Hijab, Hudud punishments, four wives and other such topics seem to dominate popular discourse on Islam amongst today’s ‘educated youth’. This is unfortunate because not only are such topics in many ways peripheral but importantly they highlight with unique precision the destructive attitude with which Islam is perceived.
The starting point – and in fact the very premise of the debate – is to judge Islamic Law by the liberal secular values of today’s Western society. These values are absorbed into the value system quite unconsciously and so often unquestioningly. For example, it is seen ‘proper’ to have one wife. There is no debate on this assumption; the question is not raised as to why this is the norm. It is simply assumed to be the case. All too often, when it comes to controversial topics like those mentioned above it is difficult to distinguish between the arguments of the Westerner and those of the Muslim because they flow from the same premises.
A Muslim, however, by the very nature of his belief, cannot begin at the same starting point. His starting premise is that Allah’s decrees and His sacred law must be correct. This inversion of approach is crucial. Therefore topics such as the hijab, hudud punishments, polygyny, and so forth, are not merely an ‘Islamic perspective’ but are integral to Allah’s decreed law. Allah has decided in His infinite wisdom that a man is allowed to marry up to four women, that hudud punishments are the best way to deal with crime, and that a woman should wear hijab. As a Muslim there is no alternative.
The statements above all appear too simplistic, and yet tragically the lack of wholehearted belief in them reflects all too clearly the pitiful state of iman in today’s society. All too often, intoxicated by intellectual arrogance, Muslims attempt vainly to challenge the very nature of Truth itself. There is no submission of personal weakness in meeting Allah’s requirements but rather antithetically, they rally to justify positions of heedlessness.
In due course, arguments of historical context are then put forward. Islamic Law is imperiously dismissed as outdated. For example, it is often argued that four wives are allowed at the time of the Prophet Muhammad specifically because a shortage of men had arisen in times of war. There is little justification for this position: relatively few men were lost in war and there is no historical or demographic evidence to suggest that any significant imbalance between the sexes existed to merit such a verdict. More significantly, the Qur’an in verse 4:3 states that a man is allowed to marry up to four wives, and gives no indication of such a qualification. The qualification made over in the Qur’an is more judicious: a man is able to marry four wives only if he is able to treat them equally.
Using the argument of historical context, therefore, is a tool that is often ignorantly misused. This is not to imply that Islam is static, stuck in the past, and unable to adapt to rapid pace of change. But it is the very nature of change that requires careful attention and interpretation. Change is not sought merely for its own sake nor, more importantly, to adapt to the changing interpretation of values. Where Islam provides clear principles in social conduct, these must be accepted as valid across time, because they have been derived from an eternal source. Thus through the Qur’an and Sunna we have a detailed account of how to conduct the vast majority of our social and personal affairs. The actual processes of adaptation are actually quite easy. Where new situations occur that require debate, such as whether organ donation is permissible, it is the job of trained scholars to give their opinions with supporting evidence.
What is worrying, however, is the trend whereby Muslim students, after reading a few books or referring to a few hadith, suddenly feel they have the moral authority to pass judgements on areas of the Shari’a. More disturbing still is the Muslim who, claiming to use his ‘common sense’, outlaws the basic aspects of the Shari’a, and takes it upon him or her self to put Islam in the ‘modern’ context.
In many ways, the problems foregrounded above have a common root. They arise from a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between Islam and modernity. The West has in many ways been at the forefront of scientific and economic progress, and so modernization has become synonymous with Westernization. This has created a natural inferiority complex among Muslims, and is heightened by the calls to return to the Madman utopia, which seems to place Islam further in the past. But it is here that a fundamental distinction needs to be drawn. Islam fully encourages progress and modernization – but not Westernization. For me the distinction can be highlighted by a practical example: picture a Malaysian woman who is a leading research scientist in her country, driving to work on a motorbike and yet maintaining all her Islamic duties – including wearing the hijab. She is certainly modern but not Western.
Another contributory factor to this inferiority complex is a complete ignorance of the glorious past of the Islamic World. It was only 250 years ago that the Islamic empire dominated the world, reaching Spain, while the West wandered, lost in the Dark Ages. It was Muslims who drove scientific and technological change and made invaluable contributions to art, architecture and literature. The West has completely omitted Islam’s great contribution to civilization, and fuelled the myth that it alone has always held the reigns of power and progress.
One illusion that is often created is that Truth is only verifiable by the yardstick of empiricism. But the fact that a phenomenon cannot be tested empirically in a laboratory does not render it invalid. This merely indicates that the phenomenon is unable to be understood by the restrictive tools used. Even so, scientists and modernists are quick to sideline religion because it does not make (empirical) sense. However, it is not that religion itself does not make sense, it is that reason alone is unable to grasp its total reality. Similarly, Islam cannot be restricted by the limits of empiricism – for Allah Himself is not bound by the laws of logic and materiality.
Thus although empiricism gives us one method by which to understand aspects of reality, it needs to be put in a wider context. Empiricism is just one lens – not the only one. The nature of Truth is much wider and deeper than the empiricist approach will allow, and the arduous struggle to discover the absolute nature of Truth is one that few are willing or indeed able to understand. But it is only by undertaking such a struggle that one can come to know not just the meaning of words such as al-tawakkul ‘ala Allah (complete trust in Allah), but to be able to truly understand and live them.
The Shari’a, which governs all areas of social political and economic conduct (and is not just restricted to hudud punishments as is commonly perceived), is not an all or nothing package that can only be applied when an illusive dream like the ‘Islamic state’ is realized. For the Shari’a is not only multi-dimensional but retains importance as much at the level of the individual as at the level of society.
The Shari’a is unlikely to be implemented at the state level for the foreseeable future, if ever. For not only are Muslims too hoodwinked to realize its true validity, but international economies are too interdependent and dependant on the West to survive in splendid isolation – the failure of Iran and the crumbling Sudanese state are testament to this.
What is left is for the individual to strive at the personal level to effect change in his immediate environment. But critically this will only be achieved if the Muslim looks at Islam through the lenses of sincerity and humility – rather than unconsciously adopting the values of the secular West. Young Muslims must reassess the very way in which they approach Islam. They must look at Islam from within. They must attempt to understand why it is so, rather than whether it should be so at all. They must follow the path of Truth, recognize their own weaknesses and strive to remedy them, and amidst all struggle they must ask for Allah’s strength and mercy – for His mercy is infinite.
Waseef Asghar was a former journalist with Q-News International and graduated in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University. Above article first appeared in Belfast Islamic Center News and republished here with permission.