The Credibility Gap Widens

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.”

2 Comments The Credibility Gap Widens


    The credibility gap is double-edged. One could point out much the same lack of holistic scholarship from those who present discussions of awra and the gaze whilst ignoring how the female slave body fit into those discussions – I’ve seen this censored straight out of tafaseer in translation. One could also point out that traditionally, learning how to e.g. pray was not a process limited to the texts – it was also by physical emulation (which is how most Muslims learn to pray), as has recently become inadvertently pointed out by writers like Rudolph Ware studying pre-modern means of religious transmission.

    It feels like the problem here is that there seems to be little agreed-upon historical/factual shared ground for public speakers to discuss Islam and Muslims, regardless of their theological affiliation, and it creates this kind of free-for-all to claim the “true” interpretation. Perhaps the discussion needs to turn to how to have these conversations in a public domain where Islam is itself controversial, and when Muslims are always going to be in a conversation about what Islam means to them.

  2. Marc

    That there are numerous issues with textualism (what I sometimes call textual empiricism), traditionalism, etc., is beyond arguing. Of course there is. But it’s an act of dishonesty to (a) pretend that texts play no importance and (b) most importantly, the substance of those texts, may have some authority-claim upon us. I found Ali’s video, and many other such modernist apologies, to be dishonest, precisely because they attempt to dismiss it even though they still invoke it.

    I’m all for a re-engaging of the tradition — which includes its over-emphasis on texts — but I cannot be for any such re-engagement on the grounds that we throw the baby out with the bath water.

    By the way, I am also reading/teaching Dr. Ware’s book. It’s fascinating!

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