The Qur’an makes high claims for its clarity and internal consistency, and as I have spent the week reacquainting myself with it in class, I am coming to a fresh appreciation of how radically focused it is. Calvin claims that the Bible is never telling us anything we don’t really need to know, but that is a retrospective hermeneutic principle — the Qur’an really is like that from the very beginning. Nothing is placed in there simply to satisfy your curiosity or clarify “in-universe” details. Everything and everyone is radically on message.
The last item on my summer reading list was Knut S. Vikør’s Between God and the Sultan, a survey of Islamic law. It provided a less partisan counterpoint to Hallaq’s work, which had been my primary source of information previously (aside from the segments on Shari’a in Hodgson). Some very general points that I found particularly interesting or salient:
- Classical Shari’a was never a standard code of law that can simply be applied — instead, it was an attempt to discern the ultimately unformulable perfect divine law that only God knows. Hence the practice of law grows directly out of the radical monotheism of Islam, which denies any commensurability between God and humanity.
- In classical Shari’a, law was independent of the state in a way we can’t really imagine today. While the sultan or other ruler was required to administer some punishments, the practice of Shari’a law was monopolized by a self-selecting group of scholars.
- At the same time, Shari’a was never the “only” form of law — the sultan and police often ran their own courts, which were much more flexible and practical in certain instances (because the burden of proof for securing a criminal conviction in Shari’a is extremely high, so that even obviously guilty individuals may wind up going free).
- Classical Shari’a only arose centuries after the rise of Islam, as a practical solution to political conflicts at that time (namely, a trans-national Islamic community divided into smaller political units). Law was practiced differently in Islam before that, and presumably it would also be legitimate to practice law differently after that (as is in fact the case in virtually all Islamic countries).
- Classical Shari’a was never any one thing — even in its most established form, it stabilized into four different schools of law, within each of which there was still room for debate.
- The social conditions that produced classical Shari’a have been irrevocably altered. No modern state — even Iran — is likely to concede its monopoly on law to a group of self-selecting scholars. (The one arguable exception is Saudi Arabia, which was never colonized and hence maintains some level of continuity with pre-modern Shari’a practices.)
- In contemporary parlance, “Shari’a” has more often served as a rallying cry than as a concrete proposal, and attempts at literalism have ironically enshrined some of the most severe punishments as “Shari’a” when they were actually little used and significantly ameliorated in classical Shari’a.
- The emphasis on the “worst” provisions of “Shari’a” often has more to do with an attempt to differentiate Islam from the West than with any substantive commitment to (or even knowledge of) Shari’a law as it was actually practiced in pre-modern times.
tl;dr: The system of classical Shari’a law is fascinating, but it would be impossible to restore it in the modern world. People who claim to be doing so are not in fact doing so.
Early in Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid recounts an attempt by then-Iranian president Khatami to bridge the gap between his country and the United States by appealing to Alexis de Tocqueville. As an instructor at a school in the Great Books tradition, I found this story to be illustrative of the limitations of the Great Books approach insofar as it showed how empty the claim to universal values is in practice. In principle, custodians of a canon of universally applicable texts should be thrilled when someone from another cultural tradition finds a canonical text appealing. In reality, though, Khatami’s attempt to enter into the Great Conversation was met with outrage and derision.
This reaction is of course conceptually incoherent, and that’s because claims to universality for the “Western canon” — indeed, even the very existence of something like the “Western canon,” which Sayyid characterizes as a “hegemonic project” and a “contingent stitch-up” (pg. 55) — are not conceptual claims, but political ones. This means that they are conditioned by the friend-enemy relationship that, for Sayyid, runs above all between the West and the non-West in the contemporary world. Insofar as he was an enemy claiming possession over Western property, therefore, “Khatami had to commit an act of violence that was prerequisite to his attempt at dialogue” (pg. 28), and the reaction he received was every bit as violent.
Some things I’ve been kicking around:
- A Nietzschean reading of Islam: could Islam be read as an attempt to develop a form of prophetic monotheism that embraces master morality rather than slave morality? Particularly striking here is that none of the Qur’anic prophets are martyrs — the Qur’an even refuses to admit that Jesus really died on the cross, and it rejects Christian monastic asceticism as well. Further, could Shi’ism, with its attachment to lost causes and defeated martyrs, be read as a reintroduction of slave morality into Islam?
- Comparing Muhammad and Paul, starting from the similar ways both deploy Abraham as a way of maintaining both continuity and contrast with the pre-existing monotheistic tradition. I’ve written up some thoughts on this previously, and it seems like the topic I am closest to being equipped to write about “officially” (after reading some of the Islamic critiques of Paul mentioned in comments to that post, to be sure).
- The weirdly Altizerian character of Hodgson’s concluding reflections on the role of Islam in the modern world — he ends by saying that even if Islam should eventually cease to exist as a distinct institutional religion, then perhaps the Qur’anic challenge can still authentically live on in the secular world by means of literature. (Not much more to say on this one other than to point out the parallel.)
Repeatedly in the Qur’an, we read that God has created humanity male and female. This duality plays a directly theological role: in contrast to God, who is absolutely One and eternal, who has no partners or offspring, humanity is dual and reproductive. It seems that the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender (as in trans experience). Indeed, the latter possibility never seems to come up, while several tellings of the Sodom story not only make it much clearer than the Bible does that homosexuality is the big problem — but that such a practice was literally unthinkable before the Sodomites invented it.
I wonder, though, if there may still be room to maneuver within Qur’anic terms toward a more open attitude to non-binary gender experiences and expressions. I have a sense that the purely negative theological role of the gender dyad may be the opening — the point of such declarations is to clarify humanity’s radical difference from God, rather than to make normative claims about human character. Presumably if humanity was more polymorphous, its difference from God would be even more strongly highlighted.
Further, we can see evidence that God views variety (beyond duality) to be a positive benefit to humanity, as in 49:13, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” As with the gender dyad, the multiplicity of nations is not a curse or a failing (as in the Biblical narrative of Babel), but a positive opportunity for growth and communion. Could the same not be true of a more expansive view of gender experience and expression?
(Perhaps this is a stretch, and I am after all an outsider — but I am committed to the project of finding liberatory readings of scriptural traditions generally.)
My course over the Qur’an is nearing its end, and I think it has been pretty successful. While my lack of proper expertise poses some problems, and while certain aspects of the readings could have been better selected and arranged, at the end of the day we will have worked through the entire Qur’an, addressed its primary themes, and gotten a handle on the major differences between the Meccan and Medinan periods.
The current plan is for me to offer a variation on the course again next year, at which point I anticipate that I will have a fairly confident grasp on the Qur’an (at least in English translation). My question is where to go from there. I could offer some version of the Intro to Islamic Thought course again, or perhaps something specifically on Sufism or on Islamicate readings of Aristotle. Those would be relatively easy to put together and would constitute a “near reach” for my existing knowledge.
But a bolder idea has occurred to me: a course on Islamic legal reasoning. On a practical level, this may be more immediately relevant to students’ understanding of political events than expertise in the text of the Qur’an itself.
My question is whether such a course would be logistically feasible in a semester. Are there convenient editions of primary texts of relevant hadith and legal debates that would be usable in an undergrad course? How would such a course be structured? Is it something that you just have to have Arabic to do responsibly? Keep in mind that this is an introductory course for undergrads who may have little to no previous background in Islam, not a course for grad students or budding specialists (hence why I would dare to attempt it).
It is likely that I will be offering a course on the Qur’an again next spring, and I’m already planning on working my way systematically through the text one or more times before that (likely in different translations). I’ll obviously never have the instinctive command of the Qur’an that I have of the Bible, but it would be helpful in class if I could more readily make cross-references, etc.
Toward the same end, I would like to read at least a handful of additional books on the Qur’an and on Muhammad’s life and the time period. My main sources on the Qur’an as such so far have been Wadudi and Barlas — because everyone’s research into religious scriptures should start from the feminist critique! — and I’ve also worked my way through most of Hodgson’s imposing tomes. I’m already planning on picking up Kermani’s God is Beautiful, which should keep me occupied for quite a while.
And here is the question: what books on the Qur’an and its historical setting should I prioritize? (And please, please respond in comments rather than on Twitter, so that I can use this post as a reference.)
Surah 31, entitled “Luqman” after the legendary wise man who appears in it, is about wisdom. The question is whether there is any content to wisdom beyond simple adherence to Islam, and initially the answer may seem to be no. Luqman’s first line of dialogue, delivered to his son, reads, “O my son! join not in worship (others) with Allah. For false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing” (v. 13). Yet as the surah unfolds, it seems to me, we begin to discern the shape of a form of human wisdom that — while ultimately compatible with Islam — is not determined by its historical revelation, nor indeed by the historical intervention of any particular prophet into his society (interventions that as a rule occur when the society is beyond hope in any case).
As my class slowly works its way through the Meccan revelations, we have arrived in the large group of surahs that recount the missions of the prophets. It is striking how consistent the pattern is. God judges a city or nation’s behavior to be beyond the pale and sends a prophet from among that group to warn them to change their ways. They scoff at the message, being unable to take seriously the idea that God could send a mere human messenger from their tribe. Ultimately, they are destroyed. The exact nature of the sin varies, but the outcome (with the exception of Jonah) does not.
Western ideology inclines us to see these passages as evidence of the violence of Islam, but what stands out to me is the extended meditations on the problem of persuasion. God clearly wants the people to be sincerely convinced by the sheer moral plausibility of the prophets’ message. Being persuaded by miraculous signs or converting under duress (as Pharaoh attempts to do in one passage) does not “count” — hence the claim that Muhammad’s only miracle is the message itself, the very clarity, persuasiveness, and beauty of the Qur’an.
I think that it’s in this context that we should understand the Qur’an’s approach to the infamous “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” This happens whenever God’s miraculous signs prompt Pharaoh to go along with Moses’ demands. In these cases, he is on the verge of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — he is not intrinsically convinced of Moses’ message, but is only acting out of fear. Hence God isn’t constraining his will so much as returning it to its natural course.
To explain why people are usually not convinced, the Qur’an doesn’t need to resort to any extraordinary metaphysical explanations like the doctrine of original sin. It relies on characteristics of humanity that we are all familiar with: laziness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, pride… The role of Iblis/Satan is to prey on those weaknesses, but he is not consistently mentioned — in principle, we’re fully capable of screwing everything up all on our own. And if we weren’t, if there weren’t something in us that resists correction, then the persuasion wouldn’t be sincere when it does happen. It’s as though the only way to stack the decks in favor of sincere persuasion is to stack the decks against it.
It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.
That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.
What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.
Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.
Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”