The Trouble with Islam? Or the Trouble with Muslims?

Sheema Khan had an interesting article in the Globe today, on the need for Islam to reform to reflect the 21st century in light of the recent incident in Sudan where a young pregnant woman, Meriam Yahya Ibrahim,  was sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy, allegedly for abandoning her Islamic faith to become a Christian.  Ms. Ibrahim has since been released, no doubt due to the massive international backlash her sentence triggered. In her piece, Ms. Khan tries to make the case that sentencing Mr. Ibrahim to death for apostacy is not in accordance with “true” Islam, and only by returning to the true roots of Islam can Muslims advance into the 21st century.    In doing so, however, she (unintentionally, no doubt) makes a damning critique both of modern Islam and modern Muslims.

Ms. Khan, broadly, rests here case on two points.  First, she argues that apostasy is not a crime under “true” Islam.  She says:

“The Koran makes it clear that “there is no compulsion in religion,” and nowhere does it prescribe death for an apostate….

There are many accounts of apostates being brought before the Prophet Mohammed – including his personal scribe – who were left unharmed. Renunciation of faith, unaccompanied by sedition or treason, did not warrant punitive action.”

Second, she notes that most majority Muslim countries make apostasy a crime and that in many Muslim countries support for the death penalty for apostates is very high:

While times have changed, views rooted in medieval Islamic law have not. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 20 countries – all with a Muslim majority – prohibit apostasy. Pew has also found that a majority of Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories favour the death penalty for apostates.

From that, given that “there is something inherently wrong with a law that calls for the execution of an individual who chooses to renounce their religion” (Really?, no shit), she calls for Muslims to return to the “true” faith of Islam by affirming “the fundamental sources of Islam, namely the Koran and the example of the Prophet, in light of the 21st century”. 

The main problem with Ms. Khan’s thesis is that the notion that there is some Platonic ideal of a “true” Islam to which Muslims can return.  This is nonsense.  The reality is that there is no more a “true” Islam than there is a “true” Christianity.  A religion is what it’s follower make of it.  Islam isn’t defined by the words of God as recited to the Prophet any more than Christianity is defined by the words of Jesus Christ.  Each religion is defined by how their followers interpret those words. This is self-evident in the Christian tradition, where the various books of the new testament were written by Jesus’s followers years after his death – even in the Christian tradition, the Bible is a human interpretation of the words of God.  The Muslim tradition holds that the Koran is the word of god, as recited to the Prophet, but historically, as with the New Testament, we know that it was often written decades, even centuries, after the Prophet died.  In both cases, words written centuries ago are susceptible to alternate or conflicting interpretation.  Why else would both religions be split by numerous, and at times violent, schisms?  A religion is what its followers believe it to be.  To try to define a religion separate from the beliefs of its followers is a futile exercise.

In that light, Ms. Khan’s call for return to the “pure” religion of the Koran is almost charmingly naive.  To people who believe in beheading apostates, that is the “pure” form of Islam.  While Ms. Khan dismisses it as a form of “medieval Islam” compared to the 21st century version of Islam she’s advocating, she’s wrong.  The “medieval Islam” is 21st century Islam.   That is, to use Irshad Manji’s famous words, the trouble with Islam today.  

Understandably, western Muslims like Ms. Khan  are uncomfortable facing this fact,  because it appears to reflects poorly upon their religion.   I’d argue, though, that it says less about Islam than it does about Muslims.  Indeed, although she likely didn’t intend it to be, Ms. Khan’s article is a damning indictment of the moral bankruptcy of  Muslims throughout the Islamic world. 

She mentions that large majorities of the population in 6 Muslim countires (of 24 surveyed by PEW), including Egypt, Pakistan and Malaysia support the death penalty for apostacy (she doesn’t mention, but should have, that even larger majorities in 10 of those 24 countries support the stoning of adulterers, but I digress).   She might also have mentioned that hefty minorities of Muslims in most of the remaining Muslim countries surveyed by PEW support the death penalty for apostacy (46% in Lebanon – once the most liberal country in the Arab world – 42% in Iraq, 44% in Bangladesh.  Even in Turkey, 27% of the population supports the death penalty for apostates – Exhibit A why it will never be admitted to the European union).  And, keep in mind, just because the balance of the populations in these countries doesn’t support the killing of apostates, that doesn’t mean that they don’t support punishing them – in 20 Muslim countries apostacy remains a criminal offense.   The notion that apostates should be killed (or criminally sanctioned) is not a radical, outlandish belief in the Muslim world, in many countries it is a mainstream, if not the mainstream view.  

What can be said about societies where large minorities, much less large majorities, believe that it is appropriate for the state to slay religious dissidents? Without meaning to, Ms. Khan nailed the problem with modern Islam, namely the moral bankruptcy of modern Muslims.  How else can one describe  the acceptance of the killing of  apostates (or the stoning of adulterers,  the killing of blasphemers, andthe mutilation of  young girls? I could go on)?  

There is, however, good news.  The word of God may be immutable, but people and values can change.  If Islam is as much a reflection of the values of its followers, then if those values change, so too will Islam.  Indeed, to an extent we already see this in the West, where Islamic communities, like Ms. Khan’s, (generally) share the same core values as their non-Islamic neighbours and as a result have (generally) adopted a version of Islam consistent with both those values and their interpretation of the word of God. (To be sure, the odd nut goes off to become a jihadist in Syria, but then the odd Christian goes off and kills an abortion doctor, I’m not inclined to define a community by its lunatics.)  The question for Ms. Khan and other moderate Muslims is how do we change the values of their co-religionists in the rest of the world?

3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Islam? Or the Trouble with Muslims?”

  1. Thank you for the above analysis – it is quite illuminating.

    Just one point of contention – your PEW numbers are incorrect. If you read closely, the survey asks those Muslims who support the implementation of shariah, whether they support the death penalty for apostasy. So, to obtain the percentage of Muslims within a given country that support the death penalty for apostasy, you must take the percentage that support sharia and multiply it by the percentage (of those who support sharia) who support the death penalty. That is what I did in arriving at my conclusion. As such, So, for Lebanon, 29% support shariah; of those, 46% support the death penalty – resulting in (29% x 46%) = 13.3% of Lebanese who support the death penalty – and we haven’t included the uncertainty factor of this number. Similarly, the numbers are as follows: Iraq (38%), Bangladesh (36%), Turkey (12% favour sharia x 17% – not 27% – favour the death penalty = 2%). So only 2% of Turks favour death for apostates.

    Having said that, yes, I do have a problem with my co-religionists who believe that a person should be killed for leaving the faith. It is a morally bankrupt position. It has no basis in the very foundations of the very faith people profess to follow. For those Muslims who care to investigate the issue with an open mind, this is an eye-opener. For those who don’t, and rely on tradition without critical analysis, it makes no difference what you tell them.

    Another quibble – the Qur’an was not written decades, nor centuries after it was revealed. It was written while revealed, and compiled and codified a few years after the Prophet’s death. The hadeeth, or collections of sayings, actions, traditions of the Prophet were compiled and written a few centuries after his death. This compilation, in of itself, is a science like no other.

    Once again, thank you for your opinion.

    Take care,
    Sheema

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    1. Thanks for the comment Sheema.

      With respect to the statistics, you’re quite correct, I had misread them and will fix that. I think the main thrust still stands, but obviously I’m relieved that smaller minorities are inclined to kill apostates.

      With respect to the origins of the Koran, there is an open historical debate on this point. You’re description on its origins is consistent with the Islamic religious tradition, but one that has been challenged by modern historiography. Remarkably, there is almost no written record of the Prophet or his life dating before roughly 800AD and, curiously, subsequent accounts become more detailed than earlier ones, leading to credible (though certainly not definitive) theories having the Koran, in its modern form, drafted more than a century after the Prophet’s death, drafted in Iraq or in Syriac (rather than classic Arabic). The earliest Koran that has been recovered is dated to the mid 8th century.

      Moreover, even in the conventional account, the Koran wasn’t canonized until decades after the Prophet’s death and the only evidence we have that it represents a complete and accurate collection of the teachings of the Prophet are the subsequent accounts of the collection of said teachings, which accounts were written centuries after the fact. In that respect the accuracy of the Koran as the authentic revelations of the Prophet is as much as matter of faith as the resurrection of Christ.

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  2. I think you make an excellent point regarding ‘true’ Islam. You’re absolutely right when you say that a religion is what its followers make of it. It’s only when you tackle the question (your title) from this perspective that you realise that actually it’s a cultural issue, not a religious one. Much like Ireland (my home country) which was until very recently a Catholic country. Irish society, Irish culture and Irish people were responsible for systematic infanticide, not the Catholic Church. Yes we now bow our heads in shame and blame it all on the Church which at the time controlled the country, but the reality is it was never a religious issue – it was a cultural one. I think that the Islamic issue can be looked at in the same way and it is only when we examine the middle East in this way that we can see real possibilities for progress. It’s much easier to influence a culture through soft power strategies than it is to defeat a religion with hard power tactics.

    Great piece – very thought provoking!

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