Answers to Questions on Islam: Part IV of VI

November 30, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue four:

Another thing I suppose is, why do you think Muslims have been in the dark fo so long about Islamic textgs and Muhammad’s character. The fact that many Muslims don’t speak Arabic, and certainly not Classical Arabic, well enough to read the texts is one issue. What do you think caused it? It’s indeed interesting that out of the 1.2 billion Muslims-which we must face is a huge number, there are many very smart, upstanding people in this group who look at the Quran, Hadith and Sira and see genuine beauty, wisdom and tolerance in it. Do you think it’s due to mental defficiency, actual brainwashing or self denial? Sijmply a radically different interpretation that sadly not enough Muslims follow? Or simply being severely misguided by Imams who may not understand as much as they think about Islamic texts? The best case scenario is that the interpretations of the Quran, as outlined in the blogging the Quran series on the Islamocritical site Jihadwatch, are not the sole interpretation by Muslims

The issue of interpretations is contentious indeed. And I have a theory, which is has two parts:

One is that while Islam claims to not have a priestly class, there is a clerical class that acts, effectively, as priests. In Urdu, the term is chowdhrihat, and a comparable term can be “priestcraft” (especially as used by Latter-day Saints). The clerics establish themselves as experts, and they make themselves vital by emphasizing the difficulty of understanding, let alone correctly interpreting, the Sources of Islam (Qur’an, ahadeeth, sunnah). On the one hand, they have a point: interpreting each volume of the Sources of Islam is its own field of study, is an art. But this doesn’t mean that the common man cannot delve and master these arts, or that things can be organized (or reorganized, I suppose, at this point) such that the common man can study and apply Islam without the need for clerics. Muslims like to claim that Islam is a simple religion: why, then, all these rules? why, then, the need for clerics?

In any case, such it is, and people tend to ask about, read, and follow the pronouncements of the clerics. So, how people practice and interpret Islam depends on the clerics. It’s not so much that they are brainwashed as much as they don’t know better, and believe they can’t know better.

The other is that interpretations are always biased. (This goes for most traditions, religious and otherwise.) People have certain preconceived notions and expectations and interpretations, and they interpret things through these lenses.

An interesting example is the issue of jihaad. If one comes with the lens that jihaad is non-violent, then all references to jihaad is interpreted from the perspective of a spiritual battle and obviously violent dicta are explained away. If one comes with the lens that jihaad is violent, then all references to jihaad are interpreted accordingly.

Who is right? Who is wrong? From an academic perspective, there is no right or wrong: things are as they are. But from the perspective of a Muslim, it’s hard to say. It’s so common for two sides of an issue to successfully use the Sources of Islam to defend their points that one must conclude that either Muslims are experts at twisting the words of the Sources of Islam or that the Sources of Islam are contradictory. In either case, one cannot really depend on the Sources of Islam to establish what is right or not, and this is why there are so many seemingly contradictory interpretations from the same sources.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part III of VI

November 27, 2009 at 7:11 pm (History, Islam)

Issue three:

Critics of Muhammad today suggest he was in the same league as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Nero or Attila the Hun in terms of how he forced his people backward and oppressed them, but it seems it can also be argued his actions were more good that bad when the situation of Arabs before and after him is analyzed.

Except for the massacre of Jews, I don’t think one can necessarily equate Muhammad bin Abdillah with the likes of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Nero, or Attila the Hun. Muhammad’s reach was very local – except for missionary assignments, Muslims of Muhammad’s time stayed within the Arabian peninsula. Furthermore, while the sword of Islam brought many tribes into the Islamic polity, more tribes were integrated into the Islamic state through diplomatic means, mainly through marriage. While it is true that Muhammad had many, many wives, most of these marriages were for political, diplomatic purposes.

This is evidenced by what happened as soon as he died – many tribes that were allied with the Islamic state defected. They saw their inclusion in the Islamic state as a political not religious arrangement. They saw Muhammad not so much as the prophet of God but rather as super-chief of all tribes. Hence the Wars of Apostates under Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s successor as political leader: he fought these defecting tribes to keep them in the Islamic polity, enforcing the religious (rather than simply political) nature of the Islamic state. (Muslims often characterize the tribes as having converted to Islam where they really simply joined a political union.)

Now, did Muhammad create a better environment? If we believe what the Muslims (obviously biased) have written, then yes. But if we want to be absolutely sure, we need a better idea what pagan Arabia was really like (rather than what it was alleged to be). Very few descriptions exist of pagan Arabia, so we can’t really say.

That said, I do not think it can be said that Muhammad initiated a regress of the Arabic people. Critics may not want to swallow this bitter pill, but Muhammad (and Muslims) did a lot to advance the Arab peoples. In a short span of time, desert nomads had conquered ancient kingdoms and ruled vast swathes of land. One can hardly call this forcing the Arabs backwards. Were it not for Muhammad, the Arabs would be nobody today. Islam put the Arabs on the world stage.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part II of VI

November 25, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue two:

The same goes for many issues with Muhammad and women. Critics attacked Muhammad for banditry, insulting pagan faiths and not being a convincing prophet, but never his relations to women. Marrying wifes of fallen enemies never drew objections, nor did having slave girls or polygamy. The only thing he did that Arabs found objectionable, atg least with regards to women, was marrying his son in law’s wife. The changes in women’s status in Arabia as a result of Muhammad seem overwhelmingly postive. Again, that’s not to justify the horrific oppression of women going on right now due to his example, but merely to discuss the issue of his environement.

Considering the issue from the perspective of the environment of paga Arabia, it may indeed seem that Islam – Muhammad’s new system – improved the lot of women. Indeed, Muslims will often say that women in Islam had a higher status in Islam than in Judaism, Christianity, pagan Arabia, or any other place.

There are a few issues, however, when considering the status of women in Islam.

1. We do not know, exactly, what the status of women was throughout pagan Arabia. Almost all descriptions of pagan Arabia we have are from Muslim sources, and thus negative. Back then, there was no obectivity in historical accounts, and so we can be sure that all Muslim accounts of pagan Arabia are biased and skewed. Was the status of women in the Hijaaz the same as elsewhere? We don’t know. It may possible that women in pagan Arabia had a status lower than in Islam; the opposite can also be true. We don’t.

2. If Islam did elevate the status of women, then it cannot be condemned. However, we do not live in the past. We live now. The irony may just be that while women in Islam had a status higher than in any other religious body, today they have a status lower than in any other religious body. Going back to a problem in the previous issue: there is no change. What was acceptable (and even laudable) in the past do not remain the same today.

3. Islam established certain laws and policies with regard to women. While Christians, Jews, Hindus, and many others have modernized and changed their laws and policies, the same cannot be said about Islam. While Islam’s dicta may have helped women in the past, today the very same dicta hinder women.

4. We can look at the status of women in Islam in that age, in that environment, and in those circumstances, but we cannot forget how those elements impact the world today. While Muhammad’s example and dicta were not reprehensible for his time, age, and environment, the lamentable fact is that they remain in force despite the world changing and evolving.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part I of VI

November 23, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Someone named Maxwell1313 asked me a few questions about Islam/Muhammad. For two weeks, I’m going to answer his questions.

Issue one

But the question arises, to what extent did the people of Arabia really object to Muhammad’s actions and to what extent were they merely the result of his environment? The ubituitous example is Aisha. From what I’ve read, it seems the evidence that anyone in Arabia, pagans, Jews or Christians, objected to his marraige with Aisha due to her age simply due to her age is not there. One could argue he used revelations to gain support and intimitaded would be objectors, but even his multitude of critics never found Aisha’s age objectionable. Hence, it seems that either Arabs, including Jews and Christians, had condoned sexual relations with little girls and that only modern post-Enlightment Christians have come to find it objectionable, or that ultimately it didn’t really happen and the hadiths that suggest this are false. Obviously, you both reject the latter, but that would create a problematic situation for Arabs, even Christian and Catholic ones, who would have to come to terms with the fact that their culture has condoned mistreatment of women for centuries and only post Enlightment values have changed this. And although their defense of Muhmmad as a role model for all times would still fall flat, Muslim can argue that early Jews and Christians clearly did not see Muhammad’s marriages objectioanble and objectioning to it today is cultural elitism. Now, I would say sex with a nine year old girl is grotesque regardless of the age but unfortunately it can be argued this results from unreasonable cultural standards.

The issue you are referring to is called “child marriage.” This was, indeed, permissible in Judaism. The Talmud has regulations on it. It is, furthermore, relatively recently that normative Judaism stopped practicing child marriages.

There is also a phenomenon called “presentism” wherein one applies standards and expectations and ways of thinking of the present to past eras. This is not always good because people in the past did not believe or think the way we do. Thus, in the past, child marriages were acceptable. If we find Muhammad’s marriage to Aishah bint Abi Bakr objectionable, we should realize that we are offended because our current standards finds such a thing objectionable, not necessarily because it was in and of itself objectionable.

The problem with Muhammad’s marriage to Aishah bin Abi Bakr is its impact today: because Muhammad did it, Muslims find it acceptable even today. Thus, while we cannot condemn Muhammad’s marriage (because that was acceptable even by Christians and Jews of that period), we can condemn the perpetuation of child marriage among Muslims in today’s world that rejects such a thing. If we wish to declare that what Muhammad did was intrinsically evil, we must likewise condemn similar practices by Christians, Jews, and other peoples through history.

th3cow comments:

Your answer is somewhat misleading, but that is not surprising.

While in Judaism it was ok for young girl to be married off at a relatively young age, as was the custom in the ancient world, it is not ok now, and it is well grounded in Jewish religious jurisprudence. That is – the religious scholars and leaders (The Rabbis) have the authority to pass rulings that amend laws in order to adapt them to the present day social environment.

In Islam, however, this is not permissible. If Muhammad did it, then it was right then and it is right now and it will be right in the future.

Muslims find it acceptable even today not just because Muhammad did it, but because they are obliged to follow his example, as he is the perfect role model (al Insan al Kamil).

Islam needs to be reformed to remove this element, so that it can be adapted to changes.

Thank you. You are correct, and part of what you said was the point I was trying to make.

I am reading the Talmud Bavli and currently reading Maseches Avodas Zara, and am going through daf after daf on yayin nesech (wine contaminated by contact with idolators – Maseches Avodas Zara is about idolatry). But a vast majority of those rules are no longer followed. This is a significant issue – many Jews know the Talmud better than the Bible, and yet they are free to set aside Talmudic dicta.

This is why for the modern world it is not a problem that the Talmud permits child marriages. Jews today do not perform child marriages, despite Talmudic permission for it.

Of course, underlying this – which I should have discussed and which th3cow mentioned – is the role of injunctions. For Jews, they are halakha or law: this what you do, this is what you don’t do, and often wherefore. There is no person whose example pervades Talmud. There is no this is how Moses bathed, or this is how Abraham cleaned his nose, or this is how Isaac ate. On the other hand, as th3cow mentioned, Muhammad is seen as al-insaan al-kaamil or the perfection of humanity. Everything he did is not only good to follow but practically incumbent on those Muslims who claim to love God and to love Muhammad. Thus, if he performed a child marriage, so can the rest of the Muslim world, and no one can say it is reprehensible.

Also, as th3cow said: rabbinic authorities can, in effect, overrule Talmud. It’s interesting to read Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (a list of halakhos) and see notations that say, essentially: the Talmud says X, but halakha is the opposite. In other words, rabbis can modify Talmudic injunctions and can even overrule them. (This is why to study halakha, studying the Talmud is important, but it is most vital to study not only prominent historical compendia of halakhos (like Shulchan Arukh and Kitzur Shulchan Arukh) but also modern, prevailing responsa and compendia on halakha.) Such an idea is anathema in Islam. No one can overrule sunnah (the way Muhammad lived) or ahadeeth (what Muhammad said). They are eternal. This is why child marriages still are done, and cannot be overruled, and why slavery can still exist in Muslim lands.

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