What is missing in Brunei’s Shari’ah adoption story

“Our school is correct, but it may be wrong; the school of those who disagree with us is wrong, but it may be right.” – Islamic Juristic aphorism (quoted in The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson. P.207).

The quote above captures the general attitude among Islamic legal scholars, when it comes to legal issues. While the Qur’an is considered the word of God and its epistemological truth certain, the way it is interpreted is varied and even among scholars, there is consensus that this diversity of opinion is valid, as long as it doesn’t go against the intentions of the Shari’ah (maqasid e Shariah) which are: to establish justice, order and flourishing of society. While there are some nation-states such as Saudi Arabia that deploy only one (narrow) interpretation of Shari’ah, in much of the world, this plurality of interpretation is understood, acknowledged and respected as the norm. The Saudi method of Shari’ah interpretation and implementation, that is often very strict, owing to a rather literalist interpretation, rooted in Wahhabi Islam may be the exception, rather than the norm. I argue here that what is missing in the media portrayal of Brunei’s adoption of Shari’ah is simply this: There is not just ONE way to interpret and apply Shar’iah laws (translates as ‘the way’) but multiple. And it is not necessarily all about amputation and stoning to death. As much as CNN would like to portray it as such, there is much more nuance and complexity to this debate, than is presented to lay audience. The noise needs to give way to genuine discussion and understanding of Islamic legal norms that are often not understood, even by well-meaning activists and ‘educated’ liberals.index

Every few weeks, there is a news headline about the ‘dangers of implementing Shari’ah’ or ‘creeping shariah’ in the U.S. While much of the rhetoric about the ‘dangers’ are crafted by those who have little or absolute no knowledge of Islam or Islamic jurisprudence, what is even more shocking is the amount of ink-space that these news items that this gathers, thanks to ill-informed and extremist loud-mouths. The leader of Boko Haram and the Brunei issue are but two instances, in the past week. While the former is a criminal, who is using any excuse to bolster his claims, the latter seems to be a political move, though I do not have a total understanding of why the country is moving in the direction that it is. While I am not attempting to defend the move of Brunei’s leader -that is an altogether different discussion- I am simply arguing for greater nuance to be applied to the discourse of Islamic law. While this issue demands that several books be written about it, and of course, there are many that exist, the key fact is that within the mainstream Islamic schools of jurisprudence – four in Sunni Islam: Shafii, Hanafi, Maliki and Hambali and about three main schools in Shii Islam, there is vast plurality of interpretation about all aspects of how the divine law enshrined in the Qur’an is to be interpreted.

 One Qur’an, multiple interpretations

While Shari’ah is understood as the ‘divine law’ that is meant to guide human conduct ( for Muslims), among scholars and legal experts, there is a general consensus that there are multiple interpretations of the same verse of the Qur’an. Ingrid Mattson, one of the foremost Islamic Scholars in North America points out in her book that the ways in which Islamic law is derived from Qur’an and Sunnah (life of prophet) are complex and varied. Entire bodies of knowledge and disciplines exist, that engage scholars in lifelong learning and scholarship. Fiqh is the study of interpretation of the Qur’an and formulation of laws in accordance with it. This is a complex and ever-evolving field that has continued to evolve in the Muslim world, trying to keep up with the challenges of modernity. As Ingrid Mattson says in her book : “The barriers to sound comprehension of the Qur’an are many, but generally fall into two categories: intellectual and spiritual….if one wants to understand the normative implications of these verses, much more work needs to be done. To derive norms from the Qur’an – moral injunctions, legal rulings and ethical imperatives – it is necessary to consider the way different parts of the Qur’an relate to one another.”( p.185). She further points out that Qur’an exegesis, known as ta’wil or tafsir (explain) is a vast field of Islamic studies. “From the time of the Companions until today, Muslims have tried to understand the meaning and implications of the Qur’an and have taught, lectured and written on the subject. Exegesis comprises of many sub-genres including Qur’anic vocabulary, rhetoric, grammar, occasions of revelation, and stories of the prophets, legal content and scientific indications and hidden meanings.” ( P.186 )

Universal Human Rights and Shari’ah – can the twain meet?

Abdullahi An’naim, of Emory Law School and one of the foremost scholars of Islamic law in the world has written extensively about Islamic law and its intersection with international human rights laws. The gist of his arguments is that any serious engagement with human rights laws should take into consideration the religious norms that are in place in any society. To ignore or to dismiss them is to not be sensitive to the organizing frameworks prevalent in that society. Especially in the former colonies of Africa and Asia, where the wounds of colonialism are still too fresh, these sensitivities should inform this debate. Also, one must keep in mind that the notion of separation of state and religion is a post-enlightenment ideal that has been realized only in Europe, and partly in the U.S., with great difficulty and centuries of struggle. There are instances where religion has actively helped promote civil society and greater social cohesion. This fact must also not be dismissed, in our rush to remove all facets of religion from the public sphere.

Here is an interesting discussion between An’naim and Talal Asad, a world-renowned scholar, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate School and who has focused on developing an ‘Anthropology of the Secular.’ Asad says that “One has to be careful in investing too many of our hopes on the rights discourse, as it is addressed to and linked necessarily to a regime of law, which is invested in the state. The modern states and its allies such as international corporations, are not to be trusted and use human rights for their own purposes.” For this reason, Asad says he is suspicious of the rights discourse. With a rhetoric of universality, it is vested in the state’s agenda – and serves either national or economic interests. This claim to universality is linked to a reality of particularity and one should be more aware of, he argues. Also, the question of power relations in the international arena is key, he says. “Who would dare bring the U.S. for its violation of rights?. It is the way that rights are invested in power-politics, on a regular basis, he adds. “Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, the situation of modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.

Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity, since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”

Asad further says that everybody in the world, educated or uneducated has a sense of right and wrong and legal capacity, and inalienable human rights. It is possible for religious principles to come to politics. Using the example of the lobby system, Asad argues that it is difficult to separate out legislature from these special interests. “The state has to define what is religion, in order to protect it. The state has to define what is to be protected, so to that part, it cannot be separated out. Historically, this has shifted in the way things have shifted what is essentially religious,” Asad contends.

Intolerance from the state disturbs both scholars. “The idea of separating political authority with spirituality raises certain questions and requires further elaboration. The possibility of re-thinking Shari’ah is important and I am in agreement with An’naim and this is happening in various parts of the Middle East.” Pointing to the example of abolition of slavery in the Muslim world, Asad says that Shari’ah has been re-thought. There are principles of Shari’ah that may contradict equality, but there is a lot that is consistent with the principles of human rights, Asad points out. This is similar to what Ingrid Mattson has argued in her book The Story of the Qur’an that our search for the true meaning of the Qur’an and its application to our lives cannot be too narrow and rooted only in one school of thought or tradition. “Only a truly open-minded, critical engagement with the diverse schools of thought and approaches to the Qur’an will be sufficient to claim the exercise of due diligence.” (p.231). She warns of the dangers of parochialism in outlook and life, as being barriers to our true understanding of life and the meaning of what the Qur’an is telling us.

 Which Shariah and for whom?

The point that is crucial for us to understand is that Shari’ah can take many different forms in every society. In fact scholars of Islamic law argue that even geography impacts how laws are interpreted and that some laws in a country cannot be applied exactly as in another context.  Further, the question of minorities, those who do not believe in Islam is also complicated. While blasphemy laws in Pakistan for instance can be misused ( and have been, for a while) to target political dissidents and minorities, again, these are egregious instances of misuse of Shar’iah, rather than the norm. Even among Western scholars, there is  differing opinion on how these issues ought to be handled and how much the nation-states should be pushed to ‘reform.’

Abdullahi Ani’naim is more vocal about the incompatibility of Shari’ah and modern legal systems. He has called for a ‘Secular’ state in all Muslim countries and has hence run into greater intellectual challenges, while Asad does not see a conflict between Religious norms and political values. One could say that An’naim is more influenced by the enlightenment understanding and liberal notions of ‘freedom’. As he says: “Who is the human in human rights,” is an important starting point. The self-determining self is at the core of the definition of humanity, argues An’naim. For An’naim, it is a people centered idea, and there should be no need for us to depend on the state to defend human rights. The self-determination of the human is key. “It is humans who make the state do what they want. It is the people who run the state and are subjects who make it or fail to do what it does.” This means that practically, we can change our legal, political systems, with activism and effort.

On the other hand, Asad seems more optimistic that there need not be this negation of religious values. In the aforementioned discussion, Asad says “ One has to pay attention to what is going on in the Muslim world, where people are struggling for greater openings, spaces and should not be labelled ‘Islamists’ and those committed to political order. It is unfair that all of us learn from experience, but Islamists don’t.” So, this projection of negativity that often happens in media discourse as well as (some) scholars who write about political Islam being necessarily a backward project is harmful and not conducive to looking at the transformative possibilities that exist, even if it comes from quarters that we don’t like to deal with or engage. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political activism is a case in point.

Finally, it may make sense to end with a topic I started this discussion, i.e., Brunei. The official stance of the government is mentioned on their website, which states: The implementation of Islamic laws is not unprecedented in the country. It was ever carried out during the Islamic glory days a few centuries ago, but was halted with the presence of foreign powers which reduced the strength and effectiveness of Islamic legislation. It is thereby hoped that the implementation of this order would be able to restore the status of Islamic legislation in the country, such that it befits Brunei Darussalam’s stature as a nation that practices the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept, a historic Nation of Zikir shaped by the more-than five centuries of Malay Islamic Monarchy.” So, while each country has its sovereign right to implement the laws that fit its social conditions and needs, and as long as it abides by (most), if not all, Universal Principles of Human Rights – then it should be ok. The particularities of the laws should be discussed, debated and negotiated, rather than making blanket statements about ‘barbaric’ Shari’ah and the like, which are not only ignorant, but also deeply offensive to people who hold their religion and way of life very dear. And more importantly, the gaps, inconsistencies in every legal system should be kept in mind too, before one criticizes Shari’ah that is as complex as any other legal system, perhaps more so, given the global reach of Islam and the way laws are interpreted around the world. A final word of caution: We need more thinking, scholarly understanding and reasoned arguments, not noise, that distracts us from the real issues at hand.


Further resources:

Islamic reform – Conference at Oxford University. Talk by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadhan. Accessible at – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY17d4ZhY8M

Islam, Human Rights and the Secular- discussion with Talal Asad and Abdullahi An’naim – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiTaE863jBI

The Future of Shari’ah is the Secular State – http://en.qantara.de/content/abdullahi-ahmed-an-naim-the-future-of-sharia-is-the-secular-state

Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003)



Are the Saudis getting something right?

Are the Saudis getting something right, in terms of their foreign policy, both in the MENA region and around the world? Or is it all a big mess, much like American foreign policy in the region? In a recent article in the TIME magazine, Farid Zakaria[i] pointed out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is a disaster and that it is pouring money down the drain, while alienating itself from the global order. The kingdom’s  rejection of the Security Council seat is the most egregious example of this phenomenon. There is however, one area where the Saudi government is acting in good faith and putting its money for a cause that may actually drastically change the intellectual and foreign policy landscape of the country in the decades, if not years to come – higher education. The billions of dollars that King Abdullah has allocated to higher education may hold the prospects for a more liberal, open and vibrant in the years to come.

Pic courtesy: www.dailymail.co.uk
Pic courtesy: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Just taking a cursory look at the number of Saudi students in American schools tells us that something profound is taking place. Post 911, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. plummeted, for reasons related directly to the tense relations that characterized the countries and people, immediately following the incident. As this Wall Street Journal article[ii] points out, in 2004, there were just 1000 Saudi students in the U.S. In 2011, there was a huge jump to over 66,000 students. This also corresponded with the increased interest and lobbying at the highest level from the Saudis to help their citizens understand the rest of the world and vice versa. On a macro-level, the overall literacy rate was 5% in 1950s and has climbed upto over 79%, since then. This is part of the strategic plan put forth by King Abdullah, who is concerned with the potentially declining oil revenues and also an increasingly networked world, where Saudis have to find their place – once the oil runs out.

I believe that this is visionary thinking and rightly puts money where the mouth is. With a greater number of students coming to the U.S., learning, interacting and sharing their experiences and lives with others, they will create a better understanding between the two countries. Once they return- and many scholarships are tied in such a way that they eventually return to Saudi Arabia- they will bring back this understanding and nuance in dealing with the rest of the world with them. I believe that this new generation of people will be the defining factor in how Saudi of tomorrow will shape up – either as a continuation of the current order, or a radical shift to a new and more open system, one that is open to many more ideas and versions of Islam and ways of life, than it is currently.

There are indicators that this is already occurring. The women contingent’s participation in Olympics in 2012 and this year’s activism to end the ban on women driving cars are both instances of reform and change that are taking place in the kingdom. Things are changing, albeit slowly. Citizens movements, and work from activists who are asking for greater integration into the global human rights discourse and activism are changing the landscape of legal reform. Saudi based humanitarian aid organizations are cooperating and working alongside international aid agencies and both the entities are learning to appreciate the different worldviews that they approach their work.

As Zakaria points out, and quite rightly, the kingdom’s vast oil wealth has been used to underwrite the promotion of Wahhabism, a rather orthodox and fundamentalist version of Islam that is not entirely acceptable to most countries in the Muslim world. While this brand of Islam has been promoted as the “mainstream” Islam by the ruling elites in Saudi, one must be aware that the diversity within the house of Islam is as much as the diversity of human races and religions – as Islam is literally present everywhere in the world. So, in short, the Saudi version of Islam does not have a monopoly of representing Islam – the presence of the holiest sites of Islam notwithstanding. Other strands of Sunni Islam are equally valid, so are Shia Islam as well as the various permutations and combinations of syncretic Islam that has emerged in India, Indonesia and the U.S., sometimes radically challenging our conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim.

All of these hold prospects for change, but most importantly it is the 66,000 plus students in the U.S. who will define the future of Saudi. And by the look of it, and having interacted with a few dozen of them, I am optimistic that there will be a more tolerant and open Saudi Arabia in the years to come. The Saudis are getting something right – and that is investing in the future of their youth. And I hope that they don’t give up on this, anytime soon.


How to overcome cultural barriers to philanthropy?

Doing good is not easy. In today’s globalized world, where different values, norms, cultural attitudes towards life are coming together and interacting there is bound to be friction, misunderstanding when it comes to what it means to do good, and the intentionality of the acts themselves. In the field of philanthropy, this is markedly so, and listening to a few speakers during the MENA Social good, an online conference that brought in speakers from around the MENA region, I was reminded of this reality. Doing good may mean vastly different things to different people and finding the ‘common ground’ is not as easy as it sounds._12865_kuwait-charity-2-3-2005

                So, what are the challenges to doing global philanthropy or philanthropy with people of different norms and values from that of our own? For starters, the very idea of philanthropy and ‘common good’ may be different across cultures. In the U.S., one can argue that there is a broader definition of ‘common good’ and there is a vibrant civil society, as evidenced by the number of nongovernment organizations, political action committees and other forms of “civil society” institutions, that provide services to the public. The ‘self-help’ ethic can be said to be ingrained in the American psyche that is deeply suspicious of too much government intervention in their private lives. The ongoing debate about Obama care or the Affordable Healthcare Act is an example of this phenomenon.

On the other hand, there are countries in the Middle East that have, for historic and geo-political reasons relied on state patronage to people and suppressed civil society formation. This is a different model of philanthropic giving and one that has strong networks with the religious institutions in the region. While religious giving is also high in the U.S. and according to Giving USA, it is about roughly one third of all individual giving in the country, the fact that much of giving occurs through ‘secular institutions’ is a differentiator. Secondly, when it comes to philanthropy across borders, there is a question of power relations, hegemony and unequal access to knowledge, resources and mutual perception of the ‘other’ that becomes a barrier. As Muna AbuSulayman, Media personality from the UAE pointed out: “We want to be treated as partners, even if we are not equal. We are tired of being treated as victims, and the Western world treating us as subjects to be colonized and need saving. We need to understand that these are complex issues, and need to be taken into account. We need dignity for all stake holders and this needs to be considered, as global partnerships are created.”

Institutionalization of philanthropy is another important factor that is underdeveloped in the MENA region. Especially in the Gulf countries, that are cash-rich, there is a lack of systems of measurement of philanthropy and also only now are NGOs’ in the region starting to look at accountability and transparency.  As Abu Sulayman further added: “We still suffer from a lack of institutionalization, and there is a missing link of societal needs and planning. One of this is low-cost housing. Either open-source housing or other models such as Dr. David Smith is advocating. We need to bring this into the Arab world. We need an actionable plan and how look at funds are going into projects. In CSR, we are seeing this as part of money being spent, but much of the decision making happens based on what CSR administrator thinks what a society needs. A lot of it revolves around Public Relations, and not genuine needs of the people.”

The other main problem is the notion of “doing good” and “doing well while doing good”, i.e., looking at philanthropy through the lens of business thinking. The notion of “Philanthrocapitalism” is new even in the west, but is being rapidly adopted in the MENA region, according to Ahmed Ashkar, CEO of the Hult Prize. He pointed out that the barriers to entry must be low for start-ups and also that doing good and doing well can and should go together. These are not contradictory things in themselves, added. When the cost of doing business is low and all the extra profits earned go back into the business, then we are looking at a “socially conscious business,” he said.

Criticisms of Philanthrocapitalism

One of the biggest criticisms of philanthrocapitalism is that when people get involved in what are essentially political issues, it is easy for everyone else to fear the worst. Today’s democratic freedoms have been hard-won; votes don’t want to trade their rights for plutocracy. “For traditional-minded Americans, George Soros is public enemy number one,” thunders TV pundit Bill O’Reilly in Culture Warrior,” say Bishop and Greene in their book Philanthrocapitalism.  They point out that a liberal like him can raise troubling questions such as why should the rich determine society’s priorities? Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities argues that much of philanthropy is ego-driven. “Pride and vanity have built more hospitals that all the virtues together.”

Another criticism is that most giving in the USA is  tax-driven and if the money is in a foundation, the taxman cannot touch it, at least in America.  The same is not true in the MENA, however. This also creates different incentives in both systems for giving – one a highly professionalized and almost ‘business-like’ attitude, while the other encourages a rather personal and  charitable attitude. This is extremely significant and should not be overlooked, when analyzing the differences between the two systems.

While both speakers brought up relevant concerns and seemed to be pointing to some of the challenges to doing business and philanthropy in the MENA region, there are structural issues to deal with. How does the bureaucracy of the country deal with start-ups and nonprofit organizations? What are the cultural attitudes towards charity? How does this intersect with what the entrepreneurial “do-gooders” come up with? These are some basic questions that need to be addressed, as well. I am not proposing any solutions, nor are any simplistic ones possible. These are deep questions that need to be worked out, on a case by case basis, as there are many moving parts to this problem. While power-dynamics, access to knowledge, capital and networks are key to address them, one must be sensitive to the fact that history, culture, religion and relations of the individual and state need to be factored in, before proposing any solution.

This is a necessary first step towards finding any common ground, without which, all “doing good” may actually backfire and cause more heartburn and damage.