Prophet Ibrahim, Amina Wadud and Caught Between Compassion and Indignation

I’d like to say it’s that time of year again for another controversy but it seems these days every day is controversy day in the world of Muslim social media. In specific, many were deeply offended by the statements of Amina Wadud, a scholar who focuses on Islamic studies from a more feminist point of view. Her statement regarding Prophet Ibrahim was as follows,

Amina Wadud’s comment,

Yes, you read that correctly: She labeled Prophet Ibrahim a dead beat dad. I know many found it difficult to look beyond Wadud’s statement, which is blasphemous to say the least, but for myself, having some moderate training in recognizing mental health disorders, it signaled to me a person suffering from some form of a breakdown. Not simply this particular statement but Wadud’s statements and positions over the years. Also knowing a little bit about her personal background I think Amina Wadud may be dealing with untreated trauma, fueled by negative experiences within the Muslim community. I’m not saying this to excuse her despicable comments about the “Friend of Allah” (Khalil Allah), Ibrahim, peace be upon him. Just looking at the situation from another angle.

One problem I have had with the response to this is that from a number of imams and public figures. Many of them, not having adequate mental health training, took the opportunity to not only attack Wadud’s statements (legitimate attacks in my estimation), but also to then use her statements as opportunities to impugn any Muslim women who espouses any relationship to so-called feminist thought. For instance, Mikaeel Smith stated,

It’s not that I have an issue with Smith, and others, being offended by Wadud’s statements, but it’s that they did not restrict their issue to her statements themselves. It’s as if they’re saying any woman who is a feminist (especially black) is in complete agreement with Wadud. Would this include such sisters as Ieasha Prime or Tamara Gray, simply because they speak on matters pertaining to women? I’m not confident that many of us in roles of leadership/scholarship completely understand our grievances with feminism (of which there certainly are grievances). So to make statements like the above is, in my opinion, sloppy. There are legitimate critiques against feminist thought, many I have myself, but I prefer to perhaps be a bit more concise in my critique. I would encourage the brothers to consider doing so as well. In fact, sister Faatimah Amatullah Knight makes the kind of rebuttal that I’m thinking of,

She goes on to give a very balanced critique of Wadud’s statement by saying,

“If we are more forgiving to the characters of Shakespeare or Homer then perhaps we need to work on the prejudices that make us attack people who are traditionally deemed holy.”Faatimah Amatullah Knight

Returning to the question of mental health, I would ask, has anyone checked in on sister Amina Wadud? Perhaps she’s in her right state of mind (I pray to God she is not to excuse her from these statements) and perhaps she’s not.

But let us turn for a moment from the controversy — for there will always be controversy — and look at the kind of situation we have here and what our Deen tells us about it.

أَنَّ نَافِعَ بْنَ عَبْدِ الْحَارِثِ، لَقِيَ عُمَرَ بْنَ الْخَطَّابِ بِعُسْفَانَ – وَكَانَ عُمَرُ اسْتَعْمَلَهُ عَلَى مَكَّةَ

It was narrated that Nafi’ bin ‘Abdul-Harith met ‘Umar bin al-Khattab during his khilafah in ‘Usfan, when ‘Umar had appointed him as his governer in Makkah.

فَقَالَ عُمَرُ مَنِ اسْتَخْلَفْتَ عَلَى أَهْلِ الْوَادِي قَالَ اسْتَخْلَفْتُ عَلَيْهِمُ ابْنَ أَبْزَى قَالَ وَمَنِ ابْنُ أَبْزَى قَالَ رَجُلٌ مِنْ مَوَالِينَا ‏ قَالَ عُمَرُ فَاسْتَخْلَفْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ مَوْلًى قَالَ إِنَّهُ قَارِئٌ لِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى عَالِمٌ بِالْفَرَائِضِ قَاضٍ قَالَ عُمَرُ أَمَا إِنَّ نَبِيَّكُمْ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ قَالَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَرْفَعُ بِهَذَا الْكِتَابِ أَقْوَامًا وَيَضَعُ بِهِ آخَرِينَ

‘Umar asked, “Whom have you appointed as your deputy over the people of the valley?” He said, “I have appointed Ibn Abza over them.” ‘Umar said, “Who is Ibn Abza?” Nafi’ answered, “One of our freed slaves.” ‘Umar replied, “Have you appointed a freed slave over them?” Nafi’ assured ‘Umar, “He has great knowledge of the Book of Allah, is well versed in the necessities of the religion and is also a good judge.” ‘Umar then remember a statement of the Prophet in which he said, “Did not your Prophet say: ‘Allah raises some people in status because of this book and brings others low because of it.’

For me, I see one of the central lessons to be learned here for our community is that we should ask ourselves, “how is my approach to the Qur’an ennobling me?” And, “how is someone else’s approach to the Qur’an ennobling them?” When you look at the trajectory of sister Amina’s last decade or so she seems to have become even more extreme and isolated in her musings about Islam and the Book of Allah. Is this due to mental health degradation? Perhaps. Or perhaps this degradation is brought on by insulting one of the greatest humans God has ever created and appointed as a light of guidance. It would seem the latter part of the hadith above gives much to consider.

But now, what about ourselves and our responses. Whether we like it or not, we must come to accept that some folks are going to say things we find offensive. When this happens we must also remember the advice that Luqman, peace be upon him, gave his son,

يا بُنَيَّ أَقِمِ الصَّلاةَ وَأمُر بِالمَعروفِ وَانهَ عَنِ المُنكَرِ وَاصبِر عَلىٰ ما أَصابَكَ ۖ إِنَّ ذٰلِكَ مِن عَزمِ الأُمورِ

“My son, establish salat and command what is right and forbid what is wrong and be steadfast in the face of all that happens to you. That is certainly the most resolute course to follow.”Qur’an,
31: 17

Is this easy? No, but neither is the discipline of controlling ourselves (عَزمِ الأُمورِ). I’m not saying that we don’t defend the Prophets, that we don’t stand up for what is right and against what is wrong. I’d be a hypocrite by publishing statements about Reza Aslan if I didn’t believe we have a right to respond to statements of disbelief and blasphemy. Just giving us some food for thought.

May Allah guide us, put Islam in our hearts, and make us from amongst the Grateful. Amin.

Islamic Reformation – Why It Continues To Fail

“The only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition.” — William Chittick1

Until the call (and the callers) for a so-called Islamic reformation moves beyond its craven commitment to a totalizing and unprincipled commitment to the rejection of all tradition it will neither be taken seriously by the bulk of the Muslim community nor will it bring any benefit to Muslims, which is where it reveals its lack of authenticity: Muslim scholastic endeavors (fiqh, Shari’ah, spiritual rumination, etc.) have always primarily focused on bringing benefit to the Children of Adam by centering God’s pleasure as the aim of its objective. And while we can argue, debate, and interrogate these endeavors and ask whether they’ve achieved their goals, the sincerity of these men and women trying to follow and please their Lord and Master ﷺ is not.

What’s telling about the so-called Islamic reformist movement is that they are more akin to those desert Arabs who opposed the Prophet, but not necessarily God: They could accept that there was a god, even The God (Allah), but that He would have a Messenger would could have earthly authority? That they fought against. So in the same vein, while the so-called Islamic reformers reject the authority of the Prophet, they still in some manner attempt to affirm the Qur’an as a valid and (somewhat) authoritative document, by means of appealing to its transmission: “The Qur’an is mutawatir” many will say, the definition of which is meant that the Book’s transmission and dispersement — with such range and authenticity — that its truthfulness, at least as pertains to its contents, is beyond question from a Muslim perspective. What’s ironic is that the same transmission and dispersement is reliant upon the very same men and women who have transmitted the hadith, or the Prophetic traditions, which would (inconveniently?) challenge many of their so-called reforms.

If the Muslim reformists wish to be taken seriously by the majority of Muslims then they should prioritize benefit and authenticity if they hope to come across as genuinely concerned for the well-being of the Muslim community, versus looking for ways to blackmail the religion to achieve (perceived) social gains.

ما جَعَلَ اللَّهُ لِرَجُلٍ مِن قَلبَينِ في جَوفِهِ

“God hasn’t placed two hearts in any man’s chest.” Qur’an 33: 4

Resources

1. Chittick, William C. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: One World. Pg. 19.

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

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.

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”.