Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

His hands still bloody from bludgeoning his brother and hastily burying him, Cain, son of Adam, hurried home. Yet the satisfaction of getting rid of his life’s biggest nuisance was now, ever so slightly, eroded by an edginess he couldn’t pin down. Suddenly, a voice out of nowhere – yet a voice he instinctively recognized – rang in his ear. “Where is your brother, Cain?” He angrily retorted, “O God! Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

The Bible’s storyline is about a God who creates a dazzling world and places one creature at its pinnacle – the only one fashioned in his own image –with the mission to care for it. Yet right from the start that crazy gamble looks doomed, and things go from bad to worse. In the end, though, he decides to come down as a man who sacrifices his own perfect life so that humankind can be redeemed from sin, death and hell. Jesus embodies on the cross the man who truly became not only his brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, but also their savior. 

There’s no redeemer story in the Qur’an, though the Prophet, in popular piety, functions like a perfect man who intercedes for the faithful on the Last Day. Having said that, the creation narrative is remarkably similar. God announces to the angels that he is placing Adam as his trustee on earth, or his representative. The angels protest. Why would God empower creatures as stewards of his world, who clearly have the potential to “sow mischief and shed blood” (Q. 2:30)? In both Bible and Qur’an God takes an enormous risk by empowering humanity as his vicegerents. 

From the start, then, humanity is honored. In Genesis 1:27 both men and women are made in God’s image, while several well-attested hadiths (sayings about what the Prophet said and did) teach that Adam was created in the image of the Merciful. So in light of this, as deputies of the Most High, fashioned in his image, our first priority is to care for people everywhere, while we also remember to care for the earth and its myriad creatures. Put otherwise, we seek to preserve the balance and health of the earth’s ecosystems so as to benefit everyone equally.

 

 Cain and Abel revisited 

  Now back to Cain and Abel, whose story is also told in the Qur’an, though not by name. Here Cain’s crime is used as a lead-in, a) to a statement about the Mosaic Law and murder; and b) to a legal section on murder and sedition. Here’s the key verse, quoted again and again since 9/11, as proof that Islam does not condone violence: 

  

“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Q. 5:32). 

  

Unless it is capital punishment for murder or violent rebellion, the killing of another person is like killing all humanity, and saving one person is akin to saving all humanity. Human life is sacred and all human beings are endowed with the same dignity, regardless of race, class or religion – at least, this represents the view of most every Muslim scholar today.

 

 A comment on hermeneutics, polemics, and interfaith dialog

 I could leave it at that, but if you googled “as if he had killed all of mankind,” you would discover that there is a great deal of Internet chatter on this issue. I will comment on three issues that flow out of this debate and then conclude. 

  

1. Islamophobia is alive and well and this verse is an easy target. Probably the best example is by an author calling himself “Atheist Jabali” (“Killing all Humanity: How Obama Misinterprets Quran 5:32 and Passes a Noble Jewish Teaching as Islamic). The tone is obviously polemical, and as such, much of what he says can easily be countered. Take his point about Obama quoting wrongly, “whoever kills an innocent.” True, it’s not a literal translation, but it is still faithful to the original verse – the case of a murderer or someone guilty of armed rebellion is excluded from the start. But he does raise an interesting question about the context of the verse, which is rarely quoted in its entirety. It is about what God taught the Israelites, presumably through the Law of Moses. Yet if you look for this idea in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), you won’t find it. You have to go to the Talmud to find such a reference – he’s right. As it turns out, the Hebrew original has the “blood” spilled in the plural. So in the commentary of the Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, of the Talmud, we read:

 

“The voice of the 'bloods' of thy brother are crying unto me from the ground. It does not read ‘blood’, but ‘bloods’, which means his blood and the blood of his descendants. [According to others it reads ‘bloods’ in the plural, because his blood was scattered all over the trees and stones.] Therefore the man was created singly, to teach that he who destroys one soul of a human being, the Scripture considers him as if he should destroy a whole world, and him who saves one soul of Israel, the Scripture considers him as if he should save a whole world.”

 

This is the closest possible source for the qur’anic assertion of Q. 5:32. Could there be other possible biblical interpretations of this verse? Of course, and there have been. But we are simply describing what turns out to be the case with all sacred texts: a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, constantly evolving with the changing times. 

 

2. Respect the way devotees interpret their own sacred texts. This is a cardinal rule of interreligious dialog. I did some poking around classical commentaries in Arabic and English and nobody seemed to care whether this saying came from the Bible or not. The Qur’an said God taught it to the Jews – end of matter. The only issue raised (and sometimes this verse was simply glossed over) was how killing one person could be killing all humankind. The fourteenth century commentator Ibn Kathir offers this simple explanation, “because there is no difference between one life and another.” But there is more than meets the eye here, as my next statement makes clear.

 

3. Nevertheless, you will have to draw a line in the sand. On the one hand, as an outsider, for me the vast majority of qur’anic interpretation is simply to observe and compare. I evaluate it only in relation to other views and as a scholar I do my best to catalog different currents of thought. Some issues, on the other hand, touch on human rights and can lead to discrimination, hostility and even violence. And, it turns out, some people devote their whole career to focus on the very worst of elements of the Islamic tradition (see my blog McCarthyism Returns in the 2010s). But in the interest of a fair-minded dialog between Christians and Muslims, and for the benefit of all my readers, I have to point out problem areas, as many of my Muslim colleagues do as well.

For instance, the above-mentioned Ibn Kathir cites one early commentator, Sa’id bin Jubayr, who understands the verse to mean this:

 

“He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people.” 

 

This narrowing down of the scope of whose murder is equivalent to the murder of all humanity is understandable at the time (the Abode of Islam was theoretically and practically at war with the rest of the world, the Abode of War), but it would be problematic nowadays. After all the genocides of recent history – before and after the issuing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we dare not as people of faith open any loophole that would make some people less “human” than others.

My colleague in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at the St. Joseph's University, Rabbi Alan Iser, did a search for me in the Talmud. His conclusion was that this passage was also interpreted by the majority of Jewish scholars over the ages as only applying to the shedding of "Jewish" blood.

 The islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was the chief propagandist for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, turned much more radical than the mainstream of the Brotherhood and led a faction while in prison that later developed into the so-called “jihadis” of today. The starting point was to restrict the above-mentioned human trusteeship to the Muslim community (I covered this in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text). The next step was to hark back to the classical notion of jihad and the dualistic vision of the world that went with it. Here is Qutb’s interpretation of this passage on Adam’s two sons in his monumental commentary, In the Shade of the Qur’an:

 

“The law given to the Children of Israel included this principle which equates the life of any human being with every life. The right to life is applicable to all. Hence, killing one person is an aggression against the right to live in which all people stand equal.” 

 

No problem here. But in the next paragraph, we plunge into a different world altogether:

 

“It should be clarified here that this rule applies to people in the land [Abode] of Islam, whether Muslim or not, as long as they are living under the rule and protection of the Islamic authority. As for those who are in a land hostile to Islam [Abode of War], neither their lives nor their properties are protected unless they have concluded a peace treaty with the land of Islam. This legislative rule should be well remembered. We should also remember that the land of Islam is that in which the rule of Islam prevails and Islamic law is implemented. The hostile land is that which does not implement Islamic law.”

 

As you can see, this kind of interpretation leads to declaring, a) leaders of Muslim nations as unbelievers (kafir) and therefore targets for assassination; b) fellow Muslims who deny one’s islamist vision as kafir; c) current governments as anti-Islamic and in need of toppling, making way for the imposition of strict shari’a law (however interpreted).

 

 A Muslim-Christian declaration of human solidarity

 This is a far cry from the recent Muslim initiative at the very highest level from all corners of the Islamic world – the Common Word letter, which begins thus:

 

“Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour.”

 

After all, the foundational narrative in both traditions begins with the human being created as God’s trustee on the earth – a great honor and a grave responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain sarcastically. “Indeed you are!” came the response indirectly. In fact, as a punishment for the “bloods” spilled into the ground, he wandered a fugitive for the rest of his life.

To kill another human being is like killing all, and to save one, is like saving all. Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, all of us, wherever we may be scattered on the face of the earth or on the spectrum of social statuses, we are all of equal value in God’s eyes.

This was the page devoted to my small monograph published in Malaysia, Evolving Muslim Theologies of Justice: Jamal al-Banna, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is now a 180-page (double-spaced) manuscript that should come out in 2019. Here's the abstract, or précis:

 

This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

[Thanks to my colleague Dan Varisco, anthropologist at Hofstra University, who posted a blog about this treaty on July 4, 2011 ]

I’m writing here about 1797, when the third American treaty with a foreign nation was signed by President John Adams with the Dey of Algiers (officially, a regent of the Ottoman Empire; in practice, a warlord making his fortune in piracy). My main point in what follows is that states can make or break treaties, declare war or make peace. Interreligious dialog takes place between people of good will, but beware: politics will always muddy the waters.

First, a digression. I lived nine years in Algiers, a place dear to my heart. It’s a gorgeous city built around a hilly bay on the Mediterranean, with majestic French buildings reminding one of Paris, yet all painted in white. “Alger la Blanche,” they called it. That’s where I learned Arabic, both the local dialect (which other Arabs from Egypt eastward completely disown!) and the modern standard or classical Arabic, both of which were taught by the Catholic White Fathers just five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I lived and served.

Algiers is where I learned first hand about . . .

 

  • colonialism (the French version was more brutal than most)
  • postcolonial realities (a one-party system kept a small elite in power and in control of unspeakable fossil-fuel riches – oil and natural gas – and they’re still in power!)
  • and the politics of religion and ethnicities (the Berber question was especially thorny, but now mostly resolved).

 

Now back to pirates. Perhaps you thought that our current troubles with Somali piracy were a new phenomenon. Not so. They are truly small fry: the three Ottoman regencies of North Africa in the 18th century gave all the European nations a run for their money – literally! So powerful were these small kingdoms that they exacted steep sums of money from these larger powers, sometimes for the ransom of sailors, more often as a tribute for future non-aggression.

These were the famous Barbary pirates – Barbary being the North African coast, so-called by the Europeans because of its majority Berber population (and also, because Europeans considered them "barbaric").

I remember a plaque in the Holy Trinity Church of Algiers (Anglican) where I served for four years, which commemorated the release of a whole village in Ireland that had been enslaved by the Barbary corsairs, people who obviously ventured into the Mediterranean to do “business”! Now I only wish I could remember the exact date and location of the village!

American colony ships in the Mediterranean were of course protected by British ships and treasury, but came under French protection during the war of independence. By 1784 this shield wore thin and the Moroccan pirates seized an American vessel. Luckily, Spain was able to intervene and negotiate a treaty between the US and the Moroccan state so that both cargo and crew were saved.

Things became more complicated with the Algerian regency. In July 1785, two ships were seized and the crews enslaved. Their captivity lasted over a decade. Let it be said that “white slavery” in this case was more benign than the “black slavery” we (and many others) were inflicting at the time. They could often acquire property and work their way up the social ladder. Still, scores of mournful tales of captivity tugged at the hearts of Americans in the early 1800s. In the end, citizen pressure forced Washington to build a navy and fight two “Barbary Wars,” the first against Tripoli and the second against Algiers, which resulted in the release of 1,083 Christian slaves (presumably of several nationalities) in September of 1816.

Now for the treaty. Since you know the end of the story, you might be tempted to say, “what’s a few promises on paper, which were easily discarded when the Dey of Algiers, seeing the Americans busily fighting the British (leading up to the War of 1812), seized the opportunity and attacked US vessels once again?” Well, there is more here than meets the eye.

About this 1797 treaty, let’s focus on three points, and then close with a couple of conclusions.

 

First, this is “a treaty of peace and friendship” between the USA, the Dey of Tripoli (that was signed the year before) and the Bey of Algiers. So all the mutual protection clauses are present: goods sail through their waters untouched and protected from other enemies when possible; if the other’s sailors or citizens or goods are found on a captured enemy vessel, they will be returned to them; passports will be issued and respected by both sides; consuls with all necessary protocol will be exchanged, as with other “most favored nations.”

 

Second, there is a glaring hitch: Article 10 stipulates that “The money and presents demanded by the Bey of Tripoli as a full and satisfactory consideration on his part and on the part of his subjects for this treaty of perpetual peace and friendship are acknowledged to have been received by him previous to his signing the same.” It goes on to say that this is a one-time payment. No further tribute will be paid by either party. Still, this is no reciprocal treaty, as it only involves: a) US ships in the Mediterranean, largely under Barbary control; and b) a large sum of money paid by the USA. Piracy is what it’s all about.

Thomas Jefferson, then US ambassador to Europe, opposed President Adams in the payment of tribute. He would have preferred that stories of captivity and brutality would force military action. Unsurprisingly, the First Barbary War with Tripoli happened under his direction as Commander in Chief. By then, Adams had built the US navy from scratch and founded the Marines who, in America’s first war overseas, landed on the shores of Tripoli (the tune should come to you!).

Several recent books deal with the Barbary Wars, and with Jefferson in particular, especially in light of a post-9/11 American experience and two wars being fought with Muslim countries. Maybe it’s déjà vu in retrospect . . . See an informative (if biased – Hitchens strongly defended the Iraq War from the start) piece on this by British-American journalist and author, Christopher Hitchens (yes, the guiding star of the New Atheists).

 

Third, religion comes into play, but in a surprising way. The US is a newcomer to trade in the Mediterranean, and its recent struggle with Britain, combined with many of its founders’ overt sympathy with the French revolutionaries, suggested to the Barbary regents that it was not a “Christian” nation. Read for yourself:

 

(ARTICLE 11) “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries” (see full text).

 

So in essence, the Barbary Muslims can enter into a treaty with the a-religious Americans, because, by implication, Christians and Muslims inevitably clash and collide. The clash of civilizations theory has been around for a long time (see my first blog). So no, this is no interreligious dialog.

Yet Jefferson as ambassador accompanying his president, John Adams, did meet with Tripoli’s ambassador in London in 1785, and as it is reported now in many sources, the Barbary envoy told them,

 

“it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

 

Nothing unusual about this in terms of theology and law (see my two blogs on jihad); just sad to see how religion so easily becomes the tool of dictators, the better to achieve their selfish ends – and here a lucrative racket of terror, extortion and slavery.

What might this treaty and its context tell us about interreligious dialog? First, it seems to me, that in our globalized, interconnected world of the Internet and social media, in which people as never before dream of – and often succeed in – bringing down dictators, we should no longer be fettered to past paradigms of clashes and conflicts. Muslim-majority countries are not banding together to conquer the world, nor are Muslims and a secular west on an inevitable collision course. Today as never before, people of faith are drawing from the ample spiritual resources of their respective faith traditions to create more peace and mutual respect.

Second, and finally, we can learn from history. This treaty can teach us about human nature, especially from the angle of the powerful. This treaty didn’t stop the Dey of Algiers from attacking American ships when the opportunity arose. Pirates will be pirates. True, America’s first overseas war brought down oppressive, greedy tyrants. But our success set us on a path of no return. Our overseas military adventures have only become more gigantic, more numerous, and more costly over time. Is this sustainable? Is it morally defensible? Can people of faith weigh in, as the prophets of old announced God’s judgment on tyrannic nations oppressing weaker ones, and on greedy leaders exploiting the poor for their own gain?

That is one of the tasks I believe people taking on the mantle of “trustees of the earth” must tackle together. Speaking truth to power in the name of justice, human dignity and a more peaceable earth is part of our calling, Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith..

This was written in the spring of 2010 as a resource for the Vineyard USA (a recent Protestant denomination). I just added a paragraph in the next to last section, so as to update it. The initial intended audience is American evangelical Christians who are trying to make sense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Along with many others, I argue that the Christian Right's seeming unconditional support for the State of Israel is altogether one-sided, morally wrong, theologically problematic, and bad for Israel's security in the long run. As followers of Jesus, we should be fostering peace and understanding between all peoples -- as much as it is possible in each case.

For a wider audience, this may be your best primer on "Christian Zionism" -- the ideology that has secured solid backing for Israel in the US Evangelical community since the 1980s.

           Syria’s Ba’athist regime has a history of bloody crackdowns, especially at the hand of the current president’s father, Hafez al-Asad. Most infamously, he had 10 to 30,000 people massacred almost overnight in the city of Hama in 1982. No opposition could be tolerated by this secularist regime (likewise for Saddam Hussein, his Ba’athist neighbor), especially in the name of Islam. Thirty years later, several hundred people have been wantonly killed in the peaceful “Arab Spring” protests of the last few months.

            Media reports keep emphasizing the brutality of the Syrian repression, despite the regime’s repeated promises of reforms. What is more, the Alawi ruling elite – a small minority considered heretical by mainstream Muslims – has carried out attacks against both the Sunni majority and the small Christian population. Recently in an address to the Religious Summit of the G8 in Bordeaux, France, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, appealed to the worldwide church and the wider religious community to support a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. In other words, “no regime change . . . no military interventions from the outside!”

            The message was passed on to Arizona-based Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU: www.emeu.net) by some of the top evangelical leaders in Syria as a message US churches should heed. I won’t comment on the fact that the bishop totally sidestepped any misdeeds committed by the Syrian regime. But in a later message sent out by EMEU, a professor at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut commented on this address, affirming some points, yet at the same time deploring the lack of a “prophetic voice.” I think that’s easier said from neighboring Lebanon. Speaking truth to power in Syria is a scary proposition . . .

            But I do want to zero in on one aspect of Metropolitan Ibrahim’s address. It reflects a consensus of all the historical churches in the Middle East, from all the various shades of Orthodox churches, to the Catholics and evangelicals (an aside: evangelicals owe their presence to US Presbyterians in the 19th century, who, among other projects, founded the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo!). And my wife and I know this from our own six years in Egypt and the West Bank. The consensus is: Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

            These churches trace their origin to the Pentecost story in Acts 2. Look it up: Arabic was one of the languages supernaturally spoken! Over my sixteen years in Algeria, Egypt and Israel/Palestine I have memorized a good amount of scripture in Arabic – it’s a language I fell in love with early on! The name for God – long before the arrival of the Muslims – was Allah. And it still is. It’s from the same Semitic root el- (elohim, el-Shaddai, etc.) and it simply comes from the Arabic “the god,” as in “the God.”

            Back to Metropolitan Ibrahim. After citing several verses, he urges his audience to work for peace in Jesus’ name. This will include three ingredients, he adds: understanding (make an effort to know “the other”); respect (a two-way street); and justice – which he explains thus:

“A just peace means affirming the dignity of the people in accordance with their civil, political and human rights laws that are set by the international community. It also means rejecting all forms of racism that threats any group as lesser or inferior. As Martin Luther King, Jr said: “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”

            I’ll skim over some of his remarks on the present situation and get to his conclusion. Notice the powerful ethical implications of a common God:

            “Therefore, peace means a lot for us, but has to be done in a just way. I hope that you will have the motive to stretch out your hands to the Syrian people, both Muslims and Christians, in conscious support, so that they may, in their unity, lift up this horrible crisis, and move to a situation of peaceful living.

Finally, we are called to the one and common hope of humanity. I believe that, if we are to state an ideal saying to our troubled world, we can say that the one God commands us to honor our creation of the universe and its humanity, and to re-design our common understanding of living together, and respecting the diversity in peace.”

            Here we find a strong argument on the basis of a humanity created by the “one God,” though its premises are assumed, rather than made explicit. I argue for these explicitly in my book, “Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation” – an expanded creation argument on the basis of both Bible and Qur’an. But it is also the point of Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah: A Christian Response.”

            Volf’s book, both easy to read and convincingly argued, is a refreshing spring that sprung up from two very different wells. The first was his Pentecostal preacher father in Croatia, who knew many Muslims, counting several of them as good friends. He taught his son that they worshiped the same God and that it was important to focus on this common theological ground. Then many years later, after 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuous spewing of prejudice against Muslims in the West, and finally the Pope’s ill-fated 2006 lecture in Germany, over a hundred prominent scholars and clerics from all tendencies penned a letter to the Pope and Christian leaders worldwide. Their message (now famously known as “The Common Word”): what unites Muslims and Christians is not some peripheral religious themes, but rather core convictions at the heart of their faith; namely, love for God and love for neighbor.

            Some of you will know that the first high-profile Christian response – a full-page add in the New York Times – was called the “Yale Response,” mostly penned by Miroslav Volf himself. This was the second stream of inspiration for his book “Allah.” His purpose in “Allah: A Christian Response” is simple: to demonstrate the plausibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews worshiping the same God, the God of Abraham, Moses and the prophets.

If indeed this is the case, he writes, “they will have a set of overlapping ultimate values, which will provide them with a common moral framework in which to debate their differences” (p. 260). Among other possible benefits (like cooperative work for peace and justice), such a stance is the best antidote to religious extremism. For a common God should in the case of Muslims and Christians highlight belief in a loving (“beneficent toward all and merciful toward transgressors”) and just God, helping to build bridges between the two (or three) communities, and extremism loses religious legitimacy.”

            To that “ultimate value,” add this one: “love for neighbors.” Volf explains,

“If God commands believers to hate all infidels and love only coreligionists, extremism has a religious sanction. On the other hand, if God commands believers to love all neighbors – utterly irrespective of their creeds – then we have strong religious reasons to oppose extremism and work for caring and just relations among peoples of all religions” (p. 260)

            Christians in the Arab Middle East (including Persian Iran!) have for centuries lived out their faith with great conviction; sometimes oppressed by their Muslim overlords, sometimes thriving in their midst while staying on their guard; but always believing that, in spite of their differences, the two faiths were focused on the one Creator God who will judge humankind on the Last Day. And now the emerging consensus is that the top two criteria for judgment are love for God and love for neighbor.

This leads us back to Metropolitan Ibrahim, gingerly speaking out in a Syria fraying on the edges and threatening to slip into civil war. The conclusion of his address is the following Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Add the sentence before, and you have the one point of this blog: a common God does make for a common purpose in the world, “to re-design our common understanding of living together, and respecting the diversity in peace.”

[This is an excerpt from my first chapter (“Postmodernity and the Double Wall”) in “Earth, Empire and Sacred Text.” I define postmodernity as “the current interconnected, global, neoliberal system of political and economic instruments, institutions and alliances” and the dark side of globalization, namely the quasi-unfettered rule of multinational corporations within this system. The double wall is the grievous social injustice of the current world order (clearly the rich are getting richer, while yearly millions join the ranks of the poorest, over one fifth of humanity) and the environmental havoc wreaked upon our planet by this headlong rush to consume.

I have just spelled out the basics of the environmental degradation of our planet. Then this . . .]

As might be expected, Vandana Shiva is not as sanguine as some about the chances of the present world system’s ability to reform itself. In a recent book (Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit, Cambridge, MA: South End, 2002) she argues that “[t]he water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth” (p. 2). Already a prominent physicist in her native India while in her thirties, Shiva was shocked by the devastation inflicted by the greed of multinationals and their local allies, and particularly the foresting industry in the Himalayas. She recounts:

“Cherapunji in northeast India is the wettest region on earth, with 11 meters of rainfall a year. Today, its forests are gone and Cherapunji has a drinking-water problem. My own transition from physics to ecology was spurred by the disappearance of Himalayan streams in which I played as a child. The Chipko movement was launched to stop the destruction of water resources through logging in the area” (p. 3).

The systematic elimination of the forests triggered a chain of negative results, some more predictable than others: soil erosion, mud slides, flooding of the plains, the unsustainability to the ecosystem due to the firs planted in place of the original oaks, and the beginning of more extreme storms. Indeed, deforestation, industrial agriculture, overmining and aquaculture have unleashed an era of ruthless climate change. In the state of Orissa, Shiva describes the havoc wreaked by the 1999 cyclone: nearly two million houses destroyed; extensive destruction of paddy crops in twelve coastal districts; all of the banana and papaya plantations destroyed; eighty percent of coconut trees uprooted or cut in two, and 15,000 ponds either salinated or contaminated. In addition, the cyclone killed more than 300,000 cattle and, by some estimates, over 20,000 people. Two years later, Orissa experienced its worst drought on record, followed by its worst flood, severely affecting more than six million people.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) involved the collaboration of over one thousand scientists. According to the “Climate Change 2001” report, the climbing temperatures of the earth “will lead to crop failures, water shortages, increased disease, flooding, landslides, and cyclones.” Insurance companies are now greatly concerned about the issue: “The Global Commons Institute has assessed that damages due to climate change could amount to $200 billion by 2005” and that by 2050 “the property damage could reach $20 trillion” (p. 42).

Much of this can be attributed to the avarice of unregulated business and commerce. The multiplication of shrimp ponds (destined for the enjoyment of the rich westerners), for instance, along the coast of India and Bangladesh, account for the systematic destruction of the mangroves that once stood between ocean and land, forming a natural barrier against tides and storms and absorbing the nitrates and phosphates of waters flowing into the ocean. Yet besides industrial greed, one would also have to indict the western drive to subdue nature in the form of dams and large-scale irrigation. Already in the western United States specialists deplore the building of the great dams. In these states, “irrigation accounts for 90 percent of total water consumption. Irrigated land increased from four million acres in 1890 to nearly 60 million in 1977 . . . . These areas are also affected by soil salinity because of salts dumped into rivers when irrigation waters drain.” The rising salinity of the soils decreases the fertility of the soil, and that problem compounds with time. In California’s artificial “green belt,” the San Joaquin Valley, “crop yields have declined by 10 percent since 1970, an estimated loss of $312 million annually” (Shiva is quoting from Marq De Villiers, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 143).

As always, the result of reckless technologies in the hands of corporations and governments that have privatized that which from time immemorial belonged to all people has created the greatest suffering among the world’s poor. Yet, as Shiva shows, a revival of indigenous technologies and community management of water resources is noticeable, and it spells hope for the future. She explains: “cultures that waste water or destroy the fragile web of the water cycle create scarcity even under conditions of abundance. Those that save every drop can create abundance out of scarcity. Indigenous cultures and local communities have excelled in water conservation technologies” (p. 119). A vision urgently needed today is contained in India’s Hindu culture. For Indians, every river is sacred.

Recall that at the heart of the modern (and western) expansionist paradigm launched in 1492 was the idea of collective ownership of the world (due to the superior rights God had granted to Christian kings) and a nascent capitalist ideology—expressed in the initial charters and patents and in the preference of private property over that of community management of the commons—progressively gave birth to the corporations. These, in turn, propelled the Industrial Revolution that empowered the European Empires to establish and exploit their far-flung empires. As colonial independence movements gathered momentum in the early twentieth century, the inherently expansionist tendencies of capitalist accumulation—coupled with growing nationalism in the wealthy states of Europe—created a tension that eventually exploded in 1914, dragging the whole world into Europe’s civil war, and then into a second one in 1939. After WWII, however, what was supposed to have been a process of decolonization quickly gave way to a new kind of political and economic colonization of the so-called Third World—the raw powers of modernity unleashed in two different modes, both equally voracious when it comes to devouring natural resources and polluting the commons of humanity—water and air.

When the Second World collapsed in 1989, the neoliberal, free-market fundamentalist brand of capitalism unleashed in the 1970s now became the ruling ideology of the United States, Japan and their European allies, and the transnational corporations merged back and forth, growing into behemoths and reaching everywhere. Speth in his book (James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004) is cautiously critical of this system, if only, I surmise, because he is an insider who wants to convince American opinion leaders and politicians to change their ways. Indeed, back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked the State Department and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to study the “probable changes in the world’s population, natural resources and environment through the end of the century.” Speth, as one of the three members of CEQ, was soon to become its chair. The first part of the report was presented to Carter in 1979 and a separate report by the National Academy of Sciences, the “Charney Report,” bolstered their conclusions. From then on, Speth and his colleagues focused their attention on climate change and in a 1981 report that detailed the potentially disastrous effect of the global production of greenhouse gases and made detailed recommendations for an international effort to curb this trend. Significantly, this report contains a vision of the world that borders on the theological:

“Whatever the consequences of the carbon dioxide experiment for humanity over the long term, our duty to exercise a conserving and protecting restraint extends as well to the community of life—animal and plant—that evolved around us. There are limits beyond which we should not go in disrupting or changing this community of life, which, after all, we did not create. Although our dominion over earth may be nearly absolute, our right to exercise it is not” (Seth, on p. 5, quoting from the 1981 CEQ report).

With the knowledge we now have of the past, as human occupants of this earth and as a species embedded in it and totally dependent on its well-being, we dare not ignore the tell-tale signs of devastation ahead. This is the message that scientists from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program want to pass on to all of us today:

"The evidence is now overwhelming that [rising temperatures] are a consequence of human activities. . . . [W]e are now pushing the planet beyond anything experienced naturally for many thousands of years. The records of the past show that climate shifts can appear abruptly and be global in extent, while archaeological and other data emphasize that such shifts have had devastating consequences for human societies. In the past, therefore, lies a lesson” (Speth, on p. 60, quoting from Keith Alverson et al., Environmental Variability and Climate Change, International Geosphere-Biosphere Program Science Series No. 3, 2001).

[Imagine, if this was in 2001, what scientists are saying today as the data gathered from around the world has become even more ominous! For a helpful (and short) summary, see this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/27/world-warming.]

This article was published in the Brill journal Die Welt des Islams (vol. 47, issue 2, 2007) under the title, "Maqasid al-Shari'a: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Muslim Theologies of Human Rights

 

Abstract:

This essay explores the purposive strategy of modern Islamic legal theory (i.e., based on maqāsid al-sharīa, with public benefit, or maslaha, as the sharīa's main purpose) and its use in articulating an Islamic theology of human rights. After a synopsis of contemporary research on Islam and human rights, the essay highlights the main issues involved in the twentiethcentury turn to a purposive approach in usūl al-fiqh (Islamic legal theory). The “maqāsidī ” strategy as it is applied to human rights is then monitored in three distinct currents: traditionalists (Muhammad al-Ghaz¯lī and Muhammad 'Amāra); progressive conservatives (Muhammad Talbi, Muhammad al-Mutawakkal, and Rāshid al-Ghannūshī); progressives working with a postmodern epistemology (Ebrahim Moosa and Khaled Abou El Fadl). In conclusion, this move toward ethical objectivism and an epistemological favoring of ethical values over particular formulations of the text could enable a greater number of conservatives and progressives to converge on some of the burning questions of human rights today.

When it comes to Islam and human rights, the biggest rub in joining the two comes from the hudud. That’s a word that means “limits” – here, the limits God has imposed on wrongful behavior, or the prescribed penalties in classical Islamic law. Most of these are still on the books in Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, to name a few: stoning of adulterers, capital punishment for murderers and for those who convert from Islam (apostasy), and amputation of hands for thieves.

If you read my blogs on Shari’a, you will know that whatever consensus there was among the five main schools of law up until the eighteenth century became seriously eroded in the modern period. From the imposition of western codes of law by colonial rulers, to drastic sociopolitical changes wrought by the advent of nation-states, to the multiplication of new reformist ways of thinking and interpreting the texts (often followed by fundamentalist backlashes) – all these factors and more mean that the hudud affect the lives of very few Muslims today.

The stoning of adulterers, for example, happened rarely in Islamic history, mostly because it was so hard to prove in court. According to the law, four witnesses had to have seen the act of intercourse with their own eyes. What is more, any false witness would receive a hundred lashes. Now, justice is never served evenly in any country, so there must have even been cases like the one Jesus was called upon to judge: a woman is accused of adultery and about to be stoned, but her partner is nowhere in sight.

As far as amputating thieves’ hands, it continues in Saudi Arabia and in Nigeria’s northern states that proclaimed Shari’a law in 2000. But judges do not systematically order an amputated limb for every act of theft. Many distinctions apply, as does the consideration of extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, such a penalty does contravene current norms of human rights. It fits the category of “cruel and inhumane punishment.” That is precisely why 98% of Muslims today live in countries where it isn’t allowed.

Now for the more interesting issue of apostasy. Many readers will remember the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan found with a Bible in 2006, who was then arrested and put on death row. In the end it took loads of international pressure to have him exiled to Italy.

Then in February of this year another Afghan who embraced Christianity, Said Musa, was on the verge of being executed, causing an international uproar that eventually overturned his case. He too was fortunate. Many others, however, in several countries (with or without such a law on the books) have been killed by family members or have simply disappeared.

To be honest, the prevailing mood today seems decidedly conservative. When the popular young British imam, Usama Hasan, openly taught in 2008 that people had the right to choose any religion they wanted – and change again, if they so chose, he was viciously attacked by many conservative Muslims, including through websites based in the west.

That same year the Grand Mufti of Egypt (i.e., the highest religious official and head of the prestigious Al-Azhar University), Ali Gomaa, created a stir in many circles by making an official pronouncement to the effect that a Muslim might leave Islam to embrace another faith. The Qur’an makes it clear, he insisted, that this is a decision that only involves the individual and God, and that his/her punishment only would come on the Last Day, presumably hellfire. Here are some verses he quoted:

 

“Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (Q. 109:6)

“Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosever will, let him disbelieve” (Q. 18:29)

      “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error” (Q. 2:256)

 

Unconfirmed rumors have it that he retracted this some days later in an address in Arabic to a Muslim audience. After all, it flies in the face of pre-modern Islamic law, both Sunni and Shi’i. The Maldivian scholar Abdullah Saeed who directs the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, put it this way: “It is true that in classical Islamic law there was almost unanimous agreement among the jurists that if a Muslim converts to another religion he or she should be punished by death.”

Of late, as I said, the conservative mainstream of Islam seems to be hardening its position on this issue and it’s no secret that countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Mauritania still have laws that make apostasy a capital crime. Even in more “moderate” countries like Malaysia, Muslims (about 60% of the population) who leave the faith are sent to a “rehabilitation camp” to be reindoctinated. Al-Jazeera ran an excellent documentary in 2007 on the case of a Muslim woman who married a Hindu. Since according to Islamic law Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims (on the ground that the children follow their father’s religion), her parents took away her three-year old daughter and informed the Shari’a court about her situation. She was forcibly separated from her husband and daughter (for details, see this YouTube video).

In passing, let me add that this unyieldingness is also evidenced by the rising tide of extremism in Pakistan, particularly with regard to the blasphemy laws. Naturally, there is a strong political dimension to this controversy: the neighboring war in Afghanistan, the military pressure exerted by the Taliban-affiliated tribes in the Northwest, and the need for the religious parties to solidify their alliance to break the power of Ali Zardari’s government. But this is a popular law too: the former governor of Punjab’s stand against it cost him his life, as happened to the only Christian minister, Shahbaz Batti, who was gunned down on his way to work in March 2011.

Then there was the international furore over a 45-year-old Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, jailed for allegedly speaking against the Prophet in a village scuffle – a totally Muslim village apart from her family. This of course is not apostasy – she’s a Christian woman – but considering the fact that all possible witnesses are Muslim and therefore likely unsympathetic, the charges of blasphemy are hardly fair, if indeed the law in the first place had any validity in our day and age. She is still in jail at this writing, awaiting the execution of her death sentence, or, if she’s lucky, a presidential pardon.

Yet, despite these worrisome developments, winds of change are blowing as well, and Abdullah Saeed, professor of Islamic Studies in Melbourne, Australia, is one of many high-profile scholars who have spoken out against this traditional interpretation of the law of apostasy. Just this spring, he contributed two articles to The Public Discourse on the issue of apostasy in Islam. In our pluralistic world of the 21st century, he argues, lots of people enter and exit many different faiths, Islam being one of them. So Muslims have to face this problem head-on. He writes,

 

“Should we Muslims continue to follow the age-old ‘law’ of apostasy, punished by the death penalty, and force converts to come back to Islam literally on pain of death at a time when ‘freedom of religion’ is considered a universal human right? If a person genuinely converts to another religion, what right do others have to force him or her to change their mind? Why should we human beings play God’s role in such an important and personal matter? At the end of the day, isn’t belief an issue between a person and God, as the Quran declares?”

 

This is the theme of his first article – what the Qur’an says about apostasy. To sum it up, there is nothing in the Qur’an that says that conversion from Islam should be punished by death. The logic of its teaching is that people, once they hear the message, have the freedom to believe or disbelieve. God will punish them or reward them in the hereafter. For instance, “And if they surrender themselves unto Him, they are on the right path; but if they turn away – behold, your duty is no more than to deliver the message: for God sees all that is in [the hearts of] His creatures” (Q. 3:20).

 In fact, there is no evidence that Muhammad ever imposed this penalty on people who left the Islamic faith for their former faith. To the contrary, in the best collection of hadiths (reports of what the Prophet Muhammad said and did), al-Bukhari, we read about a man who came to Medina, converted to Islam, but changed his mind. He asked Muhammad for permission to leave Medina and go back to his home and to his former faith. Muhammad let him go with no punishment whatsoever.

 The reason all the classical schools of Islamic law agreed on the death penalty is because of how several hadiths had been interpreted, writes Saeed, in his article, "Hadith and Apostasy." The most influential one is this: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.” Saeed has two main objections to the use of this hadith. First, it only surfaced 25 years after the death of the Prophet (its transmitter, Ibn Abbas, was only 12 years old at that time). The occasion, it was said, was the caliph Ali’s decision to burn some heretics. Ibn Abbas then quotes this hadith in support, not of their being burnt to death (that was forbidden, he objected), but of their execution by the sword. Saeed reasons,

 

“It is strange that such an important message remained hidden for decades after the death of the Prophet. Ali, being a Muslim from his early childhood, one of the Muslims closest to the Prophet, and an advisor to the first three caliphs of Islam, should have known of such a penalty if it existed at the time of the Prophet, particularly since it involved taking a life, not a small matter.”

 

Saeed’s second objection is that the hadith is too vague: it implies that anyone leaving any religion should be killed. That makes no sense. So jurists over time added all kinds of limitations to this statement: it refers only to conversion from Islam; it excludes those who converted under pressure, as well as women and children (at least for the Hanafi school). Saeed’s point: such a hadith is open to many interpretations.

 But the true reason for rejecting this and other similar hadiths (and a few verses in the Qur’an quoted by those in favor of capital punishment) is a consideration of the historical context. And here we rejoin a growing number of scholars today who reject the traditional interpretation. The context was all out war between Medina and Mecca. People who shed their Muslim identity were in effect joining the enemy. This was state treason, which in most states still today is a capital crime.

 Jamal Badawi, a Canadian Muslim raised in Egypt, is a prolific author and speaker around the world, and has been active in several Muslim organizations in North America over the years. A known conservative with old ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, his views have moderated over time. You can read his fatwa (legal opinion) on this issue on the Islamic Society of North America website. Quoting many others conservatives like himself, his conclusion runs parallel to Saeed’s:

 

"In the context of the besieged early Muslim community, apostasy was a major threat to the nascent Muslim community. Taking a passive attitude towards it would have jeopardized the very emergence of the Muslim community."

 

The founder of the Islamist movement in Tunisia, Rashid Ghannushi, was jailed as a young man for starting a political party that was already threatening President Ben Ali’s own grip on power in the early 1980s. In prison he wrote was to become his doctoral thesis, “The General Liberties of the Islamic State,” in which he argues against the death penalty for apostasy and for democratic procedures in any Muslim-majority country. Democracy, he argued, is not just good because governments are responsive to their people’s wishes, or because citizens enjoy civil and political freedoms. It is also necessary in order to ensure religious freedom. People of different faiths should have the right to proselytize, as long as it is done with respect.

 After two decades of exile in the UK, Ghannushi has now come back to Tunisia after the revolution. As the veteran leader of the Islamist movement, however, he has decided to step down from any formal leadership. He will let younger men and women run for election. But in all his interviews with the press, he says he’s thrilled with the new Tunisia. “And don’t worry about the Islamic parties,” he tells reporters. “We will play by all the democratic rules. Freedom is too important to us!”

 In the first half I mentioned the issue of blasphemy. Just as I find encouragement in the growing number of high profile Muslim leaders reinterpreting the Qur’an and Hadith on the issue of apostasy, so I believe that hardliners will increasingly find themselves isolated, even in Muslim-dominated areas. The following is a telling sign.

 As it turns out, it was Pakistan that launched a yearly campaign in the UN since 1999, and particularly in its Human Rights Council, to pass resolutions against religious defamation – in effect an anti-blasphemy law sponsored by the largest Muslim worldwide body, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC, 57 member countries). After some positive support from a wide array of countries, many states realized that this was a thinly veiled strategy to marshal support for the kind of laws Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran already have at home. In March of this year in Geneva, sensing that for the first time it would be defeated, the OIC quietly dropped the issue (see forthcoming book by Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide, Oxford University Press, November 2011). The tide is turning.

 Freedom of thought and freedom of religion, just like other human rights, are more and more taken for granted by Muslims everywhere. Are there headwinds of reaction and traditionalism? Of course there are. But, it seems to me, the mother ship – the Muslim mainstream – is clearly headed in a reformist direction.

 

First, when it comes to women and clothing, let’s get one misconception out of the way: “Islam oppresses women.” That is the default statement that even when not stated outright is assumed by non-Muslim westerners, while their minds dance with this image of Muslim women waddling down the road covered in black cloth from head to toe.

Down through the ages and all over the world, women have been made to feel shame for their sexuality and so have been expected to cover in one way or another in public. So they have veiled: lace head coverings for Mass, Indian saris, the black shawls worn by Egyptian peasants, both Muslim and Christian, various nuns’ paraphernalia, and even the headscarves worn by most American women in early twentieth century rural America.

In this area, the Qur’an and the Bible teach the same thing: women should dress modestly. That’s how specific it gets – well, almost. Here is the Qur’an’s only clear statement on the issue of dress:

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; they they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; and that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands . . .” (Q. 24:31).

Just two verses before “lowering one’s gaze and guarding one’s modesty” had first been enjoined on men in that passage. The rest was specific to women.

The Apostle Peter has similar counsel for members of the early house churches:

“Wives, submit to your husbands . . . Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:1, 3-4).

The only use for the word “hijab” in the Qur’an is for the curtain that separated the men from the women when people visited the Prophet Muhammad’s house (Q. 33:53). The cloth covering women’s hair, now so very common among Muslim women, is a recent invention. In 1955 the great historian of the Middle East, Albert Hourani, could write that the traditional head coverings for women were “vanishing” in that part of the world. Now, some 56 years later, Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed just published a book trying to explain the dramatic revival of the female headscarf, now called “hijab.”

What happened after the 1950s? This is what Ahmed explores in her new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America (Yale University Press).

Ahmed grew up in 1940s Egypt, where fewer and fewer women were wearing the veil, but for reasons mostly unrelated to religion. Society was changing in a more European direction. After all, the West had produced a scientific revolution and had become the undeniable leaders in political and military innovation.

At the same time, the weight of colonial shaming and derision would not be forgotten. Egypt’s former consul general, Lord Cromer, wrote in his 1908 book, Modern Egypt, that Islam “degraded” women – a clear sign of its inferiority to Christianity. Meanwhile, for all his wholehearted agreement with this general chorus of colonial elites smugly mocking the backwardness of “Arab culture,” he seemed to have missed the irony of his own presidency of the British Men's League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Jesus did talk about removing the log from one’s own eye first, didn’t he?

Islam-bashing for its treatment of women has certainly made a comeback these days, before and after 9/11. France was the first to ban the wearing of a full-face veil, the niqab or burqa (see my own take on this in Christianity Today), because of “its debasement of women.” As I wrote in a previous blog, there is plenty to criticize in many Muslim contexts on this issue, and no place with more justification than in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Yet we might fault Laura Bush’s radio address shortly after the American invasion of that country in 2001 as politically expedient. Decrying “brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan” seemed a bit too convenient as a backdrop to a military operation ostensibly designed to punish the terror network behind the 9/11 attacks. This might help us understand why many Muslims feel that US military interventions in Muslim countries are simply new versions of old colonial style imperialism.

Now back to our query. I agree with Leila Ahmed: the 1967 Arab military defeat in the “Six Day War” was the watershed experience that only amplified the ongoing demise of pan-Arab socialism (championed by Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser) and the rise of Islamism (meaning, the will to bring Islam into the sociopolitical sphere). The resulting shame only highlighted the failure of the secular policies in place. People were getting a lot more religious, as they repeated the mantra, “we’ve been defeated, because we’ve abandoned God; turn back to him, and he will lift us up again.”

Much more could be said about the rise of Islamism in the 1970s and 1980s. Suffice it to say that it was a revolution from the bottom up. In Egypt, for instance, where political opposition to Mubarak’s iron rule came mainly from the religious sector, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers captured all the key posts of civil society: trade unions, professional syndicates (from doctors to lawyers to teachers and engineers), and student organizations.

Already when we lived in Egypt from 1989 to 1992, it had become a rare sight to see young women without the hijab (hair covering, plus modest dress of one sort or another), except for the Christian girls. My wife always went out with a scarf on her head, if only to show that she was not a “loose western woman,” as depicted in the American soap operas Egyptians loved to watch. Even today, when you look at the young women who actively joined the protests in Tahrir Square this spring, most of them were covered.

By far the most fascinating part of Ahmed’s book, The Quiet Revolution, is the result of her two or three years of attending Muslim American conferences, regional meetings, and a few mosques. Her conclusion is that, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, women’s veiling has become a discourse of protest against traditional male patriarchy and organizational politics as usual. Yet even the female voices are far from united. In fact, she describes lively debates between conservatives and liberals (many of whom wear the hijab), between young and old, men and women. These are all committed Muslim individuals, proudly American for the most part, and highly educated.

I show my classes a film interview with a veiled Malaysian gynecologist who in an articulate and winsome way explains that this is an expression of her faith and her culture. “We Muslim women are not put down by our religion. We simply understand modesty differently than many women in the West.” Another scene shows her in a home she started for girls pregnant out of wedlock. They are cared for, along with their babies, and given the necessary training to go on with their lives. That too, she says, is part of her religion.

Indeed, the hijab carries many meanings, depending on the woman and her context. So among other possible meanings you will find the hijab . . .

  • a sign of youthful protest against a hated regime (certainly Egypt’s case)
  • worn by a school girl identifying with friends who wear it with pride, ready to stand up to her mother’s disapproval
  • donned by university students in Turkey who risk not finishing their degree, because it’s forbidden
  • adopted by American twenty-somethings who after 9/11 suddenly became proud of a religion they were losing
  • a strategy of “winning the right to be heard” used by educated women in conservative circles seeking to change old patriarchal practices and rules
  • not nearly modest enough for women in US Salafi circles, who would not even leave their houses without a full black covering, gloves on their hands, peering through a gauze-like veil, satisfied that they are fully obeying the teachings of the Prophet . . .

The more you read good sources about actual Muslims going about their lives in their own surroundings – and the more Muslims you befriend, the more stereotypes will fade into the background. One great article (with video clip included) amazed me, and I’m sure it will amaze you as well (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/12/lebanon-women-clear-cluster-bombs?INTCMP=SRCH). It’s about an all-female team of highly trained (hijab-clad) women in South Lebanon employed by a Norwegian NGO and working to find and explode residual cluster bombs scattered by the Israelis in the 2006 war with Hizbullah.

When it comes to Islam and human rights, then, let me just point out that women should have the right to vote, to be educated and to work any job for which they are qualified, including head of state; but they also should have the right to dress as they choose. Admittedly, this topic requires a delicate balance for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Leila Ahmed in a recent article (I highly recommend: http://en.qantara.de/Treacherous-Sympathy-with-Muslim-Women/16963c17398i1p9/index.mwo4ml), writes this,

“In saying that it’s time to set aside the old imperial rhetoric of the oppression of women in Islam, I am certainly not arguing, I should make clear, that I believe that particular interpretations of Islam do not include attitudes and laws that are indeed appallingly unjust to women. On the contrary I believe that there are all too many such examples.

But the way forward is not through the wholesale denigration of everything Islamic or through grand assaults on “the oppression of women in Islam”, but rather through directly confronting and challenging unjust and cruel laws, customs and behaviors one by one and specifically, wherever they occur.”

So our challenge, as we think about Muslim women, is to admit that the hijab opens up complex issues that won’t fit into catchy media sound bites. Each of these women, who for the most part have chosen to wear the head covering and dress modestly, is a unique individual with her own set of issues. In the end, it’s our common humanity that will help us break down stereotypes and develop a better understanding of one another.

Books

  • Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation
    Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation

    This was the page devoted to my small monograph published in Malaysia, Evolving Muslim Theologies of Justice: Jamal al-Banna, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is now a 180-page (double-spaced) manuscript that should come out in 2019. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

    Read more...
  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

    Read more...