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.