Four Ways of Embodying the Qur’an
“The only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition.” — William Chittick1
Until the call (and the callers) for a so-called Islamic reformation moves beyond its craven commitment to a totalizing and unprincipled commitment to the rejection of all tradition it will neither be taken seriously by the bulk of the Muslim community nor will it bring any benefit to Muslims, which is where it reveals its lack of authenticity: Muslim scholastic endeavors (fiqh, Shari’ah, spiritual rumination, etc.) have always primarily focused on bringing benefit to the Children of Adam by centering God’s pleasure as the aim of its objective. And while we can argue, debate, and interrogate these endeavors and ask whether they’ve achieved their goals, the sincerity of these men and women trying to follow and please their Lord and Master ﷺ is not.
What’s telling about the so-called Islamic reformist movement is that they are more akin to those desert Arabs who opposed the Prophet, but not necessarily God: They could accept that there was a god, even The God (Allah), but that He would have a Messenger would could have earthly authority? That they fought against. So in the same vein, while the so-called Islamic reformers reject the authority of the Prophet, they still in some manner attempt to affirm the Qur’an as a valid and (somewhat) authoritative document, by means of appealing to its transmission: “The Qur’an is mutawatir” many will say, the definition of which is meant that the Book’s transmission and dispersement — with such range and authenticity — that its truthfulness, at least as pertains to its contents, is beyond question from a Muslim perspective. What’s ironic is that the same transmission and dispersement is reliant upon the very same men and women who have transmitted the hadith, or the Prophetic traditions, which would (inconveniently?) challenge many of their so-called reforms.
If the Muslim reformists wish to be taken seriously by the majority of Muslims then they should prioritize benefit and authenticity if they hope to come across as genuinely concerned for the well-being of the Muslim community, versus looking for ways to blackmail the religion to achieve (perceived) social gains.
ما جَعَلَ اللَّهُ لِرَجُلٍ مِن قَلبَينِ في جَوفِهِ
“God hasn’t placed two hearts in any man’s chest.” Qur’an 33: 4
1. Chittick, William C. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: One World. Pg. 19.
In 2016, I wrote several articles about what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls, “the credibility gap”. One of them was entitled Interpretation In Free Fall. In it I discussed an embarrassing exchange between Kayleigh McEnany and Reza Aslan, in which the two battled over authoritative claims about Islam. Here we are again with yet another example of Muslims being academically and publicly dishonest about Islam. Samina Ali’s Tedx talk, delivered at the University of Nevada, attempts to reduce hijab to essentially class and culture (Ali also fails to situate the topic of hijab, or headscarf, within the broader topic of ‘awrah, or nakedness, which is where the Qur’an and the Prophet situate it). According to Ali, if a women came from a noble enough station in society, she would not be publicly molested and thus is the raison d’être for hijab. What we have here is another 5-minute (well, 17-minute) gloss-over of a topic that requires far more finesse and skill than perhaps Ali is capable of bringing to it. At the risk of sounding elitist, I must say I found Ali’s assumptions to be full of holes, presumptions, and just downright sloppy.
What is most striking about pundits of Ali’s ilk is their complete ignoring of the Prophetic tradition with hadith like,
المرأةُ عورةٌ وإنَّها إذا خرَجتْ استشرَفها الشَّيطانُ
“The woman’s body is ‘awrah (i.e., nakedness), so when she goes out, Shaytan attempts to take a peek.”1
These sources are typically dismissed in favor of what is exclusively mentioned in the Qur’an. This is done so, not for academic or hermeneutical purity, but for ideological reasons. It also allows such pundits to obfuscate their lacking credentials so as to mask their inability to discuss their chosen topics in-depth. Ironically, what is equally striking is how Ali’s 17-minute video is almost completely comprised of nothing other than non-Qur’anic sources! How is it that such sources are disqualified from the conversation, let alone from having any authority, while they are invoked with impunity to support attacks against those very same authority claims? Sadly, this is another example of zero-credibility authority. What really begs answering from the likes of Ali is how do you: pray, pay zakah, make Hajj or ‘Umrah, etc.? None of these are explained in any detail in the text of the Qur’an. Should we then abandon qiyam, jalsah, ruku’, and sajdah (standing, sitting, bowing, and prostration) as actions to perform in Muslim prayer given that their validity and method is solely and explicitly found in the hadith literature?
What ultimately baffles me is why do such Muslims even bother with Shari’ah, in that Shari’ah is essentially a post-revelatory enterprise to understand and codify what God intended through the demonstration of His Prophet in audience of the his Companions. Why not declare oneself a non-Shar’i Muslim (for the record, I am not advocating this!)? Instead, what we have — again — is an attempt to warp and bend Shari’ah to fit various agendas, such as liberalism (which rejects all authority external to the self, including God, His prophets, etc.), individualism (the embodiment of liberalism), or in this case, what appears to be some botched Marxist critique of Muslim/Qur’anic sexual ethics.
1. Recorded in Ibn Hibban’s Sahih (5598#), narrated by ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud: المرأةُ عورةٌ وإنَّها إذا خرَجتْ استشرَفها الشَّيطانُ وإنَّها لا تكونُ إلى وجهِ اللهِ أقربَ منها في قعرِ بيتِها/”The woman’s body is ‘awrah (i.e., nakedness), so when she goes out, Shaytan attempts to take a peek. She will not be closer to the Face of her Lord than when she’s in the middle of her home.”
In a recent video, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, delivered a response to what is most likely a challenge to Shari’ah, or what is commonly referred to as “Islamic Law”. Shari’ah has become the go-to boogeyman which anti-Muslim haters evoke to attack Muslims as inherently and deceptively violent and barbaric. And while I appreciate the spirit in which these rebuttals are formulated, am I again reminded that it is liberalism and secularism which are the two main informers of modern Muslims as well as two of the real opponents of Islam, whereas anti-Muslim rhetoric (mistakenly called Islamophobia; it is none other than white supremacy) is merely the opponents of Muslims. The difference here is subtle but crucial to understand, if Muslims are to thrive in the West.
While I laud sister Abdel-Magied’s attempt to distance Muslims from such societal practices as Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, I must say she is somewhat off the mark. The core to Abdel-Magied’s argument is that Shari’ah is simply, “about a Muslim’s personal relationship with their god”. In other words, Shari’ah is nothing other than a personal code of conduct. First off, we’ll have to back up and make one short but important observation. Clearly, according to Abdel-Magied (and to her intended audience no less), law is (a) positive law1 and (b) only dispensed by the State. While this sounds all well and very modern, it however ignores that that is not how law has always been understood, least of all throughout much of Muslim history. This is not an appeal to “traditional Islam” as much as it is to illustrate that Abdel-Magied is operating on modern assumptions about how laws are written, interpreted, and enforced. If Abdel-Magied wishes to depart from this historical norm (of which much of the modern Muslim world already has) she should clearly state this versus giving the impression that the latter (her claim) is the uncontested historical norm.
Abdel-Magied’s statement, “The Qur’an clearly states that, ‘there’s no compulsion in religion’.”2, is also given devoid of any context. In fact, there’s a whole subfield of study in Qur’anic interpretation called asbab al-Nuzul3, or “The Conditions Surrounding Revelation”. Indeed, there are also conditions surrounding many of the Hadith, or narrations of the Prophet, which, when cherry picked, only serve to undermine Muslim scholastic authority. One such hadith which is often quoted in the name of tolerance is the following:
عَنْ عُمَرَ بْنِ الْخَطَّابِ أَنَّ رَجُلًا عَلَى عَهْدِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ كَانَ اسْمُهُ عَبْدَ اللَّهِ وَكَانَ يُلَقَّبُ حِمَارًا وَكَانَ يُضْحِكُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَكَانَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَدْ جَلَدَهُ فِي الشَّرَابِ فَأُتِيَ بِهِ يَوْمًا فَأَمَرَ بِهِ فَجُلِدَ فَقَالَ رَجُلٌ مِنْ الْقَوْمِ اللَّهُمَّ الْعَنْهُ مَا أَكْثَرَ مَا يُؤْتَى بِهِ
فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا تَلْعَنُوهُ فَوَاللَّهِ مَا عَلِمْتُ إِنَّهُ يُحِبُّ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ
“Umar bin al-Khattab narrates that a man who was close to the Prophet, his name being ‘Abdullah, went by the nickname “Donkey” (lit. Himar). He used to make the Prophet laugh, though the Prophet had him flogged for drinking intoxicants, for the order had come to him (the Prophet) to do so regarding public drinking and flogging (what is known as hudud). But then a man amongst the people took note of this and called upon God to curse him to which the Prophet responded, ‘Do not curse him, for God as my witness I know him to love God and His Messenger’.”4
The reason why I quote this particular hadith is because it’s a favorite amongst many modern Muslims to demonstrate the tolerance of Islam. The issue with this is that the hadith is seldom narrated in its entirety, leaving the impression that the Prophet was not simply lax or lenient in administering divinely-sanctioned punishments, but that in fact he ignored them. What we see in the Prophet’s actions and words is that he (a) did not allow his friendship with Himar to create a kind of nepotism: if you can “get in good” with the Prophet, you can flaunt divine injunctions publicly. But also (b) he did not allow a person’s frailties, mistakes, or weaknesses, to prevent them from hope of salvation. In fact, one could even say that one could potentially be in good standing with God and His Messenger even when infracting the law publicly. And this brings us back full circle to the issue above. Shari’ah is more than simply a personal code of conduct which can never be enacted upon someone external to the self. The question is: who gets to interpret and execute said law? That is a much more complicated question, which brings me to another point: Shari’ah is a very complicated thing and cannot be easily explained away in a five minute video. Attempts to do so undermine Muslim scholastic credibility through crass reductionism of complicated topics.
The other problematic aspect of Abdel-Magied’s explanation of Qur’an is its attempts to distance Muslims from the practices of other Muslims: those they differ with or that are even genuinely erroneous. The problem is that Abdel-Magied suggests that when it comes to Muslims getting something “wrong” in their understanding of Islam, in this case women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, it is always a cultural issue. What Abdel-Magied fails to understand is that undoubtedly those scholars in Saudi Arabia are indeed drawing inspiration from Shari’ah in their proclaiming women cannot drive. We must be careful not to reduce Shari’ah only to some abstract, personal code of ethics, whose genius is only realized when it has appeal: either to ourselves individually or to those whom we seek to gain mass acceptance. The most obvious question which Abdel-Magied fails to address is why is Saudi Arabia held upon as a criterion to measure other Muslims by, either as the unadulterated “true Islam” or a completely polluted manifestation of Islamic truth-claims?
We must accept that Shari’ah, if it is truly a man-made attempt at understanding what God wants from us as Muslims, can err, if for no other reason than Shari’ah is the attempts of human beings to realize good in the world, and that those attempts can be just as susceptible to the character flaws of those same humans, no matter how well intended they may be. In other words, the Shari’ah can still remain “sacred” in that the sources that it draws upon — the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet — are sacred, even if the mark is not always hit. Ironically, the very same downfall science experiences when it goes out of its bounds, when “scientific progress”expects “science to do more than it reasonably can may lead to an even more widespread distrust of what it demonstrably has done”. My purpose of invoking Tolson’s comments on science here is that they, and Abdel-Magied’s dilemma, are quintessentially modern.
While I appreciate the a-go-go music, Shari’ah is more than a personal commitment to “justice and equality”. It’s primarily about the worship of God, without partners or associates, according to the Prophet Muhammad. Whether we dub them “laws” or “rules”, Shari’ah does have aspects which transcend individual morals, ethics, and commitments. Regardless of Himar’s commitment to Islam — the Prophet testified to the veracity of his faith himself! — he was publicly punished for an act of public indecency. To whom befalls this responsibility is secondary to its existence.
These little apologist videos are cute but they’re equally deceptive as well as intellectually dishonest, which is why so many non-Muslims just don’t believe Muslims when they claim to be who they are.
1. For a concise definition of positive law, here’s The Free Dictionary’s definition: “statutory man-made law, as compared to ‘natural law’ which is purportedly based on universally accepted moral principles, ‘God’s law,’ and/or derived from nature and reason. The term ‘positive law,’ was first used by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).”
2. From the Qur’an, Chapter 2, verse 256: “لا إِكراهَ فِي الدّينِ ۖ قَد تَبَيَّنَ الرُّشدُ مِنَ الغَيِّ ۚ فَمَن يَكفُر بِالطّاغوتِ وَيُؤمِن بِاللَّهِ فَقَدِ استَمسَكَ بِالعُروَةِ الوُثقىٰ لَا انفِصامَ لَها ۗ وَاللَّهُ سَميعٌ عَليمٌ/”.
3. When the conflict between the Muslims and the Jews of the Banu Nadir was settled, with the requirement that the Jews had to leave the city and move elsewhere, it was found that there were a number of Arab children living among the Jews. This was not unusual, as some were adopted, while others were being raised as Jews with their (Arab) parents’ consent. The reason why some Arab children were raised as Jews is because of a curious local custom. If a woman was considered to be barren, she would vow that if she ever was able to give birth, she would raise the baby as a Jew in compensation for the miracle. This happened from time to time. The Madinan Muslims did not want these Arab children to leave with the Jews, and they asked the Prophet if they could take custody of them. This verse was revealed in response. The Prophet gave the Arab children the choice of going with the Jews or becoming a part of the wider community in Medina. Some left, and others remained (asbab al-Nuzul).
4. Sahih al-Bukhari, hadith #6780.
5. Tolson, Jay. “From the Editor”. The Hedgehog Review. http://iasc-culture.org/THR/index.php.
The American Muslim community is currently embroiled in a struggle against the injustices being perpetrated by the Trump administration. As to whether these actions are truly injust or simply a matter of selective outrage, fueled by a model minority narrative, remains to be seen. But one question which hovers over American Muslims is what is their fate, post-resistance?
In reading Daniel L. Fountain’s Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870, one is inspired to, drawing upon the religious history of black folks in America, ask the question: will American Muslims adopt the world-views, mores, and religion[s] of their “masters”? By this I mean to compare the history of African Americans and their conversion to Christianity to American Muslims and their future conversion to liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism. In order to make this inquiry clear we must look at why and how Africans and their progeny converted to Christianity.
Anecdotal historical accounts of African religious life in antebellum America feeds us a narrative in which African slaves and their progeny converted to Christianity during their tenure as slaves. From this perspective we are left with the assumption that Christianity played a major role in the lives of slaves. However, recent scholarship gives a more convincing insight into the reality that Christianity did not come to play a significant role in the majority of African American lives until after emancipation. According to Fountain (amongst others),
“more than 60 percent of the slaves surveyed indicated that they were not Christians while enslaved (emphasis mine)1.”
My point being here is to challenge the notion that Christianity was a form a slave resistance. Instead, I argue that, since Christianity did not gain significant ground amongst African Americans until post-emancipation, it was more a means of assimilation than resistance. Fountain quotes nineteenth century physician and all around social agitator, Thomas Low Nichol, as saying,
“[t]he Southern people are eminently religious, and their negroes follow their example (emphasis mine)2.”
Whereas in the nineteenth century, the religion of America — and those who stood in position to impart “freedom” to slaves — was Christianity, the religions of America today are increasingly liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism, and thus, my concern is, will American Muslims embrace the religions of those who stand ready yet again to impart “freedom” to American Muslims? While some have balked at the heavy-handed tone in a recent article penned to American Muslim activists, I am equally concerned about the temptation for American Muslims to go down the same road as their previous American brethren did. In fact, as Fountain argues, it was,
“the expectation and delivery of freedom [being] the leading factor for African American conversion to Christianity3.”
The question remains: have the descendants of African slaves gained freedom and have their expectations been met? Many would argue that true freedom, the ability for self-determination, has not arrived yet. And likewise, in light of liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism (what I will term here as scientism), can these philosophies fulfill their promises to American Muslims4? For it is precisely the same gambit, the same offer, and the same temptation, I see American Muslims engaged in both in terms of embracing liberalism and the like, but also in an articulation of Islam that is pitched as resistance, and nothing more. If, quoting Fountain again, “under slavery, Christianity … did not meet most slaves’ needs … most did not convert”5 then what of an Islam that does not meet Muslims needs, particularly as Americans? It is here I believe most of the hard work needs to be done and thus should be the primary focus of scholars, for it is also the reason why so many Muslims, particularly the youth, look for truth-claims (even false ones) elsewhere6.
1. Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Pg. ix.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Ibid., 5.
4. Jay Tolson, in the Fall 2016 edition of The Hedgehog Review, writes, “scientists began to wonder uneasily about whether scientific progress was compatible with scientific truth”. Tolson, Jay. “From the Editor”. The Hedgehog Review. http://iasc-culture.org/THR/index.php.
5. Fountain, 5.
6. Manley, Marc. “Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism”. Marc Manley – Imam At Large. www.marcmanley.com, 21 Jan. 2017.