The Truth about Islam: Where is the Evidence?

Over the last many years Americans have been deeply concerned to understand Muslims, and the religion that seems to motivate them. Feelings often run high because we read or hear of events in the Muslim world that seem both deeply disturbing and very frightening. And this makes public discussion extremely difficult. Neither fear nor disgust are helpful to rational discourse, and they are very unhelpful when it comes to solving problems and making decisions.

This recently came into focus when the pastor of a large church in Dallas made several assertions about Muhammad’s behavior and what the religion of Islam teaches. He has since stood by those assertions, and has offered what he sees as evidence to back his claims. I would like to look at one of those claims and his evidence to show why his claim is factually wrong and his evidence worthless. That will help us understand more broadly why so much of the public debate about Islam is moving in an ugly direction.

The claim was that Islam allows and even encourages pedophilia. The evidence offered was that in some Muslim countries men can marry girls as young as nine years old. In particular this pastor cited a news story from Yemen in which members of the Yemeni government maintained that it was un-Islamic to pass a law banning such marriages.

Let’s examine this argument. First it assumes that the law in Muslim countries is Islamic law. This is a false assumption. Muslim countries have traditionally recognized three types of law: Shari’a (Islamic Law), Siyasah Shari’a (law made by the ruler in conformity with Shari’a values), and Adat (existing customary law.) Without further investigation one cannot know whether any particular law in a Muslim country represents Shari’a or one of the other forms of recognized law, and whether the other two are actually recognized as being in conformity with Shari’a by acknowledged religious authorities.

Secondly this argument assumes that two or more Muslim legislators are representatives of Islamic teaching and law. This is a false assumption as well. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one an expert in Islamic law, any more than being a Christian makes one an expert in Christian theology and ethics. Unless the scholarly credentials of these legislators is demonstrated their opinion about Islamic law has no value.

Thirdly this argument assumes that some Muslim countries, or perhaps even a number of Muslim countries, are representative of Islamic law. This is a false assumption for two reasons. First there are five different schools of Islamic law, and the rulings found in each disagree with one another about the legal age for marriage and the conditions for consent. So no one country or even group of countries can represent Islamic law. At best each country might represent part of Islamic law. Iran, for example, only recognizes what is called the Jaffari school of law. Secondly Islamic law is not a fixed body of legislation. It consists of tens of thousands of legal rulings by judges in particular circumstances. Some of these are widely accepted. Others are only accepted by a very few Muslims. Many are actively being reinterpreted or entirely rejected even as I write.  Among those being reinterpreted and rejected are specifically those dealing with the permissible age of marriage.  Indonesia, for example is the largest Muslim country in the world and does not allow the marriage of minors (below 19 years for men, 16 years for women).

Fourthly this argument depends on the meaning of the word “pedophilia,” normally taken to mean sexual relations with a child. But of course that begs the definition of “a child.” As it happens the concept of “a child” has changed quite a lot in Western societies and in the United States in particular. Practically speaking for most of Western, Christian history a girl was old enough to legally marry and have sexual relations after she had begun menstruating and was thus capable of bearing children. As it happens the dominant schools of Islamic law agree on this standard. However, as noted above, many Muslim countries now set a higher age limit, as do most Western societies. In any case the accusation that Islam encourages pedophilia cannot be sustained because the basic Islamic legal reasoning does not allow sex with children unless we define “child” in a way that would have made centuries of Christian law equally supportive of pedophilia.

It is true that there are self-proclaimed scholars of Islamic law who support child marriage practices not found in the classic collections of Islamic law, but even this does not constitute evidence concerning Shari’a.  A long established principle of rulings in Islamic law is that they must conform to the consensus of judgments of the earliest members of the four major schools of Sunni law. No individual ruling has the status of being Shari’a.

Let me offer this as a way forward. Any assertion about what Islam is or teaches needs to be backed by evidence that all parties in the discuss can agree is legitimate evidence. I believe that most Muslims would say that the only authoritative basis for assertions about Islam come from the universally accepted standards (among Muslims) of the Qur’an, the Hadith (traditions of the prophet,) and the continuing interpretations of these by recognized legal scholars and ratified by a consensus among them. If the last of these seems hard to nail down then fortunately we have three summary approaches to those interpretations. The first is the so-called “Pillars of Islam,” the second is the “creed” of Imam al-Tahawi (although some would contest even this), and the third is the statement of basic values and principles of Islamic law of Imam al-Ghazzali and others. Anything else does not constitute evidence of what Islam is or teaches. Everything else is interesting, but cannot be taken as representative or the religion.

I am not saying that all of Islamic law is acceptable or should be acceptable to modern persons. I’m not saying that all Muslims are good. I’m simply saying that public assertions about Islam need to be based in facts agreed upon by all parties to the discussion, not on a handful of anecdotes (repeated endlessly in the hall of mirrors that is the Internet) or some news reports (selected for their shock value) about the Muslim world.

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