Not a religion of platitudes

Earlier this week ‘Ed’ Husain, author of a biographical book called The Islamist, a former member of Hizb-ut-Tahreer (from when the group that became al-Muhajiroun was using the name in the UK) and co-founder of the Quilliam group, posted a tweet for the new year that tells us the ‘wisdom’ he believes Islam lacks that Christianity offers:

Muslims responded to this original tweet and he argued back, though Ed’s part in these exchanges has all been deleted; one of his responses was that “hadith is not scripture”. As I was brought up in Christianity, I have a perspective to offer on these quotations besides pointing out some of the obvious factual errors.

First, although the hadith are not scripture in the sense that the Qur’an is, we Muslims do regard them as a kind of revelation — the meaning, not the words themselves — as long as they are authentic. This matters, as there are in fact numerous sayings in the hadith literature which have a similar import to all three of the quotes Ed gives us. The four gospels are tellings of the life and mission of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) from the perspective of four individuals who are all identified only by their first names; the hadith all have chains of transmission and the biographies and reputations of the narrators are studied as well as what they reported. They are thus more comparable to the hadith literature than to the Qur’an which is the revealed word itself; the Qur’an has no extant equivalent in Christianity whatever.

The third of these quotes has a few close equivalents in the hadith, most famously the hadith in the Bukhari and Muslim collections: “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself”. There are plenty of hadith like this that enjoin kindness, the maintenance of friendship and family ties, giving people the benefit of the doubt, not backbiting or gossiping, guarding against envy and resentment where one hates another’s good fortune. There is not a mere command to “love one another”; there are details on how to foster love and harmony between people who do not always see eye to eye.

On the second, despite the lack of this oft-quoted phrase “render unto Caesar”, there is ample instruction to obey rulers who uphold the Shari’ah even when they are unjust or oppressive as long as they do not expect us to do something forbidden such as neglect prayers or inform on people for things that are not crimes and thereby put them in danger. Scholars make qualifications to this for such circumstances as where a command from a ruler is made purely in their personal interests, but generally, obedience is enjoined and open rebellion or incitement to it by people who do not have the means to carry it through are forbidden.

As for the first, which was said in the context of a public stoning: that punishment is still legislated in Islam much as it was in the Jewish law, though the standard of evidence in the case of adultery is very high and will be fulfilled only rarely. There is, in fact, a hadith in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) intervened to make sure that a woman from a powerful tribe convicted of theft was subjected to the punishment (amputation) when a particular companion suggested that she not be. The words quoted may have been said in a particular context, perhaps so as to expose the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who had brought the woman to him (perhaps that they were so corrupt as to be unfit to sit in judgement on anyone), but it has come to mean “never judge anyone” and interpreted in a way that resembles the “tu quoque” fallacy.

I was brought up in the Catholic church and attended Catholic schools for seven of the first eight years of my schooling. Really, these statements are just empty platitudes when you look at the way many Christians who have power other people’s lives behave. All the western Christian churches have a long history of being very harsh, uncharitable, uncaring and unloving towards those who stepped out of line or caused embarrassment, of putting dogma before human life or welfare, of putting clerical reputations before the needs of the children and other vulnerable people they were supposed to be caring for. Europe did not have public stonings, but it had public executions, almost invariably by slow and painful methods, right into the 20th century in some places. Throughout most of its history, the Christian church has been in the pockets of kings, emperors and tsars; it is no surprise that they quote Jesus, peace be upon him, as saying “render unto Caesar…” given that the religion was official in the Roman and later Byzantine empires, as well as the German Holy Roman Empire whose leader was called a Kaiser (an obvious derivative of Caesar). Even in recent times, people thought of as living saints, such as Mother Teresa, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful and when ordinary people were oppressed, she lectured them on forgiveness.

Islam has detailed and nuanced guidance for how to live life, how to deal with and think of other people, how to deal with power, and that this guidance is to be found in the Qur’an, the hadith and the vast body of Islamic scholarly literature, most of which is available for any Arabic-speaker to read in numerous libraries and bookshops and some of which is available in English translation. It is not a weakness but a strength of Islam that it is not defined or represented by the empty platitudes Ed Husain quotes.

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