David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

           Syria’s Ba’athist regime has a history of bloody crackdowns, especially at the hand of the current president’s father, Hafez al-Asad. Most infamously, he had 10 to 30,000 people massacred almost overnight in the city of Hama in 1982. No opposition could be tolerated by this secularist regime (likewise for Saddam Hussein, his Ba’athist neighbor), especially in the name of Islam. Thirty years later, several hundred people have been wantonly killed in the peaceful “Arab Spring” protests of the last few months.

            Media reports keep emphasizing the brutality of the Syrian repression, despite the regime’s repeated promises of reforms. What is more, the Alawi ruling elite – a small minority considered heretical by mainstream Muslims – has carried out attacks against both the Sunni majority and the small Christian population. Recently in an address to the Religious Summit of the G8 in Bordeaux, France, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, appealed to the worldwide church and the wider religious community to support a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. In other words, “no regime change . . . no military interventions from the outside!”

            The message was passed on to Arizona-based Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU: www.emeu.net) by some of the top evangelical leaders in Syria as a message US churches should heed. I won’t comment on the fact that the bishop totally sidestepped any misdeeds committed by the Syrian regime. But in a later message sent out by EMEU, a professor at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut commented on this address, affirming some points, yet at the same time deploring the lack of a “prophetic voice.” I think that’s easier said from neighboring Lebanon. Speaking truth to power in Syria is a scary proposition . . .

            But I do want to zero in on one aspect of Metropolitan Ibrahim’s address. It reflects a consensus of all the historical churches in the Middle East, from all the various shades of Orthodox churches, to the Catholics and evangelicals (an aside: evangelicals owe their presence to US Presbyterians in the 19th century, who, among other projects, founded the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo!). And my wife and I know this from our own six years in Egypt and the West Bank. The consensus is: Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

            These churches trace their origin to the Pentecost story in Acts 2. Look it up: Arabic was one of the languages supernaturally spoken! Over my sixteen years in Algeria, Egypt and Israel/Palestine I have memorized a good amount of scripture in Arabic – it’s a language I fell in love with early on! The name for God – long before the arrival of the Muslims – was Allah. And it still is. It’s from the same Semitic root el- (elohim, el-Shaddai, etc.) and it simply comes from the Arabic “the god,” as in “the God.”

            Back to Metropolitan Ibrahim. After citing several verses, he urges his audience to work for peace in Jesus’ name. This will include three ingredients, he adds: understanding (make an effort to know “the other”); respect (a two-way street); and justice – which he explains thus:

“A just peace means affirming the dignity of the people in accordance with their civil, political and human rights laws that are set by the international community. It also means rejecting all forms of racism that threats any group as lesser or inferior. As Martin Luther King, Jr said: “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”

            I’ll skim over some of his remarks on the present situation and get to his conclusion. Notice the powerful ethical implications of a common God:

            “Therefore, peace means a lot for us, but has to be done in a just way. I hope that you will have the motive to stretch out your hands to the Syrian people, both Muslims and Christians, in conscious support, so that they may, in their unity, lift up this horrible crisis, and move to a situation of peaceful living.

Finally, we are called to the one and common hope of humanity. I believe that, if we are to state an ideal saying to our troubled world, we can say that the one God commands us to honor our creation of the universe and its humanity, and to re-design our common understanding of living together, and respecting the diversity in peace.”

            Here we find a strong argument on the basis of a humanity created by the “one God,” though its premises are assumed, rather than made explicit. I argue for these explicitly in my book, “Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation” – an expanded creation argument on the basis of both Bible and Qur’an. But it is also the point of Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah: A Christian Response.”

            Volf’s book, both easy to read and convincingly argued, is a refreshing spring that sprung up from two very different wells. The first was his Pentecostal preacher father in Croatia, who knew many Muslims, counting several of them as good friends. He taught his son that they worshiped the same God and that it was important to focus on this common theological ground. Then many years later, after 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuous spewing of prejudice against Muslims in the West, and finally the Pope’s ill-fated 2006 lecture in Germany, over a hundred prominent scholars and clerics from all tendencies penned a letter to the Pope and Christian leaders worldwide. Their message (now famously known as “The Common Word”): what unites Muslims and Christians is not some peripheral religious themes, but rather core convictions at the heart of their faith; namely, love for God and love for neighbor.

            Some of you will know that the first high-profile Christian response – a full-page add in the New York Times – was called the “Yale Response,” mostly penned by Miroslav Volf himself. This was the second stream of inspiration for his book “Allah.” His purpose in “Allah: A Christian Response” is simple: to demonstrate the plausibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews worshiping the same God, the God of Abraham, Moses and the prophets.

If indeed this is the case, he writes, “they will have a set of overlapping ultimate values, which will provide them with a common moral framework in which to debate their differences” (p. 260). Among other possible benefits (like cooperative work for peace and justice), such a stance is the best antidote to religious extremism. For a common God should in the case of Muslims and Christians highlight belief in a loving (“beneficent toward all and merciful toward transgressors”) and just God, helping to build bridges between the two (or three) communities, and extremism loses religious legitimacy.”

            To that “ultimate value,” add this one: “love for neighbors.” Volf explains,

“If God commands believers to hate all infidels and love only coreligionists, extremism has a religious sanction. On the other hand, if God commands believers to love all neighbors – utterly irrespective of their creeds – then we have strong religious reasons to oppose extremism and work for caring and just relations among peoples of all religions” (p. 260)

            Christians in the Arab Middle East (including Persian Iran!) have for centuries lived out their faith with great conviction; sometimes oppressed by their Muslim overlords, sometimes thriving in their midst while staying on their guard; but always believing that, in spite of their differences, the two faiths were focused on the one Creator God who will judge humankind on the Last Day. And now the emerging consensus is that the top two criteria for judgment are love for God and love for neighbor.

This leads us back to Metropolitan Ibrahim, gingerly speaking out in a Syria fraying on the edges and threatening to slip into civil war. The conclusion of his address is the following Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Add the sentence before, and you have the one point of this blog: a common God does make for a common purpose in the world, “to re-design our common understanding of living together, and respecting the diversity in peace.”

[This is an excerpt from my first chapter (“Postmodernity and the Double Wall”) in “Earth, Empire and Sacred Text.” I define postmodernity as “the current interconnected, global, neoliberal system of political and economic instruments, institutions and alliances” and the dark side of globalization, namely the quasi-unfettered rule of multinational corporations within this system. The double wall is the grievous social injustice of the current world order (clearly the rich are getting richer, while yearly millions join the ranks of the poorest, over one fifth of humanity) and the environmental havoc wreaked upon our planet by this headlong rush to consume.

I have just spelled out the basics of the environmental degradation of our planet. Then this . . .]

As might be expected, Vandana Shiva is not as sanguine as some about the chances of the present world system’s ability to reform itself. In a recent book (Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit, Cambridge, MA: South End, 2002) she argues that “[t]he water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth” (p. 2). Already a prominent physicist in her native India while in her thirties, Shiva was shocked by the devastation inflicted by the greed of multinationals and their local allies, and particularly the foresting industry in the Himalayas. She recounts:

“Cherapunji in northeast India is the wettest region on earth, with 11 meters of rainfall a year. Today, its forests are gone and Cherapunji has a drinking-water problem. My own transition from physics to ecology was spurred by the disappearance of Himalayan streams in which I played as a child. The Chipko movement was launched to stop the destruction of water resources through logging in the area” (p. 3).

The systematic elimination of the forests triggered a chain of negative results, some more predictable than others: soil erosion, mud slides, flooding of the plains, the unsustainability to the ecosystem due to the firs planted in place of the original oaks, and the beginning of more extreme storms. Indeed, deforestation, industrial agriculture, overmining and aquaculture have unleashed an era of ruthless climate change. In the state of Orissa, Shiva describes the havoc wreaked by the 1999 cyclone: nearly two million houses destroyed; extensive destruction of paddy crops in twelve coastal districts; all of the banana and papaya plantations destroyed; eighty percent of coconut trees uprooted or cut in two, and 15,000 ponds either salinated or contaminated. In addition, the cyclone killed more than 300,000 cattle and, by some estimates, over 20,000 people. Two years later, Orissa experienced its worst drought on record, followed by its worst flood, severely affecting more than six million people.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) involved the collaboration of over one thousand scientists. According to the “Climate Change 2001” report, the climbing temperatures of the earth “will lead to crop failures, water shortages, increased disease, flooding, landslides, and cyclones.” Insurance companies are now greatly concerned about the issue: “The Global Commons Institute has assessed that damages due to climate change could amount to $200 billion by 2005” and that by 2050 “the property damage could reach $20 trillion” (p. 42).

Much of this can be attributed to the avarice of unregulated business and commerce. The multiplication of shrimp ponds (destined for the enjoyment of the rich westerners), for instance, along the coast of India and Bangladesh, account for the systematic destruction of the mangroves that once stood between ocean and land, forming a natural barrier against tides and storms and absorbing the nitrates and phosphates of waters flowing into the ocean. Yet besides industrial greed, one would also have to indict the western drive to subdue nature in the form of dams and large-scale irrigation. Already in the western United States specialists deplore the building of the great dams. In these states, “irrigation accounts for 90 percent of total water consumption. Irrigated land increased from four million acres in 1890 to nearly 60 million in 1977 . . . . These areas are also affected by soil salinity because of salts dumped into rivers when irrigation waters drain.” The rising salinity of the soils decreases the fertility of the soil, and that problem compounds with time. In California’s artificial “green belt,” the San Joaquin Valley, “crop yields have declined by 10 percent since 1970, an estimated loss of $312 million annually” (Shiva is quoting from Marq De Villiers, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 143).

As always, the result of reckless technologies in the hands of corporations and governments that have privatized that which from time immemorial belonged to all people has created the greatest suffering among the world’s poor. Yet, as Shiva shows, a revival of indigenous technologies and community management of water resources is noticeable, and it spells hope for the future. She explains: “cultures that waste water or destroy the fragile web of the water cycle create scarcity even under conditions of abundance. Those that save every drop can create abundance out of scarcity. Indigenous cultures and local communities have excelled in water conservation technologies” (p. 119). A vision urgently needed today is contained in India’s Hindu culture. For Indians, every river is sacred.

Recall that at the heart of the modern (and western) expansionist paradigm launched in 1492 was the idea of collective ownership of the world (due to the superior rights God had granted to Christian kings) and a nascent capitalist ideology—expressed in the initial charters and patents and in the preference of private property over that of community management of the commons—progressively gave birth to the corporations. These, in turn, propelled the Industrial Revolution that empowered the European Empires to establish and exploit their far-flung empires. As colonial independence movements gathered momentum in the early twentieth century, the inherently expansionist tendencies of capitalist accumulation—coupled with growing nationalism in the wealthy states of Europe—created a tension that eventually exploded in 1914, dragging the whole world into Europe’s civil war, and then into a second one in 1939. After WWII, however, what was supposed to have been a process of decolonization quickly gave way to a new kind of political and economic colonization of the so-called Third World—the raw powers of modernity unleashed in two different modes, both equally voracious when it comes to devouring natural resources and polluting the commons of humanity—water and air.

When the Second World collapsed in 1989, the neoliberal, free-market fundamentalist brand of capitalism unleashed in the 1970s now became the ruling ideology of the United States, Japan and their European allies, and the transnational corporations merged back and forth, growing into behemoths and reaching everywhere. Speth in his book (James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004) is cautiously critical of this system, if only, I surmise, because he is an insider who wants to convince American opinion leaders and politicians to change their ways. Indeed, back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked the State Department and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to study the “probable changes in the world’s population, natural resources and environment through the end of the century.” Speth, as one of the three members of CEQ, was soon to become its chair. The first part of the report was presented to Carter in 1979 and a separate report by the National Academy of Sciences, the “Charney Report,” bolstered their conclusions. From then on, Speth and his colleagues focused their attention on climate change and in a 1981 report that detailed the potentially disastrous effect of the global production of greenhouse gases and made detailed recommendations for an international effort to curb this trend. Significantly, this report contains a vision of the world that borders on the theological:

“Whatever the consequences of the carbon dioxide experiment for humanity over the long term, our duty to exercise a conserving and protecting restraint extends as well to the community of life—animal and plant—that evolved around us. There are limits beyond which we should not go in disrupting or changing this community of life, which, after all, we did not create. Although our dominion over earth may be nearly absolute, our right to exercise it is not” (Seth, on p. 5, quoting from the 1981 CEQ report).

With the knowledge we now have of the past, as human occupants of this earth and as a species embedded in it and totally dependent on its well-being, we dare not ignore the tell-tale signs of devastation ahead. This is the message that scientists from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program want to pass on to all of us today:

"The evidence is now overwhelming that [rising temperatures] are a consequence of human activities. . . . [W]e are now pushing the planet beyond anything experienced naturally for many thousands of years. The records of the past show that climate shifts can appear abruptly and be global in extent, while archaeological and other data emphasize that such shifts have had devastating consequences for human societies. In the past, therefore, lies a lesson” (Speth, on p. 60, quoting from Keith Alverson et al., Environmental Variability and Climate Change, International Geosphere-Biosphere Program Science Series No. 3, 2001).

[Imagine, if this was in 2001, what scientists are saying today as the data gathered from around the world has become even more ominous! For a helpful (and short) summary, see this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/27/world-warming.]

This article was published in the Brill journal Die Welt des Islams (vol. 47, issue 2, 2007) under the title, "Maqasid al-Shari'a: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Muslim Theologies of Human Rights



This essay explores the purposive strategy of modern Islamic legal theory (i.e., based on maqāsid al-sharīa, with public benefit, or maslaha, as the sharīa's main purpose) and its use in articulating an Islamic theology of human rights. After a synopsis of contemporary research on Islam and human rights, the essay highlights the main issues involved in the twentiethcentury turn to a purposive approach in usūl al-fiqh (Islamic legal theory). The “maqāsidī ” strategy as it is applied to human rights is then monitored in three distinct currents: traditionalists (Muhammad al-Ghaz¯lī and Muhammad 'Amāra); progressive conservatives (Muhammad Talbi, Muhammad al-Mutawakkal, and Rāshid al-Ghannūshī); progressives working with a postmodern epistemology (Ebrahim Moosa and Khaled Abou El Fadl). In conclusion, this move toward ethical objectivism and an epistemological favoring of ethical values over particular formulations of the text could enable a greater number of conservatives and progressives to converge on some of the burning questions of human rights today.

When it comes to Islam and human rights, the biggest rub in joining the two comes from the hudud. That’s a word that means “limits” – here, the limits God has imposed on wrongful behavior, or the prescribed penalties in classical Islamic law. Most of these are still on the books in Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, to name a few: stoning of adulterers, capital punishment for murderers and for those who convert from Islam (apostasy), and amputation of hands for thieves.

If you read my blogs on Shari’a, you will know that whatever consensus there was among the five main schools of Islamic law up until the eighteenth century became seriously eroded in the modern period. From the imposition of western codes of law by colonial rulers, to drastic sociopolitical changes wrought by the advent of nation-states, to the multiplication of new reformist ways of thinking and interpreting the texts (often followed by fundamentalist backlashes) – all these factors and more mean that the hudud affect the lives of very few Muslims today.

The stoning of adulterers, for example, happened rarely in Islamic history, mostly because it was so hard to prove in court. According to the law, four witnesses had to have seen the act of intercourse with their own eyes. What is more, any false witness would receive a hundred lashes. Now, justice is never served evenly in any country, so there must have even been cases like the one Jesus was called upon to judge: a woman is accused of adultery and about to be stoned, but her partner was nowhere in sight.

As far as amputating thieves’ hands, it continues in Saudi Arabia and in Nigeria’s northern states that proclaimed Shari’a law in 2000. But judges do not systematically order an amputated limb for every act of theft. Many distinctions apply, as does the consideration of extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, such a penalty does contravene current norms of human rights. It fits the category of “cruel and inhumane punishment.” That is precisely why 98% of Muslims today live in countries where it isn’t allowed.

Now for the more interesting issue of apostasy. Many readers will remember the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan found with a Bible in 2006, who was then arrested and put on death row. In the end it took loads of international pressure to have him exiled to Italy.

Then in February of this year another Afghan who embraced Christianity, Said Musa, was on the verge of being executed, causing an international uproar that eventually overturned his case. He too was fortunate. Many others, however, in several countries (with or without such a law on the books) have been killed by family members or have simply disappeared.

To be honest, the prevailing mood today seems decidedly conservative. When the popular young British imam, Usama Hasan, openly taught in 2008 that people had the right to choose any religion they wanted – and change again, if they so chose, he was viciously attacked by many conservative Muslims, including through websites based in the west.

That same year the Grand Mufti of Egypt (i.e., the highest religious official and head of the prestigious Al-Azhar University), Ali Gomaa, created a stir in many circles by making an official pronouncement to the effect that a Muslim might leave Islam to embrace another faith. The Qur’an makes it clear, he insisted, that this is a decision that only involves the individual and God, and that his/her punishment only would come on the Last Day, presumably hellfire. Here are some verses he quoted:

“Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (Q. 109:6)

“Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosever will, let him disbelieve” (Q. 18:29)

      “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error” (Q. 2:256)

Unconfirmed rumors have it that he retracted this some days later in an address in Arabic to a Muslim audience. After all, it flies in the face of pre-modern Islamic law, both Sunni and Shi’i. The Maldivian scholar Abdullah Saeed who directs the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, put it this way: “It is true that in classical Islamic law there was almost unanimous agreement among the jurists that if a Muslim converts to another religion he or she should be punished by death.”

Of late, as I said, the conservative mainstream of Islam seems to be hardening its position on this issue and it’s no secret that countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Mauritania still have laws that make apostasy a capital crime. Even in more “moderate” countries like Malaysia, Muslims (about 60% of the population) who leave the faith are sent to a “rehabilitation camp” to be reindoctinated. Al-Jazeera ran an excellent documentary in 2007 on the case of a Muslim woman who married a Hindu. Since according to Islamic law Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims (on the ground that the children follow their father’s religion), her parents took away her three-year old daughter and informed the Shari’a court about her situation. She was forcibly separated from her husband and daughter (for details, see this YouTube video).

In passing, let me add that this unyieldingness is also evidenced by the rising tide of extremism in Pakistan, particularly with regard to the blasphemy laws. Naturally, there is a strong political dimension to this controversy: the neighboring war in Afghanistan, the military pressure exerted by the Taliban-affiliated tribes in the Northwest, and the need for the religious parties to solidify their alliance to break the power of Ali Zardari’s government. But this is a popular law too: the former governor of Punjab’s stand against it cost him his life, as happened to the only Christian minister, Shahbaz Batti, who was gunned down on his way to work in March 2011.

Then there was the international furore over a 45-year-old Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, jailed for allegedly speaking against the Prophet in a village scuffle – a totally Muslim village apart from her family. This of course is not apostasy – she’s a Christian woman – but considering the fact that all possible witnesses are Muslim and therefore likely unsympathetic, the charges of blasphemy are hardly fair, if indeed the law in the first place had any validity in our day and age. She is still in jail at this writing, awaiting the execution of her death sentence, or, if she’s lucky, a presidential pardon. [update: she was finally acquitted in 2018, though under house arrest for close to a year; she finally arrived in Canada in May 2019].

Yet, despite these worrisome developments, winds of change are blowing as well, and Abdullah Saeed, professor of Islamic Studies in Melbourne, Australia, is one of many high-profile scholars who have spoken out against this traditional interpretation of the law of apostasy. Just this spring, he contributed two articles to The Public Discourse on the issue of apostasy in Islam. In our pluralistic world of the 21st century, he argues, lots of people enter and exit many different faiths, Islam being one of them. So Muslims have to face this problem head-on. He writes,

“Should we Muslims continue to follow the age-old ‘law’ of apostasy, punished by the death penalty, and force converts to come back to Islam literally on pain of death at a time when ‘freedom of religion’ is considered a universal human right? If a person genuinely converts to another religion, what right do others have to force him or her to change their mind? Why should we human beings play God’s role in such an important and personal matter? At the end of the day, isn’t belief an issue between a person and God, as the Quran declares?”

This is the theme of his first article – what the Qur’an says about apostasy. To sum it up, there is nothing in the Qur’an that says that conversion from Islam should be punished by death. The logic of its teaching is that people, once they hear the message, have the freedom to believe or disbelieve. God will punish them or reward them in the hereafter. For instance, “And if they surrender themselves unto Him, they are on the right path; but if they turn away – behold, your duty is no more than to deliver the message: for God sees all that is in [the hearts of] His creatures” (Q. 3:20).

 In fact, there is no evidence that Muhammad ever imposed this penalty on people who left the Islamic faith for their former faith. To the contrary, in the best collection of hadiths (reports of what the Prophet Muhammad said and did), al-Bukhari, we read about a man who came to Medina, converted to Islam, but changed his mind. He asked Muhammad for permission to leave Medina and go back to his home and to his former faith. Muhammad let him go with no punishment whatsoever.

 The reason all the classical schools of Islamic law agreed on the death penalty is because of how several hadiths had been interpreted, writes Saeed, in his article, "Hadith and Apostasy." The most influential one is this: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.” Saeed has two main objections to the use of this hadith. First, it only surfaced 25 years after the death of the Prophet (its transmitter, Ibn Abbas, was only 12 years old at that time). The occasion, it was said, was the caliph Ali’s decision to burn some heretics. Ibn Abbas then quotes this hadith in support, not of their being burnt to death (that was forbidden, he objected), but of their execution by the sword. Saeed reasons,

“It is strange that such an important message remained hidden for decades after the death of the Prophet. Ali, being a Muslim from his early childhood, one of the Muslims closest to the Prophet, and an advisor to the first three caliphs of Islam, should have known of such a penalty if it existed at the time of the Prophet, particularly since it involved taking a life, not a small matter.”

Saeed’s second objection is that the hadith is too vague: it implies that anyone leaving any religion should be killed. That makes no sense. So jurists over time added all kinds of limitations to this statement: it refers only to conversion from Islam; it excludes those who converted under pressure, as well as women and children (at least for the Hanafi school). Saeed’s point: such a hadith is open to many interpretations.

 But the true reason for rejecting this and other similar hadiths (and a few verses in the Qur’an quoted by those in favor of capital punishment) is a consideration of the historical context. And here we rejoin a growing number of scholars today who reject the traditional interpretation. The context was all out war between Medina and Mecca. People who shed their Muslim identity were in effect joining the enemy. This was state treason, which in most states still today is a capital crime.

 Jamal Badawi, a Canadian Muslim raised in Egypt, is a prolific author and speaker around the world, and has been active in several Muslim organizations in North America over the years. A known conservative with old ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, his views have moderated over time. You can read his fatwa (legal opinion) on this issue on the Islamic Society of North America website. Quoting many others conservatives like himself, his conclusion runs parallel to Saeed’s:

"In the context of the besieged early Muslim community, apostasy was a major threat to the nascent Muslim community. Taking a passive attitude towards it would have jeopardized the very emergence of the Muslim community."

The founder of the Islamist movement in Tunisia, Rashid Ghannushi, was jailed as a young man for starting a political party that was already threatening President Ben Ali’s own grip on power in the early 1980s. In prison he wrote was to become his doctoral thesis, “The General Liberties of the Islamic State,” in which he argues against the death penalty for apostasy and for democratic procedures in any Muslim-majority country. Democracy, he argued, is not just good because governments are responsive to their people’s wishes, or because citizens enjoy civil and political freedoms. It is also necessary in order to ensure religious freedom. People of different faiths should have the right to proselytize, as long as it is done with respect.

 After two decades of exile in the UK, Ghannushi has now come back to Tunisia after the revolution. As the veteran leader of the Islamist movement, however, he has decided to step down from any formal leadership. He will let younger men and women run for election. But in all his interviews with the press, he says he’s thrilled with the new Tunisia. “And don’t worry about the Islamic parties,” he tells reporters. “We will play by all the democratic rules. Freedom is too important to us!”

 In the first half I mentioned the issue of blasphemy. Just as I find encouragement in the growing number of high profile Muslim leaders reinterpreting the Qur’an and Hadith on the issue of apostasy, so I believe that hardliners will increasingly find themselves isolated, even in Muslim-dominated areas. The following is a telling sign.

 As it turns out, it was Pakistan that launched a yearly campaign in the UN since 1999, and particularly in its Human Rights Council, to pass resolutions against religious defamation – in effect an anti-blasphemy law sponsored by the largest Muslim worldwide body, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC, 57 member countries). After some positive support from a wide array of countries, many states realized that this was a thinly veiled strategy to marshal support for the kind of laws Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran already have at home. In March of this year in Geneva, sensing that for the first time it would be defeated, the OIC quietly dropped the issue (see forthcoming book by Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide, Oxford University Press, November 2011). The tide may be turning.

 Freedom of thought and freedom of religion, just like other human rights, are more and more taken for granted by Muslims everywhere. Are there headwinds of reaction and traditionalism? Of course there are. But, it seems to me, the mother ship – the Muslim mainstream – is seems to be slowly heading in a reformist direction.

First, when it comes to women and clothing, let’s get one misconception out of the way: “Islam oppresses women.” That is the default statement that even when not stated outright is assumed by non-Muslim westerners, while their minds dance with this image of Muslim women waddling down the road covered in black cloth from head to toe.

Down through the ages and all over the world, women have been made to feel shame for their sexuality and so have been expected to cover in one way or another in public. So they have veiled: lace head coverings for Mass, Indian saris, the black shawls worn by Egyptian peasants, both Muslim and Christian, various nuns’ paraphernalia, and even the headscarves worn by most American women in early twentieth century rural America.

In this area, the Qur’an and the Bible teach the same thing: women should dress modestly. That’s how specific it gets – well, almost. Here is the Qur’an’s only clear statement on the issue of dress:

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; they they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; and that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands . . .” (Q. 24:31).

Just two verses before “lowering one’s gaze and guarding one’s modesty” had first been enjoined on men in that passage. The rest was specific to women.

The Apostle Peter has similar counsel for members of the early house churches:

“Wives, submit to your husbands . . . Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:1, 3-4).

The only use for the word “hijab” in the Qur’an is for the curtain that separated the men from the women when people visited the Prophet Muhammad’s house (Q. 33:53). The cloth covering women’s hair, now so very common among Muslim women, is a recent invention. In 1955 the great historian of the Middle East, Albert Hourani, could write that the traditional head coverings for women were “vanishing” in that part of the world. Now, some 56 years later, Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed just published a book trying to explain the dramatic revival of the female headscarf, now called “hijab.”

What happened after the 1950s? This is what Ahmed explores in her new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America (Yale University Press).

Ahmed grew up in 1940s Egypt, where fewer and fewer women were wearing the veil, but for reasons mostly unrelated to religion. Society was changing in a more European direction. After all, the West had produced a scientific revolution and had become the undeniable leaders in political and military innovation.

At the same time, the weight of colonial shaming and derision would not be forgotten. Egypt’s former consul general, Lord Cromer, wrote in his 1908 book, Modern Egypt, that Islam “degraded” women – a clear sign of its inferiority to Christianity. Meanwhile, for all his wholehearted agreement with this general chorus of colonial elites smugly mocking the backwardness of “Arab culture,” he seemed to have missed the irony of his own presidency of the British Men's League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Jesus did talk about removing the log from one’s own eye first, didn’t he?

Islam-bashing for its treatment of women has certainly made a comeback these days, before and after 9/11. France was the first to ban the wearing of a full-face veil, the niqab or burqa (see my own take on this in Christianity Today), because of “its debasement of women.” As I wrote in a previous blog, there is plenty to criticize in many Muslim contexts on this issue, and no place with more justification than in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Yet we might fault Laura Bush’s radio address shortly after the American invasion of that country in 2001 as politically expedient. Decrying “brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan” seemed a bit too convenient as a backdrop to a military operation ostensibly designed to punish the terror network behind the 9/11 attacks. This might help us understand why many Muslims feel that US military interventions in Muslim countries are simply new versions of old colonial style imperialism.

Now back to our query. I agree with Leila Ahmed: the 1967 Arab military defeat in the “Six Day War” was the watershed experience that only amplified the ongoing demise of pan-Arab socialism (championed by Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser) and the rise of Islamism (meaning, the will to bring Islam into the sociopolitical sphere). The resulting shame only highlighted the failure of the secular policies in place. People were getting a lot more religious, as they repeated the mantra, “we’ve been defeated, because we’ve abandoned God; turn back to him, and he will lift us up again.”

Much more could be said about the rise of Islamism in the 1970s and 1980s. Suffice it to say that it was a revolution from the bottom up. In Egypt, for instance, where political opposition to Mubarak’s iron rule came mainly from the religious sector, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers captured all the key posts of civil society: trade unions, professional syndicates (from doctors to lawyers to teachers and engineers), and student organizations.

Already when we lived in Egypt from 1989 to 1992, it had become a rare sight to see young women without the hijab (hair covering, plus modest dress of one sort or another), except for the Christian girls. My wife always went out with a scarf on her head, if only to show that she was not a “loose western woman,” as depicted in the American soap operas Egyptians loved to watch. Even today, when you look at the young women who actively joined the protests in Tahrir Square this spring, most of them were covered.

By far the most fascinating part of Ahmed’s book, The Quiet Revolution, is the result of her two or three years of attending Muslim American conferences, regional meetings, and a few mosques. Her conclusion is that, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, women’s veiling has become a discourse of protest against traditional male patriarchy and organizational politics as usual. Yet even the female voices are far from united. In fact, she describes lively debates between conservatives and liberals (many of whom wear the hijab), between young and old, men and women. These are all committed Muslim individuals, proudly American for the most part, and highly educated.

I show my classes a film interview with a veiled Malaysian gynecologist who in an articulate and winsome way explains that this is an expression of her faith and her culture. “We Muslim women are not put down by our religion. We simply understand modesty differently than many women in the West.” Another scene shows her in a home she started for girls pregnant out of wedlock. They are cared for, along with their babies, and given the necessary training to go on with their lives. That too, she says, is part of her religion.

Indeed, the hijab carries many meanings, depending on the woman and her context. So among other possible meanings you will find the hijab . . .

  • a sign of youthful protest against a hated regime (certainly Egypt’s case)
  • worn by a school girl identifying with friends who wear it with pride, ready to stand up to her mother’s disapproval
  • donned by university students in Turkey who risk not finishing their degree, because it’s forbidden
  • adopted by American twenty-somethings who after 9/11 suddenly became proud of a religion they were losing
  • a strategy of “winning the right to be heard” used by educated women in conservative circles seeking to change old patriarchal practices and rules
  • not nearly modest enough for women in US Salafi circles, who would not even leave their houses without a full black covering, gloves on their hands, peering through a gauze-like veil, satisfied that they are fully obeying the teachings of the Prophet . . .

The more you read good sources about actual Muslims going about their lives in their own surroundings – and the more Muslims you befriend, the more stereotypes will fade into the background. One great article (with video clip included) amazed me, and I’m sure it will amaze you as well (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/12/lebanon-women-clear-cluster-bombs?INTCMP=SRCH). It’s about an all-female team of highly trained (hijab-clad) women in South Lebanon employed by a Norwegian NGO and working to find and explode residual cluster bombs scattered by the Israelis in the 2006 war with Hizbullah.

When it comes to Islam and human rights, then, let me just point out that women should have the right to vote, to be educated and to work any job for which they are qualified, including head of state; but they also should have the right to dress as they choose. Admittedly, this topic requires a delicate balance for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Leila Ahmed in a recent article (I highly recommend: http://en.qantara.de/Treacherous-Sympathy-with-Muslim-Women/16963c17398i1p9/index.mwo4ml), writes this,

“In saying that it’s time to set aside the old imperial rhetoric of the oppression of women in Islam, I am certainly not arguing, I should make clear, that I believe that particular interpretations of Islam do not include attitudes and laws that are indeed appallingly unjust to women. On the contrary I believe that there are all too many such examples.

But the way forward is not through the wholesale denigration of everything Islamic or through grand assaults on “the oppression of women in Islam”, but rather through directly confronting and challenging unjust and cruel laws, customs and behaviors one by one and specifically, wherever they occur.”

So our challenge, as we think about Muslim women, is to admit that the hijab opens up complex issues that won’t fit into catchy media sound bites. Each of these women, who for the most part have chosen to wear the head covering and dress modestly, is a unique individual with her own set of issues. In the end, it’s our common humanity that will help us break down stereotypes and develop a better understanding of one another.

12 May 2011

Jihad Revisited

I ended the first half of this blog arguing that Sayyid Qutb’s (executed in Egypt in 1966) view of total and permanent war until Islam reigns supreme in the world was: 1) a throwback to the scholarly consensus of Muslim jurists and theologians in the classical period; 2) vigorous push back against the modern Islamic consensus since at least the eighteenth century (in the context of modern nation-states military jihad can only be justified in the case of foreign invasion). Let me unpack that here.

            For starters, this is news to many pundits today, and in particular those who are behind the push in Tennessee and a dozen other states to outlaw Sharia. I obtained a copy of the draft Tennessee bill, which states that “jihad and sharia are inextricably linked.” And then Article 8 of Section 1 reads:


“The unchanging and ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of sharia on all states and nations, including the United States and this state; further, pursuant to its own dictates, sharia requires the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and the imposition of sharia through violence and criminal activity.”


            Note how this is clearly stating that Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Sharia is the only possible one for any sincere Muslim – as if Islam, like every other religious traditions, isn’t subject to evolving and even competing interpretations at any given historical period! On the one hand, the authors say that this bill should not hinder Muslims from peacefully practicing their religion; on the other, rather more ominously, they warn that this “legal-political-military doctrine and system” is advocated by “tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world.” Scary!

            So a little history here is in order.

            The Prophet Muhammad, through preaching, diplomacy and war, had nearly extended Muslim control over the whole Arabian Peninsula and had initiated a couple campaigns in Syria by the time he died in 632. Taking advantage of two weakening empires to the north, Muslim armies fanned out and in the next few decades carved out an empire greater than Rome had ever seen – from Spain to India. Yet Islamic law, well ahead of its time, carefully circumscribed the ethics and practice of warfare: treaties must be honored, prisoners treated humanely, women, children, monks and rabbis spared, and the impact of the environment minimized (protecting trees and wells especially).

            Did Muslim armies always abide by these rules? Of course not; no army in the world lives up to its ideals. But we would do well to remember that during the Crusades, while King Richard the Lionhearted did not hesitate to catapult the severed heads of Muslim prisoners onto the Muslim army, the Muslim leader Salah Eddin’s war conduct was admired, and even legendary, to the point that he was considered “chivalrous” in Europe! Whereas the Crusaders killed absolutely everyone in sight (Muslims, Eastern Christians and Jews) when they first captured Jerusalem (1099), Salah Eddin managed to take it back in 1187 without killing a soul.

Having said that, Sayyid Qutb was indeed resurrecting the classical version of jihad. Whether you consult the official corpus of hadiths (sayings of and stories about the Prophet), the commentaries on the Quran, or the canons of the four schools of Sunni law – all the Islamic authorities of the medieval period until the eighteenth century agreed that the world was divided between the Abode of War and the Abode of Islam. Hence, the sword verses cancel out the more peaceful verses revealed earlier. What this means is that Muslims had a collective duty to extend their territories by means of war until the whole world came under the dominion of Islam. Since “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256), no one in theory was forced to convert; but Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (Hindus and Buddhists at times too) were given dhimmi status as “protected minorities” (including freedom to practice their faith, no military service in return for a poll tax, plus certain humiliating restrictions).

Then came western colonialism with its superior science, technology and weaponry, and Muslim populations found themselves – shockingly, and for the first time – at the bottom of the pile. So under the weight of military, economic and political defeat, and relentless accusations by Christians that theirs was a violent religion, Muslims started to read their texts differently. By the mid-twentieth century, Muslim authorities (the ulama) in Egypt, Indonesia and many other centers of learning had come to agreement that jihad has two dimensions. First, it’s the taming of one’s lower desires in the struggle to follow God’s path; and second, the outer dimension: when a Muslim country is invaded by a foreign power, jihad is incumbent on the nation to defend itself and repel the invader. The reality of a world made up of nation-states ideally living in peace had sunk in.

The hadith most quoted with regard to jihad today is the one in which Muhammad comes back from battle victorious. To the cheering crowds he says, “I have come back from the lesser jihad. Now starts the greater jihad.” Though this tradition was limited to Sufi (mystical) collections for centuries, it has now been adopted by nearly all Muslims as a prophetic call to focus on one’s spiritual life. But the “lesser jihad” has also taken a new turn. The Abode of Islam is any territory where Muslims are free to practice their faith, which today could be anywhere in the world. As for the Abode of War (apart from an invading army), leading jurists stopped mentioning it a good two hundred years ago.

Perhaps the most representative conservative Islamic body in America, ISNA (The Islamic Society of North America) occasionally issues legal rulings, as it did last December under the title, “Fatwa Against Religious Extremism.” It strictly condemns any violence done against innocent people, and especially as a result of suicide bombings. After quoting several verses in the Quran, it goes on to state three principles:


1. “All acts of terrorism targeting the civilians are Haram (forbidden) in Islam.

2. It is Haram for a Muslim to cooperate or associate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence.

3. It is the duty of Muslims to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians.”


These kinds of statements can be found in different forms, especially after 9/11, on all mainstream Muslims websites.

Since I started this two-part blog on jihad with the Old Testament, it is fitting for me as a follower of Jesus to close with his words, “Love your enemies,” and “Give unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Somehow, I cannot rejoice that a hardened murderer like Osama bin Laden was assassinated without the chance to defend himself in court. Likewise, I cannot in good conscience support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by my government, whatever the motive – though I know that many Christians can do so in the name of “Just War Theory.”

We are back to hermeneutics – how we choose to interpret our sacred texts. Jihad for most Muslims today is about striving to obey God in every area of their lives and, in extreme cases, about giving their life to defend their country. In my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation, I argued that “empire” was always bad, because it involves subjugating other peoples. From the fourth century on (starting with the Emperor Constantine), Christians have often confused God and Cesar, with morally disastrous results.

For Muslims to condemn empire-building is a bigger stretch, as the Prophet himself initiated expansionist wars that led to a string of Muslim empires. Yet even here, with time and changing sociopolitical settings, I believe current notions of jihad are leading to this kind of religious reinterpretation. So let’s keep talking, and let’s keep striving together (or “jihading”) to make this world a more peaceful, God-like place!

King David wanted to build a temple for God, but the prophet Nathan told him that God had designated his son to carry out that task (II Samuel 7). Years later he recounts to his son Solomon that the reason God did not grant him that privilege was that “he had killed many men in battles . . . and shed so much blood” (I Chronicles 22:8). Though David is the beloved author of the Psalms, celebrated both in the Bible and Quran, he was also a king who greatly extended the borders of the territory he had inherited. Kings and rulers, by definition, wield the sword. The Bible also tells us that several centuries before God ordered mwo4mhua to undertake bloody conquests in the land of Canaan. Yet we forget that mwo4mhua was the great prophet Moses’ underling and disciple.

            When the people of Israel were traveling in the territory to the east of the Jordan River, kings Sihon and Og refused them passage and attacked Israel. In the end, both kings and all their people were slaughtered and their territory occupied by the tribes of Reuben and Gad. In a later episode, after some Israelite men were seduced into idolatry by some Moabite women, God ordered Moses to send a small army to wipe out the Moabites in revenge – which they did in short order. But Moses was “furious” when they returned. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. So he had all the women who had been married killed, saving only the young virgins. “You may keep them for yourselves,” he told them (Numbers 31:1-24).

            Honestly, there is a lot more graphic violence in the Old Testament than in the Quran. But to Jews and Christians, this is not generally disturbing. Enter hermeneutics (the art of interpretation of the sacred texts). Either by putting greater weight on some texts rather than on others, or by saying (as in this case) that what God said in those days does not apply to the present day, people of faith find ways to balance out the tensions in their holy book.

            We’ve all been preoccupied this past week with the news of Bin Laden’s demise. Is this the end of al-Qaeda as we know it? Will we be facing a spate of retaliatory attacks? My own educated guess is that al-Qaeda has taken a serious blow. But Osama bin Laden’s “martyrdom” will likely recruit more “jihadis” to the wider cause. Splinter groups here and there might be emboldened, so attacks will no doubt continue in one form or another.

            But, you might be asking, how could you compare Old Testament/Hebrew Bible wars of aggression with current Islamic terrorism? For most Christians today this has no relevance whatsoever in the light of the gospel of peace. Yes, “ethnic cleansing” as we put it today seems to have been given divine sanction in that part of the Bible. But the Israelites, you say, were not trying to take over the world by force of arms and to impose on all the worship of Jahweh, while smashing all the idols of the nations! True enough, yet the church, from Constantine to Charlemagne, and from the Crusades to the Spanish Reconquista, the Inquisition, the forced conversion of millions of Latin American Indians and the bloody religious wars in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe, has managed pretty well to ignore the Sermon on the Mount! Hermeneutics do count . . . and also for Muslims, we shall see.

            With this in mind, allow me to give a bit more background on jihad, first on the bin Laden brand in this blog, and then more generally in the next blog. So what are the “sword verses” in the Quran and what is their context?

            Muhammad received his first revelation in 610 and from the beginning experienced staunch opposition from the Meccan tribal leaders. When in 622 he was able to “emigrate” to Medina (the Hijra), it was after at least one attempt on his life. Mecca had vowed to destroy the nascent community of Muslims, Jews and polytheists ruled by Muhammad in that desert oasis. To be sure, it did not help that Muhammad’s fellow immigrants from Mecca now made it a practice to raid Meccan caravans. But the course of war had been set from the start. And now from Medina it unfolded: first, a decisive victory against great odds – the Battle of Badr (624); then a defeat – Uhud (625); finally, the Battle of the Trench, during which a formidable Meccan army retreated after an unsuccessful forty-day siege (627). All this time, both Jewish and polytheist Medinans (and “hypocrites”) had tried to help the Meccans against Muhammad. This is called political treason in any polity in the world.

            Herein is the context of the “sword verses.” They come from the last revealed sura (“chapter” – there are 114 altogether), Sura 9, so the backdrop is the later Medinan period, up until the year 630 when Muhammad rode victoriously into Mecca with a vastly superior army. (Incidentally, it is the only sura NOT prefaced by “In the name of the Merciful, the Compassionate”). The first verse is often quoted with its second half missing: “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” Yet the second half tones it down significantly: “But if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligations and pay the zakat, then let them go their way for God is forgiving and kind” (Q. 9:5). The other verse is more straightforward: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor hold the religion of truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Q. 9:29). It should also be noted that the Quran uses the word “to kill” or “fight to kill” in almost all instances of fighting in God’s cause; rarely is “jihad” used for this. But in the legal literature down through the centuries it was used in this way.

Fast forward to the 20th century . . . Sayyid Qutb, the chief propagandist for the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of Egypt’s October Revolution in 1952, disagreed with the more moderate wing of the movement that had renounced violence. In his writings, he advocated a return to the classical version of jihad, that is, that Muslims should fight to extend the borders of the Abode of Islam and thus reduce the size of the Abode of War. Wage an all-out war; aim to conquer the world, and when that is achieved, give people the “freedom” to accept Islam or not. But the state will be an Islamic one, following the classical dictates of Sharia law (as you know from my previous blogs, this is Qutb’s imagining an ideal divine law that could be applied, ready-made, to the world as it is today – Sharia is in fact a very contested term!).

Contrast this worldview with that of the Muslims, who at the risk of their life have been protesting and demonstrating in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, asking for democracy and civil freedoms. The “Arab Spring,” as they call it, potently proves that bin Laden and his associates badly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. Jihad is a much wider, and for the vast majority of Muslims, a much more peaceful idea.

I was teaching a seminar course on intra-Muslim debates on human rights at Yale University and we had just covered a variety of Muslim "fundamentalist" views. Out of fifteen students I had four Jews, four Christians, and seven Muslims. One Orthodox Jewish student (actually the president of the Yale Friends of Israel that year) raised his hand to comment, "I have to tell you that the more I listen, the more I connect with these conservative, politically active, law-oriented Muslims. No joke, not a day goes by that I'm not furiously involved in two or three arguments about religious law. This is what we breathe!"

Indeed, Judaism and Islam, unlike Christianity, are faith traditions that revolve around the down-to-earth, practical rules of living that were inspired by the sacred text, then distilled by rabbis and ulama' (Muslim jurists), first orally and then finally written down according their respective schools of law. Christians tend to be more preoccupied with right belief (orthodoxy), whereas right conduct (orthopraxy) commands the allegiance of Muslims and Jews.

The short prayer, or the Quran's first sura (or "chapter," out of 114 altogether), al-Fatiha ("the Opening"), which a practicing Muslim pronounces seventeen times a day in the course of five ritual prayers, says, "Guide us in the straight path." The word Sharia, which symbolizes the God-shaped form the world is to take as his people follow this path, also literally means "the path to the watering hole." So Islamic law is also the path of salvation through the arid and forbidding desert of life that leads into the gardens of bliss in the hereafter. In this blog I describe Sharia, as seen by Muslims, as divine, flexible and comprehensive. And so in the context of the current frenzy in several states to "outlaw Sharia," I'm arguing that 1) it's like telling a Muslim she can't practice her religion at all; and 2) it displays a staggering ignorance about how Islamic law actually works; and 3) there's nothing to fear about Muslims embracing Sharia.

First, Sharia in the Islamic perspective is divine in origin, since only God is the legitimate ruler of the world. The two main sources for discerning the will of the divine Legislator are the sacred texts – the Quran, first and foremost, and then the authoritative collections of all the reports (or hadiths) about what the Prophet Muhammad said and did. After all, he remains THE godly example all Muslims strive to follow; so this second source of Islamic law is called the Sunna (the "path" or "model" of the Prophet). At the same time, Muslim scholars have always recognized that sacred texts – whether the Quran, which contains the very words of God, or the Sunna, which houses reports of varying levels of authenticity and reliability – have to be interpreted by human beings (there are other "sources," but they are of the rational type, and I will leave them for another blog).

This is why "Sharia," as the symbol of God's will in this world and the next, is always distinct from "applied jurisprudence" in Islamic law (fiqh, from a word meaning "understanding"). Fiqh comprises the traditions of understanding and practical application of the texts that are followed in various schools of Islamic law (the Sunnis have ended up with four; and the Shia with only one). So one should never confuse Sharia with fiqh (though some Muslims do at times). Sharia is divine, whereas fiqh is man-made, and hence, flexible. In classical Islam, a jurist who had attained the highest level of learning and experience, the mujtahid (one who can practice ijtihad, or the "effort to produce a new ruling in a new situation") was said to receive a double reward if God deemed him correct, and only one reward, if not. In both cases the mujtahid had exerted much effort (notice: same root as jihad) to produce a correct ruling.

So, for example, the Quran forbids (as in the Torah) the eating of "carrion, blood, pork, meat offered to idols, or an animal that was strangled or killed by a violent blow" (Q. 5:4). In the grey areas, however, some schools say all aquatic animals can be eaten. But some say that only those aquatic animals in the shape of a fish can be eaten. Others say tortoises are forbidden, and all agree that frogs cannot be eaten, because of a reliable hadith in which the Prophet forbade the killing of frogs. On the other hand, all domestic animals can be eaten, but there is disagreement regarding riding horses and work horses. On this the Hanafis (one of four Sunni schools) say eating them is reprehensible. As you can see, flexibility is the watchword, and thus one often-quoted hadith has Muhammad saying, "diversity of legal opinions is a mercy."

Another sign of flexibility is the maxim that no rule holds under necessity. Stealing or eating pork is no sin if you are dying of hunger. Pregnant women, sick persons or travelers can put off their Ramadan fast till a better time. Using sand for the prescribed ablutions for prayer instead of water when none is available is fine. But more importantly – and this has become very popular today – attention to the "objectives of Sharia" has always led Muslim jurists to believe that its primary purpose was to benefit humanity. Here the key word is maslaha, translated as "public benefit," or even an equivalent to the "common good." This kind of emphasis of late, together with the quranic maxim that God wants to make our life easier, not harder, has led contemporary scholars to focus more on the spirit of the law, as opposed to the strict letter of the law (more on this in a blog devoted to human rights).

Finally, Islamic law is comprehensive. It is designed to help humans sort out all their various actions into five categories. Only the first and the last, the mandatory and the forbidden, have consequences for the next life. The recommended or praiseworthy are those actions, which if acted on will bring reward, but if shunned bring no punishment. The blameworthy or reprehensible category includes actions, which if carried out will incur a penalty (like eating work horses for Hanafis, and smoking for most jurists today); yet avoiding them brings no reward. The fifth is the middle category, covering the great majority of human acts: those that do not fall in the four above categories are neutral. Islamic law presumes that most of what people choose to do everyday is permissible, if in fact it is neither forbidden nor reprehensible.

There are two general categories covered by Islamic law: the religious rituals ('ibadat, or "worship items") and rules concerning human relationships (mu'amalat). The first category contains the "five pillars" of Islam: the shahada, or "testimony"; ritual prayers (salah); almsgiving (zakat); the month of fasting (Ramadan); and the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), and a few other items as well. But the second category is the largest. "Human transactions" includes commercial and property law, judicial procedure, and criminal law. But notice: it never included constitutional law. In a blog devoted to Islam and politics I will show, God willing (in sha'a Allah), that Muslim rulers always ran their own legal system parallel to the Sharia courts, and that a wide variety of political arrangements over the centuries were deemed "Islamic."

Just like their Jewish counterparts, Muslims venerate Sharia as the path to God's blessing in this life and the next. Yet at least thirteen states in America today have bills pending to outlaw any use of Sharia. Arizona-based attorney David Yerushalmi, who has written for years about the danger that Sharia represents in subverting American freedoms, has now drafted the strictest bill for consideration by the Tennessee legislature. As far as he's concerned, it's only the part of Sharia that's connected to jihad that is targeted, because to his mind it could lead to the overthrowing of the US government. But as Islamic Society of North America spokeswoman Sarah Thompson stated, "The way that it's worded makes the assumption that any practice of Islam is a practice of terrorism. And that's a dangerous line to walk. It excludes the millions of Muslims that are practicing peaceably from the ability to do so."

All these attempts to impugn Islamic law will likely be declared unconstitutional in the end. As seen here, Sharia includes all of human life, but like many other aspects, past fiqh rulings on jihad have been hotly debated by Muslim jurists, and especially in the modern period (a topic for another day). Of course, there are classical readings of the texts that radical Muslims have leaned on to recruit from the wider Muslim community. There are also specific fiqh rulings from the past (still "on the books" in some places) that contravene established norms of human rights today. I'll deal with that later. What is clear, however, is that Sharia itself – as a sign and symbol – remains at the heart of Muslim spirituality. And for that reason, in the best tradition of our American democracy, we should shun witch hunts of all kinds and welcome to the table our fellow-Americans who happen to be Muslims, as we did – reluctantly at first – Catholics and Jews in the not-so-distant past.

Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin recently served with the US Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet his role was mostly in intelligence gathering as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence at the Pentagon. As a loyal patriot in the military, Boykin was and continues to be laser-focused on our nation’s enemies.

No one would deny that transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates or Taliban-related fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan (tribal-based with local aims) are sworn enemies of the US. What I would like to highlight here is Boykin’s unshakeable certainty that “Islam” equals Sharia law, and Sharia law equals a system inherently bent on world domination. In a recent article, posing as an expert on all things Islamic, he proclaims,

Sharia law is the foundation of Islamic theocracy and totalitarianism. The establishment of global Sharia law is the goal of the adherents to authoritative Islam. The Koran is unequivocal in its directive to Muslims to establish a global Islamic state, or Caliphate, over which the Islamic messiah, or Mahdi, will rule with Sharia as the only law of the land. That is the intent of many influential Islamic elements in America.

Here I only test one of his claims: that Sharia as blueprint for global hegemony is the view of “many influential elements in America.” God willing, I will follow up with three more blogs touching on other aspects of this most misunderstood aspect of the Islamic faith – Sharia law.

But first, just a little background into the wider (and influential) movement to which Boykin relates. In today’s social science parlance, I speak here of “the anti-Sharia discourse.” Indeed, Boykin is the lead author of a book on this topic, Shariah: The Threat To America: An Exercise In Competitive Analysis (2010). It is published by a think-tank led by Frank Gaffney, who was a top security adviser for President Reagan. The book’s description on Amazon.com reads: “This study is the result of months of analysis, discussion and drafting by a group of top security policy experts concerned with the preeminent totalitarian threat of our time: the legal-political-military doctrine known within Islam as ‘shariah.’”

Many other voices from several quarters have joined in this chorus. I’ll only mention one here, Steven Emerson and his Washington-based SAE Productions and its nonprofit wing, the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation. And it seems that Emerson’s “nonprofit” pitch that America stands on the brink of impending doom at the hand of Islamic radicals is in fact rather profitable. In 2008 alone he collected more than $3.3 million. Investigative journalist Bob Smietana got interested in this one arm of “a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances” by virtue of covering a trial in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.

Opponents of the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, managed to monopolize six days of court hearings with lectures on how Islam is not a true religion but rather a conspiracy to take over America and squash its cherished freedom. Unsurprisingly, one of the witnesses was Frank Gaffney whose think-tank had determined that one of the board members of the new mosque had been a member of Hamas (an allegation denied by the member and his board). Gaffney reiterated what other self-proclaimed experts in Sharia law had said, namely that Islam and Sharia were inseparable and therefore posed a vital threat to US security.

            Fortunately, a coalition of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims stood up to defend the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. One of those prominent voices was that of Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, who said that it was ludicrous for the opponents of the mosque to base their opposition on the claim that Islam was not a religion but a political system with a built-in legal code at war with American democracy. He added that Muslims are like other past minorities that faced tough challenges to be accepted in America. For that reason, he was not going to relent: “Islam is facing that now and we will not rest until they have equal rights with other religions.”

            The latest news is that the judge was ready to throw out the opponents’ challenge to the green light for the building permit issued by the Regional Planning Commission, but they did manage to have another hearing scheduled for April 13. Regardless of the outcome, however, the fact that the opposition has gained so much traction is a testimony to the power and magnetism of the anti-Sharia discourse.

            Yet that line of thinking is totally divorced from the worldview of the vast majority of American Muslims. Not only did all the major Muslim organizations in this country immediately condemn the attacks of 2001; they fervently and unequivocally support the ethical ideals of democracy and human rights, including religious freedom. The imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been at the center of the “Park51” controversy (their new building a couple of blocks away from “Ground Zero”), is a veteran of interfaith dialog. Imam Abdul Rauf explained what he has learned as an American Muslim in his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. As a young man he sailed into New York Harbor in December 1965, eying the Statue of Liberty. “Little did I realize then,” he mused, “that I was to discover the riches of my faith tradition in this land. Like many immigrants from Muslim lands, I discovered my Islam in America.”

            One of his discoveries was that with its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution the United States of America is a better “Muslim” country than most so-called “Muslim countries.” I cannot here go into all the details, but let’s start with this summary:

Muslim legal scholars have defined five areas of life that Islamic law must protect and further. These are life, mind (that is, mental well-being or sanity), religion, property (or wealth), and family (or lineage and progeny). Any system of rule that upholds, protects, and furthers these rights is therefore legally “Islamic,” or Shariah compliant, in its substance. Because these rights are God-given, they are inalienable and cannot be deprived of any man or woman without depriving them of their essential humanity.

            Another part of his argument centers around the two central commandments of love for God and love of neighbor. The three Abrahamic faiths, and Islam’s religious law (the Sharia) make this distinction. Their followers are to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. “Our Christian friends,” he writes, “call this the ‘vertical dimension’ of religious practice.” The second part is more sociological, having to do with the “horizontal dimension” of our faith – how we relate to those around us. The first dimension in Islamic law is called the ‘ibadat, the ritual aspect of the faith (the five pillars of Islam, and the like). The second dimension is the mu’amalat, literally the mutual relationships of people in society, which covers family law, contractual or commercial law, and penal or criminal law. That second branch, as opposed to the fixed nature of the first, is extremely flexible. As long as those objectives of Sharia are met (as stated in the block quotation above), they are constantly in need of revision and reformulation, so as to respond to the changing needs of society over time.

More detail will come in subsequent blogs. Here I only emphasize that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf sits squarely in the center of mainstream American Islam. In an evangelical-Muslim dialog to which Rick Love and I contributed, which was organized by Georgetown University last year, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was giving out free copies of his book. Muslims disagree on many details of theology, law and politics – as do Jews and Christians among themselves. But one thing is for sure: the conspiracy theories of Jerry Boykin and Steven Emerson have nothing to do with the view of Sharia held by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim American community.

              Since this is my first blog, you must know a bit about me. Practically all of my schooling was in France, where my father founded an inter-church youth organization for the purpose of re-introducing French youths to the teachings of Jesus. I started college in the United States with a French accent and a European mindset. Then after college I trained as a pastor at a seminary, but felt God was calling me to serve in Algeria. There I served as assistant pastor for nine years, first in the only English-speaking Protestant Church (Anglican) and then in the only French-speaking one (a mix of French Reformed and Methodist). The next stage was teaching, first in an English-language elementary school in Ismailiyya, Egypt; then at the Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank, teaching Palestinians in Arabic.

            Then, starting in 1997, there was this “second career” in academia . . . a PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, postdoctoral research in Islamic Studies at Yale, teaching part-time at the University of Pennsylvania, and now at St. Joseph’s University (also in Philadelphia), a Catholic school. Each semester for the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching two classes each term, Introduction to Islam and Comparative Religion.

            I am fascinated by the phenomenon of religion, how it developed over the millennia in various parts of the world; how religiosity has mushroomed globally since the 1980s especially; and how followers of the two largest “religions” – Muslims and Christians – can dig into the treasures of their traditions and invest those resources to build a more peaceful and righteous world. This series of blogs is my attempt to pull out from my academic publications (and lectures) bits and pieces that I think will widen your perspective and inspire you to take part in this movement – whether you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or purely “secular.”

            I put “religion” in quotation marks, only because scholars cannot agree on how to define it. One group thinks there is something special that makes certain beliefs and practices “religious”: its reference to supernatural beings; or how people separate the “sacred” from the “profane”; or the belief in a transcendent power, whether personal or impersonal.

            Another group retorts that there is no one “essence” (no one “thing”) to “religion,” but that one should look at how religion functions in society: how certain beliefs and rituals bind people together, how collective myths shape a particular culture, and the like.

            Finally, another group says, “no, you just describe people’s beliefs, their rituals and practices, using the tools of sociology and anthropology (what is generally called the ‘phenomenology of religion’), and you note what different systems have in common.” That’s basically a middle path between the first and second options, and you can call it the “family resemblance” approach.

            But, you say, “Who cares about this scholarly stuff? It’s just making something simple very confusing!” Perhaps, but it’s our oversimplifications that often create conflict. Consider this: the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published an article in 1993 entitled, “The Clash of Civilizations.” He had long been an advisor to the State Department under several administrations and on the heels of the Soviet Union’s demise and the Gulf War his idea caught the imagination of many American intellectuals and politicians. Basically, he taught that from now on, the great conflicts of our world will take place between “civilizations.” The “West” will face off with “Islam” and “Confucianism” (i.e., China) in the first place, but other blocks will join in the fray, including the Hindu, Japanese, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African blocks.

            The implication – spelled out in particular by American “Neo-Conservatives” who were pushing President Bush to invade Iraq long before he did – was that this clash is inevitable and that we had better arm ourselves to the teeth and get ready for it. Not exactly a call to peaceful conflict resolution. The late Palestinian-American English professor at Columbia University, Edward Said, wrote in response that first of all there is no such thing as “the West” (which country are you talking about? Which ethnicity or political current?) or “Islam” (do you mean the Sunni majority. . . what about the Sufis, the Shia, the Ahmadis, the Salafis, etc.?). And second, that this oversimplified, essentialized view (the “West” is the “West” by virtue of a common essence) grossly distorts reality and fans the flame of conflict like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            Edward Said notes that right after the unspeakable horrors of World War II, nations assembled to create a platform of understanding so as to (or try to) insure that this would never happen again. Hence the United Nations, the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, and the spate of international covenants and agreements that are now seen as “international law.” Said calls this the “harmony” paradigm. A better world is possible, so let’s work together to make it happen. The other paradigm was the Cold War. Two blocks facing each other, with enough fire power to blow up the planet a few hundred times over.

            All this to say: let’s take a closer look at some of the stereotypes bandied about in the media (like “Islam is violent,” or “religious people are bigoted,” etc.). Maybe reality is more complex and, actually, much more interesting. I may even get you to see that academic disciplines like sociology, history, theology and religious studies have some useful tools to work with!