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

I now come to my last Singapore lecture on justice – the first was a secular version through the lens of philosophers John Rawls and Agnes Heller; the second on Jesus and justice with the help of Yale’s Nicholas Wolterstorff; and now I end with a two-part peek into some debates Muslims are having with one another on justice, human rights and ethics. And this, with special attention to Southeast Asia, since my lecture was given in Singapore.

An oversimplification, to be sure, but a saying with more than a grain of truth to it is this: love is the central value of Christianity corresponding to justice in Islam.

You might retort that 113 out of 114 of the Qur’an’s suras (chapters) start with the formula, “In the name of the Merciful, the Compassionate” (the besmallah) and that God’s mercy runs all the way through its pages, including this striking verse about God’s merciful nature, “Your Sustainer has willed upon Himself the law of grace and mercy” (6:54 Asad). Literally, “your Lord has written mercy upon Himself.” And so mercy should be the candidate. I think not.


Justice, a central qur’anic theme

As someone who specializes in reading Islamic texts and who seeks to understand some of the crosscurrents of Islamic thought today, I would have to say that justice is the highest value in Muslim discourse. Here is a quote from one of the most respected scholars of Islamic law today – an Afghan who has been teaching in Malaysia for three decades – Mohammad Hashim Kamali (see the above picture and source):


“The demand for providing justice at every level of society features very prominently in the Qur’an. At every level, be it personal or public, in dealing with friends or foes, Muslims and non-Muslims, both in words and deeds, the Muslims are urged to be fair and just. Justice is an integral part of the faith and upholding the principle of justice is not confined to the courtroom environment or to a set of formal injunctions but commands a high priority in the order of Islamic moral and spiritual values.”


You will find about fifty qur’anic verses on justice (using one of the two synonyms, ‘adl and qist), and hundreds of verses on injustice (zulm). One of the most explicit and oft-quoted verses is this one:


“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor; for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that you do” (Q. 4:135).


Even in just one verse you can see how broadly justice has to be defined. The allusion to “the lusts of your hearts” points in the direction of personal righteousness, which we encountered in the teaching of Jesus as well. In fact, we discovered that the Greek word used in classical Greek literature, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) and in the New Testament itself, the words dikaios (just) and diakaiosuné (justice) refer both to righteousness and justice.

Kamali in his 2001 book, Freedom, Justice and Equality in Islam, defines justice as “placing something in its rightful place … according equal treatment to others or reaching a state of equilibrium in transactions with them” (p. 103). Interestingly, he sees justice as “a universal value” that is understood in roughly the same way across “the major traditions of the world.”

Among the kinds of justice he discusses in his book are procedural justice (how fairly a court system works); commutative justice (fair sentencing by judges); retributive justice (meting out penalties for crimes committed); corrective justice (similar to former, but focused on the rehabilitation of prisoners); political justice (discussed in my first blog); and distributive justice (an even distribution of social, economic and political goods among a population). That last category covers what we often refer to as “social justice,” the main theme of my first two blogs.

While care for the poor, the orphans and the widows figures prominently in the Qur’an (and most obviously in the institution of zakat – see my blog on this issue), there is also much about personal righteousness defined as “not transgressing the bounds” or “limits” (hudud). For instance, “Whoever transgresses the limits of God does verily wrong his own soul” (Q. 65:1). Or this, “These are the limits ordained by God. So do not violate them. If any do violate the God-ordained limits, verily they are the transgressors” (Q. 2:229).

The Qur’an teaches that people are created according to a good pattern (fitra, Q. 30:30) and that this good nature has its roots in a “primordial covenant” by which God convened all of Adam’s descendants before him as souls and made them solemnly testify that he indeed is their “Lord” (Q. 7:172, 173). And though Satan seeks to entrap humankind from all sides, righteous people are able to resist him. Muslims agree with Jews that there is no such thing as “original sin” – and hence, no need for “the cross,” or the Christian concept of redemption.

That said, human beings easily “gravitate down to the earth and follow their own desires” (Q. 7:176). And when they refuse to ascend the heights of purity and godliness (taqwa, lit. “fear of God,” or “guarding oneself” or “God consciousness”), they allow themselves to be dragged down to the level of their base instincts and hence transgress “the limits of God.” This in turn causes the evil committed to fall back on its perpetrators. It is, in the language of the Qur’an, to visit “injustice on oneself” (zulm al-nafs). So justice, or righteousness, consists in becoming a person of taqwa, that is, someone who obeys God and is wise enough to balance those demands with the challenge of daily life on earth. This ability to submit to God while giving earthly concerns their proper place is how humans give God his rightful place. It’s about justice – keeping God’s justice intact and thereby not harming one's self.

Yet talk about “the limits” in Islamic law quickly brings up the issue of the hudud (“limits”), or the “fixed penalties” – penalties which can vary somewhat between the various schools of law for theft, highway robbery, adultery, fornication, alcohol, apostasy. For many reasons, these apply to few Muslims in the world today (see “Severe Penalties and Human Rights”). So what is the relationship between Shari’a, Islamic law, and justice in an “Islamic state”? Muslims covering the spectrum between Salafis, moderate islamists and secular Muslims will naturally offer different answers. I turn here to Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s view in his contribution to a recent book, Justice & Rights: Christian and Muslim Perspectives.


Kamali on Shari’a, justice and constitutionalism

In his chapter entitled “The Ruler and the Ruled,” Kamali starts with two qur’anic verses about political leaders:


“Allah commands you to render the trusts (al-amanat) to whom they are due and when you judge among the people, you judge with justice … Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those in charge of the affairs (uli’l-amr) among you. If you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is better and more becoming in the end” (Q. 4: 58-9).


Clearly then, the duty of the ruled is to obey the ruler, but this is conditioned on the ruler faithfully discharging “the trusts.” The emphasis here is on his accountability to God – and therefore, his obligation to govern with justice. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), a respected jurist and theologian, commented on these “the trusts.” They are fulfilled, he writes, when selected officials are both qualified and honest and when they ensure a fair distribution of wealth in the community. This is because justice is the key “trust.” He then cites Umar, the second caliph (successor to the Prophet), who disbursed state monies to compensate people based on their service and to help those in need, depending on their financial condition.

Kamali also explains “the trust” in relation to the qur’anic concepts of wakil and wakala (trustee and fiduciary contract), which for him implies a theory of representation. The expression “those in charge of affairs among you” implies “that leadership in an Islamic polity must arise from the community itself. An imposition of power from outside the Muslim community cannot therefore be in conformity with the Qur’anic vision of leadership.” Of course, this points to a democratic body politic.

Traditional Islamic polities certainly had structures of accountability in place, but it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that better “opportunities for organized opposition and criticism of the government in power” were established. Yet, he notes, “constitutionalism in the postcolonial period in the Muslim world has been less successful than it has been in the West.”

Striking a note reminiscent of Agnes Heller’s article (in the first blog), Kamali argues that justice starts with the individual (ruler or ruled), and then is applied to all strata and spheres of society, though it must also be tempered by ihsan (kindness). So leniency should be applied whenever possible.

Kamali then turns to the issue of Shari’a courts. Contrary to what many believe, he argues, they are civilian, not “religious.” For “justice in Islam transcends the barriers of religion and creed … The religious affiliation to litigants is not a factor to be taken into account in trial procedures, presentation of evidence, and adjudication.” In fact there is no contradiction between an “Islamic” polity and modern constitutional states. Quite the contrary, he avers:


       “Modern constitutional law is entrenched in the idea of commitment to the rule of law and the imposition of limits on the coercive power of government, protection of civil liberties, and accountability in government. In this sense, constitutionalism is in substantial harmony with the value structure of Islam. Contemporary constitutions tend to embody, to a large extent, organized forms of consultation and bay’a [oath of loyalty], and laws and rules that are duly ratified by the people’s elected representatives may be seen as the embodiment of the command of the uli’l-amr.”


In my lecture I then inserted a brief introduction to the idea of Shari’a, something you can pick up in a previous blog on the topic. These bullets are relevant to the next installment of this lecture:


*** Shari’a is God’s revealed path in the Qur’an and Sunna leading to blessing in this life and salvation in the next; yet it was never codified (like a law code enacted by a parliament in a modern nation state)

*** Shari’a always remained an ideal, particularly on the political level; it is just about silent on what we call “constitutional law” today

*** Shari’a was interpreted by the jurists (the ulama) in their various schools of law and they formed a particular class of leaders whose religious authority usually stood as a complement to the rulers’ authority; sometimes they stood in opposition to the rulers

*** Islamic jurisprudence was used over the centuries to justify a wide variety of political arrangements; today there are three kinds of Muslim-majority states:

Dual legal system: government is secular, but people can choose to use Shari’a courts for family and financial disputes (Nigeria, Kenya, Qatar, and UK – since late 2008)

Government under God: Islam official religion and Shari’a is “a” or “the” source of legislation: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq

Completely secular: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Chad, Somalia and Senegal


But why does it seem that with the growing religiosity of Muslims worldwide (like people of other faith traditions) over the last forty years Shari’a gets interpreted in more restrictive ways? Here’s an interesting case study just out on Malaysia. This creates a “disconnect,” argues the author, a clash between the aspiration for greater freedom and the reality of more intrusive “religious laws” (see next blog for this and the series’ conclusion).

21 March 2013

Jesus and Justice

In the first lecture I touched on political justice as theorized in the works of philosophers John Rawls and Agnes Heller. But far from locking us into theoretical considerations, their thinking helped us reflect on the current turmoil in Egypt. In the midst of the specific historic challenges Egyptians face in 2013, its leaders have to find a just balance between the drive to give equal political access to all (the democratic ethos) and the mission to ensure that minorities also have a voice (the liberal ethos).

I had agreed with Heller who stated that beyond the need for good institutions to be in place, justice in politics can only be served by “good and decent” leaders who follow high ethical values recognized universally. In this lecture, turning to Christianity, I focus on this personal dimension of justice, which always runs parallel to the wider issue of justice on a collective scale.

We will use as our guide Nicholas Wolterstorff (b. 1932), Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University (retired 2002), who devoted the last decade to the issue of justice, both in the Bible and in today’s political arena. In particular, we will look at his widely acclaimed 2008 book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs. His philosophical grounding of justice in humanity’s “inherent rights” stands in contrast to mainstream ideas of justice as “right order.” Philosopher Richard J. Bernstein claims that “Wolterstorff’s Justice is the most impressive book since John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.”



But first, a little background is called for. In a couple of chapters on the Old Testament, Wolterstorff had summarized his findings in two simple phrases:


1. God always acts justly and seeks to bring about justice in human society

2. God holds people accountable for doing justice


Coming to the New Testament he declares, “Justice, along with its negative, injustice, is one of the main themes in the New Testament . . . In this world of ours, persons are wronged, justice is breached. That is the ever-present context of the New Testament writings” (96).

So the Hebrew Bible theme of God’s jealous love for the poor and his calling the oppressors to account continues in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The new Pope Francis I is surely in line with his Master’s vision as he calls for a “Church of the Poor.” God’s justice is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, but with a deep irony. Jesus is God’s Messiah sent to inaugurate God’s reign of justice; yet God’s messenger falls victim to injustice -- an injustice willed by God as his Son’s ultimate sacrifice, through which he sides forever with all the world’s victims. More on this later.

The word used in Greek philosophical literature for “justice” (like in Plato’s Republic) is dikaiosuné, and for “just” dikaios. It is the same word used in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament known in Jesus’ day) and in the New Testament to translate two different yet related concepts: righteousness (a personal quality) and justice (a wider concept involving relationships between people). But Christians have tended to translate this term in either case as “righteousness.” And that creates a distortion of Jesus’ message.

Look at how the term is used in the Beatitudes (Jesus’ eight “blessings” at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount). The first instance is this, ““Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosuné), for they will be filled.” Many translations use “justice” instead of “righteousness.” But in the second instance, “righteousness” doesn’t make sense at all: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:6, 10). Why would you be persecuted for being devout and God-fearing? It’s more likely that you had defended the rights of the oppressed and thus stepped on the toes of the mighty.

Wolterstorff says that dikaiosuné can be translated by both terms and that one has to look at the context to see which one is most appropriate. Unfortunately, translators have tended to take “justice” out of the picture.


Jesus fulfills the Old Testament narrative

There is a story line you can trace throughout the Bible from a Christian perspective. Jesus is the promised Messiah intimated from the beginning, announced in the calling of Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, and then clearly predicted by the many prophets who followed before and after the exile. Noted New Testament scholar Richard Hays writes about Luke’s important contribution in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament:


“The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are two parts of a single grand literary work in which Luke tells the story of salvation history in a stately and gracious manner. God’s mighty act of deliverance through Jesus Christ is narrated as an epic, in such a way that the church might discover its location in human history, particularly within the history of God’s dealings with his people Israel (112)”


Wolterstorff singles out three of the Old Testament themes regarding the coming Messiah -- themes that Jesus consciously fulfills:


1. The one who brings justice

In the classic passage Jesus chose to read in his hometown synagogue he quotes from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-20).

Startled by his first sentence (“The scripture you’ve just heard is fulfilled this very day”), his male audience look at him unconvinced. Jesus tells them what they’re thinking, “You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself’ – meaning , ‘Do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum.’ But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown” (vs. 23-24).

Then they become enraged as Jesus tells them they are just as hardened spiritually as their ancestors in the days of the prophet Elijah who chose a foreign widow (in today’s Lebanon) to display God’s power and mercy; or in the days of his successor Elisha who healed a Syrian general of his leprosy. They tried to kill Jesus then and there.

Later, when John the Baptist began to doubt Jesus’ mission in prison, Jesus let his envoys observe his work for a while and sent them back saying, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).

Significantly, in the Isaiah reading that Jesus read from chapter 61, he had added a phrase (“let the oppressed go free”) from chapter 58. Here’s the exact passage, where the prophet chides his people about fasting without caring for the poor and the downtrodden:


“No, this is not the kind of fasting I want:

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;

lighten the burden of those who work for you.

Let the oppressed go free

and remove the chains that bind people.

Share your food with the hungry,

and give shelter to the homeless …” (Isaiah 58:6-7).


Matthew understands Jesus’ ministry in the same way; further on in his gospel he quotes from another of Isaiah’s five “servant songs:


   “Look at my Servant … He is my chosen one …

     I have put my Spirit upon him.

     He will bring justice to the nations.

     He will not shout or raise his voice in public.

     He will not crush the weakest reed

         or put out a flickering candle.

     He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

     He will not falter or lose heart

until justice prevails throughout the earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4).


Most commentators see in the last line of Jesus’ synagogue reading (“that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,” lit. “the year of the Lord’s favor) a promise to restore the Year of Jubilee, all but forgotten by the Jews in history. According to Moses' law, every 49th year all debts had to be released, land went back to the original owners, and all agricultural land had to lay fallow.

Luke too makes clear Jesus’ concern for the poor (not just “poor in spirit”):


“God blesses you who are poor,

   for the kingdom of God is yours.

God blesses those who are hungry now,

   for in due time you will laugh” (Luke 6:20-21).


Luke is the only gospel to tell the parable of Lazarus and the rich man “who was dressed in fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” while poor Lazarus lay covered with sores, wishing he could just eat some crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. After death, their fortunes are reversed. Angels carry Lazarus to Abraham’s side, while the rich man is tormented in “the place of the dead.” He realizes too late that he didn’t “repent of his sins and turn to God” (Luke 16:30).


2. Jesus as innocent

I’ve written before that by far Isaiah is the prophet Jesus quotes the most. Luke especially picks up the theme of Isaiah 53, the last of the “servant songs,” in which God’s righteous servant is crushed for his people’s sins:


“My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot,

like a root in dry ground . . .

He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief . . .

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;

it was our sorrows that weighed him down.

And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,

a punishment for his own sins.

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.

He was beaten so we could be whole.

He was whipped so we could be healed.

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.

We have left God’s paths to follow our own.

Yet the Lord laid on his the sins of us all . . .

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,

he did not open his mouth.

Unjustly condemned he was led away” (Isaiah 53:2, 3-8 NLT).


Consider these events during and after Jesus’ passion:

3 times Pilate, the Roman governor, declares Jesus “innocent” (Luke 23: 4, 14, 22)

One of the criminals on the cross rebukes his comrade on the other side of Jesus, “Do you not fear God? … And we indeed have been condemned justly … but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41).

Luke again in Acts speaks of Jesus as the innocent martyr; for instance, in the speech that leads to his martyrdom Stephen accuses his hearers of killing “the innocent one (dikaios)” (Acts 8:33).


3. Jesus as King

Right from the beginning, and throughout the four gospels, Jesus announces the coming of God’s kingdom in his person: “The time promised by God has come at last! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)

Luke recounts the same discourse on Jesus’ lips, “Yet know this: the Kingdom of God has come near” (10:11). Further on in the gospel Jesus declares, “In fact, the Kingdom of God is among you” (17:21).

Often it’s non-Jews who recognize Jesus’ kingship. Think of the three Magi, or wise men, who traveled from the east and, upon coming into Jerusalem, ask King Herod, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” (Mat. 2:2) Matthew in recounting the story of his birth also quotes from the prophet Micah (5:2):


“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,

for from you shall come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel” (quoted in Mat. 2:6).


To any Jew at the time, Messiah was to come and rule – and rule with justice, as we read in Psalm 72:


“Give your king justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice …

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people …”


So perhaps Pilate, knowing this fact about the Jews, used it to spite the Jews who had strong-armed him to crucify Jesus. He made sure that Jesus died with this sign over his head, “King of the Jews.” But what none of those witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion realized that day – from the Roman governor to the Jewish leaders, from his own followers (mostly women) to the gawkers standing by – was the magnitude of the cosmic event unfolding before them.


A Larger Story of Justice

Yet the cosmic dimension of Jesus’ death didn’t appear till two days later – when the disciples finally investigated the news that the women had brought them of an empty tomb. Wolterstorff frames this overarching biblical narrative in terms of justice/injustice:


“That very same Jesus who is identified as the one sent by God to inaugurate the reign of justice himself became a victim of gross injustice. Though innocent of the charges lodged against him, he who came to lift up the downtrodden was himself handed over to be executed in the company of a pair of common criminals, thereby consigned to the lowest rung of the downtrodden. Were it not for Jesus’ resurrection, the entire story would have been profoundly ironic, with massive delusion at its core. As it is, Jesus’ becoming the victim of injustice proved not the end of the story but a central episode in a larger story of victory rather than defeat for the cause of justice. For one who accepts Chalcedonian Christology, the victim was not only human but divine” (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, p. 129).


The redemptive power of Jesus’ death is a central theme of the Apostle Paul’s writings. One of many passages on this reads, For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20-21 NLT).

The cross is where most graphically for Christians justice and love meet. Justice as law is satisfied in the perfect Son of Adam’s sacrifice, just as God’s forgiveness is released through the cross to embrace all humanity.

After I finished this lecture at the conference sponsored by Pathways for Mutual Respect at the National University of Singapore, the first hand to go up was that of Professor Syed Farid Alatas, a sociologist who directs the Department of Malay Studies at the NUS. He made several positive comments and then this remark: "What you say about Jesus, justice and the cross, reminds me very much of the meaning of Karbala for the Shia community. Both cases are about redemptive suffering."

It's true in my experience that Shia Muslims identify more readily with Jesus' work of redemption on the cross. After all, their identity as Shias is deeply rooted in the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet's grandson at Karbala. Still, as I will show in my next blog, the theme of justice for Muslims plays out very differently -- though in the end, when it comes to righting wrongs in the world, both communities sense a similar calling from God.


Closing remarks

Wolterstorff’s research on justice continued with another book Justice in Love (2011), which highlights the dignity of the human person, and hence, the inherent rights of all people. But that’s a topic for another day.

I started this blog by reminding you of the first one, and particularly about the necessity of having just people in positions of leadership as a prerequisite for a just society. That’s why Jesus, whose birth still marks the western calendar, is such an important contributor to our topic. Gandhi himself, the great founder of the modern nonviolent movement, wrote:

“The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., as many of you would know, took inspiration from Gandhi’s use of Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to injustice. What is lesser known is the impact of Jesus on African American women seeking to abolish slavery and later fighting the injustices of continuing racial discrimination in the 20th century. We owe a debt to Bettye Collier-Thomas, who wrote a fascinating book on this topic: Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion.

Perhaps these are the most appropriate words to wrap up our thoughts on Jesus and justice:

“Black men and women shared experiences of oppression. However, the impact of slavery on black women was distinctly different. Set apart by their sex, black women were more exposed to sexual violence and misuse of their bodies for breeding and other purposes. Used as sex objects and beasts of burden but determined to survive, many women viewed the Bible as a source of inspiration. It became an instrument of freedom and survival and a tool for development of literacy. Within the confines of slavery black women developed boundless spirituality and adopted the Bible as their guide, and Jesus Christ as their personal savior” (xxv).

Islamic law in this new century is in a state of flux. Granted, venerable institutions that are a millennium old don’t change overnight. As it turned out, the recalibrations made out of necessity in many nineteenth-century Muslim countries were not enough to stem the tide of secularization in the postcolonial period. Though each of the fifty six member states of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) have taken different paths to incorporate at least some elements of traditional Islamic law, the attacks on American soil in 2001 seem to have jolted many to rethink key issues, including legal theory.

I say this, only because of the dramatic and unprecedented international agreements made by Muslim leaders and scholars from all traditions between 2005 and 2006. Under the aegis of the Jordanian crown, the Amman Message movement produced a consensus document signed by Sunni, Shia, Ibadi, and Sufi luminaries on three foundational questions: Who is a Muslim? Can a Muslim declare another Muslim an infidel (the act of takfir)? Who is qualified to pronounce a legal opinion (fatwa) and what counts as adequate qualification?

The last question, of course, is about how Islamic law is supposed to function. The longer statement recognizes eight schools of law and sets up minimum training standards for becoming a legal expert, and in this case, a mufti.

You’re probably thinking this was aimed at the bin Laden types who issue controversial fatwas without any qualification. You’re right. But there’s much more to this. It’s also about 1) boosting the role of the ulama (traditional Islamic scholars who were jurists but much more too), whose status has been dramatically eroded in the last two hundred years; 2) stemming the tide of revolutionary change advocated by more progressive intellectuals.

So the issue of reformism (islah) is in the air once again. First used in the nineteenth century, and most famously by the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh, islah could also be translated “reformation.” Post 9/11, of course, many westerners have called for an “Islamic Reformation – referring to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. But nowhere in the world do people like outsiders telling them they need to set their house in order.

A recent book, by contrast, was written by an insider telling other insiders (Muslims) that Islamic law needs serious revamping – a weighty charge that faces an extra hurdle from the fact that he is not one of the traditional ulama, the gatekeepers of Islamic jurisprudence. Mohammad Omar Farooq earned a PhD in economics at the University of Tennessee, taught in the US for more than a decade and is now the Head of the Centre for Islamic Finance at the Bahrain Institute for Banking and Finance.

Farooq’s book is entitled Toward our Reformation: From Legalism to Value-Oriented Islamic Law and Jurisprudence.

Let me say from the onset that the publisher is a conservative Muslim think tank, the IIIT (The International Institute of Islamic Thought) in Virginia, with branches in London, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere. They know this is controversial material, but they obviously believe this is a message that needs to get out.

Besides, the IIIT has bent over backwards to solicit eight “testimonials” at the end of the book (or “endorsements” by recognized scholars), a Foreword by a pioneer of Islamic finance, Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqi, and a substantial Preface by one of the most respected legal theorists within the “Islamization of Knowledge” movement of which the IIIT is the leading light. This book is important to them.

So why the need for reformation? Farooq’s answer is all the abuse, misapplication and distortion of the Islamic Shari’a on the part of states and individual ulama alike. As a result, the Shari’a “is being used to rubber stamp extremist, violent behavior, the abuse of women, and the unfair control and imprisonment of human beings” (p. 16). Speaking of South Asia in particular, he writes that the following are “prevalent”: “[t]he torture and persecution of brides over their dowry, the throwing of acid onto girls who do not either want to accept a proposal of marriage or to concede to extramarital sex, the practice of honor killings and so on …” (p. 86).

Yet Farooq reserves his most stinging criticism for what he sees as the root problem – the general tendency in Islamic legal circles over the centuries toward “legalism and literalism,” that is, a focus on rules and regulations based on texts to the detriment of a consideration of the values promoted by the texts which will necessarily find different expressions in different times and climes.

Perhaps the most damning case is about slavery. Though the Qur’an in many places expressly promotes the unconditional dignity of every human being under God, “[t]he classical orthodox position erroneously argues that the Prophet never specifically or categorically prohibited the practice [of slavery]” (p. 193). Thus, the clear injunction forbidding the enslaving of freemen was turned on its head to mean that people already enslaved or captives of war were meant to remain in that condition. In turn this attitude led to the preposterous position of Imam Malik that the hadd penalty for drinking wine was reduced to half for a slave and to the Hanafi rule that a slave could marry up to two wives. In essence, a slave is worth half the value of a free person.

In light of these and many more rather egregious applications of Islamic law, Farooq broaches the topic of reformation in four steps. The first three (chapters 3 to 5) consist of dispelling long-held and deeply cherished Muslim myths about the uses of hadith, ijma’ (consensus) and qiyas (analogical reasoning). In other words, out of the four traditional sources of Shari’a only one is “divine” and therefore entirely reliable. He insists again and again that the Prophet’s Sunna is absolutely essential to the proper guidance of the Muslim community. Yet less than a dozen ahadith are mutawatir (containing a reliable chain of transmission; nearly all prophetic reports are in fact ahad). This means that the second source of knowledge for the Shari’a is “probabilistic.”

As for the two sources of jurisprudence that involve more direct human involvement, ijma’ and qiyas, their reliability turns out to be very shaky in his eyes. If even the most reliable of ahadith cannot be seen as “divine” (only the Qur’an is God’s direct word), how much more so these human tools which are so tentative by definition. Leaning as he does throughout the book on a number of scholars (with a number of block quotations that is so high and voluminous as to recall a dissertation), Farooq agrees with Abdulhamid AbuSulayman that “the simple, traditional concept of Ijma is no longer suitable for a non-classical social system” (p. 164). In fact (now quoting from Ziauddin Sardar), the early “democratic spirit” of the Islamic community was soon hijacked by “the clerics and religious scholars” who “removed the people from the equation” – with the result that “authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in the Muslim world” (p. 163).

Just as with many other domains of human knowledge, law progresses largely on the basis of analogical reasoning. So there’s no denying that qiyas has played a key role over time in the development of Islamic law. Still, as Farooq deftly demonstrates, Muslim scholars disagreed about many aspects of this tool. For instance, what constitutes the ‘illa, or the reason for a particular command or prohibition in the first case? And on what basis can one extrapolate it from the text? Then what is the relationship between the original case (asl) and the new case? How many conditions must be present for that connection to be established? In the end, no clear consensus existed about any of these issues.

That said, the main problem with the way both ijma’ and qiyas were used by the ulama was that they came to be seen as infallible means of discerning God’s will for humanity. Worse yet, their tunnel vision reduced Islamic jurisprudence to texts and the mechanics of deriving new laws from them without any reference to the divine intentions behind them. “Text-centeredness” engendered the kind of legalism that has reduced the “application of Shari’a” in several Muslim countries to “a few harsh laws and punishments under authoritarian regimes devoid of reference to broader Islamic values and principles” (p. 225).

Farooq’s positive strategy, therefore, or his fourth step toward renewal, is laid out in his last chapter, “Islamic Fiqh (Law) and the Neglected Empirical Foundation.” To be fair, his first step was already anticipated in the second chapter under the heading, “Value-Orientation” (pp. 63-90), where he offered thirteen values emanating from the Qur’an and the “Prophetic legacy.” The last one could have served as a transition to the last chapter: “Embracing Life-Experience As Part of the Collective Learning Curve.”

Indeed, as the Qur’an urges its readers to “observe, think and reflect” on the world around them, Islamic law will remain stultified and irrelevant unless it incorporates not just the values stemming from the Divine Will but also a keen and curious exploration of the various phenomena surrounding us, whether in the physical world or the dynamics of human society, as Ibn Khaldun did long ago. And in particular, Farooq the economist pleads with his readers to learn from the social sciences. If they do, he argues, they will understand that the prohibition of riba in the Qur’an is meant to curb exploitive practices that bear down on the poor. But research shows that if all kinds of interest are banned, it is unlikely any economy can be grown and inflation tamed.

At bottom, this book is promoting a new usul al-fiqh – though without starting from scratch. The author’s antagonists are the “traditionalists” or “puritans” (see his very long quote from Khaled Abou El Fadl, pp. 62-3) for whom the medieval consensus of the four Sunni schools of law is “Shari’a” and therefore sacrosanct.

Farooq, obviously in the company of many other specialists (along a spectrum running from conservative to much more progressive), is advocating a fresh legal philosophy and methodology with

(a) the Qur’an as the only reference point;

(b) an approach that shuns traditional ijtihad in favor of diligent research into real life conditions of society; and with a firm moral compass calibrated with the values and purposes of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an.

Interestingly, he is also no longer in favor of using the term “maqasid al-Shari’a,” since it’s a jurisprudential term vulnerable to legalistic “takeovers.” Farooq would rather use the more theologically meaningful term “maqasid al-Islam,” or the higher purposes of Islam.

This last point also highlights one of the work’s weaknesses. Farooq raises many important questions and in my estimation makes an excellent case for rethinking Islamic legal theory. At the same time, there is much ambivalence and ambiguity in the solutions he proposes. A central issue revolves around the word “Shari’a,” conspicuously absent from the title. Perhaps his indignation over the abuse of this word in so many countries of late has led him to leave it aside and just focus on “Islamic law.” In any case, at times he uses it as God’s Will writ large in contradistinction to fiqh, the human-driven application of that will in the jurisprudence of the various schools of law. Elsewhere he writes that “the Shari’ah is essentially a human construct” (p. 93).

And then about the hudud penalties, he rails against the way they are applied in some places, but for someone who so emphasizes human solidarity and universal values he nevertheless implies they still need to be applied.

Let me point out, however, that he takes Yusuf Qaradawi to task (see my recent blog on him and my paper on him in Resources) on the issue of suicide bombers inside Israel and capital punishment for apostasy. Still, Farooq needs to state his position on the hudud more clearly.

Understandably, as Farooq has raised a host of far-reaching questions, he can only go so far in solving them in one book. As all of his quotations and all the endorsements included in the book amply attest, many others are moving in similar directions. Rethinking – or “reforming” – Islamic law in the present context is, after all, a collective enterprise.

This may seem like a boring title, but it speaks directly to the instability, turmoil and even violence that flagship states Tunisia and Egypt are experiencing two years after their “revolutions.” Mounting distrust between the two islamist regimes and their secular opposition parties has so widened this decades-long divide that it now threatens the very survival of their democratic institutions.

At stake is the viability of a religious-secular dialog that seems to be the only means to assure a peaceful transition from decades of autocratic rule responsible for egregious violations of human rights to some form of “liberal democracy.” This is the first of three blogs on justice, which follow a trimmed-down version of the lectures I presented in Singapore in January 2013.

John Rawls’ classic statement of political justice

 By far the most influential scholar in political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century was the Harvard and Oxford professor John Rawls (d. 2002). His classic book, A Theory of Justice (1971), set the tone for all future discussions. Still, his many critics had mounted such good arguments that he responded to several of them in his 1993 book, Political Liberalism. Allow me to briefly summarize the issues involved.

Rawls is famous for defining justice as “fairness.” A state makes a covenant, a compact with its citizens to treat them as equally and fairly as possible. This is a social contract approach, meant to bring about the good of all citizens. To achieve this, he resorts to his idea of a “veil of ignorance”: let’s posit a group of citizens, he says, who somehow are able to blank out their own class, religious and ethnic conditions and values, and make together rational decisions about the good of the whole. This hypothetical condition then enables them to define together in a disinterested way what the “good life” might be for their society. He then argues that they would agree to this two-fold proposition:

(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

This “basic liberty,” as he defines it, includes “freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of association, the right to representative government, the right to form and join political parties, the right to personal property, and the rights and liberties necessary to secure the rule of law.” But it excludes economic rights, unlike what is stipulated in one of the two UN covenants that form the International Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the other being the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – both came into force in 1976).

But let it be said too that both communism and pure laissez-faire capitalism are unjust, in that they either rob people of their freedoms or leave whole swaths of the population without equal access to society’s resources (starting with education), and thus depriving them of the means to compete fairly for the positions they may aspire to.

In a series of lectures published in 1993 under the title Political Liberalism Rawls set out to answer several of his critics’ points, and especially this one:

“How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” (p. 4)

So Rawls, years after offering a basic framework for looking at justice as fairness (A Theory of Justice), is now trying to define what he means by justice in a political context. He now recognizes that the gulf between holders of different religious convictions and political ideologies is wider than he once thought. One of the concepts that he uses turns out to be very relevant for seeing how more traditional Muslims might function in a liberal state. It’s the idea of an “overlapping consensus” – that is, though subscribing to different “religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines,” citizens could agree on some common values.

This is exactly what University of Toronto law professor Mohammad Fadel does in a 2012 article on “Muslim Reformists, Female Citizenship, and the Public Accommodation of Islam in Liberal Democracy." His starting point is a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the basis of three cases involving Muslim claimants, which gives member states the opportunity to discriminate against Muslims because, it has decided, Islam at its core is incompatible with liberal democracy. In order to refute that position Fadel uses the writings of two reformist Muslim scholars on the issue of women and politics. In the process he refers to Rawls concept of “overlapping consensus”:


“In the Rawlsian account, an overlapping consensus exists when a majority of the politically active citizens of a society endorse, for reasons they individually consider morally compelling (even if such reasons are likely to be in fact philosophically incompatible), the constitutional essentials of the well-ordered society. An overlapping consensus is distinct from a modus vivendi in so far as in the latter, political stability derives solely from a contingent balance of power” (p. 4).


What he means by “modus vivendi” is that these people submit to the constitution only because they are forced to do so. But if their party were to gain power, they would do everything possible to change the constitution. This attitude only contributes to instability, says Rawls. So if a large contingent of European Muslims swears allegiance to the political order of their respective European countries only as a tactic dictated by their present weakness in the polls, this would not constitute a genuine overlapping consensus.

Both scholars chosen by Fadel for his argument come with stellar conservative credentials – both trained at Cairo’s al-Azhar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi (I have been writing about) and Abd al-Halim Abu Shuqqa, once a disciple of the Salafi star, Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999). Both have international followings, though Qaradawi to a much greater extent, and with the added advantage of being a counselor to Muslim leaders in Europe. At the same time, both argue for the equality of men and women before the law and the permissibility of women to run for political office, while mounting a spirited critique of traditional Islamic gender norms. Hence Fadel can claim that there is no basis for the ECHR to assume that Islamic law is “stable and invariable.”

This is because, while the source of Islamic law is rooted in God’s will and therefore immutable in a theological sense, its mechanism for adapting its rules to changing societal conditions (ijtihad) also has legal and moral dimensions. Though he does not say it, Fadel is referring to the common distinction nowadays between “Shari’a” as God’s moral standards for human society and fiqh, the human interpretation of the sacred texts and their application to specific social contexts. The rulings of fiqh, therefore, not only vary from school to school, but are constantly changing, by definition.

So Rawls’ conception of justice as an ideal debated and hammered out by social agents from diverse perspectives would also provide hope for solving today’s tensions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, where the gulf between religious and secular has dramatically increased. But there is another element that is needed in this discussion, and here we are indebted to Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller.


Justice as balancing “liberalism” and “democracy”

A prominent Marxist philosopher in her early career in Budapest, Heller’s views evolved with the 1968 Soviet invasion and she was among several who lost their university jobs. Along with other thinkers she chose exile to Australia in 1977. Then in 1986 she settled in New York City as a professor at the New School University.

Heller is also an interesting thinker, because as a young Eastern-European Jew she had to confront the Holocaust. Like many others around her she decided there was no God and chose Marxism as her “metanarrative” – that is, as a framework to explain the deeper questions of human existence. I have no idea about her present thoughts on religion, except that like others who think about the wider sociopolitical issues of today, she takes into account the fact that humanity as a whole remains religious at the core.

I ran across a 2000 article of hers while researching this topic and immediately found it compelling: “The Complexity of Justice: A Challenge to the 21st Century” (Journal of Ethical Theory and Practice, vol. 3, 3rd issue, pp. 247-62).

The two great engines of modern politics, she writes, are democracy and liberalism. Each one embodies a “substantive value,” a specific ethos, that is, each one projects an ideal that resonates with people around the world. But the problem is that they stand in tension – a creative tension that must be kept in balance, if we want to avoid either tyranny or chaos. But first, what does she mean by those two terms?

The best way to understand democracy is to contrast it with liberalism: “… personal freedom is the central value of liberalism whereas political equality is the central value of democracy. In fact, liberalism recognizes the validity of all values that can be interpreted as liberties, whereas democracy stands for the equality of those liberties” (250).

But this egalitarian ethos of democracy can lead it to persecute minorities:


“Since majority decision is the principle of just decision in a democracy unless liberal principles will also be upheld, democracy will always develop in the direction of more and more substantive regulations. For example, it will increase the tendency to cut the heads of tall poppies, that is to destroy a cultural elite if there exists one, or to prevent its emergence if it does not yet exist, it will prevent immigration and excludes different kinds of minorities from the body of the people or nation” (251).


The liberal ethos, by contrast, is not a collective one, but an individual one: personal freedom. The rule, in principle, is that personal freedom cannot be expanded if it infringes upon someone else’s freedom. “The main ethical norms of the liberal creed is independent (free) thinking, the Kantian Selbstdenken – our obligation to think with our own mind – further, the virtue of toleration and finally, that the respect to the person and his/her personal dignity” (252).

Historically, the enemies of the liberal creed in Europe were both Church and state, which was in the hands of an aristocracy. Today however, particularly in the USA, it collides with the democratic ethos: free thought for the individual often collides with the principle that the majority is always right. The liberal ethos’ greatest historical achievement was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the documents that followed which provided the contours of international law.

Still, the liberal creed is both a blessing and a liability: “Constitutionally guaranteed liberties established already a balance against a too substantive and totalitarian development of democracy. Interestingly, it was still the further substantive expansion of the territory of ‘rights’ that opened the way towards the increasing formalization of liberalism” (252).

Thus both the liberal and the democratic currents tend to pile up legislation and regulations to bolster their own values, which are often at cross-purposes. Justice is precisely that quality which elected officials in all three branches of government display when they sort out matters arising in a way that balances both ideals – hence, “the complexity of justice” in a democratic polity. In Heller’s words,


“If in a country at a given time democracy and liberalism are kept somehow in balance (that is, if the probability of regaining this balance is maintained) and both democracy and liberalism remain true to their substantive values – without expanding them over the other's field – this country at this time has such political institutions in the framework of which politicians will behave, if not necessarily as decent persons but at least as decent politicians, they will perform their tasks, they will live up to their responsibilities, honor the laws, irrespective of their character and motivations. As we said, more is not to be expected. But this balance between liberalism and democracy is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain” (250).


Turning the tide of self-serving “democracies”

But how can this justice be forthcoming if politicians are only interested in getting reelected, in holding on to the privileges that come with power, and thus focusing only on short term problems in their respective societies? This is a burning question not just for the Arab world or for Africa, but for the United States and everywhere else. This is how she puts the question:


“Provided that in the balance of democracy and liberalism the pendulum of modernity swings too much in one extreme direction, where are the powers that may be able to push the pendulum back so that liberalism and democracy may come again into a momentary balance? Or rather, which are those powers? Since we are speaking about the presence or absence of a democratic and a liberal ethos, the powers we have in mind must be of an ethical kind”


Leaning on the great German philosopher Hegel (d. 1831), Heller writes that for justice to be served collectively there must be synergy between three different powers: law, ethical life and morality. She tells the story of the son in Sweden who drove his father to the hospital after he had a heart attack and then to the social security office to claim his gas money for the trip! That is a good example of the dangers of over-regulation. The rule of law is necessary, but never an end in itself. The Swedish story reminds us that if “law takes care of everything, personal support, charity, magnanimity, magnificence, liberality, caring becomes obsolete.”

With regard to the ethical life perhaps the most important arena is the family. Laws can seek to clamp down on the abuse of children or domestic violence, but if love is absent in the first place, a family becomes dysfunctional and even destructive. But how do you change an abusive father? Bringing an offender to court is necessary, she agrees. But law cannot make up for a lack of ethics at the foundation of society, in the family. She explains,


“Humiliation in public is as bad as humiliation in private, it is not the compensation for the former. It is true that ethics, the power of the ethical, cannot entirely redress injustice in this field. But love is gone, trust is gone, faith is gone. It is questionable what is more worth, whether the gains make up for the losses.”


The third power is morality, the personal dimension. Though not said explicitly, she likely means that the ethical fabric of society is maintained and nourished by “good, decent people.” In her words,


“Neither the democratic ethos, nor the liberal ethos can explain why someone should be a decent, a good, a moral person, although both will insist that one must accept their ethical recipes in order to do the right thing. However, morality has an ontological priority to ethics and law. For one has to be a decent person first to ask the question: what is the right thing for me to do? Ethics answers this question, whereas law mainly tells you what you should avoid. Needless to say morality also has an ontological priority to all religions and philosophies. One can draw the strength for being (becoming) good from various sources – among them from moral philosophies, religions, or from the democratic and the liberal ethos – but what matters most, or rather what alone matters is for what purpose one is drawing one's strength” (259).


So we come to the crux of the issue: democracy, people nearly everywhere feel today, is the best framework for securing a just society, because the greatest number of citizens have a say on how they should be ruled in light of the specific constraints of their own state at the time. But democracy is only a framework. If the state moves too much in the direction of the democratic ethos, it becomes dictatorial, especially for minorities. If on the other hand, it veers too much in the direction of liberalism, chaos might ensue. What society urgently needs at its core are “good, decent and moral” people.

So what is justice in a healthy society? As Heller sees it,


“This is why and how morality takes care (or, at least, can take care) of the restoration of the balance between the ethos of liberalism and of democracy, in times when the pendulum swings too extremely into one or the other direction. Justice in this most general sense is the condition of doing justice. To keep the democratic and the liberal ethos in balance is justice in this sense. For whether the pendulum swings in the direction of one extreme or into the other – personal freedom is always curtailed” (259).


A couple of thoughts about Egypt

So how does this discussion about justice shed light on Egypt’s post-revolution, post-constitution turmoil? If anything, Egypt’s current challenges perfectly illustrate the “complexity” of “doing justice” in any state, let along one that was abruptly catapulted out of sixty years of dictatorship. And don’t forget that several key institutions set up by the former regime are still in place: their equivalent to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of the Interior (or the police forces), and the army – which still controls between 10 and 45% of the national economy!

To make things worse, President Morsi, faced as he is with a devastating economic crisis, is negotiating a $4.5 billion loan package with the International Monetary Fund. He also has to remain on the good side of the US in order to keep the yearly $2 billion in aid stipulated by the 1978 Camp David Accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter. To say that Morsi risks falling off a perilous tightrope – with little wiggle room for preserving national independence – is an understatement.

Remember too that the US constitution was written under similar post-revolutionary duress and that it took over a dozen amendments and two hundred years to make sure it protected basic human rights. Oh yes, and Britain never did write a constitution, like Egypt’s neighbor Israel.

Three quick points to close:


1. Heller’s emphasis on the importance of morality as imbedded in one’s culture is very relevant here. It can draw its strength, she writes, from “all religions and philosophies.” In fact, religion is the first candidate globally, even for the least religious places like Europe, where morality still flows from the religious legacy of the past. Egypt, by contrast, is very religious, whether you speak of Muslims or Christians (ten percent). Here sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh, an Egyptian American who happened to be spending a sabbatical in Cairo when the revolution broke out, points out the fact that the constitution, though approved by 64% of the electorate, was hastily written by the islamists, with 22 out of the 100 members of the assembly having walked out. On the my “Sociology of Islam” listserv I follow he wrote last week,


“Also we should not forget that while the constitution should ideally be based on consensus, when Egyptian voted in the largest numbers in the first free elections in their modern history, the majority chose what reflected a traditional conservative leaning in society. So what surprise is there for that constituency to want to see, quite legitimately, its own worldview strongly represented in the constitution? This obviously should not mean trampling on the rights of the minority, but a lot of the condemnations of this constitutions I have seen seem to make the opposite point: only liberal values should be upheld when they contradict some traditional conservative values, even if the former may be those of a minority or just of a bunch of intellectuals.”


2. Though the process of drafting the constitution was clearly undemocratic, the text itself, despite some illiberal articles and some dangerously vague formulations might not have been much different had all sides participated (read one Egyptian journalist’s view). It guarantees a host of personal and corporate liberties, including freedom of the press, of association, and assembly. The full rights of Christians and Jews are recognized (but for no other faiths, however); and gender equality is upheld. My point is that an effort is being made to accommodate the “liberal ethos” by seeking to protect minorities and women. Still, it clearly falls short, as another Egyptian paper points out in some detail. But perhaps it would help to compare some of its stipulations with those of its predecessor, the 1971 constitution, that was never followed in practice).


3. In the final analysis, Agnes Heller is right about the elusive nature of justice. She would say that above all Egypt needs good and decent political actors to heal the present rifts and move the process forward. Can Morsi make some credible overtures to the opposition and get both sides to work together? Justice for the people – which includes balancing the democratic and the liberal ideals – can only come from upright and courageous leaders.


I’m sure Morsi could use your prayers right now!

Egypt’s outgoing Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa is upbeat about healing his nation’s divided political forces. I’m sure Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II is equally inclined, though for now he has openly criticized the present regime and its constitution. Evangelicals, it would seem, have invested more effort in negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet despite the real tensions of the moment, over the long haul Morsi can count on the religious establishment to nudge him toward national reconciliation. After all, and to a large extent, this is a project of Muslim-Christian cooperation crucial for a whole region in which religion directly sustains the moral fiber of its society and the viability of its democratic institutions.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, women in the US military have often been in combat roles, a little-known fact until this past week when gender equality in the line of fire became official Pentagon policy. Staff Sgt. Keesha Dentino, an explosives-dog handler for the famous Old Guard infantry regiment at Fort Myers, in an interview with the Washington Post said she welcomes the new ruling. Doing battle officially “is something that I would enjoy,” she said. It’s about an individual’s ability to deal with stress. “It’s dependent upon the person and not necessarily the gender.”

While on combat patrols in Afghanistan, she noticed that when she had proved to the local women that she too was a woman, many of the usual barriers fell. They were especially curious, she recalled, “to know why it is that I’m able to be around other men,” she said. “They’re restricted in that culture. To see a woman out there kind of being treated equally by men is unheard of to them. So they’re very intrigued by that.”

Notice on the one hand the constant pressure a human rights ideal puts on governments to achieve more equality. Let’s call it here “modern egalitarianism.” Though not all agree, in effect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had little choice in decreeing the right of women to join combat units. For some time – and admittedly aided by the nature of two wars in which any routine patrol might find itself on the front lines – women have been doing combat shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades. Understandably, they were crying out to be recognized and given equal pay and opportunities for advancement.

On the other hand, Afghan women in the countryside were justifiably amazed to see women and men in such close quarters doing a job on an equal footing – a job which in their culture is reserved exclusively for men. That’s the point – “in their culture.” As I see it, religion has little to do with this. But then, how do you draw the line between religion and culture? We’re back to the discussions of the two previous blogs.

This is the third and last installment in this series. Using many current events and debates, I have argued that though there is definite collusion between religion and the unequal treatment of women, neither is it a clear cause and effect relationship, nor is the relationship in every case possible to establish at all. Cultural beliefs and practices (especially the impunity with which men do violence to women), authoritarian regimes and outside pressures (western colonialism was one example), and often the hardships imposed by grinding poverty – all of these and more are factors that increase the suffering of women the world over.


India, the US and everywhere

Since my last blog in this series the world has been riveted by a storm of popular protests in India, and mostly by women. No wonder. It was sparked by the gang-rape of the 23-year old medical student in a New Delhi bus on December 16, 2012. Her boy friend was seriously injured as well and both were dumped into the street naked. For weeks and weeks, crowds poured into the streets of many Indian cities protesting the lack of police protection and the impunity with which men commit crimes against women.

The picture above you shows female students protesting the rape of a village woman by one of the leaders of the ruling Congress Party. News of other rapes and despicable acts of violence against women suddenly began to flow more freely than usual, sending more and more people to vent their anger in the streets.

Not all of the protests are democratic in nature or show an appreciation for the constitution and the rule of law. A lawyer and seasoned women’s rights activist, Flavia Agnes, pointed out that many are calling for sex offenders to be castrated or executed. Their frustration is understandable, however, in a country where “only about 25 percent of rape cases resulted in convictions in 2010, and conviction rates were less than 10 percent in some states last year.”

“What is needed,” said Agnes, “are nonsensational, small measures. Getting women better access to the police station, getting the medical reports done sensitively.” Still, she adds, this groundswell of protest is a boon for women. A senior police officer contacted her to find out more about her organization, Majlis, and how they could partner to get more women to report crimes at their local police station. Also, one party has already vowed not to field candidates charged with rape. Agnes concluded, “For some reason, this rape has caught the national imagination. If that means the government and police cannot ignore this issue anymore, that’s a good thing.”

According to a Gallup poll conducted in the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, women feel less safe in the streets after the “Arab Spring,” and in particularly so in Tunisia and Egypt. Dalia Ziada heads up the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. The revolution, she said, was a call for greater economic and political freedom, but it was not about women’s rights. And with the breakdown of law and order women more than ever before are suffering sexual assaults in the streets. Since the fall of 2011 in several Egyptian cities vigilante groups composed mostly of males have been patrolling the streets to confront men who harass women. They’ve been overwhelmed in the recent explosion of anger across Egypt at the end of January 2013.

Meanwhile, in the United States, legislation to reauthorize the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been stalled. The new bi-partisan bill, co-authored by senators Leahy and Crapo, was passed by the Senate in April 2012, but is still held up in January 2013 in the Republican-led House, mostly because the help to victims of abuse (like shelters or legal help) would be offered regardless of sexual orientation or immigration status.

Republicans reject in particular the issuing of special visas (called U-visas) to undocumented immigrants victims of sexual assaults or domestic violence. The New York Times urges the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, to use all his power to help pass this law, with or without this provision. It will save women’s lives and deliver justice, particularly through its provision to reduce "the inexcusable national backlog of untested rape kits."

Faith-based groups are also getting the word out. The Presbyterian Church USA devoted a website to advocate for this law to be reenacted. This is part of the letter they suggest their member use to urge their members of Congress to take action:


“I believe that God wants health and wholeness for all of us, including a home and world free from violence.

We must ensure that victims of violence have access to the services they need and that perpetrators of violence must be held accountable.

This legislation builds on the past successes of VAWA, increasing effectiveness and reaching more victims and provides law enforcement with more tools for protecting victims from their batterers.”


I mentioned in the last blog protests in Latin America seeking to bolster the protection of women victims of violence. No doubt, human societies across the globe (and likely from time immemorial) struggle to curb the aggressive domination by males of the opposite sex. And like the Presbyterian initiative above, people of faith have joined other activists to make their voices heard.


The issue of Muslim exceptionalism

In this three-part series I’ve emphasized the broad scope of patriarchy, both geographically and across religious boundaries. Still Muslim societies are often singled out as being the worst offenders, whether it was the Taliban fiercely misogynist policies of the 1990s, the news that the Saudi state now sends automatic text messages to inform males that their female dependents have crossed the border, the shooting of the 14-year-old Pakistani advocate for the education of girls in her country, or the recent imposition of extreme forms of Sharia law in northern Mali.

In the first blog we saw how the Muslim Brotherhood actually curried favor with the masses through its patriarchal discourse and programs. Egypt, like other societies in that part of the world remains very traditional in its outlook. So what is dictated by Islamic law (interpreted narrowly) is difficult to disentangle from traditional near eastern culture. Though perhaps in Saudi Arabia, where the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia is enforced by the religious police (the mutawa) and where people today are more openly pushing back against its well-known excesses, religion and culture may be easier to distinguish. The king’s latest promise to deploy women agents of the mutawa, however, seems unlikely to curb the kingdom’s zeal to patrol and control how women dress, who accompanies them in public, and whether they perform their prayers at the set time.

Some new research sheds light on the phenomenon of “Islamic exceptionalism.” A young Professor of Comparative Political Science at the University of California (Berkeley), M. Steven Fish, has done us all an immense favor. Specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe he later branched out and spent a sabbatical year in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. The result was a brashly ambitious work, Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford U. Press, 2011). The reviews were glowing. UCLA’s noted scholar of Islamic law, Khaled Abou El Fadl, gushes, “This book is a profound achievement. Reading it has been an eye-opening experience to the point that I feel that I will never be able to approach my own work and scholarship in the same way.” A good review in pdf form by San Diego State political scientist Ahmet T. Kuru is available here.

So how are Muslim-majority countries distinct from other ones? Fish’s data-driven analysis of the issues reveals some surprises. First, Muslims are not more religiously observant than people of other faith. For instance, in France only 10% of Christians and 10% of Muslims attend weekly services. The same parity holds for the USA, though at 40%. In Muslim countries the numbers are higher, but not significantly so.

 Second, the Muslim observance of zakat (the prescribed “poor tax”) seems to make Muslim-majority countries distinctly more egalitarian, with less of a gap between rich and poor. Third, Muslim societies have lower rates of homicide, which, he notes, may correlate to the previous point. Fourth, statistics on terrorism do point to a prevalence of Muslim-initiated attacks on civilians between 1994 and 2008 (74 out of 136). Yet fifth, there seems to be no evidence that Muslims oppose the separation of religion and state more than others.

Finally, on our topic of patriarchy, there does seem to be a Muslim exceptionalism. In a variety of surveys Muslims show much more of an inclination to favor men in relation to employment and educational opportunities. Further, and here I follow Kuru’s assessment of Fish’s book: “It stresses the exceptionally higher gender gaps in income, literacy, and political positions in Muslim societies. Gender inequality is a deep problem that all societies, especially Muslim-majority societies, should take seriously.” Then follows a point which Kuru will dispute:


“Yet, one variable Fish employs—the level of healthy life expectation—makes me extra curious, because providing ‘inferior health care’ for females (p. 203) is much worse than patriarchy. Fish notes that females in Muslim countries have a substantially smaller healthy life expectancy advantage than they do in Christian countries.”


Kuru goes to the World Health Organization (WHO) webpage and combs through the country statistics, arguing that the data turns out to be more significantly related to regions than to religions. Nevertheless, the gender gap still stands out more starkly in Muslim societies than elsewhere, he avers.

Fish recently teamed up with Danielle N. Lussier from Grenell College for an article entitled, “Men, Muslims, and Attitudes towards Sex-Based Inequality.” This is a statistically sophisticated analysis that goes far beyond what I can tackle in this blog. But the following percentages corresponding to these three questions give a good idea of the direction the research is going:


1. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl” (Muslims: 38.4%; non-Muslims: 17.7%).

2. Percentage who “agree” that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to a job than women” (Muslims: 68.2%; non-Muslims: 29.0%).

3. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “on the whole, men make better political leaders than women” (Muslims: 70.9%; non-Muslims: 40.3%).


I will have to come back on this article at a later date. Suffice it to say here that Muslim distinctiveness on gender-based inequality seems to be entrenched. Perhaps this is why one finds such a vibrant civil society led mostly by women scholars who devote their lives to reversing these trends.


Muslim initiatives to curb violence and promote gender equality

Many courageous and creative Muslim women could be cited here, but one in particular stands out in my mind because of her global reach. Zainah Anwar was born into the family of a prominent Malay politician (b. 1965) and early on decided she wanted to be a journalist, and a non-conformist one at that. She has never married, preferring to devote herself to her lifetime calling – fighting for justice and human rights, and particularly for women in Muslim contexts.

With a background in journalism, international law and diplomacy (Boston University and Tufts University) Anwar worked seven years for the Institute of Strategic and International Studies and then a couple of years at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. But then in 1987 back in Malaysia with a group of like-minded lawyers, scholars and activists, she began to turn her attention to the plight of women both in the state-run courts and the Shari’a courts. One of those scholars, an African-American Muslim from Philadelphia, Amina Wadud, teaching in Kuala Lumpur at the time, was one of those who challenged Anwar to study the Qur’an with fresh eyes. That process led this group to found an NGO Anwar would lead for two decades, Sisters in Islam (SIS).

In an interview with the Malaysian Star newspaper as she was leaving her SIS executive director post in 2008, Anwar mused about her discovery of the Qur’an’s egalitarian message. It began as she discovered that the same Qur’anic verse that gives permission for men to marry up to four wives (Q. 4:3) then adds, “If you fear you cannot be equitable [to them], then marry only one.” Then further on in the same sura (Women), we read, “You will never be able to treat your wives with equal fairness, however you may desire to do so.” Muhammad Abduh, the great Egyptian reformer (d. 1905), was perhaps the first to write that God’s intention was monogamy, whereas he would only tolerate polygamy in times when many men had been slain in battle, as was the case when these verses were revealed.

Anwar called this moment “an epiphany”: “It was that kind of questioning that made us want to read the Quran with a new lens. It was a liberating process understanding that the Quran speaks to women and is lifting and empowering.”

I encourage you to go to the SIS website and click on “Knowledge Resources.” Then click on “Muslim Family Law.” Toward the bottom of the page you will find an item, “Best Practices on Muslim family law issues.” There you will discover an illuminating comparison between current Malaysian practices and what SIS considers “the best” practices elsewhere. Every comparative rubric starts with Morocco, where in 2004 the king was able to get through parliament one of the most progressive family law rulings anywhere in the Muslim world. Tunisia, Indonesia and other countries are also represented.

I have no doubt but that Zainah Anwar was one of the movers and shakers behind the historic 2006 WISE Conference in New York.WISE is a global forum for Muslim feminist scholars and activists and this conference provided the launching pad for the movement. According to their website,


“The inaugural WISE conference convened 150 of the most accomplished Muslim women scholars, activists, artists, and religious and civil society leaders from 25 countries – spanning Afghanistan, Jordan, Senegal and Morocco to Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and the US. The gathering facilitated seminal discussions on the unique challenges facing Muslim women globally and developing concrete tools for realizing the vision of an Islamic expression of gender equality and justice. Collectively, these leaders assessed the needs of their specific constituencies, identified ways to expand their own work and developed recommendations for creating an effective global change movement.”


Their first publication is endorsed by a wide spectrum of female Muslim scholars, “Jihad against Violence: Women’s Struggle for Peace” and is well worth studying in detail. It can be downloaded here.

In the United States one of WISE’s prime movers is the illustrious imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who developed the 13-story “Park 51 Islamic Center” that opened in November 2011. It is open to people of all faiths, and like the other activities Abdul Rauf promotes through his Cordoba Initiative, it is meant to serve the cause of interfaith dialog. Unsurprisingly, the Cordoba Initiative’s motto is “Amplifying Voices of Moderation,” and Park51 includes a 9/11 memorial. Rauf’s new book is entitled Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America.

Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, an immigrant from the Kashmir area of India, has been very active with WISE even before its inception. With her husband she co-founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) which includes “youth and women’s empowerment” as one of its core values. A spin-off of the Cordoba Initiative, it seeks inspiration from the apex of Spain’s Islamic civilization to foster “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration.” ASMA also functions as an American chapter of WISE.

These activists are not preaching in the desert, however. Women in the Arab world in particular have been emboldened by the popular stirrings of 2011. One of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 2012, Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, thanked all Arab women for their fight for equal rights. Then she added, “The solution to women's issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. . . . Our civilization is called human civilization, and is not attributed only to men or women.”


Closing words

This concludes our three-part exploration of religion and patriarchy, probably leaving you with more questions than answers. In a way, I’m glad for that. Nothing is more destructive to the fabric of a more peaceful global society than the strident voices of those who take their own opinions as the TRUTH. People of faith should indeed be convinced of the veracity of their own tradition’s creeds, but this leaves a whole lot more truth about the world God created to discover, and in particular the world of human beings He empowered, so that they would manage this good earth with justice and compassion.

So we need one another as fellow trustees of the earth. Gender inequality and the resulting violence perpetrated against women is a planetary problem we can only tackle together. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s celebrate initiatives like SIS, WISE, ASMA, and the work of many other religious and secular groups of all kinds. Only then will be able to make headway.

Two things just happened that will come together in this blog. First, I came back from Singapore, where I lectured on the theme of justice from a secular, Christian and Muslim perspective. This was for Pathways for Mutual Understanding’s first Institute in Asia. Second, my review of David Bertaina’s 2011 book, Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East, was just published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (Vol. 30, #1).

Don’t worry, I’m still mulling over my third (and last) installment of “Religion and Patriarchy,” but here I start a series of four blogs on justice in interreligious dialog.


Some questions arising from the past

Debates between people of different faiths can be documented as far back as ancient Greece. Plato and other Greek writers offer us numerous examples of these, as do the Romans before and after the advent of Christianity. Also, right before the Islamic era, Christians around the Mediterranean left some fascinating traces of conversations and debates with Jews. It’s not surprising, then, that around twenty documents in the “dialogue genre” written either in Syriac or Arabic have come to light from the seventh to the eleventh century CE.

David Bertaina, from the History Department of the University of Illinois (Springfield), offers an enlightening discussion of these as he sorts them out according to purpose, authors and occasions. As I read him, he leaves us with at least two applications for today:

The first is that, unlike many of the official interreligious dialogs of today – which are often impoverished due to the liberal ethos of “neutrality” – those dialogs were robust, confrontational and polemical at times, but each side willing to stake its case on truth claims many were willing to die for. Some of those were directed to their own communities – and never so urgently conveyed as those of the eighth and ninth centuries by Christian leaders trying to stem the growing tide of conversion to Islam. Others were directed to the “religious other,” with the intent to persuade, consciously engaging in evangelism on one side and da’wa on the other.

The second application is Bertaina’s finding that in interfaith dialog the playing field is rarely even. Issues of power always crop up to cloud the conversation, particularly for one side. During that period of an ascending and then supremely confident Islamic imperial power whether in Baghdad or Islamic Spain, Christians displayed noticeable anxiety on the issue of conversion and at times about their own powerlessness. This, he writes, must be seen as comparable to the situation of Muslims today in the west, who particularly after the 2001 attacks, have often felt under siege. I would add that the bold initiative represented by the 2007 “Common Word” letter fits into the category of a community under pressure seeking to restart a dialog as an equal partner.

The first example of Muslim-Christian dialog is reflected in the Qur’an itself, in which many passages echo and respond to assertions made by the Christians both of Mecca and Medina. In a whole chapter devoted to this topic, Bertaina argues from many examples that there was a lively conversation attested by the Qur’an during the short period of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry. You have to allow, he maintains, that there were more Christians that many have so far assumed, and that they were in fact quite vocal.

Bertaina also unearths several early (“proto-”) Shi’i dialogs that, while trying to rebut Christian claims like the one about the divinity of Christ, simultaneously serve to affirm the superiority of the “virtues of Ali” over any figure the Sunnis might put forward. No religious community is monolithic and interconfessional dialog always brings to the fore the fault lines of one’s own community. On the positive side, the Common Word letter sparked a series of encounters not just with Catholics but also with evangelical Christians in the US and the UK. In turn, that initiative had a polarizing effect in some evangelical circles.

Among several kinds of dialogs that Bertaina highlights in his chapters, we find the “theological education and didactic,” the “hagiographic,” and the “scriptural reinterpretation” modes. Those of course were mostly directed to religious insiders. Still, the one event that captured the imagination of medieval Christians is the one Bertaina emphasizes the most – and rightly so. This is when for two days in 829 Theodore Abu Qurra, Bishop of Harran, debated with the Caliph al-Ma’mun and several Muslim scholars at his court. More than anything, the several texts that mention this dialog agree in their depiction of a passionate and yet courteous dialogue, in which both sides know and search the other’s scriptures to better communicate their own convictions. Interestingly, Christian writers of later centuries saw this encounter as the high water mark of a free and respectful dialog between the two communities.

I’ll join with Bertaina in his masterful work to commend to you this kind of encounter today. And in many ways, Pathways’ Singapore Institute lived up to these ideals in both form and content. Allow me to explain.


A fruitful Asian encounter between Muslims and Christians in 2013

As you can read on their website, “Pathways for Mutual Respect, in cooperation with The Yale Center for Faith & Culture, anticipates welcoming another outstanding group of emerging leaders from around the globe to our Singapore Institute, entitled Faith & Society – Leadership Amidst Controversy.”

As you can see, Pathways specializes in training promising young leaders. That will be my first point: this was a group of impressive leaders, both Muslim (11) and Christian (8), from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Then I’ll touch on the depth of interaction, and finally on the prospects for future cooperation.

The overwhelming majority of the region’s population is Muslim – both the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago. These Muslims were well represented here, including several academics and a few more NGO leaders. Citing just a few examples, two were top-level leaders in Malaysia’s largest Islamic youth movement (ABIM) and one of them had been president of the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Organizations (PKPIM). Like most of the others, he is still in his thirties. A Malaysian female journalist with almost twenty years of experience writing on socioreligious issues for several newspapers, and the author of two books on Muslims of the region, offered a more secular perspective. One Malaysian Christian teaches political science in a private university and is an active participant in Muslim-Christian dialogs.

Three academics were among the Indonesians, including one teaching Shari’a at a law school in Bandung who has founded a youth movement called “Peace Generation.” Another is a regional leader of the 30 million-member Nahdatul Ulama organization. The only Indonesian Christian worked as a business consultant/trainer, co-founded a consortium of over 5,000 small businesses, and sits on the board of several international NGOs promoting “value-driven businesses.”

Two of the Singaporean Christians present are evangelical pastors, while one woman is a Catholic who worked for poverty alleviation in the Philippines and Vietnam. One Muslim participant obtained a PhD in sociology from the University of Birmingham and now directs a center that specializes in developing the aspirations and skills of the Malay youth of Singapore. Another is a PhD candidate in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore, with already two books to his name and numerous articles published in all three countries.

What about the program of the five-day Institute, you ask? It was framed by two highly respected regional academics. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, one of Malaysia’s best-known public intellectuals kicked off the program with two lectures on “The Challenge of Leadership in a Multi-Faith Society.” Much was taken from the Malaysian context, but as founder and president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST ) Muzaffar was also able to give participants a global perspective on issues that must be tackled. There were other lecturers from the region, to be sure, but let me note the excellent contribution of our host, Syed Farid Alatas, Head of the Malay Studies Department and member of the executive committee of UNESCO’s International Sociological Association, who addressed the group on the challenges facing Muslim communities and helped introduce the final discussion on future directions.

There was a lot more than lectures, however. Participants benefited from various activities (like visiting the Harmony Centre of Singapore, a mosque with an ambitious interfaith component), including large group and small group discussions and special exercises led by Pathways founder and sociologist John Hartley and his team.

My second point relates to the net effect of this intensive interpersonal interaction: on several occasions there were open discussions on the thorny issue of proselytism from both sides – or, if you prefer, the inner imperative of each tradition to share its faith with religious others, hoping to convince them to adopt it as their own. One morning session was devoted to a role play exercise in which both sides had to divide up into “liberals” and “conservatives” (whatever that meant in each case), agree on a particular course of action to resolve a contentious issue of proselytism that was rocking the community; then they had to send a representative to negotiate a solution with the other side.

The outcome was instructive. Both sides were frustrated there wasn’t enough time to resolve the prickly issue at hand. No wonder, since the question of missionary activity is the one that by far generates the most emotion (especially on the Muslim side – remember how Christians felt in the Abbasid Empire around the ninth and tenth centuries CE?). By sitting down and talking about the issue openly and candidly, both sides can dispel misunderstandings and decide on common sense rules all can follow. Building trust is key; and the best way to do this is to invest time in building personal relationships long before problems have a chance to blow up out of proportion.

Was there any discussion of one another’s scriptures, as in the case of the dialog at the court of Abbasid caliph al-Ma’amun? There was, though it was not the focus of the Institute. My second and third lectures were about Jesus and justice, and justice in the Muslim tradition respectively (to be explored in subsequent blogs). Still, let me say that however limited the theological discussions were, the door was widely opened for future conversations on this issue. Besides, working together for the empowerment of the poor and marginalized will automatically increase the desire to hear more about what motivates and nourishes the action of our partners of another faith. And no, we shouldn’t avoid talking through the more contentious differences; but we do so on the basis of trust and friendship, and with the desire to listen, understand and be enriched through the process in our own faith.

Finally, what practical outcomes are likely to follow from these meetings? People were meeting at the last session in three country groups, brainstorming about how they could contribute to each other’s ongoing interfaith efforts and how they could initiate new programs. Many ideas were mentioned, and I’m certain that the ensuing conversation will produce several concrete projects.

For all of its great challenges and specters, our world of 2013 is so much more promising than past ones for those who commit to working for peace, and particularly for those doing so as people of faith linking hands and hearts with those of other traditions. History shows that the greatest experiments of interreligious dialog in the medieval world took place in the Muslim realms of Granada and Baghdad. Today we have the tools and opportunities to take this to a higher level. Pathways’ Singapore Institute confirmed that for me. May God bless the many other initiatives underway around our globe!

A wonderful Christmas to all of you around the world, to Christians and Muslims, especially! Last year I emphasized how much Christians and Muslims have in common as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, or Isa bnu Maryam, the great prophet the Qur’an honors as “Jesus, son of Mary.”

Haroon Moghul has left us this Christmas with a wonderful summary of Muslim and Christian convergences and divergences about Jesus (eschatology and all!) in the Boston Review.

For my part this year I’ll emphasize difference, though both communities can still come out at the other end of their respective paths with “human dignity and solidarity.” Let me explain.

Let me take the Christmas story from a less known text – by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians:


“And that’s the way it was with us before Christ came. We were like children; we were slaves to the basic spiritual powers (or ‘principles’) of this world.

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’

Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are a child, God has made you his heir” (Gal. 4:3-7 NLT).


So much could be said about this passage, but let me simply comment on four thoughts:


Slavery: Paul teaches elsewhere that the Law of Moses was holy – after all, God himself revealed it to Moses on the Mount Sinai. But law can become and end in itself and “legalism” can lure us away from God. Yet there is more, taking our cue from the phrase “slaves to the basic spiritual powers of the world.” As I see it, the best teaching on this difficult phrase goes something like this. There are forces inside of us that drag us downward, far from God, like the evil desires of our lower nature and the strong emotions like anger, jealousy and fear that impel us to hurt others – in one word, “sin.” But there are forces outside of us too. Both Bible and Qur’an teach about the reality of Satan or Iblis, who is a sworn enemy of humankind and of God. But even beyond the reality of demonic beings bent on enticing us to “the dark side” (and sometimes commandeering whole nations to commit unspeakable atrocities – think of Hitler, Stalin, and the massacres in Rwanda or Bosnia, Congo or Syria), Paul is also pointing to evil systems of thought that invade human social and political structures. Today we call these “ideologies,” whether nationalism, racism, sexism, materialism, communism, capitalism, or whatever. These can easily ensnare us into trampling on the rights of others.

 This morning on National Public Radio, as I was driving home from dropping my wife off at work (as a hospital nurse she works every other Christmas), I heard Linda Gradstein report from Bethlehem, “This year there was no room at the inn!” Indeed, buoyed by their new national status at the UN, some 15,000 Palestinians and internationals had crowded Bethlehem hotels to celebrate a joyous, even raucous Christmas feast. President Mahmoud Abbas joined in the Midnight Mass at Manger Square’s Church of the Nativity, as Yasser Arafat had faithfully done before him every year since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

 Still, there is plenty of irony in these celebrations, at the picture overhead reminds us. My family spent three Christmases there in the mid 1990s, while I was teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College – a great time for us to learn about that little town and enjoy its people, both Christian and Muslim, natives and refugees. Already in those days Israeli military checkpoints made it nearly impossible for Palestinians to go shopping or worshiping in Jerusalem, only six miles away. But with today’s “separation wall,” Israeli apartheid-like policies bear down on Palestinians in every aspect of their lives, smothering them under a humiliating and dehumanizing pall. And now with the recent Israeli decision to build several new settlements on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, the hope of a two-state solution to the conflict is all but extinguished.

 Rev. William Flippin, an African American pastor from Columbus, Georgia, meditates on Christmas while reliving his recent visits to Bethlehem: 


“Under Augustus, Rome erected a virtual wall of separation between those who were in and out, those who were rich and poor, and those who lived and died. Peace was the luxury of the powerful.

Interpretation for those of African Descent Communities of Faith: God’s glory is revealed to those on the other side of the Wall.

What we miss when we boil down the Christmas story to a once-a-year celebration of mangers and mall-shopping is the stark truth that Jesus was born on the wrong side of the wall. The emperor Augustus never heard about his birth, nor did the rich and powerful just up the road in Jerusalem.”


 I know from experience: the parallels between the Roman occupation in Jesus’ days and the Israeli occupation in our day is striking for Palestinian Christians. Jesus’ command to love our enemy takes on a whole new dimension for them. Whatever you do, says Jesus, don’t dehumanize the “other.” Speak out against injustice, yes, but find ways to demonstrate care and respect for people on both sides, because they are caught in a vicious cycle of oppression and violence. Truly, evil enslaves us all on many levels.


Incarnation: the good news of Christmas is that God loved and valued his human creatures so much that he became one of them. “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Naturally, our finite minds run into a logical brick wall at this point. Though the modalities of the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus are presented in similar language in both Qur’an and gospels (God’s Spirit “overshadows Mary” or “breathes into Mary’s womb”), those who lived three years with Jesus day in and day out concluded after his crucifixion and resurrection that indeed God had come to them through in the person of Jesus. So John began his gospel some forty years later with his own Christmas story:


“In the beginning was God and the Word was with God and the Word was God …

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:1, 14 NLT).


No doubt the Qur’an confers great dignity to the human race: “We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of our creation” (Q. 17:70 Yusuf Ali).

But the story of Christmas takes the honor to a much higher level. God joins the human race so as to redeem it. Better yet: he does so to adopt those who receive the gift of his Son into his own family.


Freedom: the great defining event of the Hebrew Bible, solemnly celebrated  by Jews every year as the Passover, is the Exodus -- how God delivered his people from their brutal life of slavery in Egypt. Paul writes to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, "God sent [Jesus] to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law ..." Jesus gave his life on the cross to break the curse of sin on our race. Then the Father vindicated his Son's sacrifice by raising him from the dead. We are free from the sentence of death hanging over us, and free to live lives of righteousness by the power of his Holy Spirit he has sent to live in us.

This January first 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln signed. For Christians, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the Good News, the Emancipation Proclamation of human release from the bondage of sin, death and hell.


Adoption: “… so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’” “Abba” was the Aramaic expression most akin to the English word pronounced by children, “daddy.” Here you have the Father sending his Son to redeem and adopt, and the Holy Spirit of God stirring within the believer and “prompting” her to say to God in the most intimate way, “daddy.” And here you have the mysterious, yet powerfully dynamic and life-changing work of God as both one and three in the human soul.


Protestants have tended to limit this redemption to the individual. But take the Bible as a whole and you will read the gospels in a new light. Pope Benedict’s Christmas meditation from St. Peter’s Square this morning focused on David’s psalm 85:11-14.

Notice how justice and peace spring up from the earth – even from the womb of a virgin, if we read it through Christmas eyes:


 “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.

Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.

The Lord himself will give his benefits; our land shall yield its increase.

Justice shall walk before him, and salvation, along the way of his steps”


 So the Pope prayed for peace and human dignity to spring up in Syria, Israel-Palestine, Mali, Congo and Nigeria. He spoke of China, Latin America, and even Egypt: “…especially the beloved land of Egypt, blessed by the childhood of Jesus – may citizens work together to build societies founded on justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of every person.”


Let me wrap up this Christmas meditation with the stark contrast between God’s lavish love for humanity as seen in Mary’s baby and the pernicious and destructive idols of human making. I’m not thinking of consumerism – though perhaps the most pervasive of the “powers” enslaving humans this time of year. Rather, I want to highlight one whose power comes from his excellent camouflage. Though there are plenty of idols that have wreaked havoc and destruction through the political left, this one is a darling of American conservatives, which, ironically, came to us from Russia in the 1930s. Yes, some of you will have guessed it – the writer Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged, which in the 1990s stood only behind the Bible in numbers of books sold.

 No doubt the most influential conservative US politician in 2012 was the Catholic representative, Paul Ryan. In a speech to the Randian admiration society (the “Atlas Society”), he declared, 

“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” So much did he esteem her values and teaching that he gave out Atlas Shrugged every year to friends as Christmas presents.

 Harriet Rubin wrote an informative piece in the New York Times about Rand. Her philosophy of “objectivism” was all about tying together human excellence with ethical egoism (everyone should seek to maximize their own happiness even at the expense of others) and the capitalist system. Naturally, government interference could only get in the way of those whose gifts could lead them to the top of society. This was a persuasive, if forceful, promotion of laissez-faire capitalism. You can watch a chilling portrayal of her influence in a film online by Adam Curtis, "All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace" (including excerpts in the beginning from a 1959 interview with Ayn Rand).

 No, the good news that God revealed in a lowly stable in Bethlehem was that God was for human beings, and that his love led him to even share our human condition, so that by entering our family he would open the way for us to join his family. This is the basis for human dignity, but also human solidarity. We say 'no' to Randian hymns of praise to human egoism and cold-blooded admiration for the survival of the fittest -- or all other ideologies that disparage the least of these. Peace and justice are not abstract ideas. Rather, they flow out of God’s working in human history through the children of Abraham, then the prophets, then God’s Son sending out a redeemed people to proclaim this Good News by word and by deed, by sacrificial love.

 Today I end with a prayer for God’s gracious intervention in Syria: may he bring an end to the bloodshed and raise up men and women of peace who draw near to God's love – Christians and Muslims, Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, and Kurds.

 A happy Christmas to all!

This is a collage of information on Qatar, following up on my previous blog, “Qatar Goes Green.” Shortly before his untimely death, Anthony Shadid, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, wrote about Qatar: “This thumb-shaped spit of sand on the Persian Gulf has emerged as the most dynamic Arab country in the tumult realigning the region.” What about this “outsize influence” that “Qatar wields in Arab Politics”? I’ll touch on five areas, starting with politics but then going beyond: its success in isolating the Syrian regime, its role in the new Sunni triangle, its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, its vsion as seen through the Qatar Foundation, and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. My point is this tiny country is a bridge-builder.


Isolation of the Asad Regime

 Anthony Shadid’s piece on Qatar, written months before an acute asthma attack took his life while reporting in Syria, begins with these words:


“Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, and its native population, at 225,000, wouldn’t fill Cairo’s bigger neighborhoods. But for a country that inspires equal parts irritation and admiration, here is its résumé, so far, in the Arab revolts: It has proved decisive in isolating Syria’s leader, helped topple Lybia’s, offered itself as a mediator in Yemen and counts Tunisia’s most powerful figure as a friend.”


Qatar too is the state that most influenced the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership on November 12, 2012. Syria, a bastion of Arab resistance over the decades, was stunned. Yet President Bashar al-Assad had failed to implement the Arab League-brokered peace deal, plainly choosing to accelerate his grisly campaign against his own citizens.

In September 2012 the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said in a speech to the UN assembly that in light of the Security Council’s failure to act he thought it was “better for the Arab countries themselves to interfere out of their national, humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria.” There was a historical precedent, he noted. The Arab League in 1976 authorized an Arab peacekeeping force to stem the bloodletting in Lebanon.

It was again the Qatari prime minister who on November 6th urged the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis. Six days later the League decided to suspend Syria’s membership. Qatar had played a disproportionate role in the matter, just as Qatari contacts and funneling of money to the Libyan rebels had been crucial for their revolution as well.

Qatar was instrumental too in setting up a plan for the unification of Syrian rebels’ contentious factions. In early November 2012 the US and Britain announced their support for the aptly named “Doha Initiative.” As it turned out, that initiative did succeed in consolidating opposition forces both within and outside of Syria. No doubt, Qatar is becoming a diplomatic powerhouse.

That said, Shadid’s quip about “equal parts of irritation and admiration” applies here too. For the last couple of months we’ve been reading about the US and the EU’s disquiet about Qatar’s role in channeling money and weapons to the Syrian rebels. Not by chance, perhaps, but the jihadi fighters associated with islamist movements and some even with al-Qaeda (many came over from neighboring Iraq) have the best weaponry, discipline, and strategic skills. One group has already made the official US list of terrorist organizations, the Al Nusra Front. This brings up the next point about Qatar’s affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood and other emerging islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring.


The New Sunni Triangle

 Starting around 2005 pundits were wringing their hands about the expanding Shia crescent – Iran now could count on a Shia-dominated Iraq as well as its Hizbullah ally in Lebanon, and the staunch support of Assad’s Syria, whose ruling elites come mainly from a Shia-inspired sect, the Alawites. And even as the 2011 protests unfolded in Tahrir Square, many were making grim predictions of an Iranian-Egyptian rapprochement. That’s what intrigued me most about Mohammed Morsi’s trip to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Summit. While officially passing the ceremonial leadership of the movement from Egypt to Iran, Morsi blasted his hosts for supporting a bloody dictator.

In case anyone was wondering about how isolated Iran has now become, that was one clear indicator. Its only Arab ally Syria was now shut out and humiliated by its Arab brethren. But there’s more.

As New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar argues, the Arab Spring has brought to the fore “a new axis,” a “triumvirate” that “played a leading role in helping end the eight-day war between Israel and Gaza” – “the Sunni Muslim alliance of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.” Qatar and Turkey have been working for some time on resolving the Syrian civil war and they joined Egypt as its president Mohammed Morsi brokered the Israeli-Gazan cease-fire. But don’t forget: just a month before the fighting, the Emir of Qatar had paid the first state visit to the Gaza Strip since its international blockade was triggered by Hamas’ popular election in 2006. More than just a symbolic gesture though, Sheikh Hamad came bearing tidings of nearly half a billion dollars in aid to the imprisoned and destitute Gazans.

What do Egypt, Turkey and Qatar have in common besides being Sunni? Egypt and Turkey both have moderate islamist governments. Qatar is a conservative Islamic Gulf state, but in contrast to the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that want nothing to do with the political Islamic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, its ties to that movement go way back. First it was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who emigrated there from Egypt in 1961 and then was asked to establish the Sharia faculty of the University of Qatar. Many other Muslim Brotherhood activists joined him in one of their few safe havens. Bear in mind, as a movement they had renounced violence long before, but they were fiercely persecuted in Egypt and elsewhere because their political activism threatened the authoritarian Arab regimes. Unsurprisingly, when the current emir (or “king”) founded the independent satellite TV station Al Jazeera in 1996, he asked Qaradawi to produce and host its only religious program, Sharia and Life, which now has a global following of 80 million viewers.

Just a quick note about Qaradawi, whose work I’ve been researching. You need to know that there is another side to his leadership in the “reforming” of Islamic law, his strong condemnation of all al-Qaeda-style terrorism and his plea for western Muslims to contribute more actively and constructively to their new surroundings. He also has some strong feelings against Zionism and in particular about what Israelis have done (and continue to do) to Palestinians in their last 45 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2009 MEMRI, a think tank with strong right-wing Israeli ties, posted some excerpts from a sermon Qaradawi gave with English subtitles , in which he minimizes the Holocaust, then says Hitler was a punishment from God and that he wishes he could blow himself up in Israel killing as many victims as possible. The website “Islamophobia Watch” retorted that this was a tendentious “cut-and-paste” job and gave other quotes from Qaradawi showing his support for dialog between the three monotheistic faiths and pictures of him alongside Jewish leaders. Just the same, Qaradawi did issue a fatwa in the early 2000s authorizing Muslims to blow themselves up in Israel, because the Israelis are killing so many Palestinian civilians; and besides, Israeli men and women serve in the army.

Now don’t let what I have just told you about Qaradawi lead you to believe that Qatar is a militant ideological state. My own observation is that the emir and his advisors, ambitious as they are, are both pragmatists and idealists. Like the Saudis they oppose the "Shia crescent" that blossomed after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the Shias in Iran joined hands with their brethren in Iraq and the Hizbullah in Lebanon. More to the point, though, as their actions in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Gaza indicate, Qatar sensed which way the Arab winds were blowing since January 2011 and proactively continue to nurture these rising islamist movements so as to be on the groundwork of a new Middle East, one in which a conservative yet democratic political Islam is on the rise.

Naturally, this sends shivers down the spine of western observers. In fact, no one knows where the current constitutional turmoil in Egypt is leading, nor what future policies the states of Libya, Syria, or Gaza will favor. At the same time, the Al Jazeera project makes me believe that Qatar is genuinely seeking to create links beyond the Arab-Islamic world.


 The Al Jazeera revolution

 At about the time the French were reviled in America (remember “freedom fries”?) for opposing its invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera TV was castigated for playing tapes by al-Qaeda leaders and generally for fueling anti-American feelings in the region. Yet the story of this project is surprisingly different.

 Al Jazeera in fact has earned a stellar reputation of journalistic excellence. Back in 2003 the BBC signed an agreement with Al Jazeera to share news stories and facilities in the Middle East. You can read about the prizes it has won in the long Wikipedia article devoted to it. The most significant prize, as I see it, was the “Best Circumvention of Censorship” award in 2003 it won from the Index on Censorship. The Huffington Post reported in March 2011 this statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:


“Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”


One could argue that, because it was the only independent channel in the Arab world routinely presenting opposing views on all kinds of issues, Al Jazeera helped develop an Arab civil society that longed for more freedom of expression. No doubt it was one important factor behind the uprisings of 2011. As the explosion of popular anger spilled from Tunisia to Egypt and then elsewhere in January 2011, the New York Times commented that “the protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera … whose aggressive coverage has helped to propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.”


A visionary leadership

 The Emir Sheikh Hamad certainly has great ambitions for his tiny country, as we have seen – mostly in leveraging its diplomatic skills for peace and greater freedom in the region, albeit with its own conservative religious slant. What is less known is the dynamic role played on the regional and global scene by his second of three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned. As in the picture above, she often accompanies her husband in official functions, mostly because of the weighty responsibilities she carries beyond her chairmanship of the Qatar Foundation.

 Sheikha Mozah earned a degree in Sociology from the University of Qatar in 1986 and has since been awarded honorary doctorates from five American universities. Her highest honor was the 2007 Chatham House Award, which is yearly given to the statesperson who has most contributed to improving international relations. Already in 2003 she was appointed as Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education by UNESCO, a task she valiantly carried out even in war zones like Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan named her to the High Level Group of the UN Alliance of civilizations. Not surprisingly, Forbes Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2007 and The Times of London cited her as one of the 25 most influential business leaders in the Middle East.

In the above picture taken in Doha in November 2011 she and her husband were hosting the international gathering of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), an initiative she helped to launch in 2008 and financed through the Qatar Foundation with its three major branches of education, science and community development. The 2011 forum brought together 1,200 academics and policy makers from all over the region, representing the culmination of a two-year study in 300 universities. Two other major contributors were the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies and the Carnegie Corporation.

 All this to say, Qatar is again playing a leading role in the wider Middle East to bring attention to the youth and the urgent necessity of offering them the best education and training they deserve. That is far reaching.


Interfaith Dialog

I come to the end of this blog with a confession. Maybe I’m not totally objective (who ever could be, right?), as I’ve just had a piece published by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), thanks to a request that came to me by its journal’s editor, Dr. Adeel Khan, for a special issue on the environment. You can download my own article, “Muslim-Christian Trusteeship of the Earth: What Jesus Can Contribute,” or any other one in this issue of Religions (Adyan in Arabic).

 The mission statement of the DICID reflects the best, I believe, of Qatar’s ambition to provide a crossroads of understanding amidst the angry voices of our world. When people of various faiths come together with ears to listen with respect and hearts to share – and all the more so in the Arabian Gulf – there is hope for a better world:



“We strive for constructive dialogue between followers of different faiths towards better understanding and harnessing of distinct religious principles and teachings to the benefit of all humanity, on the basis of mutual respect and acknowledgement of differences and through cooperation with related individuals and organizations.”


All said and done, Qatar seems to harbor an unshakable optimism that it can mediate between all kinds of hostile crosscurrents. After all, it has provided a pulpit for the world’s most charismatic mufti and at the same time it hosts two American military bases with over 13,000 personnel. The aim, after all, is to build bridges. As the late Anthony Shadid quipped, “Maintaining channels with an array of forces has proven a cornerstone of Qatar’s policy.” We wish it success!



I'm surprised no one has commented on this piece ... But I've had comments elsewhere from people who truly know this region and who've told me this was an exercise in naïveté, if not just plain propaganda. So just a couple of points in response.

1. I plead guilty, in the sense that this is not my area of expertise; I've never been there; I'm basing this only on western media accounts -- not an academic exercise.

2. I never said, however, that Qatar (or any of the other Gulf states) was a democratic state. It is autocratic, by definition, and dissent is punished in a variety of ways.

3. As you can read elsewhere on this website (look at "The Dark Side of Empire" in Resources), I'm very critical of US imperialism and its multiplication of military bases all over the world. So my comment about US bases here is not about celebrating them. And yes, the very presence of US power necessarily adds a whole layer of irony (we have a history of supporting authoritarian regimes in order to meet other goals) and complication at many levels.

4. My title of the other blog "Qatar Going Green" is, admittedly, way overblown. Qatar's spate of investment in high-profile "green buildings" is a good example of window-dressing for the sake of enhancing their international reputation. Qatar and its neighbors (as we do at home) have a long way to reach an environmental policy that would be qualified as "sustainable."

5. Is Al Jazeera truly "independent"? It cannot be since it was started with state money. But since when is private money a guarantee of independence and objectivity?

5. Qatar has all manner of other social challenges (esp. youth unemployment and its poor treatment so far of foreign workers). Still, I want readers to also see the positive achievements of this nation, and especially in light of the prejudice we Americans nurture about Muslim countries in general. Even in our own press it's possible to see different sides of how Qatar and its policies have been covered. Again, the aim of this website is to encourage dialogue and understanding. So please write in your comments!!

In my first installment on this theme, I argued that there is a problematic relation between religion and the status of women. But as we looked at this nexus in Egypt and Israel in particular, plainly what’s involved is a traditionalist and textualist (taking texts literally and applying them to the letter) kind of religion, hard to distinguish from the preexisting patriarchal culture. Here I want to deconstruct – or problematize – that relationship even more in light of some post-Arab Spring debates.

Not surprising, many religious rules as seen from a secular perspective isolate, devalue, silence women, and even in some cases (like Qur'an 4:34 allowing a man to "gently" hit his wife as a last resort) can be seen to encourage violence against women. Many have noticed the upswing in patriarchal discourse and practice in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” Let me be clear, however, I am NOT saying that …


a) “Islam,” “Judaism” and “Christianity” necessarily correlate to patriarchal mentalities that oppress women – sacred texts are “alive,” they evolve, being reinterpreted all the time, with surprising results

b) male fear of the power of female sexuality is the main reason religious men seek to control women


The first point I will discuss on other occasions. Just this one remark: it is instructive to see how conservative Protestants in the US (evangelicals, and even self-declared “fundamentalists”) have evolved over the years on the issue of women. Though many still consider female pastors heresy, they have no trouble allowing their daughters to become doctors, lawyers, or maybe even politicians, if the occasion allowed. This is the same in practice in Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood circles (less so, of course in Salafi ones). The majority of Jews in the USA are either Conservative or Reformed. In either case they ordain female rabbis. This kind of mentality, naturally, makes for added tensions when they “make aliyah” (or emigrate) to Israel, which is controlled by the Orthodox, and heavily influenced by the Ultra-Orthodox in places like Jerusalem.

On the second point, even though in my first blog I quoted a western and a Muslim feminist who both believed fear was at the root of misogyny wrapped in religious clothing, I want to get beyond that opinion here. Gender relations in the Arab world – and in the world more widely – can be explained by a variety of factors, and in the end, as I hope to show, religion serves mostly to justify a cultural status quo. Yet religion can also be a tool for radical change, something I explore in the next installment.


Mona Eltahawy: lightning rod and catalyst

Mona Eltahawy is the award-winning Egyptian-American journalist who was beaten and sexually assaulted by the Egyptian “security forces” in November 2011. Both her arms were broken and had she not been a dual citizen, she would likely have been raped and spent several days in prison.

But Eltahawy also made headline news when she spray-painted a poster in the New York subway sponsored by Pamela Geller’s Islamophobic organization, American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man” and “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The New York Post filmed the whole incident, which ended with Eltahawy’s arrest – an arrest, I would add, that lasted much longer than the one months earlier in Cairo (22 hours).

“I’m exercizing my right to free speech. This is a racist and bigotted poster,” she shouted to the AFDI woman trying to keep her from defacing the poster and then a few minutes later to the policemen arresting her.

Naturally, Pamela Geller writing in her Atlas Shrugs blog jumped all over what she called "the irony so thick on all levels." Here’s a secular Arab woman who was molested by the police in Egypt, who has complained multiple times about how Arab women’s rights are trampled, and who now wants to defend Arabs and Islam!


“Read on, Ms Geller,” I say. “The issues are a lot more complicated than you make them out to be. Because you believe ‘Islam is inherently violent’ and ‘oppresses women’ you make out all Arabs – and all Muslims, by implication – to be ‘savage and uncivilized’ and Israel as a beacon of enlightenment. Read what Eltahawy writes about Arab women and then see how her writing is sparking some revolutionary debates among both sexes there and elsewhere. She has a lot to teach you if you could only listen!”


Feisty she certainly is, but Mona Eltahawy is also bright, articulate, and with over ten years of journalistic experience in the Middle East. Her most provocative action was in fact an article which appeared in April 2012 for the “Sex Issue” of the journal Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us?” (subtitle: “The real war against women is in the Middle East”). In very passionate, angry and even strident tones, Eltahawy sounds very much like the secular feminists I quoted in the previous blog, Drexler and Boianjiu. For her, islamism – whether the traditional brand of Saudi Arabia, the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi brand, or the reformist kind pushed by the Egyptian Brotherhood – will only aggravate the bile of “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East.” The cause, in one word, is “hatred”: men hate women.

Understandably, Eltahawy was still seething from here own beating and assault in Tahrir Square. But too, she had spent a few years in Saudi Arabia as a teenager – a life-changing experience, as she puts it:


“I turn again to Saudi Arabia, and not just because when I encountered the country at age 15 I was traumatized into feminism – there’s no other way to describe it -- but because the kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

“Then -- the 1980s and 1990s -- as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl's urine made you impure? I wondered.”


Understandably, Eltahawy’s article caused a firestorm of debate in the region. Men and women reacted with equal passion to her linking of religion with hate as the common roots of female subjugation in their society. Still, few questioned her statement of the problem.


Reactions to Eltahawy – this is really complicated!

Most women responded by agreeing with many of the indignities forced upon them that Eltahawy cited, but disagreed with her diagnosis. Painting all men with the same brush stroke of hatred is wrong. What’s more, can male violence and oppression of women in many forms be reduced to one explanation, whether “hate,” “fear,” “cultural taboos falling away” or “misguided religion”?

I think not. For starters, have a look at the reaction of six other Egyptian women to Eltahawy’s piece. To be sure, her “religion + hate” is too simplistic an explanation and thereby plays into western stereotypes about Islam tyrannizing women. What’s more, you have to take into account the historical context, the political, economic and social factors that have kept women down as well. Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi offered deeper and more involved arguments about their disagreements with Eltahawy (“Let’s Talk About Sex”): “In her sloppy indictment of Arabs, Muslims, authoritarian rulers, and Islamists, El Tahawy has papered over some messy issues that complicate her underlying message: liberalism is the solution.” Whether it’s female genital mutilation, the Saudi ban on women drivers, child marriages in Saudi Arabia and in many rural areas from Afghanistan to Yemen, or the initiative for divorce still a strictly male prerogative in many places – surely hatred isn’t the issue for most men.

Take the case of female “circumcision,” Seikaly and Mikdashi propose:


“…the reality is that women are often those that insist on the practice because of ways that gender and political economy regimes together make it a necessary rite of womanhood. In fact, critical thinkers have long argued that this practice has more to do with the lack of economic opportunity for women, the imperative to marry, and the hardening and modernization of tradition in response to colonial and neocolonial interventions (including rights frameworks) than some irrational and razor crazed ‘hatred.’”


And what about the vastly different conditions obtaining from one country to the next, or the sociopolitical fallout of the Arab Spring? As the picture above indicates – and as media coverage of the demonstrations in the spring of 2011 clearly showed – women were out in the streets crying out for freedom and human dignity. This will no doubt continue to spill over in all kinds of areas. Too, as Seikaly and Mikdashi put it, this resurgence of female protest isn’t new, though its “liberal” predecessor in the 1920s never affected the masses:


“Critics have pointed to the long history of the Egyptian women’s movement and that formative moment in 1923 when Huda Sha‘rawi took off her face veil at the Ramses train station. This is a useful point to revisit, if only to reflect on why the liberalism that Sha‘rawi and her cohorts fought for—men and women—drastically and resoundingly failed. One reason, and there are many, was that liberalism resonated with only a small elite. As Hanan Kholoussy points out, women under domestic confinement who like Sha‘rawi were expected to don the face veil made up only two percent of Egypt’s five million females at the end of the nineteenth century.”


Another reason that these feminist movements across the Arab landscape never truly got off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s is that they were co-opted by the authoritarian regimes in place, thus deligitimizing them. That is precisely the problem in Palestine, as Hamas’ star has risen and the Palestinian Authority is waning – women’s rights are now on the back burner, though Palestinian women fare much better than many of their sisters in other places. Seikaly and Mikdashi quote a 1999 study by Rema Hammami and Eileen Kuttab on this point:


“Examples are myriad—eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union saw massive attacks on women’s rights issues after the fall of communist regimes because they came to be associated with other undemocratic and unpopular regime policies. Turkey, Algeria, Egypt are situations where you have small women’s movements whose popular legitimacy is lost because over time they have been seen as linked to or sponsored by authoritarian secular regimes” (“The Palestinian Women’s Movement: Strategies Towards Freedom and Democracy,” News From Within 15:4, April 1999, p. 3).


In my last section, I want to summarize some research paths that must be followed, if you are seriously intent on explaining both the poor treatment of women and the current bubbling up of protest and debate on this issue in the Middle East.


What you must include in your analysis

Max Fisher, a former writer and editor for The Atlantic and now a blogger on Foreign Affairs for The Washington Post, also wrote a piece in April 1012 on the brouhaha surrounding Eltahawy’s cover article. In my view, he falls prey to some of the media’s over-dramatic depiction of the issues, but he also puts forward an informed and balanced analysis of the causes. So to his question, “How did misogyny become so ingrained in the Arab world?” he offers the following answers, which I put in bullet form:


It’s not just “an Arab issue.” Though the Egyptian post-revolutionary legislature had only 2 percent of women, the Tunisian one had 27 percent – much higher than our US figures (17 percent). South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have as bad or worse records in this area. In fact, just this week I ran across an article that chronicles the growing violence against women in Latin America, while activists in several countries redouble their efforts to draw public attention to the tragedy. A 2011 Newsweek study on women’s rights and status listed only two Arab countries in the bottom 25 countries. So let’s keep some perspective here.


Many of the legal structures of misogyny in the Arab world were put in place by the Turks (Ottoman Empire), French and British. In fisher’s words,

“These foreigners ruled Arabs for centuries, twisting the cultures to accommodate their dominance. One of their favorite tricks was to buy the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. The foreign overlords ruled the public sphere, local men ruled the private sphere, and women got nothing; academic Deniz Kandiyoti called this the ‘patriarchal bargain.’ Colonial powers employed it in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Asia, promoting misogynist ideas and misogynist men who might have otherwise stayed on the margins, slowly but surely ingraining these ideas into the societies.”


Just about all traditional societies historically have had ingrained sexist practices. Evolutionary explanations are certainly controversial: men are stronger than women and thus use their physical power to subjugate them; men are afraid of female sexual power, especially when this could lead to their being cheated by rivals and then raising another man’s child, etc. The same goes for racial or cultural explanations (think of Geller’s label of “uncivilized”). Still, what about the origins of sexism in the Arab world?


Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in a thoroughly patriarchal context, as their sacred texts indicate. Yet Islam, like its older sisters in the monotheistic faith, is just as much “an expansive and living religion. It has moved with the currents of history, and its billion-plus practitioners bring a wide spectrum of interpretations and beliefs” – a fact I keep repeating in my own writings. There’s no doubt too that the colonial rulers were eager to single out religious leaders who would go along with their “patriarchal bargain.” So religious family law suddenly became the legal codes of the colonies. Then in the early 20th century when independence movements were forming, many leaders fell back on a more patriarchal interpretations of their religious tradition, if only to counter and repudiate the legacy of the colonial powers.


The widespread harassment of women in the Arab street may well be tied to the brutal, authoritarian regimes that have emasculated the men. A female journalist who had experienced this for many years in the region said to Max Fisher that the intrigue and brutality of Egypt’s, or Syria’s or Algeria’a secret police, must be at least one factor in making the “Arab man more likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.”


The colonial history still frustrates the efforts of Arab feminist movements. The fact that the west is still seen as trying to impose itself over the Arab world through cultural, economic and political means continues to frame women’s rights as a western ploy to dominate them. As he puts it, “After centuries of Western colonialism, bombings, invasions, and occupation, Arab men can dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Arab culture does it differently.” Of course, this also mutes Eltahawy’s credibility among Arabs.


A cultural revolution also has to take place. I end with the three-author article in The Guardian that featured the picture above, because it rings true with my own 16 years in the Arab world. Moroccan journalist Nadia Lamlili is the one referring to a required “cultural revolution.” Arabs will have to rethink the way they raise their children and in particular the way they segregate the sexes. Instead of 'managing' sexual temptations, this practice only amplifies them “and ends up with violence in dealings between men and women.” Then this observation that closes the article – something that my wife and I have observed again and again over the years:


“The problem with our societies is that the women are in love with their sons instead of their husbands, and the men are in love with their mothers instead of with their wives. Men and women don’t understand one another due to the fact that their dealings are not at all clear, as they don't spend enough time together or don’t engage with each other enough.”


This isn’t to say that religious, historical, socioeconomic and political factors aren’t also in play. But it does mean that there is certainly more than just “religion + hatred” that explains the struggles of women in the Arab world – and indeed, in the rest of the world.

The last blog in this series brings some of these strands together to highlight those who are effecting positive change.

[I first posted this on the PCI website in November 2012]

Especially since the 9/11 attacks on US soil, we Americans have struggled to come to terms with the concept of Shari’a. One of the (secondary) justifications for our invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of those murderous attacks was to “liberate” their women from the clutches of “this medieval and repressive system.” True, the Taliban’s legal code forbade women from going to school, working, and wearing anything in public but the traditional village burqa – in effect causing women’s faces to disappear.

For the record, this innovative interpretation of Shari’a flies in the face of all the traditional schools of Islamic law. Still, there are plenty of provisions in the Qur’an and Sunna (the texts reporting on what the Prophet Muhammad said and did) that contravene contemporary notions of gender justice. That said, less than a handful of Muslim-majority countries have such laws on their books and as I have written elsewhere, Muslim jurists – and Muslim publics – display a large spectrum of views on the issue.

But our fear of Shari’a is not just about women’s rights, or even some of the prescribed punishments (hudud) for theft or adultery that seem barbaric to us – they’re rarely applied, even in places like Saudi Arabia. Our real fear, understandably, is terrorism.

The FBI recently caught a 21-year-old Bengladeshi student, Quazi Mohammad Nafis, who thought he was detonating a 1,000-pound bomb in front of the Federal Reserve building. Fortunately for those present, he was only signing his arrest warrant on the tail end of a successful sting operation.

In the months leading up to his attack, the FBI revealed, he had been in conversation with a friend in the US who repeatedly pointed out to him that what he was about to do was against Shari’a law. Nafis insisted that “he was not bound by such rulings.” Indeed, there is a vigorous debate about such issues among Muslims today, and the jihadists have clearly lost the argument in the face of an overwhelming majority of Muslims who favor international norms of human rights and democracy.

As I say, though you do find some jurists outside the mainstream in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan who call for violent jihad, the vast majority of Islamic scholars who give legal opinions (muftis who give fatwas) condemn any act of terrorism – defined as the indiscriminate killing of innocent people for a political or religious cause. Islamic law in all four main Sunni schools and the remaining Shi’ite one plainly forbids the killing of women and children, elderly and clergy in the course of war. What is more, suicide is strictly forbidden.

Here I recommend you look at a short article by Yale political scientist Andrew F. March, who wrote a book on Islamic law, covenants and citizenship. Writing as he does in September 2010, he focuses on the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s fatwa calling on American Muslim soldiers to kill their non-Muslim fellow soldiers because the US is killing Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. He was writing from his hiding place in the Yemen and was subsequently killed, as you will remember, by an American drone attack.

This was especially problematic because a US soldier, Nidal Hasan, took this ruling as his inspiration to kill over a dozen soldiers at Fort Hood the year before. March tries to disentangle the issues involved here, as far as Islamic law is concerned. There are several related issues at stake:

1. Is it permissible to serve in a non-Muslim army?

2. Is it permissible to fight Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims?

3. What should a Muslim citizen of a non-Muslim state do if asked to fight Muslims?

4. Is it ever permissible to attack soldiers within your own non-Muslim army as an act of jihad?

Then March comments:

“Suffice it to say that for the first three questions, the majority of Sunni religious scholars have said that (1) Muslims shouldn't serve in non-Muslim armies if possible, that (2) they may never fight fellow Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims or “assist in killing a believer even by half a word,” and that (3) if asked to kill fellow Muslims believers should submit to torture or even execution. However, in the contemporary period, pragmatic scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi have given fatwas allowing Muslims to serve in non-Muslim armies, even against Muslims if they can serve in non-combatant capacities.”

In that last paragraph I want you to retain two statements. The first is “in the contemporary period.” This is crucial, because Islamic law as it basically coasted from the eleventh to the nineteenth century was worked out in the crucible of a worldview in which a dominant Islamic empire (though ruled by different regimes in many areas – the “Abode of Islam”) felt God-impelled to conquer the rest of the world (the “Abode of War”) in the name of Islam. No one (theoretically) would be forced to convert, but at least the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians; but later in India, Buddhists and Hindus) could pay the poll tax in exchange for not serving in the army and enjoying a modicum of religious freedom. That’s the famous dhimmi status.

A brief parenthesis – and that’s the second bit I want you to remember from that quote: “scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi …” Qaradawi is the most famous and influential traditional Islamic jurist, mainly because of his weekly program on al-Jazeera TV in Qatar (where he’s lived since 1961). He also came back to his native Egypt barely a month into the “January 25 Revolution” of 2011 and led the Friday Prayers in Tahrir Square with close to a million worshipers present. [To gain a better understanding about this man and his influence, read about the paper I presented on him at a conference on Islamic Law at the Hamline University in September 2012].

Back to classical Islamic law: fast forward to the modern period and you find Muslim jurists reinterpreting jihad as permitted by God only for defensive purposes (see my blog on this for a fuller picture). A classic statement on this is the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) 2005 position paper, “Against Terrorism and Religious Extremism: Muslim Position and Responsibilities.”

From his own research Andrew March discovered another prominent reason for most jurists condemning acts of terror by Muslim-American citizens: the utter priority of fulfilling contracts and the utmost importance accorded to loyalty once it is sworn to a particular state. In his words,

All Islamic scholars believe that Muslims living in the West, whether native born, naturalized or legal residents, are under a firm ‘contract of security’ (‘aqd al-aman) which renders all non-Muslim life, property and honor inviolable. Even Muslim scholars who support certain jihadi activities by and large tend to believe that Muslim citizens of non-Muslim polities may not engage in such activities against their own states.”

I’ll let you read March’s article in more detail for yourself about how seriously scholars denounced the sin of ghadr (treachery or perfidy), but I’ll have to quote the hadith (saying of the Prophet) which he uses to close his piece – Muhammad definitely had a sense of humor:

"He who betrays a trust will have a flag stuck in his anus on the Day of Judgment so that his treachery may be known."

Now, none of this guarantees that there won’t be more Muslims – US citizens or not (Nafis is not!) – who commit acts of terrorism on US soil. Sadly, that is bound to happen sooner or later, just as there will be other mass shootings for other reasons. But it does mean that the chorus of condemnation from official Islamic sources and from the Muslim street will ring out even more urgently.


  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    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. You can also read a summary for each of the 6 chapters on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:


  • 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!)