We often hear that Islamic law needs to get with the times. We often hear the argument that clearly our world differs from the world of seventh century Arabia at the advent of Islam. So, if times have changed, then law and ethics must change.
First of all, things have not changed as much as people like to think they have. Human beings are still human beings. Our fundamental nature has not drastically transformed such as would require the kind of reforms some Muslim progressives and reformers have been calling for.
Second of all, this entire attitude belies a fundamental confusion about the logical nature and direction of law and morality. Morality does not reflect how the world is but how the world ought to be. To want to edit our moral commitments on the basis of things that happen in the world is logically unsound. Sure, we can learn new things that may affect how we apply our moral standards. But such new things are not going to modify the actual moral principle at hand.
Example: As Muslims, we know the immorality of riba. In the modern world, riba is everywhere. Some might say that given this “new reality,” Muslims should reconsider how strict they are about usury. They will argue that Islam needs an “economic reformation” so to speak. In actuality, there is no groundbreaking new reality that would require such a reformation: the basics of buying, selling, and the pursuit of profit has remained fundamentally the same for all of human civilizational history. Granted that there are details in every context that need to be accounted for, and historically traditional Islamic scholarship has been very dynamic in how it has spoken to the vagaries of every age. But, the basic moral principles are consistent. If the world is now drowning in usury, Muslims should be all the more vigilantly opposed to that new normal. That is the direction of normativity: on the basis of our ethical commitments, we desire to change the world for the better, not change our ethical commitments to accommodate the demands of the world around us.
Of course, sometimes the world seems unchangeable. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by how drastically the world diverges from what we know to be truth and justice. But we should never lose hope or descend into a nihilistic loathing for our brothers and sisters in humanity.
The most hopeful hadith in this regard is: “If the Hour [the day of Resurrection] is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.” [Ahmad]
No matter how dire and hopeless the circumstances may seem, it is our moral responsibility to do what we can.