Shari’ah A-Go-Go – The Persistence of the Credibility Gap

https://www.facebook.com/bin.butrus/posts/10154686918791943

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.

Resources

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.

Chaplain Chats – Wudu’ Refresher

So you know how to make wudu’, huh? Well here are the notes from our workshop we conducted on the subject of wudu’ [ablution] on March 20th, 2012. The source we used was the text commonly referred to by the Maliki’s as “al-Matn al-Akhdari” by Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad al-Sagir al-Akhdari, known more succinctly as al-Akhdari. A copy of the text in PDF format can be downloaded here. What’s discussed here are bullet points from al-Akhdari’s text.

al-Taharah [ritual purity]/الطهارة.

al-Taharah can be broken down into two categories: taharah hadath/طهارة حدث and taharah khubth/طهارة خبث:

  1. Hadath: that which invalidates one’s wudu’ by relieving oneself, passing wind, deep sleep, etc.
  2. Khubth: that which disallows one from praying due to the presence of some time of filth or impurity such as blood, urine, etc.

The conditions for water: That it does not change its three main characteristics:

  1. Color.
  2. Taste.
  3. Smell/odor.

There are a few exceptions here that al-Akhdari points out. If water contains a material that does not change its natural state, such as sand, then one can still use this to make wudu’. Another is salt: even though salt does dissolve in water and can change its taste [#2 above], it’s still considered to be a natural state for water [i.e., sea water/salt water naturally occurs] and thus can still be used for wudu’.

Impurities: some notes and conditions:

  • If a garment has an impurity on it that can be seen with the naked eye, then one simply cleans the spot in question or removed the garment if it cannot be cleaned.
  • If a garment has an impurity that cannot be seen with the naked eye, then the entire garment must be cleaned.
  • If one knows there is the presence of some impurity but is doubtful if it has come into contact with your clothes [i.e., walking down the street and one sees excrement or urine from a dog but one’s not sure if one’s clothes have come into contact with that impurity] then one sprinkles some water on that area to remove the impurity instead of washing the garment/ومن شك في إصابة النجاسة نضح.
  • If one is certain that one’s clothing for instance, has definitely come in contact with something [say some type of liquid] but you are uncertain if that substance [here liquid] is pure or impure, then one is not required to take any action because the Shari’ah only deals with certainty.
  • If one remembers the presence of some impurity while s/he is praying and the prayer is still in the mukhtar time [i.e., the early part of the prayer] then one should cut his or her prayer, remove the impurity [or change garments if it cannot be cleaned] and repeat the prayer.
  • If one remembers after the prayer [] and again, the prayer is still its mukhtar/مختار time, then one should repeat the prayer so long as one will not enter into the dururi/ضروري time [i.e., the prayer would be getting late]. If it is the latter case [in the dururi period] then one does not repeat the prayer.

Obligatory acts of wudu’. They are seven [*note: the Maliki’s consider the basmallah/بسملة “saying bismillah” a pure act of worship and thus must be said outside of the lavatory]:

  1. Intention/النية. For the Maliki’s it’s preferred to be done silently, “in the heart.”
  2. Washing the face from the hairline to the chin [for brothers this includes the beard and the area it covers]/غسل الوجه.
  3. Washing the hands including the elbow joint/غسل اليدين إلى المرفقين. In Arabic the “yad” also includes the arm.
  4. Passing the hand over the head once [as we’ll see, the return wipe is part of the fadilah or “Sunnah” aspects of wudu’/مسح الرأس.
  5. Washing the feet including the ankle bone/غسل الرجلين إلى الحعبين.
  6. Application of the water must be done with the hand, including the feet [unlike the Hanafis]/الدلك.
  7. Continuity without the drying of the limbs: in other words, one may pause one’s wudu’ so long as none of the limbs dry/الفور. If they do before the final limb is washed, the wudu’ is broken and must be redone.

*Note: for the Maliki’s, it is not required to do the fara’id/الفرائض obligatory acts in order/الترتيب [tartib]. This is considered a fadilah/Sunnah.

Sunnah acts of wudu’:

  1. Washing the hands including the wrist bones [from the beginning of wudu’/غسل اليدين الكوعين.
  2. Swishing water in the mouth [one may use the index finger, miswak, or a dry tooth brush for an added fadilah]/المضمضة.
  3. Inhaling water [lightly]/الاستنشاق. For the one that’s fasting, this should be done carefully so as to not invalidate the fast. *Note: simply putting water in one’s nose does not count.
  4. Exhaling water from the nose/الاستنثار. This is done by placing the left hand on the bridge of the nose and gently blowing out. It is disliked/مكروه [makhruh] to do this loudly.
  5. The return wipe on the head [see step 4 above]/رد مسح الرأس. This is done only once and does not go past the hairline.
  6. Washing the ear plate/مسح الأذنين.
  7. Renewing water for washing the ear plate/تجديد الماء.
  8. Doing the obligatory acts and Sunnah acts in the order represented here/الترتيب.

Matters concerning forgetfulness: if one is performing a complete/Sunnah wudu’ and skips a Sunnah act by accident [i.e., step 3 from the Sunnah acts] then one may return to this step at the end of the wudu’ for one does not stop and go back for a Sunnah act in favor of continuing on to an obligatory one.

There are many other points which, God willing if we have the time, will revisit in greater detail.

Embracing God By Embracing America: American Muslims, Shari’ah & the Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – Preamble of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.

What is the Shari’ah? Is it taking over America? Can American Muslims embrace the United States’ Constitution as believing Muslims?

Extra Reading

Maqasid al-Shari’ah handout/cheatsheet [PDF].

Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response, ” ‘Soft Shari‘a Fundamentalism’ and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell” in [PDF].

Vincent Cornell’s article, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism, and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” [PDF].

The Imperialists New Clothes

Twenty is a nice round number. In human years, twenty is sufficient a time to feel one has amassed enough experience about a thing that one feels these experiences count for something. It is also a point, in human years again, where one can look back as much as one can look ahead, especially when one is reminded of the Prophetic narrative, related by Abu Hurairah:

أعمار أمتي ما بين الستين والسبعين – “The age of my Ummah is between 60 and 70 years…”. Al-Nawawi relates it as hassan.

Hadith methodologies aside, standing so close to the 40 year mile marker, I look back on my twenty years as a Muslim with an increasing amount of introspection. And what I fear most for the future of Islam in America is not anti-Shari’ah legislation or hate-related attacks, but the continued cultural imperialism and colonization of the American Muslim mind.

There are two major areas of concern for this cultural imperialism: the hegemony of western academia over the definition (and thus potentialities) of what constitutes Islam (this being labeled more specifically intellectual imperialism) and the domination over Islam’s definition by legacy Muslims (what some might call immigrant Muslims), what I would call cultural imperialism. Both of these forms of authority present serious challenges to the growth and development of an indigenous, prosperous and autonomous Islam in America.

There can be little doubt as to the power that western academia has wielded over the definition of Islam. Names such as Montgomery Watt, Arthur John Aberry and Bernard Lewis come to mind. Non-Muslim contributions to Islamic scholarship aside (think Bruce Lawrence, Miriam Cooke, John Esposito, etc.), these authors have primarily been an outside group looking in. I say this not to dismiss their scholarship or critiques, but in being an outside group that wields an almost exclusive authority which supersedes Muslim scholarship and sensibilities, you have a scenario which makes it difficult for Muslim scholarship to be respected even concerning itself in western academic circles. In fact, this whole genre, which formerly fell under the title of Orientalist studies, held much of traditional Islamic sciences and scholarship to be suspect if not unreliable. The method of this authority is quite convenient considering that so-called Orientalist studies were themselves an advent of western academia and never a term applied by Muslims themselves (for more on this topic I recommend readings on Max Weber’s application of essentialism). From this vantage point, non-Muslim scholars of Islam (particularly western) have enjoyed a perch which favors them the definers of what is and isn’t Islam and Islamic scholarship. This ranges from the structure of Islamic studies in the western canon to the essentializing of an Islamic aesthetic, all of which have been based on their own provincial understanding of texts, with cultural observations coming in a distant second.

All this has often led western non-Muslim scholarship to the conclusion that it and it alone, knows what defines “true Islam”. And hence, with western scholarship enjoying the position of disseminating from the position of colonizer, many Muslims have adopted the very same vernacular in an attempt to seize this “true definition” from the grasp of the western usurper, and define for themselves (and for all other Muslims, too) what “true Islam” is. So in fact what see more today has less to do with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and more to do with a clash of narcissisms. Being that modernity is reluctant to administer any recognition of truth (let alone, truths), western scholarship has set the tone for the battle over norms, a battle it is still currently winning. It is for this reason Islam can easily be rendered a bewildering collage of non-sensical images, and just how and why Islam (and by proxy, Muslims) can never truly match up to western aesthetics of beauty or “the good” (even if those Muslims are themselves western!).

Likewise, many American Muslims suffer from a lack of self-esteem and autonomous authority due to the self-inflicted head wound that rendered all American sensibilities concerning Islam suspect. For this reason you will see American Muslims abandon their own modes of dress in favor of those which are deemed to be “Islamic”. In one such exchange, I asked a young man as to why he chose to wear a thobe, or a Middle-Eastern style one-piece clothing. His response was that it was closer to following the “Sunnah” or established habit of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. When I asked him to unpack his claims and to provide clear proofs that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم wore a thobe out of a sense of religious devotion, and not out of say, cultural normalcy, he had difficulty in doing so. In fact, I pointed out a verse from the Qur’an that spoke of women wearing thobes as well:

والقواعد من النساء التي لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناحا أن يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who have passed child-bearing age or have no hopes of marriage, then there is no sin upon them if they remove their *thobes* so long as they do not flaunt their adornments,” [Qur’an, 24: 60].

The point being, the Qur’an clearly uses the word *thobe* as a general term, for it is well accepted that the Prophet Muhammad would never dress like a woman unless that item of clothing could be considered categorical (shoes, hats, shirts, etc.). And yet despite this, many American Muslims continue to dress in a manner, claims of ostentation aside, which alienates them from the rest of society. But what is at stake here is more than simply modes of dress, it is about the very potentials of Islam, the ability to be and live and express oneself according to one’s cultural norms, so long as they do not infringe upon the principles of Islam. Interestingly enough, Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, often regarded as a “hardliner” and ultra-conservative, was against Muslims dressing in such a way that it either brought ridicule on Islam or ostracized Muslims from their cultural and social context (see Taymiyya’s Futuwwa).

If Muslims in America are to have any hopes of navigating their future here in America, it will necessitate the establishment of bona fide Muslim intellectual rigor as well as cultural confidence. Such intellectual rigor will need to be able to stand up to the challenges of Orientalist scholarship that is not at its center hostile, but seeks to put forth its own equally valid interpretations and postulates as to what Islam is (in essence, making “true” somehow plural). It will also require American Muslims to feel confident enough to walk around in their own skins (and clothes) such that, moral requirements withstanding, American Muslims look like, if not verbatim, their non-Muslim American counterparts. This will require the above two forces to come together (the intellectual and the cultural) and chart a new course, one that leads not simply to survival, but to a flourishing American Muslim population and culture and ultimately, to the pleasure of God in the next life.

At least that’s what the 20th mile marker is tell me when I look down the road.

Exercise in Islamization – Should(n’t) Islam Equal Good Design (?)

The following is an exercise in “Islamization”. Islamization may feel too large or charged a term but it is precisely the word I plan to use with a group of MSA students this weekend at our retreat. The idea behind Islamization is that one looks to one’s environment and is able to see, infuse or somehow impose or appropriate purpose upon that thing in such away it reminds oneself of God, of the Messenger صلى لله عليه وسلم or some other “Islamic” principle by which we can enrich our lives as Muslims.

All too often I see Muslims (particularly young Muslims) laboring underneath a cloud of inferiority, insecurity and just plain doubt as to what they can (or most likely) can’t do as Muslims. Part of this ailment hails from a lack of intellectual authority over their lives as Muslims. Simply put, they are not literate as Muslims, despite the fact that many are highly educated. So when I came across a documentary this weekend on Netflix entitled Objectified,  I was struck by Japanese designer, Naoto Fukasawa, when he expressed what he felt “good design” was:

“Design dissolving in behavior. Design needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.” – Naoto Fukasawa, industrial designer, former head of IDEO.

Immediately, my mind went to not design, but to Islam. For was not Islam something that should be and come natural to the human being? So I played a little experiment that I shall continue this weekend, but substituting the keyword of “design” with a variety of “Islamic” vocabulary in order to appropriate an idea/ideal, whose origin was not “Islamic” per se, but nonetheless, resonated well, exceptionally well in my opinion, in that it showcased the ghaayah or goal that Islam has with the human being and thus provided some clues as to how one must just go about “dissolving [it] in [one’s] behavior”:

Islam dissolving in behavior. Islam needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Qur’an dissolving in behavior. Qur’an needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Sunnah dissolving in behavior. Sunnah needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Taqwa dissolving in behavior. Taqwa needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Ihsan dissolving in behavior. Ihsan needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Adab dissolving in behavior. Adab needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Akhlaq dissolving in behavior. Akhlaq needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Shari’ah dissolving in behavior. Shari’ah needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.