Rumee Ahmed has written a courageous book. I admire his willingness to point out ethical positions the vast majority of contemporary Muslims take for granted: slavery should be outlawed; husbands should not be allowed to beat their wives; people should be allowed to freely choose or leave their religion. Traditionalists will counter that the “vast majority” do not hold these beliefs. Ahmed painstakingly provides polling data that shows they do. Ahmed goes on to quantitatively demonstrate that the vast majority of Muslims do not regularly attend the mosque, or even, by self-confession, pray regularly. Continuing from here, Ahmed makes the therefore unsurprising point that most Muslims do not really know what the “shar’iah” (God’s ideal law) actually is, in any sort of tangible way—to say nothing of fiqh, about which they really have very little knowledge or interest.

These opening empirical claims match up with my own research on Northern Nigerian attempts at “shari’ah” implementation starting in 1999. People believe(d) in an idealized version of Islamic law (which is precisely what shar’iah connotes) upon which they impose their ethical convictions and desires. In the case of Northern Nigeria at the turn of this century, shari’ah was thought to be the natural vehicle to bring about the end of poverty and corruption. Once an attempt was made to concretize this grassroots demand for “shar’iah” through transforming formerly magistrate courts to shari’ah administrating courts, or by empowering shari’ah commissions to enforce dress codes on women, or, indeed, by sentencing the poor to hudūd punishments for minor crimes while the rich and powerful continued to escape justice, the project quickly fell out of favor and was dismissed as “political shari’ah.”

It is not that people rejected the concept of fiqh—or the manmade attempt to concretize the shari’ah. It is that, to use Ahmed’s rather ingenious formulation, they wanted it hacked. When the ulema in Northern Nigeria did not hack the fiqh but rather simply reproduced medieval codes in greatly reductionist form, people quickly turned against the project. Ahmed’s work helped me reinforce my own conclusion from a different angle: The concept of a pristine legal tradition is largely a myth upheld by contemporary traditionalists, both inside and outside the academy. Their reasons for upholding this myth are to some extent rooted in post-colonial traumas. Other reasons include a desire for power, conscious or not, and a desire for cosmological continuity, about which I will remark more at the end of this essay. The point Ahmed makes is that actual social history and ethnographic data do not uphold the empirical validity of this myth. Hence, we should privilege reality over the rhetorical myth.

Ahmed painstakingly explains what it would mean to “hack” Islamic law. In the computing world, to “hack” a program is to find a weakness therein and fix it. Ahmed unapologetically submits that this is what we (qualified intellectuals, which, given literacy rates and increased access to sources, Ahmed argues are plentiful) should be doing about laws that sanctify or justify wife beating. Rather than spend his time explaining why one should take such an ethical position, Ahmed lets that stand as an obvious point. Sadly, this posture is revolutionary among experts in Islamic law writing in the Western academy today. Ahmed deserves much credit for using his authority as an expert in Islamic law and a professor in the Western academy with classical Islamic training to calmly state this ethical claim. Ahmed uses the bulk of his book to explain “how can this be justified” and then “how to do it.”

On the former point, Ahmed is admirably matter of fact: The ulema have always hacked Islamic law, most often in the service of power. However grudgingly this was done, whether in the Ottoman Empire or in contemporary Egypt, there is no question that it happens regularly and as a matter of course. Not only are Islamic legal corpuses therefore unstable in this regard, Ahmed goes on to argue, the Qur’an as a text has been as well, with exegetes often hiding their interpretations of verses in the genres of commentaries or marginalia while professing to offer only a plain-sense interpretation of the text. Moreover, codification (read here as lack of hermeneutic fluidity) is, as a whole, a feature of the colonial period. The overall conclusion is that no one should feel any guilt about hacking.

Having dispensed with this anxiety, Ahmed turns to the “how.” He is characteristically detailed in his description, and gives examples of how it has been done and can be done again. Ahmed admits the task of hacking laws that sanctify domestic violence, for example, will be very tough, as there are centuries of commentaries to sort through. We should not be deterred, however. Essentially, Ahmed’s argument boils down to, “if they can and did do it, we (post-moderns) can do it too.” Strictly speaking, it is hard to disagree with this sentiment.

Ahmed’s arguments and ethical stance, as subtly and calmly as he asserts them, stand on a few assumptions.

  1. Both “believing” Muslims (for lack of a better word) and classically, textually-trained Orientalist scholars are invested in believing Islamic authoritative texts, as overdetermined and as shrouded in layers of discourse as they are, do house a golden nugget of plain-sense meaning—indeed, a divine message. Ahmed’s work seems to me to reject this premise, or, perhaps, to find all meanings potentially ascribable to the text in some sense equally “divine.” Purists of various stripes will find this to be a painful loss, at the very least, and at worst, sacrilegious. (Ahmed seems sanguinely unconcerned about that—also admirable and courageous.)
  2. I myself am a bit skeptical about the relativity of textual meaning. My own hesitation has to do, ironically, with Islamic law. It is clear to me that where particular laws are implemented—the cause (my own work focuses on the stoning punishment for married adulterers)—there is an effect (either in the contemporary moment, and not historically, a stoning punishment, or an ingenious attempt to get out of a stoning punishment). The brutal reality of this, more than any idealism about the inherent mystical beauty of Islamic law on my part, is what has fueled my skepticism about the relative meaning of legal texts. (For what it is worth, law is not the place I generally find beauty in the Islamic tradition. Ahmed and I seem to be in agreement that we are not engaged in a delicate aesthetic exercise here, and I know legal scholars who are much more sentimentally wedded to the discourse. Those affects need to be teased out on all of our parts.)
  3. My hesitation in point two could, theoretically, be assuaged if a largescale hack of stoning was successful. What I think we would end up with, were that the case, would be two huge discourses: one in support of stoning in some theoretical cases (what we have now), and another, newly hacked discourse, that would render stoning functionally and theoretically moribund in the Islamic tradition. I do not think such a hack would destroy or successfully supplant the entirety of the former tradition, but at least we would have a competing discourse on the non-literalist side. Debates in contemporary Islam are often between literalists who claim the entire textual tradition, versus non-literalists who cling to a persistent intuition that, as Ahmed puts it in the opening sentence of his book, “something is wrong.” Hacking would greatly balance and enrich this playing field.

Ahmed writes, “The law is part of a bigger historical and cosmic order, so aligning yourself with the law means aligning yourself with history and the cosmos.” I would like to end by reflecting on this idea, which I am reading expansively, with my many friends and colleagues in mind who understand the law as their chief roadmap to the divine. I think there is no question, particularly in post-coloniality, that to align with the law is to align with, if not historical continuity itself, a sense of historical continuity, a conviction that historical continuity is right and correct, a way to right the rupture and trauma caused by colonialism. My own work in Nigeria bears this out, as does much other work on the contemporary Muslim-majority world.

What I am more skeptical about is whether the law aligns us with the cosmos. I think there is a latent sense shared by literalists and non-literalists alike that if the law is so fluid as to be hackable, then it cannot be a vehicle for alignment with the universal cosmic order, the dīn, or Allah. Reading the law as a manual of precise correct behavior (Can I eat gelatin? What counts as a “bow” during prayer?) strikes many as a rather incomplete approach to such a mystical, enormous, unfathomable order. (Though some would argue that it is the only vehicle toward that order.) In my view, our dogmatic insistence that Islamic authoritative texts are the opposite of an aesthetic pursuit is a major problem— it constitutes what a former mentor of mine called “the uglification of Islam.” If the interpretation of poetry is the most expansive hermeneutic we have with which to approach the written word, should not Islamic authoritative texts be thought of poetically? Why would we not read the divine word with the most expansive lens available?

My complaint is that hacking is not beautiful, it is not poetry, and it is not in itself transcendent. This is hardly Ahmed’s fault, needless to say. But as long as the law is continually reproduced as a stable, unchanging signifier of religious meaning and rules (which it is not), Ahmed has gone significant lengths to convince me that rolling up one’s sleeves and hacking it might be an important and unromantic tool to embrace.