Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Third Choice

The Rev. Dr. Mark Durie is a former academic (linguistics) and Anglican preacher who has written The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom, a book on treatment of non-Muslims in Islam.

Durie starts, in his Preface, with a discussion of rejection. He sees the dhimma pact—the non-negotiable state of submission of non-believers to believers in Islam—as flowing from rejection; the responses of Christ and Muhammad to rejection as being very different (Pp ix-x). The books was written with three purposes, to:
• explain the nature of the dhimma pact;
• help non-Muslims withstand the dhimma pact and find freedom from it; and
• explain the nature of Islamic politics and the implications it has for non-Muslims (p.xi).

Durie is dealing with highly contentious matters: he is challenging people’s worldviews, which he defines rather nicely as:
… cognitive frameworks which provide a grid for finding the truth in the world around us (p.3).
He uses the example of Islam’s apostasy law as an example of how the same thing can be seen quite differently: is Islam’s ban on apostasy a sign of weakness (a fear that Islam cannot bear open competition with other belief systems) or a sign of strength (of Islam’s perfection)?

How willing people are to give up aspects of their worldviews varies greatly depending on how important a particular matter is to them. It can lead to odd claims, such as a January 2002 Sydney Morning Herald article on interfaith marriage that includes the case of a man who converted to Islam to marry his wife: which is, of course, not an interfaith marriage at all (p.5).

Durie’s declared aim is “truth empowerment”, hence his reliance on primary sources of Islam (p.10). He acknowledges that people do not necessarily conform to the beliefs of their faith but that, nevertheless, the basic principles of a faith are an enduring feature in the world (p.11). He sees stereotyping of Islam (or any religion) as being the result of faulty thinking about belief and behaviour: either a simpleminded focus on specific scriptures or an equally simpleminded relativism that pays no account to the content of a religion (Pp12-14).

The human problem
He starts with the question: what is the human problem? Secular humanists might say social conditions that limit people to achieve their potential, Marxists class and unequal control over the means of production and Christians sin.

In Islam, the central human problem is jahiliyyah, ignorance, ignorance of what Allah requires of us. The solution is huda, guidance. Allah has taken pity on us and given us a book (the Qur’an) and an example (Muhammad) as a guide to what He wants from us.

Muhammad had been preceded by other prophets, all with the same message (Islam, submission to Allah) but the message had been diluted or lost, hence Allah sent Muhammad as the seal of the prophets, to provide the correct guidance forever.

What are those who a rightly guided called to? Falah, success in this life and the next. Those who fail to head the call are al-khasirin, the losers. So, Durie argues, at the heart of Islam is:
ignorance → guidance → success.
(Which makes the success of non-believers something of a cosmic insult, of course. Israel is truly infuriating, to this mindset.)

Durie contrasts this with the Christian vision of:
sin → forgiveness → salvation.
As Durie points out, this leads to very different mindsets and values. The Muslim writer al-Faruqi expresses the difference well:
Islam holds man to be not in need of any salvation. Instead of assuming him to be religiously and ethically fallen, Islamic da’wah [proclamation] acclaims him as the khalifah [representative] of Allah, perfect in form, and endowed with all that is necessary to fulfil the divine will indeed, even loaded with the grace of revelation! ‘Salvation’ is hence not in the vocabulary of Islam. Falah (success), or the positive achievement in space and time of the divine will, is the Islamic counterpart of Christian ‘deliverance’ and ‘redemption’ (p.20).
The sovereignty of Allah is the central reality and the central human question is whether you are maintaining and spreading the sovereignty of Allah or not.

Falah is not merely success in the next world. On the contrary, the military success of Islam under the Prophet is taken as evidence of his prophetic mission. One of the manifestations of the ideology of success, Durie argues, is the dhimma system.

The basics
But first, Durie sets out the basics of Islam. Islam is a system of submission to Allah. A Muslim is someone who submits to Allah. Assent to, and recite, the formula of submission:
I confess there is no god but Allah,
and I confess that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.
and one becomes a Muslim. The answer to the question of how to submit to Allah is given by the Qur’an, the book of revelations to the Prophet, and the sunna, the example of the Prophet, his life (sira) and sayings (hadith). All aspects of life are part of the process of submission to Allah, hence the all-encompassing nature of religious authority in Islam.
The Qur’an repeatedly says that the Prophet is the guide for believers, to be obeyed in what he says and as an exemplar in how he acts, with the fires of hell waiting for those that disobey his words and example (Pp23-4). A true Muslim is thus committed to the sunna, the words and example of the Prophet. A lot of what is basic to Islam is not in the Qur’an but in the sunna (such as praying five times a day).

If the sayings and example of the Prophet are such a crucial form of guidance, then transmission of what he said and did then become vital. Hence the collections of the hadith: there are hundreds of thousands of hadith of varying degrees of reliability. There are six canonical collections of which two are regarded as of most reliability: they were not compiled until the C9th, or two centuries after Muhammad. Given this vast array of hadith, and the issue of reliability, the role of religious scholars in interpreting this corpus is central. The structure Durie describes is a little like the common law in that regard, except that the capacity for evolution is obviously hugely limited, since the peak of moral understanding is held to have been achieved in C7th Arabia—a peak that is the source of all legitimacy—and that Shar’ia is enormously more encompassing than the common law has ever been—there are hadith on yawning and sneezing (Pp26-7), for example.

The six beliefs (belief in Allah, angels, scriptures, apostles, day of judgment, predestination) and five pillars (no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet, compulsory prayer, pay the zakat, perform the hajj, keep the Ramadan fast) of Islam both come from hadiths (Pp28-9).

The hadith collections are arranged by subject matter, so the thread of Muhammad’s life cannot be easily followed through them. For that, there are the sira, the biographies. The first was by Ibn Ishaq (d.767/AH 145), but his original is lost. A revised version by Ibn Hisham, put together 50 years later, survives but Ibn Hisham says he cut out certain parts that contained matters “disgraceful to discuss” or which would “distress certain people” (p.30). This view that reflecting well on the Prophet was a criteria of selection extended also to the judgments about which hadith was authoritative (p.31). We can see here that the success of Islam is deemed more important than truth: all part of Islam having an instrumental morality.

Needless to say, it is easy to find parts of Muhammad’s life that are shocking to modern sensibilities (some were clearly shocking to C9th sensibilities within Islam). Starting with some of his most central claims:
Abu Huraira reported that:
the Messenger of Allah said: ‘I have been given superiority over the other prophets in six respects: I have been given words that are concise but comprehensive in meaning; I have been helped by terror (in the hearts of enemies); spoils have been made lawful to me; the earth has been made for me clean and a place of worship; I have been sent to all mankind and the line of the prophets is closed with me (p.32).
These claims are canonical and binding on all Muslims, while criticism of the Prophet is strictly forbidden (p.32). Obviously, the denial of criticism and selection of the details of what the Prophet said and did by what helps Islam has unfortunate implications for truth and reason in Islam.

The Qur’an—held to be a letter perfect version of direct revelation from Allah in a single language—is a very different document than the Bible, as assembly of different types of documents originally composed in a range of languages. As Durie writes:
The main thing to grasp about the manner of the Quran’s production, is that Muhammad and the Quran are as intimately connected as a body is to its backbone. The Sunna is like the body and the Quran the backbone. Neither can stand without the other, and you cannot comprehend one without the other (p.33).
Given that the Quran is not arranged in any chronological or logical order but from longest suras to the shortest, and individual suras themselves may relate to various, unconnected, topics, this makes Qur’anic interpretation difficult. The hadith and the sira are used to give context and thus meaning to the verses of the Qur’an (Pp32-4).

On the other hand, particular hadith and sira incidents may be based on traditions regarded as unsound, while the Qur’an is held to be perfect in all its details and beyond criticism which means that:
… the Quran plays a controlling role for interpreting hadith traditions, even though it is the hadith which supply the occasion of revelation for the Qur’an (p.34).
Contradictions within the Qur’an are dealt with by the principle that later verses overrule earlier verses, the principle of naskh or abrogation which itself has Qur’anic justification (Pp34-5). The principle of naskh applies at various levels. That the Qur’an trumps all previous revelations, that some verses have been removed from the Qur’an and that some verses which remain are superseded by other verses are all applications of naskh. But that a verse has been removed does not mean it does not still apply: the verse requiring the stoning of adulterers has been removed but still applies in Shar’ia (Pp35-6).

The principle of naskh is particularly important for the doctrine of jihad since the peaceful Meccan verses are superseded by the militant Medinan verses. Shorter suras tend to be from the Meccan period, longer suras tend to be from the Medinan period, though some suras are held to contain passages from both (Pp36-7).

The literature of tafsir, commentary, has grown up connecting the verses of the Qur’an with the sunna. Durie uses the commentary particularly of Ibn Kathir (d.1373) as his work is both highly respected, and very popular in contemporary Islam. Durie takes the reader through some illustrative examples to show how the process of interpretation operates (Pp37-40).

To provide ordinary Muslims with a workable set of rules to guide their submission to Allah, Islamic scholars and jurists have devised the Shar’ia, the ‘path’ or ‘way’ to live as a Muslim:
… the Sharia is intended to be simply what it says: the pathway for a Muslim to walk upon, an authoritative application of Muhammad’s example in a comprehensive and consistent way, using rigorous principles of reasoning and Islamic case-law. This is much more inclusive in concept than any penal code (p.41).
Or law code generally. To call Shar’ia “Islamic law” does not really capture its scope and authority. It emanates by direct path from Allah and encompasses far more than any Western legal code, with far more elevated claims to legitimacy and authority. Canon law, for example, is not analogous because there is no claim that it is other than a human creation, however much it may seek to manifest God’s purposes. Hence canon law can change, in a way Shar’ia cannot.

Durie warns against simply asking a Muslim what Islam teaches, as it can lead to serious misunderstanding (p.44). Quite: even without the issue of taqiyya, or permitted deceit, and simple ignorance (how many Christians or Jews know all the details of their religions?) basic concepts and presumptions are simply not the same.

This review will be continued in my next two posts.


  1. Lorenzo

    There is - as per usual - just so, so much in all of this, so I will just focus on one of your points; Allah taking 'pity' on us. This point is so, so, so, SO crucial, and non-cedable by the Muslim. But it's more public expression, and one that is piped across the entire globe; elevator music that is at once socially soothing, but geopolitically more explosive than September 11 and the Louisiana oil rig explosion. And that the fact that Muhammad was merciful.

    Now when we think of mercy, what is going on? Surely, it must involve an omnipotent Muhammad standing over a weak, vanquished, pitiful supplicant, who by right and honor should be put to the sword for treachery and/or losing in battle against Muhammad. But M's mercy prevails, so he spits on the loser, muttering, 'you're not worth it, off you go.'

    The subtext of this mercy is always the reservation that by 'right and honor' the supplicant should have been killed. As I am sure you have done, whenever I have visited Islam blogs, they are literally covered in this 'merciful' refrain. But the subtext is clear; the showing of mercy is always only ever an option and completely discretionary: The non-muslim must never rely on it. It is required by neither The Book nor hadith.

    The other side of the same theo-military imperialist trope is that "Islam means peace." And boy, does it! When the [Sunni, particularly though not exclusively the dominant Hanafi and Hanbali jurisprudential strains] Muslim talks about "peace" they are referring to the doctrine that divides the globe geopolitically into Dar as-Salam - "House of PEACE" - and Dar al-Harb - "House of WAR." But wait, there's more. Dar as-Salam maps perfectly onto Dar al-Islam - "Huse of ISLAM."

    So, yes indeedy, "Islam" does mean "Peace." BUT that understanding of "Peace" by necessity means the that the non-muslim world is the world of WAR. So, theologically, the Sunni Islam meaning of "Peace" is those within the House of Islam. For the rest of us, we are in the House of War. We are military enemies, without ever a declaration of war, or even a shot being fired.

    Our only hope to be relieved from war is "Submission" to Allah, either by converting to Islam, OR acknowledge our Submission to Allah as dhimmi, whereupon Allah's mercy MAY prevail, and thus allow us to live within the House of Islam with some protection, but few, if any, of the civil rights enjoyed by those fully Submitted by Allah, by being actual Muslims.

    As you write, the cost of this mercy is our perpetual liability to pay the Jizyah. No thanks.

  2. To be fair on the issue of Taqiyya, it is a Shia belief, not a Sunni one; and a very justifiable one at that.

    Taqiyya emerged in the 11/13th century when the Sunni Arabs were trying to obliterate to the Persian Shia (in particular Ishmali), and their growing power over the Arabs in Bagdad, and throughout the Abassid caliphate generally. By the early 13th century, the Ishmaili leadership was holed up in the hills at Alamut. Taqiyya was a strategy permitting them to lie if questioned by the Arabs.

    Much of it became moot not long after, when Ghengis Khan's grandson - Hulagu - rampaged through, destroyed Alamut, Bagdad, thus ending not only the Abbasid caliphate, but Arab rule. From this time on, Islam became much more an eastern religion ruled by Turks, Mongols, and similar types.

    May Peace Be With Them!

  3. Taqiyya is a Sunni doctrine, as well as a Shi'ite one. Read my book. The claim that Taqiyya is not a Sunni doctrine is a good example of Taqiyya.

  4. Hi Mark

    Just checked out your site. The book looks great! OK, I WILL buy, and am more than prepared to be corrected on the point! :)

  5. Raymond Ibrahim says that taqiyya was first codified by Shi'a, due to their historical experience of using it against fellow Muslims. But it is a general Islamic doctrine, accepted in Sunni Islam as well and deriving directly from the example and sayings of the Prophet.

  6. PP: Quite so on your point about mercy and peace.