At present, an ethical crisis exists within Islamic theology and plays a major factor within Islamic extremism. A reading of Islam that suffers an ethical disconnect leads to ethical disorientation. We live in a time where Muslim reactions to the mundane/trivial are met with outrage and condemnation (e.g. Happy Muslims video) while moral crimes such as apostasy killings are met with apathy and silence. Too often influential religious leaders can be seen defending the morally indefensible; their views filter down to the Muslim masses, which can help create intolerant attitudes and destructive zealous mindsets.
No better illustration of this problem is the reaction to Mumtaz Qadri’s assassination of a leading politician, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 for his stance against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Taseer had defended Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, who allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad and as a result was placed on death row. On Tuesday, Mumtaz Qadri was executed for murder in Pakistan and an estimated crowd of more than 100,000 people attended his funeral in show of support. It is believed that before his death Qadri was praised and showered with petals as he went to trial. The news of his execution was followed by support and tribute by some British imams, Muslim groups and individuals in the UK – to the extent some were declaring him a “martyr” who defended the honour of the Prophet Muhammad. What is the source of this moral blindness, which encourages the praise of a murderer and condemnation of a man calling for religious tolerance? Just as the Charlie Hebdo murders saw themselves as “defenders of the prophets” acting upon supposed Islam’s blasphemy laws’, Mumtaz was also motivated by such laws and this applies to his supporters and sympathizers.
In defense of blasphemy laws, Hadiths (historical accounts of sayings and actions of the prophet Mohammed) are often cited. The most famous hadith attributed to the Prophet is, “whoever insults the Prophet should be killed/kill them”. Three things can be said regarding this ‘command’: the first, in terms of ‘evidence’, namely the reliability of the chain of narration, the most optimistic view is that it is spurious, as some classical scholars have argued. Thus, given the gravity of the command versus the weakness of the evidence it should be avoided at all cost.
The second, any scripture understood to the exclusion of its socio-political context of 7th century Arabia is simply void and amounts to conjecture. Such interpretations would be unfaithful to the intended meaning of the ‘commandment’ of Prophet Mohammed and God. During the time of the Prophet Mohammed, political and religious identities were identical. Derision of Prophet Mohammed was an attempt to galvanize the hostile tribes, with military capability, to cause instability within society potentially leading to treason and war. Within such a context, blasphemy laws were necessary in order to preserve the peace within society. They were not about the safeguarding the ‘honour’ of the Prophet according to some jurists.
However, more importantly, if we ethically critique the commandment it will fall short of any intelligibility. It cannot be a command of the Prophet to kill someone for a mere insult since this is patently disproportionate. Any punishment should be proportionate to the crime, something the Quran attests to. Moreover, blasphemy laws that hold one should be killed contravene the principle of religious freedom, which is also upheld by the Quran. It is commonly held by Muslims, to compromise God’s divinity and to attribute partners to God is the most egregious insult to God. If insulting sacredness had to be met with the death penalty the consequence would have been to kill all Christians at the time of Prophet Mohammed, for merely pronouncing a tenant of their belief, that Jesus was God. For Muslims, this is attributing human qualities to God, a violation of his divinity. But Christians were clearly not killed for such a belief throughout the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime. This raises the question – given that God is higher than the Prophet Mohammed in terms of sacred hierarchy and those who insulted God were not killed, why would death be sanctioned for those who insult the Prophet? Blasphemy laws by implication contradict its own principle of religious freedom. Thus, such a command lacks any ethical substance and is plagued with inconsistencies.
Moral blindness that plagues thinking, creates a deafening silence of religious leaders illustrated by Taseer’s murder and drives the religious support of Mumtaz. Without reform of how Muslim scholars interpret and understand the Islamic faith, this moral blindness will continue and such incidents, like the murder of a man fighting for the rights of minorities, will escape them. It can be said that religious zealously marks Mumtaz’s death and that his support demonstrates everything that is wrong with how Islam is understood. Salman Taseer dead for justice, compassion and Islam’s beauty. The true martyr is Salman Taseer not Mumtaz Qadri.
I was recently on the Big Questions, which was aired on Sunday 31 January. The debate topic: ‘Do we need a British Islam?’. It was an intense and heated debate and articulating points on a live show with serious time constraints has it challenges (add to that a passionate debate and everyone trying to get their points across) which meant it was difficult to clarify the points I was trying to make. At times the challenges became personal which didn’t make for the best of examples but, I imagine, made for good viewing. This was an opportunity to discuss important issues and for this reason I write further to clarify the thoughts I had saved for the show itself.
At the beginning of the show I expressed that the dominant interpretation of Islam at present in the UK was one that had lost its beauty and had become divorced from ethics. It was not as someone had misquoted me as saying “that the majority of British Muslims are unethical”. My point was that religious leaders and activists who dominate the intellectual discourse argue for an Islam that is often out of touch with the message of Islam. The articulation of a humanistic Islam is lost and drowned out by a small minority of self-proclaimed guardians of the faith, who dominate the Islamic discourse. This does not negate the fact that Muslims in West Yorkshire helped their fellow citizens in need and that Muslims have “fish and chips on Friday” but misses the point. I also raised the point about apostasy killing (killing someone for merely leaving the Islamic faith) as a way of demonstrating the basic incompatibility between certain aspects of Islam as interpreted by the four major Sunni schools of thought and British values as lived in the UK. In my experience Islamic preachers have openly spoken, especially on university campuses, that apostate killing is a mainstream position. A video of such an example can be found here.
To allow such irrationality to permeate the religion consequently allows for a mindset that can tolerate this and other evils and ultimately taints the religion of Islam. The denial of the problem of Puritanism and the desperate need for reform is driven by a deep sense of manufactured victimhood used to exploit uninformed Muslims. Claiming persecution, discrimination or profiling redirects and redistributes blame, obstructing the deep inner refection that is needed to address such issues. The Sufi mystics have an ancient tradition which stressed the importance of focusing on the self before even thinking about others. To be hard on the self and easy on others. A discipline ignored, the mystics warned, a person could drift into moral complacency and arrogance. This is also true of a community if the community is constantly in a type of “siege mentally” and does not engage in inner self-refection.
Bizarrely, one of the guests accused me of exacerbating extremism for bringing up such concerns. To deny that ugly acts are done in the name of Islam due to an extremist reading of Islam and to engage in blame fest (namely to blame the West) immunizes and desensitizes the community. It is important to challenge noxious edicts and doctrines that denigrate the Islamic faith. In turn, failing to identify the true problems and allowing for change allows the negative depictions of Islam pushed by the Islamic right to prosper and go unchallenged. Victim merchants stoking fires who hinder the introspection process are obstructing Islam’s reform and are unwittingly acting as the enemy within, not those who call for change.
There has been great positive comments and feedback by both Muslim and non Muslim following the show. Messages of warmth and solidarity. Comments included: “breath of fresh air” and “refreshing”. I also received:
“I greatly admire your resilience, especially at presenting logical arguments to people who are incapable of debating. I had given that up a long time ago, and have always felt apathetic in my apparent isolation of belief. I finally feel like I’m not alone…”.
Some Muslims felt the need to show their support in private for fear of receiving a backlash. One Muslim explained, “Just wanted to say I loved your arguments on the show: it gave me hope…I would love to address you publicly on your page but I’m exactly the peer prepressured subject that you’re trying to defend (plenty of crows circling my Facebook activity)”.
It seems there is a silent majority who cannot connect with the fossilized Islam that puritans preach. The small minority of Muslims at the end of the spectrum who have been indoctrinated by supremacist Islamist and Puritanical Wahhabi teachings are those that push back any discussion about reform. But those Muslims in the middle ground are receptive and welcome a more tolerant, pluralistic and ethical Islam, one that they can relate to. The single most important challenge to Islam is this puritan trend. Everyone talks about how many people are embracing Islam, but the true question is: how many are leaving?
There has been some discussion surrounding my statement on my reasons for joining the Quilliam Foundation. In particular, my theological statements concerning the relationship between reason and revelation based on the Maturidi school of thought. I would like to respond to some of the points raised from two online posts.
The gist of both criticisms is that in presenting my views I had “misused” the Maturidi position and that my views fall outside of Islamic orthodoxy namely, they are better placed within the Mu’tazilite school of thought.
The first criticism is by Mufti Zameel which can be found here. Zameel begins by summarising from a text entitled ‘Qamar al-Aqmar (Maktabat al-Bushra)’ and then makes his own colourful conclusions.
Some preliminary comments: I have not read the text in question – nevertheless, I will go on the assumption that the summary is a fair representation of its contents. However, it is important to note that this is a commentary, of a commentary of a ‘usul al fiqh’ (juristic methodology) book, rather than a major textbook on theology, which is the discipline this topic accurately falls under. Also, historically some Ash’ari theologians held the same beliefs of the Maturidi in terms of knowing good and evil through reason, which is not known or simply omitted by Zameel.
Zameel begins to outline that there are three positions regarding morality within the Islamic perspective, Ash’ari, Maturidi and Mu’tazilite. He explains, that there is a “fundamental disagreement”, between the Ash’ari and Maturidi, on one side and with the Mu’tazila School on the other. The Ash’ari and Maturidi agree with one another that “reason is secondary to scripture and reason is subservient to it” and are subsequently in disagreement with the Mu’tazila view that holds reason to be ‘superior’ to scripture and that it can override it. He then attributes the Mu’tazilite view to me and concludes that my views are unorthodox.
Firstly, it is clear that the author is not familiar with philosophical terms and “misuses” them. In particular, he conflates ‘moral absoluteness’ with ‘moral objectiveness’. He writes, “The Ash’aris agree with Māturīdīs on the fundamental point that everything the Sharī‘ah orders is good and everything it forbids is bad. They disagree, however, with Māturīdīs, on the moral absoluteness of the commands and prohibitions.”
‘Moral absoluteness’ is the view there are no exceptions to moral judgments. For example, it is always wrong to lie whatever the situation, without exception. The term that is more apt is ‘moral objectiveness’. Objectivity of moral judgments means that their moral value is a matter of fact, independent of social customs or opinions. In terms of God’s commands, they are not arbitrary, namely not just based on God’s will, but are true independently. In other words, the moral commands for a particular context could not be any other way. Also, his comparison implies that the Mu’tazila do not agree. But, Zameel fails to mention that the Mu’tazila are also in agreement that everything the Shari’ah orders is good and everything it forbids is bad. In fact, the Maturidi and Mu’tazila have more in common with one another in terms of the grounding of God’s commands. Not only do they agree that God’s commands are good and God’s prohibitions are evil but, they both hold to the view that the bases of the commands are an objective standard, not merely on God’s will as the Asharites believe.
Moreover, there is more of a fundamental difference between Ash’ari and Maturidi schools in that it is inconceivable in the Maturidi position that God could order things untruthful and miserly as being ‘good’ nor anything which is known by the intellect to be wrong. Thus, both schools hold to two diametrically opposing positions. Zameel continues to misrepresent the Mu’tazilite school – he writes, “The Mu‘tazila, on the other hand, disagree with both groups in principle. They state that there is no need for the Sharī‘ah to even reveal to us what is good and bad in certain areas. We know this rationally, independently of the Sharī‘ah.”
It is not clear what Zameel means by “no need for the Sharī‘ah to even reveal to us what is good and bad”. If what is meant here is that you can discover or obtain what is good and bad in certain matters prior to revelation, then this also reflects the Maturidi belief. Thus, Zameel makes a distinction without a difference between the Mu’tazila and Maturidi schools since both Maturidi and Mu’tazila support the same epistemological position. He continues with his own conclusions, “In both schools [Ash’ari and Maturidi], reason is secondary to scripture and subservient to it.” Again, this characterization of the Maturidi text is incorrect. If a person is subservient to another that implies there are two separate wills and that they can potentially contradict one another. In Zameel’s description, the master’s will must thwart the will of the slave, thus, there exists the potentiality for the slave to contradict the master’s will, but the master thwarts it. But the Maturidi school believes that there cannot ever be a contradiction between sound reason and scripture, since they both operate within the same ethical sphere and are in harmony. If one is subservient to another this means there can be a conflict – but the potentiality of such a conflict does not exist within the Maturidi position. Lastly, he writes, “…they [Mu’tazila]…at least theoretically – consider the Sharī‘ah in some respects secondary or, in extreme cases, redundant”. If by ‘redundant’ it is meant that revelation is not necessary to determine moral judgments, again both Maturidi and the Mu’tazila agree on this. Then what is the point being made here?
Moreover, how Zameel positions the three Schools’ relationship is at odds with how the Maturidi School viewed itself within the spectrum of schools. Early presentations of Maturidis had positioned themselves together with Mu’tazila on one side and Ash’arites on the other. As the Central Asian jurist, ‘Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Abu Ahmad `Ala’ al-Din al-Samarqandi states clearly,
“Good and evil may be known by the intellect according to us and the Mu’tazila, contrary to the Ahl al-Hadith.” Ala al-Din al-Samarqandi, Mizan al-Usul (p. 167)
Much later presentations of the Maturidi Schools positioned themselves in the middle of the Mu’tazila and Ash’ari Schools. For example, Muhammad Zahid Kawthari al-Hanafi, (1879-1951), who was the adjunct to the last Sheikh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire and a well-known Hanafi jurist, historian, and master of hadith, writes:
“There is no scholastic theologian comparable to al-Ash’ari in terms of the magnitude of his work. Yet, his opinions are not devoid of matters open to criticism, like the occasional remoteness from reason or scripture apparent upon examining his writings. This is seen in a small number of issues such as his views on the nature of good and evil, on whether Divine acts have a ground, on the epistemic standing of scriptural texts and other such issues. [As for]… his contemporary, the Imam of Guidance Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the Shaykh of the Sunna in Transoxiana… he was able to maintain a fully moderate position in his reasoning, giving both scripture and the intellect their due. So the Maturidis are in the centre, between the Asha’ris and the Mu’tazila.” Introduction to Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari by ibn ‘Asakir (p. 26-7)
In summary, Zameel presents a poor depiction of the Maturidi and Mu’tazila positions. In the process, Zameel leaves out the Mu’tazila’s agreements with Maturidi School and misrepresents the Mu’tazila in a caricature fashion to artificially create a chasm between the two schools in order to show a closer relationship between the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools. Moreover, it can be argued that the Maturidi and Ash’ari positions fundamentally disagree with one another more than what they share in terms of their understanding of morality. For these reasons, Zameel’s argument breaks down.
The second criticism comes from an anonymous blogger suffering from a ‘fanboyism’ for Hizb ut Tahrir’s teachings. The ‘nucleus’ of his argument is a quote from Mullah Ali Qari:
“We [the Maturidis] say that some rulings can be known without the aid of a Prophet. … We say, however, that most rulings cannot be known except through the Book and the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him.” Al-Qari, M.A., Minah al-Rawd al-Azhar Fi Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, pp.306-7.
From this quote he excessively concludes, “In short, the Maturidi position makes reason subservient to the recognition of the rulings already established through the two primary sources of Islam (which constitute the Shari’ah), and explicitly rejects the notion that the Shari’ah is to be contorted to reason.” Then, like Zameel, claims my theological views are not in line with the Maturidi school, but more in tune with the Mu’tazila and deems my views unorthodox.
It is surprising that al-Qari is used, since al-Qari is not considered a primary source for Maturidi theology and there are primary sources that can be found. Not to mention al-Qari is known to be influenced by ahl-hadith. But putting that aside, we saw earlier, subservient depictions of reason are simply not consistent and expose a fundamental misunderstanding of the Maturidi School. But importantly, “most” does not mean all. For the author’s conclusion to follow from Ali Qari’s quote, Qari had to have said ‘all’ cannot be known by reason not “most”. One could still argue that the part of the Sharia that can be known without scripture can be “contorted to reason”, which the author wants to avoid. It is important to note that the Shari’ah is a vast area of knowledge; it does not simply consist of ‘laws’. The author does not explain what “some rulings” consists of. Within Islam ‘rulings’ also consist of ritual acts, but I did not argue that ritual acts are subject to reason in the same way laws are. There is big difference between how to make wudu and the ruling on killing someone for simply changing their religion. The latter should obviously be subject to ethical scrutiny. Such details, which are missing, are vital to draw any kind of conclusion. Thus, these important points undermine the premise of the author’s ‘argument’.
A few weeks ago I was both verbally abused and physically assaulted by an ‘ex’ member of banned organsation, Al Muhajirioun. Since leaving the organsation, I had not seen this particular person for quite some time and I happened just by chance to come across him at a local petrol station at, of all places. I still remember quite vividly the expression on his face, he was like a bull that had seen red. As he threatened me, he repeated the words: “you’re a murtad, a murtad!”. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘murtad’ it’s the Arabic term for apostate and for some apostates are despised with a view that the death penalty should be applied to them. So what motivated this recent attack? Well it was my recent television appearance talking about ‘his’ faith and him wanting to educate me with his fists as he howled, “let me teach you a lesson get out of the car”. He also hit my vehicle and hit me through the half open window. Thankfully, I was not hurt and the police are now handling the matter. His attitude towards me can be traced back to a major problem we have within the Islamic tradition known as Takfirism. Takfir is the excommunication of a Muslim, denouncing them as outside the fold of Islam. A variety of Takfiri movements have reared their ugly heads throughout Islam’s history and its modern manifestation can be found in the development of Wahabsim from the 18th century.
…traced back to a major problem we have within the Islamic tradition known as Takfirism.
Its founder Abd al-Wahhab was vehemently schismatic. He sought to rid Islam of what he deemed ‘corruptions’ in the form of rationalism, mysticism and Shi’ism on the basis of Takfirism. If a Muslim weren’t a ‘true believer’ according to Abd al-Wahhab’s arbitrary standards he would have no hesitation in calling that Muslim an apostate and such a judgment meant they could be killed. His writings repeatedly refer to deferring jurists as “devils” or “spawns of Satan”. It is documented that ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers ordered the execution and assassination of large numbers of jurists with whom they disagreed, not to mention ransacking and pillaging differing neighboring tribes. Today we see the harrowing effects of such a doctrine; Takfirism is central to the ideology of militant groups such as ISIS. ISIS are not shy about their undivided commitment to the Wahhabi movement. The group openly circulates Wahhabi religious textbooks and writings of Wahhabi ideologies. Following in the footsteps of Wahhabism’s founder they embrace whole-heartedly the Takfiri tradition of killing those deemed apostates, this is regarded as an essential tool in purifying the Muslim community. Shia, Sufi and virtually anyone deemed non-salafi/wahabi are labeled apostates and subject to beheading. What is disconcerting is that puritanical preachers living in the West may condemn ISIS, but some hold very similar intolerant views of differing Muslims.
This type of doctrine or attitude can be described as form of Intra-Islamophobia or Intra-Muslim hate.
Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton describes the ISIS’ ideology as “…a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” and that “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.” Personally, I would not describe ISIS‘ ideology as an ‘untamed form of Wahhabsim’. For me, this overshadows the fundamental problem of Islamic theology that leads to Takfirism. A former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh ‘Aadel Al-Kalbani, Al-Kalbani, criticized aspects within the Salafi stream for permitting the killing of opponents. He announced that ISIS was the result of the ‘Salafi’ version of Islam, and therefore the Salafi sect needed to change. There is no taming a theology, which consists of noxious principles. Takfirism is essentially grounded within an ancient theology surrounding the status of apostates, namely Muslims who willingly denounce their faith under an Islamic state should be killed. Although, at odds with the Qu’ran, this problematic theology has taken an authoritative and dominant position within classical Islam and is propagated to this day in varying forms. Although this particular ‘Islamic’ ruling in the West is only a theoretical matter, its very existence creates a mindset that fosters intolerance and hatred. Takfirism can be viewed as an extension of apostasy laws, born out of an authoritarian reading of Islam, which seeks to impose one’s narrow interpretation on other Muslims and if resisted, they are subject to death. This type of doctrine or attitude can be described as form of Intra-Islamophobia or Intra-Muslim hate. Often used to silence, intimidate and ostracize those that go against the status qua. Combine this with the coercive force of a state, as we see in Saudi Arabia, ISIS and others, it is the most powerful form of Islamophobia that leads to state sanctioned murder. The murtad theology that underpins takfirism, is part of a broader problem of intolerance and fanaticism which impacts how extremist Muslims relate to differing Muslims and a barrier for progress (which is not exclusive to Wahhabi teachings). For this reason, our commitment to such a toxic theology desperately needs to change in order that we see the development of a more tolerant and pluralistic Islam. In any event, as Einstein said: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we crated them”.
…belief could not be compelled
Many prominent ideas that shape current Western values, namely religious freedom, freedom of speech and pluralism were products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment championed human reason and regarded it as having the power to change society and unshackle man from the restraints of religious tyranny. The thinkers of this movement were open to taking knowledge from tradition and scripture, if and only if they stood up to the standards of reason. Before the Enlightenment Christendom was embroiled with its own version of Takfirism, which lead to cruel religious persecution and suffering. Such manifestations of cruelty had a resounding effect on John Locke. In his ‘A letter concerning Toleration’ he begins by expressing that he is greatly troubled by the observation of Christians who “…deprive (men) of their estates, maim them with corporal punishments, starve and torment them in noisome prisons, and in the end even take away their lives…” in attempt to save their souls. Locke argues the separation of state and religion is fundamental for tolerance. “I esteem it above all things”, he writes, “to distinguish between the business of civil government and that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other”. Locke’s reasoning was motivated by the conceptual premise that belief could not be compelled. A change of faith by coercion lacked the necessary condition of inward acceptance; faith by force had no value. Thus, for Locke religious authorities should not have any coercive power. Locke then addressed the abuse of power within religion, he writes: “The religion of every prince is orthodox to himself”. What is deemed orthodoxy is simply the opinion of whoever is in power at the time. Locke concluded that since coercion is a central characteristic of the state, and that coercion for religious matters is futile, the State, can have no responsibility for the salvation of souls. Hence, this essential feature of the State, namely its coercive power, renders it incompatible with religious matters and the direct consequence of rendering religion beyond the state’s remit, is the implication of tolerance.
ISIS has created a colossal stain on Islam’s public image
Just as the Enlightenment used the lantern of reason for radical change to eradicate the darkness of religious tyranny, all scripture and theological principles within the Islamic tradition should similarly be reevaluated and able to stand up to the scrutiny of reason. ISIS has created a colossal stain on Islam’s public image demonstrating the logical outcomes of a puritanical reading of Islam. Such displays of brutality have forced Muslim thinkers and theologians to address problematic classical interpretations that were once immune and shielded by the cover of ‘orthodoxy’. Islam is far removed from its true light, when it returns, the shadows of tyranny and dogma will vanish. The potential for change can only happen if Islam has its own Enlightenment and renaissance: then and only then will we see elements like takfirism and murtad theology fall and when they do, all the other intolerant noxious interpretations will follow.
 Khaled Abou El Fadl, The great theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists.