The minds of Western Muslims, American and British, are being closed. It is the result of many factors. Chief among them is the Arabisation of Muslim identity and its attendant approaches to teaching and learning. When I was young, Arabs came from the Arab world to proselytise. Today, white men travel to the Arab world and return as Arabs, albeit with accents, proselytising. Cultural associations with banking theories of religious education led to the paralysis of the Muslim mind, and the rise of Muslim cultural supremacy as a counter to Western or white supremacy. Muslims in America are broken. World events have overtaken the natural trajectory of maturation of communal life. What was possible in America for Muslims has been trampled by incoherence and confusion. Blinding traditionalism and ethno-cultural ghettoisation are the norm. As American and British Muslims, we carry the burden of our immense failure together.
Through the development of a regressive, culturally specific, identitarian milieu of Islam, the UK offers us a strong example of the closing of the Western Muslim mind. A land with no constitution and little restraints on the ability of government to spy on citizens, subject them to disinformation, and a history of brutal colonialism – British Muslim life is uniquely complex. Adjacent to an increasingly racist mainland Europe, life for young British Muslims grows ever more difficult. Media reports of children whitening their skin in the UK to avoid bullying serve as an example of how the cultural dynamics of oppression differ across the Atlantic.
Yet, American and British Muslims are broken in many of the same ways, but I will focus on one. Deeply mired in the confusion of oppression, the vast majority of both conservative and liberal Muslims have abdicated their agency as citizens of their nations and communities in lieu of cultural comfort. More importantly, we have abdicated our agency in faith. Islam, as socially constructed in today’s America, is a cacophony of ethnic, quasi-magical, heart-warming beliefs completely divorced from reality. Pietistic affectations of identity rule the day. Beards, canes, cultural clothing, and randomly placed inshallahs define public perceptions of piety. Women fight with all their might against a male religious establishment that demonises feminism and declares a woman’s mind a private part to be hidden and guarded.
Halal meat has replaced halal ideas. No grocery store could sell the rotten pietism that has come to predominate our mosques, organisations, and communities masquerading as ideas. In all camps – Islamist, neo-traditionalist, fans of military dictatorship, those who claim to be progressive – women are in the back or absent altogether, LGBTQ community members are not welcome, and cheap quasi-religious slogans are peddled for donations among the politically aggrieved. Why is that so? Why is it that, aside from a few spaces, regardless of political stripe or school of thought, western Muslims exhibit such backwardness in the development of their Muslim identities? How did we lose all capacity for critical thinking? Would a Muslim scientist in America agree to denial of access to a men-only lab? Why does she accept it in the Mosque?
It is important to pause at the phrase ‘critical thinking’ for a brief moment at the outset. When we speak of critical thinking, critical pedagogy, or critical theory, we are not speaking of the process of criticising but rather that of critique. Criticising is sourced in egotism, and a perception of being better than the one being criticised. Critique is sourced in love and willingness to participate in the co-creation of a more vibrant, beautiful and just reality. To critique, is to deconstruct language, meaning, context, philosophy, ethics, and power relations in an attempt at understanding the thing for what it really is. It is a substantive endeavour that brings the positionality of the individual to the table of paradigm shaping and decision-making. It is filled with emotion yet not emotive. The purpose of critique is not to vent, it is to articulate one’s belief in the viability of an alternative. As critical theorists, when we try to investigate – what a thing is – bound up in that meaning is – what the thing can become. Critical theory requires critical thinking. As critical theorists our primary commitment is to the unrealised, untested feasibility of a thing as the primary impetus for engagement.
The power of critical thinking, being in control, and starting at a position of self-confidence, are what make a person psychologically self-sufficient and ready to walk the walk in difficult and easy times, in company or loneliness, guided by principles and faith, seeking empowerment, fulfilment and reward from God, Only when the inner core is filled with this type of strong personal attitude can an individual be ready to join, cooperate and associate with others without losing themselves.
This duality of internal development and social action is often missed at the grassroots level. Masquerading in its place is rote memorisation and amateurish spirituality that bank good feelings. Many Muslims find their situations involving a modicum of injustice. If not in their personal lives, such as bullying, war, and immigration bans, they identify with the meta-narrative of injustice toward Muslims globally. This injustice, whether economic, political, or civilisational, breeds a deep sense of frustration and paralysis at the inability of a person to change their situation. When one finds no solutions to their reality they often take upon themselves the identity of the oppressed as an end to itself. Oppression becomes identity, which is always advantageous to the oppressor. Alterity is elevated to an end in itself breeding a discourse of impossibility. For Muslims, this impossibility applies to the reform of faith as well as society. Impossibility is social and personal paradigmatic paralysis. It rests upon the theology of non-movement which believes what we have is better than what can come. Never venturing to challenge the balance of the status quo for justice.
The discourse of the impossibility of changing the world is the discourse of those who, for different reasons, have accepted settling for the status quo. It is easier to cosy up to the tepidness of impossibility, rather than to embrace the permanent and almost always uneven struggle for justice and ethics.
For neo-traditionalists, this ideology of permanence appears as theology. An excellent example is that of Ibn Rajab’s Refutation of Those Who Do Not Follow the Four Schools translated by Musa Furber, a white convert living in the Arab gulf. In it, Ibn Rajab, the famous Hanbali jurist, resorts to the frequent use of the charming phrase ‘insolent imbeciles’ for those who disagree with his position. Ibn Rajab argues that in order to properly practice Islam, one is obligated to choose a school of jurisprudential thought and strictly follow the writings and analysis of the chief jurist (and subsequent jurists) of that school of thought.
Do not think even for a moment of talking yourself into believing that you perceive something that this Imam was unaware of, or understood something that he did not reach. Put all your efforts into understanding the words of this Imam concerning all the issues of knowledge, not (just) the issues of Islam. Do not think. That is the charge of neo-traditionalists of all stripes in three words. Be they white, Arab, Black, it makes no difference. Their charge is to not think lest one sway from God’s intention. Claiming the need to keep static Arab cultural traditions and interpretations of Islam for the preservation of the faith regardless of the political is the mechanism by which we make non-movement faithful. We are the caretakers of sameness. Among Muslims, white men touting the unfettered objectivity of traditionalism reign supreme in the West among immigrants and their progeny. The great paralysing forces of religion, identity, and nationalism intoxicate the masses of Muslim followers allowing their domestication by those who preach non-movement as authenticity. Through a discourse of permanence we justify our physical and intellectual abuse by our own religious leaders. Theologies of permanence discourage a commitment to intervention upon the world in order to change it. The belief that we will never change our reality is a symptom of hopelessness. It is difficult to parse a conceptual distinction between losing hope and losing faith. If we define Islam by its non-movement how can it be a force for social movement toward justice or personal development? To be paralysed in this way is opposed to human design. And thus, a deformed understanding of being-Muslim in the modern comes to fruition.
Most Muslims agree that Islam can influence the development of the world in a positive way. Surprisingly, most Muslims also believe that Islam does not change and cannot reform to meet the needs of the day because its authenticity lies in a far away history. Those two ideas can’t coexist. Our intoxication with a golden age paradise of Islamic moral excellence renders us driving from the rear view mirror. This is how rocket scientists, brain surgeons, and tech gurus are convinced that they cannot reason through their faith and faithfulness to meet the needs of the day. They abdicate to the nearest convincing authority. Then, in a feat of parasitic excellence, become a follower, then the best follower, then teacher of the new followers. Everyone is following toward a mirage that never existed and cannot come to fruition in the modern while maintaining Islamic ethics.
All brands of organised Islam have come to believe that a lack of critical consciousness among their followers is more Islamic than a critical posture upon the world and the word. Islamists and neo-traditionalists spar on social media. At the core of their ideologies and banking pedagogies of education, they prefer sameness of ideas and conformity. Despite one team shaving their moustache, they are the same. They engage in conceptually bankrupt positions that value allegiance over ethics. They fetishise their political leaders who dress soldiers in ancient Ottoman war garb. They turn to religious leaders who dress like saints with flowing robes of majesty and piety. Looking for a connection to something, anything to regain honour to their identities is their primary mode of identity acquisition. Power is their aim, if it needs to be Ottoman rather than Saudi, so be it.
In his work This is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev presents Svetlana Boym’s idea of restorative nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia ‘strives to build the lost homeland with paranoiac determination, poses as truth and tradition, obsessed over grand symbols and relinquishes critical thinking for emotional bonding. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’. As Muslims, we have been tricked into believing that our primary goal is to re-build lost greatness. Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and Hassan Nasrallah, supposed sectarian opposites, are arguing for the exact same thing: Muslim supremacy through the resurgence of a faith-based state. They both manage, before Baghdadi was killed, territory and run governments in the hope that one day they will conquer all others for Islam. Why? Who commissioned us with that? Regressive traditionalism of paranoiac determination is not the domain of Muslim social/religious conservatives alone. The tricks of domestication among all Muslims are the same. The process of domestication and blinding to reality in the name of lost greatness is universal.
In today’s America, the most famous Muslim leaders are bifurcated between two constantly competing tribes. The first, and perhaps the most avant-garde, is the camp of neo-traditionalists. Among them are those who have taken it upon themselves to preach against democracy and individual agency. They stand against the wisdom of the masses by convincing them to align themselves with those who oppress them in the name of stability. The stability of government and the stability of faith. From the corpus of faith they argue that citizens don’t have a right to respond to their injustice because their leaders know better what is in their interests. They cite ancient text to convince people that their intellectual and civic contribution is not needed. Rather, they argue that acquiescence to oppression is faithfulness. Closely aligned with dictatorships that arm private militias sparking the destruction of countries in the Global South, they claim to be the arbiters of Islamic ethics in our time. Despite their good intentions, they work to make us dumber, quieter, and more acquiescent. Through their lectures, retreats, halaqas, universities, sermons and students they argue that the original scholars of their respective schools of thought yielded to no personal subjectivity. Their original scholars were super-human in their capacity to maintain eternal objectivity for all times and places. The objective power of their reasoning should bind our discourse a thousand years later and bind our lives, politics and social relations. Only the individual at the top of the hierarchy of a specific school of thought can engage in critical reasoning to meet the needs of the times. One man, always a man, per school of thought or their representative in your local community is allowed to agitate, to think, to construct a more just reality.
Neo-traditionalists chime in on the appointment of accused rapist Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court arguing that there were not four witnesses to his alleged rape of Christine Blasé-Ford. They aim to team up with other evangelical neo-traditionalist Americans of varying faiths to limit the freedom of citizens and design societies that reflect their sense of morality. If they could make all of reality gender segregated, they would. It makes them more comfortable. They don’t shake hands with women, unless they are white women who are not Muslim. Like Vice President, Mike Pence, they are not confident in their ability to be honourable, so they prefer not to be in a room alone with a woman that isn’t their wife. Lest they be tempted by the devil to be indecent, they prefer that all females cover to keep them from yearning to transgress.
The second tribe, which holds much more active power across the grassroots of American Muslim life, is the disorganised coalition of varying stripes of Islamist inspired acronym organisations. This camp is much more versatile than neo-traditionalists in their ability to politically engage the modern and build progressive coalitions. Their woke brand allows them to neatly move into the space of liberal political action while maintaining mosques, organisations and realities that are dominated by Arab men, cultural traditionalism and banking theories of education. Islamists like to promote women who appear to be models for how they prefer other women to act. They also claim to be the advocates of democracy. They do so, however, through ethical contortions of unmatched proportion rendering their wall of magic of beliefs impenetrable to reason. When Fethullah Gulen was Recep Erdogan’s friend American Islamist academics and their supporters wrote books praising him. When Erdogan turned on Gulen, they joined Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Rudy Giuliani arguing for extradition to Turkey. When a military dictatorship in a Muslim majority society rips up a constitution they light the mosques of the West with fiery speeches that weave scripture, political philosophy, and folklore. When an Islamist government does it, America’s Muslim Brotherhood activists go on vacation to Istanbul. They dare not critique the policies of Saudi Arabia lest they be denied entry for the annual money making hajj expeditions that float their families financially for most of the year.
Despite the clear split among leaders, followers in the United States flow between the two camps assembling an identity that bobs and weaves according to the passions of the scholar of the day. One will often find among Islamists and neo-traditionalists the frequency of citing Hadith, the sayings of scholars, or the analysis of jurists (lawyers) more than Qur’an. This, in turn, leads to the invocation of time-specific traditions, norms, habits, instances, or even coincidences as a component of the corpus of canonised knowledge. The banking theory of education is the primary mode of engagement between both groups rendering those who emulate and reinforce what once was as the most capable of leadership. Each student races for the most immediate opportunities to acquire certified deposits of knowledge leaving no room for their personal reflection and analysis. This is why often we find the students of Islamists and neo-traditionalists being more conservative and regressive than their teachers. They are excelling in what they’ve been taught. Their organisations are not democratic, their ideas are not progressive but don the garb of liberalism.
Let us explore some common denominating pillars of Western Muslim regression. Then, provide a competing paradigm that can perhaps liberate us from our intellectual and thus spiritual slumber. At the outset, none of this is personal. I have great respect for the people critiqued below.
Critical thinking is taboo in Western Muslim life. It is not permitted. Those who challenge the ideology of their respective community are quickly blocked from leadership positions and relegated to the liminal state of the un-mosqued. Muslim spaces in the West are factories of cultural reproduction masquerading as religious knowledge. Unique among Western religious groups is reverence for white converts among congregations of immigrant-cultured affluent young professionals. Whether Islamists or neo-traditionalists, whiteness holds great value in Western Muslim life. No one from any camp dare argue for Islamic reform, lest they be deemed too liberal, which is communal code for not good for your children. They surely don’t dare do so in opposition to a white convert with moderate Arabic skills, because mediocre white Muslim men are committed to making Islam great again.
The most famous British neo-traditionalist is Abdul Hakim Murad, original name Timothy Winter, of the Cambridge Muslim College. In a series of videos, he argues that 1,400 years of scholars investigating the issues we deal with today should displace our individual thinking. Sound familiar? It’s an Ibn Rajab remix. Winter, like other neo-traditionalists argues that ideas of reform elevate fallible human critical capacity beyond its appropriate scope limiting the wisdom of Islam. He goes so far as to say that positions, such as mine, which encourage incorporating the wisdom of scholars as input to our subjective experience and final determination is a form of shirk (belief in a God other than God alone). To think and make our own decisions is shirk? Not much movement possible there. Winter argues that challenging the scholars and the import of their subjectivities upon our reality is a form of believing in a God alongside God. He goes on to explain that challenging or diverging from the opinion of these scholars is tantamount to back-biting, in reference to the Qur’anic image of eating the dead burned flesh of the scholars of Islamic history. Why do we terrorise ourselves away from thinking? People come to believe that thinking will land them in hell, literally. Message delivery by a white man with a British accent, who converts to Islam, carries great weight. So thousands decide not to think, lest they weaken their faithfulness.
The encouragement to not individually engage the ethics of Islam and apply them to our lives is often tied to an understated, but widely whisper-disseminated conspiracy among neo-traditionalists. Religious leaders convince Muslims that liberalism is coming for their faith, cultural norms, and gender identity. Like Trump, they whistle to the base that the world wants to change them. Religious identity under threat from dilution becomes yet another catalyst for non-movement. In our current reality, Western Muslims achieve authenticity by rejecting change.
Leaders often find themselves stuck between actions that were once upon a time sanctioned under Islamic law and their unethical application in the modern. They convince their neo-traditionalist and Islamist congregations that there is divergence between the normative principles of Islam and the legal regimes of the societies in which we live. For instance, in Southern California, there are circles of Muslims who use Muslim lawyers to create cohabitation agreements circumventing bigamy laws allowing for multiple wives. The same folks oppose the use of cohabitation agreements to circumvent the once upon a time ban on gay marriage but find no ethical challenge in using them for polygamy. When challenged on the illegality of their actions and the possibility they are engaged in human and sex trafficking, they revert to claims of Islamic authenticity. They move in on the uninformed Islam-illiterate masses for business. Convincing a wealthy community that wants to contract out of their rights in America pursuant to pre-purposed pietism is a great business model. As long as someone says it is more authentically Islamic, they are willing to cut the deal. Convincing American Muslims that they should give their daughters an inheritance that is less than they deserve pursuant to state law, they appear as the arbiters of an objective past looking for reincarnation in the modern. A magical world akin to Willy Wonka’s where girls get less chocolate, because they are girls.
Our scholars waffle. They don’t loudly condemn Imams who groom underage girls and they step aside when others defend female genital mutilation. When accused of excluding women from communal leadership they claim that sister so and so spoke on issues that relate to women. They preach equity and not equality for women. All in the name of protecting, conserving, and preserving. The most liberal neo-traditionalist will say that Western Muslims should not openly support gay marriage because it will dilute the concept of marriage and will send a message to Muslims that we accept homosexuality. Thus, they argue, Muslims should not allow ethics to determine how they stand on issues of justice. So we stand for injustice in the name of conserving with paranoiac determination what was once (1,000 years ago) the ethical tenor of society. Injustice for justice is peak hyper-reality.
Surely this approach to understanding Islam doesn’t come from the US or the UK. It originates in the Arab world where all attempts at finding authenticity in the face of coloniality led to deformations of religion and culture. Like Napoleon insisting upon the Egyptian religious establishment to criminalise all sin to prove their civility, Western Muslim leaders import social regression to prove their God-given superiority to surrounding culture. One would assume there are issues upon which there would be sharp divergence between Western and Arab-world Muslim scholars given the very different realities they live. Allow me to walk you through the neo-traditionalist condemnation of sex slavery to highlight the chaotic incoherence Muslims are faced with in the US and the UK.
In his book Refuting ISIS, Shaikh Muhammad al-Yacoubi, a major Syrian religious and intellectual figure, articulates his argument against the terrorist organisation from his perspective of Islamic law. I once met Yacoubi at the White House, a kind and sincere man. Shaikh Yacoubi is opposed to ISIS and is rightfully applauded as a moderate. Yacoubi tackles ISIS and their use of sex slavery. He explains that there is no harm in heads of state of Muslim majority societies from signing international treaties that obligate them against slavery. If other nations were to break their contracts and begin enslaving Muslims or non-Muslim citizens in Muslim nations, then it would be permissible for the Muslims to retaliate accordingly against the violating nations.
Wait, what just happened? You mean we revert to juristic opinions (rulings) of people in times when the rules of prisoners of war in Islam were significantly more progressive than the existent legal regimes. And we will use them to justify the use of sex slavery today? Really? Yacoubi is saying that there are modern conditions or circumstances that permit the use of sex slavery as a sanctioned Islamic activity in 2019.
That an agreement with a non-Muslim leader or nation is a departure from the normative Islamic position, that there are circumstances in which slavery is permitted, is nothing less than an injustice toward Islam. They will insist it is tradition. They will insist it is fiqh. How could this possibly be? The idea of retaliation is so out of place in the spirit of the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition as applied to our time that it should be challenged as a poisonous philosophy of conflict resolution. What is the purpose of this confusion and inability to articulate an ethical stand with moral clarity? What does it do other than satiate the insecurities of the masses? How can self-decimation in the modern be Islamic?
We have socially constructed our Muslim identities in a way that ostracises us from normalcy, beauty, and reasonableness. Notice the inability to articulate reasonable dialectics between genres of ethics and law with use of phrases like – these agreements do not nullify. This is how we construct an argument against ISIS? It falls so far short of what is needed for our time. How can anyone exercise agency as a Muslim if this is the guidance we receive from the most learned among us? The ones who challenge the terrorists from the bowels of faith.
I am reminded of Paulo Freire’s admonition that ‘to affirm that men and women are persons, and as persons, should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.’ We can’t even get our leaders to affirm that as persons we should be free to condemn sex slavery without any confusion. We cannot stand for this freedom in the twenty-first century because we are afraid of the degradation of Islam. We are afraid that if we go against any component of what has come to be in history we will ruin our religion. We fear diluting or breaking Islam in some way. Our fragility is turning us into backers of ugliness in the name of beauty. What we are offering the world is fundamentally not reasonable, and not ethical! I am not talking about some liberal conception of Western ethics – I am speaking to the core of the construction of the Islamic in the modern. It should be clear and without question that any form of slavery in our time is un-Islamic and unacceptable under any rationale or analysis. This is doable – there is no requirement of the scholar to fault what has come before us to say that as of now, there is an absolute moratorium on all forms of slavery in all times from this day forward. Period. Full stop (for the Brits). Nothing else is needed. What is offered here, instead, is the deformation of Islam in the name of tradition. A glimpse of Umberto Echo’s hyper-reality where we are constructing things to appear more real than what is real. As if Walt Disney was the head of their school of thought. We are dreaming of paradise and creating a living hell in the name of Islam, in the name of God.
Yacoubi then goes on to vociferously condemn the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIS, which is welcome! The confusion, however, ensues in an endless series of hedges and dance-steps to accommodate camps of ideology and their emotional states of defeatism. One of his reasons for opposing the slavery of Yazidis and the sexual abuse of Yazidi women is that even ‘if ISIS was to implement the principle of retributive justice, the Yazidis have not enslaved any Muslims to warrant such retaliatory measures’. What? How is this reasonable? Could this not be seen as a display of complete and utter confusion and inability to clearly state an unequivocal moral position to represent Islam in the modern? What is a young person in Southern California supposed to learn from this line of reasoning? That we do inhumane things if the other side does? We meet sex slavery with sex slavery? Yacoubi is bringing the culture of desert Arabs 1,400 years ago directly into the realities we are living today. How can anyone take us seriously with this kind of thinking? This can’t be our best effort in the West in an era of international law and human rights norms. We will be war criminals if the other side commits war crimes? That’s Islam in 2020?
So, a young Muslim in America goes online to understand what is happening and she is met with this analysis as the authoritative take on the issue. Allow me to note here that social media is a very important medium for communication in Western Muslim life for two reasons. First, until the advent of social media, American Muslim leaders were regional figures. Getting to scale financially and communally was a difficult task in the 80s and 90s of American Muslim activism. Second, there is very little reading at the popular level of Muslim community life because most Muslims believe that truth lies in the secret Arabic code of ancient texts. In that sense, the works of modern scholars write are not read by the community, thus there is a mismatch between the scholar class and the masses. Generally, scholars of all stripes live good lives. They are reasonable and open to private disagreement and discussion. Their influence, however, is rarely correlated to their intellectual output. Some of the most famous American Muslim scholars have translated a couple ancient pamphlets at best. Their scholarship is sourced in banking ideas and quotations not in research and the development of knowledge that benefits the masses. Their role is to ornament the past, resulting in a bejewelled and bedazzled Islam that appeals to our need for respect in the face of oppression and emotional displacement. Instead of glasses to envision a more beautiful future, we place blinders on ourselves like donkeys averting distraction in Cairo traffic.
With the advent of websites, blogs, YouTube, and social media, American Muslim leaders developed direct access to congregations across the country and around the world. People like disgraced (sexual abuse) Imam Nouman Ali Khan or the disgraced Tariq Ramadan (accused of multiple rapes) could not succeed in getting to scale on both sides of the Atlantic without technology and social media. This opened potential audiences and donors. All of this is to say, never underestimate what looks to young people as a fatwa on Facebook. They carry great weight at the popular level. There are almost no other sources of Islamic knowledge at the popular level of American Muslim life. We don’t read books. We have Imams that read for us and then spoon-feed us like children to make us feel that everything will be ok. And we like, then share their incoherence to ensure we’ve done our part.
Let us point to an American example of the same insistence on incoherence as identity. Imam Zaid Shakir is one of the most prominent American Muslim leaders alive and with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is a founder of Zaytuna College. A voice of sanity, reason, love, encouragement, hope, and faithfulness, he is loved by the masses and I love him. With an ability to speak to young people and a life of service to community and nation (Air Force) – he is a critical component of the current Muslim American experience. He is also a neo-traditionalist. In a Facebook post, dated 13 August 2015, entitled ‘ISIS, Sex Slaves and Islam’, Imam Zaid Shakir attempts to allay the fears and horror of American Muslims in what they see ISIS doing. His first post on the subject was ten paragraphs long and appeared to be a reasoned and intentional intervention. The purpose, I assumed, was to help the community deal with a New York Times article highlighting the use of sexual slavery by ISIS. Imam Zaid opens with a call for concern among Muslims arguing that ISIS ‘presents its practices as normative Islam and accuses the masses of Muslims who reject their draconian interpretation of the religion as ignoramuses or cowards who are afraid to identify with real Islam’. Yes, this is welcome. But notice the centre of gravity in the framing of the analysis is that which has become normative in the construction of the Islamic is real Islam. Real Islam? Normative to whom, where, when, and in what situations? Who are the holders of this real Islam? I shouldn’t ask that, I already know the answers. The Imams.
The first thing we should understand about slavery is that it is not an integral part of Islam such as praying, fasting, the prohibition of interest, etc. As such, it is amenable to being rejected without any sin falling on the one rejecting it. For this reason, every Muslim nation has legally outlawed slavery. The fact that slavery is not an integral part of Islam also means that fatwas associated with it are amenable to change with changing circumstances.
Is that really the first thing we should understand? In the twenty-first century, the first thing we need to understand about slavery is that it is not integral to Islam? Why is the first sentence not – the first thing we should understand is that there is no place for slavery in Islam. At no point does he clearly and directly reject it under all circumstances. All fatwas are amenable to change, every single one! They are the product of humans practicing law in a time and place pursuant to their limited subjectivity. The baseline opinion of neo-traditionalists is that fatwas are not amenable to change? Every Muslim nation is now our guiding light for legality and ethics in the modern? These bastions of injustice and oppression are where we get our guidance on how to be Muslim in the modern? If every Muslim nation legalised sex-slavery does it suddenly become Islamic? Is Islam like customary international law where action that is not opposed becomes normative or is it based on some ethical parameters (maqasid ) from which we begin our analysis? If by integral part of Islam you mean creed, then creed comes from the Qur’an not from fatwas. There is nothing in a human being’s opinion that rises to the level of something that is integral to Islam. That means all fatwas without any exception can and should be challenged and are binding upon nobody but the mufti of that specific fatwa. The way Imam Zaid writes it, one would think that the core components of Islam’s creed come from fatwas, they don’t. They come from God. This amplifying of the role of Imams as intermediaries of the Lord and the consequent Catholicisation of Imam culture is one of the primary reasons Muslims are afraid of thinking. Especially when they see pictures of their leaders dressed in flowing white robes presented to the world as equals to the Pope. Then, like Shaikh Yacoubi’s intervention, Imam Zaid goes off the rails of reasonableness and ventures into the realms of hyper-reality:
For those who argue that Islam has retained sexual slavery as a deterrent to other nations from going to war against Muslims; in the current context, the actions of ISIS are being used to fan the flames of war against Muslims. In that the ruling to re-institute slavery has lost its deterrent power, the ruling itself collapses.
Wait, what? It is as if when we talk about Islam we forget everything we know about humanity. We shut off our minds to please God. The rationale for why Islam should not retain sex slavery is that it is not de facto functioning as a deterrent to attacks against Muslims? As opposed to saying: the idea of sexual slavery as a deterrent for the actions of others is an unethical concept sourced in the morality of a different time that does not have any bearing on the way we live today as Muslims. We as Muslims do not engage in immoral action because others choose to do so against us. Our religion is a religion of ethics, we are not interested in reducing the level of freedoms a person enjoys on this earth for political gain.
Imam Zaid argues that the reasoning for the ruling allowing sex slavery is no longer valid because its pre-requisite conditions have not been met. This is why the intelligent faithful must turn their minds off to maintain their faithfulness. This makes no sense. There were so many reasonable avenues to take in his analysis. He can argue that the ethical standards of society at the time of the ruling are no longer relevant. Or that the ugliness and taking of human dignity has no place in a way of life that submits to the majesty of God. He could argue that this ruling was only viable in light of Qur’anic ethics because the custom of the time was more oppressive than the reality the rulings constructed. Or, that these issues are for governments to manage. He could then underscore that we as Muslims in the West are clearly bound by the normative ethos of US and international law. No, none of that.
This kind of unreasonable thinking is what has Muslims leaving Islam in droves, and encourages those who don’t choose Islam as a way of life to look at us as though we are transplants of an ugly history. Exactly what Imam Zaid is trying to combat is what he is facilitating. Allowing our differences with ISIS to appear as mere legalism, we mainstream malignance. Al Qaeda’s condemnation of ISIS was stronger than this! It facilitates for extremists to convince young people to join their ranks, the opposite of its intended purpose. Muslims in the West are losing the essence of our faith because of our inability to engage the modern with authenticity and intelligence. Zero reflexivity. We don’t look inward. Instead, white converts argue that slavery in Islam was better than trans-Atlantic slavery. Imam Zaid continues his analysis.
Another relevant legal principle is consideration of the future harm resulting from implementing a ruling. This principle is subordinate to the principle of removing the means that lead to an unlawful end, even if those means, in some cases, are themselves lawful. In the case of ISIS and slavery, one of the frightening implications of their actions is that it is turning people away from Islam in unprecedented numbers.
Notice how all authority and all determinations of what this religion is and is not revolves around the law and the principles of analysis in application of the law. We are still mired in the law to the extent that it no longer makes any sense. Then he says that removing a means that leads to an unlawful end is necessary in Islam. This is correct as a principle oscillating in a vacuum. What is the means he is referring to? Sexual slavery. Wait. Are these means permissible if they lead to a lawful end? What is the unlawful end he is speaking of? Turning people away from Islam. Not enslaving humans in sexually abusive situations? One of the most prominent Black Muslim leaders in American history offers a fatwa on sex slavery and the reasoning for why it should not be used by ISIS is that it leads to people leaving Islam? How can this be?
Our religion is not this hideous Frankenstein-like creation being cobbled together by ISIS and their ilk and endorsed by some Islamic studies professors at Princeton University. It is a beautiful gift of a sophisticated civilisation, however, that gift will not be understood or understandable when the principles that allow us to make sense of various rulings are cast aside.
How is a religion that is open to sex slavery in 2020, if the necessary pre-requisite measures are met, not a Frankenstein-like monster? There is nothing sophisticated about the civilisation he presents to us. Nothing. Notice the side slap to Western academia. Without providing explanation he lumps universities in concert with ISIS and their ilk. The understated dog whistle is clear. Feminism is coming for your deen. Don’t let the liberal West change your faith. Don’t let them get you to hate yourself. In Southern California Imams who were born in Southern California refer to America in the third person. Why would we resist change? Are we for sex slavery? Is that what we stand for?
When Imam Zaid’s opinion was published many in the community were not comfortable. In response to the critique of his analysis, white Islamist convert Jonathan Brown, of the al-Waleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, volunteered himself as a defender of Imam Zaid. Brown argued that no self-respecting scholar could do more than what Imam Zaid offered because it would require a nullification of scholarly analysis and consensus over time in the development of Islamic law. He argued that any expectation of Imam Zaid calling for the complete abolition of slavery is not reasonable. That’s a Georgetown professor, another white convert, insisting that you cannot be a respectable scholar of Islam if you call for a complete prohibition of sex slavery. What is a kid in a mosque in a random town supposed to think? Well, we took care of that. They aren’t allowed to think.
Allow me now to conclude with a final example of how to deal with this issue. This example serves as a stark contrast to the approaches offered above in that it is sourced in pedagogy of critique and critical analysis. In his seminal text, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam, Maher Hathout tackles the issue of slavery in Islam with its own chapter. The chapter opens with a claim to the authority of international law in citing both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. Immediately, there is a clear and unambiguous statement of affirmation that what is normative international law should be seen as a core component of the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all people. Including for Muslims and by Muslims. We are not excepted as chosen by God to deviate from the ethical norms of our time.
The second paragraph, trying to relay the immediacy felt by the author, of the chapter is an admonition of Muslim majority societies for taking too long to institute corollary national laws that reflect the international standard. ‘Furthermore, the illegal practice of slavery continues to the present day in different forms. Also, the exploitation of domestic workers and illegal trafficking of women all over the world continues to be a modern-day manifestation of slavery.’ There is absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. Notice the ascription to international normative principles over opaque and archaic legal rulings 1,000 years old to set the tenor for the conversation. He also allows slavery to be defined according to its modern manifestations. There is no confusion on where this chapter is going or what ethical ground it stands on.
This chapter seeks to address this issue from an Islamic perspective, highlighting the contrast between the Qur’anic text and the actual, historical practice of slavery by Muslims. From a doctrinal, Islamic perspective, we firmly condemn slavery as an affront to the natural state of freedom in which God created human beings and to the very first pillar of Islam (the declaration of faith), which indicates that no person or power has the right to enslave people.
This is the discourse of an ethical Muslim in our time. This is a discourse that attracts beautiful, intelligent people who want to bring about justice and beauty in the world as Muslims. This is a discourse that accedes to our equality with all other people and honours human dignity. At the outset Hathout strikes a clear demarcation between God’s authority and the actions of Muslims in history with no hesitation. Muslims are not holy. Only God is holy. This passage defines Hathout’s approach to everything that requires analysis – always starting with the Qur’anic ethics. He then condemns slavery in all forms for all times from now until the last day of humanity. Insisting on his obligation to God to only pursue justice and to stand against oneself if justice necessitates, Hathout doesn’t mince words. There should be absolutely no slavery. Why? Because it is against the Design of the ultimate Designer – it goes counter to the natural order of humanity. He believed that freedom is a necessary pre-requisite to true faithfulness. It is the declaration of faith, the first statement of being a Muslim that nullifies any argument for slavery. Not the ins and outs of underground tunnel work of incoherence in order to see the light.
The Qur’an never legislated slavery, but legislated abolition. The issue here is not so much why slavery should be, quite rightly, prohibited today, but the fact that we need to go beyond the historical Qur’anic context as we interpret Islam with regard to contemporary issues and problems. Universal normative principles such as justice and equality and freedom, which have a clear basis in the Qur’an, are the primary, underlying sources of an Islamic human rights framework. We need not rely exclusively on traditional Islamic Jurisprudence, especially with regard to the slavery issue.
Hathout returns to Qur’anic ethics and offers an analysis of what the overall trajectory of the Qur’an is regarding slavery. Surprisingly, neither Yacoubi nor Shakir ever state simply that the Qur’an advocates the abolition of slavery. Hathout offers an extensive verse-by-verse analysis of slavery in the Qur’an and what the objectives of the verses analysed together encourage. Abolition. If there is a clear basis in the Qur’an to argue for a more humane engagement with reality and argue for more freedoms and dignity for humanity then it is incumbent upon us to do so! The statement that Shaikh Yacoubi and Imam Zaid couldn’t make is the one Hathout makes because he does not subscribe to Winter and Ibn Rajab’s admonition to not dare and think. Thinking critically is faithfulness. Hathout encourages us to not rely exclusively on Islamic jurisprudence as it exists, rather we should be engaged in the work of meeting the aims and objectives of that law in our time. We should actively participate with our God-given agency in defining what it means to be Muslim today.
Freedom is a natural right of all human beings. Freedom is inherent in the creation of man by God, and is a component of human dignity … From an Islamic perspective slavery is a socially constructed institution and not a hereditary one. All children are born free.
All children are born free is neither astrophysics nor neuroscience. Yet neuroscientists and astrophysicists need their Imam to find the words to condemn sex slavery in our time. Zaid and Yacoubi insist that the principles that make Islam beautiful are the ones associated with the promulgation of law and placed upon jurists as a methodology of exegesis and jurisprudential commentary. Hathout derives the principles he uses for analysis directly from the Qur’an. Hathout’s pedagogy is a critical pedagogy of Islamic liberation theology. Where faith exists to free us from ugliness not mire us in webs of confusion. It seeks to empower the believer to engage God in real-time. By giving agency to the believer it is possible to construct Islam in the modern in a way that allows the light of the Qur’an to shine upon the world through the actions of Muslims. There can be liberation from the socio-cultural realities of 1,400 years ago! Hathout makes clear that what is socially constructed can be deconstructed, including the opinion of jurists. Yes, I understand this is anathema to neo-traditionalists.
Justice derives from the equality of all human beings, with their moral freedom and human dignity, as created by God, but it is manifested in their equality before the (temporal) law, with equal legal rights and duties. The state must treat all of its citizens with equity and cannot restrict the freedom of any human being by enslaving them. To do so is to limit the human condition. Justice according to the Divine plan is based on our equality as human beings, without which, the whole narrative of human experience is meaningless from an Islamic standpoint. The state does not have the right to take away from freedom and dignity granted by God, even if it claims to be a state that represents the will of God. The Imam is under the same limitation. A Muslim cannot deny her God-granted freedom to be a believer of ethics that are coherent with the times.
If the discourse of American and British Muslims and the discourse of Muslims in Muslim majority societies is exactly the same then we have failed. If freedom of thought, movement, association, worship, participation in politics, and diversity – if with all of these blessings and tools from God – we re-create what has been created then we have failed. Not just failed on the level of sociology. We fail on the level of faith, on the level of our ontological purpose in being created. Failing in our worship of God. When what we create resembles what can only be created under the most extreme conditions of oppressive backwardness and regression, then we are not meeting our obligation as Muslims. Our obligation for the global community of Muslims in the future is to push as far as possible in our journey for renewal, growth, and renaissance to a more impressive understanding of both the word and the world. Not with the intention of displacing the journeys of other communities and societies. Rather, pursuant to the recognition of our obligation to do the best we can with what we have. And we have been given a great deal! The process of seeing our faith as embodying a theology that liberates humans will culminate in our collective critical consciousness.
As of now, Muslim tech executives, physicians, and engineers gather around their Teslas in the parking lots of mosques in Orange County, California. Their tradition is to hand scoop biryani onto jumbo slices of halal beef pepperoni pizza in gender-segregated gatherings on Ramadan nights. This, to them, is Islam in America.