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.