In last night’s post about honor killing, I quoted authoritative Islamic law to demonstrate that killing one’s children is not punishable under sharia.
The source I cited was ’Umdat al-salik wa ’uddat al-nasik, or The reliance of the traveller and tools of the worshipper. It is usually referred to as Reliance of the Traveller when quoted in English. My references were from the Revised Edition (published 1991, revised 1994), which is billed as “The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law ’Umdat al-Salik by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 769/1368) in Arabic with Facing English Text, Commentary, and Appendices”, edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. The publisher is listed as amana publications in Beltsville, Maryland.
The book is considered an authoritative source on Sunni Islamic law because it is certified as such by Al-Azhar University in Cairo. There is no higher authority on Sunni Islamic doctrine than Al-Azhar. To give the book additional gravitas, it has also been certified as an authoritative source of Islamic law by the governments of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
Reliance of the Traveller is thus a useful tool for us “Islamophobes”, since no Muslim can credibly assert that it does not represent the “true Islam”.
I mention all this because a reader emailed us this morning with some pertinent questions about Reliance, and the Koranic justification for its reading of Islamic law. His questions and my responses are below.
Do you have a copy of “Umdat al-Salik”?
Yes, a big thick hardback with a green and gold cover.
I imagine that it is expensive, …
Not terribly. I can’t remember the exact cost, but it was normal for a hardback book of that size.
…and that its text is not available online.
It is available online, actually. I picked up a text document version (.txt, no formatting), and I also have a huge Word document of it. But I acquired those several years ago, and no longer have the URLs for the sites where I found them.
According to this famous citation from it, a Muslim who kills a non-Muslim and a person (even a non-Muslim!) who kills his/her own child or grandchild must not be punished for the killing. I have never been able to find the Quran passage or hadith on which this impunity is based. Does this “Umdat” citation have a footnote pointing to the relevant ayat/hadith? How do the ulema scripturally justify this ruling?
Reliance sometimes cites the Koran and/or the hadith to justify its prescriptions and proscriptions, but not always. In this particular case, no scripture is cited.
The relevant section (O, “Justice”, o1.0, “Who is subject to retaliation for injurious crimes”) begins with several citations from the Koran and the hadith about how much Allah abhors “killing without right”, which he considers an “enormity”.
If Allah (through Mohammed) does not forbid an activity, it is by definition lawful. The killing of one’s children is not mentioned as “killing without right” in the Koran or the hadith. One assumes that “honor killings” were a common practice in 7th-century Arabia, as they are today. Thus al-Misri considered it necessary to list them as “not subject to retaliation” so that the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) would be clear on the topic.
That’s my best guess, but it would take an actual scholar to confirm or refute my suppositions.
Some further thoughts on the same topic:
All possible human activities are regulated by Islamic law. If an action is not specifically mentioned in the Koran or the Sunna, its status under sharia is determined by scholarly examination of relevant references that may be extended to cover the activity in question.
Islamic scholars undertook such interpretations in the early days of Islam, and eventually settled on conclusions that were described as having “the consensus of the scholars”. The groundwork for the fiqh was thus laid down more than a thousand years ago, and is now considered unquestionable and beyond dispute within all major schools of Islamic law, both Sunni and Shi’ite.
Under sharia, all human actions are either halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden). If the Koran mentions an action as having either status, that codifies it completely. Similarly, if the sayings of Mohammed (in the hadith) mention an action with approval or disapproval, it is codified in the law as halal or haram respectively.
Since Mohammed was the perfect man, whose life serves as an example for all Muslims to emulate, an action becomes automatically halal if Mohammed is known to have engaged in it. This is why beheading Jews or marrying nine-year-old girls is legal under sharia.
The tricky part for medieval Islamic scholars concerned actions that were not mentioned in the Koran and the Sunna. If no apparent analogy could be found with other explicitly cited actions, the ulema were reduced to finding penumbrae from the law that would help them make their distinctions.
This eventually led to gradations within the halal category. Permitted (halal) actions can thus be “mandatory”, or “recommended”, or “not recommended”, or “discouraged”, or simply “allowed”.
My assumption is that honor killing has been a common practice among the Arab tribes since time out of mind. Mohammed didn’t cover the topic, so it remained halal, and al-Misri regarded it as important enough to list it as “not subject to retaliation”; i.e. the perpetrators of such killings could not be punished.
I am, however, a dilettante in these matters. If there are other plausible explanations for al-Misri’s ruling, knowledgeable readers are invited to leave them in the comments.