The Structure of Islamic Law

Islamic law
has three sources: the Koran, the hadith and the law doctors.

1) THE KORAN: Alleged revelation from
God to angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed, to the people, contemporary and

Equivalent to
the Torah (or Tanakh); it is the founding scriptures, the ultimate reference
document for Islamic law.


For Mohammed:
granting his sincerity, how can he be sure the vision and voice of Gabriel was
not a hallucination. How can he be sure his “Gabriel” is a messenger
from God, and not a visitor from some other planet, say.

For his
disciples and followers: how to be sure of Mohammed’s sincerity (i.e. that it
was not all a trick of his to gain power and influence) and accuracy (i.e. that
he did not simply hallucinate).

Note also
that, according to Arnaldez[1],
the Koran has so far not been subjected to historical and textual criticism by
impartial researchers.

recipients of an alleged revelation have to learn to distinguish between:

The appearance of sights and sounds to the alleged prophet — X.

The verbalization of the phenomenon — “X occurred”

The identification of God as the source of the phenomenon — “X was
from God”.

The taking into consideration of the recipient of the message —
“Mohammed considered that God gave him the message X”.

The alleged event (a) and the various
propositions about it (b, c, d) cannot logically be treated as equivalent, as naïve
readers of revelations tend to do. (d) does not necessarily imply (c), (b) or
(a). The transition from each to the next involves a conceptualizing or rational
act of a human mind, and is subject to possibilities of error of observation or
verbalization or causal logic. This is true of any revelation, not just the

2) THE
HADITH: Alleged eyewitness accounts of the sayings and doings of the prophet,
supposedly written down by his contemporary followers, for their successors.
Some hadith were apparently
transmitted orally. Some have been judged authentic (sahih), others less so (hasan),
still others forged (saqim).

Serves as
second level of reference for Islamic law. Thus, technically equivalent to the
Oral tradition of Judaism (written in the Mishnah and Gemara), though less
spread out in time
and therefore more likely to be a reliable report.


For the eyewitnesses: granting their
sincerity, how can they be sure their observations of Mohammed’s actions were
properly remembered and relevant.

An item X may
be a broad law; Mohammed’s action represents one possible concrete application
of that law (he has to apply it somehow);
but there may be other acceptable concretizations; the simple fact that Mohammed
chose a given one, though legitimizing, does not in itself exclude other
conceivable concretizations. To make Mohammed’s actions equivalent to law is
to imply he received more instructions than he transmitted, and to make a wrong
generalization from his actions.

With regard
to verbal pronouncements by Mohammed reported by others: they may have been
improperly remembered; and even if they were written immediately (though not
verbatim), they may have been improperly understood and reported.

problems, and more, occur with regard to Jewish tradition. A rabbi may perform a
mitzvah in a certain way, because he has to do it some way, not because it is
the only way; yet his disciples take it and transmit it as the way; and so it remains if uncontradicted. If a rabbi says
something, his disciples likewise will assume it of traditional origin and
descent; but it may in fact be his own interpretation, or he may have
misunderstood what his teachers said
or did, or he may have badly remembered and filled in blanks, and so forth.

For the
subsequent generations: they may doubt the sincerity of the eyewitnesses, or
their accuracy of hearing or observation, or their having been eyewitnesses at
all, or the authenticity of the text received. It is important to resist the
tendency religion induces in us all to be credulous to events or claims that are
far away in time and therefore almost unverifiable!

We can here,
as above, express the transitional problems in formal terms: that “Alleged
eyewitnesses claim they saw or heard Mohammed doing or saying Y” does not
prove that “M did/said Y”, nor that “What Mohammed did/said was
divinely approved or intended”. It is naïve to regard these propositions
as equivalent, each one involves further assumptions than the next.

EXPERTS: those who try to develop a precise jurisprudence, with reference to
Koran and hadith, resolving contradictions, making clarifications and
inferences, filling in blanks, extending laws to new situations.


reasoning is at stake, just as in the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic writings
(formal issues, in addition to alleged traditions as to content). Initially,
personal opinion (ray) of Islamic
masters was legitimate; eventually, traditionalists reacted with more stringent
demands. Their hermeneutics, which have some resemblances to the Judaic, may
similarly be subjected to critical review.

to allied works.

Roger Arnaldez, L’Islam
(Paris: Desclée/Novalis, 1988), p.196.