Monday, May 20, 2019

The Malaise of Modern Islamic Jurisprudence -- Disappointed and disheartened by Sanhuri's analysis on Riba

I will have to proofread my translation of Sanhuri before posting it (see previous posting for context), and then will plan to follow up with a more elaborate analysis. For now, while I am sitting at a car shop, I wanted to use the time to post my first reactions, which are a combination of (1) understanding how we got here, and (2) great disappointment at Sanhuri and his generation of legal scholars.

A quick note on style: Sanhuri wanted simultaneously to use the methodologies of classical Islamic jurisprudence and modern legal analysis, which resulted in some significant discontinuities. In my analysis of his thesis, I will try to summarize his arguments more linearly, and in the process try to avoid the frequent repetition that is characteristic of his as well as most Arabic writing, especially in the genre of jurisprudence.

How did we get here? Anyone who is familiar with my writings on Islamic law and finance, on this blog and elsewhere, will understand my frustrations with an industry that sells inferior products at higher prices, and reinforces a mindset that makes reconciliation of authentic Islamic teachings with modernity even more difficult.

One feature of Sanhuri's analysis that I found very disheartening was his deference to "juristic craftsmanship," as he put it, which leads him to conclude that all forms of riba (pre-Islamic or jahiliya, deferment or nasi'a, and inequality or fadl) are forbidden. He chooses from among the different schools of classical jurisprudence the middle ground of considering the first categorically forbidden for its own sake, but deems the latter two forbidden as means to the end that is the first. Interested readers will have to wait for the full translation and analysis, but the main import of this distinction is that the first type of prohibition (for pre-Islamic or jahiliya riba) is thus overruled only in cases of extreme necessity (equivalent to ones that would allow consuming forbidden meat to preserve life), while the latter two may be overruled in cases of mere need, which would include net economic benefits that would be foregone if one were to ban certain transactions. On interest bearing loans, he follows the traditional juristic view that they are not explicit forms of riba, because the latter is only considered possible in commutative sales, but that they can inherit the rulings of riba because they can lead to the explicitly forbidden riba al-jahiliya, and thus is likewise forbidden as a means to forbidden end (saddan lil-dhara'i`) rather than for its own sake.

He thus defers to jurists by extending the prohibition on modern forms of finance, but then argues that in capitalist economies, capital must earn a rate of return, and the fear of exploitation is non-existent when large corporations or governments borrow from small savers. He thus argues for permitting conventional finance with regulations such as interest rate ceilings and limiting the amount of compound interest so that the total accrued interest cannot exceed the principal, based on the rule of necessity applied to cases of mere economic need. Unfortunately, but understandably given the period in which he was writing, he says that maybe in a socialist system (to which he seemed to look forward!), where the government owns all capital, the need for interest would vanish and the default rule of prohibition would be reinstated.

This explains something about Arab Barometer questionnaires that I had found puzzling. In their question on bank interest, they surveyors ask if all bank interest should be banned or if it should be allowed because it is needed for economic development. It appears that they are appealing to this argument from necessity as need in the lower forms of riba, as Sanhuri had accepted.

It also explains the argument that proponents of today's so-called "Islamic Finance" have advanced: that now that they have provided "Islamic" alternatives that technically avoid the prohibition of riba, the argument from necessity/need no longer applies, and customers must thus, they argue, buy their (more expensive and inferior) product because it avoids riba.

The technical ruses used to circumvent the prohibition, e.g. credit sales that hide interest as price premium, leases that hide interest as rental payments, and the like, are also justified in Sanhuri's analysis, which did not take offense at a popular Hanafi trick that he cited verbatim from classical sources numerous times. In this trick, A asks B to lend him $100. B says that he cannot do that, but he sells A a piece of cloth worth $40 for a deferred price of $60, and follows that credit sale with an interest-free loan of $60. The net result of both contracts is that A now owes B $120 (desired principal of $100 plus 20% interest) to be paid later, and he has received $60 plus a piece of cloth worth $40, which he may promptly convert to cash at that price, thus having received the desired $100 now for a debt of $120 later. Classical jurists split hairs over whether the transaction is allowed if both parts were included in the same contract, or if one was explicitly stipulated as a condition in the other, and so on. But, ultimately, variations on these tricks were incorporated as elaborate ways to reproduce the desired financial outcome, and jurists allowed them. Sanhuri at times makes labored attempts to argue that such complex transactions are not as conducive to exploitation as traditional forms of riba, but his logic and quasi-economic analysis are extremely weak on those points. It is obvious that a loan-shark can use this exact classical trick, or some of the more modern murabaha and similar variations, to effect usurious behavior that is ruinous to his debtors.

It is at once illuminating and disheartening to see so clearly that the best Arab legal mind of the 20th century reflected the mindset that resulted in our current malaise.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Looking for A New Beginning in Al-Sanhuri, 1952

Attached below are two copies of front pages of books published in 1952. The first is a book written by my late grandfather, whom I never met. He was a Shar`i (personal status) judge, later turned lawyer and Senator in pre-1952 Egypt. The book is a lengthy tour through the entire Qur'an framed as an exegesis of the "verse of righteousness" (I borrowed this copy of from my brother, who shares the same name as our late grandfather):

The second book is one of the books of the greatest Egyptian jurist of his generation, the late Abdul-Razzaq Al-Sanhuri, who authored Egypt's civil code and authored or helped author a number of other civil codes for Arab countries. It is a first edition signed as a gift to my grandfather, who was a few years older than Sanhuri.

Sanhuri wrote extensively about his interest in integrating the spirit of Islamic jurisprudence in contemporary legal and regulatory frameworks, which requires updating the jurisprudence to include modern legal theory and social science. He was very prominent in Egyptian society, serving as Education Minister and as head of the State Council, which is one of the three top courts in the country. He was reviled by Islamists of his day, who mostly belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, and faced persecution when this group was in favor by the ruling coalition of the period.

The mistake that gave rise to today's "Islamic finance" was not to heed Sanhuri's call to integrate the spirit of jurisprudence with modern law. Instead, Islamists, professional jurists in Al-Azhar and other clerical institutions, and governing powers, colluded to consider Islamic jurisprudence a parallel and independent legal system. Thus, it was natural for the industry that arbitraged the legal gulf under the name "Islamic finance" to emerge. When I gave my late father a copy of my book critiquing Islamic finance, he gave me this copy of Sanhuri's book, and urged me to study his works. That was twelve years ago, and I am finally coming around to fulfilling the promise of seriously reading Sanhuri's voluminous works and seeing if one can suggest a new coherent way forward. This is safer than my previously planned project on conceptions of justice that evolved into liberation theologies, and with Arab states reasserting their power over clerical classes and suppressing most types of Islamists, there may be a receptive audience for some suggestions.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Sobriety and Power: A Paradox -- Part II

Nearly four years ago, once I had decided to leave the job that I held at the time, I wrote the following post on the paradox of sobriety and power. That was a time when I faced the dilemma of compromising my ethics to hold on to power, which would have allowed me to continue helping some people, or stepping away to avoid the impossible situation of having to act unethically in one way or another. In that earlier post, I wrote that I had never understood Nietzsche's notion of the "will to power," even as a descriptive model -- suggesting that people should immediately see right through the illusion.

Now, thanks to discovering the late philosopher Walter Kauffman, who translated and commented on Nietzsche and others, and wrote extensively on religion and ethics, I think that I have come to understand the concept to some extent. My wariness of power illusions and addiction increased significantly based on this understanding. Ever the academician, I tried practically to communicate what I had learned to some colleagues, but it backfired! In the process, I am learning a lot about the mirror image problem of pursuing and exercising inner power by shunning external power, which may be more or less addictive.

I find this all to be quite useful for personal growth, but face a different challenge. What is the point of accumulating this knowledge if one cannot share it with others -- through formal writing, which I am forced to self-censor, or communication with friends and acquaintances, which I am learning to self-censor as well? How can humility and narcissistic self-absorption be so closely linked? No wonder Nietzsche had to quit his academic post, and his writing eventually drove him mad. I cannot afford either of those radical steps, so I must accept not only academic but also personal mediocrity.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Philosophy and Arabic -- Translation and The Cultural-Linguistic Gulf

I have blogged here before about seeing my comparative advantage as a translator of sorts. This stems from considering myself fully bilingual (Arabic and English), bicultural (Arab-Muslim and American-Westerner), biliterate (social sciences and humanities), and so on. I have also blogged about my earlier frustration that potential publishers of what I had considered the culmination of all my years of study had no interest in (and perhaps some alarm at) my chosen subject of inquiry: The contemporary forms of Muslim Liberation Theology (the working title of my book was Islam and The Arduous Quest for Justice, and I had proposed to explain the good, bad, and ugly manifestations of that Muslim liberation theology). The bulk of the envisioned book would have been about how early Muslim thought integrated ancient philosophy within its religious language, and helped to shape medieval Western philosophy, and then I would work through the myriad ways in which modern Muslims have and/or could integrate post-medieval philosophy in their worldview, conduct, and society. Given the reactions of colleagues and potential publishers, and upon reflection on how many in my local community in Houston have reacted to the watered-down versions of my worldview as expressed in sermons and conversation, I have aborted that delusional book/lifetime project.

Earlier this week, a colleague who teaches Philosophy forwarded the link to an article about a "Philosophy in Plain Arabic" initiative at my alma mater (the American University in Cairo, where I had the honor to serve briefly as provost during academic year 2014-15). My first reaction was somewhat negative, especially toward the motivation of endowing philosophy with greater prestige in Egyptian society, which seemed to me antithetical to why one should study/apply philosophical thinking. My second reaction, upon reflection, was that translation is always good, but that by reaching out to university students, the initiative aims to rebuild a shaky structure starting on the 15th floor (a metaphor borrowed from the late Morris Kline's discussion of foundations of mathematics in his beautiful book Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty). The problem in Egypt, and the Arab and Muslim Worlds more generally, starts in early education and over-specialization at an early age (which is not coincidental; the social contract between autocratic regimes and autocratic clergy made both parties antagonistic to free thought). I suggested that if I had known those active in this initiative, I would have suggested reaching out to middle and high school students with a watered-down version of their Philosophical Thinking course at AUC, which is part of the core curriculum for their undergraduates, and simply partnering with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy project for translation of Encyclopedia entries and selected references in its bibliographies for the benefit of university students of Philosophy who are studying it in Arabic.

I woke up this morning thinking that the task is much more daunting. I thought back to my teenage interest in Philosophy. My late father gave me books by the late Zaki Naguib Mahmoud (to whom I wrote letters that went unanswered, understandably) and Murad Wahba (whom he had met in person on multiple occasions). I also read translations of ancient Greek philosophers and Arabic books by Muslim philosophers who built on that early thought, e.g. Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and so on, to Ibn Rushd. This literature all made sense whether it was written in or translated to Arabic. However, when I tried to read translations of later philosophical works (specifically, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche) the Arabic translations made very little sense.

Then, I reflected on an Arabic book that I had read last month, which was an Arabic translation of the author's dissertation on Hegel and Al-Farabi's Philosophical Sufism. The book made sense, but only by translating into English in my head. Al-Farabi had made sense in Arabic, when I read him more than 40 years ago, but the translated Hegel didn't until I read him later in English, and he made even more sense when I read him later still after my competence in the latter had improved to equal my competence in Arabic. By that time, I could understand Al-Ghazali's explanation and later repudiation of Greek and Arabic Philosophy differently: He, and later Ibn Rushd, who could play both games equally well, illustrated the gulf that was emerging between their philosophical and religious thinking, and tried to bridge it in different ways. I felt that gulf myself in the ensuing decades of my life, and worked hard to bridge it to my satisfaction. Once I felt, possibly in error, that I had achieved the latter goal, I wanted to share my synthetic and analytical thoughts by writing the book that I described above.

This is all to say the following: Translation is not a simple linguistic exercise. To translate poetry well, one must be a good poet oneself. We know that! Likewise, to translate philosophy well, one must be a good philosopher oneself (this is why Nietzsche, for example, never made sense to me until I read Kufmann's translation). Contemporary Economics, as we know, emerged from Moral Philosophy, but took a number of bad turns, in my opinion, especially since the mid twentieth century. To write a good book on Economics, especially in relation to a part of the world in which neither development of the discipline nor developments of its antecedent Philosophy were native, one needs to be well versed in multiple "languages," which are always pregnant with concepts and connotations that are accumulated with the evolution of human thought. This is why I said that translation is not a simple linguistic exercise. In the case of Modern Philosophy in relation to Arabic, a good translator must simultaneously transform the language into which she or he is translating. This is a task even beyond my delusional project, which was to translate into English using conceptions that are already understood in that language. I wish good luck to those who think that they can translate into Arabic, but think that it may be best to teach a Western language, which would have to include reading literature and philosophy in that language, while aiming to develop an actual "Philosophy in Arabic," in part by teaching the works of contemporary Arab philosophers (a couple of whom I named above), but more importantly by encouraging philosophical thinking in Arabic. This is, indeed, the second and ultimate goal stated on the AUC website: "demonstrating the relevance of philosophy and philosophical methodologies to matters of both private interest and public concern." 

I hope that they recognize how difficult this will be to do well. The "language" barrier is much more multidimensional than the uninitiated may think.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Al-Fiyyashiyah (What's Wrong?)

I woke up this morning singing this song, attributed to the Algerian/Moroccan Sufi figure Uthman ibn Yahia Al-Sharqi (aka Sidi Bahlul). The most complete text of the poem that I could find online is available here. After listening to a dozen or so renditions, I felt driven either to write some Arabic verses in the same meter and rhyming theme (not that I don't like the original, but some of its verses are repetitive and touch me much less than others), or to write a translation of the main verses.

There are dozens of Youtube videos and songs of the poem, including a relatively traditional modernized rendition at the 2017 Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco, where Sami Yusuf offered a few translated verses together with the traditional rendition. Sami Yusuf also has a fully English version professionally recorded (followed by some Arabic), which attempted to keep the meter and rhyming theme so that it can be sung to the same tune. However, I wasn't happy with the translation -- which at times seemed too literal, not sufficiently literal, or contrived... Mine below is equally bad on all dimensions, also to keep the meter, although I have decided not to rhyme...

I wanted to mention how this song came to haunt me this morning. A decade ago, my late father became very sick (and died six months later). He was suffering from liver cirrhosis -- a very common disease in my native Egypt, mainly because of the Hepatitis C epidemic that was not guarded against when they merely boiled needles (the CDC tells us that this is not sufficient to kill the virus).

One of the worst things about liver disease is that it causes disturbances in blood chemistry which make the brain malfunction. In between episodes of anguish over his mental state during my visit ten years ago, my late father seemed to have moments of extreme lucidity, during which I tried quickly to have a few final good, but necessarily short, conversations with him. On one such occasion, when I noticed that he was lucid, I blurted out my biggest fear: "I am worried for my children." He simply smiled with a raised eyebrow that I read as "how silly!" and he just said: "ربنا موجود," which literally means "God exists," but is used as an everyday Egyptian colloquialism meaning "don't worry, leave it to a higher power, all will be well."

This is the central message of the poem, which is often sung interspersed with adoration of the Prophet at the same:

اللهم صَلِّ على المصطفى ... حبيبنا محمد عليه السلام
May God shower mercy upon the Chosen-one ... our beloved Muhammad, upon him be peace

Each segments starts with the main refrain, which is a quick-double-rhythm couplet, and then proceeds in six-verse segments that begin with a slower-single-rhythm couplet that explains the point to be made followed by a quatrain that makes the same point more poetically at the quicker double rhythm... I'll translate only a few segments here, because the meanings merely repeat with different examples... It is a meant to bring about a mystic trance (and mental peace) after many repetitions of the rhythm slowing down then speeding up again, leading to another chanting of the main refrain...

أنا ما لي فياش ...  اش عليا مني 

What's wrong with me? What's wrong? ... What have I caused myself?
نقلق من رزقي لاش ... و الخالق يرزقني 

I fear poverty! Why, ... while my Maker sustains?

أنا عبد ربي له قدرة ... يهون بها كل أمر عسير 
I belong to my Lord who has such great power ... before which every difficulty must be eased
فان كنت عبدا ضعيف القوى ... فربي على كل شيء قدير 

So although I'm a servant who is very weak ... my Lord has full power over every affair

مني اش عليا ... أنا عبد مملوك 

What do I have that's mine? ... I am a slave who's owned
و الأشيا مقضيا ... ما في التحقيق شكوك 
All my needs will be met ... there's no doubt with Vision
ربي ناظر فيا ... و نا نظري متروك 
My Lord chooses for me ... and my own choice is void
في الأرحام و في الأحشا ... من نطفة صورني
He made me in a womb ... (without my choice or help)

... [skipping a lot of verses]

أنا ما لي فياش ...  اش عليا مني 
What's wrong with me? What's wrong? ... What have I caused myself? 
نقلق من رزقي لاش ... و الخالق يرزقني 

I fear poverty! Why, ... while my maker sustains?

تجولت بالفكر في هل اتى ... و قلت لقلبي كفاك الجليل 
My mind did wonder over all that may become ... but I told my heart: Hush, the Transcendent sustains
مدبر أمري و لا علم لي ... هو الله حسبي و نعم الوكيل 

He plans all my affairs, and I have no knowledge ... He is my God, sustainer, upon whom I rely

ثق يا قلبي بالله ... فهو المعطي المانع 

My heart: Have faith in God ... He gives and takes away
و ارض باحكام الله ... لنك اليه راجع 

And accept God's decrees ... because you must return
ماذا في علم الله ... الخير في الواقع 

Whatever God will bring ... it must be for the best
تدبيرك ما يسواش ... من تدبيرك دعني

Your plans have no value ... so, please, don't plan for me


The last translated verse is reminiscent of the great fourth aphorism of Ibn `Ataillah in his Book of Wisdom: 
"أرح نفسك من التدبير... فما قام به غيرك عنك لا تقم به لنفسك" -- 
"Don't exert yourself in planning... because whatever Another has already done on your behalf, you should not do for yourself."

Friday, November 24, 2017

"Religious Sciences" Are The Problem

This is a draft of my sermon later today at ISGH Main Center. I had prepared one yesterday, and then woke up to the catastrophic massacre at a North Sinai mosque in my native Egypt (at the time of writing this draft, 235 were confirmed killed). Sadly, the same analysis that I was planning to discuss at the micro level of Muslim communities applies to the challenge of our times as modern Muslims, and the conclusion is the same: So-called religious scholarship is to blame.

On Tunisia's National Women's Day, August 13, Tunisian President Al-Baji Qa'id Al-Sibsi called for greater gender equality in his country, citing specifically inheritance rules and intermarriage with non-Muslims (English coverage of the speech is available here). He said that he is confident that competent Tunisian legislators will find a way to reconcile modernity with religious edicts.

A week later, on August 20, Al-Azhar issued an official statement "to the umma" without explicitly mentioning President Al-Sibsi, but left no doubt what issue they were addressing. Their main message was that they recognize the need for ijtihad (legal reasoning) in cases wherein there are no explicit and unequivocal texts, and affirmed that family affairs (inheritance and marriage) discussed by President Sibsi fell into that category.
(1). They went further, though, affirming that "knowledge of which texts are subject to interpretation and which are not is only available to scholars [meaning their brand of religious scholars, no doubt], and is not acceptable from commoners and non-specialists, regardless of their levels of education."
(2). They then said that even as they do not mean to interfere in any political affair, they also "refused categorically any political moves that can touch Muslims' creed and Shari`a rules, or to meddle therein." [In other words, they claimed a power sharing arrangement for which they were not elected.]
(3). They closed with an even more shocking claim of monopoly over religious affairs: "Let everyone know that the mission of the Noble Al-Azhar, especially when it comes to protecting the religion of Allah, is a universal mission, which is not bound by any geographical boundaries or political leanings."

I feel compelled to address those three extravagant claims: 
(1.A). The first, that the only knowledgeable people are their types of scholars is belied by the following Hadith:

حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو الدَّرْدَاءِ  ، وَأَبُو أُمَامَةَ  ،  وَوَاثِلَةُ بْنُ الْأَسْقَعِ  ،  وَأَنَسُ بْنُ مَالِكٍ  ، قَالُوا : سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ " مَنِ الرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ ؟ قَالَ : هُوَ مَنْ بَرَّتْ يَمِينُهُ ، وَصَدَقَ لِسَانُهُ ، وَعَفَّ فَرْجُهُ وَبَطْنُهُ ، فَذَلِكَ الرَّاسِخُ " .

[Several highly trusted companions narrated that the Prophet (p) was asked: "Who are those `well established in knowledge'," and he answered: "one who is honest in his dealings, honest in his words, and chaste in his body, that is someone who is well established in knowledge."]

It merits noting that this is in reference to one reading of the verse [3:7]:
which allows for those "well established in knowledge" to reinterpret verses when needed. It is also narrated on the authority of Ibn Umar (r) that the Prophet (p) supplicated for Ibn Abbas (r):
وقال الحافظ العراقي في تخرج أحاديث إحياء علوم الدين: حديث: اللهم فقهه في الدين وعلمه التأويل ـ قاله لابن عباس، رواه البخاري من حديث ابن عباس دون قوله: وعلمه التأويل ـ وهو بهذه الزيادة عن أحمد وابن حبان والحاكم وقال صحيح الإسناد. اهـ.
which includes in several narrations that he (p) supplicated that Allah would provide Ibn Abbas understanding of religion and the ability to reinterpret texts... This begs the question: Why wouldn't God offer the same gift of reinterpretations to others outside their institutions.

(2.A). The second claim that they don't meddle in politics and don't want politicians to meddle in religion is a claim to power that religious scholars have simply never had historically. Religious scholars can serve an important social and political function in providing advice, but when they have claimed such power over societies, the results have always been catastrophic.

(3.A). Which brings me to the third power grab by Al-Azhar and similar scholarly bodies. They claimed that their mission and power is universal, which means not only that they can opine on how legislation that claims to be consistent with Shari`a should be framed, but also that they have power over our daily lives right here in Houston, TX. Unfortunately, they do indeed have this power over many of us, but only because we choose to give it to them.

Now, I return to the horrific terrorist attack on the Egyptian mosque earlier today. For nearly two decades, "religious scholars" of Al-Azhar and other reputable institutions have assured us that terrorism cannot be more distant from the teachings of Islam. What is needed, they keep claiming, is more empowerment of their brand of religious scholarship in order to defeat the warped logic of terrorist groups. And it is, indeed, they who have been called upon, repeatedly, by political authorities worldwide to reform religious discourse, etc.

The catastrophic terrorist attacks in Al-Azhar's backyard today can only mean one of two things:

(i). They do not have that universal power to guard Islam as they have claimed, because the terrorists are obviously not mindful of their edicts to refrain from terrorist activities, and/or

(ii). They do have that power and they have failed us miserably in using it.

Either way, they need to change their discourse that the solution to our global problem of Muslim terrorists is further empowerment of their institutions and their type of "scholarship".

I want to be clear on one thing, the Shaykh-ul-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad El-Tayeb, who read this statement in August, is one of the most scholarly and decent people who have ever lived. The problem is that he belongs to an institutional and intellectual framework statically anchored in early medieval times, and thus fundamentally incapable of helping us to deal with the problems of modernity.

Let me illustrate this point further, during the remaining time, and at my lowly social pay grade. On the issue of inheritance, which was the first addressed by President Al-Sibsi and rebutted harshly by Dr. El-Tayeb on behalf of Al-Azhar, I wish to refer to a legal conference that I attended last month in Chicago (National Association of Muslim Lawyers, or NAML, annual conference). 

At a session on family law, I observed as lawyers offered multiple familiar solutions to parents who were asking how to deal with the explicit rules of inheritance in the Qur'an, which mandate that a daughter would inherit half of what her brother would. The lawyers went through the usual ancient and modern methods: give her more during your lifetime, establish a family trust or corporation with equal benefits, etc. This is the "knowledge" that we have received from "religious scholarship."

One lady in the audience interjected words to the following effect: "But you don't understand my problem! I am fully convinced, in this day and age, that it is fundamentally immoral to give my daughter less than I give her brother. But I also feel that it is fundamentally immoral to say that the verse is valid in my situation and then use the legal tricks you are suggesting to circumvent it. Either way, I feel that I will be doing something deeply immoral, and cannot escape the guilt."

The Chair of the conference, Dr. Asifa Quraishi, who teaches Islamic and Constitutional Law at the University of Wisconsin (I received her permission to quote her) asked the lawyer-panelists why they have not contemplated simply saying that the rules of inheritance in the Qur'an were part of a larger system, wherein a judge would enforce financial support for women if they needed it from male relatives, etc. In the absence of that full system of laws, and the concomitant cultural norms not to circumvent it, it does not make sense to apply the rule.

This is an opinion that several scholars had suggested over at least over the past century, including most famously Mohammed Arkoun and Khaled Abou El Fadl, among many others. The lady who had asked the question seemed much more comfortable with that approach, because it didn't result in any guilt. The lawyers implied that they would not feel comfortable expressing such an opinion.

I should mention also that the second issue raised by President Sibsi, and rebutted harshly by Dr. El-Tayeb, regarding Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, had been similarly contested by scholars who would be considered "non specialists" by Al-Azhar. They had argued that the Qur'an explicitly introduced symmetry in the prohibition of Muslims marrying polytheists [2:221]:
and although an explicit exception is made for Muslim males to marry a woman "of the Book" (which was expanded in certain instances to include Zoroastrians and Hindus), but didn't offer a similar exception for women, the logic used by scholars to justify denying women the same right is paternalistically flawed: They argue that a Muslim man is required to allow his Christian or Jewish wife to practice her religion, but they fear that a Christian or Jewish husband will not allow his Muslim wife to practice hers. 

This is grounded in a social and legal framework that is alien to most of us today, so the scholars' claim to monopoly on such religious-legal edicts is deeply problematic. By failing to provide convincing arguments in both cases (inheritance and intermarriage), "religious scholars" feed Muslims' religious insecurities, guilt, and cognitive dissonance, which are surely responsible for convincing some demented people that the only way to live their Islam fully is to return to the norms of the seventh century.

Thus, we have seen that "religious scholarship" lies at the core of our difficulties as modern Muslims, whether at the macro level, dealing with the global scourge of Muslim terrorism, or at the micro level of our family affairs. Readers of this blog will be familiar with my similar arguments about the incoherence of classical Islamic jurisprudence in the age of financial engineering.

It is time for "religious scholars" to admit their failure and engage society with greater humility about their levels of "knowledge," in order to start a fruitful conversation on how to deal with the problems (both large and small) of Islam and modernity.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Harvey, Rohingya, Yemen, and Syria: A Sermon on Duty Ethics in Charity

I received a surprising email late Thursday afternoon informing me that I was scheduled to give a sermon at ISGH Main Center yesterday. I thought that my formal preaching days were over (and I pity my colleagues and students who have to bear with my informal moralization), but duty ethics dictate that whenever invited to speak, one should.


For the opening verse, I chose 

[O people of faith, be conscious and wary of God, and make your words truthful and carefully aimed; so that He may make your actions felicitous and expiate your sins; and whoever obeys God and his messenger has won a great reward.]

Next, I narrated a related prophetic tradition
عن تميم بن أوس رضي الله عنه ، أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ( الدين النصيحة ، قلنا : لمن يا رسول الله ؟ قال : لله ، ولكتابه ، ولرسوله ، ولأئمة المسلمين وعامتهم ) رواه البخاري ومسلم
[Bukhari and Muslim narrated on the aurhority of Tamim Al-Dari (r) that the Prophet (p) said: "Religion is sincerity in intention and deed." We (the companions) asked: "For whom, O messenger of God?," and he said: "For God, his book, his messenger, and for Muslims leaders and commoners."

I digressed on the word nasiha (نصيحة), which is used most commonly in Arabic to mean advice, but noted that the root of the word means purity; and its application in the context of advice simply refers to good advice being unadulterated by ulterior motives. 

Main Point

To be religious is to be sincere in what we wish for others and how we act to achieve various ends.  Therefore, even as we respond to the latest events, be they hurricanes or escalations in various humanitarian crises. 

Reacting positively to such events, by helping our neighbors or those far away, is merely part of basic human decency. Religiousness is about being principled and steadfast in purity of intentions and conduct. This allows us to remain mindful and focused -- neither overreacting to the latest developments, nor mixing our intentions with political impurities. 

In this regard, Ali ibn Abi Taleb (r) famously said that this verse of the Qur'an summarizes the perfect level of detachment (called zuhd in Arabic; neither total detachment to the point of selfishness, nor insufficient detachment that makes us overreact emotionally to new events):
[No calamity befalls the earth or yourselves except it has been preordained and recorded before we bring it into existence; this is easy for God. (We tell yo this) so that you will not be sad for what you missed or happy for what you may get; God does not love those who are haughty and proud.]

That is also why the Prophet (p) said:
[Partial recounting of narration by Bukhari on the authority of Aisha (r): "The actions most beloved to God are the steadiest, however limited in scope."]

This means that when we budget our time for charitable work, be it volunteering our time or donating our money, we should make it steady, and avoid being manipulated psychologically in ways that may constitute dereliction of duty to earlier commitments.

To explain this concept, I covered four examples with increasing degrees of complexity, but which illustrate the same common principle: Almost all calamities on earth have political dimensions that may bring impurities into our intentions or conduct, and the task of religion is to keep our intention and conduct pure, at least with regards to helping those most impacted by those calamities.


The first example I gave was hurricane Harvey, which hit us in Houston, and many admirably swung to action, helping our affected neighbors however we could. We all did this, regardless of our political views, even though there was a clear political dimension to this hurricane. 

Thus, this is a political issue, which can introduce impurities into our thinking. Are some environmentalists at least partially wishing for stronger storms so that they will be proven right? Religious and ethical ones surely would not, and they would agree with the Pope that we hope that nobody will get hurt, but should act, nonetheless, assuming the worst, because the harm if scientists arguing the climate-change case are right is quite substantial.

We can disagree is with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's argument that this was not the time to discuss climate change. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can disagree on political agendas based on our beliefs and interests, arguing our respective political cases, and still spring to action to help those who lose property or are at the risk of losing what's much more important.

Thus, it is clear that we can disagree over political assignment of guilt and recipes for solving problems, but still do our duty to our fellow human beings. Thus, our principle should be quite obvious in this case. If we dissect the remaining three problems, which appear progressively thornier, we will find that they are exactly the same, at their core, and our duty is also the same: If you have a talent for politics and ideas on how to solve problems, then you should provide that advice. In the meantime, we should all do our duty by helping our fellow human beings who need that help.


The next example is only slightly more complicated, at least from the likely political standpoint of this community, so it should be relatively easy to see how the same principle applies. 

The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been a longstanding problem for decades. One thing that we should make clear is that this is not a religious issue -- as groups like AQ or countries like Iran may suggest to manipulate us psychologically into accepting their political agendas, at least partially. Even the Dalai Lama has said explicitly that if the Buddha were alive today, he would be the first to advocate for helping the poor Muslims who are fleeing persecution.

The plight of the Rohingya is a political problem about land, ethnicity, and nationhood, similar to the plights of Armernians, Palestinians, Kurds, and other groups who were left out when nation states came into existence. Again, if you have political skill and ideas on how to solve this problem, then you should provide advice to leaders on how to do that. In the meantime, we can all agree that as long as countries like Bangladesh, which has been receiving many of those refugees, don't have the resources to accommodate them, and with international humanitarian aid being constrained because nation states are not donating sufficient funds to those efforts, it is part of our duty to help the humanitarian efforts in any way that we can -- regardless of where our political leanings may lie.


This brings me to the third crisis which is conspicuously absent from our community and media discourse, despite being the world's worst humanitarian crisis, by orders of magnitude. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs(OCHA) offers these numbers: 2.9 million people ar internally displaced, 17 million (well over half the population) are food insecure, and more than half a million have been infected with cholera. The humanitarian response funding gap stands at $1.3 billion, which comes to 56.5% of the total needed to date.

And yet, we hardly see any attention being paid to this crisis of epic proportions. This is partly a consequence of the recency effect in news cycles that are becoming shorter each year, but it may also be partly caused by politic sensitivities in this situation... It shouldn't.

Exactly as we should have recognized in the first two examples that our political views (in this case, whether one sides with the Houthi rebels who started strife in Yemen or with the coalition in which we are taking part), the humanitarian duty to help those suffering from disease, malnutrition, and starvation should not be neglected. 

Again, our duties are clear: If you have political skill and can provide solutions, by all means you should volunteer your advice. In the meantime, we all need to do what we can to help in bridging this humanitarian response funding gap highlighted by the UNOCHA. 

And we shouldn't forget this duty simply because other duties arise. Steadfastness of support is just as important, and possibly more important, than the initial response.


Which brings us to the greatest refugee crisis in modern history. Political and military complications aside, including the difficulty with which UN and other international relief agencies can reach some of those impacted in the country, it is still true that 13.4 million people need the world's humanitarian assistance, and the UNOCHA estimated humanitarian response funding gap at this time stands at $2.1 billion (which is 63.6%, or nearly two thirds, of what is needed to date). 

Our lack of steadfastness in helping our fellow humans is apparent in the larger gap for Syria than for Yemen -- this is the old news effect. 

Here also, as in the three previous cases, and despite the much more complicated politics of the situation, which may make it very difficult for most people even to formulate an opinion on who is to blame for all the suffering, the basic human duty to help our fellow human beings should be obvious.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the estimated property losses from hurricanes Harvey and Irma are approximately $290 billion. This is very sad, but it is fortunately a very small percentage of our gross domestic product. The more interesting calculation in light of the previous discussion shows that just over 1% of that sum could save the lives of nearly 30 million people.

Concluding Remarks

We are commoners, and our efforts are unlikely to make any significant difference, but that does not eliminate our duty to do what we can to help our fellow human beings, wherever they are. Our attentions may be distracted by the news cycles, but we can budget our time, effort, and giving, so that we do not neglect any of our duties simply because new duties came up. And our varied political views, whatever they may be, do not alter those basic duties to fellow humanity.

That's what religion is about, and then, after we have done our work (knowing that we cannot influence the outcome), we simply follow the order that God gave his Prophet:
إن مع العسر يسرا. فإذا فرغت فانصب و إلى ربك فارغب.
[With every difficulty, there is ease. So once you have fulfilled your duties, turn to your Lord in prayer and supplication.]