January 2, 2013 By Ziauddin Sardar

What’s the Big Idea?

So what is your idea of Islam? To what extent and in what ways is there or should there be a choice? Do you agree with Mohammad Sidique Khan or with Tariq Jahan? On the one hand, Khan, leader of the 7 July 2005 London bombers, sought ‘martyrdom’. In his suicide video, he told the world that it was legitimate to kill innocent people indiscriminately for ‘what we believe’. On the other hand, Jahan lost his youngest son in the Birmingham riots of August 2011. Twenty-year-old Haroon Jahan was killed along with two of his friends when they were deliberately run down by a car driven by Afro-Caribbean youths. Haroon died protecting his community during the month of Ramadan. As far as his father was concerned, he was a shaheed, a martyr.

In an atmosphere of rising tensions, with the police fearing revenge attacks and killings, Jahan diffused the situation with a few unscripted words of immense dignity: ‘Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? I have lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home – please’. Revenge, said Jahan, was not part of his faith. But his faith gave him the strength and composure, as Bryan Appleyard noted in the Sunday Times, ‘to make one of the great speeches of the twenty-first century’.  ‘I’m a Muslim’, Jihan said, ‘I believe in divine fate and destiny, and it was his destiny and his fate, and now he’s gone’. In less than 500 words, he calmed a convulsed nation and presented an idea of Islam that could not be further removed from that of Sidique Khan.

Perhaps you have imbibed the common Western idea of Islam as all sex and violence, the domain of unfathomable mysteries, cruel and barbaric scenes. This is Islam as the darker side of Europe: depraved and licentious, ignorant and stupid, unclean and inferior, monstrous and ugly, fanatic and hell-bent on revenge. Or, maybe you subscribe to the idea of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the thirteenth century poet, philosopher and theologian who saw Islam as love and Muslims as a ‘community of spirit’: ‘join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy streets, and being the noise’, he wrote.

Rumi is undoubtedly one of the foremost mystics of Islam. He founded the Mevlevi Order of the Dancing Dervishes. He explained and explored his idea of Islam as pure love in his lyrical poetry, epigrams and short stories. The Masnavi, a compendium of his teachings, is a vast collection of his poetry, fables and meditations in 27,000 couplets. In the poem entitled ‘A Community of Spirit’, Rumi sees Muslims trapped in ‘passion and disgrace’: ‘Quit acting like a wolf’, he tells them, ‘and feel the shepherd’s love filling you’. ‘Close your mouth against food. Taste the lover’s mouth in yours’. Muslims, Rumi asserts, are trapped in a prison. But ‘why do you stay in a prison when the door is so wide open?’ he asks.

The idea of Islam, I suggest, is incarcerated not in one but several prisons. There is the prison of the Shariah, or Islamic law. Almost any injustice on God’s bountiful earth can be, and at one time or another is or has been justified in the name of the Shariah: apostasy, blasphemy, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia. Even paedophilia can be justified as ‘God’s law’, according to Sheikh Salih bin Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fataawa, the highest religious body in the Kingdom. In a fatwa that appeared in Saudi newspapers on 13 July 2011, Fawzan declared that “uninformed interference with Sharia rulings by the press and journalists is on the increase, posing dire consequences for society, including their interference with the question of marriage to small girls who have not reached maturity, and their demand that a minimum age be set for girls to marry”.

There is no minimum age, Fawzan said. The religious scholars – the ulama – “have agreed that it is permissible for fathers to marry off their small daughters, even if they are in the cradle”. As is usual in such edicts, Fawzan quotes from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet to justify his ruling. And he warns: ‘It behoves those who call for setting a minimum age for marriage to fear Allah and not contradict his Shariah, or try to legislate things Allah did not permit. For laws are Allah’s province; and legislation is his exclusive right, to be shared by none other. And among these are the rules governing marriage’. Allah has also legislated, according to an earlier fatwa by Fawzan, that slavery is an integral part of Islam; and the Sheikh wants it re-introduced in Muslim societies. Rumi would have been horrified by the association of such blatant evil with the idea of Islam – just as we are.

If Shariah is supposed to be Divine, and integral to Islam, then misogyny too is intrinsic to Islam. It is certainly, as Samia Rahman shows, integral to the thinking of traditional scholars – all the way from the celebrated thirteen century theologian and philosopher al-Ghazali to Maulana Mawdudi, the worshipful founder of Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan. ‘Sure they all say that men and women are equal in the sight of God’, writes Rahman, ‘but when it came to the crunch women were always dangerous, not to be trusted, not very intelligent, and under no circumstance to be allowed away from the watchful eyes of a male guardian’. Look at the Muslim world, Rahman says and ‘see how badly women are treated. In Saudi Arabia, they have to wear a black (the worst possible colour for that climate) abaya, often stick to the four walls of the home, always have a male ‘guardian’ when they have to go out, and are seldom allowed to be seen in public. Driving is a crime punishable by flogging. In Pakistan, rape victims are often accused of adultery and punished barbarically.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban regularly ransack girls’ schools. A women suffering serious illness cannot see a male doctor; and there aren’t all that many female doctors as they are not allowed to educate themselves. In India, women can be divorced at almost any excuse simply with the husband uttering ‘I divorce thee’ three times; or he can send a text message if he can’t be bothered to utter the words. In the Sudan, women are frequently flogged under Islamic law. In many Muslim societies, women are deemed inferior to men. Their testimony in court is worth half that of a man. Husbands who beat their wives, and there are plenty in our societies, are cheered. The list of horrendous abuse and denial of basic rights to Muslim women seems endless’.

As far as the Shariah is concerned, the believers have to accept its injunctions, and the idea of Islam it supposedly perpetuates, without question. No ifs, ands, or buts – it’s all a priori given. The believers have nothing to do but obey and follow. No effort is required on the part of the individual, there is absolutely no place for individual conscience or intellectual engagement. ‘The way that Islam was presented to me by many Muslims’, writes Soha al-Jurf, ‘it seemed that belief didn’t come from a personal path of inquiry and revelation, but by accepting what others believed without challenging them—by simply offering one’s mind as an empty receptacle for another person’s views. It seemed that every time I questioned or expressed doubt toward the views of others on Islam, my views were typically perceived as blasphemous, and they were immediately dismissed. Or, rather, I was immediately dismissed’.

By equating the Shariah, a fallible human construct made in history, with Divine mandate, religious scholars have basically outlawed free will. To be a Muslim, one must submit to the Shariah, or rather the interpretation of well-meaning religious scholars long dead and their cynical, manipulating and power hungry contemporary counterparts – comprised as they are of a spectrum that runs all the way from those educated at prestigious institutions such as Al-Ahzar University of Cairo, to the alumni of the fanatical and fundamentalist universities of Riyadh, Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to the myopic scholars of the Deoband seminary in India, right down to the semi-literate Mullah in the mosque.

Rumi captures the essence of how free will has been manipulated and appropriated by Shariah obsessed religious fanatics in a charming story. A thief climbed a tree in an orchard and started to eat its fruit. He was spotted by the owner.

“Hey, you scoundrel!’ shouted the owner. “Aren’t you ashamed before God? Why are you stealing my fruit?”

‘If’, the thief retorted, “the servant of God eats from the orchard of God the dates God has given him, why do you blame him? Why do you behave so miserly at the table of so rich a Master?”

The owner asked his servant to bring a rope and a stick. “I’ll give a proper answer to you, my friend”. He tied the thief with the rope, and set about him with the stick, beating him on the back and legs.”Have some shame before God!’ cried the thief. ‘You are beating an innocent person”.

“With the stick of God’, the owner replied, “this servant of God is thrashing the back of another servant of God. The stick is God’s, the back and sides are God’s. I am the servant and instrument of His command”.

“I repent”, the thief cried. “I’m no longer an advocate of predestination. Free-will it is, free-will, free-will”.

Extract from the Introduction to Critical Muslim 2: The Idea of Islam (Hurst, London, 2012).

More extracts from Critical Muslim at www.criticalmuslim.com

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