The ‘Doha Debates’ is a brainchild of Tim Sebastian, the BBC award-winning journalist who rose to fame in the last decade as the host of BBC’s ‘HARDtalk’. It is held in Doha, Qatar, and occurs eight times a year; this year marked the completion of its fifth season. It discusses and debates – Oxford Union style – topics of relevance in the Middle East, spanning religious, social and political issues. Tim proposes a “motion”, two people debate for it, and two against it. Tim and the audience have the opportunity to grill all four of the speakers, after which the audience votes on the motion, and it either “passes” or “fails” the house. It is aired on BBC, and estimated to have a viewership of a few hundred million people.
Four months ago, while attending the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) conference in Doha, some of us were invited to be part of the audience for a debate over the motion, ‘This house believes that political Islam is a threat to the West’. I managed to squeeze in a question directed at Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation (which was slightly edited in the final airing) in which I asked him to explain why it was permissible for politicians to derive their ethics from Western philosophers, while according to him it was not allowed for other (Muslim) politicians to derive their ethics from what they considered to be Divine sources. Being a part of the audience was an interesting experience, as it gave me an opportunity to see how the Debates worked. Little did I know back then that I would be back in the same hall, only this time I would be sitting on the platform rather than in the audience!
Last week, the producers of the program contacted me to check my availability and willingness to participate in the Debates. I was referred to the program by a close friend, and the producers had also seen some of my talks online. The motion in question was to be ‘This house believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose’.
The suddenness of the whole thing took me by complete surprise. I already had travel plans prior the debate call: I was to leave the next day for a long trip to Canada, England, and Turkey, and had to be in South Africa four days after the scheduled debate. If I committed to the Debates, and went to Qatar, I would not be able to return home, and would be committing myself to a 20-day trip spanning five countries! Additionally, I barely had time to prepare, as well as being already overwhelmed with the other lectures I had to give.
More problematic than the logistics of travel was the motion itself. Any time a male opposes a motion with the three words, “Muslim”, “women” and “freedom” in the motion, he is simply asking for trouble! It was as if I had to be the “bad guy” arguing for the subjugation of women. Of course, my completely stereotypical background as a bearded male cleric would do little to alleviate such a backlash.
I asked the producers what they meant by the motion. Did they mean that a Muslim lady had the freedom to not be forced into any marriage? In which case I could not oppose the motion, as Islamic law guarantees her the right to choose her spouse. Or did they mean that she had the right to marry anyone – including non-Muslims, and even other women (the wording of the motion clearly said anyone and not any man)? They responded that they meant it as it is – anyone!! Well, in that case, of course I opposed the motion. Islamic law does not allow a woman to marry a non-Muslim man, and of course same-sex marriages are prohibited as well!
I realized that this would be a very, very difficult debate. I was treading on ambiguous ground here. The motion was worded very broadly (I was later explicitly told by one of the staff that all motions must necessarily be ‘sexy’ in order to bring about an exciting discussion). Most women would read into the motion the “freedom” to marry any Muslim man that they wanted to marry; in other words, the freedom to choose a partner, rather than be forced into a marriage. And that freedom was one that I would not have opposed, especially on a platform such as the BBC!
As an asides, the issue of whether a Muslim woman requires a wali or not is a fiqh issue which should be debated between the schools of law; such debates have no place in front of a public, non-Muslim, audience, and I would not have participated if that had been the issue.
So my dilemma can be summed up as follows: how can I get the message across that I oppose the motion because of the extreme generality of its wording, yet support the basic premise of granting women more of a say in their marriage? In other words, I wanted to present myself as a champion of a Muslim woman’s legitimate rights (some of which they are clearly not getting in that part of the world), while being opposed to illegitimate rights that the motion also hinted at.
To further make matters seemingly impossible, I had a full one-hundred and twenty seconds to make my rather complicated and nuanced point! I had never, in my life, given a talk consisting of two minutes. And as any public speaker knows, the shorter the time allocated, the more difficult it is to prepare the speech.
I asked the producers if they could send me an outline of what the other speakers were talking about. I didn’t want to repeat the same points my fellow speaker would mention, and also wanted to prepare myself for what the other side would say. To my surprise, the response came that it is against their policy to provide opposing views to each team, and in fact we would not even have a chance to talk with the other team before the debate! I guess this all added to the drama of the debate itself.
Speaking with me, against the motion, was Dr. Thuraya Al Arrayed, a Saudi writer, columnist and member of the advisory board of the Arab Thought Foundation. Speaking on the other side, in support of the motion, was none other than Asra Nomani, an American-Muslim feminist who had authored several books, and who was a close friend of Daniel Pearle, the Jewish journalist who was brutally murdered in Pakistan by extremists. Along with her was Dr. Muhammad Habash, an MP from Syria and a graduate of an Islamic university. That was all the information I was given.
In any case, I took a deep breath, prayed istikhara, and began writing out my first draft. I thought I had done a good job of gathering my essential points in a succinct format, but when I timed myself reading it aloud, it was almost five minutes long! Obviously, most of my points had to go. But which ones to keep and which ones to discard? I kept on thinking about this issue throughout my travels to Canada, England and Turkey. I continued editing my speech in hotels and in the plane, in academic conferences and during Islamic seminars. In fact, I finished the final draft only two hours before the actual debate. That two-minute speech took up at least twenty hours of my time!
When I arrived in Qatar, I was met at the airport (before customs) by a special representative, and whisked away in a brand new Jaguar to Doha’s newest and swankiest hotel, the ‘W’. I have probably stayed at over a hundred and fifty hotels, but this one has to take the cake in terms of luxury and the “chic” factor. All of this glitzy display of material wealth actually repulses me, and I am grateful to Allah for that. Give me a decent, clean standard room any day, without the pretentious atmosphere and snobbish crowd!
Dr. Thuraya and I were supposed to meet Tim Sebastian and the producers the next morning in the lobby of the hotel. When we got there, Tim was wrapping up a conversation with the other two speakers (Asra Nomani and Dr Habash). We politely introduced ourselves, after which the two of them were led away. Tim then began engaging us in conversation, eventually making his way to the topic and getting a feel for our perspectives. He was taking notes, and it was obvious that he was preparing himself for his counter-offensive. Once again, we had no idea where Tim would be coming from. This was getting more and more daunting by the moment. Dr. Thuraya would be approaching the issue from more of a psychological and social perspective, whereas I would concentrate solely on the religious one.
An hour before the debate, we were driven to the studios (each team in a separate car), where the audience had already begun to settle down. We were told of various protocols to follow on stage (don’t tap the mic, always remember you might be on camera, etc.) and then finally were led onto the stage.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I was nervous, but I kept reminding myself that insha Allah I was there to try to present the truth in the best manner possible, and prayed that Allah would enable me to make a good and sensible case.
The debate was thoroughly enjoyable. It was quite clear that all four of us had very unique and specific perspectives, and the ‘line’ dividing the two sides appeared to shift back and forth. (I’m not going to go into too many details here as the readers can view the entire program in a few days).
The two opposing religious sides were championed by myself and Asra Nomani. My basic premise was that the motion was illogical in its very wording: a “Muslim” by definition is one who submits to the laws of Islam, hence there could be no ultimate “freedom” if she wanted to truly be Muslim. I decided against quoting any verses or hadith, as this was not a theological debate, but merely one of definitions (what makes someone a Muslim). I also decided to avoid all controversial fiqh issues and stick to what was agreed upon by the scholars of Islam. I do believe this helped my argument immensely.
Dr. Thuraya’s point was concisely and cheekily summarized by Tim as: ‘Mother knows best’. Her basic premise was that Muslim girls are too young and immature to make such major decisions. This, of course, earned her the wrath of many of the young, educated, female audience members, who claimed that they knew best what was good for them. I did not get involved with this tangent as I wasn’t the one who brought it up. I do believe, with all respect to her, that her argument did not help the motion and dampened the impact of some of my points.
Dr. Habash initially stated that he would not allow a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man unless he affirmed the Prophet and believed in him. I said that in that case he’s a Muslim, so it’s a moot point! He then modified his position to state that he would allow such a marriage only if a Christian or Jew agreed to respect the Prophet and not ridicule him, otherwise he would be opposed to such a marriage. Instead of going down the tangent of how that position contravened ijma, I told him that even in that case he was not arguing for ultimate freedom for Muslim women, and therefore he would be more appropriate on our side of the motion. Overall I felt that he gave a confused message for his side.
Asra Nomani argued from a completely progressive point of view, stating that my claim of Muslim women not being allowed to marry non-Muslims was simply “Yasir’s version of Islam”. Even though I repeatedly pointed out that there was unanimous consensus on this issue, she continued to retort back that that was “my version”. Asra said all that I expected her to say, throwing in the standard red-herrings of “the wife-beating verse”, “forced marriages”, “loveless arranged marriages”, and of course “‘male domination”. I tried my best to always bring it back to the topic, as I did not want to waste time going down these other tangents. I was, however, offended at one tactic of hers. She asked (twice actually!), “What would you do if your own daughter wanted to marry a non-Muslim man?” I really felt like saying,
“Let’s leave our children out of the debate”. I found the question crude, undignified, and, frankly, insulting. I handled it as well as I could on the spot, although in hindsight I could have done better.
I was waiting for the opportunity to ask her one of my prepared questions, which was to demonstrate the logical consequences of destroying all boundaries. Very late in the debate, the opportunity did arise, and I said, “Asra, a very simple and blunt question: would you allow a Muslim woman to marry another woman?” Her response was, as I expected, in the affirmative. That was all I needed! My main point throughout the entire debate was: if you remove all limits, you have nothing left, and there is no point attaching yourself to any religion. Do as you please, but don’t bring religion into it to justify it.
Tim had a nice go at me once when I engaged him in dialogue. Reverting to my debate habit of dishing it back to the opponent, I asked him how he would define something (trying to corner him into a contradiction), at which point he very correctly pointed out that I was the speaker, not him, and that’s why I had been invited. That brought a good laugh from the audience! I did stumble on one other occasion, but overall I think I did alright, and I’ll leave the readers to be the judge of that when they view the program.
I was not expecting to win the motion. It was simply too vague of a motion, and women (and men) were arguing more for their freedom to choose their partner than freedom to contravene the Shariah. And I understand and respect that point of view, especially in the ultra-repressive climate of the Gulf where women have a much more difficult time, culturally and socially, in saying “No!” to someone whom their family chooses for them. However, my ultimate goals in this debate were:
- To make sure that Islam was not blamed for these evils; rather lay the blame squarely where it was deserved (culture).
- To underscore the fact that the Islamic system was the perfect system and the need to understand it properly and return to it.
- To illustrate that importing cheap slogans such as “total freedom” is in fact meaningless, and would lead to consequences that the vast majority of people in the region would be opposed to.
I also wanted to make sure that I myself did not appear as some evil villain perpetuating the stereotypical figure of a male bearded Muslim cleric out to dominate women and deprive them of their rights to marry, divorce, live, or even breathe!
In these goals, I do believe that alhamdulillah I was successful. The vote was 62 % for the motion, and 38 % against. I was actually happy at the result; I feel that if the implications of such a broadly-worded motion had not been successfully shown, the motion would have been closer to a 95 – 5 split! And, as the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam said, ‘A third, and a third is a lot!’
After the Debate, we all went out for dinner, and I had the opportunity to engage in a friendly conversation with Tim Sebastian. Tim is clearly a skilled debater and an intelligent person, but he’s also very down to earth and genuinely concerned about the affairs of the world. Initially, I had assumed that he was merely “doing his job” and that this project was just one more feather in his hat, but it was clear that he is passionate for what he does and believes in bringing about change. I was very impressed with his humbleness, character and manners. Just one point to illustrate this: our dinner table was very long, and he made a point to stand up and move to each part of the table throughout the course of the evening so that he could get to know all the guests.
The debate succeeded in illustrating that marriage and female rights are complex issues that involve many aspects of culture, religion, social status, and society. The fact that the conversation took place was a step forward for the region. And in the end of the day, that is the ultimate goal of the Doha Debates – to talk about controversial topics in a public forum and to began dialogue for a more productive and healthy future.
And now your thoughts…
The Debate will be aired on BBC World News at the following times (all in GMT) :
- Saturday June 6th: 07:10, 15:10, 19:10
- Sunday June 7th: 00:10, 07:10, 15:10, 19:10
Swallowing Your Pride For A Moment Is Harder Than Praying All Night | Imam Omar Suleiman
Iblees was no ordinary worshipper. He worshipped Allah for thousands of years with thousands of prayers. He ascended the ranks until he accompanied the angels with his noteworthy worship. Performing good deeds was no issue for him. He thanked Allah with his prayers, and Allah rewarded him with a lofty station in Paradise. But when Adam was created and given the station that he was, suddenly Iblees was overcome by pride. He couldn’t bear to see this new creation occupy the place that he did. And as he was commanded to prostrate to him, his pride would overcome him and doom him for eternity. Alas, swallowing his pride for one prostration of respect to Adam was more difficult to him than thousands of prostrations of worship to Allah.
In that is a cautionary lesson for us especially in moments of intense worship. When we exert ourselves in worship, we eventually start to enjoy it and seek peace in it. But sometimes we become deluded by that worship. We may define our religiosity exclusively in accordance with it, become self-righteous as a result of it, and abuse people we deem lesser in the name of it. The worst case scenario of this is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said about one who comes on the day of judgment with all of their prayers, fasting, and charity only to have it all taken away because of an abusive tongue.
But what makes Iblees’s struggle so relevant to ours? The point of worship is to humble you to your Creator and set your affairs right with His creation in accordance with that humility. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in their heart would not enter paradise. The most obvious manifestation of that pride is rejecting the truth and belittling someone else. But other subtle manifestations of that pride include the refusal to leave off argumentation, abandon grudges, and humble yourself to the creation in pursuit of the pleasure of the Creator.
Hence a person would rather spend several Ramadan’s observing the last 10 nights in intense prayer seeking forgiveness for their sins from Allah, rather then humble themselves for a moment to one of Allah’s servants by seeking forgiveness for their transgressions against him, even if they too have a claim.
Jumah is our weekly Eid, and Monday’s and Thursday’s are our weekly semblances of Ramadan as the Prophet (s) used to fast them since our deeds are presented to Allah on those days. He said about them, “The doors of Heaven are opened every Monday and Thursday, and Allah pardons in these days every individual servant who is not a polytheist, except those who have enmity between them; Allah Says: ‘Delay them until they reconcile with each other”
In Ramadan, the doors of Heaven are opened throughout the month and the deeds ascend to Allah. But imagine if every day as your fasting, Quran recitation, etc. is presented to Allah this month, He responds to the angels to delay your pardon until you reconcile with your brother. Ramadan is the best opportunity to write that email or text message to that lost family member or friend and say “it’s not worth it to lose Allah’s forgiveness over this” and “IM SORRY.”
Compare these two statements:
The Prophet said: “He who boycotts his brother for more than three days and dies during this period will be from the people of hellfire.”
He also said:
“I guarantee a house in the suburbs of Paradise for one who leaves arguments even if he is right.”
Swallowing your pride is bitter, while prayer is sweet. Your ego is more precious to you than your sleep. But above all, Allah’s pleasure is more precious than it all.
Can I Give My Zakat To An Islamic Educational Cause?
As Ramadan nears its end, many Muslims are thinking about paying their zakat in the last ten nights. But what is a worthy cause to which we can give our zakat and, in particular, what do the scholars have to say on this issue?
A number of Islamic educational and media institutions in the West have in recent years been highlighting their ‘zakat-eligible’ status. The list of these institutions is quite long. In the US, they include this website, the al-Madina Institute, the Yaqeen Institute, Zaytuna College, and the Ta’leef Collective. In the UK, they include Cambridge Muslim College. Some of these institutions focus on covering the cost of tuition for students who would otherwise be unable to pay, but others are focused on running an institution whose raison d’etre is Islamic education.
But some might wonder how such institutions can receive zakat? A common belief is that zakat is meant only for the poor and destitute and that such institutions would, therefore, be ineligible. This is sometimes reinforced by the way that a minority of scholars, including learned ones, might deal with these issues.
Last year in the UK, a respected scholar stated emphatically that “none of the scholars” in Islamic history until modern times had ever said one can give zakat to causes like supporting institutions that promote Islamic education. He asserted that only modern scholars permitted the spending of zakat on such matters in the name of the fī sabīli-Llāh category (which I will explain below). The same British scholar reiterated a similar view in the past couple of weeks, but this time said that his view was the opinion of the “vast majority of scholars”.
The average Muslim may find such conflicting claims confusing. How is it that some scholars say zakat cannot be given to Islamic educational causes, while a large number of prominent Islamic educational institutions, presumably led by Islamic scholars, are directly soliciting zakat funds?
The main reason for this is the existence of difference of opinion (ikhtilāf) among scholars regarding who or what is deserving of zakat payment. The Qur’an (9:60) sets out eight categories of zakat-eligible recipients. While people today often think of zakat as being due to the poor and needy, they only explicitly form two of these categories.
The basis on which many of the aforementioned scholarly institutions claim zakat-eligible status is the category of fī sabīli-Llāh which translates to “in God’s path.” Historically, the more dominant interpretation of this zakat-eligible category was that it referred to jihād in God’s path, i.e. zakat was to be given to people engaged in military expeditions on behalf of the Islamic community.
However, some medieval scholars, and a remarkably large number of modern scholars, appealing to the fact that the Prophet highlighted that jihād was ultimately for the sake of making God’s word prevail (li-takun kalimat Allāh hiya al-‘ulyā), have argued for a far broader understanding of this zakat-eligible category.
Jihād, as a concept, is of course incredibly broad in Islam. For example, one finds in a sound hadith that the Prophet said: “Engage in jihād against the polytheists with your wealth, your lives, and your tongues.” Additionally, some of the verses in the Qur’an that enjoined jihād were revealed in Mecca where military jihād was not yet permitted.
Because of this, a minority of medieval scholars argued that the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat recipients could entail payments made to support any righteous acts, while others argued that the category was ultimately about upholding and strengthening Islam specifically through da‘wa initiatives that cause God’s word to prevail of which education is one of the most effective tools.
Indeed, giving seekers of sacred knowledge (ṭullāb al-‘ilm) was deemed a legitimate form of zakat payment according to all four schools of law. Clearly, the respected British scholar cited above was inaccurate in his claim that “none of the scholars,” or only a small minority of them, viewed the fī sabīli-Llāh category as referring to anything other than military engagements.
Among modern Arab ulama, the view that the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat recipients can apply to Islamic da‘wa and educational initiatives has perhaps become the dominant position on this issue over the last one hundred years. This is true of all major ideological orientations, whether Salafi, Neo-traditionalist, or Islamist.
Thus, for example, arguably the most important Salafi scholar of his generation, the first Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm Āl al-Shaykh argued that the most deserving recipient of the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat was the cause of da‘wa, and responding to sources of doubt about Islam. Reportedly it is also the final opinion of his most important successor, Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. Bāz. Among living Salafis, this is the position of senior scholars outside the Saudi religious establishment as well, such as Shaykh Salmān al-‘Awda and Shaykh Ṣāliḥ al-Munajjid (may Allah liberate them from their unjust imprisonment).
It is also the position of senior scholars of the Azhar and Egypt’s Grand Muftis for many generations from the 20th and 21st centuries. In our own time, this includes Neo-traditionalist scholars like ‘Alī Jum‘a and Abdullāh b. Bayyah. While the latter prefers a more restrictive interpretation for the category, he permits the more expansive interpretation in his fatwas.
Among Islamist (Ikhwān) oriented scholars, one finds Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, author of what is perhaps the most comprehensive work to be written on the fiqh of zakat in Islamic history, promoting such an understanding as well. His two volume work, which addresses the major debates surrounding the fī sabīli-Llāh category in great detail, has also been translated into English. Among younger Islamist-leaning scholars, the encyclopaedic Mauritanian scholar and master of the Sharia sciences, Shaykh Muḥammad al-Ḥasan al-Dadaw argues that the fī sabīli-Llāh category may even be used in the establishing of educational endowments.
The above is only a selection of voices among those who are supportive of promoting Islamic educational causes on the basis of the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat. With due respect to scholars who would argue otherwise, it is clear that this is not only a legitimate legal opinion on this question but may well be the dominant view of many of the leading scholars of modern times.
Our communities are best served by an Islamic discourse that acknowledges the richness and diversity of our great religious tradition rather than restricts it to a narrow range of opinions. As the Prophet said to the Bedouin who prayed for God to exclusively show mercy to himself and the Prophet, “You have constricted what is vast!” (laqad ḥajjarta wāsi‘an).
Since there are a very large number of scholars who have recognised initiatives that promote the sound understanding of Islam to be eligible for receiving zakat, our community is best served by the accurate portrayal of the valid difference of opinion on such matters in which members of the community may legitimately seek to follow either opinion without claiming that the position adopted by others is illegitimate.
In an era in which the sound understanding of Islam is threatened by Islamophobic forces from without and extremist forces from within, we all recognise the importance of Islamic education as a central concern for contemporary Muslims to prioritise. May we all support this cause, whether through zakat or by some other means.
#UnitedForOmar – Imam Omar Suleiman Smeared by Right-Wing News After Opening Prayer at US House of Representatives
Sh. Omar Suleiman delivered the opening prayer in the US House of Representatives yesterday, May, 9th, 2019 at the invitation of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Dallas.
Immediately since, right wing media platforms have begun spreading negative coverage of the Imam Omar Suleiman – calling him anti-semitic, a common tactic used to discredit both Muslim activists as well as criticism of Israel policies.
News outlets citing the criticism have pointed to a post from The Investigative Project on Terrorism or ITP, as the source. The ITP was founded by and directed by noted Islamophobe Steven Emerson. Emerson’s history of hate speech has been documented for over two decades.
Since then, the story has been carried forward by multiple press outlets.
The immediate consequence of this has been the direction of online hate towards what has been Imam Omar Suleiman’s long history of preaching unity in the US socio-political sphere.
“Since my invocation I’ve been inundated with hate articles, threats, and other tactics of intimidation to silence me over a prayer for unity,” Imam Omar Suleiman says. “These attacks are in bad faith and meant to again send a message to the Muslim community that we are not welcome to assert ourselves in any meaningful space or way.”
MuslimMatters is proud to stand by Imam Omar Suleiman, and we invite our readers to share the evidence that counters the accusations against him of anti-semitism, bigotry, and hate. We would also encourage you to reach out, support, and amplify voices of support like Representative E.B.Johnson, and Representative Colin Allred.
You can help counter the false narrative, simply by sharing evidence of Imam Omar Suleiman’s work. It speaks for itself, and you can share it at the hashtag #UnitedForOmar
At an interfaith panel discussion, three North Texas religious leaders promoted understanding and dialogue among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Amid a vexed political and social climate, three religious leaders in North Texas—a priest, an imam, and a rabbi—proved it’s possible to come together in times of division. Source: DMagazine.com
The congregation, led by Imam Omar Suleiman, penned more than 150 cards and letters. source: WFAA News
“We must recognize that the white supremacy that threatens the black and Latino communities, is the same white supremacy that spurs Islamophobia and antisemitism,” -Imam Omar Suleiman
Source: Bend The Arc
“When any community is targeted, they need to see a united faith voice — that all communities come together and express complete rejection of anything that would pit our society against one another more than it already is.” -Imam Omar Suleiman
Source: Kera News
Source: The Carter Center
Imam: After devastating New Zealand attack, we will not be deterred
“My wife and I decided to take our kids to a synagogue in Dallas the night after the massacre at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh to grieve and show solidarity with the Jewish community. My 5-year-old played with kids his age while we mourned inside, resisting hate even unknowingly with his innocence…” Source: CNN