The Arabic word for trial is fitna, which has the connotation of purifying a useless external shell and leaving the useful inner core. A goldsmith in classical Arabic is called a fattan, meaning one who causes fitna, because his actions cause the outer layer of impurities present in gold ore to fall away, and leaves the pure gold underneath. Similarly, a fitna exposes the reality of a person: the veneer of false mannerisms intended to show off a façade of falsehood disappears, and one’s core level of God-consciousness, integrity, and commitment to truth are displayed for all to see. For me, that is exactly what this latest online fitna has done.
Everyone who is connected to the Western world’s blogosphere is painfully aware of the internet fury that is abuzz for the last week, involving a very dear friend of mine, Ustadh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, who has come under fire for some jokes posted on his Facebook page. I have not gotten involved until now for two primary reasons. Firstly, because I try to concentrate on that which is beneficial to the Ummah, and leave controversy as much as possible; and, secondly, because I was waiting for AlMaghrib Institute’s official response, since I did not want to cause more confusion for AlMaghrib by releasing a personal statement from me before they released an official one from them. Now that the situation has reached such unprecedented levels, with all and sundry feeling the need to comment and write, and now that AlMaghrib has officially released its response (here), I feel that it is beneficial to offer some thoughts from someone who is directly involved with AlMaghrib, and is a friend to Abu Eesa.
Here are my thoughts, summarized in seven points:
(Disclaimer: if you are unaware of this controversy, and don’t wish to expose yourself to that which will not benefit you, PLEASE, stop reading now, and read some Quran or do some dhikr or support some useful charity or make du’a for Palestine/Syria/Guantanamo instead!)
Firstly, what amazed me most about this whole debacle was the power of the Internet to generate such a movement and stir up such controversy. In all my years of blogging and using this social media, I have never seen any issue taken up so rapidly and passionately by the Islamic blogosphere. Quite literally overnight, the world witnessed thousands of Facebook messages and tweets about this issue; dozens of articles; half a dozen petitions – all involving tens of thousands of people. For me, such power was simultaneously astounding and terrifying: astounding because it demonstrates the sheer clout of this tool to highlight one cause and hijack all others, and dominate every other news item; terrifying for exactly the same reasons. Abu Eesa’s controversy quickly spiraled out of control and escalated to a global online topic in less than 48 hours; it was as if this was the only subject of conversation around the online globe for an entire week.
I wish that, in the future, even a fraction of this power could be utilized to highlight other projects and causes that we can all agree about.
Secondly, while nothing new, the harm of casual conversation and useless chatter and made-up gossip was demonstrated once again. Allah warns against such casual smearing in the Quran (‘Why did you speak with your tongues that which you have no knowledge of?’), and informs us that when any news comes from an untrustworthy source, we must verify it directly. Yet, it appears that people simply lose the ability to think critically when all of their friends say the same thing. It is as if the human situation is such that groupthink is the default. Democrats and Republicans. Blacks and Jews. Mexicans and Southerners. It doesn’t matter what the actual facts are: what matters is how ‘my people’ are interpreting the facts, and if ‘my group’ says something then I must see the world in the same way.
Abu Eesa never made any jokes about rape, or FGM, or domestic violence. Anyone who thinks otherwise, after reading the entire conversation, either does not speak English as a mother language, or is blinded by rage. The context of his words clearly indicates this. (Yes, there were jokes about the role of women and IWD, which will be discussed in a later point, but there was not a single joke about violence towards women). Yet, the flagrant lie that he joked about such vicious topics continued (and continues) to be perpetrated, even by respectable bloggers and academics online.
Be truthful, and criticize him for the jokes that he actually said, not ones that you’ve heard others assume him to have said.
Thirdly, one of the main problems of this controversy was that there were multiple truths at play here. Each party had some legitimate issues and real concerns, and the supporters of both sides took on Abu Eesa’s case as symbolic of their grievances with the other group. From my perspective, Abu Eesa and his jokes became a pawn that played out between far larger and antagonistic forces within the Ummah.
And it was interesting and useful to see the dynamics play out between two camps. For many on the (for lack of better term) liberal side of the spectrum, Abu Eesa became the stereotypical bogeyman radical fundamentalist misogynistic Mawli/Imam/Shaykh figure. By examining the criticism leveled against Abu Eesa, one could even more tellingly examine the psychological mindset of some critics and their perception of most traditional Islamic scholarship. What these critics failed to realize that this bogeyman was largely a figment of their own imagination, and not the real Abu Eesa.
Similarly, on the (again for lack of a better term) conservative side of the spectrum, the knee-jerk reaction of complete defense also revealed the extreme anger that this group feels towards the tactics of the other group. It was as if no criticism of Abu Eesa was valid, or even allowed, merely because some critics were coming from a ‘liberal feminist’ paradigm, intent on (allegedly) challenging the authority of Allah and His Messenger and wishing to destroy the very foundations of the faith. Hence, to point out any fault with such jokes, however politely and Islamicly, automatically caused one to be labeled as ‘the Other’.
The world is not monochromatic, and every real picture is multifaceted. The critics had some legitimate concerns, and the supporters also had some legitimate concerns, and very few people realized that.
Fourthly, regarding the actual content of the jokes themselves. I believe that jokes, and even the occasional sarcasm, are permitted in Islam, but with certain conditions. And of those conditions is that people’s sensitivities not be unnecessarily provoked, especially when those sensitivities involve the rights of an already oppressed and marginalized segment of our community.
Jokes are like salt to one’s food, and should be used in miniscule quantities, with great wisdom. One of the first pieces of advice that a dear mentor, Ustadh Yusuf Estess, gave to me before I started preaching, was the following, “If a joke offends one person, then you’ve offended one too many.”
I do not believe joking about women’s issues, or their intelligence, or belittling their role in society, helps anyone. I do not believe such joking is in accordance with the Sunnah of our Prophet . I do not believe it is befitting of a scholar and an Islamic activist to make light of such a delicate subject. And Abu Eesa knows this of me and from me – he can testify that I have expressed this to him and to others who joke in such a manner multiple times.
Our Prophet , when his servant `Anjasha urged the camels his wives were riding to hurry up, said, “O `Anjasha! Be careful with the fragile vessels!” Words can hurt more than the jostling of a camel, and I believe that Muslim men need to follow this advice with their tongues, and their actions, and be careful of harming society’s fragile vessels if they wish to achieve the pleasure of Allah.
It is true that cultural differences also played a minor role here. It’s not a coincidence that most detractors came from North America, whereas most supporters came from England. The genres and styles of British humor are completely different than its American counterpart (they even spell it differently!), and the Brits are more accustomed at ‘taking the mic’ than Americans are.
Still, even taking into account British humo(u)r, I believe Abu Eesa’s jokes went too far. I believe that when he was confronted about this, he initially acted stubbornly, which exponentially compounded the entire situation to the nth degree. I believe he took too long to apologize the first time. I believe that the first apology was unnecessarily worded, with too many caveats and qualifications. But I’m happy to see that he’s finally realized all of the above and issued a much better apology (although not quite perfect in my opinion). I pray that he learns from his mistakes and does not repeat this behavior again. And I say all of the above regardless of who his critics are, for the truth is independent of which side you happen to be on.
Fifthly, it was extremely distressing as well to see the complete lack of adab shown by many of his critics. To me, it was reminiscent of scenes portraying a Salem witch hunt, in which crazed mobs go banging door to door to increase their numbers, chanting slogans of ‘Burn the witch! Off with her head!’ The sheer lack of compassion and mercy – of Islamic manners – was very depressing. Even if one believed Abu Eesa behaved in an inappropriate manner, surely there are better ways to get one’s point across than by calling for his firing?
Those who criticize others for lacking proper manners must be the first to demonstrate it. In this regard, I say loudly and clearly: most of the critics themselves failed this test.
Sixthly, it was surprising to see so many peers from amongst the scholarly and activist community commenting on this issue so brashly. Scholars and Islamic activists should rise up above emotional, knee-jerk responses, and work to minimize tensions amongst Muslim groups, not exacerbate them. This point was especially disappointing for me to see. I can excuse the masses and activists who don’t have an Islamic studies background, but for someone who claims to speak on behalf of the religion to act in such a manner was disheartening. Although a few activists did write leveled and fair responses, I feel that most of them wished to portray themselves as ‘heroes’ for a cause that all of us wish to champion, viz., women’s rights in Islam, but they did this by furthering tensions between groups of Muslims. Rather than working to solve the tension, many activists only wanted to jump on the bandwagon and raise banners calling for revenge without studying the issue thoroughly.
Additionally, at the human level, I believe it is almost impossible to look into the recesses of one’s own heart and be completely sure that one is criticizing a peer, or someone from an alternative theology, or a scholar from competing Institute, sincerely for the sake of Allah. Can one be so sure that the heart is absolutely pure in such criticism, and that there are no personal, selfish motivations as well? It is for this reason that scholars of hadith have unanimously agreed that criticism of contemporaries and peers against one another needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There are numerous examples of this in our books of the narrators of hadith.
When a problem is created in a community that is not your own, Islamic activists should reach out to someone in that community and express their frustrations to him first, rather than tweeting about it and airing dirty laundry in public immediately. And even if you deem public criticism necessary, attempt to heal wounds through your comments rather than rip them apart more. And one final reminder to them (and the ones that I reference know exactly who they are): know that as just as you were eager to pounce on and display the faults of your brother, so too shall others even more eagerly pounce on and publicize your faults.
Seventhly, I want to make my position on ‘feminism’ explicitly clear. The term itself is almost useless, since there is no clear, well-defined, agreed-upon definition. Hence, when a term becomes meaningless, it makes little sense to either use it or refute it. Rather, the word is discarded, and the realities and concepts underlying it are discussed specifically.
I firmly believe that the sacred texts of Islam, the Quran and the authentic Sunnah of our Prophet , are the ultimate sources of our theology, legal code, and ethics. Hence, any attempt to discredit these sources is one that I will oppose in every way possible. I will not and cannot accept that men and women are physically, physiologically, emotionally, biologically, and psychologically the same. Any claims of this nature contradict known facts, lived experiences, and explicit Scripture. Hence, the Shariah views men and women as having complementary roles in society and in family, not identical. While men and women are spiritually equal, and both have equal opportunities to earn Allah’s Pleasure and Paradise, in this world, the Shariah takes these differences into account, and does have different sets of laws for them in some arenas (not all). Any attempt to claim otherwise is simply wrong and untenable in light of the Islamic tradition, and I will oppose it as a Muslim scholar and theologian.
That having been said, I also recognize that historically, many Muslim societies have gone too far in depriving women of their legitimate rights, and in relegating women to a second-class status that I do not view our religion as sanctioning. We need to differentiate what the religion ordains, and what culture has sanctioned. Merely because a practice is culturally acceptable in a Muslim context does not equate to religious endorsement of that practice. There is no denying that women in many Muslim societies are physically and mentally abused and molested, and that Muslim culture has turned an increasing blind eye to such blatantly un-Islamic abuse. I consider it my religious duty to combat such abuse and to expose any such un-Islamic practice as being opposed to the teachings of this pristine religion.
I also recognize that the Shariah allows for change and reform in some areas, and I feel it is imperative that religious scholars, duly trained in the sacred sciences, take the lead in such reform. Historical traditions are not necessarily sacred and immutable, and I welcome changes that the Shariah allows. It is of little concern to me whether one wishes to call these types of reforms ‘Islamic feminism’ or not. What matters is meaningful change that the Law allows and which betters the lives of Muslim women, not cheap slogans devoid of meaning. Yet, I would be unwilling to call for reform in, say, the Islamic laws of inheritance, since these have been explicitly laid out in the Sacred Texts. If some people consider rejecting the explicit texts of the Quran to be ‘Islamic feminism’, then I view it as being a manifestation of kufr, and you count me an ardent opponent of any such endeavor.
Anyone who wishes to supplant the Sacred Texts with another ideology does so because of a simultaneous lack of faith in the Divine Revelation of Allah, and an inferiority complex to another system of laws and culture.
Let me conclude with a final anecdote from the recent annals of American history. When President Obama was first running for office, and the Right was desperate to find anything to smear him with, they used the tactic of smearing his cleric and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. They found, from amongst the Reverend’s thousands of sermons, snippets of fiery rhetoric that made him appear anti-American. Now, everyone who knows anything about the African-American experience, and the type of rhetoric typically heard in their churches, would have immediately understood such rhetoric and put it in its proper place. But the Right persisted in attacking the Reverend and succeeding in portraying him a most unpleasant and evil person, which he clearly was not. Initially, Obama tried to defend the Reverend, and even went so far as to drag his grandmother into the picture by claiming that his own grandmother had also made racist remarks, but that doesn’t deny the overall good in her. However, as the Right increased the savagery of their attacks, Obama buckled under pressure, and simply cut off all ties with the Reverend. That was the first sign for me that Obama was a politician like all other politicians, and that he had no stamina or backbone to stand up for the very principles he won his campaign on. I think I speak for most of our readers when I say that we have no respect for the morality and principles of our current President; his handing of Reverend Wright’s issue is symptomatic of why we have lost all respect for this man. When his own popularity was at stake, Obama was willing to throw a close friend and ally under the bus merely to pander to people who didn’t even care about him in the first place. In so doing, he lost a good friend, and he lost his integrity.
I seek refuge in Allah from pandering to anyone’s threats and from sacrificing what I believe to be the truth for the sake of popularity. I pray that Allah always give me the courage to speak what I believe is the truth and not fear the criticism of the critic.
Abu Eesa is a dear friend to me because he is a loving, caring, gentle, sincere scholar. I would trust my life and my family’s life to him – and I don’t say that merely as a figure of speech. He is no misogynist, he is no woman-hater, he is no racist. If he truly were any of these, I would not be a friend to him. I know that he will not like me saying this, but as a family friend I know that he treats his wife like a queen, that he is a loving and caring father to his daughters, and that he is a dutiful son to his mother. And that is the actions of ‘feminism’ that Islam calls for, and Abu Eesa lives up to (even if he despises the word!).
In his time of need, when he has been improperly smeared, made into a bogeyman scapegoat and charged with false accusations by people who do not know him personally, I cannot abandon him for the sake of my own popularity. It is true, he made a major mistake in this incident (and will continue to make other mistakes), and God knows he has faults (the primary one being his stubbornness!) but in my eyes, he is one of the most God-fearing, God-conscious and merciful people that I have the honor and privilege of befriending. I would rather allow my reputation to be sullied, and all of my critics to continue criticizing and defaming me, before I jump on the bandwagon of popularity and smear him or dissociate from him. He has faults (don’t we all?), but these faults drown in the good that exists in him, and this is a matter that his family, his friends, and his students can all testify to.
And in the end, true success lies with Allah alone.
“And patiently persevere in the company of those who call upon their Lord, morning and evening, desiring His Pleasure; and do not allow your gaze to stray beyond them merely to acquire the luxuries of this world. And do not follow those whose hearts We have deprived of remembering Us, and follow their whims, and their entire affairs are in disarray.” [Sura al-Kahf; 28]
 For example, an area of reform that I personally am very interested in leading and being a part of is the Islamic laws of alimony. Historically, a divorced lady only received her mahr – nothing more and nothing less (although the Quran encourages an adequate ‘gift’). And pre-modern Muslim societies dealt with divorcees in an appropriate manner: large-family and tribal systems provided adequate means to absorb the care and maintenance of such ladies; divorcees didn’t have the type of stigma that is attached to them today; and polygyny was commonly practiced. All of these conditions (and more) allowed divorced women the freedom to continue living in somewhat normal conditions after a divorce. However, in our times, all of these conditions have changed, and all too often, divorcees have little recourse to maintenance and living expenses, putting them in undue hardship. It is simply unfair that a man can divorce a woman after many decades of marriage, and leave her stranded in a strange land and country, without any means to take care of herself, after she has given him her youth and support for most of her life. The mahr dating back half a century, might be a thousand rupees (thirty dollars?), yet she is now stranded in America, after her husband’s newly-acquired wealth allows him access to a younger and prettier woman. I have no qualms in saying that the goals of Islamic law would not allow for such injustice. Let us bring about reform and put conditions in the marriage contract that would obligate a prorated alimony percentage depending on the years of marriage. This is but one example; many more can be made. Such reform is long overdue in my opinion, and the Shariah allows for and encourages it.