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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 May 2011

Jihad Revisited

I ended the first half of this blog arguing that Sayyid Qutb’s (executed in Egypt in 1966) view of total and permanent war until Islam reigns supreme in the world was: 1) a throwback to the scholarly consensus of Muslim jurists and theologians in the classical period; 2) vigorous push back against the modern Islamic consensus since at least the eighteenth century (in the context of modern nation-states military jihad can only be justified in the case of foreign invasion). Let me unpack that here.

            For starters, this is news to many pundits today, and in particular those who are behind the push in Tennessee and a dozen other states to outlaw Sharia. I obtained a copy of the draft Tennessee bill, which states that “jihad and sharia are inextricably linked.” And then Article 8 of Section 1 reads:


“The unchanging and ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of sharia on all states and nations, including the United States and this state; further, pursuant to its own dictates, sharia requires the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and the imposition of sharia through violence and criminal activity.”


            Note how this is clearly stating that Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Sharia is the only possible one for any sincere Muslim – as if Islam, like every other religious traditions, isn’t subject to evolving and even competing interpretations at any given historical period! On the one hand, the authors say that this bill should not hinder Muslims from peacefully practicing their religion; on the other, rather more ominously, they warn that this “legal-political-military doctrine and system” is advocated by “tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world.” Scary!

            So a little history here is in order.

            The Prophet Muhammad, through preaching, diplomacy and war, had nearly extended Muslim control over the whole Arabian Peninsula and had initiated a couple campaigns in Syria by the time he died in 632. Taking advantage of two weakening empires to the north, Muslim armies fanned out and in the next few decades carved out an empire greater than Rome had ever seen – from Spain to India. Yet Islamic law, well ahead of its time, carefully circumscribed the ethics and practice of warfare: treaties must be honored, prisoners treated humanely, women, children, monks and rabbis spared, and the impact of the environment minimized (protecting trees and wells especially).

            Did Muslim armies always abide by these rules? Of course not; no army in the world lives up to its ideals. But we would do well to remember that during the Crusades, while King Richard the Lionhearted did not hesitate to catapult the severed heads of Muslim prisoners onto the Muslim army, the Muslim leader Salah Eddin’s war conduct was admired, and even legendary, to the point that he was considered “chivalrous” in Europe! Whereas the Crusaders killed absolutely everyone in sight (Muslims, Eastern Christians and Jews) when they first captured Jerusalem (1099), Salah Eddin managed to take it back in 1187 without killing a soul.

Having said that, Sayyid Qutb was indeed resurrecting the classical version of jihad. Whether you consult the official corpus of hadiths (sayings of and stories about the Prophet), the commentaries on the Quran, or the canons of the four schools of Sunni law – all the Islamic authorities of the medieval period until the eighteenth century agreed that the world was divided between the Abode of War and the Abode of Islam. Hence, the sword verses cancel out the more peaceful verses revealed earlier. What this means is that Muslims had a collective duty to extend their territories by means of war until the whole world came under the dominion of Islam. Since “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256), no one in theory was forced to convert; but Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (Hindus and Buddhists at times too) were given dhimmi status as “protected minorities” (including freedom to practice their faith, no military service in return for a poll tax, plus certain humiliating restrictions).

Then came western colonialism with its superior science, technology and weaponry, and Muslim populations found themselves – shockingly, and for the first time – at the bottom of the pile. So under the weight of military, economic and political defeat, and relentless accusations by Christians that theirs was a violent religion, Muslims started to read their texts differently. By the mid-twentieth century, Muslim authorities (the ulama) in Egypt, Indonesia and many other centers of learning had come to agreement that jihad has two dimensions. First, it’s the taming of one’s lower desires in the struggle to follow God’s path; and second, the outer dimension: when a Muslim country is invaded by a foreign power, jihad is incumbent on the nation to defend itself and repel the invader. The reality of a world made up of nation-states ideally living in peace had sunk in.

The hadith most quoted with regard to jihad today is the one in which Muhammad comes back from battle victorious. To the cheering crowds he says, “I have come back from the lesser jihad. Now starts the greater jihad.” Though this tradition was limited to Sufi (mystical) collections for centuries, it has now been adopted by nearly all Muslims as a prophetic call to focus on one’s spiritual life. But the “lesser jihad” has also taken a new turn. The Abode of Islam is any territory where Muslims are free to practice their faith, which today could be anywhere in the world. As for the Abode of War (apart from an invading army), leading jurists stopped mentioning it a good two hundred years ago.

Perhaps the most representative conservative Islamic body in America, ISNA (The Islamic Society of North America) occasionally issues legal rulings, as it did last December under the title, “Fatwa Against Religious Extremism.” It strictly condemns any violence done against innocent people, and especially as a result of suicide bombings. After quoting several verses in the Quran, it goes on to state three principles:


1. “All acts of terrorism targeting the civilians are Haram (forbidden) in Islam.

2. It is Haram for a Muslim to cooperate or associate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence.

3. It is the duty of Muslims to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians.”


These kinds of statements can be found in different forms, especially after 9/11, on all mainstream Muslims websites.

Since I started this two-part blog on jihad with the Old Testament, it is fitting for me as a follower of Jesus to close with his words, “Love your enemies,” and “Give unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Somehow, I cannot rejoice that a hardened murderer like Osama bin Laden was assassinated without the chance to defend himself in court. Likewise, I cannot in good conscience support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by my government, whatever the motive – though I know that many Christians can do so in the name of “Just War Theory.”

We are back to hermeneutics – how we choose to interpret our sacred texts. Jihad for most Muslims today is about striving to obey God in every area of their lives and, in extreme cases, about giving their life to defend their country. In my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation, I argued that “empire” was always bad, because it involves subjugating other peoples. From the fourth century on (starting with the Emperor Constantine), Christians have often confused God and Cesar, with morally disastrous results.

For Muslims to condemn empire-building is a bigger stretch, as the Prophet himself initiated expansionist wars that led to a string of Muslim empires. Yet even here, with time and changing sociopolitical settings, I believe current notions of jihad are leading to this kind of religious reinterpretation. So let’s keep talking, and let’s keep striving together (or “jihading”) to make this world a more peaceful, God-like place!

King David wanted to build a temple for God, but the prophet Nathan told him that God had designated his son to carry out that task (II Samuel 7). Years later he recounts to his son Solomon that the reason God did not grant him that privilege was that “he had killed many men in battles . . . and shed so much blood” (I Chronicles 22:8). Though David is the beloved author of the Psalms, celebrated both in the Bible and Quran, he was also a king who greatly extended the borders of the territory he had inherited. Kings and rulers, by definition, wield the sword. The Bible also tells us that several centuries before God ordered mwo4mhua to undertake bloody conquests in the land of Canaan. Yet we forget that mwo4mhua was the great prophet Moses’ underling and disciple.

            When the people of Israel were traveling in the territory to the east of the Jordan River, kings Sihon and Og refused them passage and attacked Israel. In the end, both kings and all their people were slaughtered and their territory occupied by the tribes of Reuben and Gad. In a later episode, after some Israelite men were seduced into idolatry by some Moabite women, God ordered Moses to send a small army to wipe out the Moabites in revenge – which they did in short order. But Moses was “furious” when they returned. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. So he had all the women who had been married killed, saving only the young virgins. “You may keep them for yourselves,” he told them (Numbers 31:1-24).

            Honestly, there is a lot more graphic violence in the Old Testament than in the Quran. But to Jews and Christians, this is not generally disturbing. Enter hermeneutics (the art of interpretation of the sacred texts). Either by putting greater weight on some texts rather than on others, or by saying (as in this case) that what God said in those days does not apply to the present day, people of faith find ways to balance out the tensions in their holy book.

            We’ve all been preoccupied this past week with the news of Bin Laden’s demise. Is this the end of al-Qaeda as we know it? Will we be facing a spate of retaliatory attacks? My own educated guess is that al-Qaeda has taken a serious blow. But Osama bin Laden’s “martyrdom” will likely recruit more “jihadis” to the wider cause. Splinter groups here and there might be emboldened, so attacks will no doubt continue in one form or another.

            But, you might be asking, how could you compare Old Testament/Hebrew Bible wars of aggression with current Islamic terrorism? For most Christians today this has no relevance whatsoever in the light of the gospel of peace. Yes, “ethnic cleansing” as we put it today seems to have been given divine sanction in that part of the Bible. But the Israelites, you say, were not trying to take over the world by force of arms and to impose on all the worship of Jahweh, while smashing all the idols of the nations! True enough, yet the church, from Constantine to Charlemagne, and from the Crusades to the Spanish Reconquista, the Inquisition, the forced conversion of millions of Latin American Indians and the bloody religious wars in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe, has managed pretty well to ignore the Sermon on the Mount! Hermeneutics do count . . . and also for Muslims, we shall see.

            With this in mind, allow me to give a bit more background on jihad, first on the bin Laden brand in this blog, and then more generally in the next blog. So what are the “sword verses” in the Quran and what is their context?

            Muhammad received his first revelation in 610 and from the beginning experienced staunch opposition from the Meccan tribal leaders. When in 622 he was able to “emigrate” to Medina (the Hijra), it was after at least one attempt on his life. Mecca had vowed to destroy the nascent community of Muslims, Jews and polytheists ruled by Muhammad in that desert oasis. To be sure, it did not help that Muhammad’s fellow immigrants from Mecca now made it a practice to raid Meccan caravans. But the course of war had been set from the start. And now from Medina it unfolded: first, a decisive victory against great odds – the Battle of Badr (624); then a defeat – Uhud (625); finally, the Battle of the Trench, during which a formidable Meccan army retreated after an unsuccessful forty-day siege (627). All this time, both Jewish and polytheist Medinans (and “hypocrites”) had tried to help the Meccans against Muhammad. This is called political treason in any polity in the world.

            Herein is the context of the “sword verses.” They come from the last revealed sura (“chapter” – there are 114 altogether), Sura 9, so the backdrop is the later Medinan period, up until the year 630 when Muhammad rode victoriously into Mecca with a vastly superior army. (Incidentally, it is the only sura NOT prefaced by “In the name of the Merciful, the Compassionate”). The first verse is often quoted with its second half missing: “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” Yet the second half tones it down significantly: “But if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligations and pay the zakat, then let them go their way for God is forgiving and kind” (Q. 9:5). The other verse is more straightforward: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor hold the religion of truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Q. 9:29). It should also be noted that the Quran uses the word “to kill” or “fight to kill” in almost all instances of fighting in God’s cause; rarely is “jihad” used for this. But in the legal literature down through the centuries it was used in this way.

Fast forward to the 20th century . . . Sayyid Qutb, the chief propagandist for the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of Egypt’s October Revolution in 1952, disagreed with the more moderate wing of the movement that had renounced violence. In his writings, he advocated a return to the classical version of jihad, that is, that Muslims should fight to extend the borders of the Abode of Islam and thus reduce the size of the Abode of War. Wage an all-out war; aim to conquer the world, and when that is achieved, give people the “freedom” to accept Islam or not. But the state will be an Islamic one, following the classical dictates of Sharia law (as you know from my previous blogs, this is Qutb’s imagining an ideal divine law that could be applied, ready-made, to the world as it is today – Sharia is in fact a very contested term!).

Contrast this worldview with that of the Muslims, who at the risk of their life have been protesting and demonstrating in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, asking for democracy and civil freedoms. The “Arab Spring,” as they call it, potently proves that bin Laden and his associates badly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. Jihad is a much wider, and for the vast majority of Muslims, a much more peaceful idea.

I was teaching a seminar course on intra-Muslim debates on human rights at Yale University and we had just covered a variety of Muslim "fundamentalist" views. Out of fifteen students I had four Jews, four Christians, and seven Muslims. One Orthodox Jewish student (actually the president of the Yale Friends of Israel that year) raised his hand to comment, "I have to tell you that the more I listen, the more I connect with these conservative, politically active, law-oriented Muslims. No joke, not a day goes by that I'm not furiously involved in two or three arguments about religious law. This is what we breathe!"

Indeed, Judaism and Islam, unlike Christianity, are faith traditions that revolve around the down-to-earth, practical rules of living that were inspired by the sacred text, then distilled by rabbis and ulama' (Muslim jurists), first orally and then finally written down according their respective schools of law. Christians tend to be more preoccupied with right belief (orthodoxy), whereas right conduct (orthopraxy) commands the allegiance of Muslims and Jews.

The short prayer, or the Quran's first sura (or "chapter," out of 114 altogether), al-Fatiha ("the Opening"), which a practicing Muslim pronounces seventeen times a day in the course of five ritual prayers, says, "Guide us in the straight path." The word Sharia, which symbolizes the God-shaped form the world is to take as his people follow this path, also literally means "the path to the watering hole." So Islamic law is also the path of salvation through the arid and forbidding desert of life that leads into the gardens of bliss in the hereafter. In this blog I describe Sharia, as seen by Muslims, as divine, flexible and comprehensive. And so in the context of the current frenzy in several states to "outlaw Sharia," I'm arguing that 1) it's like telling a Muslim she can't practice her religion at all; and 2) it displays a staggering ignorance about how Islamic law actually works; and 3) there's nothing to fear about Muslims embracing Sharia.

First, Sharia in the Islamic perspective is divine in origin, since only God is the legitimate ruler of the world. The two main sources for discerning the will of the divine Legislator are the sacred texts – the Quran, first and foremost, and then the authoritative collections of all the reports (or hadiths) about what the Prophet Muhammad said and did. After all, he remains THE godly example all Muslims strive to follow; so this second source of Islamic law is called the Sunna (the "path" or "model" of the Prophet). At the same time, Muslim scholars have always recognized that sacred texts – whether the Quran, which contains the very words of God, or the Sunna, which houses reports of varying levels of authenticity and reliability – have to be interpreted by human beings (there are other "sources," but they are of the rational type, and I will leave them for another blog).

This is why "Sharia," as the symbol of God's will in this world and the next, is always distinct from "applied jurisprudence" in Islamic law (fiqh, from a word meaning "understanding"). Fiqh comprises the traditions of understanding and practical application of the texts that are followed in various schools of Islamic law (the Sunnis have ended up with four; and the Shia with only one). So one should never confuse Sharia with fiqh (though some Muslims do at times). Sharia is divine, whereas fiqh is man-made, and hence, flexible. In classical Islam, a jurist who had attained the highest level of learning and experience, the mujtahid (one who can practice ijtihad, or the "effort to produce a new ruling in a new situation") was said to receive a double reward if God deemed him correct, and only one reward, if not. In both cases the mujtahid had exerted much effort (notice: same root as jihad) to produce a correct ruling.

So, for example, the Quran forbids (as in the Torah) the eating of "carrion, blood, pork, meat offered to idols, or an animal that was strangled or killed by a violent blow" (Q. 5:4). In the grey areas, however, some schools say all aquatic animals can be eaten. But some say that only those aquatic animals in the shape of a fish can be eaten. Others say tortoises are forbidden, and all agree that frogs cannot be eaten, because of a reliable hadith in which the Prophet forbade the killing of frogs. On the other hand, all domestic animals can be eaten, but there is disagreement regarding riding horses and work horses. On this the Hanafis (one of four Sunni schools) say eating them is reprehensible. As you can see, flexibility is the watchword, and thus one often-quoted hadith has Muhammad saying, "diversity of legal opinions is a mercy."

Another sign of flexibility is the maxim that no rule holds under necessity. Stealing or eating pork is no sin if you are dying of hunger. Pregnant women, sick persons or travelers can put off their Ramadan fast till a better time. Using sand for the prescribed ablutions for prayer instead of water when none is available is fine. But more importantly – and this has become very popular today – attention to the "objectives of Sharia" has always led Muslim jurists to believe that its primary purpose was to benefit humanity. Here the key word is maslaha, translated as "public benefit," or even an equivalent to the "common good." This kind of emphasis of late, together with the quranic maxim that God wants to make our life easier, not harder, has led contemporary scholars to focus more on the spirit of the law, as opposed to the strict letter of the law (more on this in a blog devoted to human rights).

Finally, Islamic law is comprehensive. It is designed to help humans sort out all their various actions into five categories. Only the first and the last, the mandatory and the forbidden, have consequences for the next life. The recommended or praiseworthy are those actions, which if acted on will bring reward, but if shunned bring no punishment. The blameworthy or reprehensible category includes actions, which if carried out will incur a penalty (like eating work horses for Hanafis, and smoking for most jurists today); yet avoiding them brings no reward. The fifth is the middle category, covering the great majority of human acts: those that do not fall in the four above categories are neutral. Islamic law presumes that most of what people choose to do everyday is permissible, if in fact it is neither forbidden nor reprehensible.

There are two general categories covered by Islamic law: the religious rituals ('ibadat, or "worship items") and rules concerning human relationships (mu'amalat). The first category contains the "five pillars" of Islam: the shahada, or "testimony"; ritual prayers (salah); almsgiving (zakat); the month of fasting (Ramadan); and the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), and a few other items as well. But the second category is the largest. "Human transactions" includes commercial and property law, judicial procedure, and criminal law. But notice: it never included constitutional law. In a blog devoted to Islam and politics I will show, God willing (in sha'a Allah), that Muslim rulers always ran their own legal system parallel to the Sharia courts, and that a wide variety of political arrangements over the centuries were deemed "Islamic."

Just like their Jewish counterparts, Muslims venerate Sharia as the path to God's blessing in this life and the next. Yet at least thirteen states in America today have bills pending to outlaw any use of Sharia. Arizona-based attorney David Yerushalmi, who has written for years about the danger that Sharia represents in subverting American freedoms, has now drafted the strictest bill for consideration by the Tennessee legislature. As far as he's concerned, it's only the part of Sharia that's connected to jihad that is targeted, because to his mind it could lead to the overthrowing of the US government. But as Islamic Society of North America spokeswoman Sarah Thompson stated, "The way that it's worded makes the assumption that any practice of Islam is a practice of terrorism. And that's a dangerous line to walk. It excludes the millions of Muslims that are practicing peaceably from the ability to do so."

All these attempts to impugn Islamic law will likely be declared unconstitutional in the end. As seen here, Sharia includes all of human life, but like many other aspects, past fiqh rulings on jihad have been hotly debated by Muslim jurists, and especially in the modern period (a topic for another day). Of course, there are classical readings of the texts that radical Muslims have leaned on to recruit from the wider Muslim community. There are also specific fiqh rulings from the past (still "on the books" in some places) that contravene established norms of human rights today. I'll deal with that later. What is clear, however, is that Sharia itself – as a sign and symbol – remains at the heart of Muslim spirituality. And for that reason, in the best tradition of our American democracy, we should shun witch hunts of all kinds and welcome to the table our fellow-Americans who happen to be Muslims, as we did – reluctantly at first – Catholics and Jews in the not-so-distant past.

Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin recently served with the US Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet his role was mostly in intelligence gathering as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence at the Pentagon. As a loyal patriot in the military, Boykin was and continues to be laser-focused on our nation’s enemies.

No one would deny that transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates or Taliban-related fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan (tribal-based with local aims) are sworn enemies of the US. What I would like to highlight here is Boykin’s unshakeable certainty that “Islam” equals Sharia law, and Sharia law equals a system inherently bent on world domination. In a recent article, posing as an expert on all things Islamic, he proclaims,

Sharia law is the foundation of Islamic theocracy and totalitarianism. The establishment of global Sharia law is the goal of the adherents to authoritative Islam. The Koran is unequivocal in its directive to Muslims to establish a global Islamic state, or Caliphate, over which the Islamic messiah, or Mahdi, will rule with Sharia as the only law of the land. That is the intent of many influential Islamic elements in America.

Here I only test one of his claims: that Sharia as blueprint for global hegemony is the view of “many influential elements in America.” God willing, I will follow up with three more blogs touching on other aspects of this most misunderstood aspect of the Islamic faith – Sharia law.

But first, just a little background into the wider (and influential) movement to which Boykin relates. In today’s social science parlance, I speak here of “the anti-Sharia discourse.” Indeed, Boykin is the lead author of a book on this topic, Shariah: The Threat To America: An Exercise In Competitive Analysis (2010). It is published by a think-tank led by Frank Gaffney, who was a top security adviser for President Reagan. The book’s description on Amazon.com reads: “This study is the result of months of analysis, discussion and drafting by a group of top security policy experts concerned with the preeminent totalitarian threat of our time: the legal-political-military doctrine known within Islam as ‘shariah.’”

Many other voices from several quarters have joined in this chorus. I’ll only mention one here, Steven Emerson and his Washington-based SAE Productions and its nonprofit wing, the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation. And it seems that Emerson’s “nonprofit” pitch that America stands on the brink of impending doom at the hand of Islamic radicals is in fact rather profitable. In 2008 alone he collected more than $3.3 million. Investigative journalist Bob Smietana got interested in this one arm of “a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances” by virtue of covering a trial in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.

Opponents of the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, managed to monopolize six days of court hearings with lectures on how Islam is not a true religion but rather a conspiracy to take over America and squash its cherished freedom. Unsurprisingly, one of the witnesses was Frank Gaffney whose think-tank had determined that one of the board members of the new mosque had been a member of Hamas (an allegation denied by the member and his board). Gaffney reiterated what other self-proclaimed experts in Sharia law had said, namely that Islam and Sharia were inseparable and therefore posed a vital threat to US security.

            Fortunately, a coalition of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims stood up to defend the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. One of those prominent voices was that of Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, who said that it was ludicrous for the opponents of the mosque to base their opposition on the claim that Islam was not a religion but a political system with a built-in legal code at war with American democracy. He added that Muslims are like other past minorities that faced tough challenges to be accepted in America. For that reason, he was not going to relent: “Islam is facing that now and we will not rest until they have equal rights with other religions.”

            The latest news is that the judge was ready to throw out the opponents’ challenge to the green light for the building permit issued by the Regional Planning Commission, but they did manage to have another hearing scheduled for April 13. Regardless of the outcome, however, the fact that the opposition has gained so much traction is a testimony to the power and magnetism of the anti-Sharia discourse.

            Yet that line of thinking is totally divorced from the worldview of the vast majority of American Muslims. Not only did all the major Muslim organizations in this country immediately condemn the attacks of 2001; they fervently and unequivocally support the ethical ideals of democracy and human rights, including religious freedom. The imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been at the center of the “Park51” controversy (their new building a couple of blocks away from “Ground Zero”), is a veteran of interfaith dialog. Imam Abdul Rauf explained what he has learned as an American Muslim in his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. As a young man he sailed into New York Harbor in December 1965, eying the Statue of Liberty. “Little did I realize then,” he mused, “that I was to discover the riches of my faith tradition in this land. Like many immigrants from Muslim lands, I discovered my Islam in America.”

            One of his discoveries was that with its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution the United States of America is a better “Muslim” country than most so-called “Muslim countries.” I cannot here go into all the details, but let’s start with this summary:

Muslim legal scholars have defined five areas of life that Islamic law must protect and further. These are life, mind (that is, mental well-being or sanity), religion, property (or wealth), and family (or lineage and progeny). Any system of rule that upholds, protects, and furthers these rights is therefore legally “Islamic,” or Shariah compliant, in its substance. Because these rights are God-given, they are inalienable and cannot be deprived of any man or woman without depriving them of their essential humanity.

            Another part of his argument centers around the two central commandments of love for God and love of neighbor. The three Abrahamic faiths, and Islam’s religious law (the Sharia) make this distinction. Their followers are to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. “Our Christian friends,” he writes, “call this the ‘vertical dimension’ of religious practice.” The second part is more sociological, having to do with the “horizontal dimension” of our faith – how we relate to those around us. The first dimension in Islamic law is called the ‘ibadat, the ritual aspect of the faith (the five pillars of Islam, and the like). The second dimension is the mu’amalat, literally the mutual relationships of people in society, which covers family law, contractual or commercial law, and penal or criminal law. That second branch, as opposed to the fixed nature of the first, is extremely flexible. As long as those objectives of Sharia are met (as stated in the block quotation above), they are constantly in need of revision and reformulation, so as to respond to the changing needs of society over time.

More detail will come in subsequent blogs. Here I only emphasize that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf sits squarely in the center of mainstream American Islam. In an evangelical-Muslim dialog to which Rick Love and I contributed, which was organized by Georgetown University last year, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was giving out free copies of his book. Muslims disagree on many details of theology, law and politics – as do Jews and Christians among themselves. But one thing is for sure: the conspiracy theories of Jerry Boykin and Steven Emerson have nothing to do with the view of Sharia held by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim American community.

              Since this is my first blog, you must know a bit about me. Practically all of my schooling was in France, where my father founded an inter-church youth organization for the purpose of re-introducing French youths to the teachings of Jesus. I started college in the United States with a French accent and a European mindset. Then after college I trained as a pastor at a seminary, but felt God was calling me to serve in Algeria. There I served as assistant pastor for nine years, first in the only English-speaking Protestant Church (Anglican) and then in the only French-speaking one (a mix of French Reformed and Methodist). The next stage was teaching, first in an English-language elementary school in Ismailiyya, Egypt; then at the Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank, teaching Palestinians in Arabic.

            Then, starting in 1997, there was this “second career” in academia . . . a PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, postdoctoral research in Islamic Studies at Yale, teaching part-time at the University of Pennsylvania, and now at St. Joseph’s University (also in Philadelphia), a Catholic school. Each semester for the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching two classes each term, Introduction to Islam and Comparative Religion.

            I am fascinated by the phenomenon of religion, how it developed over the millennia in various parts of the world; how religiosity has mushroomed globally since the 1980s especially; and how followers of the two largest “religions” – Muslims and Christians – can dig into the treasures of their traditions and invest those resources to build a more peaceful and righteous world. This series of blogs is my attempt to pull out from my academic publications (and lectures) bits and pieces that I think will widen your perspective and inspire you to take part in this movement – whether you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or purely “secular.”

            I put “religion” in quotation marks, only because scholars cannot agree on how to define it. One group thinks there is something special that makes certain beliefs and practices “religious”: its reference to supernatural beings; or how people separate the “sacred” from the “profane”; or the belief in a transcendent power, whether personal or impersonal.

            Another group retorts that there is no one “essence” (no one “thing”) to “religion,” but that one should look at how religion functions in society: how certain beliefs and rituals bind people together, how collective myths shape a particular culture, and the like.

            Finally, another group says, “no, you just describe people’s beliefs, their rituals and practices, using the tools of sociology and anthropology (what is generally called the ‘phenomenology of religion’), and you note what different systems have in common.” That’s basically a middle path between the first and second options, and you can call it the “family resemblance” approach.

            But, you say, “Who cares about this scholarly stuff? It’s just making something simple very confusing!” Perhaps, but it’s our oversimplifications that often create conflict. Consider this: the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published an article in 1993 entitled, “The Clash of Civilizations.” He had long been an advisor to the State Department under several administrations and on the heels of the Soviet Union’s demise and the Gulf War his idea caught the imagination of many American intellectuals and politicians. Basically, he taught that from now on, the great conflicts of our world will take place between “civilizations.” The “West” will face off with “Islam” and “Confucianism” (i.e., China) in the first place, but other blocks will join in the fray, including the Hindu, Japanese, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African blocks.

            The implication – spelled out in particular by American “Neo-Conservatives” who were pushing President Bush to invade Iraq long before he did – was that this clash is inevitable and that we had better arm ourselves to the teeth and get ready for it. Not exactly a call to peaceful conflict resolution. The late Palestinian-American English professor at Columbia University, Edward Said, wrote in response that first of all there is no such thing as “the West” (which country are you talking about? Which ethnicity or political current?) or “Islam” (do you mean the Sunni majority. . . what about the Sufis, the Shia, the Ahmadis, the Salafis, etc.?). And second, that this oversimplified, essentialized view (the “West” is the “West” by virtue of a common essence) grossly distorts reality and fans the flame of conflict like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            Edward Said notes that right after the unspeakable horrors of World War II, nations assembled to create a platform of understanding so as to (or try to) insure that this would never happen again. Hence the United Nations, the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, and the spate of international covenants and agreements that are now seen as “international law.” Said calls this the “harmony” paradigm. A better world is possible, so let’s work together to make it happen. The other paradigm was the Cold War. Two blocks facing each other, with enough fire power to blow up the planet a few hundred times over.

            All this to say: let’s take a closer look at some of the stereotypes bandied about in the media (like “Islam is violent,” or “religious people are bigoted,” etc.). Maybe reality is more complex and, actually, much more interesting. I may even get you to see that academic disciplines like sociology, history, theology and religious studies have some useful tools to work with!

23 August 2011


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.


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