Abdal Hakim Murad on Jihad, Apostasy and Rights of Muslim Women
Muslims Speak Out
Abdal Hakim Murad
1. WHAT IS JIHAD? UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS DOES ISLAM SANCTION THE USE OF VIOLENCE? WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SUICIDE BOMBERS WHO INVOKE ISLAM TO JUSTIFY THEIR ACTIONS?
In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful
Jihad is an Arabic word meaning ‘struggle’ or ‘effort’. In religious teaching, it denotes any struggle against the lower, selfish tendencies of the ego. One dimension of this may be to struggle against one’s own selfishness and cowardice in order to defend one’s people. One form of this was indicated by the Blessed Prophet when he said: ‘the best form of jihad is to speak a true word to a tyrannical ruler’. In doing so one risks one’s life, but is serving the weak and the oppressed; the Prophet therefore describes it as a form of jihad.
While non-retaliation against a personal injury is frequently a virtue (see the Holy Qur’an, chapter 41 verse 34), Islam believes that human communities have the right to collective self-defense, since non-resistance to aggression would result in a world dominated by tyrants (see Holy Qur’an, 22:40). Under some circumstances, Muslim scholars will allow oppressed peoples to rebel against their oppressors. They might, therefore, classify the American War of Independence as a form of jihad, broadly understood. When Bosnia was faced with ethnic cleansing in 1992, the Muslim authorities there authorized the use of force to defend the country’s Muslim minority. The alternative would have been mass murder and mass rape, and therefore jihad was lawful. Furthermore, some Muslim scholars will permit a non-defensive ‘idealist’ war to establish justice and freedom in a neighboring country. This is analogous, perhaps, to the decision of the United Kingdom to declare war on Germany on September 3, 1939, in response to the German invasion of Poland. There are more recent analogies as well, including very recent instances in which Western powers have used force to overthrow tyrants such as Saddam Hussein.
The poet Rumi explains the ethical principle of jihad as follows:
“Knowledge and wealth and office and rank and fortune are a mischief in the hands of the evil-natured. Therefore the Jihad was made obligatory on true believers for this purpose, namely, that they might take the spear-point from the hand of the madman.”
Fundamentally, as understood by orthodox Islamic jurists (as opposed to radical Islamists, who reject the classical position), jihad theory closely resembles some versions of Just War theory as this has been developed in several Christian churches since the time of St. Augustine. For some good debates about the resemblance see John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson (eds.), “Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions” (New York, Westport and London, 1991).
Suicide bombing is an innovated practice that has no basis in Islamic law. Particularly when targeted against innocent non-combatants it is a fundamental violation of Islam’s understanding of justice. ‘No soul is guilty of the sins of another’ (Holy Qur’an, chapter 6 verse 163). ‘Do not kill yourselves’ (Holy Qur’an, chapter 4 verse 29). For more, see my essay ‘Bombing without Moonlight’ and the more technical Sharia discussion by Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti).
2. HOW DOES ISLAM DEFINE APOSTASY? IS IT PERMISSIBLE FOR A MUSLIM TO CONVERT TO ANOTHER FAITH? HOW CAN LAWS AGAINST APOSTASY AND BLASPHEMY BE RECONCILED WITH THE KORANIC INJUNCTION OF “NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION”?
Traditional human communities believe that truth leads to salvation, and error to damnation. It is probable that very many religious people in a variety of denominations still believe this. Historically, religiously-faithful princes have therefore seen it as necessary to use the coercive power of the state to forbid apostasy. One of the most powerful and persistent manifestations of this understanding in history was the Inquisition, which was definitively abolished in 1834. Protestant countries also respected this drastic principle; in fact, the first converts to Islam in Britain were impaled on stakes. In a Hindu context, ‘apostasy’ was often classified as violation of caste rules and boundaries, and similarly drastic consequences could follow. After the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1253, Buddhists who converted to Islam were routinely put to death.
The four canonical schools of Sunni Islamic law, and also most pre-modern Shi’a jurists, recommend similarly drastic penalties, although the judge is enjoined to ‘look for ambiguities’ in order to avert the death penalty wherever possible.
The Ottoman Caliphate, the supreme representative of Sunni Islam, formally abolished this penalty in the aftermath of the so-called Tanzimat reforms launched in 1839. The Shaykh al-Islam, the supreme head of the religious courts and colleges, ratified this major shift in traditional legal doctrine. It was pointed out that there is no verse in the Qur’an that lays down a punishment for apostasy (although chapter 5 verse 54 and chapter 2 verse 217 predict a punishment in the next world). It was also pointed out that the ambiguities in the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) suggest that apostasy is only an offense when combined with the crime of treason. These ambiguities led some medieval Muslims, long before the advent of modernisation, to reject the majority view. Prominent among them one may name al-Nakha’i (d.713), al-Thawri (d.772), al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090), al-Baji (d. 1081), and al-Sha’rani (d.1565). The debate triggered by the Ottoman reform was continued when al-Azhar University in Cairo, the supreme religious authority in the Arab world, delivered a formal fatwa (religious edict) in 1958, which confirmed the abolition of the classical law in this area.
Among radical Salafis and Wahhabis who do not accept the verdicts of the Ottoman or the Azhar scholars, it is generally believed that the majority medieval view should still be enforced.
The best discussion of the controversy is the book by Mohammed Hashim Kamali, “Freedom of Expression in Islam” (Cambridge, 1997).
3. WHAT ARE THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN ISLAM? HOW DOES ISLAM’S VIEW OF MALE-FEMALE EQUALITY DIFFER FROM THE WESTERN VIEW?
This question somewhat essentializes Islam and ‘the West’. There is a huge diversity of Muslim opinion here, both ancient and modern; and ‘the Western view’ really does not exist, since villagers in Venezuela, for instance are Westerners, and so are many ultra-orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics, and radical Californian feminists; and while the views of all these groups are morally coherent, they are not part of a single ‘Western view’. Thankfully, Islam and the West are both diverse. And of course they overlap: many people, including myself, consider themselves to be both Western and Muslim.
Virtually all pre-modern ethical, legal and social systems accepted firm assurances about the respective nature of the two sexes. Women were taken to be nurturers and homemakers, while men were to be earners and warriors. There are clear biological reasons why ancient societies should have favored such a division of labor, and the current sharp debate over the ‘different wiring’ of the male and female brain may clarify this, although it is unlikely to be resolved soon (see, for instance, Ann and Bill Moir, “Why Men Don’t Iron: The Fascinating and Unalterable Differences between Men and Women” [London, 2003]). Whichever way the scientific debate goes, it is evident that our bodies influence our minds, and even our souls, and we can accept this without assuming that one gender is therefore superior to the other.
Islam is a religion that takes our rootedness in our bodies seriously. We pray with their bodies as well as with our hearts. Turning the body to face Mecca encourages the soul to do the same. Childbearing must have a deep spiritual impact. So Muslims believe that men and women are spiritually different. However the indispensable practices of the religion, including the daily prayers, the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and the fasting month of Ramadan, are incumbent on both sexes. For the ancient world, this was a remarkable circumstance, and Muslims are obliged to see it as a sign that women and men are both spiritual beings, with similar spiritual duties (see the Holy Qur’an, chapter 33 verse 35).
Some Christian denominations do not accept the validity of women priests. Islam, too, does not recognize the validity of services conducted by women (unless there are no men in the congregation). However this does not exclude women from positions of religious leadership. Thousands of medieval Muslim scholars were women (see Ruth Roded, “Women in Islamic Biographical Collections” [Boulder and London, 1994]). They would teach, preach, and give religious verdicts in the mosque. Many others became saints (Camille Helminski, “Women of Sufism” [New York, 2003]).
The lively Muslim feminist movement today likes to point out that since Islam does not call God ‘Father’, and does not believe that God was incarnated in a male body, that Muslims can consider that they are worshipping a gender-neutral deity. This, together with many other factors, ensures the continuing popularity of Islam amongst women. In my own community in the UK, around eighty percent of recent converts have been women. For the U.S. see the remarkable and often moving book by Carol Anway, “Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam” [Lee’s Summit, MO: sixth edition 2002]).
Go here for more thoughts.
Peace be with you, and the mercy of God.
Abdal Hakim Murad