Friday, August 14, 2009

The Changeable and the Unchangeable in Islamic Sharia

A simple but adequate definition of Sharia, commonly referred to as “Islamic law”, is the application to Muslim communities or societies of all that Muhammad said or did. This comprises the Quran (although Muslims believe that Allah and not Muhammad was the author), the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and the Sira (his biography). These elements collectively are known in Islam as the “Sunnah” and their application to Muslim society is the “Sharia”.

The subject of a recent edition of Al-Jazeera’s weekly program “Sharia and Life” was what elements of Sharia can or cannot be changed. As is often the case in such programs, what was left unsaid was more interesting than what was said.

The guest scholar was Syrian Dr. Wahbah al-Zuhaili, a member of the International Islamic Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) Academy. He introduced the subject by defining the three distinguishing characteristics of Sharia: it is sacred, it is intended as a guide for human behavior, and it is Allah’s final message. Sura 5 of the Quran specifies, “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”

Dr. Wahbah emphasized that the “essential elements” of Sharia can never be changed. Quran 6:115 says that no-one can change the words of Allah, and Quran 33:62 adds that no-one can change the way of Allah.

There are, however, “partial elements” of Sharia that are open to interpretation and change. These are seen as “amendments”, items that are “attached” to the essential elements, and can be changed for numerous reasons. During the lifetime of Muhammad, these changes appeared in the Quran as “abrogations”, revelations that opposed and cancelled out earlier revelations. Abrogation ceased with the death of Muhammad, but was followed by the principle of “ijtihad” in which learned scholars adapted elements of sharia to an ever-changing world. In recent years, for example, scholars have ruled that Muslims who are flying during prayer times can pray quietly in their seats on the aircraft and are not required to kneel towards Mecca as Muslims normally do. According to Dr. Wahbah, these rulings are based on two complimentary principles. One is the rule of “taysir”, or making things easy for Muslims. The other is “darura” or necessity. When necessary, things that are “haram” or forbidden can become “halal” or allowed. As an example, Quran 2:173 allows Muslims to eat pork during extenuating circumstances.

When the interviewer asked a second participant, Dr. Kamal Imam from Egypt’s University of Alexandria, what could be changed in the Sharia, Dr. Imam was adamant that the text of the Sunnah, that is the words of the Quran and the authentic hadith, was not open to modification or change. All that could be changed were rulings that earlier scholars had made on those texts. Although not disagreeing with Dr. Kamal, Dr. Wahbah noted that some of the hadith, even if authentic, were not applicable to modern life.

Dr. Wahbah emphasized that Muhammad was both a prophet and a political leader. As a prophet, what he said and did was not open to abrogation or change. As a political leader, however, his ideas could be advanced and developed. Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab, for example, developed the details of the Muslim kingdom far beyond the basic principles laid by Muhammad.

Frankly speaking, the interview did not seem to give much leeway to any substantial change or reform in Islamic thought. Examples given of ijtihad or change were as always trivial, limited to whether or not one needs to face Mecca when praying in an airplane. Serious matters that are considered essential elements of Western society, such as the choice to believe whatever one wants, to marry whomever one chooses, to have equal legal standing regardless of one’s gender or religion, seem to be untouched by the elements that are open to change in the Sharia.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Harsh Reality

Recently my daughter and I took a Muslim friend of my daughter with us to see the movie The Stoning of Soraya M. The film affected my daughter's friend quite deeply. On the way home she repeated several times, "But she was innocent! They stoned her to death for adultery, and she hadn't even committed adultery. She was innocent."

She then added a very significant statement. "I'm Arab and I'm Muslim, and I believe in Sharia. If she had committed adultery, she should have been stoned. But she was innocent."

This is not a terrorist speaking, not an extremist, not a radical. It's someone who is studying for an advanced degree at one of America's best universities, and who will return to her country to become a well-respected university professor. And she believes that women in the year 2009 should be stoned to death for adultery. Why? Because she believes in Islam, and she believes in Islamic law.

You've perhaps already watched the youtube video in which Rifqa Bary expresses her fear that if she is returned to her family in Onio she will be killed by her family because of her Christian faith. There is no doubt that Muslim leaders will be quick to publicly deny this could ever happen because, as Obama Islam advisor Eboo Patel proclaimed on CNN just the other day, we all know that Islam is a religion of peace. But how many Muslims secretly believe, even if they perhaps wouldn't publicly acknowledge it as quickly as my daughter's friend, that Sharia really is to be followed by Muslims today, even in America? That people who leave Islam, just like people who commit adultery, really should be put to death.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Masjid Al-Aqsa

The heart of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle is the city of Jerusalem, and the heart of Jerusalem, at least for the Muslim, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslims believe this to be Islam’s third most holy site, following only the Haram Mosque in Mecca and the Green Dome in Medina.

Muslims believe that Muhammad took a miraculous night journey from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where he met with Jesus and other prophets and received special instructions from Allah concerning the establishment of Islam. The fact that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was not built for another 80 years and Muhammad never physically visited Jerusalem does not seem to be important in Muslim thinking.

A literal translation of Quran 17:1 says, “Glorious is the one who took his servant by night from the Haram Mosque to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Muslim translators disingenuously add “to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem” even though the Arabic says nothing about the Al-Aqsa Mosque being located there.

In a recent study on Al Hayat TV, Zakaria Boutros presented convincing evidence from Islamic sources that the Al-Aqsa Mosque referred to in Sura 17 was a literal mosque located not in Jerusalem but a few miles outside Mecca. His evidence follows:

In the Book of Raids, early Muslim historian and biographer Waqidi described Muhammad’s stay in the village of Jiranah a few miles outside Mecca. He wrote, “The Prophet arrived in Jiranah on Thursday, and remained 13 nights. He then departed Jiranah after praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque located on the shore of the river bed. The Prophet used to pray there whenever he came to Jiranah.”

Another early historian, Azraqi, described in his book Mecca and its Antiquities a discussion between two men named Muhammad ibn Tariq and Mujahid. Muhammad said, “Mujahid and I agreed on Jiranah, because he informed me the Prophet used to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque located on the shore of the river bed. The other nearby mosque, the Al-Adna Mosque, was built by a man from the Quraysh tribe.”

Al-Aqsa in Arabic means “the farthest point”, and Al-Adna means “the nearest point”. The two mosques were simply named according to their location. The nearer one was the Al-Adna Mosque, and the farther one was Al-Aqsa.

Another early Mecca historian, Ibn Ishaq al-Fakihi noted in his book Ancient and Modern Mecca that Muslims who wanted to perform the Umrah (Minor Pilgrimage) would first purify themselves at the neighboring villages of Tanim and Jiranah. The Al-Adna Mosque in Tanim was significant because Muhammad’s wife Aisha had purified herself there, and the Prophet himself had prayed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jiranah

Hadith historian Abu ‘Ali recorded in Masnad Abu ‘Ali that Umm Salmah heard the Prophet say, “Whoever prepares for the Umrah by purifying himself in the Al-Aqsa Mosque before he goes to the Haram Mosque in Mecca will have his sins forgiven before he even commits them.”

The above sources all indicate that the Al-Aqsa Mosque referred to by Muhammad in Quran 17:1 was the mosque in Jiranah. The famous mosque known today by the same name in Jerusalem was built almost a century later.

The Bookseller of Istanbul

The young bookseller in the Sultanahmat neighborhood of Istanbul reminded me that Muhammad's only miracle was the Quran. "Other prophets performed other miracles," he informed me, "But Muhammad's miracle was the Quran. No-one else could create anything equal to it."

My response was that no-one else had a chance to. "Muhammad killed poets he saw as threats," I said. "When Muhammad entered Mecca after ten years in Medina, he gave orders to kill those who had written against him."

He was quite offended. "That's not true," he replied. "Muhammad conquered Mecca without killing a single person. You don't need to try to teach me Islamic history."

But he was the one who didn't know his history, or at least knew it only from the perspective it had been taught him. Historian Ibn Ishaq informs us that Muhammad had instructed his commanders when they entered Mecca only to fight those who resisted him, except a small number who were to be killed "even if they were found beneath the curtains of the Kabah". One might wonder what horrible crimes these individuals had committed that demanded their deaths. Were they serial murderers, child rapists, or inveterate bank robbers? Not quite. Abdallah bin Sad was to be killed because he had been a Muslim and wrote down the revelations of the Quran before he aposticized from Islam and returned to Mecca from Medina. (What was it about recording the messages given to Muhammad from Allah that caused him to lose his faith?) Another was Abdallah bin Khatal, who was a Muslim but left Islam after killing another Muslim. Abdallah had two "singing girls" who used to sing satirical songs about the Apostle, so Muhammad "ordered that they should be killed as well."

Several others were included in the list. Although some of them had actually committed murder, such as Abdallah, they all shared one thing in common - they had aposticized from Islam. If they had remained in Islam, chances are much greater their murders would have been forgiven them. That would especially be true if their victims had been non-Muslims, since according to Islamic law Muslims are not put to death for the murder of non-Muslims.

They all shared the same "crime" - they had left Islam, and they had publicly expressed criticism of Muhammad. Some Muslims today argue there are "no verses in the Quran" that command the killing of people who leave Islam. This ignores the reality that there are two things in Islam just as important as the Quran as a guide for Islamic life - the Hadith, or sayings of Muhammad, and the Sira, his biography. Reading the Sira makes it abundantly clear that those who wrote critically of Muhammad could not expect to live long. It doesn't take much imagination to realize the fate of someone who would write something that Muhammad saw as a challenge to the Quran.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Leaving Muhammad Behind

A commenter at this blog recently asked me if I had personally met any Muslims who abandoned their faith in Muhammad and Islam. By chance or good fortune, since then I've met three. Each of their stories was unique.

The first was at a restaurant in California, where I met for the first time a young man from Yemen. When he introduced himself as "Dave", I assumed that either he was from a Yemeni Jewish family or had taken the common practice of anglicizing the Arabic name Da'ud. To my surprise, he informed me that he had been born and raised Muslim. Nine years in California, however, had been enough to completely change his way of thinking. He described himself as non-religious, an agnostic at best, but one who no longer believed in Islam or Muhammad.

At one point in the conversation, he queried why Muslims couldn't just "get along with Jews". "We are cousins," he said, "And even in Arabic we describe them as Ibn 'Am (the son of my uncle). Why can't we just live together in peace?"

My response to him was, "The reason you think this way is because you no longer believe in Muhammad. You've left him behind. That's why you think differently about the Jews." He agreed.

A few weeks later I was on a boat on the Mediterranean, just off the southern coast of Turkey. A young lady from Istanbul was also on the boat, and told me of her plans to go to London at the end of the summer for a two-year university course in creative writing. I asked her, "Suppose in London you fell in love with a British man who was not a Muslim. Would you consider marrying him?"

Her answer was immediate. "Of course," she replied. "I'm Turkish and my ID card says I am Muslim, but I don't believe in any of it. I don't think Muhammad was a prophet, and I don't believe in the Quran."

A week later I was sitting with my daughters in a lovely outdoor restaurant on the Asian side of Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphoros, and struck up a conversation with an elderly Turkish man who had spent his childhood years in Washington DC and still enjoyed speaking his American-accented English. His story was similar. He said that as a young boy his grandfather warned him against the men who came out of the mosque, describing them as "bad people". Since then, he told me, he has not believed.

Kamal Ataturk, the secular leader of Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, also tried to leave Muhammad behind. But there's a problem with that. Unless you really make a clean break with Muhammad, he always catches up to you and wraps his arms around you. Ataturk might have made the break personally, but he was unable to influence his country to do the same and, sure enough, Muhammad is alive and well in much of political Turkey today. It takes a lot of courage to really leave him behind.