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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

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.

I hope you’re breathing a sigh of relief: no picture of a woman in hijab! Seriously, while I have written on “the many meanings of hijab,” and the question of religion and gender equality, I come back to the issue from a different angle: the secular-religious clash in Israel is symptomatic of social dynamics all over the world (though perhaps less dramatic). I’ll throw out some hypotheses as to why there seems to be a connection between religion and the subjugation of women. My main point in this series is that if religion has been (at least) part of the problem, it can also be the solution.


Religion and gender hierarchy

Let me start with the two pieces by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Al-Naggar in the New York Times. One was a short blog about her experience attending a Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored premarital counseling workshop in Cairo. The article on the same topic, "Family Life According to the Brotherhood," is an essay on the Muslim Brotherhood’s teaching on gender roles in the family and society – and how they are using this to recruit new members and rebuild the social order from the bottom up.

The Brotherhood, banned from forming a political party under Mubarak’s rule, still wielded enormous influence through its social welfare services and its many members who ran for parliament as independents. Now in power, president Morsi’s program of “Renaissance” (nahda, same word for Tunisia’s ruling islamist party) aims to strengthen society’s most basic unit, the family. Central to that task is teaching women their rightful place in that unit, they maintain. You can’t have a righteous society without righteous families, and families can’t be godly without women playing their God-given role. Listen to the leader of Al-Haggar’s workshop, Osama Abou Salama, explain this in a discourse that would sound very familiar to many conservative Christians and Jews:


“A woman,” Mr. Abou Salama said, “takes pleasure in being a follower and finds ease in obeying a husband who loves her . . . Can you, as a woman, take a decision and handle the consequences of your decision? No. But men can. And God created us this way because a ship cannot have more than one captain.”


Admittedly, in conservative evangelical circles, it would not be put quite so bluntly. Still, many would follow literally these words of the Apostle Paul: “For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:22-3).

Nor would any western audience (no matter what faith tradition) put up with this: “Women are erratic and emotional, and they make good wives and mothers — but never leaders or rulers.” This is Al-Naggar’s paraphrase of Abou Salamah’s teaching, which provoked absolutely no reaction from his mixed audience. “None of the 30 people in the class so much as winced,” she writes.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, when you come across any theological statement, first go to the sociocultural context to make sense of it. Al-Naggar is right to point out how socially conservative Egyptian society is: most women wear the hijab, cover up even in extremely hot temperatures, and spontaneously segregate themselves from men as much as possible in public. If anything, she argues, “More than any other political group in Egypt, the Brotherhood is fluent in the dialect of the masses.”

On the one hand, this conformist mindset enhances the Brotherhood's chances of success: "By upholding patriarchal and traditional values about a woman’s place in society, it garners popular support, builds political capital and reinforces social conservatism." On the other, this teaching can alienate them unnecessarily from the more secular elements of society – and especially hurt their reputation abroad. In his political campaign, Mursi had promised to name a female vice-president. That is unlikely now, and the published list of 21 senior aids and advisers includes only three women.


Are religious men afraid of women?

Some readers will be saying, “This just confirms what I’ve heard about Islam demeaning women.” Others will retort, “How dare you reinforce the negative stereotypes about Islam and women? Isn’t there enough Islamophobia as it is?”

For one, I’m not highlighting Islam. That’s why I bring up the anxieties of an Israeli secular woman (see below), and why I’ve mentioned Christianity’s lamentable history on this issue elsewhere. Let me add too that patriarchy is endemic in some form or another to most parts of the world in traditional societies. I have a Chinese great-grandmother and my own mother spent much of her youth there. The treatment of women in Southeast Asia, just to mention one area, was rather deplorable. And it wasn’t just the way women’s feet were bandaged up since childhood for the sake of beauty. Clearly, it wasn’t just Confucianism or Buddhism or Daoism that decreed the subordination of women. Religion and culture are too entangled, it seems to me, to blame just one or the other.

Back to Christianity. The Church Fathers were notoriously allergic to the female of our species. In her bestseller on “Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church,” Uta Ranke-Heineman quotes the venerable St. Augustine (p. 88):


“I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?”


Jerome, the great fourth-century scholar who produced the great Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), declared that “woman is the root of all evil.”

It is (sadly) fashionable these days to criticize Islam on the issue of women. But remember, all three monotheistic faiths grew up in the same area – the staunchly patriarchal mideast. True, as Muslim feminists are quick to point out, the qur’anic creation story has Adam and Eve equally responsible for the fall (yes, they were expelled from the heavenly garden on account of their disobedience; and no, this did not affect their descendants – hence, “fall” with a lower case ‘f’). Still, though the Qur’an is relatively moderate in this domain, the hadiths, admittedly, can be quite mysoginistic:


“The woman who dies and with whom the husband is satisfied will go to paradise.”

“Three things can interrupt prayer if they pass in front of someone praying: a black dog, a woman, and a donkey.”


But what about possible causes: why do men seem to despise women? Worse yet, why do they seem bent on dominating them? Is it just that men lust for power and like to control women so so as to make them do their bidding? If that is true, it certainly has theological implications.

But maybe too, the root cause is fear. American author Peggy Drexler who has taught psychology at Stanford and Cornell, argues that male fear is at the basis of female subjugation and that religion seems to exploit this. She posted a blog on the Huffington Post saying just this: “Fear Factor: The Religious Right’s Problem With Women.” It starts with a scene in Israel:


“The world has seen the terror and confusion on the porcelain face of eight-year-old Naama Margolese, who was insulted and spat on by ultra-Orthodox men as she walked to school in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. The Haredi, to use Israeli term, found her bare arms so immodest that they screamed "whore!"

The video of a very frightened young girl and the furious, arrogant men, who told reporters they were perfectly justified in their actions, has become a flashpoint in what some are calling a struggle for the soul of a country.”


A Washington Post article (“In Israel, women’s rights come under siege” about a month before her blog had served up a long list of “outrageous” actions taken by the Haredi (Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox). Just for starters, “Women are forced to board public buses from the back and stay there. Billboards with images of women are defaced. Public streets are cordoned off during religious holidays so that women cannot enter.”

But unlike that journalist who is seething because this is happening in a place like Israel, Peggy Drexler is determined to explain the common thread between Haredi and Taliban behavior toward women. The justifications are similar, she contends:


“Find a place where men oppress women, and you’ll hear the same justification: we’re doing it for their own protection. It’s not protection. It’s projection.

The logic: My sexual urges take me away from a focus on God. Women cause me to have those urges. The obvious solution is to beat them down, cover them up, and lock them away. What I can’t see won’t tempt me.”


Admittedly, you might expect a western feminist to opine in that vein. Yet Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has been writing on this theme for over three decades (see for instance her book, The Veil and the Male Elite). In her view, the patriarchal family in a culture driven by the values of shame and honor fears above all else the chaos produced by female sexuality. Nothing sullies a family’s or a clan’s reputation more than rumors about the “indiscretion” of their women. In its extreme form, this fear is at the root of “honor killings.” Mernissi maintains that this is cultural and has nothing to do with Islam, which, as seen in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet, is essentially gender-egalitarian.

Still, men are apt to project their own lust onto women – or maybe too, to take out their frustrations on them, as a recent article from the BBC implies (“Egypt's sexual harassment of women ‘epidemic’”). But when it comes to violence against women, no one country or society has a monopoly on the wretched reality of domestic violence and male sexual crimes. If anything, when law and order break down, as has been the case so tragically for a decade in the Republic of Congo, women are the first victims.

But I am still wondering about religion’s role in female subjugation.


Back to the clash of “the two Israels”

The picture above this blog was taken from an article (“What Happens When the Two Israels Meet”) written by an Israeli woman, Shani Boianjiu, who during her military service in 2007 was given the task of training new soldiers to use their weapons. One day, she kicked a male trainee who was crouched with his weapon in order to show him that his position was wrong and therefore unstable. Of course he fell over. But he also muttered something she didn’t understand. Later, the same soldier (an “Ethiopian,” she added) seemed particularly resistant again to her orders. Coming behind him, she shook him by his shoulders, trying to show him he was still off balance. But she couldn’t say anything, because the soldier was yelling at her. She explains what happened:


“I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’”


In talking with the commander and other trainers later that day Boianjiu found out what that meant. Religious men cannot be touched by a woman. The commander said to her laughing, “It has something to do with girls’ periods or something.” She also discovered that year that some of the religious soldiers could not accept a woman holding a weapon in front of them. Some were not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman singing.

Growing up as a secular Jewish girl in Tel Aviv, this was a starkly different world for Boianjiu – and not a pleasant one in the least. Even though in July 2012 the law that had exempted the Haredi from serving in the army expired, she doesn’t think they will ever serve in the military, no matter what the law might say: “there is no simple way to force an entire community into a life that goes against what they believe.” One reason is that 30 percent of the Israeli army are females.

But listen to the feelings her encounter with these men has sparked:


“My encounter with ultra-religious men in the army was the first time I entered a world in which being myself meant existing in a universe where the rules for what I could or could not do rested primarily on my gender. As a female soldier, the so-called burden equality issue has a flip side: It would mean having to accept the burden of serving alongside thousands of individuals who see me as less than equal. For them, I could never be a soldier first; I would always be a woman, whose actions may spell danger to their most deeply held beliefs.”


In the end, Boianjiu doubted that either community – the secular or the religious – believed in the same nation. This clash, or should I say “spirited internal debates,” is played out with gusto all over the Islamic world, even within the boundaries of very religious, traditional contexts. Though the contrasts are less stark than between Israeli secular versus religious protagonists, the stakes in this existential tug-or-war can seem just as high.

My own takeaway for now: if you claim to worship and love a God who created men and women in his image (also a well-attested hadith) to rule together in this earth as His trustees, then somehow you are obligated to promote the dignity of three and a half billion humans, not only as wives and mothers, but also as citizens, professionals, business people, and leaders in all sorts of contexts, alongside their male counterparts. This starts with the curbing of all violence and harassment at home, in the streets and in places of work. This is a platform Muslims, Jews and Christians – of all people – should stand on.

[To be continued …]

05 November 2012

Qatar Going Green

[A shorter version is posted on The Middle East Experience website, entitled "Muslims Going Green in a Big Way," under "The Modern Middle East"]

The next UN Climate Change Conference meets in November 2012 in a new Convention Center reputed to be one of the greenest in the world. In Sweden? Not even close.

Okay, so the architect is the famous Japanese designer, Arata Isozaki. Ah … in Japan? Wrong again.

It’s in the land of the Sidra tree, whose leafy branches spread out to welcome desert travelers, poets, friends sharing news and tellers of ancient tales. The Sidra’s leafs, flowers and fruit have brought healing and comfort to its people since ancient times.

All right, I’ve given it away. The Sidra is the proud symbol of its native land, the small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf, also known as the State of Qatar. And yes, supporting the overhanging roof of the Convention Center in the photo above you see two massive Sidra trunks all of steel.

That is the venue for the 18th (yearly) session of the UN Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Thousands of high-level delegates from over 90 countries will converge on Doha to assess how the world is doing on reducing carbon emissions. A fitting venue? Yes, and more than you might think.


Qatar, Gulf Leader in Green Buildings

Ali al-Khalifa, CEO of the company that built the Center and (very likely) a relative of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, had this to say about the project:

“We have to make something stay friendly to the environment. We are part of this earth. All the oil and gas countries are moving to a green concept to insure the new generation understands they have to preserve this energy and have something efficient.”

This building, he asserted, was made from “sustainably-logged wood”; 3,500 square meters of solar panels covered the roof; and the exhibition halls are all LED lit. And since environmentally-source building materials were scarce at home, the company “went as far as Belgium and South Korea to purchase the environmentally-certified wood, steel and glass.” As Michael Casey of the Associated Press put it, “It increased the initial cost – and contributed additional carbon emissions from shipping – but in the end helped ensure the building 32 percent less energy than a comparable convention center.”

In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, the Emir, after much commentary on the perils and hopes of the Arab Spring, had this to say about the upcoming conference:

“One of the great challenges that we must face is the question of climate change and its bad and destructive consequences for all countries. This requires us to cooperate and work together to reach the best solutions to this challenge.”

He then went on to urge everyone to come and attend this conference, “so that we reach an international consensus on the matter.”

But think about it. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world and also the highest fossil fuel consumption per capita. Not surprisingly, it produces the most oil and gas too, relative to its size. This is a great place to start! And buildings are an important first step, as they consume near 70 percent of the Gulf countries’ energy (40 percent is the global average).

As it turns out, though you can find about half a dozen certifying companies for green buildings, by far the largest player in the field is the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Its voluntary program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), includes 13,000 member organizations and 181,000 like-minded professionals. They are helping to oversee over 5,000 projects around the world, and a disproportionate number in the Gulf countries. Already they have 1,348 LEED-certified buildings, way ahead of Europe.

Though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also made great strides in this direction, Qatar is forging ahead. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, it started construction in 2010 on a vast new neighborhood (called Msheireb) that will boast of the most LEED-certified buildings in the world. Here is how Leon Kaye describes the project sponsored by the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC):

“Phase One of Msheireb is currently underway. A historic neighborhood that has fallen into disrepair, the site includes historic homes up to 100 years old that will be preserved and incorporated into the complex. The new town will include retail space, hotels and apartments, all of which will be crammed together to encourage walking. All parking will be underground and Doha’s future rail system will wind through the middle of the development. Solar panels on top of the buildings and covered walkways will catch Qatar’s abundant sun and will, in part, power all of the buildings. Smart grid technologies will also be an important facet of the development’s promise to be as energy-efficient as possible. Moving from north to south, the buildings cascade and become taller so that each one shades the one next to it.”

Now Qatar will just have to retool its building codes to make sure that all new buildings meet higher standards of environmental excellence, as well as to provide incentives to retrofit older ones – a tall order, but one the leadership seems determined to achieve.


Greening the Hotel Industry

Meanwhile, the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) took advantage of the UN Climate Change conference’s Doha venue to spin off a new branch, the Green Hotel Interest Group (GHIG). It’s official kick-off took place in September 2012 at the Windham Grand Regency Hotel in Doha, gathering scores of hotel chains executives, other business people and green technology experts with a stake in advancing more sustainable practices in the hospitality sector.


Among the ideas floated so far, we read:


  • Renting iPads in order to save paper
  • Composting all left over food
  • Phasing in all LED lighting


A lot more research needs to be done, GHIG officials are quick to say. Fortunately, the QGBC has spun off other groups that have been funded to do this very thing: the Solid Waste Interest Group, the Water Interest Group, and the Green Infrastructure Interest Group.

What’s the motivation behind all this ambitious investing?


Islamic Green, Or Not?

Now as someone who studies religion, and contemporary Islam in particular, I wouldn’t say that these Gulf rulers are suddenly awakening to the imperatives of the Qur’an and Sunna to care for God’s creation. But it’s still likely that those teachings, which are clearly gaining prominence in many circles, have helped them sell these policies to their people.

Three factors, for sure, have led these heads of state in this direction. For a while now, they have pondered the implications of the post-oil era and asked themselves, “How can we invest our wealth in a future that will sustain the next generations?” Then too, talks about climate change, about island states that will disappear by 2100, and about environmental sustainability – all this is prevalent in UN circles. Finally, in light of the above, this is simply smart business practice. Qatar’s reputation will only be enhanced. In turn, this will attract more visitors, more commercial partnerships, and more investment.

Still, you might ask, does religion play any part in this? After all, Muslims in many places – and especially so in Indonesia – are rediscovering the idea that if God is one (tawhid), then all his creation is one and equally valuable in his eyes. Further, he has placed humankind on earth as trustees of his good creation, and thus accountable for how they use (or abuse) its natural resources, which are meant to be shared equitably among themselves, with particular concern for the poor and marginalized. Finally, good conservation practices were written into Islamic law over time, and the Shari’a is now also a symbol for “green Muslims.”

That said, the world-renowned Islamic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been living in Qatar for over 40 years, has not devoted even one of his 120-plus books to the topic of Islam and the environment. Perhaps it's a generational thing ...

In any case, you'll find much more on the theology and activism of the Islamic environmental movement in my previous blog here.

From the Brill journal Worldviews, Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (Vol. 16, 2012), the Authors' Preface, and my article, "Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari'a Still Relevant?"


The core insight of this website is the notion taught by both Bible and Qur’an that God created humans with the capacity to reason – thus creating art and furthering science—and to make moral choices for which they will have to answer. So from the beginning he mandated his human creatures to rule over the earth, manage its resources and organize their collective life in just and compassionate ways.

In light of that, I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a special issue of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (Vol. 16) with the title, Islam and Ecology: Theology, Law and Practice of Muslim Environmentalism.” I had the privilege of co-editing the issue with Anna M. Gade, Associate Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I only have permission to offer you my own article, “Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari’a Still Relevant?,” and our Editors’ Preface (see below). But you can click here for access to the Worldviews’ issue.

Two of the four articles deal with Indonesia. First, Anna Gade’s fieldwork among the environmentally-friendly pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) reveals a double-pronged strategy to promote creation care: a) theological teaching grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith; and b) the emotional/affective impact of songs and poetry extolling the beauty of God’s creation and the joy of joining him in caring for it.

Then, thanks to Gade’s extensive contacts in Indonesia, we were able to enlist the contribution of its most influential scholar and environmental activist, Fakhruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, a biologist at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta. His co-author is British anthropologist, Jeanne Elizabeth McKay, who has invested much effort in Indonesia over the years with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. They argue that state initiatives to preserve the immense wealth of biodiversity in its rain forests will not be effective in the long run, unless they are joined by religious and community-based leaders who can enlist grassroots support.

Finally, Ahmed Afzaal, an Islamicist teaching at Concordia College in Minnesota, looks at some of the theological underpinnings of an effective Islamic advocacy for a committed environmental agenda through the lens of one the greatest Muslim philosophers of the twentieth century, the South Asian Muhammad Iqbal.

To give you a feel for this special issue, allow me to present an excerpt from the issue’s Introduction by Jonathan Brockopp, Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. Originally, three of these papers were presented at a session I organized at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in 2010. I was thrilled that Brockopp accepted to respond to the five papers (at the time), as he’s a specialist in early Islam and especially in the development on the legal tradition. Further, he’s an environmental activist both at Penn State and in interfaith circles (Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light).

Religions are complex traditions that contain wisdom that can be applied to new situations. In the case of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, ancient stories, such as the creation narratives, can be reinterpreted and rediscovered. Second, true engagement is a combination of practical engagement with the hands, intellectual appreciation by the mind, and emotional attachment. Examples from Indonesia, Zanzibar, Wales and elsewhere can inspire people all over the globe to respond.

Our experience of working to care for creation, instead of exploiting nature, can lead to an engagement with God. Iqbal’s vision of God as panen­theistic brings to mind Qur’anic verses that challenge people to wander in the land and see there the signs of God:

Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of humankind; in the rain which God sends down from the skies, thereby giving life to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that he scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth―Here indeed are signs for a people that are wise (Q 2:164).

Nature, then, is much more than a storehouse to be plundered or a threat to be neutralized, it is a book full of God’s signs ready for us to read. For reli­gious people, then, preventing climate change and loss of species and habi­tat can be much more than an ethical imperative―it is also the preservation of God’s revelation. To exploit these mysteries for short-term gain is to pro­foundly misunderstand both their meaning and our own role within the cosmos.”


This issue, to my mind, is a response by Muslims to the challenges presented by the Earth Charter launched in 2000. This initiative launched by the United Nations was followed by a decade of widespread discussion on a global scale, which led to a separate international entity with massive civil society participation worldwide, the Earth Charter Commission. Its international legitimacy as a document can be compared to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in that it is gaining little by little the status of “soft” international law.

Claiming that humanity stands at a “critical moment in Earth’s history,” the Charter asserts that the way forward requires the lucid recognition “that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.” This means a concerted effort to create “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” “Earth community” implies a revised and humbler assessment of the value and role of humankind, compared to the modern Western view. Thus the preamble ends with a sobering and solemn call not just to action but chiefly to a new attitude and ethical imperative: “Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

“Earth community,” I believe, is indeed an appropriate expression. Human solidarity on a planetary scale is not just a pious wish. It starts with the recognition of a fact. We all share this planet and as someone from its richest country and greatest contributor of greenhouse gases (China might have that dubious distinction by now), I have to repent of my selfish lifestyle that will visit more and more harm on the poorest. As Brockopp put it, solely focusing on Muslim nations:


Iran, with its oil production, its relatively wealthy population and its heavy industry, also happens to have the largest carbon footprint of any majority Muslim country. In Iran, as in the United States, high carbon out­put is a means to a comfortable, even opulent, lifestyle. But this is the exception in the Muslim world. For example, the 150 million people of Bangladesh produced 46,000 kilotons of CO2 in 2008. The 16 million of Niger produced only 851 kilotons.

It is a sad irony that the very same Muslim countries, which have con­tributed almost nothing to the rise in greenhouse gases will be among the hardest hit. Already, the droughts in East Africa in 2011 and the endless rains that brought devastation to Pakistan in 2010 serve as harbingers of the changes scientists have predicted for our climate, not to mention the pos­sibilities that the Maldives and half of Bangladesh will be under water within the next one hundred years.

This imbalance of cause and effect, our overconsumption causing their suffering, is outrageous and violates every ethical principle of love for neighbor, caring for the poor, and stewardship of the earth that religious traditions preach. How did we arrive at such a point in our development as a species that we so easily dismiss the lives of millions so we can live in climate-controlled comfort?”

I have dealt in greater detail on these issues elsewhere. Suffice it to say here, this journal issue should be heart warming for all. As it takes the pulse of Islamic environmentalism today, it finds many Muslim scholars, religious leaders and activists seriously pondering their calling as God’s trustees of the earth. Join me in earnestly praying for their success.


If you want to get a feel for the warm, glowing power of the word “Sharia” for Muslims, simply go to Psalm 119, a 176-verse acrostic using the Hebrew alphabet to extol the beauty of God’s law. As King David pens it, the “law” revealed to Moses and the subsequent rules and regulations found in the five books of the Torah is synonymous with God’s “word,” his “statutes,” his “precepts,” and the like.

For Muslims, the Sharia as found in the Qur’an and the righteous model (Sunna) of the Prophet keeps believers on the straight path that leads to prosperity in this world and the next. For Jews, and especially in Rabbinic Judaism – which was already developing in Jesus’ day, God’s law alone could keep his people on the path of upright living and fill their hearts with joy:


“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.

I have suffered much; preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word.

Accept, O Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws.

Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.

The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.

Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.

My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (Psalm 119, “Nun” NIV).


This embrace of “God’s law” is quite similar to the Islamic psyche, with the main difference that for Muslims it is mediated through the prophetic ministry of Muhammad, the “seal of the prophets.” For a quick introduction see my previous blogs, “Shari’a Conspiracy Theories,” and “Shari’a: Can It Be Outlawed?”

Further, God’s law for Muslims is focused on two areas of human life: the rituals of worship, which keep a person in right relationship with God (al-‘ibadat); and the rules that govern human interactions (al-mu‘amalat). The Five Pillars come under the first category, though the five main schools of Islamic law often disagree about its finer points. Some of the rulings in the second category come from clear texts in both Qur’an and Sunna (like the rules of inheritance and the so-called “fixed penalties” like the cutting off of hands for thieves and the stoning of adulterers, or the ban on charging interest on loans).

That phrase “clear texts” is laden with meaning and centuries of consensus among Muslim scholars/jurists (the ulama, who wielded considerable power historically and often as a counterweight to the political rulers, the sultans). But the situation is starting to evolve, partly because of normal debating in the age of globalization and the Internet, and partly because of geopolitics in a post 9/11 world.

The October 2012 Conference “Emerging Voices in Islamic Jurisprudence”

I write this piece on the heels of a conference I attended last week in St. Paul, MN, sponsored by the Hamline University Law School and its Journal of Law and Religion (JLR). I was presenting a paper on the media-savvy and immensely popular 86-year-old jurist from Egypt and Qatar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. You can read my 20-minute presentation in “Resources.”

The title of that paper ("Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Standard-Bearer of the 'New Purposive Fiqh'") points to an increasingly popular methodology in Islamic law called “The Objectives of Sharia” (Arabic: Maqasid al-Shari’a). As it turned out, at least four other papers in the two-day conference referenced this recent trend and it often came up too in the question-and-answer sessions. But first, a very brief overview of the conference.

It was a unique occasion, in that law professors made up a good third of the audience and law students, with some undergrads mixed in, composed another third. The others were either presenters or family and friends. In my experience this is unusual, because people specialized in other areas of law were coming for a short, intensive seminar on Islamic law. For this reason a glossary of Arabic technical terms was distributed and we presenters were told to adapt our papers to this kind of audience. Though we did not always succeed in doing this, the feedback was mostly positive.

In a sense, such a conference is a rite of passage for the discipline of Islamic law in the United States. A journal that for decades has specialized in law and religion was investing an impressive amount of time and money to bring together specialists with the purpose of devoting a couple of issues to these papers. Especially at a time when some presidential campaign rhetoric derides the Sharia as a plot for Muslims to take over the US, this effort stands out as a voice of sanity and a noble academic initiative to study what is so precious to one-fifth of humanity.

That said, some well-known scholars of Islamic law were present and, what is remarkable, many young scholars still working on their doctorates also contributed. Specialists were flown in from several countries, including Norway, Finland, the UK and Turkey. Additionally, several papers approached issues of religious law from other disciplinary angles, such as comparative law, history, religious studies, and anthropology.

One presentation that stood out for me was that by anthropologist John Bowen (St. Louis University), who after over three decades of writing about Indonesia and more recently France, England and North America, unpacked his recent fieldwork in a sharia court attached to a London mosque. These proceedings deal almost exclusively with divorce and, though they have no legal impact on British courts, they nevertheless play an important role in the life of mostly South Asian immigrants.

Another highlight for me was the banquet the Journal of Law and Religion put on for the participants honoring William Graham, an Islamicist and long time member of the JLR editorial staff, with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Graham joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1973 and has continued to lead and initiate several ventures. Since 2002 he has been Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. I was struck above all by the humility, kindness and wisdom this man exudes.

I leave you with two more short vignettes. The very first panel had two bright young Muslim scholars whose debate back and forth I found especially exciting. Rumee Ahmed is assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Narratives of Islamic Legal Theory (Oxford U. Press, 2012). He offered a brilliant argument about the failure of Muslim jurists so far to integrate the best of classical Islamic legal theory with modern sensibilities. The implication was that a clean break with some of the tenets of classical jurisprudence had to made, and only then was progress in revitalizing Islamic law possible.

The other scholar was Anver Emon, founding editor of the journal Middle East Law and Governance and associate professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto. His latest book is Religious Pluralism and Islamic Law (Oxford U. Press, 2012). I remember listening to their conversation before about 200 people and thinking how fascinating it was to witness such creative minds.

Finally, Ahmed’s wife, Ayesha S. Chaudhry, also teaches at the University of British Columbia, but besides being trained in classical Islamic studies also teaches gender studies at UBC’s Institute for Race, Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice. Both she and the famous Muslim feminist from the UK, Ziba Mir Hosseini, participated in a couple of panels on Islamic feminism that left the audience gripped by the thought of such bold rethinking of the classical gender roles in Islamic societies. Have a look at Hosseini’s Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.

Brief comments on “The Objectives of Sharia”

Some readers have already perused the “Resources” of this website know that I have available two previously published papers on this topic ("A Turn in 20th-Century Islamic Legal Theory," and "Objectives of Sharia and Human Rights"). Another one was a chapter in a book that gathered the papers of a conference in 2005 on Sharia at Yale University. I presented the thoughts on this topic of Morocco’s leading independence movement, Allal al-Fasi (“Allal al-Fasi: Shari’a as Blueprint for a Righteous Global Citizenship?” in Shari’a: Islamic Law in the Contemporary Context, eds. Abbas Madanat and Frank Griffel, Stanford U. Press, 2009). I have verbally promised to translate al-Fasi’s major work on the Sharia's objectives for a series at Yale University Press.

God willing, I'll write more on this topic, but suffice it to say here that when Sunnism as a religious movement began coalescing around the views of Abu-l Hasan al-Ash‘ari in the 10th century BCE (this consensus on law and theology, Ash’arism, is still official Sunni doctrine today), it was a middle position between the rationalism of the Mu‘tazilites and the conservativism and textualism of the Ahl al-Hadith ("People of the Hadith," i.e., those who follow the Prophet's words and deeds").

You can think of the latter as being best represented by Ibn Hanbal, who at great personal cost stood up to Caliph al-Ma’mun in the 830s and refused to teach that the Qur’an was created and that the anthropomorphisms in the Qur’an (verses referring to God’s hands, fingers; God sitting on a throne, etc.) were merely figures of speech. Whatever the sacred texts say – whether Qur’an or Sunna – they have to be taken literally, whether you can explain them rationally or not. Period.

As I mentioned above, the consensus among the four Sunni schools of law and the Shi’i Ja‘afari school is that any specific command in these texts is meant for all time and places – so it’s not amenable to ijtihad, the effort a top legal scholar invests in bringing all his knowledge to bear on finding a new ruling for a new situation.

This is still the official position of all the various associations of Islamic jurists today, including of course, the influential Egyptian-Qatari scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is president of both the International Association of Muslim Scholars and the European Council for Fatwa and Research.

You can read the details in my presentation. Here I just want to state what I think is a dilemma for him and the majority of other jurists: on the one hand they assert that humans can know many of the reasons behind the legal injunctions of the texts – some in the area of worship (‘ibadat), but most all of them in the area of human transactions (mu‘amalat). This is handy in the sociopolitical realm, for the texts say virtually noting about politics and constitutional law.

So Yusuf al-Qaradawi, frail as he is in his mid-eighties, flew from Qatar to Egypt days after the outbreak of the “25 January Revolution” to lead the Friday prayers in Tahrir Square on February 18, 2011, before a crowd some estimated at one million. All this he did in the name of the ethical values of freedom from oppression, the right of people to self-determination, and basically, democracy. He called for national unity, particularly between Christians and Muslims and made it clear from the beginning that the protesters were acting on their God-given rights to overthrow the yoke of dictatorship and seek freedom, justice, a fairly elected government, and equality of all before the law.

On the other hand, these objective values, common to all humanity and taught by all the world’s religions, can be seen by many to clash with the specific texts related to the penal code and family law, as I stated earlier. Some jurists and scholars have moved beyond and stated that those texts were revealed for a particular time and a particular place. In order to understand them today, we have to look at the ethical principles as taught more generally in the texts and apply those in today’s context, which has changed drastically since Late Antiquity.

Hence Qaradawi's dilemma: those values he trumpets so loudly in the sociopolitical sphere are trumped for him when it comes to gender issues and penal law. Since God is the author, he reasons, those texts apply to all times and climes.

Summing up

I started this blog by stating what a feeling of warmth and comfort the word “Sharia” brings to Muslims in general. For them it doesn’t conjure up in their minds what it tends to for many westerners: images of people’s arms cut off, others stoned to death, women virtually helpless to initiate a divorce, or inheriting only half of what their brothers inherit, or having their testimony in court worth only half that of a man.

No, your average Muslim (certainly in the west, but many other places as well) assumes this is something of the past and thinks only of prayer at home or in the mosque, family celebrations at Ramadan, charity given to the poor, the lifetime dream of a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, and a host of other very pleasant markers in their proud identity as Muslims.

In fact, the concept of “sharia” is a moving target, whether for Muslims or non-Muslims; and like Jews, Muslims take great pleasure in arguing about the finer points of religious law among themselves. More than anything, as I hope to show in future blogs, “the times they are a changin” – especially in the way Muslims see themselves following God’s will in a pluralistic global society. The Minnesota conference dramatically underlined that fact. But too, Muslims’ lively debates among themselves in the US and the post-revolutionary bantering about a new constitution in Egypt are just two examples of how these arguments are evolving in different contexts.

This is the paper I presented at the Journal of Law and Religion conference in September 2012 at the Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota, "Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Standard Bearer of the 'New Purposive Fiqh.'"

See also the blog in Current Islam, "Emerging Voices in Islamic Jurisprudence."

Since about 2002, I have been fascinated with the space in which law and theology meet in Islamic thinking. My 2004 article in the Brill journal Islamic Law and Society ("A Turn in the Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Twentieth Century Usul al-Fiqh," ILS 11, 2, pp. 1-50) argues that in the many centuries of debates over the relative role of reason and revelation in discovering God's law for humankind, a trend can be seen in the last century. A hereunto rather marginal school of thought, which emphasized a methodology focused on the "Objectives of Shari'a" (Maqasid al-Shari'a) gradually became prominent. This trend continues in this century with scores of books written on this "Purposive Method" (al-manhaj al-maqasidi).

Other signs of this can be seen in the founding of the London-based Al-Maqasid Research Centre in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in 2005 and in the theme chosen by the last international conference in Cairo before the January 2011 Revolution. It was jointly sponsored by the Al-Azhar University and the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs (lit. Awqaf, or "religious endowments") and its theme was "The Objectives of Shari'a and Contemporary Issues: Research and Realities."

For the first time in its 84-year-old history, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has its man, Mohammed Mursi, running the state. And now, after many months of tense wrangling with Egypt’s military rulers – who, it should be said, expedited President Mubarak’s exit and made the people’s revolution a reality – Mursi astonished everyone by forcing the top officers to retire. The executive is now in charge and the commander-in-chief is a civilian.

In another bold move, Mursi went to Teheran – the first Egyptian leader to set foot in Iran since the 1979 Revolution – and to all of the delegates of the Non-Aligned Movement gathered there, he declared that the Syrian uprising was “a revolution against an oppressive regime.” The Egyptians got rid of their “Pharaoh” (the Qur’an’s biggest villain aside from Satan himself) – it’s now time for the Syrians to do likewise. His host, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likely turned livid, and on cue, the Syrian delegation walked out.

Here I unpack Mursi’s foreign policy in light of his actions in Teheran, leading me to explain a bit more about the Non-Aligned (or Nonaligned) Movement and Iran. Then I come back to Egypt with some remarks about islamists, globalization and the economy (reminder: I write “islamists” with a lower case ‘i’ because it’s an ideological stance, not primarily religious). As you might guess, a country’s foreign policy and its economic philosophy are deeply interwoven. In the end, Mursi’s policies may not be as bold or new as they seem.


Who are the “Non-Aligned”?

Historically, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was birthed at the Bandung (Indonesia) Conference in 1955. Leaders of Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) invited leaders from twenty-five other developing nations to discuss how they might band together to resist a world dominated by two superpowers. As it turns out, Egyptian president Gamel Abd Al-Nasser was a key player and his joint initiative with India’s Nehru led to the first Non-Aligned Nations conference in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961.

The twenty-nine nations in Bandung officially supported the Algerian struggle to oust the French and called for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian crisis according to existing UN resolutions. Though the movement quickly grew in importance (it has 120 members today) and its goals seemed clear enough, it remained stymied by internal divisions.

No doubt, the fall of the Soviet Union created even more inner turmoil. Some felt that the NAM had outlived its usefulness. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and especially India and Egypt (which still receives $2 billion annually in aid since the 1978 Camp David Accords) have close ties with the USA. Still, reason a majority of nations, the United States and its allies continue to dominate the world politically and economically. Also, the issues of globalization, debt, the destructive effects of neoliberal capitalism on developing nations and the rise of international crime – these issues continue to be discussed.

But, you say, isn’t it the role of the UN to address such problems? It is, of course, but a disproportionate amount of power is invested in the Security Council, which because of its five permanent members with veto power can easily be dominated by the western powers (the US, France and the UK), though China and Russia in the case of Syria oppose them. Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke for many others during this last NAM conference when he declared that the U.N. Security Council is “an illogical, unjust and defunct relic of the past used by the United States ‘to impose its bullying manner on the world.’”


Iran’s balance sheet at the NAM conference

The NAM has neither constitution nor permanent secretariat. Decisions can only be made at the Conference of Heads of States or Government, meeting once every three years. This Teheran conference marks the passing of leadership from the Egyptians to the Iranians. NAM chairs in this century have been Malaysia, South Africa, Cuba, before Egypt took over in 2009.

Iran stood to gain immensely from this transition. They were hosts in 2012 when four sets of UN sanctions have been passed against them and most nations, led by the US and Israel, have taken a firm stand against their nuclear program believing it is for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons – something still vociferously denied by Iran.

How did they make out in the end?

First, on the positive side for Iran, the New York Times had this to say:

“The 120-nation Nonaligned Movement handed its host Iran a diplomatic victory on Friday [Aug. 31, 2012], unanimously decreeing support for the disputed Iranian nuclear energy program and criticizing the American-led attempt to isolate and punish Iran with unilateral economic sanctions . . . The Tehran Declaration document not only emphasizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but acknowledges the right to ownership of a full nuclear fuel cycle, which means uranium enrichment — a matter of deep dispute.”


Admittedly, this was a big victory, but not without paying a heavy price all the same. First, though initially pleased that Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, had accepted to attend, the Iranian leaders had to endure two sets of stern public reprimands by him. At the conference itself Mr. Ban urged Iran to prove their peaceful intentions by allowing the UN complete access to their nuclear facilities and full cooperation with all their demands. Then he castigated their attitude toward Israel in these words,


“I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another or outrageous attempt to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust, claiming that another state, Israel, does not have the right to exist or describing it in racist terms.”


Then the next day, while addressing Iran’s School of International Relations, Mr. Ban openly criticized Iran’s human rights record and told them he had privately urged Ayatollah Khamenei to release all political prisoners.

Yet the most painful rebuke to the Iranian leaders came from Egypt’s President Mursi (sometimes spelled "Morsi") who in his official speech transferring the chairmanship of the NAM to Teheran compared the Syrian people to the Palestinians who were both “actively seeking freedom, dignity and human justice.” Egypt, he continued, was “ready to work with all to stop the bloodshed.”

In essence, the islamist leader was framing the Arab Spring as a classic “third-worldist” resistance movement against colonialism and dictatorship:


“We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria, and translate this sympathy into a clear political vision that supports a peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule that reflects the demands of the Syrian people for freedom.”


As a result, not a word was said about Syria in the final conference declaration. Persian and Shi’i Iran, which is rumored to have sent military advisors and weapons to help President Asad, turned out to be deeply out of step with its Arab brethren. So on two counts, the Iranian hosts received stinging censures.

But what do all these events say about Egypt’s President Mursi?


Egypt’s tightrope foreign policy act

Mursi’s visit to Teheran and rebuke to his Shia hosts drew praise from many Egyptians. In fact this may have been his primary motivation, besides the fact that he, as a Muslim Brother, genuinely hates President Bashar al-Asad, whose father in 1982 massacred over 12,000 mostly islamist opponents of his regime in Hama. Just like at home, those standing most to gain from regime change in Syria are from his own ranks. Still, Mursi has some formidable challenges at home and building political capital has to be top on his to-do list. As an Associated Press article put it,


“Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s international debut made its biggest splash at home. After he publicly denounced Syria’s regime while being hosted by Damascus’ top ally Iran, Egyptian supporters and even some critics are lauding him as a new Arab leader that speaks truth to power.”


He also scored points with the ultraconservative Salafis at home when he began his speech by praising Muhammad’s first two successors, Abu Bakr and Umar, who for the Shia were simply impostors since they stood in the way of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, who they see as his only rightful heir.

Many other countries applauded his anti-Asad stance as well. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell spoke of Mursi’s word on Syria as “very clear and very strong,” particularly considering the speech was in Teheran. But that is the point. Apart from the fact that he was the first Egyptian president to go to Iran, his speech was not particularly bold. He was only saying what all other Arab leaders would have said in his place.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman interviewed Mursi and other islamist leaders some six months before the June 2012 presidential election (“Political Islam Without Oil”) and noted how cautious Mursi and his colleagues seemed to him. A Mursi administration would honor all passed treaties, including the Camp David Accords with Israel (in fact, in August 2012 it was vigorously fighting the radicals in the Sinai Peninsula who had attempted an attack on Israeli soil). Friedman was right: Egypt’s dire economic troubles mean that it cannot afford to jeopardize in any way the yearly inflow of $2 billion in US aid. The islamist party in power knows the handwriting on the wall:


“Egypt is a net importer of oil. It also imports 40 percent of its food. And tourism constitutes one-tenth of its gross domestic product. With unemployment rampant and the Egyptian pound eroding, Egypt will probably need assistance from the International Monetary Fund, a major injection of foreign investment and a big upgrade in modern education to provide jobs for all those youths who organized last year’s rebellion. Egypt needs to be integrated with the world.”


Indeed, Egypt has been in conversation with the IMF and World Bank, as Mursi knows only too well that his party’s political future hangs on his ability to deliver on the economic front.

But, you may be asking, don’t islamists talk about social justice in a way that undercuts capitalism? And what about Islamic banking, and the like?


The paradox of islamist economics

Egypt’s post-revolutionary foreign policy will not be very different from that of the Mubarak era. It literally cannot afford it. But here are three other reasons why I think the economy dictating an islamist state’s foreign policy is so paradoxical – and I will list these in bullet form with more information coming in a future blog:

Let’s start with Tom Friedman’s obvious point about globalization: no one state can survive long term independently from the world economy. That is the reasoning behind the sanction regime trying to pressure Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Ironically, its chairmanship of the NAM is not likely to help). Mursi’s party was consulting with international agencies months before his election. This was the main point of my blog, “Is ‘Political Islam’ Over?”. President Mursi has to find a way to rebuild an economy in shambles and therefore attract foreign investment.

What is more, there is no such thing as “Islamist economics.” I can show you writings from the 1970s and 1980s (and even today) that call for “the middle path” between capitalism and socialism, and even Islamic socialist manifestos. But the fact is that there is no consensus on these issues. I will write more about “Islamic banking” at a later date. Suffice it to say that in practice it changes little from the capitalism you see applied elsewhere. For an idea about the gap between the slogans and the reality of poverty alleviation in the Islamic world, see my blog about zakat, one of Islam’s five pillars.

Finally, whereas the puritanical Salafis draw their support from the urban poor, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been an urban middle class phenomenon. True, their people have dominated many of the professions like the doctors’ and lawyers’ unions in Egypt. But their core constituents come from the small businesses. Sociologist Khalil al-Anani, a keen observer of Egypt’s recent developments, wrote an insightful article on this, "Islamists in Power Adopt Economics of the Old Regimes." For an even more critical commentary, consult noted Egyptian journalist Wael Gamal who argues that the Brotherhood is beholden to the richest industrialists (he uses the Occupy slogan, the “One Percenters”) who clearly favor the neoliberal strategy of “public-private partnerships” (PPP), which in the end, he believes, will only widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

So when all is said and done, Mursi’s speech in Teheran was not all that bold. His taming the military, I believe history will show, was indeed an act of courage and foresight. But we shouldn’t expect much independence or “nonalignment” in his foreign policy – or in his domestic policies. Perhaps Egypt will need another revolution for that.


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