A gem from our fellow Chaplain and member of the Harvard Muslim community, Shaykh David Coolidge:
Islam at Brown: How I Understand Islamic Law: I have been studying Islamic law ever since I became Muslim almost 13 years ago. I don't have ijazas or a PhD, just a pile of books and a treasure trove of memories that inform how I make sense out of it all. Because my life experience and way of thinking aren't quite typical, I have often refrained from sharing my views more publicly. However, as a chaplain I get numerous inquiries about Islamic law, and I think it will be helpful to have a document which lays out my basic philosophy. I will try to articulate my views as clearly as possible, for the benefit of those with varying degrees of familiarity with the history and philosophy of Islamic law.
In short, I consider Islamic law to be the sum total of what intelligent, learned, and pious scholars say about Islamic law. They must be intelligent, because the intellect is the basis of understanding the law. They must be learned, because there are plenty of books one must read before one can begin to understand Islamic law. They must be pious, because Islamic law is meant to be practiced, not just understood. In history, those who fulfill these criteria are well known: Malik, al-Shafi'i, al-Ghazzali, Ibn Qudamah, Ibn Taymiyya, al-Marghinani, al-Shawkani, al-Qarafi, and many others. Whatever they said should be considered as part of Islamic law as a whole.
However, the books of the giants of the past don't always help us understand what we should do today. Sometimes they can even lead us astray, if we don't understand the context in which they were writing. So when it comes to contemporary concerns, preference is given to scholars who not only fulfill the 3 conditions already mentioned, but also understand the political, economic and social realities we are living in now. These scholars are capable of interpreting the writings of the Islamic legal heritage in light of our 2011 AD/1432 AH world. Such individuals include Zaid Shakir, Hamza Yusuf, Yasir Qadhi, Muhammad Alshareef, Abdullah Ali, Yahya Rhodus, Intisar Rabb, Ikram ul Haq, Faraz Rabbani, Sherman Jackson, Tahir Anwar, Taha Abdul-Basser, Zaynab Ansari Abdul-Razacq, Suhaib Webb, and many others.
If you ask any of these scholars how to pray, they will be capable of giving you an answer that is valid. If you ask them about zakat, they will be sensitive to what a 401k entails. If you ask them to reflect on what it means to live in a secular, pluralistic democracy, they will have cogent thoughts to share. Each of them has earned the right to share their view, through hard intellectual work and a life of committment to God and God's Messenger (may peace be upon him). Much of what they say will be in agreement with one another, and where they differ, take what you think is best. Only the All-Knowing (al-Aleem) really knows which one of them is right, and only the Truly Just (al-'Adl) will judge between them and between us after all of our deaths.
All of these scholars encourage human beings to pray in more or less the same way. All of them highlight the importance of fasting. All of them can explain why God prohibited alcohol. All of them think it is best for Muslims to marry Muslim spouses with good character. All of them know the centrality of patient perseverance (sabr) when afflicted with trials and tribulations in one's personal, professional, or spiritual life. Similarly, they all understand the need for gratitude (shukr) for all of our myraid blessings. Most everything else is secondary or tertiary. If you want to learn the details, there are many different ways to do so, but never get so wrapped up in the trees that you forget the vast forest all around you.
The Straight Path (sirat al-mustaqim) is not this shaykh or that shaykh, this book or that book, this class or that one, this school of thought or that one. The inheritance of the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) is vast, and reaches into the nooks and crannies of this world. If the teacher in your particular nook doesn't inspire you or make sense, then go looking for better ones, and the Guide (al-Hadi) will guide you to her or him. But as you search, always be aware that your inner self will fight back, because it does not want to submit. It wants to convince you that you are the center of the universe. But the spiritual purpose of Islamic law is to remind you that God has more of a right than anyone else over what you do and say. When Islamic law seems like the interpretations of men and women, go deeper, and find the unchangeable bedrock which is God's clear command and prohibition. When one has found that unshakeable core, then there is nothing left to do but submit to the best of one's ability, and ask God to forgive all the ways in which we fall short, for we all fall short. In these last days of Ramadan, may the Forgiving (al-Ghafur) forgive all of us our shortcomings in sincerity, knowledge, and practice, amen.