The Spectacle Blog

Promoting Islamic Self-Discovery Is Key

By on 10.28.11 | 12:40PM

Aaron Goldstein notes that, according to one Islamic authority, the London-based Islamic Sharia Council, women are to be treated, in effect, as second-class citizens in accordance with sharia law.

It's certainly true that the status of women in many Islamic countries leaves much to be desired. But before we indict all of Islam as being irredeemably backward, we should point out, as does Reid Smith, that Sharia can and does mean divergent things to different Muslims.

Moreover, unlike Roman Catholicism, which has a clear institutional hierarchy to settle matters of doctrinal dispute, Islam is a mishmash of competing sects, none of which has clear or obvious jurisdiction over the other.

Which is why, as Reid observes, "the Pashtunwal Taliban state doesn't look anything like an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse Malaysia -- despite the fact that both states find inspiration (of sorts) in sharia law."

The truth is that what Islam means, and how Islam is practiced, is subject to serious dispute within the Islamic world. As Reuel Marc Gerecht explains, "What Islam is, as with Christianity and Judaism, is an evolving question, but it's not just Muslim holy warriors who don't care for the Prophet Mohammad being depicted as a pre-modern peacenik."

Judaism, for instance, can and does mean many different things, even today. And the status of women within the various branches of Judaism, although superior to the status of women within Islam, can and does vary significantly. Why, here in the United States (in Brooklyn, New York), Hasidic women are required, literally, to sit in the back of the bus.

Hasidic "men and women thus have considerably different experiences of spirituality and daily tasks," reports PBS. "Most observers would not dispute that the Hasidim live in a traditionally patriarchal system."

Ultimately, only Muslims can decide what Islam is and what Islam means. But a democratic ethos is crucial. And so, the United States has a clear and manifest interest in promoting democratic change within the Islamic world.

"What we want to see happen in Arab lands and in Iran," writes Gerecht, "is real intellectual competition -- the starting point for healthy evolution. In particular, we want to see devout Sunni Muslims in Egypt try to figure out what exactly are 'Islamic values.'"

We should like to see Islam's classical schools of law revitalized, not thrown in the dustbin as they so often have been by the Middle East's secularizing dictatorships. We want to see Malikis versus Hanafis versus Shafiis versus Hanbalis (especially the Hanbalis who are close to the Saudi interpretation of the faith) versus the Shiite Jafaris.

We want to see them argue, as they did long ago in Sunni Islam's formative legal period, that no one can represent or embody the divine will -- that, as the liberal Egyptian Islamic jurist Khaled Abou El Fadl puts it, "human knowledge is separate and apart from Divine knowledge."

Man's foremost moral and legal duty is thus to guard himself against error and ignorance, to resist the hubris that through fiqh, the study of the Holy Law, any man can exclusively know God's order. Modern autocracies in the Middle East have suppressed such philosophical debates, as they have suppressed so much else. 

Parliaments, once they get going, have a way of looking upon themselves as supreme. Legislatures, not clerical schools, are likely to be the decisive forum for great ethical debates -- especially among Sunni Muslims, who have no clerical hierarchy and are already subject to a wild proliferation of "fatwas," juridical decisions, by clerics and would-be clerics who pointedly say that "your fatwa is no better than my fatwa."

It is likely in any Muslim society that goes democratic that what in the past was the domain of judges and scholars in religious schools -- interpreting the Koran and assessing the relevance and value of the Traditions of the Prophet -- will become the domain of legislatures, particularly in Sunni Arab lands where the organization, prestige, and soft power of the clergy is vastly less than among Shiites.

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