Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rejoinder to the trending 'Open Letter to Moderate Muslims'


Maryam Sakeenah

Notwithstanding its stated agenda, ISIS has managed to put the conversation on Islam right at the centre of the global discourse. From celebrities to con artists to apologists and Muslim scholars, all have their two cents to share on Islam. Mr Ali A.Rizvi in his ‘Open Letter to Moderate Muslims’ published in The Huffington Post  has called for ‘reforming’ Islam. He writes that Muslim moderates inadvertently defend ISIS when they attempt to defend Islam against allegations of violence and backwardness- because ISIS follows most closely and literally the contents of Islam’s most sacred texts. Moderates are at pains to explain away ISIS’s actions as ‘unIslamic’ through interpretation and contextualization of the sources of Islam. Given the accessibility of information in this day and age, religion is no longer shrouded in sacred mystery. Once the awareness of the sources of religion explicitly sanctioning violent practices spreads, Rizvi argues, sustaining faith in the indubitability and infallibility of the Quran would be difficult.

There is a problem at the heart of Rizvi’s thesis: for starters, he presumes that faith in Islam survives and thrives because its adherents are unaware of its actual content due in part to the unfamiliarity with Arabic and inaccessibility of information about its literal content. In one fell sweep Mr Rizvi declares all faithful Muslims to be largely unaware of the violent and diabolical contents of their religion- which, if brought into the light of day, will expose the degenerate ethos of their religion and put its naive believers to abject shame.

Most Muslims as a matter of faith do in fact take their religious sources quite literally, yet do not conclude from it what ISIS does. Moderates like Reza Aslan who call for a liberal reinterpretation and metaphorical/allegorical reading of religious content are but few. And yet these billions of faithful and several hundreds of trained Islamic scholars who take the Quran and hadith quite literally hold firmly to the conviction that Islam is indeed ‘a religion of peace’. How do they arrive at this generalization in the face of the actual literal texts of Islam that seem to imply everything but that?

 The problem with both Rizvi’s thesis as well as ISIS is that both have lost sight of the ‘middleness’ that defines Islam. Muslim moderates too, when they put modernist interpretation over the letter of the Quran to explain away violent meanings the extremists may derive, lose sight of this. The essence of Islam is ‘adl’ and ‘tawazun’: (balance and middleness). The sources of Islam have contents endorsing the use of force such as in the sources Rizvi cites in his article- however, these very same sources also contain teachings that command and celebrate peacemaking, justice, kindness, upholding of rights among other things. Looking at it purely quantitatively, the latter far outweighs the former. The balance between these two sets of teaching is to be found in order to develop the true Islamic worldview which mediates between the two. This poised, comprehensive understanding does not need the prop of reinterpretation, but understands that religion defines for us the extremities- conduct in warfare through teachings of firmness and courage against the enemy in war and strife, as well as, on the other end, teachings on forbearance and kindness and mercy at all other times.

As a teacher on Islam, I often feel the need to explain to my students the apparent discrepancy between the examples of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)’s forgiveness and mercy like the one at the Conquest of Makkah in which he declared general pardon, and the instances when retributive justice and execution of penal law or punitive measures were carried out. The two instances stand for and delineate the two extremities of what our responses to wrong can range from. The former stands for Ihsan (unconditional good, more than what is justly due) and the latter for Adl (absolute justice). While the latter is a necessary element a society must be based on, the former- Allah tells us- is the superior virtue. The variation in the Prophetic example leaves it to his followers to decide when and in what circumstances each of the two is to be chosen as our response. Wisdom is to be able to make that choice correctly, depending on the nature and gravity of the situation one needs to respond to, the context and the likely consequences of our choice.

To glean this holistic, seasoned vision is what Islam calls ‘hikmah’ (wisdom). When ‘hikmah’ is absent, the resultant understanding is superficial, errant, flippant and unfair. That is precisely the mistake both ISIS and Rizvi’s ‘Open Letter’ have made.     

Another vital insight is that law and commandments exist for and are bound by core ethical principles and values. Penal laws do not operate detached from the ethical base and moral foundation. The laws of Islam have to be understood holistically as guardians of the values that are the very heart of the matter. Dissociated from the ethical content, they seem to be the brutal and barbaric edicts that ISIS and Rizvi make them out to be.

The Quran says, ‘So give good tidings to My servants; those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding.’ (39:17-18) Innumerable Quranic verses and ahadith are very explicit- whether taken literally or figuratively- about the doing of good, delivering justice, making peace, holding firm to what is true, keeping promises, being kind and gentle etc. It is injustice to the Quran to pick out a few of its verses revealed in specific circumstances - which are to be applied in those specific circumstances within certain conditions, and take them to represent the entire ethos of the Islamic religion, eclipsing its much larger content on humane and egalitarian values. If these values were put at the core and followed as zealously as the letter of the law is feverishly applied by fanatical groups, Muslim societies today would come to epitomize the highest and worthiest in human civilization. With reference to these much more numerous and substantive contents of Islam, would following the very literal teaching of the Quran and sunnah engender anything but universal justice and goodness? Rizvi’s premise is clearly one-eyed. It does not hold ground.

Yet another problem is when Mr Rizvi calls for an Islamic Reformation on the pattern of the Jewish and Christian Reformation in the secular modern West. He is impressed with the fact that Christians and Jews can reject the violent contents of their scriptures and still retain faith and be considered part of their religious communities. There always have been serious doubts and questions about the authenticity and credibility of the contents of these scriptures even from within those religious traditions, and this takes away the concept of their infallibility. Yet there has been no such challenge of any serious proportions to the authenticity of the Quran’s content. The Quran begins hence: “This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah.” (2:2)

The call to ape the secular reformation model is fundamentally problematic as it reeks strongly of eurocentrism built on the neo-imperialist belief of the inherent superiority of the Western model. Karen Armstrong has taken issue with those in the developed West who criticize ISIS while failing to understand the dynamics and lessons of history that have led to the rise of groups like ISIS. She writes, Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional... when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.’

The broken lens Mr Ali A.Rizvi views the world from is a tainted one. This takes away from him credibility as a well-meaning reformist offering prescriptions and fixes for the ailing Muslim world. The prescription for reforming Muslim society lies within Islam’s own ethos. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014



Maryam Sakeenah

‘Shariah’ (Islamic law) has become one of the most spine chilling, sensational words in contemporary lexicon. In the United Kingdom with its sizeable Muslim population, fear of the Shariah is palpable as we hear of alarmist articles about ‘creeping shariah’ all over the UK, concern over the proliferation of halal meat or veils. Often the fear is irrational, used by xenophobes, racists and supremacists who resent multiculturalism and are uncomfortable with diversity.

But it is not just the Islamophobes and sensationalist media con artists who make the Shariah seem grotesque and terrifying. The spurious ‘caliphate’ of sorts run by the ISIS in Iraq and its bloodcurdling atrocities in the name of Shariah. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has followed suit with its brutal misogynistic practices. Groups like this which deface and defile the Shariah’s sanctity continue to proliferate all over the crisis-ridden Muslim world. 

And yet, crazy as this sounds, the demand for Shariah is not just understandable and legitimate but also an aspiration shared by an overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. The PEW Research Centre’s 2013 survey finds that most Muslims are deeply committed to their faith and want its teachings to shape not only their personal lives but also their societies and politics. Many express a desire for shariah to be recognized as the official law of their country. Solid majorities in most of the countries favour the establishment of shariah, including 99% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt, 84% in Pakistan and 89% in the Palestinian territories.
To make sense of this, one needs to understand that the Prophet (SAW) was a successful head of state and lawgiver, and that in statehood did Islam find culmination as an established system and way of life. The Islamic State flourished and ruled over continents for centuries. In fact, for most of Islam’s history before the colonization of Muslim lands, Islamic law was established as the law of the land. This has left an indelible impact on Muslim collective imagination, imbuing it with nostalgia in the narrative of a bygone glory. 
The introduction of ‘Anglo Muhammadan Law’ in British-ruled South Asia and the displacement of traditional Muslim fiqhi madhabs (juristic schools) in favour of colonial legal systems in other parts of the Muslim world has intensified this nostalgia. The decadence in post colonial Muslim societies is seen now as the result of the absence of Shariah law. Given the fact that many areas across the Muslim world writhe under oppression, tyranny and the systematic suppression of religious aspirations by corrupt secular regimes, this nostalgic longing has at times fuelled militancy and violence by rebel groups. The demand for Shariah is used by these militant and violent Islamist movements vying for political control and power. Secular political ambitions are sanctified with the holy battlecry for the restoration of Shariah law.
‘Whose Shariah?’, however, is a contentious, tricky question we do not have many answers to- but it is the very heart of the matter. The implications of this are seriously damaging to the wider interests of Islam.
Invoking religion and using religious rhetoric gives a religious colour to the violent, attention-seeking tactics used by these groups. Hence Islam is perceived as either intrinsically violent or with a dangerous potency to fuel religious violence. Simplified, reductionist stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are strengthened. This makes harder the task of peacemakers, healers and arbiters engaged in toning down the precarious polarization between Islam and ‘the West.’

The media shows such violence and militancy as essentially religious, not seeing it for its secular-materialist socio political underpinnings or the raw drive for winning power to redress perceived disempowerment by fringe groups.

Speaking of Boko Haram and ISIS, it has been heartening to see Muslim opinion leaders and scholars speak out against their methods, emphatically dissociating these from mainstream Islam. However, highly needful as it was, what was found wanting was a more specific refutation of the textual basis from where such actions of such groups seek justification.
In fact, there is a vital and basic understanding almost missing from Muslim collective consciousness- that many minutiae of Islamic law are rooted in cultural context. They were neither revealed laws nor stipulated as universal, absolute unalterable laws by divine will. The Quran and sunnah directly address and legislate for a few matters, and these texts are but few compared to the entire volume of Islamic juristic literature which was compiled and developed over the historical evolution of Islamic civilization.
The fairly modest content of Islamic laws in the Quran and sunnah means that for deriving the rest of the laws recourse has to be made to jurisprudence through scholarly consensus over the ages. More importantly, it means that such lawmaking has to be guided and inspired by the essence and ethical guideline of the principles of the Quran and sunnah.
That egalitarianism, establishment of justice, protection of rights and an interest in ending human misery to make possible higher ethical and spiritual functions of human existence is a core objective of Islam cannot be doubted. Islam had to deal with a society in which slavery- predating Islam- was a basic social institution. Islam regulated it by law, defining parameters and setting ethical guidelines. Wars involved sexual abuse victimizing women of the enemy side. Here too Islam set down rights and responsibilities to prevent such abuse. It is this humane dimension and ethical orientation Islam gave which shines through and endures over these temporal pre Islamic cultural traditions and practices. In this day and age when human progress has achieved the legal abolition of slavery and its associated practices, it is utterly ludicrous to invoke these ancient traditions as part of Islam. The rights of people recognized and protected in this day and age are sacred to Islam which teaches supremacy of law and human progress through constant social reform. Violating these established principles on which a silent global consensus exists, is sinful. It is important here to remind ourselves of the fact that the Prophet (SAW) wistfully remembered the signing of a pre Islamic document of rights (Half ul Fazul) and expressed his full endorsement of it as a prophet of Islam.
The failure of contemporary Muslim jurisprudence has been the inability to put the spirit at the core of the letter of the law and to make Muslims understand that the law exists to protect the essential values; that it is the protection of those values that are the heart of the matter, while laws are often bound by culture and historicity. This explains the unseeing literalism and fanaticism for restoring the letter of the Shariah in corrupt and decadent Muslim societies and the preoccupation with juristic nitpicking in the Muslim world.
It is the crisis of authority in the Muslim world due to which random groups pining for the return of Muslim glory make bold claims as to what constitutes Shariah law and give their own misconstrued versions tracing them back to sacred texts or early Muslim culture. Those who got together to condemn ISIS and Boko Haram’s actions as unIslamic must also with a single voice present a blueprint of Islamic law that is relevant, practical and applicable today, in tune with contemporary cultural and socio political context. It is a long haul, but unless such a juristic magnum opus is initiated, twisted, grotesque and soulless versions of ‘Shariah’ will keep haunting us like a spectre. Authority as to who interprets religious law and how has to be won back.
Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) writes of the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls:
“... the whole atrocity underscores the crisis of leadership which is now a grave problem for global Islam. The Boko Haram abductions have been condemned by all the traditional authorities: Nigeria’s chief sultan, the grand muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading Islamic universities, the main Islamic bodies here in Britain. It’s been a moment of unity. Unfortunately, we can’t pretend that it has helped. For the last decade or so, across the Muslim world small but ferocious factions have defied the traditional leaders and taken religion into their own hands. In every case the result has been a disaster for communities and even whole countries. The use by these factions of religious rhetoric to validate what is often a political or economic grievance has left many religious leaders at a loss. In some cases the imams have been assassinated for speaking out against the extremists; this has happened in Nigeria, as elsewhere. So what should they do?
The founder of Islam had no time for extreme zealotry. ‘May the fanatics perish,’ he once commented. If he detected extreme or hateful behaviour in anyone he would condemn it immediately. Present-day leaders recall this, as they struggle to find ways of fighting terrorism.
So this scandal cuts more deeply. How to restore the authority of the mainline leadership, among embittered young men who trust no-one? Spies and bullets will not, in the long term, defeat these aberrations: the religious leadership must find some way of regaining its moral authority in an age of rapid change and rampant injustice.”

If the ethical spirit of Muslim law is not reinstated, if the textual bases for inhuman, brutal and violent practices not refuted, routine condemnations from Islam’s defenders will serve no more than as rhetorical generalisations. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

'HAPPY MUSLIMS': to be or not to be...


Maryam Sakeenah

While the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video would not have in itself elicited a response more than a fleeting bemused scepticism, it was impossible to get over it and move on, given the 2 million youtube views, the reams of commentary and discussion it generated. The short clip apparently became the biggest issue in the issue-ridden Muslim world, judging by social media ratings. Ardent supporters of the attempt to showcase Muslims in the West as adaptable and ‘happy’ people, as well as bitter opponents of such meaningless and inappropriate depiction of Muslims, all jumped into the fray- soon enough, there was a raging storm in a teacup.

It all signifies the contradictions, polarities, sensitivities and contentions rife in the Muslim world- like a bubbling, gurgling, steaming cauldron.

The video aims to present an image of Muslims in the West as flexible, creative, adaptable, well-integrated, cheerful and positive-minded, so as to dispel negative stereotypes that have dominated public imagination in the West since 9/11. Imam Johari Abdul Malik from the US comments on the video: ‘The narrative about Muslims is so often about being hungry and angry, people have started turning it around using the social media...’

Underlying this, however, there can also be sensed a desperate attempt to assure that ‘we are like you, too’- a desire to be accepted, owned and integrated into Western society. This desperation can be understood in the context of the consistently rising Islamophobia in these societies.

However, the problem with this appeasing, placatory attitude is not so much with Muslims as it is with Western societies. These societies seem to be growing increasingly ethnocentric, losing willingness to embrace diversity and to allow distinct ethnic, cultural and religious identities to survive and thrive without either being compelled to Westernize to be able to integrate, or being socially marginalized. This goes against the essence of the values of pluralism, tolerance and coexistence at the heart of Western liberal tradition that it prides itself in. It is ironical and interesting to note that while the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video was doing the rounds, Tony Blair reminded the leaders of the Western nations to ‘move the battle against Islamist extremism to the top of the political agenda.’ The same day that the video was released, the English Defence League held a demonstration outside London’s largest mosque against Islam in Britain. On this backdrop, given the very grave challenges that beset the Muslim world, attempts like the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video appear little more than pathetic. The efficacy of the video message as a response to a pervasive anti-Muslim campaign is highly questionable.

But that is not the only troubling thought. Equally disconcerting, if not more was the impulsive and inane, utterly dispensable video rejoinder to ‘Happy British Muslims’ video, made by some Islamic groups on the internet titled ‘Happy Muslims, HALAL version.’ This video removed the images of all women and re-released it as acceptable by Islamic standards- minus the laughing, clapping, singing females. This reflects a lopsided, immature and almost obsessive fixity on juristic intricacies of Muslim law without even a cursory understanding and appreciation of the spirit of Islam. Such fiqh-obsessed shallow-mindedness is often manifested in moral panics among Muslims over the visibility of Muslim women.

It is deplorable that the makers of the ‘Halal’ version who deservedly educed ridicule and censure utterly failed to grasp the idea of true happiness in Islam. For one, given the plethora of grave predicaments we are caught in, the despondency, frustration, defeatism, confusion and hurt, the cluelessness about the future, the directionlessness and leaderlessness, the wars, civil wars, socio-political crises and the rising monster of sectarianism- these aren’t the happiest of times for Muslims anywhere in the world. Empathy is an essential component of Islamic brotherhood- the fact that a Muslim must feel the pain of another Muslim (no matter how geographically distant) as his own. I wonder how I, as a Muslim, can clap and cheer my deep sadness away? Brecht writes,
‘Truly I live in dark times!...
A smooth forehead
 Points to insensitivity
He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!’

 The prospect of declining life and time and the impending oblivion of death, and the eventuality of accountability in the eternal life is the grave and inescapable truth one must confront. The Prophet (SAW) said, ‘If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.’

Happiness in Islam is not the be-all and end-all. It is not to be pursued, but in its deepest sense, it comes to those who discover and live out their purpose in life. Orwell writes, ‘Men can only be happy if they assume that the purpose of life is not happiness.’ Fun and entertainment as temporary relaxation have a place- and a significant one- but happiness in Islam is gained by tasting the sweetness of faith through complete self-surrender to God. It is attained by giving and selfless sacrifice. ‘By Time! Man is in Loss. Except those who believe and do righteous good deeds and exhort one another to the Truth and exhort one another to patience.’   (The Quran)

Imam Johari quoted earlier, was perturbed by the image of Muslims as ‘hungry and angry’, but one cannot wish that away or pretend that is not the case by cheering and smiling away into the camera. Yes, Muslims writhe in the throes of poverty, starvation and crippling oppression, but happiness is attainable to those who do their small bit to help alleviate some of that.

This idea was tried to be conveyed in another video rejoinder titled ‘Happy Muslims: Sunnah Version’. It is a brief, beautiful and simple message that reflects the Islamic ethos of happiness- it shows clips of Muslims rescuing and saving lives of the calamity-stricken, and ends with the line, ‘This, my friend, is happiness.’ However, this video was blurred and poorly made, and circulated briefly in a few closed Muslim circles. It never went viral. And here is the very heart of the problem: the voicelessness and disempowerment of the Muslim visionary, and that ‘the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.’ (Yeats)