurists who were the founders of the four Sunni orthodox rites: Imam Abu Hanifa. Imam Malik, Imam As-Shafi’i, and Imam Ibn Hanbal, The work of the four interpreters of the Quran conceived their systems of interpretation based on the same following principles.
The commandments of God in the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet were not sufficient to meet all cases; it was therefore necessary to compliment them, so they drew on the following additional sources.
1. Roman Law was in force in the majority of the newly conquered countries – Syria, Egypt and North West Africa (The Moghreb). In adapting these laws, distortion occurred to such an extent that their original significance was lost.
2. Pre-Islamic customs Because they were not condemned in the Quran they were considered to be approved; others which had been modified by the Prophet without being abolished were approved.
3. The Old Testament commandments relating to murder and adultery were included in the founding principles.
4. Judgements delivered by the Caliphs which were in agreement with the Quran.
According to the orthodox commentators who fixed the doctrine, legislation is the acquaintance of man with his rights and duties. This knowledge is obtained by the study of the science of the law.
Wherever Muslim law is in force every believer may chose one or other of these interpretations; but once he has made his choice he must see that his conduct conforms to it.
It can be said that the works of the commentators have replaced the Quran itself for anyone citing a judgement on the text of the Quran alone is open to the charge of heresy and would be regarded as an attempted insubordination to the orthodox interpretation. These orthodox interpretations are final and unchangeable. No one has any right to modify them by extension or restriction.
As these judgements were drawn up in the second century of the hijra they have immobilised the Muslim community, and now hinder its development. Believers are in a well of irremediable stagnation and as long as they are in force the believers will be incapable of progress.
Abridged from ‘Islam and the Psychology of the Muslim’ by Andre Servier