From the library: The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

From the library: The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali December 20, 2015

Subtitled The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.

The front cover alone lets you know what to expect: a smiling woman, with nothing that really marks her as “other” — no headscarf, wearing Western clothing, a touch of make-up and a contemporary hairstyle. She doesn’t even really look like the daughter of Indian immigrants that she is, and the message that this picture communicates is “we Muslims could just as well be your next-door neighbors and we’d fit right in.”

And her approach to Islam?  It’s, well, different.  Never mind all this business about hijab, and jihad, and the Sword Verses, and polygamy.  Her bottom line is this:  anything in the Qur’an that is inspiring, and preaches justice, equality, tolerance, and mercy, is to be taken at face value and good for all time.  Anything that suggests otherwise must be understood in context, in ways that transform the verse or the teaching.

As I’ve done on other occasions, I’m going to just present her words without (much) commentary, to start with anyway.  Here are my notes as I read through the book:

On atonement:

Jesus did not die for the sins of humanity or atone for anyone else’s sins.  In Islam, only the sinner can atone for his or her own sins.  (p. 41)

On heaven:

The Qur’an’s description of heaven is not an exclusively spiritual, sober one.  It contains many earthly pleasures, such as beautiful gardens, fruits and water more pure than imaginable, and even immortal dark-eyed beings or houri to serve these things. . . . the Qur’an was addressing an ancient, patriarchal, polygynous society and conveying concepts in the terms people (men, actually) nearly fourteen centuries ago would have understood.  (p. 44)

On war:

But Muhammad never entered into a war that was not defensive and never used military operations if he could use diplomacy instead. (p. 55)

On justice:

Nothing was more important to Muhammad than social justice.  The Qur’an and the recorded quotations of the Prophet make this absolutely clear.  He wanted to change the entire social and moral fabric of Arabia, but he knew that to turn the world of his fellow Arabs upside down would backfire and do no good at all.

Therefore, Islam sometimes does not prohibit outright undesirable, pre-Islamic practices.  Rather, it retains them but fences safeguards around them and strongly encourages a gradual progression toward their elimination. (p. 57)

and on war again:

Those verses that do sanction fighting do so in the context of a just war and against the backdrop of the verses that command Muslims to practice tolerance, never aggress, make peace when the other side desires it, and never harm noncombatants (p. 76)

Taking Qur’anic verses in context:

It is difficult to know whether verses are metaphorical or symbolic.  Still other verses are superseded by later Qur’anic verses or by hadith (sayings of the Prophet).  Sometimes, a Qur’anic verse carves out an exception to a rule in another verse. (p. 80)

All this goes to show that quoting the Qur’an out of context and without the interpretive literature is misleading.  The actual meaning may be completely unrelated to what it seems to mean.  Considering the idiosyncrasies of 1,300-year-old Arabic, the obscure historical figures and events to Qur’an refers to without explaining, the enormous difficulties of translation, and the historical context of the verses, it should be obvious why someone knowing nothing about Islam might come up with inaccurate conceptions of what the Qur’an means. . . . Even all Muslims do not agree on what each verse of the Qur’an means.  No particular meaning is absolute. (p. 81)

On heaven, again,

A primary reason my husband is Muslim is because it is established in Islam that anyone, Muslim or otherwise, may go to heaven.  . . . in Islam, if you do good deeds, you go to heaven.  (p. 82)

Regarding Shia vs. Sunni Muslims, she explains the historical context but says that, among Muslims, these are considered to be minor differences among Muslims.

Whoops, where’d that come from?  Out of nowhere, in talking about how the West thinks that the Saudi and Taliban extremism is the majority belief because it’s most visible:

Similarly, the September 11th attacks (whoever engineered them) were coordinated so that all television cameras would be trained securely on the destruction of the first tower when the second plane crashed.  (p. 98).

“Whoever engineered them”?  Is she, for all her moderation, still a 9/11 truther, or of the opinion that Muslims were framed?

On women leading prayer, and on decision-making:  the rationale for separating men and women during prayer was modesty, because everyone’s bending over in close quarters, but there are some voices in favor of changes.

As a Muslim, I am entitled to listen to the various opinions of the Islamic authorities, pray for guidance, and choose the view my conscience tells me is right.  My view — which is one of several valid Islamic viewpoints on this issue — is that we should follow the Prophet’s example, as well as the view of early and modern jurists, to allow learned women (or learned men) to lead the prayer.  I do not think we should consider men to be so weak that they could not concentrate on God with a woman leading the prayer. . . . I would love to be able to pray together with my husband and children, all standing together, rather than in separate rooms or even separate groups.  (p. 104)

On immutability — or mutability — of Islamic law/teaching:

After the twelfth century, the books of jurisprudence assumed a formal structure that made Islamic law look as though it were unchanging. . . . But in reality, they continued to develop the law.  . . . many countries in the Muslim world have tried to implement reforms without straying from the original message of the Qur’an.  At times, this is the result of a reinterpretation (called neo-ijtihad) of the Qur’anic verses.  For example, Tunisia has prohibited polygamy outright by reinterpreting the Qur’anic verses. (p. 107 – 108).

On apostasy:

The Qur’an itself minimizes apostasy, discourages it, does not really treat it as a crime, and odes not specify a punishment for it.  The Qur’an does not specify the death penalty.  In fact, the Qur’an decrees that apostates must be encouraged and given the opportunity to turn back to Islam.

Yet, Muslim medieval jurists developed, a part of their Islamic juristic literature, a law of apostasy that did allow specific punishments and even death to the apostate, though in practice this was rare.  Most modern Muslims view apostasy in its historical context and do not consider it applicable to the modern world.  In fact, some scholars write that the crime of apostsy in Islamic law only came about because of a misreading of the early written discussions on the subject.  (p 115)

On women in Islam:   Muhammad meant for Islam to be egalitarian but the scholars interpreting the Qur’an and the Sunnah after his death imposed their own perspectives on their interpretations, for instance, in interpreting sections on beating one’s wife, on inheritance law, the veil, etc.  (p.  126 ff).  On the veil, interpretations are varied, due to culture and customs, but veiling and headcovering are not required by the Qur’an.

On polygyny:

This is what my Muslim friends and I were taught while growing up and learning our religious tenets:  a man can have more than one wife if he can treat them equally, I remember my father saying, but since that is impossible, the Qur’an is actually obliquely limiting a man to one wife.  We all regarded polygyny as a historical condition and no longer applicable to the modern world.  (p. 142)

Besides which, she says, polygyny was originally a way of helping widows, who would otherwise suffer because there was no provision for them.

About divorce, as with other topics, Ali-Karamali takes the approach that Muhammad was comparatively egalitarian for his time, so that any apparent inequities between men and women should be straightened out based on “the spirit of Islamic law and a reinterpretation of the religious texts” as occurred in Tunisia when men and women were given equal divorce rights.  (p. 149)

What about Shari’a courts in Western nations?  She rejects the idea of following “the minutiae of divorce law developed over a thousand years ago by Islamic male scholars.”

There’s also a text that seems to endorse hitting one’s wife.  After discussing some aspects of interpretation, she says,

Islam is old; the Qur’an is old.  We forget history even fifty years old and we forget language three hundred years old.  How then — if we are as conscientious as humanly possible — can we be sure of the meaning of every single word in the Qur’an?  Given the Qur’an’s equalizing message for women, given the historical context, given the grammar and the plethora of juristic writings and prophetic sayings condemning any kind of wife beating, given all that, I cannot believe the Qur’an meant to allow a man to strike his wife except as a limitation of the particular practices of the seventh century.

On jihad:  yes, it’s no surprise that she’s saying what we’ve heard before, that jihad just means personal struggle for self-improvement.   With respect to “classical jihad,” that is, the fact that Muslims did in fact conquer vast amounts of territory in its early history, well, she seems to take the view that this was really unconnected to Islam at all and mostly a coincidence that these rulers happened to be Muslim, and, besides, well, empires just “happen” anyway.

And on abrogation, that is, the notion that later verses in the Qur’an “override” earlier verses where they appear to conflict, and, in particular, that verses on fighting (after the Muslims gained strength) supersede earlier verses on peace and tolerance (when Muhammad was trying to convert others):

Abrogation makes little sense to me . . . . Not only does it mean that parts of the Qur’an are read out of context while other parts are ignored, but it imples that God, in all His infinite wisdom, changed his mind.  Abrogation was used to allow seventh-century Arabs to reconcile their holy scripture to their comprehension of society. (p. 176)

That’s not the end of the book, but I’m getting tired of what’s turning into a lengthy summary.

Here’s the bottom line.

What Ali-Karamali believes, in brief is this:

God is merciful and compassionate, and answers prayers, and Muhammad, and God by extension, wanted a world of justice between rich and poor and men and women.

While, admittedly, there are passages in the Qur’an which seem to say otherwise, these can be disregarded via various approaches.  Some troublesome passages are explained by emphasizing context:  e.g., the “sword verses” were based on self-defense.  Some passages are contextualized by placing them in 7th century Arabia and saying, “for the time, this was very progressive,” and suggesting that Muhammad would have gone even further in implementing full equality of men and women but for the fact that it wouldn’t have been accepted, so that we can take from it an underlying message of equality.  Likewise, some practices are not even supported by the Qur’an but by a patriarchal interpretation, and such interpretations may be abandoned.  And when all else fails, any suggestion of unjust or unequal practices can be discarded by acknowledging the multiple meanings of Arabic words, which may have been lost in the meantime, and a certain unknowability of what a passage may have actually meant that now seems, on the face of it, to be unjust or intolerant.

Yet to come:  I have a couple more books, and then I will tell you what I make of all this!

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