Monday, May 7, 2012

FGM and Muhammad

My previous post was sent as an email to a liberal Christian friend who sent me this link to the alleged Hadith which permits female genital mutilation. This my reply to her. The passages in quotes are from her message to me.
That Hadith is considered to be fraudulent by most of the sources I have encountered, for purely historical reasons. Muslim scholars have a very elaborate system of scholarship for determining the authenticity of Hadith, and by that standard this Hadith is on the bottom rung. The most obvious reason for thinking it fraudulent, however, Is that it says that this practice was done by members of Muhammad’s tribe,  and there is very strong evidence that they never did it. (Such as the fact that they don’t do it now.)

 There is something reflective of Muhammad’s character in this story in that he tries to correct the abuse of the practice (“If you cut, do not overdo it”), rather than ban it outright. But Muhammad made those kinds of compromises only with powerful groups, and he would have had no reason to do it for this woman. Also there are Hadiths which say that a man has a moral obligation to make sure his sexual partner is satisfied,  which is clearly impossible with FGM.

Also the distinction between Sunna and Makruma is best translated as “required” and “encouraged”, and an important part of that distinction is that no one can be required to do an act which is Makruma. Consequently, forcing a woman to do a Makruma act is contrary to Islamic law, even if this story is true.

“Why is there such a gap between the fatwas and ideas of right-thinking people and the institutions on the ground?"

Because Islam became trapped in a series of Narrow and often Scripturally unjustified versions in the early 19th century, thanks to of Wahab and other fundamentalist writers. I have never denied that these conservative  interpretations are wide-spread, and are becoming more so, because of the Saudi funding of Wahabbi clerics. But I believe the best way to combat these people is to point out that they are misinterpreting Islam.  To some degree that point is orthogonal to our discussion, because even the most conservative Wahabbi clerics in Saudi Arabia condemn FGM (As do the equally conservative Shia clerics in Iran.) But the problem is basically the same: Confusing folk prejudices with Islamic teachings that actually contradict those prejudices.

“the Koranic view that such ideas are inherently those of infidels who will burn in hell for all eternity” is no different from the orthodox Christian view.  Yet this has not stopped the Christian world from developing  multicultural function states. Do you really buy into the Dawkins principle that “the only good Christian is a bad Christian.” , and that we only have religious freedom here because westerners don’t take their Christianity very seriously? The Koran actually gives a lot more support for tolerance than does the Bible. The Koran at least specifically forbids forced conversion, in dozens of passages.  Some of these passages do imply that those who do not heed the word of God will burn in hell, but the Koran stresses that this is the will of God, and Muslims cannot change that by forcing people to convert. There is arguably something self-righteous about that attitude, but it can and has served as a basis for religious tolerance.

 Nevertheless, The claim that infidels burn in hell is controversial among Islamic scholars. There are passages that say that anyone who follows any of the other prophets can also be saved, and that there are countless prophets who aren’t mentioned in Koran. Some Muslim scholars in Bangladesh argue that Hindus are followers of the prophet Adam, and therefore a good Hindu can enter paradise.

You ask “Is it possible for Islam to create a multicultural, functioning secular state with a rule of law and  Western style human rights? “. I don’t know whether it will ever happen, that depends of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals. But I have no doubt that it is possible. There are three claims here that need to be untangled.

1) Islam has little precedent for the separation of Church state, but although I strongly want to preserve that in my home country, I don’t think it’s essential for a humane modern government. Many European states, such as England and Denmark, are not technically secular.

2)One of Muhammad’s greatest achievements was  introducing the concept of rule by Law into the Arab world. This is the reason he is depicted along with Hammurabi and other great law givers on the US supreme court building. We may not like many of those Laws, but the principle of rule by law is clearly there.

3) Western Style Human Rights are a long way off for many Muslim countries, in part because of Western subsidies of corrupt dictators who kept the Oil flowing. As I said before, I think there are toxic fundamentalist trends in Islam which violate important human rights, and are becoming dangerously more popular. But the Turkish strategy of banning headscarves and Islamic parties is not working very well. The current Turkish prime Minister is a member of an Islamic party, whose popularity has increased because of the banning of headscarves. That strategy has been followed by many Arab dictators including Saddam Hussein and Gaddhaffi, before they started grasping at fundamentalists straws to consolidate their waning power. The result has in many cases been a fundamentalist backlash. The Shah of Iran also banned headscarves, before he was overthrown. The usual problem has been alternating between forcing women to wear headscarves, and then forcing women to not wear them. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I think a better strategy is for Islam to go back to its roots and correct the many misinterpretations cultivated by the modern fundamentalists.

All the Best,


P.S. I think you’re right that there is an important difference between a culture built around a single sacred text, and a culture built around several such texts by several authors. But your argument that this is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam is essentially equivalent to my defense of a Liberal Islam that can be found by reinterpretation of the original texts. Only a few liberal Christians like yourself accept this difference. The majority of Christians  see every word of the Bible as the literal word of God, just as a substantial minority of Muslims see FGM as  an Islamic practice. You can’t consistently define Christianity using your own liberal interpretation, and then insist that Islam be defined by the practices of  “the institutions on the ground”.


Just had a conversation with some people who insisted that Female Genital Mutilation must be described as an Islamic practice. So I did some research to find out.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, There is only circumstantial evidence that it is practiced in secret in parts of western Iran. The Cultural Consul of the Islamic Republic of Iran said Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not a fundamental practice in Islam and that women should not be forced to undergo it. There is a group that actively works against FGM in Iran. However, The official government position is that there isn't any, that this is something that only happens in Africa and is not a true part of Islam. This is probably delusional, like the claim that there is no homosexuality in Iran. But people suffering from such delusions can't be accused of actively promoting FGM as part of Islamic teaching.

This is a folk practice that even the most conservative of the top clerics in Iran have rejected. I also found an article about the Iranian Embassy actively campaigning against the practice in Sierra Leone by denouncing it as Anti-Islamic. In Egypt, there are many clerics who argue that FGM is required by Islam. However the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in core Islamic law, and this enabled the government to outlaw it entirely. In Mauritania, where almost all the girls in minority communities undergo FGM, 34 Islamic scholars signed a fatwa in January 2010 banning the practice.

In the Arab pennisula, the practice is done primarily by Kurds and Bedouins. As these people have wandered throughout the Arab world, there many countries where the practice occurs, but usually the majority Islamic cultures condemn it as something done by these ignorant tribal peoples. The Kurdish state in Iraq has banned FGM, and several Kurdish clerics have protested this law as unIslamic. But once again, the establishment position is that it is not a proper Islamic practice.

The Muslims did not bring FGM to Indonesia. It was already there, as a practice in Pagan Micronesia. It's also practiced by Australian Aborigines. According to a report prepared by the US state department, the practice in Indonesia is largely symbolic, involving a very light pinprick that heals without leaving permanent damage. In some cases, it is even performed symbolically on a plant stalk. I don't like the symbolic implications of such an act, but it's clearly misleading to identify the symbolic act with the barbarism of real FGM.

It appears that the Clerics who defended the practice are the Islamic analog to redneck backwoods preachers. Those on the top of the Islamic hierarchies are at worst neutral, and frequently openly condemn the practice. This is true not only of Muslim Liberals but of even the most conservative fundamentalists. The only reason that more Muslims are involved in the practice today is that Islam spread into areas where it was already there, and either tolerated the practice or were unsuccessful at stamping it out. Those few FGM countries that are majority Christian or Animist had no more success. Ethiopia is over 90% Christian, and the practice is as common there as in Egypt.

These distinctions are important because there are people like Geert Wilders and Sam Harris who claim that it is impossible to build a humane modern religion out of Islamic teachings. There are also Muslim extremists who believe this, and think it's a good thing. The best way to fight FGM is to do what many Muslim clerics do--separate the two by using texts to show that the practice is unIslamic, regardless of how many people do it who call themselves Muslims.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Great NYTimes post about Norwegian Terrorist

These are his words, not mine. They speak for themselves


His lawyer is simply doing his job, trying to come up with justifications for his client's behavior that will reduce his eventual sentence - but why on earth would a corporate media outlet repeat such claims in this unquestioning manner? Compare and contrast this soft-handed treatment of the radical right-wing movement with, say, Anwar Al-Awlaki:

"Anwar al-Awlaki is a radical American-born Muslim cleric. He is perhaps the most prominent English-speaking advocate of violent jihad against the United States, and uses the Web as a tool for extremist indoctrination. The Obama administrationhas taken the rare step of authorizing the targeted killing of Mr. Awlaki, even though he is an American citizen."

Clearly, the Norwegian terrorist was involved with similar Internet hate groups that advocated violence - and it is very possible that he was recruited into this movement by others (Pamela Geller, perhaps?)

"In a manifesto posted online, the admitted killer, Anders Behring Breivik, praised Geller. He cited her blog, Atlas Shrugs, and the writings of her friends, allies, and collaborators—Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch, Islam Watch, and Front Page magazine—more than 250 times. And he echoed their tactics, tarring peaceful Muslims with the crimes of violent Muslims."

So - is Norway now justified in carrying out 'targeted killings' of the sponsors of terrorism in their own country, even if they are American or British citizens? Will we see the FBI carrying out sting operations and surveillance in politically active right-wing Christian churches and communities, as has been the norm in many Muslim communities in the U.S.?

The fact is, radical violent extremists of all stripes are a threat to democracy and open societies - and their true goal is likely the same in all cases: replace democratic pluralist societies with authoritarian states.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A word to the veiled and bearded

Eat what you want and dress up as you desire, as long as extravagance and pride do not mislead you.

- Hadith The Prophet Muhammad (SAW), as reported by AbdAllah ibn Abbas

This seems to state very clearly that rules of diet and dress are means to an end, not an end in themselves. It also implies that if you follow any religious dietary and dress codes out of extravagance and pride, you are hurting yourself spiritually. I have known Muslim women who refuse to wear hijab in the west, because it calls attention to one's self unnecessarily. It seems to me that this hadith backs up that judgment.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lost in Translation

There's a great Article on Salafi Cleric Yasir Qadhi. in the New York times. We need to make distinctions between acceptance, respect, and tolerance. I could never accept Salafi views about lifestyle and values, especially in the light of recent developments in Western Feminism. Ultimately I think feminism will make its way into the Islamic world slowly, as it did in the Western World. (Women couldn't vote in France until the 1940s). But in the meantime I can tolerate, and to some degree even respect this man, as long as he continues to actively campaign against Islamoid terrorism.

A poster on the New York times comment page for this article, aptly named Rambo, writes: "Do you know the first line of Islamic prayer - La ilaha illallah! means "There is no God but Allah". Simply right, well not if you consider that it is as much a denial of other faiths as the confession of their own."

This illustrates perfectly the problems of relying on translations. The most accurate translation of this passage is "there is no God but God". The word "Allah" is used to refer to God by both Christian and Muslim Arabs. In other words, this passage is just saying there is only one God. This is the most common interpretation of the phrase I have heard Muslims give. This is what happens when someone superimposes their prejudices on a text and assume that this is the only possible interpretation.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Muhammad and Aisha

A beliefnet interview with Deepak Chopra quotes him as saying "some of the {facts of Muhammad's life} are not very palatable. There's the beheading of the Jews, there's the marriage to Aisha, a girl of 6 -- we are told all this from history, confirmed by scholars."

I've already written about the beheading of the Jews, but I suppose this is as good a time as any to discuss his relationship with Aisha. For many people,this story is a deal breaker that completely devalues everything else Muhammad ever did. For that reason, it is important to paraphrase the two most common responses to this issue by modern Muslims.

1) Some Muslims say it was a different time and that this sort of thing was acceptable back then. Some have pointed out that in the 19th century USA, the age of consent was 10 in almost every state. According to the only Hadith that deals with this issue, Aisha was 6 when she married Muhammad, and consummated the marriage at 9. Are we really going to label Muhammad a monster over a one year difference? Ignoring Muhammad's alleged behavior on this issue does not require us to approve of it. Muhammad was often ahead of his time, but perhaps on this particular issue he wasn't. Like George Washington and Abraham, he also kept slaves. No one claims that Washington's numerous other accomplishments and virtues should be completely ignored because he was a slave holder. Why not give Muhammad similar allowances for the customs of his time?

2) There are also many Muslim scholars who are highly critical of the single hadith that supports this claim. It was from a highly questionable source-a male friend of Muhammad's who obviously wasn't there at the time- and is not confirmed by any other source. This source claims that he heard the details from Aisha, but Aisha herself was one of the greatest contributors of hadiths, and makes no mention of it. There are also other historical sources which seem to contradict it. For example, Aisha was reported to have been present at a battle which was only a few years after her wedding, and she would have been too young to be permitted on the battlefield if she had gotten married at six. Scholars who use these alternative sources usually date Aisha's wedding age as around fourteen or fifteen.

So how about focusing on Muhammad's teachings, and ignoring thousand year old gossip? Chopra's claim that this incident is "confirmed by scholars" is an overstatement at best, and the incident is not that important even if it occurred.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Halal Meat

Here's a post I contributed to a discussion about Halal meat on beliefnet

Doesn't the Koran say that it is permissible to eat Haram food when that is the only way to avoid starving? This may be a bit of a stretch, but it seems to me that when you eat Haram food believing it to be Halal you're eating of the food is unavoidable, in much the same sense. If you believe that eating Halal is an essential part of your spiritual path, I think you need to be reasonably rigorous in making sure that the food really is Halal. The Medieval Christian writers spoke of seven virtues, one of which is Prudence (i.e. careful practical intelligence.) If you've got good evidence that a particular food item is not Halal, you have a moral obligation to use your common sense and wisdom to weigh that evidence carefully. But there has to be an outside limit as to how much time you should spend doing that kind of research. We also have other obligations as a citizen, husband, father etc. that should not be compromised by compulsive attempts at certainty. I think this is pretty much Abdullah's point. Nice to see we finally agree about something.

My spiritual path is Vajrayana Buddhism and we are given many different kinds of spiritual practices to choose from. We have teachers who are celibate monks who don't drink alcohol, and "House holder" Yogis who raise families, drink and otherwise remain part of the world. But everyone agrees that if you make a commitment to a spiritual practice, you should take it seriously and follow it to the letter. I salute all Muslims who have the self-discipline to choose and follow through the most rigorous aspects of Islamic practice.

We Vajrayana Buddhists, are however, fairly lax about whether or not our practices come from "false" prophets. We believe that sincere and pious devotion to a "false" prophet is better than a twisted misinterpretation of any "true" prophet. We have a story about a Tibetan Merchant whose mother asked him to bring back a relic of the Buddha's from India. He forgot to bring the relic, so he found a dogs tooth in a skull by the road, wrapped it in a silk scarf and told his mother it was one of the Buddhas teeth. She was delighted,and she and her friends prayed to it every day. Eventually the tooth began to radiate a powerful spiritual light. The point of this story is it was the faith and motivation focused on it that made the tooth holy, not it's history of belonging to Buddha or a dog. I think that this is equally true of dietary practices followed by many religions, and I have no doubt that many Muslims have benefited from the devotion required to follow the rules of Halal.