Response to Ali Eteraz on “Islamic reform”

Ali Eteraz has recently posted a series of articles on Comment is Free on what he calls “Islamic reform” ([1], [2], [3]). He defines Islamic reform as what happens when “a Muslim dissents from this traditional orthodoxy, and provides an alternative which he or she believes more accurately captures the spirit of Islam”, the traditional orthodoxy in question being Ash’ari doctrine, the separation of the religious scholars from the political leadership, classical methodologies in drawing the Shari’ah from the revealed texts (usul al-fiqh) and Sufism.

In his first essay, The Roots of Islamic Reform, he claims that “in terms of history, all critiques against traditionalism stems [sic] from Ibn Taymiya”. This is an extremely contentious statement, since some modern anti-traditionalist thinking stems from Mu’tazilism, such as that articulated by Khalid Abu’l-Fadl, and Mu’tazilism was founded by students of Hasan al-Basri who were thrown out of his study circle for claiming a supposed middle ground between belief and disbelief, in which those who commit major sins exist. (Mainstream belief is that they are Muslims and believers, albeit not good Muslims or strong believers; Kharijites believed that they were non-believers.)

Eteraz then goes on to promote Ibn Taymiya as some sort of liberal reformer, claiming that he rejected the “triple talaq” which so angers feminists today, and rejected the notion that two women’s witness was equal to one man’s. However, contemporary sources testify that he was anything but liberal with those who criticised the eccentric doctrines he promoted, and his partisans today, and they are many, loud and well-funded, are even less so, calling those who defend traditional scholarship, doctrine and Sufism “Jahmites” and other species of heretic. Modern-day “salafis” also have legal positions with which liberals might agree, such as opposing forced marriage and female genital mutilation, but that does not make them liberals either.

He claims that Ibn Taymiyya made it permissible to fight the Tatars or Mongols, who at the time occupied large sections of the Muslim world from Syria eastwards, because “the Mongol leaders, even if they professed to be Muslims, were hypocrites because they were oppressive and unjust”. In fact, the problem was not just that they were unjust; this had been the case with caliphs and their officials going back to the time when the Sahaba (radhi Allahu ta’ala anhum) were alive. The problem was that the Mongols did not rule by the Shari’ah; they ruled by a text called al-Yasaq, and some quotes from this book are to be found in a book by Abu Hamza, the Egyptian preacher now in prison in England (if he is reliable), entitled Allah’s Governance on Earth (you can find it about 40% of the way down, under the heading “Alyaasiq Yesterday and Tomorrow”):

Whoever commits fornication, he should be killed, married or not. Whoever does a homosexual act should be killed. Whoever deliberately lied, he should be killed. The one who does magic should be killed. Whoever spies should be killed. Anyone trying to intervene between two opponents, helping one against the other, he should be killed. The one who urinates or dives into stagnant water should be killed.

Anyone who feeds a captive or gives him clothing, drink or food without family permission should be killed. Anyone who threw any food to anyone should be killed. He should give it by hand. Anyone who wants to give sadaqa (voluntary charity) from food should eat it first, even if he wants to give it to someone high in the society. Whoever eats and does not feed his guests or household should be killed. Whoever slaughters an animal should be killed. He should cut it in half and take the heart out first.’

This is simply a licence for mass murder, besides the suppression of the Islamic way of slaughtering an animal. Besides the obvious cruelty to the animals, it would render meat from an animal killed this way haraam to any Muslim, or any Jew for that matter, which would also destroy a large section of any farmer’s livelihood. Abu Hamza goes on to claim that Al-Yasaq is preferable to the laws in place in the Muslim world today:

The laws of the new alYaasiq aren’t even trying to appear Islamic, and in fact they are directly antagonistic on the fundamental and secondary levels. We read in alYaasiq that homosexuality is an offence punishable by death, but in the laws of the Tatars of today, they receive full protection, and in upcoming legislation, are receiving more civil rights protection than their heterosexual counterparts. Genghis Khan and his book discouraged fornication and adultery.

The Genghis Khans of today uphold it as a sacred virtue. Those that do not want to subject themselves to this ‘honour’ are singled out as anti-social and snobs. Magic was rewarded with death in times past. But looking today, we find sizeable numbers of the United States military not only admitting to using magic, but to identifying with and being card carrying Satanists. How much worse is it today when every type of kufr [unbelief] and shirk [polytheism or idolatry] is propagated and authentic tawhid [monotheism] is consigned to the dustbin, never to be thought of or implemented again. We see that in the United States that the age of consent among minors is 10 years old. In some other countries it is different, but all of the other countries are headed towards the lowest possible age of consent. Nothing is mentioned here about marriage or the sanctity that goes with it.

What Abu Hamza writes is mostly untrue; homosexuality remains illegal in most of the Islamic world and even where it is not, it is heavily disapproved of in society. The age of consent is not 10 years old in most of the USA (men can be jailed for “statutory rape” for having sex with a girl much older than that) and as for Satanists in the military, that happened in a tiny number of headline-grabbing incidents. As with Ibn Taymiyya, the “jihadists” of today take the position they do on the grounds that the rulers are infidels on account of not ruling by the Shari’ah.

Eteraz also reiterates the misconception that mainstream scholars are invariably meek and quietist in the face of oppression. In fact, what they caution against is sporadic rebellion by small groups ill-equipped to take on the might of the state. Such rebellions almost always fail, often with terrible consequences for those left behind (as with the Hama tragedy in 1982), and even when a revolution is apparent, whether in a Muslim country or otherwise, other forces are usually behind it. Revolutions, for the most part, are the results of civil war (as in Russia), palace coups (as in Romania in 1989) or straightforward military coups (as in Portugal in 1974). When a group has the ability to remove an oppressive regime and replace it with a just one, the scholars do not object to their doing so.

In his second article, Ali Eteraz tells us that the Islamic reformation basically consists of Wahhabism, which reasserted stoning for adultery, which he claims had been all but abolished in the Ottoman empire, and had contempt for the Ottoman version of Islamic law, which was “complex that, according to the orientalist John Makdisi, it gave birth to British Common Law”. As with his discussion on Ibn Taymiyya, he leaves out the Wahhabis’ focus on aqida or doctrine, and their hostility to what was normal Islamic belief and practice in the Ottoman era. While it is true that modern-day Wahhabis shun the traditional schools of thought in Islamic law, they are known for an aggressive literalism in doctrine, and are accused by mainstream scholars of anthropomorphism. They also accuse people of “grave worship” by using the deceased righteous as intermediaries between them and God, and it was principally these concerns - the supposed spread of idolatry among the Muslims - which motivated their rebellion against the Ottomans.

He then moves onto the subject of Salman Rushdie, about whom the so-called Muslim Canadian Congress declared in a press release that “had Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) been alive today, he himself would have defended the right of authors like Salman Rushdie to pursue their literary work”, a statement for which Eteraz praised the MCC. The truth is that classical scholarship unanimously declares otherwise, a fact which can be discerned from reading the relevant chapters in Qadi Iyaad al-Yahsubi’s book Al-Shifaa (The Cure), available in English translation as Muhammad, Messenger of Allah, a classical Islamic scholarly book on the characteristics of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. Now, Salman Rushdie was never a Muslim (he is of Isma’ili background) and wrote his book in England, where Islamic law has never been in operation, and no Muslim has the right to enforce Islamic law on a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim land, but the Islamic ruling Eteraz refers to is certainly not the domain of extremists and cannot possibly be based on evidence as tendentious as he claims it is. Furthermore, the “Muslim Canadian Congress” is a notoriously anti-Islamic institution known for its contempt for religious Muslims and their rights. Browsing their other press releases, one finds that they opposed the right of Muslims to settle family disputes using Islamic law, something which was already available to followers of other religions under an existing Ontario statute, that they oppose state funding of hitherto private religious schools, and that they issued a demand to the Canadian electoral authority that they not allow women wearing the niqaab to vote. They are, the reader might gather, not a mainstream Islamic body.

At the end of this second article, Eteraz suggests that we “consider the necessity of a Sunni pope”, an idea which was discussed among Muslims centuries ago and was rejected decisively. The word used was imam, but nonetheless, it was only Shi’ites who adopted it and even the mainstream Shi’a only claim twelve imams (many of whom were actually Sunnis, even if they do not admit this). I recall reading, while studying politics at A-level, a paper putting the case against a Bill of Rights for the UK, on the grounds that it was unnecessary, undesirable and unachievable and that even if achievable, it offers the unattainable (sadly, I can’t find it on the Internet), and these descriptions fit nothing better than a Muslim papacy.

A supreme religious authority like the Pope could not be established in Islam; it is impracticable on so many levels. For one thing, no religious scholar today has the authority to rule on what from the opinions of the classical imams is right or wrong, and it would not be possible to choose a leader from the thousands of religious scholars the world has. There would be many who would dismiss the idea, and refuse to recognise whoever was elected; if the “big Imam” were to be seen as partisan to one side in a particular dispute or another, perhaps due to ethnic or tribal or sectarian loyalties, it could cause more trouble rather than bring people together; if he was seen as being under political pressure, it would destroy his credibility, as has often happened to recent Shaikhs at al-Azhar. In the past, the Pope was subject to such pressure; the Pope as the sovereign of an independent Vatican City is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the third, and so far last, essay in the series, he alleges that it was the appearance of Muhammad ibn Abdil-Wahhab, whom he calls Abdul-Wahhab (which was his father’s name), Shah Waliullah in India and the Iranian Aqa Bihbihani which “unleashed an era of convulsions within Islam’s superstructure”, prompting the appearance of a “number of innovative movements”, such as “the Bahai Faith in Iran (a reform upon Shi’ism), the Ahmadiyya and Deoband movements in India, and Salafism in the Arab world”. Any Muslim would be shocked to hear all of these totally different movements lumped together in the same breath. For one thing, Deobandism defends the classical scholarly heritage of Sufism and madhhab, while Ahmadiyya was certainly not a reform movement but simply the followers of a claimant to prophethood. He then alleges that the Deobandi school produced moderate and extremist wings, the former of which was crushed in either the colonial or post-colonial period, while the extremist wing was funded by the US “just as [it] lay dying” and is now known as the Taliban! What a bizarre, moronic over-simplification, as if the Taliban is all there is to the Deobandi school today! Deoband is in India, and the Darul-Uloom is still open, and with the brief exception of the “emergency” of the 1970s, India has never been under dictatorial rule since colonial times.

Eteraz then sneers at the traditionalist scholars:

Over these 200 years the traditionalist clerics - against whose dogma all these reforms and revivals had fomented - sat around and did nothing of consequence. They taught an ethics of quietude and mimicked Laputans [explained here]. As long as they could stay cloistered in study circles discussing their four precious schools of law and despising Salafis from a distance in vague syllogisms, they were content. Many of them mourned the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, the one institution that had assured their relevance.

Eteraz forgets the benefit of the “precious four schools” and following qualified classical scholarship, which is that the four schools exist in relative harmony, something which cannot be said for the relationship of modern-day “salafis” to Muslims in other groups, or even among themselves. The movement has seen terribly rancorous and destructive splits, mostly over the matter of loyalty to rulers such as the Saudi kings; particularly in the USA, these disputes led to long-standing friendships and marriages breaking down as people were denounced (you can read the full miserable story here), but even debates over minor matters of law, such as whether women should cover their faces in public, have sometimes been vituperative. While it is true that the divide between the Deobandis and Bareilawis in India has been no less bitter, no such divide is found anywhere else that one or more of the four schools of thought is dominant, and the main sticking point for them is history, and there (admittedly after a century of the split) families are not divided along such lines; perhaps they were at the time. Among Muslims generally, the four schools are not a cause of rancour and division among the people or the scholars. People are not told to avoid another Muslim because he or she follows a different school of thought, for example.

A further point needs to be made in defence of the traditional four schools, which is that the “gates of ijtihad”, or independent reasoning, are closed only on old matters which were settled in the first few centuries. There is now no need for fresh reasoning on the details of the ritual ablutions, for example. When it comes to issues which have raised their heads in recent times, the gates of ijtihad are not closed to those who are qualified for it (i.e. they were always closed to the common people). The effort expended in debating such issues as whether the hands should be raised during the prayer, for example, or on where the hands should be placed, or on whether it is acceptable to wipe over the socks (as opposed to washing the feet) while making the ablution, could have been spent on things of far greater benefit such as charitable work or even the disputants’ own college work, much as the effort the Ottomans expended on fighting the Wahhabis could have been spent on the encroaching colonial armies, and the effort against the false prophets such as Musaylima could have been spent on the Romans and Persians.

He then alleges that the resurgence of traditionalism which has been witnessed in the past decade or so happened in response to Osama bin Laden’s so-called fatwa. Actually, Bin Laden’s declaration is best described as a manifesto; a fatwa is usually nothing like that length and is issued in response to a question. Eteraz claims that the new traditionalists “made their power base in the west - mostly the US and UK - and then started to connect with allies around the world”. In my observation, the resurgence in traditionalism in the UK had much more to do with the influence of mainstream Wahhabis in the student Islamic societies and mosques rather than with Bin Laden, who was a peripheral figure at least until the 1998 embassy bombings. The loudest challenges to mainstream, traditional Islam in the west had been coming from the pro-Saudi Wahhabis, from the moderately political “salafis” of institutions like Al-Muntada al-Islami in London, and from modernists and liberal Ikhwanis (in roughly that order). The well-known speeches which formed the basis for Mas’ud Khan’s website, for example, such as Literalism and the Attributes of Allah, were in response to questions from Muslims in the west who were already traditionalists and needed responses to the Wahhabi challenge.

Muslims had their own reasons for challenging all of the groups concerned. They opposed the Wahhabis, because they condemned Sufism, trashed much of Islam’s cultural heritage because of its Sufi associations, vandalised the Holy Cities, denounced Islamic scholars and ordinary Muslims, sowed divisions among the Muslims, produced a régime whose tyranny is a huge embarrassment to the Muslims besides the grief it causes them, and have even been known to falsify Islamic textbooks. They opposed the modernists because their tendency for liberalism is an asset to the anti-Islamic post-colonial dictators who are known for their intrusive laws banning beards and traditional Islamic dress, particularly for men but often for women as well. If anything, after 9/11 some of the traditionalists lost ground in terms of Muslim public opinion; the reaction to interviews given by Shaikh Hamza Yusuf springs to mind, and traditionalists had their share of difficulties resulting from the “war on terror” also - the attempt by Musharraf to close Pakistani madrassas to western religious students after the July 2005 London bombings, and new restrictions in Syria after two western students were involved in a bombing in Tel Aviv in 2003, are examples.

Eteraz opines that it was no surprise that traditionalists condemned the extremists and terrorists and “were at the heart of the counter-terrorism organisations”, alluding to the Radical Middle Way events which took place in the UK since the 2005 bombings. However, they would always have opposed the indiscriminate bombing and killing of non-combatants for its own sake, even had it not been for the 9/11 tragedy. There had always been those, for example, who condemned the suicide bombing tactics of Hamas and others in Palestine, even if they supported the idea of a jihad to rid Palestine of the invaders. They did not suddenly start saying this in September 2001. The “salafis” were in fact much louder in condemning the terrorism associated with Bin Laden’s group before that, since his activities were being linked with their sect and were directed partly at Saudi Arabia; meanwhile, the traditionalists had already seen Chechnya ruined after it was infiltrated by “salafi” jihadists.

Ali Eteraz then heaps praise on the Egyptian Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa:

He is armed not just with a photographic memory but with a willingness to make pronouncements on controversial subjects, has classical traditionalist credentials, and is situated in a position of influence. He has disapproved of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, agitates for the equality of men and women, and has advised the British government. However, just like the conservatives, alarmed at the “fatwa-free-for-all” in the Muslim world, Gomaa proposed setting up a global standard of accreditation for Muslim scholars.

If Gomaa’s proposal had reached fruition, the Sunni world would have the centralisation of authority that some in the west are agitating for -ie, a sort of Muslim Pope or council of cardinals.

Actually, the Islamic world has long had means of accrediting its scholars: the system of ijaza and isnad, or licensing and chains of transmission. Some scholars got their ijazas from big institutions such as al-Azhar (many such places were closed down or converted into universities in the 19th and 20th centuries, although one or two, like the Qayrawiyyin in Fez, have been re-established recently), others from smaller ones like Deoband in India and Dar al-Mustafa in Tareem in Yemen, and others from studying with individual scholars. There is no need for an official system of accreditation, and there has never been one. The problem of some scholars coming to be distrusted by the people on account of their association with the government is the lot of religious leaders whenever there is tyranny - the eastern churches suffered a similar fate under Communism - but the perception that a scholar is “no good” because he takes a salary from the government or utters a few words of praise or a prayer for the president or king now and then is often unjustified.

Eteraz’s articles seem to present a false narrative of a series of challenges to a stuffy, conservative clerical establishment, which “came round” when 9/11 presented the opportunity. He entirely ignores the doctrinal aspects of Ibn Taymiyya’s and Ibn Abdil-Wahhab’s stances, presenting the former as some sort of liberal and the latter as some sort of Protestant reformer. The history he presents of Ibn Taymiyya and the Tatars is the Wahhabi one, which is heavily disputed; other sources say that the Tatar ruler against whom Ibn Taymiyya preached rebellion, namely Mahmud Ghazan, was not a hypocrite or tyrant at all, but a sincere convert to Islam, who brought hundreds of thousands of people into the religion, established twelve big madrassas and other religious institutions and “had an unequaled, artistically invaluable mosque built in Tebriz”. This Turkish writer’s assertion is that Ibn Taymiyya in fact set two Muslim rulers against each other, inciting the Egyptian sultan to fight Mahmud Ghazan instead of co-operating in the service of Islam.

He also overplays the scale of the so-called counter-reformation spearheaded by the new traditionalists who are known of in the West. The movement of which Eteraz writes is a western-based grass-roots effort to reassert an authentic mainstream Islam and thereby unify a relatively small but disparate Muslim population in the English-speaking world. An important aspect of this is the reassertion of the Arabic language, hence the British youth of Pakistani and other Subcontinental origin flocking to hear lectures by Arabic-speaking shaikhs (albeit lectures in English) such as Muhammad al-Ya’qoobi and Abdullah al-Adhami. The roots of this movement can, therefore, be better found in the Muslim communities in the west, rather than in the perceived deficiencies of the scholars (who are absolutely not clerics or “de facto priests”) of post-colonial Egypt or Syria.

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