This is a guest post by Mike Stallard, who has been in education all his life, and is now retired.
Reza Aslan is an Iranian who lives in USA. He is an academic who is also a writer of fiction. He comes from a Muslim background. His book No God but God describes the two sources of the Shari’a Law which governs Islam.
The first is the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the actual Word of God delivered direct to the Messenger of God – Mohammed – in the years between AD610 and 632. Even by writing, even by reading the pages, a blessing is bestowed on the believer. Reza Aslan fully accepts this himself. The noble Qur’an is Mohammed’s only miracle.
The problem for Muslim lawyers lies in the very words themselves, which are in no sense legal. Instead, we get advice on various subjects, but apart from how to treat women and orphans and a handful of other admonitions, there is certainly not enough to form a sort of Jewish or Roman Law equivalent out of the Qur’an.
So where do Muslims turn for guidance on how to do good and avoid doing evil?
Surely, they argue, to the Messenger of God himself. What did Mohammed do himself?
When Christians ask what Jesus would have done, they turn to the gospels. The Muslims had no gospels about Mohammed.
By collecting stories about the Messenger of Allah, surely, Muslims could arrive at a system of law which puts them on the right path?
‘Story’ in Arabic is Hadith. The word can mean ‘testimony’, ‘chatting’, ‘a funny story’, ‘evidence’, or just ‘tell’, so hadiths (pl. aHadith) come in many different forms.
And stories – hadiths – are very useful too. In a Muslim court, in front of the Muslim judge, a nicely aimed hadith could alter the case. Imagine how powerful such a hadith would be in the case, say, of theft, or adultery: “The Prophet said…”
What has been described as an industrial production of hadiths was encouraged during the early Abbasid period (AD750-900), when the Caliphs had a vast territory to govern.
So which hadiths were genuine?
Cometh the hour, cometh the man (or men). In the 700s there arose scholars who came to the rescue. These men remembered, in their heads, not only tens of thousands of stories, but they also remembered who passed them down.
Then Muhammed al-Bukhari, a scholar from the far north of Persia, a man who had spent his life teaching and remembering thousands of hadiths, selected the authentic stories and put them in writing. His pupil, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj offered thousands more. Eventually the field of canonical hadith scholars was narrowed down to just six. By 800, reliable hadiths had chapter and verse.
But more had to be done.
What if the judges in the law courts disagreed?
Had not the Messenger himself said: “My community will never agree on an error”? So the scholars, who decided what was and what was not genuine, became the men who decided exactly what doing good and avoiding evil actually meant in the sprawling territories of Islam. And the stamping out of any form of individual decision making among Muslims was done in the nicest possible way.
After a couple of centuries, debating the place of reason in religion, as opposed to revelation, it was generally agreed by AD1000 that ijtihad – the struggle by reason – was not acceptable. Judges must not work things out for themselves and issue their own advice (fatwa): they had to follow the directions of the four law schools when coming to a legal judgement.
The door had been closed. What had started out as a sincere religious movement had turned into a legal system which punished thought and kept things as they always was. The results were devastating.
The schools where young Muslims were educated stopped being places of discussion and debate and turned into places where boys sat and learned the Qur’an and hadiths by heart. To question the judgment of the school was blasphemy. To point out that even the Qur’an itself held contradictory instructions (for example on drinking wine), was dismissed with one word: naskh (reproduction).
Don’t ask. Just learn, repeat and submit.
Even in the 1990s Nasr Hamid abu Zayd was forced to leave Egypt when he stated that the divinely inspired Qur’an was a product of seventh-century Arabia. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, in the Sudan, put forward the idea, after a lifetime of study, that the Meccan and Medinan texts differed so widely that they had to be specific to the time and place they were revealed. He was executed in 1985.
The EU commissioner for values is Věra Jourová. The “first-ever EU strategy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, non-binary, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) equality” was launched this month. Jourová announced that “this is what Europe is about and this is what we stand for”. Her view of “what Europe is about” is settled. To reject it is simply wrong.
No debate: they are right. Hungarians and Poles who object, because they are Roman Catholic, get their grants reduced.
When Millwall fans boo the footballers taking the knee, they are roundly condemned. They are simply wrong. No argument.
The BBC has ‘no platformed’ several people for questioning climate change. With Covid, the Great Barrington Declaration was simply not mentioned. It is wrong. No argument.
And then there is all the Trans flurry…
Stamping out the opposition to your own certainties is very dangerous; Islam provides the perfect example of the danger.
By 1800, Islam was a fossil religion. In Egypt, when Napoleon’s modern army was met by the Mamelukes all fighting on traditional lines, charging into battle on their steeds, caparisoned in the finest silken garments, they were simply massacred by the ranks of disciplined French regiments.
In Lawrence of Arabia, the Arabs, on their chargers, gallop hopelessly up and down waving their scimitars while being bombed from the air by a biplane.
Stamping out unpleasant thoughts breeds stagnation. And stagnation breeds submission. The question which terrifies is this: submission to whom?
And how does this compare with our present situation?
Reza Aslan again:
It will take many (years) to cleanse Islam of its new false idols – bigotry and fanaticism – worshipped by those who have replaced Mohammed’s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped.
We can learn a lot from him.