Flaws of the Darwish-ian Approach to Understand Islam

by Sohaib Sultan

On Thursday, March 24th, 2010 I endured an hour of distortion against one of the world’s great faiths—Islam. The Princeton Tory and Whig-Clio along with an outside organization by the name of CAMERA sponsored a lecture by Ms. Nonie Darwish entitled “Human, Women’s, and Minority Rights Under Islamic Law.”

Darwish claimed that her comments were not against Islam as a religion, but against an ideology. Her defense of this position is that religion is simply one’s personal relationship with God, not a social-moral order that extends beyond the individual. However, even a Standard English dictionary defines religion as “often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” Many world religions, such as Judaism, function out of a sophisticated legal system that informs every aspect of life. So, let’s be clear: Darwish is talking about Islam as a religion, not as a “political ideology,” when she condemns Islamic law. There are two main flaws to the Darwish-ian approach to Islam:

First, Darwish’s approach to Islamic law itself is flawed. Her approach assumes that Islamic law is a stagnant body of text developed centuries ago found in a couple of books. In reality, Islamic law—in the realm of human interactions (mu’amalat)—is a constantly evolving code of life that is flexible to change in every place and period. Furthermore, one of the brilliant features of Islamic law is its tolerance for difference of opinion (ikhtilaf), and, therefore, no one book can ever claim to contain the final word on most legal issues. As a living tradition, Islamic law is in constant conversation with Muslim scholars and thinkers, and the masses in general. In fact, when medieval scholars wrote legal manuals, which Darwish quotes from, they did not intend for their works to be published in mass and placed on the shelf of every Muslim’s home. They intended, for the most part, for their legal works to serve as a basic outline of legal opinions and positions that would then be explained and expanded upon by teachers and preachers. As such, you will find that medieval Islamic legal texts often employ absolute language, expecting that the wise master will offer nuances.

This brings us to the second flaw of the Darwish-ian approach, which is to think that one can open up a book of Islamic law and find their “Islamic” answers to all life’s questions without the aid of a reliable scholar-expert. It is like practicing medicine out of books of medicine without a license. Darwish goes even a step further by then taking all these sentences and paragraphs, found within a legal text, out of historical and textual context to “prove” her own assumptions and validate her own experiences. Darwish employs the same approach in her analysis of Islam’s primary texts, known as Qur’an and hadith. This, in fact, is the dangerous approach of religious fanatics who have wreaked havoc in many parts of the world. The radicals we despise use this approach to spread violence on earth with the righteous mantle of “faith.” Darwish uses the same approach to spread fear and sow mistrust between peoples with the righteous mantle of “human rights.” In other words, Darwish represents a phenomenon that is best described as “non-Muslim Islamic fundamentalism.” The goals are different, but the approach is exactly the same. And giving credence to this approach is giving credence to the problematic phenomenon of religious based extremism across faiths.

Now, let’s examine briefly some specific issues that Darwish brings up in her critique of Islam and the Muslim World. Darwish claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is born not out of political fighting, land disputes, and historical circumstances; but rather out of Islam’s hatred for Jews. She plays some fear-mongering videos of anti-Jewish rhetoric that can be found in some parts of Arab media. Now, there is no doubt that anti-Semitism is a real and troubling phenomenon in parts of the world, and must be condemned as an evil. But, to claim that anti-Jewish rhetoric and sentiments are “Islamic” is simply untrue. Even in the videos that Darwish played for her audience, the anti-Jewish rants were, if one analyzes closely, hateful political rhetoric cloaked in religious terminology, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, if Islam preached hatred against Jews, then why is it that over the centuries Jews took refuge in Muslim lands when they were persecuted in Christendom? And how is it that Jews experienced one of their Golden Ages under Muslim governance in Spain? Why is it that many Muslims sacrificed their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, according to a new book entitled Among the Righteous by Jeffrey Brown? Either these Jewish-friendly Muslims were not following Islam, or they had a very different understanding of Islam than the one Darwish articulates.

Darwish also claims that Islamic law is a vigilante justice system that has no regards for minority rights. I accept that Islamic thought needs to evolve to a higher plane of thinking when it comes to minority rights today; but minority rights are granted in Islamic law, and when Muslim civilization was at its best it was as minority rights oriented as was possible in the pre-modern world. Periods of the Ottoman Empire, in which religions were free to practice as they saw fit and even granted their own religious courts for civil law, is an example of Islamic tolerance. Even today, Christians and Muslims live peacefully in most parts of the world, not despite Islamic law, but in adherence to it.

The Egyptian born author and activist argues that Islamic law is against women’s rights. Well, I agree that in many parts of the world Muslim women are still struggling for fairness and opportunity in society. And medieval jurists in their opinions did, at times, contribute in some ways to the suppression of Muslim women. But, there are historical and modern examples of Muslim men and women and women’s movements that offer a very different understanding Islam. Their voices should be heard and their approach to Islamic law should be celebrated as a way forward.

Lastly, Darwish argues that the primary and ultimate goal of jihad is to achieve an Islamic state, and that the idea of Islamic state is necessarily totalitarian and fascist. To argue her point she quotes the founder of a 20th century religious movement in South Asia, by the name of Abul ‘Alaa Mawdudi. Yes, these thinkers have had an influence on Muslim thought – and not all negative either. But, when it comes to understanding the role of jihad and Islamic state, fair intellectual inquiry cannot be limited to just some writings to the exclusion of others. It is fair to say, I think, that a vast majority of Muslims are more convinced by democratic, pluralistic, and just ideas of jihad and Islamic state, as is shown by statistical research, such as the Gallup poll studies documented in the book, Who Really Speaks for Islam? by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. These interpretations are as valid as any.

Before I conclude, there is some outright misinformation in Darwish’s presentation that I must counter.  First, so-called “honor killings” have nothing to do with Islamic law, and they have been condemned in religious verdicts (fatwas) and sermons over and over again. Second, contrary to what Darwish asserts, the term Jihad is not used ninety-seven percent of the time in reference to violence in the Qur’an; in fact, jihad is never used exclusively in the fighting context in the Qur’an – the word qital is used instead. The reference to jihad as spiritual struggle is found in books of Islamic spirituality (Sufism) and not law, for obvious reasons. Third, Islamic law, in promoting the virtue of modesty, does not consider a woman’s entire body to be private (awrah); only the most fringe interpretations consider it as such, and the speaker’s gross generalization was incorrect. Finally, wife beating is never permissible.  And women inheriting half of a man’s share does not mean they are half of men in any legal argument that I’ve ever heard of.

In conclusion, what I am arguing here is not that Islamic law is perfect. Indeed, Islam as a legal system that has developed over the centuries is imperfect and constantly in need of reform. In fact, Islamic law has always been a self-reforming system with the science of legal reinterpretation (ijtihad) at the heart of the sacred law. What I am arguing, though, is that it is time to give voice and support to the vast majority who approach Islam in a very different way—in a way that insists on protection and enhancement of the sanctity of life, freedom of religion, human dignity, family, property, and intellectual pursuit. These six ideals are the higher purposes (maqasid) that Islamic Law is built on and represents what mainstream Muslims think of when they conceive of their religion.

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