We usually think of "law" as referring to rules enforced by government. I have now read most of a 14th century text
on Islamic law (also available online
), and one conclusion is that that is a misleading way of looking at the subject. It is true that many of the rules are enforceable by the state, but that, seen from within the system, is not what they are really about. Ultimately, all of the rules are seen as enforced not by the state but by God.
That point is illustrated by a mistake I made in my initial attempts to understand the system. In Islamic law, there are five categories of acts, ranging from obligatory to forbidden. I thought an obligatory act was one you could be legally punished for not doing, a recommended act one that you should do but were not legally obligated to do, and so on down the list. In fact, if my current source is correct, that is not what the categories mean. An obligatory act is one that God will reward you for doing and punish you for not doing. A recommended act is one that God will reward you for doing but will not punish you for not doing. The distinction has nothing to do with what the state will or will not punish.
In an earlier post, I raised the question of what the difference is between punishment and failure to reward. I think, although I am not certain, that I now understand the answer in the context of Islamic law. As best I understand the view, at least the version presented in the book I have just been reading, all Muslims eventually make it to heaven—although that has to be qualified by the observation that someone with sufficiently heretical beliefs doesn't count as a Muslim even if he thinks he does. Punishment is what a Muslim has to go through before he gets there, reward is what he gets when he finally makes it. Hell, for Muslims, is purgatory. It is permanent only for some non-Muslims.
The distinction between state law and divine law is paralleled by the distinction between taxes in the sense most of us are familiar with—money we have to give the government to be spent as it chooses—and zakat, Islamic religious "tax." The rules for how much you owe are similar in both systems. The difference is in whom you owe it to.
A good Muslim is supposed to pay an amount of zakat based on how much crop he has produced during the year or how much wealth of certain sorts he has. The money goes to eight categories of recipients: the poor, those in need, travelers, unpaid warriors for Islam, ... . In three of the four schools of law, it is supposed to be evenly divided among the categories, in one the payer is free to allocate it as he wishes.
But in all schools, as best I can tell, the payer is free to decide who in each category gets his money. He can, if he wish, pay the money to the ruler, who is then supposed to hand it out appropriately. He can, if he prefers, pay it to some private individual who will distribute it for him—and is entitled to one of the eight shares as payment for doing so. He can distribute it himself. Again, the ultimate obligation is to God and exists whether or not there is a ruler to enforce it.
All of which I find interesting.
Labels: fiqh, Islamic law, shari'a, zakat