Tag Archives: Sharia

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading


The Why and How of US Intervention in Iraq

Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq.  The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children.  ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated.  The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.

Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here.  I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria?  Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world. Continue reading

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Lost in Space?

Space exploration and Islamic fatwas do not generally occur in the same news article, but a difference of opinion has emerged between Mars One, a Dutch company hoping to fund human colonization of Mars with a reality TV show, and the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE), a government agency for the United Arab Emirates which issues fatawa (sing. fatwa), or pronouncements on the acceptability or unacceptability of something according to Islamic law.  (It is only an added bonus for English speakers that the English acronym for the group opposing the Mars One mission sounds like the name of the Greek goddess of “Earth.”) GAIAE warns that Muslims going on a one-way trip to Mars may be tantamount to suicide, prohibited in Islamic law, while Mars One has responded by appealing to the “rich tradition of exploration” in Islam, and particularly the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta.  It is unusual for companies plotting science-fiction-esque adventures to appeal to medieval authors, so I couldn’t resist observing the conjunction.

The basic question is whether the planned one-way trip is tantamount to suicide.  Mars One is making no plans for the people to return home, so either they will die on the way to Mars or upon landing, or they will live the rest of their days on the surface of the Red Planet, which may be a longer or shorter duration depending on how long the machinery lasts and whether any of their fellow colonists goes berserk in the relative isolation.  But it believes the benefits will outweigh the risks.  The GAIAE cites Qur’anic verses against killing oneself, and expresses the worry that knowingly embarking on a one-way journey which will certainly end in one’s death, probably sooner than if one had stayed on Earth, also runs the risk of falling under the Qur’anic condemnation.  In other words, in this instance the GAIAE is worried to protect Muslims from the hazards of final judgment.

(Digression: Some non-Muslim observers may be surprised to read that suicide is categorically prohibited in Islam, given the news reports of the use of suicide attacks by al-Qa’ida and other Muslim terrorist groups.  In fact, even suicide missions for a good cause are prohibited according to almost all interpretations of Islamic law, a point which shows how far from mainstream Islam the jihadi ideology of al-Qa’ida really is.  Suicide missions became acceptable among the Assassin sect of Shiites in the 11th century, but remained largely absent from Sunni Islam until the 1983 Beirut truck bombing.  Even today, as a recent poll by the Pew Forum showed, the vast majority of Muslims around the world regard suicide attacks as unjustifiable, at least when targeting civilians.)

So where does Ibn Battuta come in?  Mars One’s response to the fatwa from the GAIAE cites the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler as evidence for “the rich culture of travel and exploration of early Islam.”  Moving into medieval Islamic history (and travel accounts such as that of Ibn Battuta in particular) steps into my area of specialist knowledge.  Certainly Islam has an extensive history of travel, in large part driven by the far-flung success of the early conquests and the requirement that each Muslim of possible travel to Mecca as a pilgrim for the Hajj.  It has much less of a tradition of exploration specifically.  Ibn Battuta did make a point to say that he tried to avoid traveling the same road twice, but he himself set out on his journey as a restless twenty-year-old performing Hajj to get away from home.  He also never traveled to a land uninhabited by people (although he passed through uninhabited areas).  He wanted to reach the famed “Land of Darkness” far to the north, where the sun never rises, although he was in fact unable to embark.  (The “Land of Darkness” was also thought to be inhabited.)  And Ibn Battuta’s travels across the width and height of the Islamic world were unique, hardly a “rich culture,” at least of exploration.  The dearth of medieval or modern Muslim explorers venturing “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is, I suspect, less due to a suspicion of exploration, and more due to the fact that Islam developed in the center of the Eurasian-African land mass, with lands inhabited from remotest antiquity all around them.  The fact that most modern explorers were European has to do with Europe’s geographic boundary status (indeed, most explorers came from the fringes of Europe) as well as Europe’s industrialized disposable wealth.

Space colonization would raise other issues for Muslims to figure out, of course, such as how to pray in the direction of Mecca (the present system relies on the surface of a globe) and what to do with the requirement of Hajj where there is no means for travel to the Earth.  I suspect Islamic legal scholars have already tackled that latter question for Muslims stranded somewhere on Earth with no means of travel, which could be generalized, and I have no doubt that they could reach satisfactory answers to the other questions as well.  If we live long enough to see substantial human colonies outside of Earth’s gravity well, it will be interesting to see how these issues develop.

In the meantime, it strikes me that Mars One has made an attempt, but not a very convincing one, to respond respectfully to the GAIAE’s fatwa.  They misunderstand what Ibn Battuta did, and he is the only Muslim “explorer” whom they name; for other examples they turn to Marco Polo (also no “explorer” in the modern sense, but certainly an adventurer and something of a free-lancer), and then modern American astronauts.  The response also quotes the Qur’an apart from the tradition (sunna) of interpretation, as if anyone can quote it and claim its meaning for themselves.  While some conservative Protestant Christians believe that Bible should be read and quoted with just its simple words, Muslim legal scholars always interpret the Qur’an in light of the long commentary tradition (tafsir) on each verse.  (I also don’t see how this particularly Qur’anic verse, which says simply that the creation of the sky and the ground is one of God’s signs, “encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation” – emphasis mine.  It’s more the fact of creation, visible from anywhere, which is the single sign.  When the Qur’an encourages Muslims to do something, it uses a verb, typically in the imperative, like every other medieval text.)  I doubt the GAIAE will be persuaded by this response, although they may take up the invitation to review the plans more closely.  For now, the disagreement remains whether a one-way journey away from Earth, certainly ending in death before returning home, but perhaps (if they did everything correctly and everything lines up well) only after a number of years living in a new abode on a new planet, is morally equivalent to suicide.

Surveying Muslims

The Pew Forum just published an impressive international survey of Muslims and their perspectives on religion, society, and politics.  The methodology section gives fair warning about the difficulties of attempting a survey across societies as diverse as Morocco and Thailand, Russia and Niger, in 80 languages, especially such a long survey.

Some results were not surprises.  The fact that most Muslims believe that suicide bombers targeting civilians is never justified in defense of Islam accords both with the traditional Sunni rejection of suicide missions and the widespread human desire for peace and stability.  The extreme exception, that of the Palestinian territories (where 40% said that suicide attacks may be justified), is revealing either of the desperation of the populace or its militancy, depending on your preferred political interpretation.  The fact that more parents are comfortable with sons marrying non-Muslims than with daughters doing so is to be expected, as is the awful fact that justification for “honor killings” is more widespread against women than against men.

The big news item seems to be that most Muslims “want Shari’a,” but disagree on what that means.  This was highlighted in the study’s Executive Summary, as well as in articles by the LA Times, CNN’s Religion blog, and al-Jazeera Arabic, to take three examples.  Some sources have then remarked with surprise that the majority of survey participants also favored freedom of religion.  I don’t find either of these results all that surprising.

It is important to remember that the concept of “al-shari’a” (الشريعة) in Islamic societies is very different from how “Shari’a” is considered in the West.  Public discussion of “Shari’a” in the West regards it as a foreign and alien legal system, focusing on how “out of step” Shari’a is with “modern values,” how harsh some of the prescribed sentences can be, and how it is only associated with violent militants.  Things look very different in Muslim-majority countries, where al-shari’a (when it doesn’t just mean “the law” – I looked in vain on the Pew Forum’s website to see how this question was precisely worded in Arabic) can mean a check on corruption and criminality, God’s revealed way of “fair dealing,” and the end of social ills such as public drunkenness and prostitution.  Far from being only associated with militants, this study reveals that in many countries (but not Azerbayjan) it can seem that almost “everyone in their right mind” wants al-shari’a.

It is indicative that in all countries (except Afghanistan, by one percentage point) more respondents favored applying Islamic law to “family and property disputes” than favored the death penalty for those who convert away from Islam (questions #92a and #92b), and while not so uniform, in most countries more people favored the application of al-shari’a to family/property than to the harsh sentences (flogging, cutting off hands for theft, stoning for adultery) which are constitutive of what many Western non-Muslim commentators mean by Shari’a itself.  Those latter numbers may still be uncomfortably high for many, but they indicate that those “harsh punishments” are not what many Muslims identify as the most important part of Islamic law.  Even apart from the question whether respondents consider al-shari’a to be susceptible of multiple interpretations, the precise connotations of the term vary widely.

And if shari’a means different things to different people, religious freedom can as well.  I once had a friend who was from Singapore but had lived for years in Japan, before I met him in a Chicago suburb.  He commented that Americans think they have religious freedom, but they’re wrong: the Japanese are much more religiously free to hold whatever views and engage in almost whatever practices they like.  He saw the US as surprisingly religiously closed.  But for many Muslims, religious freedom could look very different.  It might include worshiping your way in private, but there might be limitations in public and it simply does not extend to trying to convert Muslims away from the true religion.  Such a stance would still be called favoring religious freedom, and yet would be consistent with very traditional interpretations of the legal regulations on non-Muslims (often termed shuruṭ ‘Umar, “Umar’s stipulations,” after the second caliph, who allegedly developed the scheme in the 7th century).  Thus whether Muslims look for inspiration to Western liberalism or to Sunni fiqh, they are likely to say that religious freedom for non-Muslims is, within bounds, a good thing.

What surprised me were other results.  As much as most readers may try to aggregate these results across the wide domain of societies surveyed, it is important to see what this reveals about local differences as well.  Egypt stood out on issues of inter-religious hostility.  When asked question #90: “In your opinion, how many Christians in our country are hostile to Muslims?” and question #91: “In your opinion, how many Muslims in our country are hostile to Christians?”, participants were provided with the answers “most, many, just some, or very few”.  Nevertheless a large number of Egyptian participants broke with the survey expectations to volunteer the answer “all” (23% and 20% respectively to the two questions).  The fact that they volunteered an answer not within the structure of the form shows that they were not satisfied with the answer “most,” which may itself indicate that inter-religious tensions exceed those in other countries, or perhaps that they have grown dramatically within the past few years.  By comparison, no other country had more than 4% of respondents volunteer “all” to either question.  This means that Egyptian respondents were at least 5 times more likely to ignore the prompted options for these questions and insist on the fact that hostility was among “all” members of either group.

Nor were these questions the only indication of trouble on the Nile.  Egypt also had the highest percentage of respondents (55% of all respondents), apart from Afghanistan (61%), who favored applying Islamic law to non-Muslims as well as Muslims.  Given that the non-Muslim population in Egypt is far higher than in Afghanistan, the Egyptian respondents more likely had particular non-Muslims in mind.   More than any other country, Egypt had respondents who opposed religious freedom for non-Muslims (11% said it was bad that non-Muslims were “very free” or “somewhat free” to practice their religion; 12% said it was good that non-Muslims were “not too free” or “not at all free” to practice their religion).  Given these surprising results for Egypt particularly, it is to be regretted that due to an administrative error Egyptians were not asked whether sharia law should be open to multiple interpretations.

Given the answers above regarding Egypt, it was surprising to me that (with the exception of Tunisia) Egypt had the lowest percentage of respondents who regarded their own lives as reflecting the sunna or Islamic tradition.

I was also surprised at the proportion of respondents who “completely agreed” or “mostly agreed” with an alleged religious duty to convert non-Muslims (question #52): 88% of Egypt, 66% of Iraq, 92% of Jordan, 63% of Morocco, 82% of Palestinian territories, 52% of Lebanon, 73% of Tunisia.  The numbers for sub-Saharan Africa were even higher, but I was surprised that such a high percentage of Muslims would consider being actively “evangelistic” to be a duty.  Perhaps, again, the devil is in the details, and it would be nice to know the nuances of the question as asked in Arabic.

I had a couple other questions about the design of the survey, in addition to the phrasing of the questions regarding “al-sharia” in Arabic.  In question 84, for instance, respondents are asked to rate a variety of practices as “Morally acceptable,” “Morally wrong,” or “Not a moral issue.”  I wonder how clearly differentiated the first and third options were in the minds of respondents, or whether having both options in a certain sense “split the vote” among those who do not condemn the practice in question.  In question 53 about the justifiability of “honor killings”, the provocation is left much vaguer in the form of the question asked in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, leading me to wonder how much of the higher support for “honor killings” in those countries (each highest in its identified region) was due to broader respondent imagination of the types of provocation beyond the narrow “premarital sex or adultery” given in other countries.

Regardless of my quibbling questions, it is clear that the Pew Forum has done a massive amount of work compiling and analyzing the results of this survey, and they have done a huge service by making these results available online.  This is a tool which can be used to shatter many of the myths surrounding modern Islam.