When I was invited to become the editor of the Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History, I sought to find works that are not just interesting but compelling—works that can be described as publishing events. I sought to find works that leave an indelible mark on the field that neither the conscientious scholar nor student can rightly ignore. The present book by Ahmad Atif Ahmad, an already accomplished scholar in his own right, is without a doubt an event in the history of Islamic Studies. Ahmad Ahmad’s The Fatigue of the Shari’a is highly original, addictively readable, and awe inspiringly brave; it is the kind of book that justifies the very existence and continuation of this series. Reading Ahmad Ahmad’s book has been a full-fledged event in my own intellectual life to the point that I feel genuinely fortunate to be given the privilege of introducing it to specialists and non-specialists alike.
In this meticulous and singularly unique book, Ahmad Ahmad takes his readers on a thrilling and thought-provoking journey through Islamic law, theology, and history. He deals with a little known, practically forgotten, debate that has thoroughly profound implications for contemporary Muslims. Ahmad Ahmad asks the notoriously incendiary question: What if, due to the change in times and people, the divine law or the norms ordained to human beings through revelation cease to be relevant? In Ahmad Ahmad’s language, the fatigue of divine norms means a condition in which for whatever reason, God’s laws or prescriptions are no longer compelling or fitting for the believers. The issue he deals with is the very existence of divine guidance for every age and time, and whether it is conceivable that God’s law would become unavailable, or for whatever the circumstance, absent from the lives of the faithful.
What makes this study invaluable is that Ahmad Ahmad offers a very accessible and comprehensive review of the Islamic classical theological and jurisprudential debates on these issues. The discourses found in the classical tradition are rich, nuanced, and very often surprising, and they are also extremely relevant to contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ahmad Ahmad does not shy away from investigating the implications of the classical debates on contemporary understandings of the nature and role of Shari’a. Beyond this, in what must become compulsory reading for all students of the Shari’a, he analyzes the ways that the discourses on what he calls “the fatigue of divine norms” ought to affect the analytical assumptions and methodologies of any serious scholarly study of Shari’a.
Having said all of this, I have hardly done justice to Ahmad Ahmad’s masterful work. The classical debate on the fatigue of divine norms raises critical foundational questions on the relationship of divine revelation to Shari’a; the eternality and changeability of Shari’a; the status of pre-Islamic revelation, including Jewish and Christian divine norms; and the role of pluralism, tolerance, and orthodoxy. Of equal importance to this topic are the debates on ijtihad and the mujtahid as the instrumentalities of avoiding the fatigue of the Shari’a, the confrontation between Shari’a and modernity and post-modernity, and the various reform movements in contemporary Islam that sought to avoid the atrophy of Shari’a values in Muslim societies.
I described this book as an event because if it gets the attention it deserves, it will force the rethinking of much of the inherited platitudes about Shari’a, and it will also challenge the often tiresome banality that plagues the field of Islamic Studies. Without a doubt, it will raise the standard for scholarship in the field. But well beyond this, I hope that Ahmad Ahmad’s book eventually will be translated to Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, among other languages. Although many Muslim scholars will be familiar with the historical materials that Ahmad Ahmad relies on, they will not have seen or conceived of the problem in quite the same way. I do strongly suspect that if this book reaches the Muslim world, it will spark a debate, controversy, and new fields of investigation that will become a part of this book’s enduring legacy.
Khaled Abou El Fadl
Los Angeles, California