In his new book, Sharia Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law, Rumee Ahmed offers a rich and incisive account of the functioning logic of Islamic legal discourse. He narrates the intricacies of legal reasoning with ease and clarity, unpacking complex details in such a conversant manner that it renders the coded language of Islamic law easily accessible to any reader. The most crucial contribution of the book is the introduction of “hacking,” a term employed by Ahmed to refer to the process by which Muslim jurists have changed the law to respond to shifting circumstances. Hacking allows jurists to effect legal change without recreating the law, thus maintaining the appearance of stability and fixity. Using such a strategy, he argues, individual Muslims can address the dissonance between their moral sensibilities and the ethical assertions of Islamic law. Hacking is a tool that allows them to reshape the law to reflect an egalitarian ethic in a manner that will go undetected (provided it is a good hack!).
Hacking, in Ahmed’s book, is both a descriptive and prescriptive claim. As a descriptive claim about the functioning of Islamic law, it is an account of how Muslim jurists alter legal rulings to articulate and authorize changing moral norms, while simultaneously maintaining that God’s law is unchanging. In providing such an analysis, Ahmed not only demystifies legal interpretation but also challenges the authority of the religious scholarly elite as the sole interpreters of Islamic law. His detailed analysis of this “tool-of-the-trade” introduces the possibility that just as jurists do, individuals Muslims can also hack the law, once they have learned to play the game (which this book teaches them to do!).
The second layer of analysis in the book is a prescriptive claim that individual Muslims ought to hack the law. It is this prescriptive claim that I want to explore in this essay. While Ahmed’s descriptive claim is a compelling deconstructive critique of Islamic law, I think hacking will become an untenable tool for effecting legal change once it becomes an intentional exercise.
I would like to situate hacking within Muslim feminist critiques of Islamic law that call for its reinterpretation. There are two main approaches taken by Muslim women scholars on the reform of Islamic law. The first approach, while critiquing the patriarchal nature of the law, also looks to the diversity of legal opinions to find positions that can be used to advocate for women’s rights. The second approach pushes against this strategy, pointing out the dissonance between the gendered assumptions in premodern Islamic law and contemporary ethics. This latter approach advocates instead for a wholesale reinterpretation.1For a more detailed analysis of these different approaches see my article: Yacoob, Saadia. 2018. “Islamic Law and Gender” in The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, by Anver M. Emon and Rumee Ahmed. Oxford, Oxford University Press. I read Ahmed’s proposal to hack the law as a contribution to this ongoing conversation. Ahmed contends that moral claims in Muslim communities are authorized and authenticated through the language of Islamic law. Hacking is thus necessary if Muslims with an egalitarian vision of Islam wish to stake their moral claims in a manner that will be taken seriously by religious leaders and ultimately adopted as an Islamic ideal. Ahmed thus offers hacking as a strategy for reflecting contemporary moral norms within Islamic law without openly advocating for its reinterpretation or reformulation.
Reading Ahmed’s descriptive account of hacking, we can see that the power of hacking lies precisely in its ability to go undetected. This, however, is in tension with hacking as a prescriptive tool. Ahmed’s proposal assumes hacking as a conscious exercise conducted by morally autonomous individuals who express their moral vision in the language of Islamic law, rather than submitting themselves to its ethical determinations. The problem I see in such a proposal is that individuals who are committed to the authority of Islamic law, its interpreters, and its substantive conclusions—those Ahmed refers to as fiqh-minded Muslims—would reject the idea of deliberately hacking the law to align with their individual judgments and sensibilities, even as they might do so unconsciously. Muslims who profess a commitment to the legal paradigm inhabit what Ebrahim Moosa, in his book Ghazālī and The Poetics of Imagination, describes as a heteronomous subjectivity. In such an ethical disposition, an individual does not exercise their moral agency in the personal determination of what is ethical. Instead, they surrender to the ethical judgments of Islamic law and exercise agency in their will to respond (or not respond) to the ethical imperative.
It is also important to consider that the authority of Islamic law is further reinforced in a world where Muslims feel increasingly under threat from the rising tide of anti-Muslim racism, the continued effects of the War on Terror, and the hegemony of liberal norms. In such a context, many fiqh-minded Muslims see Islamic law as the representation of an authentic Muslim ethics, and thus seek to uphold its norms in resistance to Western and liberal hegemony.
To be clear, I do not disagree with Ahmed’s characterization of legal change through hacking. I agree with his claims that legal rulings are not produced through a principle-based interpretation of textual sources (although I would ascribe greater agency to textual sources than he does), that jurists do indeed reflect their own moral norms through Islamic law, and that legal change is spurred by shifting moral norms. The difference I would identify, however, is that this is not a consciously deliberate process. In fact, it seems to me that the effectiveness of a hack is precisely in its ability to allow legal change to happen without seeming so.
Let me give an example to demonstrate my point. When I teach on Muslim interpretations of verse 4:34, I also bring in videos of popular Muslim preachers (such as this, this, and this). This verse has been the subject of significant debate among Muslims because it addresses a husband’s prerogative to discipline a recalcitrant wife by first reprimanding her, then ceasing sexual intimacy, and finally inflicting corporal punishment (ḍarb). In almost all the videos I show students, the prevalent interpretation of the word ḍarb redefines the act of hitting as a symbolic act by insisting that it can be neither injurious nor leave a mark. They also argue that a man cannot use any tool for hitting larger than a miswāk (the equivalent of a toothbrush) or a handkerchief.
I use these videos to demonstrate to students that, like Muslim feminists, these preachers are also morally troubled by this verse. Even as popular preachers accuse Muslim feminists for imposing Western norms on the Qur’an, they are themselves also actively engaged in reinterpreting the verse to reconcile it with their moral qualms around domestic violence. They do this, however, in a manner that presents them as simply explicating God’s intended meaning in this verse (backed by the authority of “tradition”). Much like the Saudi clerics Ahmed describes in the book, these preachers “hack” (albeit a bad hack) the law by redefining the word “hit.” Effectively, these preachers preserve the right of the husband to threaten physical violence, while also restricting that right to a largely symbolic act of violence. Their redefinition of ḍarb, however, is not a conscious effort. They fundamentally believe the Qur’an could not have granted the husband the right to slap, smack, or worse punch his wife. As Ayesha S. Chaudhry shows in her book Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, these were all possible interpretations in precolonial exegeses of the verse.
Similar to my observation here regarding the interpretations of 4:34 by popular Muslim preachers, I would argue that while those committed to Islamic law as their ethical framework might already be actively engaged in hacking (as Ahmed demonstrates), they will resist intentionally hacking the law to make it conform to moral commitments they see as external to Islamic law.
While fiqh-minded Muslims might have reservations about consciously hacking the law, it can nonetheless be a valuable tool for intervening in contemporary Muslim debates by instrumentalizing the law. Individual Muslims, activists, and organizations can all make use of hacking to stake their moral claims in a framework that is compelling in communal discourses, provided they can pass it off unnoticed. However, given that religious authority is both gendered and racialized and still rests primarily with the religious scholarly elite, it remains to be seen whether hacks performed by individuals and groups dedicated to an egalitarian vision of Islam will be accepted as authoritative.
Despite my reservations about hacking as a prescriptive project, the deconstructive power of Ahmed’s book is undoubtable. His descriptive analysis of hacking undoes the authority of Islamic law as the exclusive ethical framework for Muslims, and the religious scholarly elite as its only rightful interpreters. Reading this book will leave the reader incapable of holding on to the narrative that Muslim jurists simply produce Islamic law through an interpretive exercise that is uninformed by their individual moral norms. The power of this very welcome book is precisely in this demystification of the aura of sacredness around Islamic law and the undoing of the authority of Muslim jurists.