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.”

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”.