Happy Muslims, angry Puritanical Muslims.

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The viral video Happy Muslims by The Honestly Policy seemingly caused some controversy and apparently not solely due to my poor dance moves. Many have questioned why I, and others, chose to participate in the video and what our ‘objectives’ were. So, despite some reservations, I’ve decided to weigh in….

My decision to take part was motivated by a desire to show mainstream Muslims as ordinary people, who can have fun and who have a sense of humor, away from the usual headlines sadly so typically associated with our community.  At a time of heightened islamophobia and suspicion, I hoped the video could contribute to rehumanising Muslims.   Far too often, Muslims are represented in the media for all the wrong reasons. An extensive body of literature and research indicates that on the whole, the images and discourse relating to Islam and Muslims in mainstream Western media tends to be overwhelmingly negative. These negative Muslim stories consequently affect wider society’s perception of the Muslim faith and its beliefs. Some would argue that the effects of such demonization have been the Muslim community being seen as a foreign body within wider society, or as the ‘other’. This phenomenon of reducing minorities to the ‘other’ is nothing new of course. History has its fair share of stories of one group dehumanising another group.   One cannot help but think that the constant negative portrayal of Muslims and charges of Muslim exceptionalism, have reduced Muslims to a less human alien minority within the West. The Happy Muslims video was in a way, an attempt to dispel the negative perception by presenting Muslims in a manner far removed from usual depictions, specifically, happy, smiling and having fun.

The reaction to the video by the majority of Muslims has been positive. But to no one’s surprise, Puritanical Muslim preachers have been outraged by the video (although to be fair, it really doesn’t take much), expressing hard line verdicts to excite the Islamic sentiments of the ignorant.  According to such individuals, the video was a clear violation of Islamic law, specifically such actions as dancing are deemed to be ‘Haram’ ie: a prohibited act. Of course, no matter the noble intentions behind the video, the means do not justify the ends. But can one make such a claim and condemn the video and those who took part?  When engaging with Puritanical Muslims, one discovers there really is little substance to their claims. Often Puritanicals ask for evidence to deem a given action ‘Halal’, or permissible.  Although this gives the impression that one is being true to the faith, the question is based on a false premise, namely that ‘every action is Haram until sharia permits’.  E.g of a question, I had someone ask me “where is the evidence during the Prophet’s time, of the women of Medina dancing publicly?”
This is a completely topsy turvy way in which do deduce ‘Hukm’ , Islamic rulings, not to mention the fact it leads to absurdities. It’s analogous to the notion that one is guilty until proven innocent!   While it should be noted that this principle is true for Ibadat, i.e. acts of worship, it is not the case for anything else.

The correct view regarding fiqh (jurisprudence) of actions is ‘Every action is halal (permissible) until texts restrict’. Thus, the onus is on the Puritanical Muslims to find the evidence to deem dancing ‘Haram’ or impermissible. What constitutes evidence?

Scholars of jurisprudence were very wary of labeling something as Haram. The Quranic verse warms against those who forbid what God has made lawful [66:1]. Thus, anyone who takes it upon him or herself to deem something forbidden must have evidence, which must be ‘Qati’, definitive, to justify such a claim.

Essentially there are two undisputed sources of evidence in determining Islamic law, the Quran and Sunnah (sayings, actions and consent of the Prophet peace be upon him). The ‘Qati’ nature of evidence is also determined by two factors, sound epistemological status and unambiguous meaning. With regards to the former, the Quran is always considered sound whereas the hadith can vary depending on the grade of narration, or the ‘Isnad’. With regards to unambiguity of meaning, both verses and hadith can be ambiguous in meaning. Hence, why traditional Islam has a diversity of opinions on the topic of music and entertainment. So my challenge to the detractors is this, where is the clear-cut or definitive evidence to deem the video ‘Haram’ or impermissible?

There simply isn’t clear-cut evidence to dismiss it as such. Puritanical Muslims have been at pains to find a verse or hadith to vindicate their outcry. Some have made desperate attempts to even use ‘Qiyas’, analogical deduction, which itself is indicative that there is no direct evidence to prohibit the video. One example I’ve heard cited refers to the Quran suggesting that the prophet’s wives shouldn’t over-soften their voices as to avoid desire within the diseased heart of strange men. (Qur’an 33:32) The ‘argument’ goes: women dancing (like in the video) invokes desire in men, thus for the same reason, it should be prohibited. Putting aside that this verse is referring to the Prophet’s wives and even states, “ you are not like any other women”, it is simply a false analogy. Had the dance moves in the video involved Muslim women pole dancing seductively then perhaps one could entertain the analogy, but what is clear in the video, is that the dancing was innocuous – with some simply walking with a rhythm or bopping their heads to the tune.

Are these Puritanical Muslim men seriously claiming that the video was too seductive? The attempt to make the Happy Muslims video some sordid affair says more about them than about its actual content to be fair.

More importantly, this quasi-Islamic reasoning can lead to reductio ad absurdum, whereby any innocuous act can be deemed Haram. And, it’s precisely this type of obscure ‘Islamic reasoning’ that results in women becoming invisible in society.  What about women walking in public, hosting a TV programme or even driving? It’s simply an abuse of Islamic teaching to universally prohibit acts which some have a fetish problem with. Once you strip away the layers of obfuscation, all you discover is a naked obsession with sex, women and control masquerading as religious devotion. Traditional Islam describes women, as well as men with an ‘awrah’ (intimate parts) that must be guarded by the virtue of modesty. Puritanical Islam reduces women to nothing more than an ‘awrah’. Why should we even entertain the views of those who hold the opinion that women should be neither seen nor heard?

That said, given that the discussion is within the remit of fiqh exploration, if one wants to be charitable, one might allow the claim that some may deem the video ‘haram’. And yet, even this merely suggests a difference of opinion. What’s the consequence of this in terms of fiqh, responsibility and judgment? It means it can only be ‘haram’ for those who deem it ‘haram’, and not for those who differ with that interpretation! To see it any other way would be a form of authoritarian fiqh tyranny, a problem Puritanical Muslims suffer from quite regularly, wanting to impose puritanical ‘Islamic opinions’ on everyone else!

Of course, there have also been emotional appeals. Terms have been bandied around like “liberal” and “secular” and the appeasement of these ‘ideologies’ allegedly by those who appear in the video. The problem here again, is that the argument is based on a false assumption. What is acceptable in Islam is not defined as the opposite of how non-Muslims live or by somehow being ‘anti-Western’ (an odd term given that we are talking about British Muslims, ie ‘westerners’!). Also, despite the prevalence of such a belief, a view is no more Islamic simply because it is more restrictive. The more ‘liberal’ opinion could well be the more Islamic; any restriction on something without warrant is fundamentally unIslamic.   Now to mention it crudely reduces every action to an ideological assertion. Dancing is not by definition an expression of an ideological creed.

The Happy Muslims video was an attempt to present a genuine picture of mainstream Muslims, but it has now become part of a broader move to push back against imported Puritanical Islam, the WalMart of Islam, that has dominated Muslim and Non- Muslim discourse for too long, masquerading as traditional Islam. Puritanical Islam is dead, long live Islam.