Interpretation In Free Fall

Muslims need to ask themselves: how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam? Many of us will point to ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and other forms of bigotry in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. But in reality this is much more akin to the Sudanese proverb, as Dr. Sherman Jackson reminds us, while we curse the elephant we only gaze at his shadow.

All too often we look for explanations outside of Islam instead of within. By Islam I mean the Muslim community. We assume the cause of this effect can simply be reduced to others not liking us. And while it is undoubtedly true that anti-Muslim sentiment has much of its roots in white supremacy, its efficacy is mainly due to the swinging barn door of interpretation that lets in all manner of riffraff. A riffraff that is just as likely to be composed of unqualified Muslims as much as it is of unqualified non-Muslims.

In a more obvious display of what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls the credibility gap, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic speaks about ISIS in his article, What ISIS Really Wants,

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

The first mistake Muslims most often do is attempt to discredit the validity of non-Muslim (in this case, Wood’s) claims; this is a severe mistake, because as in this case—as is the case in almost all claims made about Islam—Wood’s credentials and capabilities are never called into question. What gives Wood the qualifications and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam? When I attempted to find any information on his background I saw that he graduated from Harvard; the extent of his academic credentials seem to only go so far as being a “lecturer in political science at Yale University”. In what field Wood took his degree is not clear. What is clear is that Wood, and many like him, have written extensively and authoritatively on Islam for some time. And we must move beyond just individuals like Wood, to the bigger implication: publications such as The Atlantic, and The New Republic also required no qualified background to write authoritatively on Islam. Before I address what I mean by proper qualifications and credentials, let me turn my gaze from the elephant’s shadow to the pachyderm himself.

One of the darlings of the media (particularly those of a more liberal bent) and of the Muslim community itself (excluding the majority of scholars and leaders) is Reza Aslan. Aslan’s notoriety stems from interviews where he is often seen as defending the faith from a rogue’s gallery of anti-Muslim haters such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, to more recent conflicts with Donald Trump supporter and political commentator, Kayleigh McEnany, over what portion of the Qur’an is considered a legal document:

McEnany’s comments, stating that the Qur’an, according to Michael Flynn (a retired general from the United States military), who quotes Andy McCarthy (Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York)—whom McEnany describes as “very respected” and who has written “extensively” on [the Qur’an]—as saying,

90 percent of the Qur’an is in fact a legal doctrine; it is Shari’ah. He’s not saying that as an insult to the religion but that it (the Qur’an) is in fact structured differently than a typical-type Christian religions or Jewish religions, the way those books are structured. So that is what he is meaning academically.”

There is much here to unpack. The claims about the percentage of the Qur’an which is considered to be “legal doctrine”, how Christianity’s or Judaism’s holy books, and the manner in which they are “structured”, are assumed to be normative (thereby Islam’s holy book, by being different than these two, is presumptively labeled as abnormal), and finally and perhaps most importantly, the claims to “academic” qualifications to make such proclamations, all beg to be scrutinized. And it is the last claim, the petition to reference academic credentials as a justification, that Reza Aslan calls out Kayleigh McEnany as well as Andrew McCarthy and Gen. Michael Flynn. But there’s an absurdity going on here right before our eyes. An absurdity ignored because it strokes the broken and shattered egos of so many Muslims today: Reza Aslan himself is unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam. Aslan reveals his own lack of qualifications with the ridiculous statement concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an,

“I mean, no offense to Kayleigh, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to either the Qur’an or the Bible. About 120 verses of the Qur’an have to do with legal matters out of tens of thousands.”

According to the most common riwayah (narration) of the Qur’an by Hafs, the Qur’an contains 6236 verses. Aslan’s statements of “tens of thousands” is disturbing as well as inaccurate, and in Aslan’s case, is nothing new. He has repeatedly uttered factually incorrect or even heretical statements about the Qur’an and Islam in general. But the issue at stake here is not simply the mistakes of one unqualified pundit, but moreover, how did Reza Aslan (and others like Zuhdi Jasser) get to be placed in positions of authority and representation? The answer may be a difficult pill for our community to swallow.

If we return to our opening question, how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam, the answer is as simple as it is painful: we, as the Muslim community, enable it, because we do it as well! That we think there can be two separate standards for speaking authoritatively on Islam as well as representing the Muslims is a living definition of hypocrisy. In truth, this devolves down into little more than some form of cultural protectionism, stemming from a legacy of colonialism where Muslims were subjugated to non-Muslim rule. As a reaction, even Muslims who either by doctrine or practice (of which certainly Aslan would fall into) do not seem to have any serious commitment to Islam outside of a cultural relationship to it, fall victim and prey to this tendency. It is also, in my opinion, why so many Muslims of an immigrant background are guilty of facemasking non-immigrant Muslims from positions of prominence, both within the Muslim community and on the broader public stage in America. To continue with our sports analogy, the most common reason a player commits a facemask is because they are simultaneously trying to prevent an aggressor from tackling them or taking the ball away, all the while trying to gain yardage; the facemask penalty applies equally to the offense as well as the defense.

Just as the diagnosis for this issue may be difficult to swallow, so will the remedy. The issue of credentials and qualifications cannot be discussed without also asking what is the role of the (unqualified) individual in interpreting Islamic sources, and more importantly, what is their scope? I am not making a clarion call to say that individual Muslims cannot read the Qur’an—indeed even interpret some aspects of it on their own—but what has to change is the scope to which individual unqualified interpretations are made. The difficult truth is that there is no other way to combat anti-Muslim hatred, whose equally unqualified practitioners utilizes Islamic sources, other than demanding a standard across the board that will equally apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This may sound grandiose and even unattainable but I provide at least one plausible tactic: unqualified Muslims (those who have not received adequate training and are also not recognized by the Muslim community to be legitimate representatives) refuse to engage the media. Those who infract this rule will face social stigma from the Muslim community. We can bring this to bear on a very uncomfortable truth: the very same methodology that Reza Aslan advocates (see above tweet) is precisely the same method that ISIS and other extremist groups use to concoct their own interpretations of Islam. While the results of ISIS may be different than those of Reza Aslan and his ilk, the tactics and methods are the same. When the question is asked, “who speaks for Islam?”, the answer should be, “someone qualified”.

A Nietzschean Cry That Still Rings in the Western World?

Zuhdi Jasser, President and Founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD)

Amidst the din of the post-Osama assassinations it is easy to lose sight of what is still transforming before our eyes in America. At first blush, there appears to be a resurgence of the religious Right [I prefer racial Right], who have presented themselves as the last best hope of stemming the brown/Islamic tide that threatens to overrun America. But much of this I feel is window dressing in comparison to the deep crisis that is unfolding when the cameras aren’t rolling. Namely, that is the crisis of secularization in the American/European world. This crisis, unlike the so-called Islamization of America, is far more real, as it uses such culturally sensitive nomenclature as democracy, Constitutional, and the like. The insidious part of this is that in the face of growing pressure from White America, many immigrant Muslims, in an attempt to appease the dominant culture, have co-opted this argument and are now wielding it against their fellow Muslims.

To fully grasp this slippery slope and the effects it has had on assimilation-focused Muslims, it will be necessary to recognize the pressures that are being exerted on the Muslim-American psyche and the reaction that stem from these pressures. For the rank and file practicing Muslim, the comments of Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, without a doubt resonate as nails on a chalk board. But if one wishes to critique Jasser’s commentary [as this writer certainly does], then we must look at the broader assault on belongingness in post-Osama America.

In a previous article, Required Reading: Muslims, the Constitution and Negotiating Political Reality, I showed how Muslims are under attack and under assault from a variety of vantage points including the media and academia. In the article, Dr. Sherman Jackson wrote a response and rebuttal to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s, Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam, in which Cornell accused Jackson of being a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist” for no other reason than Dr. Jackson’s refusal to see the United States Constitution as a document of inherent transcendent truth. In essence, Cornell’s argument reinforces the myopic dogma of “either you’re with us, or you’re against us”, providing little to no agency for Muslim-Americans on just how they will decide and negotiate this tentative pact. Without repeating the article in its entirety, it is fair to say that much of vernacular of Cornell’s argument can be found in the manifesto and outlook from individuals and groups such as Zuhdi Jasser and the AIFD respectively. Instead of a principled engagement of the United States, culturally, legally and socially, I believe Jasser’s [and Cornell’s] approach leaves Muslim-Americans exposed and vulnerable, where the only actions capable of being carried out are solely to express gratitude to the dominant [read “white”] culture for allowing them to exist within their borders.

Whether the intentions of people like Jasser or Cornell are well intended are none of my concern. The results of their conclusions are alarming. They represent two prongs of a very dangerous thrust that if fulfilled, will bring about the almost complete opposite of their intentions, at least as far as Jasser is concerned. So long as Muslim-Americans remain in a state of deference to the establishment for allowing them to exist in America—conditions of that existence aside—they will remain hapless victims of bigotry, prejudice and will have no power over whether or not they are used as political hockey pucks to further the agendas of America political interests. This stance has yet to [and I believe, will not] bring about sweeping changes for Muslim-Americans as it relates to harassment.

The language of these arguments [especially Jasser’s] are ripe with hyper-secularization. Both parties go to great extents to prove the dignity of Islam and Muslims, not on the grounds that Islam and Muslims might present from their own sources, but by couching Islam’s most sacred sources within the framework of modernity, such as the United States Constitution in Cornell’s case, and western liberal democracy in Jasser’s. The Qur’anic injunctions, in this light, is incapable of being seen or felt as a sacred document unless they can be proven to coincide with secular values. There has even been an attempt to say that, to paraphrase Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam has a long-standing secular tradition that can be tied all the way back to the Qur’an and the original sources1. In light of the pressures mentioned above, Muslim-Americans are coerced from both sides to accept these ideals as “congenial to [Islam’s] true nature and purpose—as the only tenable ideals to embrace or risk being cast as violent, barbaric, and seditious.

Ironically, by abandoning their U.S.-granted, God-given rights via the Constitution in favor of assimilation, Muslims will be doubly vulnerable, as they will have no means of defending themselves against such assaults. This is one aspect that Dr. Vincent Cornell did not understand about Dr. Jackson’s argument: Simply because a Muslim does not hold the Constitution to be a Divinely Inspired Document, does not mean that Muslims cannot uphold such legal principles, so long as they do not directly contract core tenets of Islam. Let me quote Dr. Jackson again here to make the point clearer:

To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (Islam and the Blackamerica, 148)

Essentially, by embracing the Constitution as a document of legal fact, and not legal truth, Muslims can fully participate in that “negotiated, political arrangement” that Jackson quotes from Robert Dahl; a negotiation that ensure both parties get something out of the contract instead of one living for the appeasement of the other. This is an important nuance that neither Jasser, Cornell nor their constituents seem to understand.



  1. Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future, 3.