Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ijtihad and qiyas

My previous post was an attempt at what the Islamic tradition called ijtihad. This word translates roughly as "rational argument", and it has long been an essential aspect of Koranic interpretation. This underscores the fact that Muslims have long recognized that applying the principles of the Koran to daily life requires skill and thought. Those who think the meaning of the Koran is obvious rarely agree with each other as to what this "obvious" meaning is. Wahabbi Clerics in Saudi Arabia think it is obvious that the Koran forbids women from driving, even though cars didn't exist when the Koran was revealed. Shiite Clerics in Iran think it is obvious that women are permitted to drive, as long they keep their faces covered when they do it. The fact that they disagree seems to me to indicate that there is nothing obvious about applying a single text to thousands of years of diverse human experience.

This fact has nothing to do with the question of whether the Koran is the revealed word of God. Even if God did speak directly to Muhammad, there is still a serious intellectual challenge involved in figuring out how to apply what he said to individual life situations. Words get their meanings from the context in which they are said, and for the Koran that context no longer exists. To simply superimpose our own context on words said a thousand years earlier runs the risk of giving the words a completely new, and wrong, interpretation. That is what people do when they read the Koran without any knowledge of Islamic history, or without consulting scholars who are familiar with the nuances of the original Arabic.

The Hadith were preserved partly because Islamic scholars were aware of this problem. Some modern Islamic reformers want to throw out the Hadith, because only the Koran is the word of God. I agree with part of their intention, because many of the more extreme prohibitions advocated by fundamentalists are derived only from the Hadith. I think however that tremendous insight and benefits can come from reading the Hadith, and other aspects of Islamic history, as long as we remember this passage from the Koran.

Do you see that which God has provided for you? You make some of it Unlawful (Haram) and some of it Lawful (Halal). Did God allow you to do this? Or do you tell lies about God? 
QURAN, 10:59

What this implies to many of us is that only the Koran should be used as a source for taboos and prohibitions, because only the Koran is the word of God. Most of the prohibitions imposed by fundamentalists (including my least favorite, the prohibition against music) have no basis in the Koran and are derived solely from the Hadith. We can however, reject these Hadith-inspired taboos, and still value the Hadith as a way of enabling us to more fully understand exactly what the Koran was saying.

However, once we have understood the Koran in its historical context, there is still the problem of how to apply its teachings to the present time. That requires careful reasoning (ijtihad) and careful use of analogies (qiyas). There are no exact parallels between what was happening in 6th century Arabia and what is happening now, so we have to using our wisdom to decide which parallels are legitimate analogies and which are false analogies. Do all rules about camels apply to cars? Do rules about swords apply to guns and atomic bombs? Obviously some rules do, and some don't, but the Koran cannot tell us which is which. We must puzzle it out using the wisdom that Allah gave us, come to the best answer we can, and be humble and open-minded when discussing our interpretations with those who disagree with us.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meaning and Context

Is it morally wrong to shoot a gun? The question is obviously unanswerable with so little information. It is morally wrong to shoot a gun if it is aimed at an innocent victim. It is morally neutral to shoot a gun at a target in a rifle range. The moral worth of that action derives entirely from the context in which it is performed.

Those who believe that sacred texts can be followed literally are ignoring this distinction. They assume that because an action performed at a certain time was commanded by that text, that this same action will have the same moral worth whenever and wherever it is performed. Some actions such as murder and theft, have fairly rigid moral values regardless of when they are performed. But over thousands of years contexts can shift, and change the moral worth of actions. We have not only a right, but an obligation, to take these shifts into context when we make new moral decisions.

Some might think that this argument is just a convenient way of escaping moral responsibility, and there's no denying that sometimes this is true. A blanket statement of "Times are different now, we don't have to follow the old rules anymore", can be a lazy excuse for selfishness and lasciviousness. But fundamentalist literalists are guilty of another kind of laziness, which puts them in equal danger of violating the principles they claim to be defending. There are hard questions that need to be asked when making moral decisions, and refusing to think about them is every bit as lazy and morally dangerous. The example I will be using in this post comes from the Islamic tradition, but there are plenty of examples in other traditions as well.

As almost everyone knows these days, Muhammad forbade his followers to make pictures of him. There were two reasons for this. First of all, he was a genuinely modest man, and did not want people to treat him like a star. But far more importantly, he was deeply concerned that his followers would treat him as an intermediary between them and God, the way Jesus mediated between people and God for the Christians. He did not want to have people wander into a mosque someday and see a huge mosaic image of him staring down from the ceiling, the way Jesus looks down from Byzantine Cathedrals, or to carry lockets with his picture in them, the way Catholics carry pictures of Mary, Jesus and the saints. The most important principle of Islam is "There is no God but God", and each Muslim should have a direct relationship with God that is not mediated through any priest or Idol. God is, as the Koran says, as close to you as your jugular vein, and relying on intermediaries takes you away from him.

I think almost all Muslims agree that this was Muhammad's intention behind the banning of pictures of him. Is that intention being fulfilled by the current ban? I would argue that it is not. First of all, there is no reason to assume that this ban should apply to non-believers given the reasons it was made. Muhammad issued this command to his own followers. He did not tell them to go out and destroy pictures of him that were made by other people. There is no danger that non-believers would worship those pictures, so there is no reason to be concerned about them.

Furthermore, Muslims who protest cartoons and caricatures of Muhammad are doing exactly the opposite of what Muhammad intended with the original ban. Muhammad is now being treated as someone who is so special and holy that no one should ever make pictures of him. I realize that some of these protests may be made with the best of intentions. But I would suggest that Muslims who are worried about those cartoons are dangerously close to treating Muhammad as something like a God, rather than just the messenger of God. This is exactly the frame of mind that the original ban on pictures of him was designed to prevent. This change is very close to the difference between a bullet fired on a target range and one fired at an innocent person. Muhammad should be respected and admired, of course. He was an extraordinary human being. But banning pictures of him in the modern context seems uncomfortably like comparing him to the Old Testament God, whose face no one was aloud to see.

The difference between worship and admiration is one of state of mind, and I cannot see into the minds of other people. I would ask my Muslim friends, however, to look into their own souls and ask themselves this question. Is there a spiritual danger in the admiration of Muhammad? If so what are the best ways of guarding against it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The meaning of the Veil

Isabel's reply to my 8/13/09 post on "acceptance, respect and toleration" contains this interesting fact.

The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BCE, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it.

The interesting thing is that this legal text clearly considered the veil a privilege not a restriction, because it forbade lower class women from wearing it. It's important to remember that the same social practice can have a variety of meanings depending on the social context in which it occurs. I have read about a Muslim queen in pre-British India who always appeared in public in a veil. This woman was an absolute monarch, and did not wear the veil out of humility. Instead, her veil said " I am not your plaything, and you will not be permitted the pleasure of seeing my face. Your job is to listen to me when I give you orders, not fantasize about my beauty." Remember that the Old Testament says that no one was allowed to see the face of God. In this context, the veil of a powerful queen gave a very similar message.

I don't think that the veil has that meaning for any modern Muslim woman, but it also has a very different meaning now than it did Muhammad's time. The Koran actually requires only the wives of the prophet to wear the veil. According to Karen Armstrong, this rule arose because Muhammad always consulted his wives when he made an important decision, and took their advice very seriously. Consequently, people who wanted to persuade Muhammad of anything would often talk to his wives. Understandably, young men would often try to use flirtation as a persuasive tool, and this resulted in gossip. The purpose of the veil was to remove this flirtatious element in those communications. When the rest of the women in Muhammad's community heard about this, they demanded the right to wear the veil as well, and Muhammad said in effect, "sure, why not?". Once Islam began to acquire an empire, it encountered cultures (including Byzantine Christianity) which regularly veiled women, and this right to wear the veil gradually transformed into an obligation.

What does the veil mean today? Some women say that wearing a veil in a non-Muslim culture is an expression of national pride, not an expression of weakness. I've also talked to other Muslim women who REFUSE to wear the veil for a similar reason. They say the purpose of the veil is to make you less ostentatious, and because wearing the veil in the west draws unnecessary attention, it is therefore immodest. The important point both sides are making is one I will return to again and again: the exact same action can have a different meaning and moral significance when performed in a different context. That's why it's a mistake to treat the Koran, or the Bible, or any other sacred text, as a computer algorithim that should be followed mechanically the same way in every circumstance.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sura 4:89

Both extremist fundamentalists and Islamaphobes like to use this passage to prove that the Koran requires that apostates should be killed.

They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper. (4:89)

This is not, however, the only interpretation accepted by orthodox Muslims. Osama Abdallah attacks this interpretation at great length on his website www.answering-christianity.com and also cites several orthodox Islamic scholars as rejecting this interpretation. His response is based partly on Dr. Munir Munsey’s translation, which clarifies that the quote refers, not to apostates, but to hypocrites.

The hypocrites wish that you would reject faith just like they have. Then, you will (descend down to their level and) be equal to them. Therefore, do not choose them as friends unless they (emigrate and) leave their homes in the path of Allah. If they revert (to open hostility), then seize and slay them wherever you see them. Do not take them as friends or protectors, nor as helpers. (4:89)

The hypocrites are explicitly mentioned in the previous sura, so there is no question that they are the ones being discussed here. According to Abdallah, the hypocrites referred to in the quote were Jewish and Christian Arabs who pretended to convert to Islam for a while, then left and rejoined their own tribes. This would mean the people being discussed are not people who changed their minds and decided to leave Islam, but rather people who PRETENDED to convert to Islam. At the very least, this means that the injunction cannot apply people who were born Muslims and decided to convert to another religion. But more importantly, it does not refer to anyone who sincerely believes that they should convert to another religion. Consequently, this verse is fully consistent with the famous passage that says “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”

Abdallah says that these Jewish and Christian Arabs pretended to convert to Islam so they could make the religion look bad when they left. But I think a more likely explanation is that they were spies trying to gather military information. It is important to remember that the word ‘Muslim’ in the Koran refers to a small community under constant aggressive military attack. At that time, leaving Islam didn’t mean going down the street to another place of worship. It meant joining another army that was actively trying to kill Muhammad’s people. How would an American general in World War II respond to a soldier in his battalion who had joined the Nazis? Wouldn’t the most likely response be to have him shot?

However, Muhammad’s response was in fact much more lenient that my hypothetical general. The two passages that come immediately after this one show that this quote has been taken radically out of context.

Except for those (hypocrites) who find refuge with a nation with whom you have a treaty! Or unless they come to you such that their hearts cringe and neither allow them to fight you, nor their own people. Had Allah willed, He would have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. Therefore, if they stay aloof and do not fight you, or if they make overtures of peace, then Allah has given you no reason to commit aggression against them. (4:90) (My emphasis)

You will find other hypocrites who seek to stay safe from you, as well as from their people. But, (as soon) as they are tempted with a lure, they plunge headlong into mischief. If they do not stay neutral, and do not make overtures of peace towards you, and do not restrain their hands, then seize and slay them wherever you see them. In their case, we have given you a clear sanction. (4:91)

The first passage gives exceptions to the rule for killing hypocrites, which clearly show that if the hypocrites don’t cause trouble, they should not be hunted down and killed. If they are far away in another non-aggressive country, or if they have surrendered, or if they are not aggressively attacking Muhammad’s community, they should be ignored. The second passage does advise caution in dealing with the hypocrites who are still living within that community. But it also reiterates (in the contrapositive) the previous passage’s admonition that the hypocrites should be killed only if they are actively aiding the community’s enemies.

Thus the so-called “death to apostates” sura does not refer to sincere apostates at all, and does not advocate death except as a response to violent aggression. It’s amazing what taking a quote out of context can do.