Persistent Double Standard

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful

My article about the “Sharia Within” was published in a Virginia newspaper. Yet, I am always mystified by the response of some – but no doubt on the minds of many – who object to what I write about Sharia and Islam in general. This response is typical:

Shariah law is not the equal of Christian morals but is the exact opposite. Christians believe in loving your neighbor whatever his belief, color, or status.

Jesus said, in effect, if they don’t accept you, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Shariah law says, in effect, if they don’t accept you, punish them, tax them, isolate them, or kill them.

In the op-ed, Muhammad reads a bedtime story to his 4-year-old daughter. How idyllic. What the writer didn’t say is that if his 4-year-old daughter grows up to be a young lady and has an affair with some man before marriage, then he would be justified in killing her to protect the family honor. Shariah law.

If Muhammad’s son, whom he was playing catch with, grows up and leaves the Muslim faith to become a Christian, then he should also be killed. Shariah law again.

If anyone prints anything bad or critical of the Quran or Mohammad, even in a cartoon, he should be killed. Shariah law again.

In the U.S., it is permissible to burn or deface any book, Bible, flag, or any other religious or patriotic article. But don’t touch the Quran (Shariah law). If you do, you might get killed.

The Muslim religion with its Shariah law is like a giant worldwide protection racket. Comply with its rules, or you could get killed.

A Quran was burned by a Florida pastor a short time ago. Riots followed in a foreign country, and eight people were killed. The only way to confront this worldwide protection racket called Islam is by direct confrontation. Wake up, Americans.

Now the first sentence of his response is not true. In fact, the people at Loonwatch had a great article about the Ten Commandments and their proscribed punishments. Yet, beyond that small issue, the objections this reader had to my article really had nothing to do with Islam itself, but rather the misapplication of Islam by some of its adherents.

For instance: “In the op-ed, Muhammad reads a bedtime story to his 4-year-old daughter. How idyllic. What the writer didn’t say is that if his 4-year-old daughter grows up to be a young lady and has an affair with some man before marriage, then he would be justified in killing her to protect the family honor. Shariah law.”

Wrong. There is absolutely no justification for so-called “honor killings” in Islam. This is a barbaric cultural practice that is clothed with Islam by those who commit it. I have written extensively about this here and here. I have also condemned all violence against the innocent, without qualification or equivocation, all in the name of Islam.

The writer says: “If Muhammad’s son, whom he was playing catch with, grows up and leaves the Muslim faith to become a Christian, then he should also be killed. Shariah law again.”

Wrong. There is nothing in Islam that says people who leave the faith are killed. I have also written about this as well. There is total freedom of conscience and religion in Islam, and I uphold this principle as well.

The writer says: “If anyone prints anything bad or critical of the Quran or Mohammad, even in a cartoon, he should be killed. Shariah law again.

Wrong. Those are the words and actions of ignorant Muslims who think they “defend” the Prophet or Islam with their barbarity but actually defame them both. The Prophet was constantly mocked and attacked, even by his own family, and he never called for violent retribution in response.

When it comes to Islam, whenever a Muslim does something criminal and says, “Islam says I should do so,” so many just accept it and project that criminality onto the entire faith. It is exactly akin to calling Catholicism a “pedophile religion” because of the actions of Catholic priests who have molested children. I would never do so, because I know the actions of those few priests do not speak for the entire faith or its adherents. I went to Marquette University, and I worked with and learned under a number of priests. They were nothing but upright, wonderful people. I know that the actions of a few rogue priests is not the truth about Catholicism or all Catholic priests.

Would that the same standard be applied to Islam.



In the Name of God, the Beautiful, the Kind

This was published today on altmuslim.

Some astounding things have been coming out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as of late. One of the most recent developments is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a high-tech university intended to promote international research which opened last Fall. What is most unique about this school, by Saudi standards, is that it is outside the influence of the Education Ministry and will have no separation of the sexes, being the first mixed-gender school in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, this has caused outrage among some conservative clerics. “Whoever allows this mixing … allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam … Either he retracts or he must be killed … because he disavows and does not observe the Sharia,” said Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak on his website. Although al-Barrak does not hold a government position, chairman of the Interior Ministry’s religious advisers, Sheikh Muhammad al-Nujaimi, supported this fatwa. Another cleric, Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri, was sacked by King Abdullah because of his public comments against the co-education of KAUST.

Yet, stunningly, the head of the Meccan “religious police” – the very people who enforce gender segregation – Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi supported the mixing of genders at KAUST. In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Okaz, al-Ghamdi said:

“The term ‘ikhtilat’ [gender mixing] in this usage is a recent adoption that was unknown to the early people of knowledge…Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah and its societies…The word in its contemporary meaning has entered customary jurisprudential terminology from outside…Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction, as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Shariah judgments without excess or negligence…In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males…Those who prohibit ikhtilat cling to weak Ahadeeth, while the correct Ahadeeth prove that mixing is permissible, contrary to what they claim.”

Such a view was also supported by the influential cleric Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, and none other than Sheikh Ali Al-Jum’ah, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

Indeed, this is a most welcome development to come out of Saudi Arabia, and one hopes much such “innovations” are forthcoming from the land of Mecca and Medina. Yet, this begs the question: if gender segregation, long established as “Islamic orthodoxy” for decades, is a “recent adoption that was unknown to the early people of knowledge”; if gender segregation is supported by “weak Ahadeeth, while the correct Ahadeeth prove that mixing is permissible”; if, as the Saudi Minister of Justice recently said, complete segregation of the sexes:

“…has ignored evidence from the Prophet’s Sunna and Khulafa and those after them, which differentiated between mixing in public with modesty and chasteness – with being wary of factors that could lead to what is prohibited, like women adorning themselves or wearing make up, close mingling, leniency and not lowering one’s gaze, – and mixing that in a way that is not.

Why are they saying this now? Why was this not revealed before? Were these “weak Ahadeeth” recently discovered? Why didn’t more scholars speak up? If the separation of sexes is more of a cultural issue and not religious, then why place a “stamp of religious approval” on the practice? Why, Sheikh Muhamad al-Nujaimi, who supported a fatwa calling for death to those who advocate mixing of the sexes, was shown mixing with women himself at a conference in Kuwait. Are their opinions good enough for the people, but not good enough for themselves?

I can’t help but ask: what will be next? On what other issue with the scholars say, “well…actually…it’s not really haram”? Aren’t these scholars concerned about this verse of the Qur’an:

…Who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from God, but God is not unmindful of what ye do! (2:140)

I specifically remember a speaker at an Islamic conference say that he told the youth that music was haram because the next year, the kids would be coming with boom boxes on their shoulders. I also remember a very prominent scholar (whose name I will not mention) say something to the effect of, “Before, I used to say that this is haram. But, as I have become older, I have become more lenient on this issue.” Is this an acceptable reason to make what is normally allowed be haram? If it is allowed now, why wasn’t it allowed back then? Do they not make themselves “lords beside God,” as the Qur’an asserts, when they do such a thing?

What about this verse of the Qur’an:

But say not – for any false thing that your tongue may put forth – “This is lawful, and this is forbidden,” so as to ascribe false things to God. For those who ascribe false things to God will never prosper. (16:116)

Does this verse not concern any of the scholars who have repeatedly asserted gender segregation as “Islamic doctrine”?

If something is permissible, then it should be permissible for all times and circumstances (except, perhaps, in some certain situations). If something is truly impermissible, then it should be so for all times and circumstances, excepting, again, specific situations in which necessity arises. Saying, “um…actually…it’s not really haram” does an enormous disservice to the faithful, who sincerely look to the scholars for guidance on how to live their lives according to the will of God. Does this not bother you, too?

The very un-Islamic Republic of Iran

In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving

The events that have unfolded in the Islamic Republic of Iran are truly extraordinary. While there are serious questions about the validity and credibility of the vote conducted on June 12, what is beyond question is the ugly response of the government to protests that have erupted all over Tehran in response to the disputed results. Violent crackdown, mass arrests, and even the killing of several protestors, some caught on video for the world to witness. And all I keep asking myself is, “This is Islamic?”

Islam is more than a personal faith: it is a way of life. It has a set of principles that govern, in a broad sense, every aspect of life, including in the political arena. Principles that are central to the Islamic ethos include justice, respect for the sanctity of life, equality of all before the law and God, among many others. As I read of the violent crackdown of the protests in Tehran, I think to myself of how un-Islamic the Islamic Republic of Iran is behaving.

And this got me thinking…in so many instances in our world today, so many of those who call themselves “Islamic” have been anything but Islamic: the Taliban, the neo-Kharijite murderers of Al Qaeda, the “Islamic” courts of Nigeria, among others. In each instance, those who have acted in Islam’s name have been wholly un-Islamic. In fact, I wonder if these quite un-Islamic “Islamics” have not done more damage to the image of Islam around the world. In fact, the Islam-haters and Islamophobes across the world have taken advantage of the barbarism committed by these “Islamic” people to smear the true face of Islam.

Yet, the truth is, the majority of the world’s Muslims are not like these vocal “Islamic” hooligans. They quietly pursue their lives, working for the common good, and trying to make a good life on earth before they have to meet their Lord to account for their deeds. They quietly contribute to the greatness of whatever nation in which they reside. They quietly show the beauty of Islam to their friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

The criminals and barbarians who claim to act in Islam’s name are hurting the overwhelming majority of innocent Muslims who are trying to live their lives. The criminals and barbarians who claim to act in Islam’s name are not doing the faith any service. The criminals and barbarians who claim to act in Islam’s name, in fact, are Islam’s worst enemies.

The Hope Of Which I Spoke

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

At the end of my last post about Islamic law, I mentioned that there is hope. There is hope that Muslim scholars have already begun to answer and address some of the many questions and tensions that surround the issue of implementing God’s law on earth. My hope is kindled even further after reading this article by Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mutfit of Egypt.

Fatwas and Modernity

Almost two years ago the citizens of London were victims of a great atrocity. Those who perpetrated those crimes would like you to believe that they were inspired by the religion of Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is nothing in Islam that could ever justify these blatant acts of aggression. Islam calls on Muslims to be productive members of whatever society they find themselves in. Islam embodies a flexibility that allows Muslims to do so without any internal or external conflict. This is why we see a vast variety of cultural, artistic and civilisational phenomena all of which can be described as Islamic, ranging from the Taj Mahal in India to the winding streets of Fez to the poetry composed by English converts that represents not only the rigor of English verse, but also encompasses the beauty of Islamic piety.

This flexibility is not just present in the cultural output of Muslims; it is an integral part of the Islamic legal tradition as well. In fact, you could say it is one of the defining characteristics of Islamic law. Islamic law is both a methodology and the collection of positions adopted by Muslim jurists over the last 1,400 years. Those centuries were witness to no less than 90 schools of legal thought, and the 21st century finds us in the providential position to look back on this tradition in order to find that which will benefit us today. This is one of the first steps in the issuing of a fatwa (religious opinion/ruling).

Fatwas represent the bridge between the legal tradition and the contemporary world in which we live. They are the link between the past and the present, the absolute and the relative, the theoretical and the practical. For this reason it takes more than just knowledge of Islamic law to issue a fatwa. A Mufti who does not know the contemporary world in which he/she lives is like a person who has the ability to walk and might also have the ability to run. However, they move through a dark path without a light in their hand. It is possible that they will make it, but in most cases they will fall and perish. Muftis must also have an in-depth understanding of the problems that their communities are facing. When those who lack these qualifications issue fatwas the result is the extremism we see today, the kind witnessed on 7/7. We have to be clear about what is at stake here. When each and every person’s unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa we lose a tool that is of the utmost importance for reigning in extremism and preserving the flexibility and balance of Islamic law.

This flexibility is present in the Islamic political sphere as well, but this is a point that is often missed. Many assume that an Islamic government must be a caliphate, and that the caliph must rule in a set and specific way. There is no basis for this vision within the Islamic tradition. The caliphate is one political solution that Muslims adopted during a certain historical period, but this does not mean that it is the only possible choice for Muslims when it comes to deciding how they should be governed.

The experience that Egypt went through can be taken as an example of this. The period of development begun by Muhammad Ali Pasha and continued by the Khedive Ismail was an attempt to build a modern state. This meant a reformulation of Islamic law. This process led Egypt to become a liberal state run by a system of democracy without any objections from Muslim scholars. Muslims are free to choose whichever system of government they deem most appropriate for them.

The principles of freedom and human dignity for which liberal democracy stands are themselves part of the foundation for the Islamic world view; it is the achievement of this freedom and dignity within a religious context that Islamic law strives for.

The world has witnessed tremendous change over the last two hundred years. This change came in the form of new technologies and political ideologies. There were also new developments in communications allowing us to be aware of what is happening in nearly every part of the world the instant that it occurs, whereas in the past it would take months if not years for even the most urgent news to spread. This wave of change has caused a complete alteration of nearly every aspect of our lives. It is this modern occurrence that presents the greatest difficulty to Muslim jurists and Muftis. In the past there was little alternation of the way things worked and progressed. Even when things changed it was slow and isolated to a handful of fields. The change of the past 200 years, however, has made it necessary to re-examine how everything works. Meaning that the way in which Islamic law is applied must take into account this change.

The flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law is perhaps its greatest asset. To provide people with practical and relevant guidance while at the same time staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of revelation to be applied in modern times. It is through adopting this attitude towards the shari’a that an authentic, contemporary, “moderate” and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world and the West today. Muslims must hold fast to this tradition in order to stand in the face of those who would use our religion for their own agendas.

Sheikh Ali Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt – the second highest religious position in the country. He oversees the premier institution in the Muslim world for religious legal direction, Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah. This essay is distributed by Common Ground News Service.

Faithful Questions About Islamic Law (Sharia)

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

The following article was originally published on Beliefnet.

I do not think Holloywood could have come up with a more sensational movie. The famous Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Pakistan is raided by government security forces in a crackdown on militant religious seminary students locked in a stand off that lasted several days. The standoff began on July 3, when clashes erupted at the mosque and 16 people were killed. The mosque was then besieged by government forces, and negotiations began in hopes of ending the crisis.

Hundreds of students surrendered, and the mosque’s leader was caught trying to escape wearing a woman’s burqa. When negotiations finally failed, the army stormed the compound, and dozens of people were killed when it was all over. The final death toll is still unknown, with the government saying 108 people being killed, and leaders of hard-line religious parties claiming that at least 400 people were killed. Concerns about reprisal attacks from militants were well placed, as several suicide bombings have taken the lives of hundreds of people in the ungoverned tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan.

The Lal Masjid, built in 1965 and named for its red walls and interiors, has long enjoyed patronage from influential members of the Pakistani government, from prime ministers to army chiefs. Things changed, however, after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Pakistan officially allied itself with the United States in the “war on terror,” and the leadership of the Lal Masjid became a fierce opponent. In fact, frequent calls for the assassination of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were made at the mosque.

Starting in 2006 – and this is the primary impetus for the crackdown on the mosque – the mosque’s students and leadership began a Taliban-like judicial system and instigated scores of incidents including kidnappings, arson, and murder. Many of their actions were against alleged brothels and sellers of music and movies. Apparently, they felt that if the government and local authorities will not implement “Islamic law,” then they will take matters into their own hands. The whole story is much more complicated, and I am sure more details will emerge in the coming days and weeks.

This got me thinking about the whole issue of Islamic law (known to most as Sharia law) and efforts by Muslims all across the world to implement it in their own legal systems. There are several issues that come into play when the issue of Sharia law comes up, and they are not easily resolved. First of all, what is Sharia law? For most people, I suspect, when the word “Sharia” is mentioned, they immediately think of two things: cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning the adulterer to death. Yet, it would not surprise me in the least if many – if not most – Muslims think the same about Sharia.

Yet, the Sharia is much more than that. At its essence, Sharia is the attempt on the part of human beings to discern and implement the will of God on earth. It encompasses all aspects of one’s life, not just criminal law. Muslim scholars have outlined the objectives of the Sharia to be five: preservation of religion, life, lineage, wealth, and intellect. Every “rule” in the Sharia harkens back to one of these core principles. Yet, is there one set of “rules” that all Muslims across the globe agree is the “Sharia”? Are there differences of opinion as to what the Sharia says about this thing or that?

Most definitely. While there is legal consensus on some issues, Muslim scholars have had different opinions regarding practically every aspect of Sharia. There may be a majority who believe this or that, but there usually is juristic dissent; there usually is a “minority report.” Herein, therefore, lies a problem: how can Muslims implement “Sharia” law – which has a divine connotation – when there is difference of opinion about what exactly the Sharia says about a particular matter?

If Muslims were to sit down and write a book of laws based on the Sharia, which view should be taken? If the “majority” view of the scholars is taken, is this unjust? Isn’t the “minority” opinion also valid? What about the opinions of other schools of law? Which one should be adopted? What should determine which opinion should be adopted as the “correct” view? These rules exist in the Islamic legal system, but are they being applied presently?

And what if societal norms and other circumstances change with time? Should the law change with them? The answer to this question is easy when it comes to secular law, but with Sharia law as understood by Muslims today, would this be interpreted as “changing God’s law”? How is this tension resolved? It is well known in the annals of Islamic jurisprudence that the law must be re-examined with changing times. But, there are too few Muslim scholars who espouse this view, and many hearken back to medieval legal constructs and apply today. This is simply untenable.

As far as criminal law is concerned, it seems that Muslims are so quick to implement the hudud punishments, i.e., the stoning of adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves. Yet, there are so many mitigating circumstances when it comes to these punishments, and they are frequently neglected. A perfect example of this is the case of Amina Lawal in Nigeria (a case which many Muslim scholars also found appalling). Lawal was condemned to death by stoning for alleged adultery (even though the man was let go for “lack of evidence”). The judges presiding over her case apparently followed the Maliki school of law, but they completely ignored the procedures in the Maliki school that would have set Ms. Lawal free.

Moreover, a well known principle of Islamic law is that if the conditions in a society do not permit the application of a particular law, it should not be implemented. For instance, if poverty and privation is rampant in society, how can the law of amputation for theft be applied? Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said (found in the collection of Al Tirmithi), “If there is any way (to avoid punishing someone for a legal offence), let that person go. For it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.”

These basic principles, it seems, have been completely neglected and abandoned by Muslims today. Doesn’t this lead to injustice? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Islamic law is all about? Does this fact, therefore, justify calls for a moratorium on the implementation of the criminal penal code, as made by academics such as Tariq Ramadan? In addition, under Islamic law, those punishments should be instituted only by the Caliph. The Caliphate, even in nominal form, has been absent from the Muslim world since World War I.

Then there is the whole issue of “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) How does this come into play with respect to humans implementing what they believe to be God’s law? Although there is some compulsion when it comes to the government imposing law and order (people are “compelled” to drive under the speed limit), some Muslims elevate all sinful acts to the level of criminal law, which was never intended by the Sharia. For example, the students of the Lal Masjid were reported to have harrassed sellers of music, because they believe music is “haram,” or forbidden by Islam.

Yet, there are a number of Muslim scholars that have said that there is nothing in Islam that prohibits music. If these students have their way and ban all music, isn’t this “compulsion in religion”? Aren’t they imposing their own personal religious view upon the rest of the community? Doesn’t this violate the letter and spirit of 2:256? Isn’t this not Sharia but vigilantism, which is expressly forbidden by the Sharia itself?

These are only some of the many questions that need to be addressed when it comes to Sharia, and I do not even pretend to know the answers to these questions. Yet, these questions must be answered and these inherent tensions need to be resolved by the scholars of the Muslim world today. I also must say that there should be nothing wrong with raising such questions in the first place.

Many Muslims today, especially after 9/11, operate under a “siege” mentality and feel the whole world is against them. This has come about because of the intense scrutiny, heretofore absent, placed upon Islam, its tenets, and Muslim communities in the wake of horrific acts of terrorism committed in Islam’s name. Add to that the enormous amount of suspicion of the Muslim community by their non-Muslim neighbors because of the acts of a few terrorist criminals. As a result, many Muslims feel that taking a critical eye toward issues such as Sharia law is somehow being “disloyal” to Islam.

But truth does not fear investigation, and the least we can do – especially when it comes to attempting to implement His will on earth – is ask ourselves hard questions. If we do it wrong and say “God says thus,” we will be lying on behalf of God, something against which He warned us sternly: ” So woe to those who write scriptures by themselves then say it is from God in order to sell it for a petty price. Woe to them for what they have written on their own; and woe to them for what they earn ! ” (2:79)

The purpose of the Sharia is to promote justice and the common good. In fact, many people will be surprised to learn that the Sharia serves as the inspiration for the law in many Muslim countries, and there are no problems at all. In a minority of instances, however, the Sharia – as Muslims have presently applied it – has been an instrument of injustice and intolerance (think Afghanistan under the Taliban and Nigeria in the Lawal case). This was never the intention of the Lawgiver.

The problem is, too many Muslims fail to understand this, and disaster has been handed down in the name of God and His religion. This cannot be allowed to happen again. This is, admittedly, a very sensitive issue, but we cannot shy away from this in the least. Our very salvation is at stake. Yet, in speaking with Muslim scholars, there is hope. The religious establishment all across the Muslim world is working hard to update itself, under their own imperative and not from any pressure from the West. Hopefully these forces for change will win the day.