Ethical precedents and principles cannot be applied to the needs of the modern world. Thoughts and theories of past ages are fruitless now. Thrones and governments are crumbling and falling. All conditions and requisites of the past unfitted and inadequate for the present time, are undergoing radical reform.
It is evident therefore that counterfeit and spurious religious teaching, antiquated forms of belief and ancestral imitations which are at variance with the foundations of divine reality must also pass away and be re-formed. They must be abandoned and new conditions be recognized. The morals of humanity must undergo change. New remedy and solution for human problems must be adopted. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, pp. 18-19.
Here’s one of the hardest human questions: how do we change and adapt our old traditions to the challenges of the modern world? When the world changes, will our old ways of thinking suffice? Can we honor our past, while remaining open to the possibilities embodied by the future?
These questions gained enormous importance in the middle of the 19th Century, probably because the pace of societal and scientific change had remained fairly slow and constant up until that time. Because of that slow pace of change, normal life had not altered dramatically from one century to the next. Then, as the rate of change began to accelerate and gain momentum, the concept of modernity arose.
Charles Baudelaire, the famous French poet and critic, coined the term modernity to encapsulate those important questions. In 1863—the same year Baha’u’llah founded the Baha’i Faith—Baudelaire wrote an essay called “The Painter of Modern Life,” which focused on the responsibility of art to capture the unique modern urban experience, rather than attempting to re-capture an imagined past. Baudelaire said that modernity requires a “man of the world; a spiritual citizen of the entire universe.”
The term “modernity” has now evolved and expanded to mean something more—it implies a rejection of tradition, along with a growing sense of self-determination, human rights and equality.
Most religions have struggled with modernity. Just search online with the terms “modernity and Christianity” or “modernity and Islam,” and you’ll find thousands of interesting discussions about religion and its adaptation to—or retreat from—the challenges of modernity.
Islam and its system of Sharia law, arguably challenged more than most religious traditions by the realities of modernity, have faced these questions and responded with a wide variety of answers. Muslim traditionalists, including most of the Islamic clerical establishment, have insisted that no change in Sharia law is necessary, because, they maintain, human beings and their moral choices never change. This rigid position has meant that the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence (called fiqhs, which means “deep understanding” of the law of God) have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
On the other hand, several contemporary Muslim writers, thinkers and scholars argue that Islam badly needs modernization and new flexibility. Challenged by feminism, advances in science and technology, the environmental movement, judicial and criminal justice reform and many other aspects of modernity, Sharia law’s strictness has sometimes meant that Islamic cultures have not kept pace with other modern civilizations, especially in places where harsh medieval punishments like stoning are still applied literally.
Some Muslim societies have tried to evolve their Sharia laws in light of modernity, but have often struggled to get past the long-held traditions that bind them to the Middle Ages and the social conditions that existed at the time. The early Islamic ulama—the scholars and clerics who helped Sharia law initially establish itself—drew their conclusions from the Qur’an and the traditional stories about Muhammad (called hadiths) that formed the basis for a complex legal system. Considered enlightened and progressive during the Middle Ages, that system then slowly became fixed in both tradition and practice. It also introduced many laws that came from the understandings of the ulama rather than the Qur’an itself. This caused a great deal of divergence among Muslims, which led to conflict and disunity.
So how can religious laws actually change?
The Baha’i teachings say that they not only can change, but that they must:
Consider, for example: Could the law of the Torah be enforced in this day and age? No, by God! This would be entirely impossible, and it is for this reason that at the time of Christ the Law of the Torah was perforce abrogated by God…
In brief, our meaning is that the change and transformation in the conditions and exigencies of the times is the cause of the abrogation of religious laws, for the time comes when these commandments no longer suit the prevailing conditions. Consider how greatly the exigencies of the modern age differ from those of medieval times! Is it possible that the commandments of former centuries could be enforced in these latter times? It is clear and evident that this would be entirely impossible…
For example, the Torah prescribes the sentence of death for whoever breaks the Sabbath. There are indeed ten such death sentences in the Torah. Could these commandments be carried out in our time? It is evident that it would be utterly impossible. Thus they have changed and transformed, and this change and transformation in the laws constitutes in itself a sufficient proof of the consummate wisdom of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 107-108.
This powerful concept—that religious laws need to periodically undergo revitalization in the form of a new message from a new messenger of God—anchors the Baha’i principle of progressive revelation.
Next: Human Rights and Sharia Law