The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito. A few things are worth noting:
- I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material. You can do that on The Great Courses website. My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
- These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course. As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
- There is no third thing. I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.
Lecture 6: Paths to God – Islamic Law and Mysticism
Islamic law is derived from three sources:
- Sharia – the teachings of the prophet as embodied in the Quran
- Sunnah – the example of the prophet
- Ijtihad – human interpretation of Sharia and Sunnah by the Ulama (scholars) and application of common sense and reasoning. For the Shia community, this last takes a secondary role to collected writings not recognized by the Sunni community.
The law is designed to establish definitively what it means to be a good Muslim and create a just society that is equitable to all. For the Muslim faith, action and obedience to the law is considered much more important than questions of theology.
The law covers two basic areas:
- Duties to God – essentially, the Five Pillars previously discussed
- Duties to Others – rules about public and family life
Family Law – Family law covers three basic topics which will be outlined below. It should be noted that these laws vary greatly from region to region to conform to some degree with local customs and have over time evolved significantly. Legal opinions are passed down by means of the issuance of a fatwa, a formal legal opinion given by a Mufti.
- Marriage – previous to the Muslim faith, women were treated essentially as a possession to be handed out. Under Sharia, women became a party to their own marriage contracts and could benefit from their own dowries. Polygamy was regulated and men were limited to four wives but only if they could legitimately support them. Men and women are viewed to have equal partnership within Muslim marriage but to have complimentary roles with the man working outside the home while the woman is master inside the home.
- Divorce – while still permitted, divorce is termed “the most abominable” of things allowed by the Quran. Previously, a man needed merely to utter “I divorce you” to remove his wife from her position. Now the rules are significantly more complex and the wife is entitled to financial support.
- Inheritance – woman can now inherit whereas previously it was only the eldest male child which could see money from the death of a parent.
Sufism represents the mystical aspects of Islam and the lecturer’s description made me think of them like hippies. They are observant when it comes to Islamic law but they find that the law alone isn’t really sufficient. They seek direct contact with Allah through prayer, fasting and meditation. Despite being, at times, in conflict with the ulama, since about the 12th century they have worked to spread themselves through the establishment of monasteries that bring to mind monastic aspects of the Christian religion.
View back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam