Retaliation and the story of Khidr

I saw an article today posted at Harry’s Place and also at Foreign Policy Journal, entitled “The Problem of Honor Killings” by one Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, described in his biography as “a student at Oxford University and an intern at the Middle East Forum”. A brief perusal of that website reveals its agenda: it’s a pro-Israeli site, with much contribution from Daniel Pipes, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and plenty of others with obviously Jewish surnames (which don’t necessarily suggest this kind of agenda, of course, except when they appear alongside the likes of Daniel Pipes), along with contributions from Stephen Schwartz and Denis MacEoin, which lists as its aim “to define and promote American interests in the Middle East and protect the Constitutional order from Middle Eastern threats”, among them through the notorious Campus Watch. So, not a neutral source of information on Islam, then.

The article alleges that, although Islamic organisations will tell you that honour killings have nothing to do with Islam, “Islamic orthodoxy generally condones the practice, whilst not explicitly recommending it per se”. He cites as the “most egregious case” the book Umdat al-Salik, which he translates as “Reliance of the Sojourner” even though it is translated into English as “Reliance of the Traveller”, which he calls “a manual on Shari’a (Islamic law) certified by Al-Azhar University, the most prominent and authoritative institute of Islamic jurisprudence in the world, as a reliable guide to orthodox Sunni Islam”. Al-Azhar is, of course, an important centre of Islamic scholarship, but it is not “the most authoritative”, particularly in this day and age although many individual scholars at al-Azhar are well-regarded. The book also has endorsements from scholars in Syria and Jordan.

He claims:

The manual states (01.1-2) that “retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right,” except when “a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers)” kills his or her “offspring, or offspring’s offspring.” Hence, according to this view a parent, who murders his or her son/daughter for the sake of “honor,” whether owing to issues of chastity, apostasy and the like, incurs no penalty under Shari’a. This ruling is derived from a hadith (Sahih Muslim, Book 19, Number 4457) where it is affirmed that one should not kill a child unless one could know “what Khadir had known about the child he killed.” Khadir is a figure featured in the Qur’an who accompanies Moses on a journey and kills a son of believing parents for fear that he would rebel against the will of God (18:74 and 18:80-81).

The statement about retaliation not being obligatory when the killer is an ancestor is accurate, but what this means is that the victim’s immediate family have no automatic right to demand the death penalty. There are other categories of penalty in Islamic law, including the fixed penalties called hudood (hadd is the singular) and discretionary penalties or ta’zeer. The last is what is appropriate in such cases: it is down to the judge to set the appropriate punishment, and whether he can impose the death penalty is something you will have to ask a scholar about, but it is inconceivable that anyone should be able to get away with killing a child unjustly.

As for the hadeeth basis for the ruling, I have seen an explicit hadeeth which opposes submitting someone to retaliation for killing one of their children. As far as the story of Khidr (the “Khadir” in that article) is concerned, it is explained in more detail elsewhere by the Reliance’s translator, Nuh Ha Mim Keller, because it is commonly used to justify unlawful acts by so-called saints or mystics as Khidr (peace be upon him) clearly does things that would be unlawful if done by anyone else. In fact, he had the knowledge referred to here precisely because he was a Prophet, a rank nobody has today, or for that matter, had in the time the Reliance was written. So, the hadeeth makes it clear that killing a child is forbidden, full stop.

Al-Tamimi (if that is his real name) claims:

Therefore, it is incumbent on human rights organizations working in the Muslim world to put pressure on Islamic religious authorities to denounce unequivocally the practice of honor killings, discuss openly and honestly the religious basis that condones the custom, and work to formulate a reformed interpretation of core Islamic texts that teaches why honor killings are wrong from a religious viewpoint, all of which will end impediments to introducing stricter legal punishments for honor killings in Muslim countries.

However, Islamic law already condemns such killings, and the reason there is resistance to changing the law has much to do with the force of tradition and nothing at all to do with the killings being in any way religiously justified. There are already human rights groups working to protect women from honour killings in some of these countries, and there are shelters for women (although a lot of women at risk from such killing end up in prison for their own protection) and lawyers who help them prosecute violent relatives. The fact that these people face a difficult job because of corruption and entrenched local tradition does not mean that what they are doing is not part of Islam; as Robert Fisk points out, a substantial proportion of honour killings in these places is the work of non-Muslims, and there are large parts of the Muslim world where honour killings aren’t at all common, so clearly it has much to do with local tradition and nothing to do with Islam.

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