For more on this topic, see The Straight Path - Finding Guidance in an Age of Confusion


It is common for us to hear talk about the need for change and adaptability in Islamic law. The unprecedented developments that human society has gone through since industrialization have made dramatic change the rule, not an exception. This is true even since the advent of the smartphone and social media. Managing such change has challenged all legal, religious, and philosophical traditions. It’s no surprise that the issue of change in Islamic law has been a major topic of debate among Muslims. Sometimes the call for change is rooted in a desire to completely abandon the Islamic legal tradition. Other times, however, it is rooted in a well-intentioned desire to see Islamic law provide answers to the technological, economic, and demographic changes that are undeniable realities in today’s world. At the heart of such discussions is the question of how much Islamic law is supposed to change with changing circumstances. Another related and perhaps even more important question is how much its wisdom should lead Muslims to push back against those changes. 
Since many of these conversations are driven by sincere emotions, many young Muslims may hastily make comments or adopt beliefs without a “sober second thought.” As the title of this paper suggests, I hope it will serve that purpose. 
A young Muslim in today’s world is likely to encounter speech that characterizes Islamic law as outdated or as nothing more than the amalgamated subjective opinions of ancient scholars. Often there are calls to change Islamic law because “times have changed” and we are no longer living in the same world in which scholars of the past lived. This is not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely correct. Such conversations, if not framed with the right principles, may spiral into a complete denunciation of the Islamic legal tradition. Some may (wrongly, in my opinion) think that this is a price worth paying, that Muslims should move into a ‘post-legal’ understanding of their religion. But, considering the failure of modernized or progressive worldviews to answer fundamental questions ranging from the metaphysical to the mundane, it seems too drastic and wasteful to cast out the inherited wisdom of the past for a complete reliance on the untested present. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to lay down basic parameters: a framework for a conversation about Islamic law. 
This paper will first describe the nature of Islamic law. Namely, that it is the product of a rational attempt at discovering God’s law for humanity, that Muslims are bound by God’s commandments, and that subjective beliefs of what is good or evil cannot override scripture.[1] Second, the paper will address the common claim that Islamic law is nothing more than the subjective interpretation of scholars who lived in a certain time and place and that we are, consequently, not bound by the rulings they developed. Third, the paper will explain some of the ways Islamic law is able to change and accommodate new realities while at the same time remaining loyal to the divine text. 
Before proceeding any further, it is important to define what is meant by “Islamic law.” The term is often used synonymously with the word Shariah.  Although this is correct to a certain extent, it runs the risk of giving the impression that Islamic law is a collection or code of ready-made laws found directly in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This understanding betrays the fact that many substantive rulings involve juristic reasoning (to varying degrees); these rulings are the output of the enterprise known as fiqh. For the purposes of this paper, the term “Islamic law” refers to the corpus of substantive rulings found in or derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah. These substantive rulings in some cases are self-evident and require no juristic reasoning, such as the obligation of the five daily prayers. In other cases, they involve a degree of juristic reasoning and legal analysis on the part of jurists. This distinction, and the features of each type of ruling, will be further explained below. At this point, however, the reader should keep in mind that “Islamic law,” in this paper, refers to the collection of all substantive rulings existing along the spectrum; from requiring no juristic reasoning, to involving rigorous fiqhī activity (also known as ijtihād).

Islamic law is rooted in divine scripture

Islamic law is not the arbitrary rule of scholars

There are ways for law to adapt while abiding by scripture

Aren’t there other avenues for change? 

What does all of this mean for change in Islamic law?