For the West it is common currency to believe that Islam is ‘troublesome’. This global religion of 1.3 billion people is often portrayed as some cartoon bad guy. Yes, Islam is certainly ‘troubling’ but how much of this is a self-inflicted? What is fair? What is right? My understanding of Islam starts in Saudi Arabia in 2002. I was languishing in a Hotel lobby in one of the lesser-sort-after neighbourhoods of Riyadh. The place had seen better days – like some rusting imitation of a colonial club that didn’t belong there. Awaiting a taxi I picked up a free English language paper from one of the many sumptuous wooden tables. Reading it started me on a long journey that was not one I had been looking to take. It has proven enlightening. This paper left me with an impression about what the ‘trouble’ was: in Islam the West is seeing a mirror image of itself. What is troublesome is not them, it’s us: we don’t like what we see. For religion is simply an avatar for what we really fear: man’s inhumanity to man.
What is it that the West find so troubling about Islam? I was in Saudi to work, not to find answers. War clouds were on the horizon. Conflict in Iraq broke out the following Spring. Myself and a colleague had already been accosted by a wizened local who demanded that we should not invade Iraq. He may have thought we were American? What did it matter? We were all “westerners” to them – white guys in suits. Tensions were already rising and I had already decided I would leave after my three months were up. Saudi society is not a relaxed one. It makes its capital city in the arid wasteland of a desert. No cinemas, no clubs, strict gender segregation, no music, no entertainment, no drink, streets patrolled by the religious police. It is hot and dry all the time. Your life there is in continual flow between air-conditioned taxi to air-conditioned work to air-conditioned hotel – briefly punctuated by the oven-like blast that greets you when you step outside. It is not long before you long for the sight of something green and the flowing locks of the fairer sex.
In every hotel lobby in Riyadh you will find English-language newspapers, several of which are locally printed. The Saudi business class all speak good English. Most were educated in Europe or America. It is the language of the elite. I turn to the letters page. One correspondent asks the paper’s Agony Uncle how they should relate to a Christian friend. The response was pleasant: you should be friendly and welcoming – yet pray they find their way to Islam. There was no hint of the hostility towards the West that one is fed in 24 hour satellite TV. Surprise: THEY do not hate us. However, turn to the current affairs section editorial and you saw something very different. The article there lamented the influence of right-wing evangelical Christians upon the George Bush Presidency. The terms used were apocalyptic, there was talk of a crusade and of bruised egos. The piece firmly implied that America was being run by a extremist Christian theocracy that was determined to destroy Islam. Look familiar?
These two faces of the Middle East made a lasting impression upon me. Firstly that we as people have nothing to fear from each other. Like every other person I have met on this earth, the colour of their skin and their creed told me nothing about whether they were a good people or not. Deeds spoke volumes. They were perfect hosts. If anything the most horrible racist and bigoted people I have ever met have been “nice” white English people. Secondly, if THEY do not hate us, it is a miracle as to why not. In “A Carefully Cultivated Hatred” I reviewed Nathan Lean’s 2012 “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims” (Pluto Press ISBN 978 1 8496 4748 9) – in it we learn about how many have made careers from engineering a fear of Islam.
One significant drawback of Lean’s approach was how he detailed the reasoning behind the hatred he seldom took the time to debunk the myth-makers lies about Islam. In seeking clarity we turned to “Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy” by Jonathan A. C. Brown (Oneworld 2014 ISBN 978-1-78074-421-6). It is not a work without its own challenges. It is not an easy read and does not peddle easy answers. It is not intended as a defence of Islam nor an attack on Western hypocrisy. What you do get is a bulky academic work that considers how the words of the Prophet have been distorted by anyone who wishes to prove their point about Islam. Islam: good or evil? Brown offers us the opinion that these are “tribal qualities”. Reflecting upon the Boston Marathon Bombings the author grapples with the impressions the media gives about “good” versus “evil” Muslims:
“‘Good’ corresponds to ‘works to kill America’s enemies’ (American Muslims who joined the US military to fight in Iraq are thus good), and ‘evil’ means ‘works to kill Americans or their allies or both’ (Iraqi Muslims trying to defend their loved ones from random, dismembering explosions were evil). As for ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme,’ they map onto ‘congruent with mainstream American culture’ (Muslims who drink or don’t cover their hair are thus moderate) versus ‘clashes with mainstream American culture.’ “
Such views he writes are “transient and fickle” as he observes that Nelson Mandela was one classed a “terrorist” too. In his book Brown attempts to rise above this tribal
“..cultural chauvinism and narrow-mindedness [seen] as liberalism, who use ‘common sense’ as a proxy for forcing one culture onto another on the pretext of imposing ‘universal values;’ who scoff at subservience to backward traditions when they see it in others but are blind to it in themselves..” “There is much exasperation among Western leaders over mobs of Muslim protesters failing to transcend religious chauvinisms and accept the dictates of ‘reason.’ Faced with this complaint, medieval ulama would observe that what one person insists is ‘reasonable’ is often no more than the conventions and sensibilities of their particular culture.”
You are not in for an easy read if you consider yourself to be a western liberal. You will find many cosy assumptions challenged in this book. This is no narrow exercise in polemic or pro-Islam propaganda. This is an academic’s attempt tell it like it is. And it is what it is. Whereas he justifies this based upon the divine inspiration of the prophet and the desires of billions of worshippers he is dismissive of the non-believer, the atheist, as he see atheism as simply another offshoot of western culture hence it comes with all of its own cultural baggage. A fair point but there are many points in this book where your average atheist will find the hairs on the back of their necks stand up. It is not comforting.
Brown kicks off his adventure into the misquoting of Muhammad on the streets of Cairo during the Arab Spring. He describes the differing views of professed to be those of the prophet: some claiming the Egyptian people had a religious duty to revolt whilst others “warned of the inevitable chaos of revolution and quoted another saying of the Prophet: ‘Civil strife sleeps, and God curses whomever awakens it.’ ” Here is the first lesson that any atheist would nod sagely at: any/every religious text contains a myriad of equal and opposite ideas that simply do not gel well into a whole. You simply need to pick and choose the chapters and verses you wish to prove your point. And that could simply be this entire book in a nutshell. There is no “correct” reading of the Qur’an nor the Hadith. It has simply been interpreted and re-interpreted over and over again through the hundreds of years since the prophet walked on this earth. How do scholars know what is right or wrong? The answer: they don’t, not really. There is always ambiguity in religious texts for self-evident reasons:
“Arabic script in the first decades of Islam was still primitive and incomplete, making texts perilous ground for misreading and misunderstanding if not elucidated by a teacher.”
Therein lies the very dilemma for all ancient religions relying upon the divine nature of holy books. God didn’t exactly write them – human beings did, often many centuries after the events described. Brown will often delve deep into western philosophy and compare how the Bible was compiled versus the Hadiths. The histories are comparable hence trying to differentiate these is hypocrisy. Atheists will draw a more straight-forward conclusion about the need to ever believe in ancient texts. What we learn quickly about Islam is how it attempts to remain not only true to every word of the Qur’an (the word of God) but also to every conceivable utterance & deed of the Prophet (The Hadiths). The latter often attempted to describe his actions such that followers could mimic every move to bring them closer to God. Such slavish actions sound very peculiar to Western Christian traditions where such devotions have been sealed away behind the doors of Convents and Monasteries.
“The volumes written on the issue of raising one’s hands in prayer over the centuries could occupy whole library shelves. An entire wing would have to be devoted to the hundreds of other such debates over issues, from performing ablutions to the technicalities of divorce and the propriety of visiting saints’ graves.”
Whereas the Qur’an remains relatively non-controversial (if seemingly nonsensical from Western perspectives) the divergence of opinion (about what the Prophet meant for his followers to believe and how they should behave) is primarily over the contents of the Hadiths. On these every sect and school of thought has diverged and splintered into astonishing variations of belief. I spoke with Muslim friends of my wife in Kazakhstan in 2006 who told me with certainty that their God did not require them to pray as the Arabian Muslims do because they would never get any work done. Yet they are of the same religion. One that holds the five daily prayers as a central pillar of the faith. With a few carefully selected examples Brown dispense with the Wests long historical critique of Islam:
“..Voltaire, dismissed the Qur’an as full of contradictions, absurdities and patent scientific falsehoods. [the West’s] condemnation of Islam was a study in cognitive dissonance. The French Enlightenment critic of Christian backwardness , Pierre Bayle , did launch equally barbed comments against Islam. He decried the religion’s unfair treatment of women , permission of spousal beating and divorce. Yet he seems not to have minded that France in his day denied married women the right to own property or divorce their husbands . His contemporary, Lady Montagu, who had actually frequented the harems of Istanbul and befriended Ottoman women, objected that ‘’ tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have,’ since they enjoyed full rights to property and movement. Only in 1938 did French women attain full capacity before the law, managing to acquire rights that the architects of the Shariah had granted women as early as the seventh century.” “..the British was to remedy how difficult they found it to sentence criminals to death in the Shariah courts they oversaw, since Shariah law acknowledged only five capital crimes. East India Company judges no doubt pined for justice back home, where in the 1820s British law listed over two hundred death-penalty offenses, including stealing firewood and poaching fish.”
Yes, how alike we once were! The assumption of Western ascendance of the barbarity of Islam is a legacy we still live with today. Yet still the West DID move on from such barbarity. Much has changed since the time of Voltaire. Some of the West’s view of Islam as being “troublesome” extends from an opinion that Islam has remained stuck in time. It is not enough for Brown to poke fun at the debt that the West owes the “infidel Saracens” in the area of science and medicine. There should be space here for Brown to address the concerns about how societies develop and evolve. Islam is so firmly anchored to events from 1500 years ago. Can it adapt? The need to stay fixed firmly to one point in space and time is a fixture of Islam in the belief that the religion must be preserved in its “true form”
“Qur’an cautioned , earlier communities such as the Christians and Jews had gone astray when they had allowed their own inclinations and speculations to lead them away from God’s revealed truth. ‘Hold fast to the rope of God together, and do not break apart’ (3: 103), the Qur’an had warned.” “Islam was thus a totalistic vision. The founding generations of Muslims , spread across a wide expanse, would not understand their religion as merely one part of their life, separate from daily etiquette, the rules of commerce or the courts. [..] All conceivable words and deeds had some ruling under God’s law, and, as an early Muslim scholar explained , it was not permitted for a Muslim to undertake anything without determining what that ruling was. “
So, for example, what of the law requiring amputation of a hand as the penalty for theft? This is by no means as simple as it seems. Shariah Law (that derived from interpretation of the Hadiths) has many, many exemptions from this punishment. Some scholars argued that the amount stolen had to be over a certain value or that the Prophet forbade punishment for the stealing of food. How valid these beliefs were was in proportion to how closely these rulings could be linked to the actual words spoken by Muhammad himself. Hence attribution was everything leading to thousands of Hadiths, some of which may have been directly ascended through a reliable chain of custody from someone who had contact with the Prophet, to outright forgeries. In early contacts with the West Islam found itself on the defensive. It couldn’t attribute the Hadiths to the Prophet properly hence the tenets of the faith became untrustworthy. Maybe reason could help?
“..the Qur’an also cautioned against trusting too much in reason when pondering matters of the unseen, for the Devil is forever urging man to ‘say about God that which you do not know’ (2: 169). Reason and rationalization offered a deceptive and alluring window for indulging one’s own fancies and desires.”
Well that’s common-sense out of the window. Indeed Brown regularly attacks Western concepts of “common sense” throughout his book. Although the careful reader will appreciate the intellectual rigour of his argument many will be suspicious of a dogma that cannot be subject to good judgement. Within a few hundred years of the passing of the Prophet Islam had splintered out across the Middle-East, Africa and Asia. Islamic belief became parochial leading to attempts by scholars in the middle-ages to return to the source and validate their belief against a benchmark. To make this extra hard for these ancient scholars they recognised that a lot of what had been absorbed into Islam were nothing more than local customs. The scholars concluded that they needed to demonstrate a reliable communication from the Prophet for each Hadith. This was called the Isnad. It was not to be full-proof:
“..the door to man’s frail reason could not be closed completely would mean that the Sunnis’ claim to preserving the Prophet’s true teachings might still be colored by subjectivity. [..] they could never overcome the simple fact that what one person considers unreasonable another finds sensible.”
..and to make things worse
“..the founders of Sunni Islam believed that Hadiths could add new tenets of theology.” “..the historical fact that, in truth, the Shariah had always been just as much a civilizational project as it was an impulse of religious conscience. The shop owners and farmers who had notarized land sales in Tahawi’s court had acknowledged the Shariah as much because it was the law of the land as because it was God’s law.”
It is easy and unfair to mock but it is easy to see how these internal inconsistencies did lead to such schisms with the West. Islam appeared to not make sense nor did it do much for its own cause as it believed that arguing with Christian culture on Western terms was a betrayal of Islamic belief. Islamic history is testimony to an endless tug of war between rationalists and traditionalists. Seemingly Islam was constructed from immutable laws yet these soon faded in a multitude of different human faces when examined in the actual. Only a few central tenets seemed to be agreed upon and some of these proved debatable. It was a rock of certainty riddled with much uncertainty.
“Sunni Shariah tradition thus became a swirl of stunning diversity. Not only were there four distinct schools of law, but each school also had a range of opinions on any one question. [..] The statement ‘the Shariah says…’ is thus automatically misleading, as there is almost always more than one answer to any legal question.”
Hence Western systems of judicial law will seem alien as we attempt narrow down definitions scientifically whereas Islam appears to be more flexible than many Westerner’s appreciate. Our impressions of inflexibility are shaded from the modern media’s fascination with the occasional extremes of thought arising in the name of Allah. This fascination extends from modern military extremism evoked by the word “Jihad”. Brown minces no words:
“Jihad was understood as the unceasing quest to ‘make God’s word supreme,’ as Hadiths described, through the ongoing expansion of the rule of God’s law on earth. This was not envisioned in any way as a quest for forced conversion, which never featured in the Islamic conquests. The Qur’anic edict of ‘No compulsion in religion’ governed the interpretation of Hadiths like the authenticated report of the Prophet declaring, ‘I have been commanded to fight the people until they testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, establish prayer and pay the charity tithe.’ Read in light of the Qur’anic prohibition on coerced belief, this mission to extract confessions of belief was not interpreted literally. Rather, it was understood as referring either only to Arabia’s pagans (not followers of monotheistic religions) or as a metaphor for the conquered non -Muslims agreeing to submit to Muslim rule.”
I detected no suggestion here that “Jihad” as a Pillar of Islam simply means “struggle”. There is little ambiguity in the histories of Muhammad versus the stories of Jesus. The early history of Islam is a bloody one. The Kingdom of God in the New Testament was to come in the after life. It seems to Christians that Islam couldn’t wait that long. These facts go a long way to explain the long standing antipathy between these two traditions. They need mean nothing in modern times no more than recalling tales of 500 year old Crusades can much inform any judgement of Western culture today. Context only becomes apparent inside a contemporary narrative of Jihad as war. Islamic scholars have bravely attempted to set the record straight by insisting that
“..the true, original doctrine of jihad in the Prophet’s time was a call to defend against aggression or religious persecution only, and that all the wars fought by Muhammad had been defensive in nature.”
“Islam called for peaceful relations between nations, each allowed to live and practice its religion in peace. The early Islamic conquest of Arabia was an exception to this, the singular creation of a necessary cradle and safe space for Islam to flourish. This reformist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadiths inverted the classical doctrine of jihad, reading the Qur’an’s passages on warfare in their contexts instead of using the ‘Sword Verses’ to abrogate the revelation’s principles of proportionality, mercy and the desirability of peace. Writing after the European system had revealed its own bloodthirstiness in the First World War, [one scholar] remarked that it was European nationalism and German warmongering that were the true culprits in fomenting global violence.”
How little has changed. There is always someone else more barbaric than us. Muslims themselves know how hard times have become for them. Contact with the West has set Islam on the defensive. In the 1990s an Egyptian scholar suggested that the Qur’an (although divine in origin) was subject to different interpretations depending upon language and social context:
“Its specific rules and references are thus not fixed in their meaning according to the classical understanding of Muslim scholars.”
He quickly found his life under threat and he fled to exile in the Netherlands. Brown concluded that
“..his reading of the Qur’an his lodestar was the postmodern literary theory of Europe and not the native Islamic ethos of venerating God’s word. This coloured him irreparably as an agent of Western influence.”
Such controversies underline how difficult it is to separate culture from religion. Within the totality of Islamic history there was nothing controversial in this man’s views, instead it was the assumption that he was applying Western values to the Qur’an that proved to be his downfall.
“The outrage [..] was a novel byproduct of modern insecurities about the Islamic canon.”
As such Osama Bin Laden is a creature of this modern insecurity:
“..for Osama Bin Laden and the jihadist movements of the last forty years, the reality of the modern world was not ‘real’ enough to overwhelm the scripture-centered worldview of classical jihad doctrine. Instead, for jihadists, modern realities only sharpened classical understandings of the Qur’an and Hadiths. Their reading of scripture against global politics telescoped time and transposed the medieval into the modern world. In their view, the standing of Muslims in modern geopolitics mapped perfectly onto the circumstances of Muhammad’s original call to jihad. This extremist doctrine of jihad found scriptural footing in a raw, unmediated reading of the Qur’an and Hadiths. God permitted Muhammad’s followers to fight those who ‘drove them from their homes’ or attacked them. Was it then not legitimate to raise arms against the Israeli expulsion of Muslims from their homes in Palestine, or following the Soviet and then American invasions of Muslim lands?”
“Callously caulking the theoretical technicalities of Shariah law onto the realities of a thorny world allowed them to attack lapsed Muslims and polytheist infidels alike. In the eyes of these militant revival movements, those who aided the enemy became legitimate targets as well.”
“..the modern world as one in which the pre-Islamic ‘Age of Ignorance’ and idolatry once again reigns. The West and its dictator stooges rule through exploitative systems that subjugate man to man. The Qur’anic message is a call to liberation through submission to God, and jihad is the holistic struggle to overturn the idols of human despotism, injustice and the denial of God.”
Brown does not waste too much space in putting Bin Laden in his place. He is rightly dismissive accusing the Saudi of “an artless mapping of scripture onto his perception of global geopolitics resulted in the gross oversimplification of Islam’s rich interpretive heritage.” Yet it remains such an artless mapping that has so captured the Western mind and set it against Islam. Still Brown has sympathies (as we all do) to the sensitivities that the Saudi’s and American trampled all over in their willingness to engage in a modern military Crusade in order to secure oil supplies.
“The outrage of many Saudi ulama about the presence of US troops on their country’s soil is not difficult to understand. They were angered by their government’s alliance with the US and its allowing non-Muslim troops to use their country as a base for attacks on fellow Muslims from the First Gulf War onward. It is simplistic and naive to explain jihadism merely as an inevitable growth from Islam’s ‘violent’ scripture, or as no more than a miscarried interpretation triggered solely by some tragic misreading. It cannot be separated from economic discontent, the enveloping context of US global power, America’s influence and military actions in the Muslim world and, most of all, the gaping sore of the Israel– Palestine conflict.”
However the author’s message is somewhat blunted by spending most of his thrust against Al Qaeda with an attempt to define what constituted the Arabian Peninsula in interpreting Bin Laden’s jihadist declaration to ‘Expel the polytheists from the Peninsula of the Arabs’. Still we are asked to conclude that the
“..main cause of religious extremism was the literal reading of the Qur’an and Hadiths, without qualified ulama as guides or an understanding of the overarching principles of the Shariah.”
In other words, ignorance, a very powerful and explosive ignorance. Senior scholars of Islam
“..affirmed completely the classical jihad doctrine, but this doctrine only allowed a jihad to be declared and led by the ruler of a Muslim polity. It was not a personal mission taken up by angry individuals or non-state actors.”
In essence the terrorism of an irregular army is not allowed in Islam regardless of how just their cause. Brown does not spend long on this topic which, although curious, may be for good reason. He moves rapidly onto Shariah Law which, as we saw in Lean’s book, is a continued source of irrational fear amongst western bigots. The matter is ill understood argues Brown:
“In the West, calls for the Shariah are viewed with confusion and fear, accompanied by media flashes of bearded rage and reviving receded memories of medieval inquisitions. [..] The place of the Shariah in [the] consciousness [of Muslims] seems oddly similar to the Constitution for Americans; all venerate it, but few have read it in its entirety. No one knows what applying it always means. [..] The cry for the Shariah is a surrogate expression for a longing for dignity, independence, justice and control over one’s destiny in a world seemingly controlled by outsiders and outside agendas.”
Comparing the Shariah to the US Constitution is a great touch by Brown although, no doubt, it will send the Islamophobes into fits of indignation! This may have been deliberate on the author’s part. He goes onto point out that in some nations such as Egypt the continued use of the Shariah Court system in a secular society was as much about job preservation for the judges as about maintaining the principles of Islam. Other scholars “championed the canon of Islamic scripture out of fear that it and the religious culture around it would recede into history” revealing how little can be assessed about such matters in isolation – culture and history matter. It is not only the people USA who feel pride in these matters.
One of the aspects of Islam that has been conjured up as representing its great divide between it and western secular culture is the role of women. Brown devotes considerable space to this matter and regularly reminds the reader about how advanced Islam was in the middle ages in advancing the rights of women to a status well over what was comparable in the west at that time. But as I argued above, much has changed since then. Unlike the popular image, women in Islam should, in theory, enjoy the same rights as any woman in the west. Islamic Scholars themselves have been debating the matter with vigour for years with some arguing that modern times required some re-evaluation. In a world where Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of Great Britain, Golda Meir led Israel to victor over aggressive Arab neighbours and Indira Ghandi rose to power in India was proving how wrong the Hadiths appeared to be. Nations were not demonstrably failing when lead by women. It was argued that Qur’anic law probably extended from a period where women had little commercial experience making them unsuitable as political leaders. It was practical advice not meant to be true in all times and places. Others argued that the achievements of modern women were “ephemeral and carried no weight” against the “immutability” of the Shariah.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this debate it is important for us to realise that these debates do happen within Islam. It is not monolithic. Muslims can never be tarred with the same brush because, beyond the fundamental pillars they is a wide diversity of interpretation, debate and disagreement. Regardless there has been one touch-point that has been more controversial than any other: the age of the Prophet’s wife. This has been a very easy axe for the Islamophobia “Industry” (as Lean describes it) to grind. It is a gift that keeps on giving for any racist. One hard to defuse. Brown considers the various elements of this but reaches no strong conclusion. It is clear that Muhammad married a girl, Aisha, age 6 and was having sex with her by the age of 9. He is the Prophet, he cannot sin, so this remains an ’embarrassment’ (if that isn’t too strong a term) to Islam. This is a matter that, in modern times, has caused much shock and revulsion. The practice continues in many places to this day:
“In reality, those working internationally to combat child marriage have concluded that its roots are primarily economic and unrelated to any specific religion.”
Although clearly this is not pertinent other than to suggest it was normal in the Prophet’s time – which it was. Agrarian communities have high birth rates and a need to be rid of unproductive hands as soon as possible. Generally though the interpretation of what is acceptable in Islamic culture is somewhat less disturbing. A women cannot be harmed and no women should be forced to have sex before puberty. This may not be comforting to those of us inheriting western values but Brown makes no apologies for this. It is what it is – deal with it. A Shariah court could deem a girl as unsuitable for sex through physical examination. It was not a matter taken lightly. Girls were not simply victims in this system, they had recourse. Having sex with a wife before puberty was “rare, condemned socially and censured by Shariah court judges” in nineteenth century Ottoman Palestine, for example. Criticism of the Prophet’s sexual relationship with his young wife is quite a modern invention suggests Brown. The Prophet was not accused of paedophilia until the twentieth century. Prior to that period he was simply denounced as “sex fiend”. This matter may be more one of semantics than Brown cares to admit. Regardless this is a defence that he seriously attempts, specifically that such things were perceived as somehow “normal” in discourse on the matter until 1905 and even then it was a specific hang-up of British society. He concludes
“Law was an imperial export.”
This is unlikely to be a satisfactory conclusion and the matter remains one of the most “troubling” aspects of Islam to this day. It is not easily resolved. No matter, the actuality of life in Islamic society in pre-modern times are enlightening:
“The memoirs of one of the ulama who worked in Syria’s family law courts in the mid-twentieth century depicts the troubled process of coming to terms with a modern, Western-shaped law while maintaining a commitment to the canon of the Qur’an and Sunna. It was acceptable [..] for the ruler or state to introduce administrative laws and restrictions in the best interests of the people. This was allowed under the Shariah not only within the original, narrow window of public interest but also because God orders Muslims to obey ‘those in authority among you.’”
Hence it is not enough for us in the west to judge these matters as if they were the last word on the matter. Over-laying the Shariah were other layers of Islamic culture and belief that often mitigated matters that may otherwise appear disturbing to western eyes. Policies promoting the health and welfare of children were normal precedence in such societies. Basically common-sense did prevail regardless of the academic denial that common sense was not pertinent. Otherwise the matter of whom you marry and at what age was deemed to be a matter of personal freedom – unless there was proof of harm. Brown’s last word on the matter was this:
“Amid all the controversy over Aisha, it was often forgotten that Muhammad’s first wife was fifteen years his senior.”
So it is HOW Muslims lived their lives that demonstrate a better way of understanding Islam:
“The secret of their compromise with modern realities lies in returning to the political quietism of medieval Sunni Islam and ceding even to a modern secular state the legal rights of the Muslim ruler. [..] But part of its heritage was the legal prerogatives of the ruler, and as long as he did not contradict the core rulings of the Shariah, they accepted the modern legal restrictions imposed by a secularized state.”
Our perceptions of the “troublesome” Islam remain a modern phenomena even if the West has always had a problem (as Brown explains it). Armies of irregulars on a Jihadist quest have not been the norm as Brown explains it. Still… Does Islam need a reformation – its own “enlightenment”? For some this remains quite the insult but Brown delves into the topic at length examining both the Christian tradition and the various Islamic equivalents so we understand the difference.
“As Catholics like More and Tetzel argued, it was necessary to control religious interpretation and prevent chaos and lunacy from engulfing the Christian world. As Luther countered, tradition elevated flawed human interpretations to the level of divine command when Christianity was supposedly built on Jesus’ original words. Since the death of Muhammad, Islam has wrestled with the same paradox.”
There has always been this tension between those who promote a centralised priesthood, whose mission it is to interpret religious text correctly for the ignorant many, and those who argue that it is for individuals to interpret it for themselves. As Brown points out earlier; the danger in modern Islam is that those wishing to forge holy war are at the forefront of the latter movement, They are cherry-picking sections of the Hadiths to justify the military actions they believe will restore their pride. For Sunnis believed that the word of the Prophet belonged to the community and inherited through the ulama. Shiites believed otherwise – that the word of god was passed down by the Prophet’s descendants. Thus it was the Imams who spoke with the authority of the Prophet. It is a subtle distinction that no doubt few in the west are conscious of.
Brown goes on to illustrate how Islamic custom was infused with local culture which had influence and informed the Hadiths. No Hadith was interpreted out of context – it turned into a two way street with some mutually agreeable compromise being reached centuries ago – these became the customs that Islam lived by although they themselves were derive from ancient customs. What religion is free of this? It is more a rich flow of ideas than the fixed word of God. One example was the concept of the “honour killing” about which Brown is quite firm: it has NO basis in any Islamic law. It is a custom that is not embraced by Islam. Where ever it seemed that it may have been codified as acceptable in the law in ancient society only turned out to originate from western law, not Islamic. Even where laws have been proven groundless they have been acted upon by invoking (as Brown puts it) “judicial custom“. Much of our perception about Islamic misogyny concerns elements of law that were inherited from its Roman precursor that placed the man at the head of the household. Hence the unusual statements in the Hadith protecting a father from prosecution if he kills his child:
“Like its Roman precursor, the Shariah’s effective confirmation of patria potestas seems more a reflection of the deep logic of law and society than a common court ruling. Like the ancient familial origins of Roman society, the Arabian world of the Qur’an was based on the family and tribe, and patrilineal descent was its organizing principle. A product of this stateless world, the Qur’an conceived of murder as a wrong committed against the victim’s kin, not against ‘the state.’ The father was the font and axis of his progeny’s entire legal existence and rights to protection in the tribal system. How could he be punished for killing one of them?”
Yet this remains no excuse for preserving such anachronisms into the modern era. So, what are we to make of the Wahhabi tradition preserved in Saudi Arabia? Brown makes little or no reference to it as such but he does enlighten us as to the proper nature of some of its more extreme punishments:
“Crimes against God violated His Hudud, or ‘boundaries,’ and were offenses whose punishments were specified by the Qur’an and, in some cases, the Hadiths, such as the punishment of certain kinds of theft by amputating a hand, punishing adultery by stoning and sexual slander by lashing. Because these offenses were affronts against a merciful God, the evidentiary standards were often impossibly high (such as the four witnesses to sexual penetration required to prove adultery). Moreover, the Prophet ordered Muslim judges to ‘ward off the Hudud [punishments] by ambiguities.’ The severe Hudud punishments were meant to convey the gravity of those offenses against God and to deter, not to be carried out.”
“The Qur’an clearly instructs Muslims to cut off the hand of thieves, but Hadiths and the consensus of jurists made this punishment almost impossible to enforce. The Prophet ordered adulterers to be stoned, but the evidentiary standards for the punishment were so high that records show that in Ottoman Istanbul only one instance of stoning ever took place. [..] These terrible punishments were meant to convey the gravity of sin against God..”
When we read about the draconian capital punishments carried out in Saudi we should keep it in mind that these are by far the exception in Islam. Such barbarity often pales into insignificance to some western traditions that may seem equally as barbaric to an eastern observer. To which point do we fix our moral compass? We are awash in a sea of claim and counter-claim. Later in the book the author writes at length about the issue of whether Islam allows a man to beat his wife. Technically the Qur’an does authorise this but in reality women are protected at length by various interpretations of Shariah Law. Nothing is that clear cut but it makes it easy for Islam’s critics to cherry-pick their arguments.
Violence towards women is “totally foreign to the Islamic tradition. Reading the verse as an unambiguous legitimization of spousal abuse assumes that the Qur’an should be read in isolation and that duties should be derived from it unmediated.”
Yet in western culture we assume striking a woman is inherently wrong whereas in Islamic tradition it is not. However the end result is much the same, the difference: semantics. Sharia Law assumes that men are not to be trusted in private and must not take the law into their own hands. Punishment is for the courts.
“Shariah courts in the pre-modern Muslim world were surprisingly receptive to women seeking redress or protection from spousal abuse. If it were established that violence had been done, the wife could expect judicial remedy, and the husband’s excuse for why he beat his wife did not matter.”
In Saudi Arabia in 2002 a woman sort redress from the Courts when her husband beat her. She won:
“..based on the medical reports, [the Court] ruled that the husband should pay his wife 9,000 riyals (around $2,400) compensation for her injuries and receive thirty lashes for his insulting language. The excuse that the husband gave, that his wife had insulted him, held no weight before the court.”
These matters should be remembered before we are haste to judge another man’s religion. It is just that “social prejudice, class and ingrained misogyny exert alarming influence“. Brown writes this about women’s rights:
“At no point has the woman’s voice been heard. How can it be when whatever she says will either be ‘delusional’ (from the perspective of the white man) or ‘selling out’ (from that of the brown man)? The same dilemma applies to Muslim scholars opining on woman-led prayer. No fatwa can be neutral or claim to stand on scholarly merit alone. All is sucked into the black hole of contest over identity and power. From the British Raj to the US invasion of Afghanistan, calling for the liberation of oppressed ‘brown women’ has been a mainstay in justifying cultural or military imperialism.”
“It is a bizarre irony of history that the physical consigning of women to the private space of the home, so ubiquitous in the Shariah heritage that flourished with classical Islamic civilization, clashes so discordantly with the decidedly open and active role that the Prophet’s wives and other Arab women played in the Arabian cradle of Islam.”
He goes on to point out that patriarchy “could bend the law to its will” and then reminds his reader that “from its dawn, Islamic law granted women full financial personhood“. These conflicting statements serve only to confuse. How can it be that Islam is so respectful of women yet they are condemned to stay at home and raise kids? Islam sees no contradiction in these. It is a uniquely western sort of imperialism that assumes that a women’s role is elsewhere… Or so goes the argument. Do I buy it? Unfortunately my own opinions cannot be separated from the society in which I was raised. Needless to say I would offer the weight of evidence garnered from Western society that says that those societies are vastly richer for women’s participation than without. But I understand the counter argument that pitches family values over those of personal fulfilment or the economy. Tough call. Tougher than most of us care to even consider. Whatever, we must separate culture from religion. Brown admits that this is mostly a case of custom versus religion:
“Muslims today thus find themselves faced with a question: in the absence of opposing evidence from scripture, does simply adhering to how things have always been done justify denying half of the population the right to public religious leadership? It is revealingly plain that if this issue did not involve the knot of gender and power, the evidence for permitting it would carry the day without controversy. [..] The principles of this moral law were contained entirely in the holy Qur’an: freedom, tolerance , justice, responsibility and the limiting of sex to marriage. [..] The obscurantist corpus of Hadiths and the Sunna more broadly were manifestations of man’s constant urge to trammel God’s liberating message with human custom and desire for control.”
Is Islam compatible then with the modern world? Clearly it can be (although Brown argues we can assume little about the definition of “modern”). Islam has had its reformists and modernists just as much as Christianity has. The fact that these voices are not in the ascendant in our media has as much to do with western arrogance and Islamophobia than the historical record. Earlier Islamic philosophers
..built “their calls for reform on the precept that neither language nor texts have fixed meaning but are instead constantly redefined through the act of communication between text, context and reader. [..] this meant that trying to force the Qur’an literally onto the landscape of modern life and thought breaks the original unity between the revelation and its pre-Islamic Arabian context, effectively imprisoning the holy book with faulty expectations of timelessness. By fixing the interpretation of the Qur’an with the forged shackles of Hadiths, classical Muslim scholars made it anachronistic and inapplicable in any future world.”
Such scholars concluded
“Since no group of readers can claim that their reading of a text is any more inspired or authoritative than any other group’s, [they] concluded that all readings of the Qur’an are equally human. The interpretation of God’s message among the early Muslim community, which served as the foundation of the Shariah, was no exception. The Shariah was thus ‘a man-made production’ with ‘nothing divine about it.’ “
Are we in the west aware that such things have been said through history by the scholars of Islam itself? It has been undergoing a perpetual reformation for hundreds of years with the tide of theology ebbing and flowing towards and away from perceived modernity. Current perceptions that the tide may be out are but one opinion of matters today. What we lack is perspective. So I return to my newspaper in a Saudi hotel lobby: just how should Muslims treat Christians and people of other faiths? It is again a matter hotly debated with Islam itself. What is true is that there is clear evidence that
“Muslims had been commanded to treat others with politeness and compassion even if they did not share their faith.”
“Muslims can visit and exchange gifts with non-Muslims. All schools of law agree that the Prophet gave presents to and received them from non-Muslims, so doing the same today is actually a laudable act of imitating the Prophet’s Sunna. The great scholars of classical Islam allowed Muslims to host and visit non-Muslims, and it was indeed permissible to tell Egypt’s Christians ‘May God grant you life’ on holidays, just as one would do with Muslims.”
Holy scripture suggesting otherwise referred to specific circumstances from early in the history of Islam when it was defending itself from attack. Other misinterpretations have resulted from different readings and derived meanings of certain old Arabic words. One verse suggesting that Muslims could not be friends with the gentiles could more accurately be described as a rejection of Christian patronage, nothing more. No doubt people will read into the Hadiths and the Qur’an whatever they wish to see and interpret it through the dirty lens of current affairs. Ancient texts referring to the early belligerent history of Islam should be properly interpreted as
“The Qur’an’s many commands to fight the Arab polytheists until they embraced Islam were the products of a context in which these ‘unbelievers’ posed an existential threat to Muhammad’s new religion. [..] As the immediate danger faded amid Muslim military triumph, the ulama immediately admitted Zoroastrian dualists and the polytheist pagans of India as protected ‘People of the Book’ with the right to practice their religions freely.”
So how should modern Islam react to the challenge of the west and the “modern world”? Brown is often quite dismissive
“Western demands that other people act ‘reasonably’ because that is what ‘reasonable people’ should do still smell of British colonial efforts to bring native customs into accord with ‘good conscience.’ Especially in its avatar of ‘common sense,’”
Yet so much that is misquoted from the words and deeds of the Prophet remains as baggage for Islam to cope with in modernity. What “weak” Hadiths remain in use are there because the earlier Islamic priesthood thought they were good for people..
..they “believed they might serve some use in a legal issue or assist Muslims in their manners. By the eleventh century it had become routine for ulama compiling their vast Hadith collections (the largest would fill 180 printed volumes today) to include countless patent forgeries, [..] preachers admonishing a congregation would invoke the Prophet’s authority with a weak Hadith by introducing it ambiguously as ‘It has been reported that the Messenger of God said…’ or ‘It was narrated from him that…’”
And these practices continue to this day. Likewise when the early Bible was properly translated from Latin to English the scholars engaged in the task were surprised to find that it did not say what they thought it did. They felt unable to let go of the Bible as they had been taught it hence certain aspects have been retained in the full knowledge that they are fiction. They serve a purpose.
” ‘How useful they are to the masses,’ he once said as he passed by a preacher, ‘even though the mass of what they say is false.’ ”
” ‘We forged these so that we could soften and improve the hearts of the people.’”
There is nothing here that will go as surprise to an atheist but it is a massive challenge to anyone of religion or indeed anyone who wishes to use the words of scripture to harm or otherwise praise the faith of another culture. Much of what we wish to be true could simply have originated from something that someone else wished was true. Brown chooses as his example the Hadith quoted by Osama Bin Laden concerning what awaits Muslim martyrs in Heaven. The reference to the seventy-two virgins (more accurately “huris” or “dark-eyed heavenly beauties”) is from an unreliable Hadith – regardless it can still be taken seriously because it resembles similar principles portrayed in other verses in other more reliable Hadiths.
“Indeed, Hadiths enumerate so diverse and rich a list of rewards awaiting all believers in Heaven that the martyr seems to lose his or her premium. Even the least worthy denizens of Paradise will receive seventy-two wives, states a Hadith appearing only a few chapters after the Hadith of the Seventy-Two Huris in one canonical Sunni Hadith collection.”
So western media reports belittling Islam because of the words of a terrorist should be taken with a pinch of salt. Laden was cherry-picking from an unreliable source that even if we took seriously also allows any Muslim to have the same rewards in heaven as a martyr. Hence there is no reason to be a martyr if this is all you want in death. Concludes Brown:
“So scripture subjugates. While true scripture might do so rightly, apocryphal scripture is a false idol, sometimes an opiate and at other times a tribulation. Unreliable Hadiths can cause harm at numerous levels in society, from facilitating illegitimate violence to masking its true drivers. The testimonials of Muslim suicide bombers regularly cite the Hadith of the Seventy-Two Huris as a motivation or consoling reward. This feeds the Western stereotype of Islam as carnal, venal and backward. Media and viewing publics pay more attention to the now infamous seventy-two virgins than they do to the substantive political or socioeconomic injustices that the bombers also mention as impetus for their actions.”
Young men do not blow themselves up on buses because of an obscure and unreliable promise of heaven. They do so because they hate their victims. Brown goes on to point out that even if Qur’anic verse had explicitly told young men to do this the community of Islam has a rich history of saying “no” – it will not follow such a command if it is adequately contradicted at length elsewhere in the Qur’an and Hadiths. (The example used was the verse allowing a man to beat his wife.)
“Since any set of commands allows for misunderstanding, the written word must be constrained and explained by living tradition. [..] the Muslim laity should not be deriving conclusions about their rights and obligations from the Qur’an and Hadiths to begin with. This was the job of the ulama. [..] In a practical sense, saying ‘no’ to the Qur’an was not controversial at all. Muslims had , in effect, said ‘no’ to the Qur’an and Hadiths innumerable times over the centuries.”
On one of my later business trips to the Middle East I lay in a hotel room channel surfing as I awaited room service. I was in the Jordanian capital of Amman. I stopped at a channel showing the devotions at Mecca. Several channels were devoted to this but this one had English subtitles. The reason I stopped was because of the story that was being told. It was about a girl could Mary on her way to Bethlehem with her Husband Joseph. It was the Christian story of Christmas. It reinforces the fact that what binds our people together is far greater than that which tears us apart.
I read this book to understand why people find Islam ‘troublesome’. Yet Islam is not the ‘trouble’ nor has it ever been so. It is no more a problem than the West is. These are two great cultures who gaze upon each other like a shadow boxing kitten seeing itself in the mirror. This does not absolve religion of blame. The mechanisms of belief and bigotry work the same the world over because of a common human frailty. There is little explicitly wrong with Islam. I can only measure it against the yardstick of my own up-bringing. I can bring no universal truth to the matter. I am hobbled by my own biases so I naturally agree that there are aspects about Islam that remain troubling. This is not unique to this faith. It is a belief system that is different from other belief systems in many of its core values and cultures yet all are constructs of man. We bring trouble where ever we go. That is our burden. If so then our path to a greater understanding is not to condemn another man’s religion. To do so is to blame ourselves. Instead we need to appreciate others for being imperfect human beings.
It is what it is. Deal with it.