Saturday, May 29, 2010

Islamic "Consensus"

My friend Abdullah quotes the following passage from the Koran, and this commentary on that passage:

(1) Surah al-Imran (3:103):

"And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah and be not divided."

Imam Sayf ad-Din al-Amidi (d. 631/1233; Rahimahullah) said in his al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam (The proficiency: on the fundamentals of legal rulings, pg. 295) with regard to the above Qur'anic verse:

"Allah has forbidden separation, and disagreement with consensus (ijma) is separation."

Hence, if Allah has forbidden separation then surely we must all unite on the unanimously accepted aqid'ah of our pious predecessors.

I disagree strongly with this commentary. It is not disagreement with consensus that is separation. Rather it is the attempt to force consensus which creates separation. The rope of Allah unites all Muslims who honor him. For a group of Imams to claim that they alone can decide the correct interpretation of the Koran, and to exclude all Muslims that disagree with their alleged "consensus" is to divide the Islamic community. Look at all of the millions of people that are excluded by this "consensus": The Shiites, The Sufis, The Ahmadis, and any Sunnis that happened to have lost this vote.

Not that a vote was ever taken. Many Muslims on Beliefnet have claimed that Abdullah's reasoning on this point is circular, because anyone who disagrees with the Imams he likes is defined as being outside the consensus. However, let's plead nolo contendere on this point,and temporarily assume that the majority of Imams do agree where he says they agree. Excluding all Muslims who do not accept this consensus still divides the Islamic community, and thus violates the Koranic passage quoted above. A link that Abdullah posted on Belief net connects to an article that says there is only "one saved sect" in Islam, and says that 72 other sects are not saved. As I understand it, all of these other sects are Sunni. Surely these kinds or pronouncements violate the Koranic command stated above that muslims should "hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah and be not divided."

There may be other reasons (although I have yet to see any that convinced me) for overtly rejecting the doctrines of these other branches of Islam, rather than politely agreeing to disagree. But preserving the unity of Islam is not one of them, for trying to force this procrustean "consensus" on a billion people, divides the Islamic community, it does not unite it. By all means let us study the writings of the great Islamic scholars, and seriously consider what they have to say. But let us not grant them the authority of prophets.

It is likely that many Muslims do have incorrect interpretations of the Koran. Perhaps some Muslims will be excluded from paradise because of their incorrect interpretations. But surely if the principle of "Let there be no compulsion in religion" applies to non-Muslims, it should be applied within the Muslims community as well. We must restrain and punish those who misinterpret Islam, or any other religion, in ways that make them harm other people. The British rightly banned the ritualistic murders of the Thuggee worshippers of Kali. Muslims must reject those who ignore the Koranic condemnations of suicide and slaughter of innocents. But metaphysical beliefs about the nature of Allah, or personal decisions about marriage, harm no one but the persons who choose to be involved. Allah is just and all-knowing, and surely he will decide what punishment is required, if any.

P.S. I refer to God as "Allah" in this post, because as I understand it, the word simply means "God" in Arabic, and is used by Arabs of all faiths. If any Muslim feels it is inappropriate for a non-Muslim to use the word, I will stop using it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Texts and Context

Most Christians are not aware of the tremendous differences between the authoritative foundations of their scriptures and the Koran. They simply ignore the fact that the Bible was a compromise reached by a committee, and treat it as the authoritative word of God. They shouldn't ignore this fact, but most do.

I don't think, however, that these sorts of problems disappear once one accepts that the Koran is the direct word of God spoken to Muhammad. The problem is, language gets essentially all of its meaning from the context in which it is spoken, which means the only way one can understand the Koran is to recreate as best one can the historical context in which it was revealed. This is why it so important for Muslims to study both the Koran and the Hadith. When the Koran speaks of "the Jews" or "the Pagans", does it mean all Jews and Christians, or only the Jewish and Pagan Arab tribes that were trying to slaughter Muhammad's people. Sometimes it means one, sometimes the other, and it is very difficult to be sure which is which.

There is also the question of applying the rules implied in the Koran to new cases. Do rules about camels apply to cars? Do rules about swords apply to missiles? Muslims scholars use their intelligence as best they can to answers questions of this sort, but they often do not come to a consensus.

I've been studying the Philosophy of Language for decades, and these problems are much much bigger than most people of any religion realize. They are the main reason that no one has succeeded in building a computer that can understand ordinary language. Philosopher John Searle calls this context "the background" and every sentence gets most of its meaning from this background, and very little from what's actually on the page. This is as true of a sentence like "I'd like a steak with potatoes" as it is with any sentence in the Bible and the Koran. Consequently, even if God or Gabriel spoke directly to Muhammad, we are still left with the hugely challenging task of figuring out what the words meant at the time, and what they would mean today.

I left Christianity and became a Buddhist because of this problem of interpreting Sacred Texts. In Buddhism, we have revered texts, but no texts that can be trusted absolutely, because the truth is seen as something that cannot be expressed in words. I may have move too hastily, for I have since met many Christians and Muslims who recognize that precious as their sacred texts are, they do not absolve you from the responsibility from figuring how to apply their truths to your own life.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Muhammad the Warrior

This quote from a post to Aziz Poonawalla's blog is fairly typical for Islamophobes:

"Even a superficial reading will show that your prophet conducted raids and wars of conquest against his neighbors."

Yes, a superficial reading "shows" this, but a careful reading doesn't. Muhammad never fought any wars of conquest, he only fought to defend himself against the attacks of the Meccans and their Allies. Islam's wars of conquest were fought by the Khalifs who succeeded Muhammad. War during Muhammad's time was a violent and nasty business, even more so than it is now. Often Muhammad rose above his time, and performed acts of unprecedented mercy and compassion. Other times he had to take into consideration the realities of war, and do things that no one would do in peace time. Did he always make the right decisions? Probably not, he was a man, not a god. But I know I couldn't have handled the moral challenges of his situation anywhere near as well as he did.

Let's take one story the Islamaphobes like to cite: Muhammad's slaughter of 600 Jewish Arabs. Three tribes of Jewish Arabs lived near Muhammads community, abiding by an agreement created by Muhammad known as the Constitution of Medina. Later, in two separate battles, two of these Jewish tribes each formed a secret alliance with Mecca, which almost enabled the Meccans to completely massacre Muhammad's community. The Constitution of Medina specifically forbid any diplomatic or commercial relations with Mecca, because of Mecca's overt hostility to the Islamic Ummah. These particular alliances, however, are generally considered to have been military in nature, and a genuine threat to the Islamic Community. The standard procedure during this time was to slaughter any captured adult male prisoners of war, and sell the women and children into slavery. Muhammad insisted on a more moderate course. Two of these Jewish Arab tribes were sent into exile, and the third tribe, the Banu Qurayza, was allowed to remain as neighbors.

A few years later, One of these exiled Jewish tribes returned to invade Medina, having formed an alliance with both Mecca and other nearby Arabic tribes. The Banu Qurayza were caught conspiring with this alliance. If this conspiracy had been successful, it would have exposed the Muslim's entire rear flank, and almost certainly have resulted in the slaughter of the entire Medinan community. After this alliance had been defeated, (even though the Muslims were outnumbered more than 3 to 1), the Muslims marched on the Banu Qurayza, who surrendered, and agreed to be judged by Sa'd ibn Mua'dh, a leading man among Aws, a Jewish tribe that converted to Islam. The Banu Qurayza obviously believed that a Jewish convert would judge in their favor, and it is likely that Muhammad, who suggested Sa'd, believed the same. Unfortunately, Sa'd opted for the traditional punishment of killing the men and enslaving the women and children, and the Muslim community overwhelmingly supported this verdict.

At this point, Muhammad said something like "you have spoken rightly", which I think was probably the Arabic equivalent of "OK". Did this express approval or reluctant acquiescence? Muhammad's ideas of peace and justice were radically alien to most people of his time and place, including his followers. I don't think he could afford to overturn the traditional procedure for dealing with prisoners of war once his new ideas had placed his people in danger. He did what he could, but it's hard to expect mercy from people whose life has been threatened. What do you think would happen to Obama if he freed everyone at Guantanamo and several of the ex-prisoners commited a terrorist act? And Obama is dealing with a culture that supposedly accepts the idea that people should not be imprisoned without trial.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bikinis and Earthquakes

A lot of people have been talking about the claims of some Iranian Clerics that scantily dressed women cause earthquakes.

I don't know what the Koran says about this, but I do know that even though this kind of talk is forbidden by the Bible, Christians like Pat Robertson do it all the time. In the book of Job, Job's comforters go on for pages trying to explain why Job is suffering, telling him it must be because of his sins. God appears in a whirlwind, and rebukes the comforters for several pages, telling them that human ignorance makes it impossible for them to account for any of Gods reasons for doing anything. The point being that yes, God has a reason for why bad things like earthquakes happen, but we are specifically forbidden from speculating as to why they happened, and certainly forbidden from using people's bad luck as proof that God is punishing them. My guess is that somewhere in the Koran or the Hadith it says the same thing, as Islam is always stessing that we must accept that God's will exceeds our understanding.

Personally, I think we should recognize that there are not just these two positions on the issue 1) The Universe is a meaningless mechanical process 2) Everything is deliberately planned by an Omnipotent God. I think it is at least possible that there are ordering forces in the universe which shape our destiny, but that they don't control every sparrow's fall, and therefore sometimes shit happens. That's what the ancient Greeks believed, and I think that's very plausible. It would account for the fact that Universe appears to contain both meaningfulness and absurdity, by saying that this appearance is accurate. Speculations about a blind watchmaker require us to claim that the meaningfulness is an illusion, and speculations about an omnipotent God require us to claim that the absurdity is an illusion. I think Occam's razor favors a position which says the world really does contain both meaningfulness and absurdity. On the other hand, I also think that our ignorance of theology is so great that Occam's razor should be used with a grain of salt (to create a painful mixed metaphor.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Muslim Protest

I originally thought this was overstating the case, but after thinking about it I can see only one thing in this statement that I disagree with. The Palestinians are not being persecuted by Israelis because they are Muslims, but because they are occupying land that the Israelis want. They would get the same treatment if they were Buddhists or Pagans or Christians (Indeed, many Palestinians are Christians.) I think the Palestinians and the Israelis behave about equally badly on this issue, although the winner of the "bad guy race" fluctuates from month to month. The issue of who has the right to be there really is completely orthogonal to questions of religion, which is obscured by the fact that Muslims from England to Malaysia tend strongly to root for the Palestinians because they are Muslims. That's why I'm not going to talk about it here, and why I think it would be better for everyone not to confuse these two issues as deeply as they are confused today.