Surah Al-Hajj (22: 3-4):
Wa minan-nasi many-yujdilu fil-lahi shahid. Wa minan-nasi many-yujadilu fil-lahi bighayri ilminw-wa yattabi’u kulla Shaytanim-marid.
And yet, among men there is many a one who argues about God without having any knowledge [of Him], and follows every rebellious satanic force about which it has been decreed that whoever entrusts himself to it, him will it lead astray and guide towards the suffering of the blazing flame!The latest round of attacks by Muslim extremists in Europe gave rise to new levels of introspection in the broader Muslim community. Mainstream Muslims and mosque leaders decried the killing of the cartoonists at France’s Charlie Hebdo and the Jews at the Kosher grocery, calling the perpetrators extremists who are acting in the name of Islam, but who are not true Muslims. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), denounced the murders. “It is despicable that they shouted God is Great in Arabic as they took lives,” said Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman and co-founder of the CIOGC. Statements of condemnation against the attacks have also been issued by well-established national Muslim organizations including ISNA, CAIR, USCMO, as well as numerous Muslim groups across the United States. On CNN’s “State of the Union” on January 18, Yahya Hendi, Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, DC said “Islam cannot support terrorism in any way, shape or form. The terrorists are kidnapping my name, using my name, my beautiful religion.” The host of the show responded, “They do use religious justification. They are steeped in the texts, they quote the texts.” Imam Hendi answered, “They are misquoting the text. They are not using the text. They translate it in their own way. They misinterpret it to justify their own violence.”
Azeem Ibrahim, a lecturer in international security at the University of Chicago, wrote an article published in the Chicago Tribune titled, “The Battle Within Islam.” He asks, “How did Islam come to this point?” He describes how when non-Muslims write about radicalization, they stop at the point of looking inside religious doctrine for the answers, “and for good reason. They stand at the threshold of the internal theological debate of a great world religion. To advance further means going into a territory about which even commentators don’t feel they can bluff their way through. It means engaging with 12 centuries worth of theological debate and risking offending millions with a slip of the pen.”
I would argue that most Muslims stop at the point of examining doctrine as well, and for the same reasons. In fact, most Muslims do not even allow themselves to think about examining doctrine. And that, Ibrahim argues and I agree, has opened the door for the propagation of Wahabi conservatism by the only player wealthy and audacious enough to build mosques and madrasas, train religious leaders, print and distribute free pamphlets and books worldwide for the past 40 plus years – Saudi Arabia. As Ibrahim explains, “Wahabism emphasizes anti-Semitism, misogyny, interacting with non-Muslims only in cases of necessity and ex-communicating any Muslims who do not subscribe to its deeply conservative and culturally isolationist ideology. It lays the intellectual foundations for jihadism, a rogue offshoot of Wahabism which encourages the terrorism we see on our own TV screens.”
Saudi Arabia has condemned the Paris attacks, and other terrorist attacks, and outlawed any affiliation with ISIL within its borders. The Saudis have even started constructing a 600 mile fence along their entire border with Iraq in an effort to keep out ISIL militants. On the other hand, we have had an example of Saudi Wahabism in action again these past two weeks. A liberal Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, kick-started a public discussion about Islam and modernity on his blog. A Saudi court sentenced Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” The first 50 lashes were delivered in a public flogging on Friday, Jan. 9th. Badawi was scheduled to receive 50 more every Friday until he reaches 1,000, but the floggings were suspended, presumably due to public outcry and demonstrations in the West.
I met another victim of the strict Wahabist-style interpretation of Islam a few weeks ago. Leaving a House of Representatives meeting of CIOGC in Chicago, I was approached by the father of Hamza Khan, the 19 year old who was arrested before Christmas trying to take his younger siblings with him on a flight to Istanbul, allegedly to cross the border into Syria and join up with ISIL. The father was trying to raise money for his son’s defense. I was caught between my sympathy for a father in such obvious emotional pain, and my anger that a young man’s mind had been so vulnerable to the extremist rhetoric on the internet. Hamza Khan was trained as a “Hafiz” – someone who memorizes the whole Quran. How could he go through that training, and even lead his mosque congregation in evening prayer during the whole month of Ramadan this past summer, and not have absorbed the Quran’s messages of peace and mercy? Somehow he got sucked into the cultish rhetoric about Islamic values being possible only in an idealized Islamic state, and that any country, group or individual perceived as trying to stop its creation is fair game for attack.
We don’t know Hamza Khan’s whole story, but we do know this. The Muslim community is very good at venerating the Quran. But the project of examining doctrine for its relevance and applicability in our lives has been woefully lacking. Every Muslim has, by definition, a relationship with the Quran. Most Muslims follow others’ interpretations – the classical scholars and the clerics who study them - either through ignorance, or conviction that those others know better than they, or because of reverence for history and religious leaders, or because they are intimidated by the prospect of trying to understand an ancient text in what is for most Muslims a foreign language. Even native Arabic speakers are not fluent in Quranic Arabic. And this is a text that Muslims believe contains messages from the ultimate Judge who will decide whether they spend eternity in heaven or hell. It is not surprising that most Muslims abdicate from the interpretive project and just try to be good people, recite Quran as best they can, revere its sacredness, and hope for the best. But there come times like this, when blindly following the interpretations of the medieval past is no longer an option for those of us who believe that we must use our critical minds to understand our faith.
The tribal mentality of the Wahabists and the barbarism of the extremists have invoked counter movements among Muslims who live in countries where freedom of religion and expression is guaranteed. These movements take many forms. One of them, a different form of self-proclaimed Islamic radicalism, is described in an article on the website vice.com by Gavin Haynes. He writes about a don at Oxford in England, Dr. Taj Hargey, who took part of his salary and started his own mosque in South Africa late last year. The five founding principles of Dr. Hargey’s mosque are: Qu'ran-centric, gender equality, non-sectarian, inter-cultural, and independent. The place of worship, he says—unlike most mosques around the world—is both gay-friendly and woman-friendly. His "Open Mosque" in Cape Town has been firebombed three times since it commenced operations in September. Hargey is a self-proclaimed hardcore “fundamentalist,” in that he rejects the Hadith and unsurprisingly, Sharia law (which uses Hadith as a primary source). Hargey posits that “Islam is about the Qur'an, and it is from the Qur'an that he will preach, ignoring all the other footnotes beloved of [most contemporary] clerics. All of that stuff, he says, has no pertinence to the Qur'an: It's a book that rejects violence, doesn't mention the burqa, embraces a role for women, and doesn't explicitly ban images of Muhammad or encourage Muslims to murder satirical cartoonists.”
Hargey is not the only Muslim who has found refuge from harsh applications of Islam by adopting a Quran only approach. Look up “Quranism” on Wikipedia, and you get a whole list of organizations and individuals reflecting different manifestations of the Quran only approach, as well as a very succinct guide to the differences between Sunni/Shia Islam and Quranism on a list of articles of faith. I am greatly encouraged by all attempts to challenge unhealthy, repressive doctrine. I share the goals of the Quranists, but not their method. My study of the Quran has shown me that there are many references in it to specific circumstances and events in the lives of the Prophet and his companions. It is impossible to understand Quran without reference to the context of the revelations. And the only source we have for understanding the history and culture in which Quran was revealed - however flawed and subject to personal and historical bias - is Seerah (stories of the life of the Prophet) and Hadith (collections of narrations from the Prophet’s companions about what he was supposed to have done and said). These texts need to be studied with a critical mind, but the story of revelation is not complete without them.
[One of the arguments that the Quranists use to support their position is that the Prophet Muhammad himself, pbuh, as well as Abu Bakr and Umar, his closest companions, are said to have warned against recording and collecting Hadith, and even burned them. But how do we supposedly know this? Hadith. And how could Abu Bakr and Umar have burned them if they were not recorded and collected until 100 years (Seerah) to 150 years (Hadith) after the Prophet’s death – a fact some Quranists cite as an argument against them?]
I appreciate that there can be value in studying the linguistic construction of the Quran. I leave that to those with a mastery of Quranic Arabic. It’s vocabulary and phraseology - in Arabic and in translation - is not addressed to a liberally educated 21st century woman, to say the least. I have to remind myself every time I pick up a Quran that it's messages come to me indirectly, through the filter of language and culture. Rejecting Seerah and Hadith out of hand would deprive me of an invaluable interpretive tool. At their best, the most reliable Hadith are useful in helping me understand why the ayat were revealed when they were - to whom they were addressed, and for what purpose. I do this knowing all the while that the Hadith themselves are a product of the time and culture of those who recorded them. They are not only subject to the possibility of human error – memory is the most fickle of filters – but they are also subject to cultural irrelevance. I therefore read Seerah and Hadith with an analytical, interpretive mind.
I understand the first injunction of Prophet Muhammad’s revelation – “Read, in the name of your Creator,” as an affirmation that reading and studying are required to discern what is true from what is false.
I cannot say who is a Muslim and who is not a Muslim. If someone who identifies as Muslim commits atrocities in the name of Islam, I can condemn their acts and the way they interpret their faith, and I do – categorically. And I can make myself feel better by believing that they will get their due in kind in the hereafter for their hatred and barbarous acts. But I cannot presume to know their ultimate destiny; that is God’s call. At the same time, no human being has the power to decide that I am not Muslim, even though they may profoundly disagree with the way I understand the faith.
What is sure is that all of us human beings are subject to the lure of false promises of justice, or riches, or fame and glory, or a martyr’s paradise – all that falls under the rubric of what Quran calls “Shaitan” – Satan.
From Surah An-Nisaa (4):
But all who take Satan rather than God for their master do indeed, most clearly, lose all: he holds out promises to them, and fills them with vain desires: yet whatever Satan promises them is but meant to delude the mind. Such as these have hell for their goal: and they shall find no way to escape therefrom. [119-121]
These are challenging times for Muslims. As we grapple with the consequences of extremism, we Muslims who have the luxury of freedom of religion and speech will explore every approach we can to reinforce the balance and rationality of our faith. We must use the reasoning capabilities God gave us, along with what we know in our hearts, to discern the false from the true. We can learn from each other, and overwhelm the voices of the violent extremists. But as we devote our hearts and minds, time and resources to this endeavor, we must be ever mindful of the pitfalls. As much as we formulate answers for ourselves, we must never lose our humility. We must support each other. We must rise above the tribalism, retribution, and sanctimonious arrogance that God’s revelation came to dispel – and that unfortunately have hijacked the very religion that came to liberate us from that past. We must, above all, practice “Islam,” doing everything we can to promote God’s peace in ourselves and with each other.
From Surah Al-Baqara, God’s message to the Children of Israel rings true to us today:
Wa la talbisul-haqqa bilbatili wa taktumul-haqqa wa antum ta’lamun. Wa aqimus-Salata wa ‘atuz-Zaqata war-ka’u ma’ar-raki’in.
Ata murunan-nasa bilbirri wa tansawna anfusakum wa antum tatlunal-Kitab. Afala ta’qilun. [42-44]
Do not overlay the truth with falsehood, and do not knowingly suppress the truth; and be constant in prayer, and spend in charity, and bow down in prayer with all who thus bow down.
Do you bid other people to be pious, the while you forget your own selves – and yet you recite the divine writ? Will you not, then, use your reason? [42-44]