A few days ago I posted a piece on the right wing response to Jill Carroll’s release. In the comments section following that piece I started a discussion with Jim Benton that quickly turned to a discussion of Islam. He has posted a series of questions on his blog for moderate Muslims. I agreed over the weekend to try to give my answers. I am finally getting around to it. I have decided to post my answers here and then I will try to cross post on Jim’s blog with answers for each individual question.
To begin, I should state that I am not a Muslim scholar nor do I play one on TV. I am however a Muslim. I was born in Bangladesh (which was East Pakistan at the time) and grew up in an overwhelmingly Muslim but secular country. I have lived half my life (and most of my adult life) in the United States. I now find myself in the unusual and sometimes difficult position of being an American and a Muslim in these turbulent times. I am often asked the obligatory "Why do Muslims hate freedom?" question. To me that question is very similar to the "When was the last time you beat your wife?" question.
I am also often commended for being one of those "good" Muslims or a "moderate Muslim". So the only part of Jim’s questions I will take issue with is that he directs his questions to "moderate Muslims". To me, there are two kinds of Muslims: there are Muslims, and then there are Fanatics (I think this distinction probably exists in most organized religions). I happen to be a Muslim. Of course the current news is about the two sects of Islam: the Shia and the Sunni. There are many good books that discuss the two sects of Islam; for my part, I will just say that it is a political dispute that has lasted to this day. All Muslims share one holy book, The Koran, and any difference that exists between practicing Muslims is the work of man not of God.
A significant part of my thinking in terms of Islam is rooted in having seen and experienced man’s inhumanity to man first hand. As I mentioned, I was born in Bangladesh during a time when it was part of Pakistan. The word "Pakistan" means, for those who do not know, "The Land of the Pure". Bengalis, the ethnic group primarily in Bangladesh and in parts of India, were considered by many in the leadership of Pakistan at the time to be "napak", that is "impure". We were considered this largely because most Bengalis were converts to Islam from Hinduism. Bengalis retained their cultural identity through their conversion to Islam and a large minority in Bangladesh continued to practice Hinduism and other religions. The resulting war for the independence of Bangladesh saw perhaps the most egregious persecution of Muslims by Muslims in the twentieth century. Toward the end of the war, when it became clear that Pakistan was about to lose the war, death squads called "Al Badr" (this name should sound familiar to Iraq watchers) spread out across Bangladesh with the goal of finding and killing Bengali technocrats, scholars and intellectuals. The goal was to try to decimate Bengali culture that the Pakistanis felt was tainted, made impure, by our Hindu influence. One of the targets of Al Badr was my father, who if not for the courage and compassion of our Pakistani neighbors would have been murdered in front of his children’s eyes. Instead we watched in horror as my cousin was mercilessly beaten to an inch of his death for not revealing the whereabouts of my father and his family.
So, I know a little bit about what fanaticism can do, and I know a little of what Muslim Fanaticism can do. Now Jim, onto your questions:
1: Do you accept that the Qur’an is the final revelation of God, dictated, through Gabriel, to Mohammed?
I accept that The Koran is the divine word of God. The Koran was orally delivered by The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and was not written down until after Mohammed’s death. During his life, the Prophet did not allow The Koran to be transcribed. To this day, Muslims accept that The Koran in its Arabic form is the word of God and any translation into other languages is considered an interpretation and not literal translation. You will find that most interpretions of the Koran into English or other languages differ in meaning simply because of the difficulty in translating Koranic Arabic precisely. A lot of the meaning, the tone, of phrases is lost once translated and the words certainly do not sound as poetic as they do in the original Arabic. Most Muslims, including me, will in the course of their lives learn to recite the Koran in Arabic.
1a: If you do not, what do you consider it is, and what authority do you believe it holds?
I think this is a N/A since I answered the first one in the affirmative 🙂
1b: If you do, how do you explain the inconsistencies, contradictions, and specifically the scientific and historical errors, for example (all quotes are from Pickthal)
18:86:86 Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring
18:90.90 Till, when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom.
And the many other places where the Qur’an supports a geocentric Universe…
Most misinterpretations of the Koran arise from people (both Muslims and non-Muslims) taking the Revelations in the Koran out of their historical context. Most scholars accept that the Koran is divided into two parts, the early Surahs and the Medina Surahs. Some Revelations in the Koran speak to what it means to be a Muslim while other Revelations are specifically given to Mohammed in response to a particular event. So, reading the Koran without putting the latter Surahs in their historical context is an exercise in failure and frustration. To make matters more confusing, the Surahs in Koran when they were transcribed were not done in a chronological manner. The order of the Surahs in the Koran is from largest to smallest, with the notable exception of Surah Fateha, which is the first Surah.
You cite two verses from the Surah Al Kahaf ( "The Cave" ). Both these verses relate to the travels of Zulqarnain (who a lot of scholars think might be Cyrus the Persian, although the Koran never specifies it). The Surah was revealed probably in response to three questions asked by the Quraish. I think you are misreading the phrases. The more supportable reading is that the traveler went in three directions, the East (18:90) , the West (18:86) and some other direction not specified in the Surah. This is the more plausible explanation if you read the Surah as a whole.
2: Do you believe that Muslims should be under Shariah law — not obey it but be governed by it — either in Muslim countries or in Muslim communities existing in non-Muslim countries?
Shariah law does not come from the Koran. Shariah came about in the ninth century during a political struggle between the traditionalists and the rationalists. The Koran is not a book of laws, unlike texts in some other religions. In fact, early on, the political and religious was specifically kept separate. At some point in the ninth century all that changed with Shariah coming into being from specific cultural conditions of the day. Somehow the notion developed that we must live in the ninth century and these laws are immutable. That is bunk. The Koran itself does not support this notion of immutable human law. On the contrary, the Koran was tailored for the people and culture of the time and the progression of time and societal change should logically follow from a sound reading of the Koran. By the way, any notion that Shariah is divine law is simply false, and wholly unsupported by the Koran.
So, to answer your question, no, I do not believe we should be governed by Shariah. In fact, I think the only two countries that are governed by Shariah are Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, not exactly shining examples of Islamic enlightenment. I should also note the notion that there is one Shariah that should govern is also nonsense. There are at least four schools of thought in Shariah, and if you go back to the ninth century (if you must, I wouldn’t go there), you will find that you were free to choose which Shariah you wanted to follow, if any. Something then happened on the way to the Forum.
2a: In what ways do you see Sharia law as superior to secular law as promulgated in countries such as the US, Canada, and England — or in other Western countries if you know them better and would prefer to discuss them. In what ways, if any, do you see these secular legal systems preferably to Sharia?
Well, given that I don’t think Shariah governs, I think I get a pass on this question. I will note that Islam does not have a clergy class or a papacy. As such, the religion is meant to be a deeply personal thing as well as a communal thing without political structure. Islam should then be wholly consistent with most political systems.
2b: Should apostates be punished criminally if they merely leave Islam? What if they attempt to convince others of their position, with the possibility that they would leave as well?
Should there be a difference if
i) the apostate converts to another ‘religion of the book
ii) converts to a different religion entirely
iii) becomes an agnostic
iv) converts to an ‘Islamic heresy’
v) converts from Sunni to Shia or vice versa
If you have read my previous posts on Abdul Rahman, you probably know the answer I am about to give. Islam states that there should be no compulsion in religion. You cannot square that notion with killing a man for his beliefs. Besides, there is no Church in Islam and you cannot be excommunicated. You become a Muslim by internally having faith in Islam. It’s that simple. So, unless the Afghans have some cool new mind control tool, I dont know how they think they will determine whether a man claiming to be Muslim is a Muslim. So, the whole punishment for apostasy argument kind of falls on its face. Further, if you truly believe that this is a sin, and it may be, will not God make that judgment? I don’t know about the Afghanis, but I am much more comfortable leaving judgments about a person’s faith to God than to man, especially some illiterate judge in Afghanistan.
2c: Should blasphemy be punishable by law?
Again, this refers to Shariah law. Refer to my answers to earlier questions.
2d: As far as I know, neither the Qur’an nor the Hadiths specifically condemn rape, distinctly from other — consensual — sexual sins. If I am wrong, can you quote me a hadith or verse of a Sura where such a condemnation occurs?
I have not searched the Koran for rape, but there are many places in the Koran where it speaks specifically to the rights of women and orphans. As I mentioned above, the Koran is not a book of laws, however it does have a lot to say about women’s and orphan’s rights as these rights did not exist for women in Mohammed’s time. The Koran also forbids violence against women and that presumably would include the violent act of rape. Here are two verses from the Koran concerning women and orphans:
4.127: And they ask you a decision about women. Say: Allah makes known to you His decision concerning them, and that which is recited to you in the Book concerning female orphans whom you do not give what is appointed for them while you desire to marry them, and concerning the weak among children, and that you should deal towards orphans with equity; and whatever good you do, Allah surely knows it.
4.128: And if a woman fears ill usage or desertion on the part of her husband, there is no blame on them, if they effect a reconciliation between them, and reconciliation is better, and avarice has been made to be present in the (people’s) minds; and if you do good (to others) and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is aware of what you do.
Finally, according to Hadith, Mohammed once said "Heaven lies at the foot of one’s mother". I have always taken that to mean respect for women (my mother made sure it meant that).
2e: What rights should homosexuals have? Homosexual Muslims?
One important aspect of Islam is the notion that man was instilled with free will. The idea that there should be no compulsion in religion comes from that. Koran asks of the Muslim to seek guidance from God. God is the judge of whether one has lived a good life. Koran preaches treating people with dignity and self-respect. I would think that means all people, not just heterosexuals. I know a good number of Homosexual Muslims and I haven’t felt the urge to flog them recently. Not to turn things political, but the gay issue gets the masses running to the polling booth, but how many thinking people care, or should care, what you do behind closed doors. I care a lot more about high officials molesting the children of our society than who one chooses to love and care for. There’s plenty of hate in this world and we should not be in the business of getting in the way of people who want to make love not hate, be they Muslims, Jews, Christians, or any other religion.
2f: Many of the punishments that are supposedly based on sharia and on specific verses of the Qur’an or on Hadiths are seen as excessively harsh, and when countries have attempted to impliment them, there have been outcries against them, both from within and without the countries. Do you accept such punishments, and if not, how do you get around the Qur’anic verses that seem to call for them?
I think my discussion of Shariah above answers the first part of your question. As for the Koran, many verses that talk of punishment refer very specifically to a particular incident or battle. Most critics of Islam like to take those verses out of context and try to paint with a broad brush. This goes back to my earlier comments about reading the Surahs within their historical context. The Koran is not a straightforward text of laws and doctrine. It is a complex text and those who want to interpret certain verses to serve their own ends are free to do so. I interpret the Koran as it applies to my life in the 21st century as I believe God would want me to do. If I’m wrong, I guess I will see you and most other people in Hell.
3: What values, ethical or moral principles, philosophical ideas or other concepts in Islam cause you to remain a Muslim, rather than to either join another religion or to become ‘a secular good person’?
There is no compulsion in religion.
Religion is between the believer and God. There is no middleman.
Man is endowed with Free Will.
I am, and I hope most people are, not shopping for a religion. So the question of switching to another religion does not arise. There are great and horrible things in all religions. After all, religion may be based on Revelation, but the implementation is all man. I choose to look at the good in all religions and find things that unite us, rather than divide us. I also believe in The Bill of Rights – quite frankly, as a work of man it is almost divine in its humanity.
3a: In which cases do you consider Islamic values superior to Western ones on similar topics?
Who says Islamic values are non-western? And what specific western values do you mean? I think there are some basic human values that we all share. I point you to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which even Afghanistan is a signatory.
3b: In which cases do you consider Western values superior?
I refer you to my answer to the previous question.
3c: How can those Western values you prefer be joined onto an Islam many of whose believers consider is unchangeable.
As I stated above, Islam is not unchangeable. The first word in the Koran is "read". Islam acknowledges man has free will and free will means that you learn and explore and not close your mind.
3d: Is Islam compatible with democracy and democratic values?
Bangladesh has been a secular Islamic country since 1971. Bangladesh has had free (and mostly fair) elections since 1996 after overthrowing a military dictatorship in a bloodless coup. The notion that Bangladesh somehow is overrun with extremists is fantasy. Is the current Government in Bangladesh corrupt? Yes? Although it is more Tom Delay corruption than Mullah Omar corruption.
3e: If you feel it is, how do you answer an ultraconservative who argues as follows (referring to our ultraconservative "Islam Q&A" )
"Question :Is the one who fails to rule by that which Allaah has revealed and bases the entire legal system on man-made laws a kaafir? Should we differentiate between him and one who judges according to sharee’ah, but may rule in a manner contrary to sharee’ah on some issues, because of his own whims and desires or because of a bribe, etc.?
Answer : Praise be to Allaah.Yes, we must make this distinction. The one who rejects the law of Allaah and casts it aside, and replaces it with man-made laws and the opinions of individuals has committed an act of kufr which puts him beyond the pale of Islam. Whereas the one who adheres to the religion of Islam, but is a sinner and wrongdoer by virtue of his following his whims and desires in some cases, or pursuing some worldly interest, but admits that he is a wrongdoer by doing so, is not guilty of kufr which would put him beyond the pale of Islam.Whoever thinks that ruling by man-made laws is equal to ruling by sharee’ah, and thinks that it is OK to do that, is also guilty of kufr that puts him beyond the pale of Islam, even if it is only in one instance. Shaykh ‘Abd-Allaah al-Ghunaymaan
I would ask the Shaykh to check his facts and read history. Shariah is man-made law. Anyone who does not know or understand that is simply ignorant.
3f: There are many tenets of Islam that I can wholeheartedly agree with, such as giving to the poor, the equality of all, taking care of relatives, etc. But in Islam, these commands seem to be limited to believers, thus ‘all Muslims are equal before God. Other religions are less strict in such dinstinctions. For example, Jewish and Christian charities, in most cases — not all — give benefits to those not of their faiths. Can Islam extend those ideas to non-believers as well?
The Koran does not support your assertion that Muslims should only give to poor Muslims. A poor man is a poor man, regardless of his creed. Islam very specifically preaches mercy to all, especially your enemy in battle. Rules of battle in Islam are surprisingly modern considering when the Koran was revealed. Some of these rules include the treatment of non-combatants, women, children, etc. For a very well known practical example of mercy, read about Salahuddin’s retaking of Jerusalem and contrast that with what had happened when the Crusaders had done the same thing. Incidentally, for our friends in the Middle East fomenting hatred, please note that the most famous of Muslim warriors, Salahuddin, was a Kurd.
3g: Several places in the Qur’an assume the existence of slavery, particularly the enslavement of prisoners of war. (Thus the first punishment for killing a believer accidentally is to free a believing slave. And there are several verses permitting a — male — Muslim to have sex with a slave.) Yet, today, slavery is viewed as barbaric, inhuman, and something that humanity has ‘put behind itself." How do you reconcile or accept this?
The Koran was revealed at a time slavery existed and women had no rights. The Koran progressively moved that society to grant women rights, grant orphans rights, and grant slaves rights. The most famous Muezzin (the one who calls to prayer) in Islam had been a slave (Hazrat Bilal). The verses in the Koran, again, need to be read in their historical context and the evolution within the Koran can be seen as moving a society from ignorance into knowledge. Sadly, some have decided that Islam did not need to evolve after the ninth century.
I hope you find the answers I’ve given to be satisfactory. I am sure I am not the only Muslim to have similar thoughts. When you look a little deeper into Islam, and beyond the caricatures and the Fanatics, you might find that the vast majority of practicing devout Muslims live a life of peace and tolerance. It may not fit the image of Islam some people want to see; it may not fit the Clash of Civilizations argument; but it reflects reality.
I will submit to you that most people in the world want the same things: a little bit of dignity, ability to live without fear of persecution, ability to raise their children in a safe environment, the ability to work and feed one’s family, and the occasional chance at laughter. Sadly, most of the world’s population lives in abject poverty while we play "my religion can beat up your religion" and the slaughter of millions happens right in front of our eyes. There is nothing Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jewish about standing by as a large part of the world’s children starve to death.