Friday, December 21, 2007

Muslim Dissent

I've removed myself from these Muslim/freedom of expression/Islam debates because they all seem to devolve into the same melee of contradictions. I am an Indian of Muslim descent. To me Muslim and Indian are both socio-cultural identities, not a religious one, because I really do not follow Islam.

The "Indian" tag is very important because it identifes that identity as something distinct from what is perceived as muslimness in the world, something that always seems to come back to Arabic roots. To me culture-- dynamic, changing, evolving culture is more vibrant, exciting and most importantly, open to change than religion, which seems to be stuck in place.

Coming out this way--which is a negation of Quranic teachings, and therefore Islam, always has consequence. For me, I know an announcement like this generates reactions from two camps. One, is the anti-Muslim, right-wing group that lauds my emergence as some kind of victory for their own fundamentalism. The other is the Muslim crowd that gets divided into further sub-groups: (a) Those convinced that this is some kind of publicity ploy, because apostate Muslim writers are tools of Western media to get recognition and/or riches. (b) Those who send threatening messages that refer to the only suitable punishment for an apostate. (c) Those who say other religions also have x,y, problems (fair enough) without really bothering to answer concerns/questions/issues raised about this particular issue.

My theory is this. Other religions for all their faults (and I follow none of them btw) have, or now have a tradition of criticism from within their own ranks. Religious debate in Islam, however, is only valid when using the Quran, hadith, or shariah. So essentially the debates are centered around different interpretations of the same text. Part of the debate needs to include voices that consider the whole thing crap. Questioning God, the revelation of the Quran itself, and questioning the legitimacy of the prophets is needed for this debate. Which is why there is constant debate about whether there is compulsion in religion because there are a dozen contradictory verses, as there are about the dress code for women, and other hot-button current issues, which do not go near any of the real issues at stake. When the same source material is used for a debate, coming to any common conclusion is impossible because each individual adheres to the reason(s) that make sense to that person.

For true religious reform to happen, the debate needs to take into account other things. The outside world, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc. all need to be party to this debate. Otherwise, it's like trying to air out a room with all its windows and shades closed, and the door slammed shut. At the very least it becomes a false debate with no room for dissent, because you start with the premise that there are certain immutable and unquestionable facts. To me, a constrained debate is no debate. It's just a bunch of people tap dancing around a group of elephants that none of them want to acknowledge.

This is the reason I believe, that most non-Muslims feel frustrated and most Muslims cannot understand that frustration. Their paradigms are different. What does debate really mean to all of us? And what is dissension? Is it merely disagreeing about the interpretation of something or is it actually just a starting point?

I am a purist. Religion to me is not a smorgasbord, where you pick and choose. If religion is divine, something that is supposed to lead to your salvation it either is something or it is not. I, personally, cannot cherrypick some version of Islam or any religion and then claim that *that* is the true way to practice it. Fundamentalists of all religions do that, but so do moderates and liberals. The only difference is what verses and parts are picked to justify the points of view.

When the Quran and all five major schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that the punishment for apostasy is execution (well, definitely for men. Female apostates may be executed or imprisoned for life), the reason for this lack of open debate becomes clear. Debate will only be tolerated within the constraints already described.

Apostasy in Islam includes denying Allah and rejecting the prophet's claim of prophet-hood, which brings us back to the point that true, open, questioning debate cannot happen. Here are the other acts that constitue apostasy:

1. A public declaration that denies Islam, and its beliefs

2. Denying the existence of God, or of accepting the Chritian belief of the Trinity

3. Saying the world has always existed. In other words, denying the role of the Creator

4. Belief in reincarnation

5. Denying the resurrection

6. Declaring that someone can become a prophet through spiritual exercise (i.e., there can be no other prophet)

7. Cursing Muhammad, the prophet.

8. Questioning the perfection of Muhammad's knowledge, beliefs, actions, and or character.

9. Any clearly blasphemous act (burning the Quran, and or books of the hadith)

10. Contradicting positions held by Muslim scholars (e.g., saying prayers or fasting are not obligatory, or that adultery is not punishable by death)

With such strictures in place it is no surprise that true debate in Muslim society would fall dangerously close to apostasy. There are concepts of apostasy in other religions to be sure but no other religious leaders (note: George Bush is not a religious leader, no matter how Christian he is. He is a political figure) exhorts the death of apostates and critics. And the difference I believe is that no other religion has such a clear consequence for apostasy.

The fear of death can do great things.


dipali said...

Very serious consequences leaving no room for discussion.
Beautifully thought out and expressed, Jawahara.

From a position of ignorance, may I add that the actual inward spiritual journey which is part of Islam is usually lost in the detailed do's and don'ts and rather ruthless strictures that get all the attention.

Unknown said...

Hi Dipali:

The other traditions in Islam, of sufism, etc. and where it took on part of the culture of a country are the most attractive and broadening aspects of the religion for me.

But more people seem to be going towards a very Arab-centric view, and that with Wahhabism is very scary.

However, traditional Islam is very much part and parcel of its strictures, unfortunately.

Bina said...


The do's and don'ts and the "ruthless strictures" as you call them may seem useless to you, but for practicing Muslims like me, they are a way to attain the state of meditative purity that allows you to contemplate your connection with the Creator. That is the real meaning of this religion: the existence of the One and all else thereafter, and our return to the One after the end of this earthly existence. To practice the rituals without understanding this principle is an exercise in futility and while it may fulfill the "requirements", it can become meaningless. But you cannot divorce the rituals from the philosophy or the spirituality. The shaykh whose teachings I have great respect for calls the rituals, in fact, the "technology" of Islam.

Anyway, just my two cents. But Jawahara will always be my friend no matter what her stance on religion!

Bina said...

(And I certainly hope she feels the same way about me!)

dipali said...

Dear Alien in Pakistan,
Absolutely no offence intended. I only wish the philosophy and spirituality got a little more attention than the 'technology', which, sadly, often gets a bad press.

Marilyn said...

Keep up the good work. Merry Christmas!

Bina said...


Not even the "technology" gets the right sort of coverage, to be honest. For example, I practice yoga, and you'd be amazed at the similarity between some of the asanas and some of the postures in Muslim prayer. The movement tied to breathing in yoga - vinyasa - is seen as a way of connecting with the Divine. The exact same thing occurs in salaat, or namaz, as the movement of the body is tied to breath is tied to the recitation of prayers, which puts you directly in connection with the Divine. The time of yoga is the time when you disconnect from everything else except what you are doing in the moment. Same with prayer. We even place our hands over our "heart center" as you do in the "namaste" greeting of yoga!

Why I draw the parallel between yoga and salaat is because nobody really sits down to make the analysis and comparison between our rituals and those of other religions and spiritualities. Instead, what gets focused on are the political actions of dispossessed, deluded, ignorant people from many countries who are undergoing political turmoil and oppression. All this gets painted with the broad brushstroke of "Islam" or "Islamism" and the original message as I wrote earlier is even more disregarded.

As I said, the spiritual message and the "technology" if you will are inseparable. There is no need to focus on one at the expense of the other; the one would not exist without the other. There would be no Islam without its rituals; there would be no rituals without Islam.

Unknown said...

And Bina...there are plenty of people in my life who I love, admire, and respect who are totally opposed to my stance ;-) so we can certainly disagree and still be friends.

And I am so very glad that you did respond to this post.

Unknown said...

Ooops...the first part of my response got deleted. I was saying that I understand the important of rituals for achieving spiritual purity.

I hope that is not what you got out of this post. My point was that when apostasy (and the many ways in which you can become an apostate) is such a terminal offence it can and does stifle real debate, growth, and discussion in the Muslim world.

And even though I am not religious I am still in many ways part of that world so I do have a vested interest.

Hope you had a good Eid...though from your last posting you seem to be having the Eid blahs. I too have always hated siwai...but I'll do anything for biryani and kebab.

Bina said...

Killing people for their religious beliefs, or lack of them, seems bizarre to me. I actually went online last night to try and read a bit about apostasy from Islam, to try and see what the various stances are. I've not yet found the correct information that would help me understand the issue, but for the most part, I prefer to leave the judgment of other people to God.

Bina said...

Okay, just from a very brief reading on the subject, "the Quran itself is silent on the punishment for apostasy, though not the subject itself. The Quran speaks repeatedly of people going back to unbelief after believing, but does not confirm that they should be killed or punished."


"The question of the penalties imposed in Islam (i.e. in the Qur'an or under shariah law) for apostasy is a highly controversial topic that is passionately debated by various scholars. On this basis, according to most scholars, if a Muslim consciously and without coercion declares their rejection of Islam and does not change their mind after the time given to him/her by a judge for research, then the penalty for male apostates is the death penalty, or, for women, life imprisonment. However, this view has been rejected by a small minority of modern Muslim scholars (eg Hasan al-Turabi), who argues that the hadith in question should be taken to apply only to political betrayal of the Muslim community, rather than to apostasy in general.[10] These scholars argue for the freedom to convert to and from Islam without legal penalty, and consider the aforementioned Hadith quote as insufficient confirmation of harsh punishment; they regard apostasy as a serious crime, but undeserving of the death penalty."

That's from Wikipedia, not the most reliable of source, but I do know that there's no mention of death penalty for apostates in the Quran.

I also am given to understand that the Hadith that calls for the death penalty to apostates was given for a specific historical time, when "the nascent Muslim community in Medina was fighting for its very life", and apostasy was tantamount to treason to that community.

Hope this informs our little debate!

temporal said...


we have been through all this a few times:)

(and still are friends)

btw what is the source of the punishment for apostasy? it ain't in qur'an - don't recall it - pls. let me know

(hi alien!)

temporal said...

ps: enjoy rome