By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
27 July, 2015
The Quran (5: 48) says:
To every one of you We have ordained a law and a way, and had God so willed, He would have made you all a single community, but He did not so will, in order that He might try you by what He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works; to God you shall all return; then He will make clear to you about what you have been disputing.
On the one hand, the Quran (42: 13] says that the Deen or religion that God has sent humankind is one and the same and that it has been sent to every messenger in the same form. On the other hand, from the above-cited Quranic verse (5: 48), one learns that God has established a difference with regard to the Shariah and Minhaj or methodology of religious practice of the different messengers. Different messengers were given different Shariah and different methodologies.
This Quranic verse (5: 48) is not to be understood in the absolute sense. It is not that every prophet’s Shariah was totally different from that of the other prophets. The fact is that the difference in their Shariah was only in terms of certain aspects and in matters of minor details, and not with regard to the overall and general aspects.
The above-cited Quranic verse (5: 48) employs the terms Shirah and Minhaj. Shira or Shariah refers to those matters that are called rules of worship, while Minhaj refers to methodology of religion.
Worship has a spirit or an essence. For instance, according to the Quran, the essence of Namaz is humbleness, and that of Roza (fasting in the month of Ramzan), gratitude. This inner reality of worship never changes. However, along with this, worship also has a certain form. It is in this external form of worship that changes happen. Worship is given to one prophet in one form and to another prophet in another form.
One example of difference in the way of worship or external form of worship is that of the Qibla or direction in which prayer is offered. As is known, the Bait ul-Muqaddas (Jerusalem) was made the qibla for the Jews. But the Kaaba, which is in Makkah, was made the Qibla for the Ummah of the Prophet Muhammad.
As far as Minhaj or method is concerned, God gave different prophets different methods. This was because every prophet’s circumstances were different—hence, that method alone can be proper that takes into account the prevailing circumstances. An example of difference in methods is that the Prophet Joseph directly told the then ruler of Egypt “Place in my charge the storehouses of the land” (12: 55), but the Prophet Moses did not make this sort of demand on the king of that country. On the contrary, he asked for permission to depart from Egypt, taking along with him his people, the Children of Israel (26: 17).
It is not right to claim that the difference in the Shariah of different prophets was on account of evolution—that the Shariah of the earlier prophets was rudimentary and that they kept getting refined. In other words, it is not that the reason why the Shariah of the later prophets differ from that of the earlier prophets is because the former were more advanced than the latter, and that this supposed evolutionary difference continued, till the final prophet, the Prophet Muhammad, was given the finally-evolved Shariah.
This supposed evolutionary explanation of the differences in the Shariah of various prophets is not right. The above-cited Quranic verse itself rebuts this argument. In this verse, the reason for the differences in the Shariah is mentioned as being so that people can be tested by God. According to the Quran itself, the differences in the Shariah of different prophets is on the basis of God’s testing people, and not on account of evolution of Shariah laws.
Every act of worship has a spirit as well as an external form. Those who gather around a prophet and adopt a life of faith know this difference between the two, and that is why they are more particular about the spirit of worship. But in later generations, stagnation gradually sets in, and people lose the inner spirit of worship. They begin to think that the external form of worship is the real thing and are satisfied with simply performing worship in a ritualistic manner, imagining that in doing so they are engaging in true worship.
When a community loses the spirit of worship and its members fall prey to stagnation, God commands, through His prophets, changes in some external forms of worship. Thereafter, what happens is that those who had taken the external forms to be the real thing continue to cling onto these ancient forms. They are not able to adopt the new forms of worship, so much so that on account of this they deny the prophets of their times. In contrast to such people, those in whom the spirit of the Deen is alive do not give importance to the difference in external forms. They willingly abandon the old forms and adopt the new. This is precisely what happened in ancient Madinah, when, through the Prophet Muhammad, the Qibla or direction of worship was changed, (2: 142).
As far as the external forms of worship were concerned, no changes were possible, because bringing changes in the forms of worship is not an Ijtihad issue, a matter in which human beings can act. This sort of change is brought about only through prophets. Now, because no new prophet will come, it is not possible for changes to happen in the external forms of worship. But as far Minhaj or method is concerned, the case is different.
Minhaj is essentially something that is based on ijtihad. And because ijtihad will remain operative among the Muslim Ummah till the Day of Judgment, according to the opinion of Muslim scholars, differences or changes in issues related to Minhaj will continue to be made.
Addressing the Prophet, God says in the Quran (6: 90):
Those [the previous prophets] were the people whom God guided. Follow their guidance then and say, "I ask no reward for this from you: it is only a reminder for all mankind."
Hence, the Prophet repeatedly adopted the manner of earlier prophets in matters of Minhaj. One can discover examples of this from the Quran—for instance, exercising patience in the face of the oppression of opponents (46: 35), following the Sunnat practice of the Prophet Joseph in the wake of the victory over Makkah and forgiving the oppressors (12: 92), and so on.
The existence of differences in the Shariah of the prophets is no mysterious matter. Rather, it is based on a proven law of nature—and that is, that even if the people’s beliefs are exactly the same; the external circumstances in the context of which they function can never be identical. Even a prophet may face different circumstances at different points in his life. Hence, it is absolutely natural that in the application of the Shariah there would be differences according to the prevailing circumstances. That the Shariah of different prophets have been different is because of the need to take into account the differences in the prevailing circumstances that the different prophets faced.
For instance, when conditions became severe for the Prophet Muhammad in Makkah, he and his companions were commanded by God to leave Makkah and migrate to Madinah. In contrast to this, although the conditions that the Prophet Jesus faced in Jerusalem had also become severe, he was not commanded by God to leave Jerusalem and go somewhere else. At least one reason for this difference is that when the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Madinah, the conditions there were very different from those in Makkah and the centre of Islam could very easily be established there, while at the time of the Prophet Jesus, there was no place outside Jerusalem like Madinah where he could have gone in order to preach under better conditions.
Here, it is necessary to clarify that the sequence conditions and events in the 23-year span of the Prophet’s prophethood are a part of the history of Islam, and not a part of Islamic Aqida or creed. For instance, the Prophet engaged in peaceful Dawah in Makkah. After this, he quietly left Makkah and migrated to Madinah. Thereafter, there were incidents of jihad (in the sense of Qital or war). And, finally, there was the victory over Makkah. Now, if someone takes this sequence of events to argue that the Islamic movement is but a name for three stages—Dawah, Hijrat and Jihad—it will not be right. This is because this sequence of events is not based on any sacred concept. This sequence was wholly a result of temporal conditions, and not of any unchangeable belief and ideology. It is related to Minhaj, and not to the Deen, to method, and not to religion. Its status is entirely relative. It is an event of history that happened because of the then prevailing conditions. It is not a sacrosanct sequence that was a result of religious belief.
As mentioned earlier, differences in matters of method were not something specific to earlier prophets. This principle will continue to operate among the Muslim Ummah even after the last prophet, the Prophet Muhammad, and will always do so. This is because the principle on which the issue of differences in method is based is an eternal one—that is, differences arising in the external circumstances. These differences in circumstances continue to appear in different forms. That is why the need repeatedly arises for differences in method.
For instance, in ancient times, much of the world was under despotic monarchism. A single tyrannical ruler controlled all the affairs of a country. Because of this, one option for a God-worshipping people to lead a life of faith was by departing from the ruler’s domains, as the Prophet Moses did. He could not lead a peaceful life worshipping the One God in Egypt under the rule of the Pharaoh. That is why, taking the entire community of the Children of Israel with him, he left Egypt and went into the uninhabited Sinai desert, and there he established a God-worshipping society for the Children of Israel.
Another example is provided by the companions of the Prophet. In their time, the powerful Sassanid and Byzantine empires were in existence in the neighbourhood of Arabia. Both these empires were based on political coercion. Under their rule, it was not possible for the votaries of monotheism to fulfil their responsibilities freely. And so, because of the aggression of these rulers themselves, they and the Prophet’s companions confronted each other. With God’s special help, in this confrontation the Prophet’s companions were victorious. As a result, these oppressive empires were finished off, and the votaries of monotheism got the opportunity to lead a life pleasing to God on God’s earth.
Today, conditions have vastly changed. Because of new historical processes, the world is now free from one-man rule and coercive political systems. In 1991, the Soviet Empire collapsed—this was the final climax of the process of ending coercive rule in the history of humankind. Now this sort of political coercion will never reappear in the world.
The political changes that have occurred have completely revolutionized the issue of ‘method’. Votaries of monotheism today no longer need to migrate from one land to another. Nor do they need to enter into military confrontation with ruling governments in order to put an end to them and thereby gain the chance of leading a free life—because all these things are now automatically available to them as result of historical processes.
The present age is the first in human history where, as a result of intellectual revolutions, on the one hand, and the establishment of the United Nations, on the other, every person and group has got the inalienable right to believe in, practice and preach the religion of his/her choice—with just one condition, that he/she will not engage in violence against anyone. In other words, today there is no external obstacle whatsoever for leading a peaceful religious life and for engaging in peaceful preaching work.
Under such circumstances, the task before Muslims is to thank God for the new age of freedom and to welcome it whole-heartedly. They should not unleash, on the basis of some self-invented ideology, unnecessary confrontation with today’s political rulers. A companion of the Prophet, Abdullah bin Umar, remarked that God had ordered Muslims to engage in war only to end religious persecution. The age of religious persecution had ended in a partial sense in Abdullah bin Umar’s time. And now, after the establishment of the United Nations, this age of religious persecution is finally and fully over. Hence, in the age of religious freedom that we live in, the order to fight to end religious persecution is no longer applicable in our age. Therefore, Muslims must completely abstain from engaging in such violence.