Back on New Year’s Eve I posted a few comments on a Wall Street Journal piece by the former President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid. My point at that time was that despite the full-throated enthusiasm that greeted Wahid’s piece, it was not in fact the heartening indication of Islamic moderation that many took it to be.
I have repeated many times a point that evidently is nearly impossible for some people to grasp: that while it is easy to convince Westerners who know nothing of Islam that Islam is peaceful, it is ultimately a fruitless exercise to do so. What peaceful Muslims like Wahid need to do is not spend their time writing articles in Western media outlets, but convincing the mujahedin. I am all for real moderate Muslims, but if I can see that a moderate’s account of Islamic teaching is inaccurate, a mujahid will certainly be able to also. And if that moderate’s moderation won’t convince Muslims, what’s the point of it? To make non-Muslims feel better? I would rather have the truth than feel better on the basis of half-truths, thank you.
Reform isn’t accomplished by deception or self-deception. Reform is accomplished by acknowledging the problem and coming up with ways to deal with it. Let Wahid confront the specific Qur’anic passages, Hadith passages, examples from the life of Muhammad, and rulings of the madhahib that the mujahedin use to recruit and motivate Muslims to commit violence and attempt to subvert Western societies, and find new ways to understand those passages that will be convincing to Muslims. He didn’t do that in the Journal, and he doesn’t do it in this WaPo (Bandar Beacon) piece (thanks to all who sent it in), “Extremism Isn’t Islamic Law”:
…Does Islam truly require the death penalty for apostasy, and, if not, why is there so little freedom of religion in the so-called Muslim world?
The Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad do not definitively address this issue. In fact, during the early history of Islam, the Agreement of Hudaibiyah between Muhammad and his rivals stipulated that any Muslim who converted out of Islam would be allowed to depart freely to join the non-Muslim community. Nevertheless, throughout much of Islamic history, Muslim governments have embraced an interpretation of Islamic law that imposes the death penalty for apostasy.
Wahid ignores, of course, evidence that both the Qur’an and Muhammad do address this issue. Qur’an 4:89 says: “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): but take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (from what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks…” The verse is clear: those who “turn renegades” and “reject Faith” are to be killed by the believers.
Meanwhile, Muhammad’s statement Baddala deenahu, faqtuluhu — if anyone changes his religion, kill him — is amply attested in the Hadith, and is accepted as authentic by all except the most disingenuous Islamic scholars. It appears in various forms in Bukhari, Ibn Majah, An-Nasai, Tayalisi, Malik, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, and other authorities.
Nor does Muhammad make any exception when enunciating the principle in this way: “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims” (Bukhari, vol. 9, bk. 83, no. 17).
But Wahid gives his readers no hint that this material exists, and in fact leads them to believe that it doesn’t, and that somehow “Muslim governments have embraced an interpretation of Islamic law that imposes the death penalty for apostasy” in defiance of the Qur’an and Muhammad.
It is vital that we differentiate between the Koran, from which much of the raw material for producing Islamic law is derived, and the law itself. While its revelatory inspiration is divine, Islamic law is man-made and thus subject to human interpretation and revision. For example, in the course of Islamic history, non-Muslims have been allowed to enter Mecca and Medina. Since the time of the caliphs, however, Islamic law has been interpreted to forbid non-Muslims from entering these holy cities. The prohibition against non-Muslims entering Mecca and Medina is thus politically motivated and has no basis in the Koran or Islamic law.
Here again, Wahid breezily ignores contrary evidence. The prohibition of non-Muslims entering Mecca is based on Qur’an 9:28: “O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not, after this year of theirs, approach the Sacred Mosque.” Only the Hanafi school of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence interpret this verse as referring only to the pre-Islamic Arabian pagans, and not to all unbelievers.
In the case of Rahman, two key principles of Islamic jurisprudence come into play. First, al-umuru bi maqashidiha (“Every problem [should be addressed] in accordance with its purpose”). If a legal ordinance truly protects citizens, then it is valid and may become law. From this perspective, Rahman did not violate any law, Islamic or otherwise. Indeed, he should be protected under Islamic law, rather than threatened with death or imprisonment. The second key principle is al-hukm-u yadullu ma’a illatihi wujudan wa adaman (“The law is formulated in accordance with circumstances”). Not only can Islamic law be changed — it must be changed due to the ever-shifting circumstances of human life. Rather than take at face value assertions by extremists that their interpretation of Islamic law is eternal and unchanging, Muslims and Westerners must reject these false claims and join in the struggle to support a pluralistic and tolerant understanding of Islam.
Great. But al-hukm-u yadullu ma’a illatihi wujudan wa adaman is not absolute, and no Muslim would take it to be so. There could never be a circumstance, for example, that would allow a Muslim to set aside tauhid, or Islamic monotheism. The principle must in the case of apostasy law compete with the proposition that Muhammad must be obeyed — “He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah” (Qur’an 4:80, and there are many, many other verses enjoining this obedience). And the Messenger who must be obeyed said that someone who leaves Islam should be killed.
I am glad that Wahid disagrees with the Muslim Prophet Muhammad on this. His case would be stronger if he stated this clearly, explaining why Muhammad’s words must be set aside today. But by pretending that these words of Muhammad don’t exist, he opens himself to suspicions that he is engaged more in deception than in actual reform. For nothing can be repaired that one does not admit is broken, and Islamic law cannot be reformed simply by pretending that it is other than what it is.
All of humanity, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, is threatened by the forces of Islamist extremism. It is these extremists, masquerading as traditional Muslims, who angrily call for the death of Abdul Rahman or the beheading of Danish cartoonists.
Great, Wahid. Prove that their traditionalism is indeed a masquerade, please. Show us the traditional Islam that rejects their position. Claiming that the Qur’an and Muhammad don’t say what they say isn’t enough.
Their objective is raw political power and the eventual radicalization of all 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. Western involvement in this “struggle for the soul of Islam” is a matter of self-preservation for the West and is critical given the violent tactics and strength of radical elements in Muslim societies worldwide.
Indeed. I totally agree. That’s why I am writing this. You must realize, Wahid, that any young “extremist” who reads your piece will know that what you say about Muhammad and the Qur’an isn’t accurate. What will you say to him then?
Muslim theologians must revise their understanding of Islamic law, and recognize that punishment for apostasy is merely the legacy of historical circumstances and political calculations stretching back to the early days of Islam. Such punishments run counter to the clear Koranic injunction “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
There are many Muslim interpretations of 2:256 that harmonize it with the death penalty for apostasy. Therefore, merely invoking 2:256 isn’t enough. Those interpretations must be confronted and refuted.
People of goodwill of every faith and nation must unite to ensure the triumph of religious freedom and of the “right” understanding of Islam, to avert global catastrophe and spare millions of others the fate of Sudan’s great religious and political leader, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was executed on a false charge of apostasy. The millions of victims of “jihadist” violence in Sudan — whose numbers continue to rise every day — would have been spared if Taha’s vision of Islam had triumphed instead of that of the extremists.
Yes. People of good will must unite. Yes. Good will. Please show your good will by addressing the inaccuracies I noted above.
The greatest challenge facing the contemporary Muslim world is to bring our limited, human understanding of Islamic law into harmony with its divine spirit — in order to reflect God’s mercy and compassion, and to bring the blessings of peace, justice and tolerance to a suffering world.
I wonder if that last sentence is a veiled statement of Islamic supremacism. After all, the mujahedin are fighting to impose Sharia on the world, a struggle which they envision as bringing peace, justice, and tolerance to the world. It is a pity that Wahid doesn’t further clarify exactly where he stands.
So great is the thirst for Islamic moderation in the West that even FrontPage Magazine has posted this piece by Wahid. And so more non-Muslims will be comforted and reassured. But not a thing has been accomplished that would actually make mujahedin peaceful.