“Every king has a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of Allah is what He has prohibited.”
[dropcap size=big]P[/dropcap]eople sometimes jokingly ask, why is it that driving requires a license, but you can have children without a license or any kind of certification? It is usually a lighthearted remark, but, when you think about it, this is a legitimate question. If driving or teaching at a school, practicing medicine or law, or even being a plumber requires certification, then what about something that is far more sensitive, far more significant like having children and raising them?
After all, children are our future, and the state of our society as a whole depends on how children are brought up — their morals, their sense of responsibility, their character, and so on. As the National Criminal Justice Reference Service and other extensive research studies report, children who grow up without proper parental influence are far more likely to become involved in drugs and crime, to face unemployment, not to complete their education, to fail to become productive members of society and upright human beings. This, then, has a toll on all of us, on all members of society.
Given these high stakes, one has to wonder how any civilized society could allow its people to have children without having some kind of regulation to ensure that all children are born to competent parents, parents invested in their children’s well being and future. Isn’t it a child’s right to have a stable household and parents capable of properly raising him? Isn’t it our right as members of society to make sure incompetent, irresponsible people in our midst are not having children that they will neglect, children who will be more likely to become burdens on society and, hence, each and every one of us?
The “M” Word
Islam, of course, does require just such a license — a nikah, i.e., the marriage contract. Properly done, according to Prophetic guidance, a nikah ensures that a couple is in the best position to raise a family, with the full support of the extended family and the community at large. One of the biggest wisdoms of the nikah, as all classical scholars agreed, is upholding the rights of children and, thereby, upholding the rights of society at large.
It should go without saying that there are Muslim marriages that fail and Muslim married couples who will not make for good parents despite having had a nikah, etc. But my claim is not that every married Muslim couple will provide better conditions for raising children than every single parent household. Rather, the claim is that, overall, we significantly increase the chances of providing better conditions for raising children in the context of a marriage between biological parents than in the context of unwed parents or single-parent households. This is a claim supported by empirical data, as cited throughout this post. It is also supported by rational reflection, and ratified by the practice of human societies throughout the ages.
Furthermore, beyond marriage as practiced by non-Muslims, what distinguishes Muslim marriage is that the different Islamic legal requirements, conditions, and supererogatory elements of the nikah — as practiced by the early Muslim community and generations of Muslims thereafter — further enhance the chances of successfully raising children and contributing to the flourishing of a community and society writ large. Requiring the mahr, for example, or that the bride have a wali (according to the majority opinion), etc., all practically and, therefore, rationally contribute to the chances of success of the marriage and its ability to produce children who will positively impact the world. Tying each of these Islamic legal requirements to that overall benefit requires a detailed and extended analysis beyond the scope of this post. (I will leave it as an exercise for the reader.) But my broader argument does not hinge on that analysis. For the time being, we can proceed with the less contentious claim that promoting marriage — and preventing extramarital sex which directly undermines it — positively correlates with a whole host of public benefits.
(Of course, besides promoting public benefits, there are countless other wisdoms and rationales for prohibiting zina, i.e., premarital and extramarital sexual relationships. Classical scholars, for example, often mention the rights of men to know their progeny, the rights of women to be supported by their children’s fathers, the rights of larger kinship bonds, the rights of children in knowing their own lineage, preserving honor more generally, etc. But, for the sake of argument, let’s focus on the social impact of single parenthood and unwanted pregnancies for now, since this is the kind of reasoning that resonates in the modern liberal secular discourse that presumably cares so much for human rights, autonomy, and freedom.)
Let Me be Clear…
My purpose here is not to stigmatize single mothers or fathers or their children. Obviously there are many reasons why single parent households arise: a married couple gets divorced, a parent dies, etc. Nor is my purpose to necessarily stigmatize those individuals who engage in premarital sex in this day and age. The unfortunate reality is that most people today, especially in the West, are ignorant of the dangers and ugliness inherent in zina. Zina itself is no longer taboo, and so genuinely ignorant people should not be judged.
Rather, my purpose is to reacquaint people with the claim that, for very good reasons that have nothing to do with one’s personal religious beliefs, extramarital relations are an objective evil. By doing this, I aim specifically to counter the widespread attack on Islamic sexual ethics by liberal secular ideologues who strive to portray Islam as outmoded or even inhumane. I believe that this attack needs to be countered with clear arguments and evidence, and talking about the enormous negative societal effects of extramarital sex is a good starting point.
Also by way of disclaimer, I should say that I am aware that arguing on the basis of “society” and the overall “public good” is anachronistic from the perspective of traditional Islam. But, again, I am deliberately (yet, cautiously) using this language in order to be conversant with modern normative discourse, which often takes the form of sociological analysis.
I am also sensitive to the characterization of traditional religions as prioritizing communal benefit and modern liberalism, by contrast, putting a premium on individual autonomy. Based on this, it may seem that my appeals to public good and societal cohesion are just another way of saying that individuals must sacrifice their sexual autonomy for the sake of the overall good. In actuality, I find this supposed tension between communal well being and individualistic autonomy incoherent, since, from one perspective, what benefits people individually will, in the collective, benefit people in the aggregate and vice versa. In this light, then, abstinence is not merely a sacrifice for the sake of the collective good, but a sacrifice that contributes to the good of people in the aggregate and, thereby, the good of people on the individual level. We will also see it work the other way, viz., as contributing to the good of people on the individual level and that, in the aggregate of millions of lives, contributing to the good of people collectively. In this way, we can bypass the charge of anachronism when employing inexorably modern concepts like “society,” “demographic indicators,” “population,” etc.
Critics of Islamic Sexual Ethics
As it turns out, Islamic sexual ethics have been the target of unrelenting criticism from modernists and liberals for decades, critics who argue that Islamic law stifles the sexual freedom and autonomy of individuals by prohibiting premarital sex. If two people love each other, they argue, why can’t they consummate that love? Who is harmed by such a consensual relationship? Clearly, there are no victims, so Islamic sexual prohibitions must only be based on prudery and outmoded sexual repression. That is why, the argument continues, we must spurn these prohibitions in favor of freedom and the human right to sexual self-determination.
But this argument against Islamic law is woefully inadequate. To the contrary, it can be argued that prohibiting zina clearly protects people’s freedom and autonomy and promotes human rights. How? Because such prohibition effectively curbs the number of children being born to single mothers and couples who are not in a position to take adequate care of them. This in turn benefits the interests of children and hence, the interests of society at large. If crime rates go up, for example, because one generation ago, a large percentage of children were born out of wedlock, then those higher crime rates have a direct impact on my personal quality of life. If I have to pay higher taxes because the police force has to be beefed up, again, that is an imposition on my personal autonomy and freedom, as my personal wealth is siphoned off by government agencies and social programs that are taking care of children born of the ill-advised decisions of irresponsible yet sexually active individuals.
There is all manner of sociological evidence to support this line of reasoning. As one example, consider the hugely popular, bestselling book Freakonomics. In it, the authors, Levitt and Dubner, present research that correlates the legalization of abortion in America and other countries with subsequent drops in crime rates in those countries. They explain this correlation by arguing that legalizing abortion made it easier for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This, in turn, meant that fewer unwanted children were born and, hence, that fewer children grew up in detrimental environments and households that would make them prone to a life of crime.
Pro-abortion advocates often use this sociological data on crime rates to argue — much to the chagrin of their conservative, pro-life interlocutors — that abortion greatly benefits society as a whole. But the obvious conclusion that goes unnoticed, however, is that these same benefits of abortion could equally be achieved simply by preventing premarital sex. The exact same logic applies — if fewer people are having sex outside of marriage, there are fewer children being born to mothers who are not in a position to provide an upbringing that will prevent those children from eventually falling into illegal and destructive behavior, and so on.
Another way to look at it is that abortion is simply one of many ways to control reproduction. Contraception is another avenue. Forced sterilization is yet another. And, of course, sexual norms against zina, as found in Islamic law, are just another way to control how people in society reproduce (primarily from the perspective of quality and not necessarily quantity). Research shows that, on a societal level, crime rates, education levels, unemployment, drug use, and future family income, all can be significantly influenced by controlling reproduction via access to abortion and contraception. Obviously, those same benefits would, mutatis mutandis, obtain by prohibiting premarital sex.
The Scarlet Letter
And what about adultery? The concept of zina is inclusive of both premarital sex and adultery. Obviously, engaging in infidelity very often leads to divorce, i.e., creating those single-parent households that are correlated with numerous societal ills. In that way, adultery indirectly contributes to those ills in much the same way premarital sex does. Even if infidelity does not lead to divorce, however, there is empirical data to suggest that the instability in family life caused by unfaithful parents can negatively impact children and, therefore, correlate with those societal ills as well.
All that being said, most people today intuitively understand that cheating on one’s spouse is wrong. Even a large proportion of individuals actively engaged in adultery admit that it is immoral and feel remorse and shame. In other words, the social taboo against adultery is still alive, unlike that of premarital sex. In the language of Islam, people today have not lost touch with that part of the fitra that rails against this particular fahisha. Given that society’s moral intuitions about adultery are still sound in this way, the need for Muslims to defend Islamic law’s prohibition of extramarital affairs is not as pressing as it is for fornication (and liwat, or sodomy).
That being said, there have been recent efforts in Western society to normalize adultery and “swinging,” as “cheating websites” are promoted by national advertising campaigns, shamelessly encouraging married individuals to find a lover (or two…) on the side. If the day comes when even adultery is seen as a harmless, victimless act, then Islamic law, which imposes capital punishment for convicted adulterers, will be in need of further defense by Muslim commentators.
The Modern World — A World of Orphans
Even without the empirical data, logically, all this makes perfect sense. It is reasoning you can understand and accept whether you are Muslim or not. And we can see this logic spelled out in the writings of Muslim jurists through the centuries as well as in the Quran itself. For example, reflect on how much emphasis Allah puts on taking care of orphans in the Quran. The orphan is one who is deprived of the great benefits that children with parents are blessed with. Logically, if orphans are considered so destitute due to not having parents, that implies that parents (are supposed to) provide an enormous, incalculable boon to children by way of nurturing them, educating them, raising them with important values, etc.
But in the modern world, a significant proportion of children are orphans for all intents and purposes because, even though they have living parents, those parents do not want them or their fathers or mothers do not feel obligated to stick around for them, or a single parent has to work full-time forcing the child to be perpetually in the care of strangers and the broken public school system, and so on. According to the CDC, over 40% of children born today in the US are born to single mothers.
The incomparable benefit that parents are supposed to be for their children is simply not there in our modern world. We live in a world of de facto orphans, children with absentee parents who end up being raised by a cold, machine-like state system that processes human beings like so much cattle. Is it any surprise that teens and adults nowadays feel no obligations or affinity towards their parents, and the Islamic injunction to respect and care for one’s parents rings hollow in the minds of many? Is it any surprise to see some of the alarming societal trends — the increase in substance abuse, the dismantling of families, the rise of extreme antisocial behavior including mass shootings — burgeoning all around us? All these phenomena are connected such that messing with something seemingly small and insignificant, like undoing the social taboo against extramarital sex, ultimately causes the entire edifice to collapse.
The Anticlimactic Prophylactic Tactic
Now, the inevitable counter argument to all this is, what about contraception? Hasn’t contraception made traditional norms against premarital sex obsolete?
Well, to begin with, let’s not forget that reducing social problems like crime, drug addiction, unemployment, etc., is only one of the many benefits of refraining from premarital sex. For the purposes of this post, I focus on that particular benefit because it aligns nicely with liberal secular reasoning. The only moral principle that liberal secular reasoning endorses is the Harm Principle, roughly defined as the idea that an act is only considered immoral if it causes harm. In fact, the Harm Principle is often used to argue against Islamic sexual ethics because premarital sex, so long as it is consensual and not incestual, etc., causes no harm to anyone, or so it is argued. But, as we have seen, there is clearly great harm to any potential children and to society at large, since it is everyone in society that has to deal with the eventual impact of premarital sex on crime, unemployment, and all the other societal ills correlated with unwanted pregnancies and single-parent homes.
Appealing to contraception in response to this, then, is meant to undercut our reasoning. If a person can have premarital sex and the possibility of conception is foreclosed, then where is the harm, really?
The answer to this is simple. First of all, who decided that the Harm Principle is the be-all, end-all of morality? If we give a cursory glance at the complex, intricate, and expansive rules, attitudes, injunctions, and nuances that constitute the moral and legal thought of even the most secular of nations and their peoples, we see that there is much that cannot be reduced to the directive: do no harm. Many notable ethical, political, and legal philosophers have concluded as much in evaluating the Harm Principle itself.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we were to accept the Harm Principle as our sole basis for judging sexual relationships as immoral, we would still be able to arrive at — or at least approximate — the norms of Islamic law. This is because “harm” itself is a very general term that can encompass any number of things. As it turns out, harm is a rather subjective concept, and even beyond personal subjectivity, the notion of harm can be very culturally specific in that what one culture sees as harmful, another finds innocuous, and vice versa.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we limit ourselves to modern Western culture, we can still identify a number of clear harms associated with so-called “sexual freedom.” In her book, A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit reviews numerous studies showing the debilitating repercussions upon individuals’ psyches, particularly those of young women. She cites bulwark feminists admitting that, “Girls today are much more oppressed [than they were prior to the sexual revolution]. They are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture.” Another scientific study she cites discovers that sexually active unmarried teenage girls are three times as likely to report that they are depressed. But depression is only part of it — eating disorders, low sense of self-worth, higher suicide rates and various psychological disorders are all positively correlated with premarital sexual activity, especially for females.
On a more conceptual level, Shalit wonders how casual sex, dating, and hooking up could ever be considered good for women. As many world religions and past cultures recognized, to limit men’s access to sex is prime leverage and a unique source of power for women. Why would modern “liberated” women relinquish that power so cheaply by having sex with a man who has shown minimal to no commitment to her (or to any potential children)? Not surprisingly, with the rise of casual sex, marriage rates have plummeted, as men simply see no reason to get married. And the idea that women want sex the same way men do and that they respond to casual sexual encounters in the same way men do has been thoroughly debunked by scientific research that shows how, even neurologically, women are especially harmed by “no strings” sex.
So, on multiple levels, we see that a reasonable case can be made for the Islamic prohibition of zina. And all the while, we have been assuming that access to contraception is effective at reducing unwanted pregnancies. But, in fact, this is a faulty assumption because, if the existence of contraception coupled with widespread sex education were enough to prevent unwanted pregnancies, why has single parenthood continued to rise decade after decade for the past 50 years, such that single-parent households have tripled since the 1960s? Is it that three times as many people in the present day want to raise a child alone and face the monumental financial and emotional burden that that task involves? Not likely.
And finally, I began this post with an analogy about different kinds of certifications and licenses. When you look at airplanes, they have had autopilot for decades — that does not mean pilots do not need to be certified before being able to safely fly a commercial jet! Similarly, the existence of contraception does not annul the need for a person to be licensed (via marriage) in order to safely engage in sex. In both cases, multiple lives are at stake, and, naturally, the greater the stakes, the greater the need for regulation.
The Rationale of the Hudud
Before starting let me just make the disclaimer that my intention here is not to make a political or juristic argument in support of implementing hudud in any present country or community. Furthermore, my intention is not to justify or defend the implementation of hudud as it is practiced in various parts of the Muslim world today. The complex questions of if and how hudud are applicable and operationalizable in a modern nation state generally or in a particular country specifically are best left to qualified legal scholars, theologians, and policy makers.
Separate from the practical considerations of fiqh and siyasa, my concern is purely with the moral dimension of hudud, specifically as it was practiced historically by the Prophet and his Companions. The historical record is clear that the Prophet and his Companions enforced hadd punishments for sexual misconduct: stoning and lashing. Many modern people, whether Muslim or not, are appalled by this and take this as evidence that Muhammad ibn Abdullah was not the Messenger of God and that Islam is not a religion of peace but rather one of barbarity. Given this, it is necessary for Muslims to address what is ultimately a moral concern on hudud. And as it is a moral concern, the best way to address it is not with the hackneyed apologetics about hudud being inapplicable without a legitimate caliphate, etc., but with moral reasoning and argumentation completely separate from the dicey conversation about how different, often superficially Muslim regimes enact hudud within their messy political contexts in the modern world.
The difficulty people today have with the notion of hadd for zina can be broken up into three distinct moral questions.
1. Is premarital and extramarital sex immoral?
2. If so, should that immorality be a matter of criminal justice, i.e., subject to prosecution and penalty by authorities?
3. If so, what is appropriate punishment?
Let’s address these questions in order.
As for the immorality of zina, this is what I have made a case for throughout this post, using reasoning that even proponents of liberal secularism can countenance, if not outright accept.
As for question two, i.e., whether zina should be a matter for policing and the courts, we should acknowledge that premarital sex is very much a public concern. If we accept the immorality of zina, as per question one, and we recognize that zina is certainly not a victimless crime and can have devastating public consequences when practiced on a large scale, then why shouldn’t enforcement and judicial process be on the table? In fact, it would be irrational for us to recognize all the harms associated with zina and then not think that some form of public sanction should be involved to deter destructive behavior, and so on. And, of course, Islamic law has detailed procedures that clarify what this enforcement and judicial process entail, e.g., court structure, evidentiary standards, how to deal with false accusers, sentencing, etc.
Once we agree that zina is immoral and ought to be criminalized, the question remains of what punishment is most in accord with justice. Now, it is helpful to recognize that the question of how criminals should be punished is one that Western ethical and legal philosophers have not come to any consensus on. Different theories speculate as to whether enforcing justice should be punitive, retributive, preventative, expiatory, reformative, etc. Even the question of capital punishment itself is hotly debated to this day.
So, if we have already begun to make a case for why zina ought to be publicly regulated, as per question two, and if all that remains is the question of what form that regulation should take, then a number of options present themselves. Different cultures historically have had various unique methods to punish those who violate norms and break taboos. If we limit ourselves to Western culture and recent history, incarceration is the most widely used punishment (or “rehabilitation”). Recently, however, Peter Moskos, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice has written a very persuasive book defending the practice of flogging. In Defense of Flogging deserves to be read in full, but Moskos summarizes the main arguments here. He argues that, while many today believe that corporal punishments such as lashing are “cruel and unusual,” in actuality, the prison system is far more brutal, excessive, and even tortuous. He asks readers whether, given the choice between five years in prison and ten lashes, which would they choose? By asking us this, Moskos forces us to question whether lashing really is as severe as we might first suppose. Overall, Moskos convincingly undermines the conventional view of lashing, and his book has been recognized a “Favorite Book of the Year” by Mother Jones and earned Moskos recognition as one of Atlantic Magazine’s “Brave Thinkers of 2011.”
All in all, we can provide reasoned justification and explanation for hudud when it comes to all three questions. While hudud in response to zina may at first have seemed completely alien and inhumane, upon further reflection it is rendered at least minimally reasonable by way of these considerations. And that was the point of this entire exercise — we wanted to articulate a rationale for the hudud that a modern person could see as reasoned and within the bounds of moral possibility, even if ultimately that person cannot endorse Islamic law himself. In Western universities, for example, a student will study many varieties of legal and moral theories, and while that student may not feel compelled to accept the theories his professors teach him, the student has to admit that those theories are at least worthy of study and that reasonable people can agree to disagree on the applicability and acceptability of them. This is one way Muslims who do endorse Islamic law can speak to their interlocutors about things like hudud without worrying about being taken for irrational, barbaric, mindless, religious zealots. Reasonable people can disagree.
What we have seen is that, even if one is not religious per se, the rational merits of prohibiting premarital sex and adultery are more than evident. And all the sociological evidence supports this.
To summarize, premarital sex is not a victimless crime, as many of us have been led to believe. It is a major crime that most modern nations have allowed to run rampant despite the vast human toll. This in turn affects the crime rate, it affects the percentage of the population that requires government assistance through welfare, unemployment benefits, etc. — in effect, it makes people far more dependent on the state, thus increasing state power exponentially, as tax collectors draw increasing amounts of wealth from the population to foot the bill for these social assistance programs. It is no wonder that modern nation states have shown no interest in upholding the sexual ethics that human societies have depended on for thousands of years.
In sum, we can make a compelling case for why Islamic sexual ethics are rationally and ethically viable compared to the liberal secular alternative. This is not to say that the wisdom (hikma) of avoiding zina can be reduced to the reasoning explicated here or that the applicability of Islamic sexual ethics in an individual’s life depends on rationally working out such arguments. Rather, we want to speak against the notion, entrenched in modern society, that religious sexual norms are simply irrational, primitive taboos. In actuality, we believe that our religion is the best guarantor of human interests broadly and, epistemologically, this fact is accessible to the rational mind upon reflection. At the very least, even if someone does not ultimately agree with all this reasoning, he can admit that it is reasonable. And that is enough to characterize Islam’s sexual ethics concerning zina as rational and not simply prudish, close-minded, backwards, cruel, and all the other cheap adjectives used to denigrate Islamic law vis-a-vis modernity, liberal secularism, etc.
Ultimately, the significance of talking about the rationality of Islamic sexual ethics is that we, as Muslims, can be confident that Islamic norms can be defended specifically from the perspective and in the language of the dominant moral philosophy of our times, i.e., liberal secularism. Unfortunately, many Muslims are not aware of these kinds of arguments and, therefore, take a fideistic attitude towards much of Islamic law, i.e., they accept Islamic norms on faith and little else, implicitly endorsing the modernistic view that these norms are pure “religious taboos” with little rhyme or reason to recommend them to a thinking mind. Against this, various arguments such as the above can be deployed to rationally satisfy Muslims and non-Muslims alike who may not be intellectually convinced of the moral and rational viability of a 1400 year-old religion. Once the mere viability and reasonability of Islam and Islamic law is accepted, then a more fruitful debate can take place regarding the superiority of Islam as an ethical, societal, spiritual system and way of life — guidance for mankind from the Lord of all that exists.
Ya Qawmi: Strengthen Civic Roots In Society To Be A Force For Good
For believers the traditions and teachings of the Prophets (blessings on them), particularly Muhammad , are paramount. Each Prophet of God belonged to a community which is termed as their Qawm in the Qur’an. Prophet Lut (Lot) was born in Iraq, but settled in Trans-Jordan and then became part of the people, Qawm of Lut, in his new-found home. All the Prophets addressed those around them as ‘Ya Qawmi’ (O, my people) while inviting them to the religion of submission, Islam. Those who accepted the Prophets’ message became part of their Ummah. So, individuals from any ethnicity or community could become part of the Ummah – such as the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad.
Believers thus have dual obligations: a) towards their own Qawm (country), and b) towards their Ummah (religious companions). As God’s grateful servants, Muslims should strive to give their best to both their Qawm and Ummah with their ability, time and skillset. It is imperative for practising and active Muslims to carry out Islah (improvement of character, etc) of people in their Ummah and be a witness of Islam to non-Muslims in their Qawm and beyond. This in effect is their service to humanity and to please their Creator. With this basic understanding of the concept, every Muslim should prioritise his or her activities and try their utmost to serve human beings with honesty, integrity and competence. Finding excuses or adopting escapism can bring harm in this world and a penalty in the Hereafter.
Like many other parts of the world, Britain is going through a phase lacking in ethical and competent leadership. People are confused, frustrated and worried; some are angry. Nativist (White) nationalism in many western countries, with a dislike or even hatred of minority immigrant people (particularly Muslims and Jews), is on the rise. This is exacerbated through lowering religious literacy, widespread mistrust and an increase in hateful rhetoric being spread on social media. As people’s patience and tolerance levels continue to erode, this can bring unknown adverse consequences.
The positive side is that civil society groups with a sense of justice are still robust in most developed countries. While there seem to be many Muslims who love to remain in the comfort zone of their bubbles, a growing number of Muslims, particularly the youth, are also effectively contributing towards the common good of all.
As social divisions are widening, a battle for common sense and sanity continues. The choice of Muslims (particularly those that are socially active), as to whether they would proactively engage in grass-roots civic works or social justice issues along with others, has never been more acute. Genuine steps should be taken to understand the dynamics of mainstream society and improve their social engagement skills.
From history, we learn that during better times, Muslims proactively endeavoured to be a force for good wherever they went. Their urge for interaction with their neighbours and exemplary personal characters sowed the seeds of bridge building between people of all backgrounds. No material barrier could divert their urge for service to their Qawm and their Ummah. This must be replicated and amplified.
Although Muslims are some way away from these ideals, focusing on two key areas can and should strengthen their activities in the towns and cities they have chosen as their home. This is vital to promote a tolerant society and establish civic roots. Indifference and frustration are not a solution.
Muslim individuals and families
- Muslims must develop a reading and thinking habit in order to prioritise their tasks in life, including the focus of their activism. They should, according to their ability and available opportunities, endeavour to contribute to the Qawm and Ummah. This should start in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. There are many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad on one’s obligations to their neighbour; one that stands out – Gabriel kept advising me to be good to my neighbour so much that I thought he would ask that he (neighbour) should inherit me) – Sahih Al-Bukhari.
- They must invest in their new generation and build a future leadership based on ethics and professionalism to confidently interact and engage with the mainstream society, whilst holding firm to Islamic roots and core practices.
- Their Islah and dawah should be professionalised, effective and amplified; their outreach should be beyond their tribal/ethnic/sectarian boundaries.
- They should jettison any doubts, avoid escapism and focus where and how they can contribute. If they think they can best serve the Ummah’s cause abroad, they should do this by all means. But if they focus on contributing to Britain:
- They must develop their mindset and learn how to work with the mainstream society to normalise the Muslim presence in an often hostile environment.
- They should work with indigenous/European Muslims or those who have already gained valuable experience here.
- They should be better equipped with knowledge and skills, especially in political and media literacy, to address the mainstream media where needed.
Muslim bodies and institutions
- Muslim bodies and institutions such as mosques have unique responsibilities to bring communities together, provide a positive environment for young Muslims to flourish and help the community to link, liaise and interact with the wider society.
- By trying to replicate the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, they should try to make mosques real hubs of social and spiritual life and not just beautiful buildings. They should invest more in young people, particularly those with professional backgrounds. They should not forget what happened to many places where the Muslim presence was thought to be deep-rooted such as Spain.
- It is appreciated that the first generation Muslims had to establish organisations with people of their own ethnic/geographical backgrounds. While there may still be a need for this for some sections of the community, in a post-7/7 Britain Muslim institutions must open up for others qualitatively and their workers should be able to work with all. History tells that living in your own comfort zone will lead to isolation.
- Muslim bodies, in their current situation, must have a practical 5-10 year plan, This will bring new blood and change organisational dynamics. Younger, talented, dedicated and confident leadership with deep-rooted Islamic ideals is now desperately needed.
- Muslim bodies must also have a 5-10 year plan to encourage young Muslims within their spheres to choose careers that can take the community to the next level. Our community needs nationally recognised leaders from practising Muslims in areas such as university academia, policy making, politics, print and electronic journalism, etc.
Seyran Ates, A Sixty-Eighter In Islamic Camouflage
By Dr Mohammad Usman Rana
In their orientalist enthusiasm to reform Islam, in the sense of reconciling Islam with the always changing ideas and goals of liberal values, Western European liberals and neo-atheists are searching high and low for persons who may serve as Muslim alibies for their project. For many years Ayaan Hirsi Ali was given this role but now the relay baton has been handed over to the German-Turkish activist Seyran Ates.
Does not believe in religion
Ates is of current interest in Norway because her book by the Norwegian title Islam trenger en seksuell revolusjon (Islam needs a sexual revolution, originally published in German in 2011)* was just released in Norwegian translation. Ates is well-known primarily because Western media have hailed her as a freedom fighter among Muslims since she opened a so-called liberal mosque in Berlin in 2017 and titled herself a female imam.
Obviously, Ates is part and parcel of an essential debate about the future of Muslims in Europe as it is a fact that a lot of traditional mosques in Western Europe have a big job to do in order to become more relevant to young Muslims, that is, more inclusive and adapted to a European context. Not least the issue of women’s rights is rightfully important to many people in the Muslim world, whether they are liberals or conservatives. In the midst of all the praise, Ates receives in Western media one essential question is however forgotten: What Islamic credibility does Ates have? In line with postmodern nihilism where concepts, ideas, and identities are emptied of meaning and content, the fact is ignored that Ates in her book points out that she believes in God but not in religions. She has no Islamic theological education and explains that she has recently started taking courses in Islamic studies and Arabic in order to be more credible among Muslims.
This is not only the case with Ates. It is a general weakness of so-called progressive and liberal Islam (reformers) that the movement lacks a foundation of religious and theological structure; it is rather founded on personalities with a political mission.
More journalists than worshippers
In her book about Islam needing a sexual revolution, Ates applauds European Christians’ dissociation from the church after 1968. Paradoxically, she later opened a mosque for Muslims. Further, she praises secularly thinking individuals as the most honourable people.
This is why the question should be raised whether the mosque, the imam title, and other religious references are just an Islamic camouflage for what can be understood as a political secularisation, assimilation and liberalisation project by Ates and her supporters. Due to the missing religious credibility and seriousness of this commitment, it should come as no surprise that it has little appeal to European and German Muslims.
When the New York Times visited the mosque, its journalists reported that there were more journalists than worshippers present. She has, on the other hand, a strong appeal among extreme right-wing anti-Muslim thinkers and movements in Europe. It is noteworthy that Ates received a solidarity claim from the extreme anti-Islam German AfD party, and has been praised by the infamous anti-Muslim blog of “Human Rights Service” in Norway.
The positive development aspect is missing
Why should German and European Muslims listen to an activist who attacks the fundamental principles of Islam and in her book paints a stereotypical image of the world’s Muslims?
There is no denying that Ates addresses a number of important challenges for Muslim women. Still, her arguments become oversimplified when she confuses female-hostile habits in the East with Islam and completely forgets the positive development today’s Muslim women in Europe experience where they, as opposed to their mothers’ generation, receive a university education, have a career, and choose whom they want to marry.
Seyran Ates’ project is not about a necessary contextualisation of Islam’s holy texts in a European reality, maintaining the characterisations of the region. The project is rather about a total change of Islam. In her book, Ates justifies such a change by creating strawmen with sweeping generalisations about Muslims. She, for instance, writes that ‘it is a fact that Muslim men have a considerable problem with our free world’, and that ‘Islamic politicians do not distinguish between religion and politics’ – without mentioning the widespread authoritarian secular tradition in Muslim countries in modern times such as in Turkey and Baathism in Syria and Iraq.
Less sexual restraint
Ates’ main argument in Islam needs a sexual revolution is that Muslim men and women are sexually oppressed because sexuality is defined as a blessing and source of love only within – and not outside of – the frames of marriage. The rule of intimate relationships being reserved for marriage meets with unison agreement from Muslims from different schools of thought; Ates, however, absurdly calls it an expression of “fundamentalist” Islam. In this view, Seyran Ates disagrees with the well-known American feminist Naomi Wolf who, after having travelled in Muslim countries, believes that this marital channelling of intimacy, in fact, strengthens sexuality and family ties at the same time.
The German-Turkish author wants less sexual restraint, more promiscuity and a liberal attitude to nakedness, in line with the ideals of the sixty-eighters. Seyran Ates praises the sixty-eighters’ revolution as an ideal for Muslims. Although the #metoo campaign, which can be said to have brought to light the negative consequences of the sexual revolution, was released after Ates’ book was published, it makes her attitudes to this revolution seem somewhat doubtful. The heritage of the sixty-eighters is not only freedom and equality but also the breaking up of the family as well as selfishness and decadence. It is also ironical that someone like Ates, who claims religious credibility, calls attention to Alfred Kinsey, the atheist sexologist who believed in open relationships, as a model for Muslims.
Ates’ book is mainly about freedom, a personal freedom in the name of value liberalism and sixtyeighters. A well-known American intellectual, Patrick Deenen from the University of Notre Dame, however, criticises such a perception of the concept of freedom believing we should ask ourselves if freedom can really be defined as human beings pursuing their instincts more or less uncritically. Deenen maintains that human beings are then in effect unfree and slaves of their instincts, while real freedom is achieved if we manage to free ourselves from being governed by human appetites.
Seyran Ates and her non-Muslim supporters seem to have no understanding at all of such a definition of the concept of freedom. Even more problematic is that they want to make their sixty-eighters’ liberal values absolute, believing Muslims must adhere to them if they wish to belong to modern society. Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule calls this form of liberalism aggressive because it only tolerates itself and no differences of opinion. It maintains its rituals in the form of checkpoints of ‘correct’ opinions in particular about sexuality, gender, and identity. Disagreeing with this can result in reprisals in the form of public pillory or even legal steps.
Obsessed with removing the hijab
When Muslims are met with such absolute-making of liberal values it is like an extension of colonial cultural imperialism when French and British colonial masters wanted to westernise Muslim populations, believing it was the only way of making them civilised. Some of them were obsessed with removing Muslim women’s hijabs, just as Seyran Ates is. The British consul general in Egypt, Lord Cromer, was a representative of this view. He wanted to free Muslim women from the hijab while at home in the UK he was ardently against feminism and women’s suffrage (source: Ahmed, Leila (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press).
Worth noting is also that extensive surveys by Gallup Coexist Index among West-European Muslims show that they are far more religious than the majority population. Similar findings in relation to Norwegian Muslims were made by Bushra Ishaq in her book Hvem snakker for oss? (Who speaks for us?) from 2017. Considering these figures, it would be utopian as well as illiberal to expect Muslims to opt for a liberal values morality. On the contrary, it should be expected that religious European Muslims understand their religious practice as belonging to a Western context, that they value equality and that they support the liberal state governed by rule of law that actually allows people to live according to liberal as well as conservative norms of value.
*The original German-language version of the book, Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution: Eine Streitschrift, was published in 2011
Dr Mohammad Usman Rana is a Norwegian columnist, author and a commentator on Islam
Chronicles of A Muslim Father: It All Began With a Prayer
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Family, friends, neighbors, coaches, and teachers are all part of that community and the pillars of that system are the parents. Mothers specifically have and continue to make monumental contributions to this effort. But what about Muslim fathers?
There are thousands of blog posts and hundreds of books on the fundamentals of raising Muslim children in the current climate written by mothers across a diverse array of the spectrum. They have tackled issues that range from Aqiqa’s to matrimonials and beyond, but when I needed a fresh perspective on raising Muslim children by someone like me, a Muslim father, I could hardly find any readily available resources.
I don’t know if this is a cultural deviancy or just men in general, but we leave all the parenting to the mothers and justify skimming over our responsibilities in the name of “breadwinning”. Whatever the case may be, I am a person who is constantly looking for guidance so that I, as their father and the head of the household, can make the right moves for my kids morally, academically and socially.
Furthermore, I am convinced that there are thousands, if not millions of Muslim fathers, just like me looking for the same thing that are coming up empty handed just like I did.
It’s for this reason, with the help of Allahﷻ that I have endeavored to fill in this much-needed gap and compose this essential series that will be comprised of archives from my own experiences coupled with advice on best practices and pitfalls in raising Muslim children from a father’s perspective.
I hope and pray that my work will be a source of guidance for both mothers and fathers on raising Muslim children, if not at the very least a catalyst for a call-to-action for fathers to assume their respective roles. May Allahﷻ guide all of us to be the best parents for our children and raise our children amongst the righteous to be the coolness of our eyes.
Hajj 2000- I find myself at the time of Tahujjud standing humbled with all my faults in front of the ancient house of Allahﷻ trying to collect myself under the shade of night, to muster up the courage to address my Lord in efforts to ask…
What makes me think my voice would reach Him amongst a legion of believers who have come to this place with their righteous deeds and all I have to offer Him are years ladened with transgressions? How do I ask? Where do I begin…
Standing at six feet, I began to shrink both in stature and in spirit. Tears began to swell up in my eyes as I stood as still as a statue. I truly felt more insignificant than the idea of the word “below” itself. As natural as rain falling from the sky to the ground, in one action I collapsed into prostration, embracing the ground as if it were life itself. There I remained for what seemed like an eternity— sometimes praising Him, other times asking for His forgiveness as my body shook uncontrollably with tears running a constant flow. I had no concept of my surroundings or that the world existed at all. In that moment in the darkness, I just felt it was me, Him and the appeal that I had to make. I knew that I had no right. It was not my place to ask and that I had come with nothing to offer, but there was no place else to go, nobody else to turn to. I maintained my sajdah for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, I summoned up my courage and brought the sentiments of my heart to my lips:
“Ya Allahﷻ pair me with a righteous wife who will give me righteous children.”
At that moment, my prayers that were for me were for them. My tears flowed for them, whatever ramblings came from my mouth were for the unborn children that I have never met. If you think about it, it seemed foolish, so absurd, but in my bones, it felt so right. I didn’t even have a wife and there I was begging for righteous children. The truth in context was that I wanted something very special from the Treasury of His Majesty and I came to His House to humble myself to get it.
It was on the sound of the Fajr adhan that I finally arose from my prostration. My cheeks and kurta (shirt) wet with tears and all that was left was contemplation. It seemed as if I was transitioning into yet a different train of thought.
I began to take account of who I am, what I wanted and what I needed to do. I didn’t know the first thing about being a husband or father. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes I made as a son. I wanted my children to have the best in this world and the next but didn’t have a clue on how to pave that path. I wanted to endeavor to strive to be at least as good as my own father and put my family first. In all honesty, as these thoughts began flooding my head, I felt totally helpless and totally overwhelmed.
I knew that I would have to sacrifice, upgrade my character, prioritize to put the pleasure of Allahﷻ at the forefront of my thoughts and actions. This was a huge shift from how I lived my life for the past couple of decades. My time was mine, my money was mine and I impulsively chased my desires. All that had to change!
Change Brings Change
One thing did, however, make sense to me:
I thought to myself that if I laid down the track based upon my style of thinking, it would certainly be disastrous. I needed to consult with scholars and gather as much information as I could to construct a path in accordance with what Allahﷻ has prescribed to give myself a chance at achieving my dream.
This, I concluded, was what was needed to be done in order to ensure a chance of success. I felt resolute to act upon it. At that thought, the Muaddhin began to recite the Iqama and the entire ordeal concluded.
Six months later, I found myself in the living room of Dr. Ahmed Muneeruddin whose lineage goes back directly to AmĪr-ul-Mu’minīn, Umar Al-Farooq (May Allahﷻ be pleased with him). I was witness to one of the most profound events of my lifetime. My father (the late) Dr. Abdus-Salam Syed recited Khutbah Al-Haajah for the company that was present, which included immediate family from both sides. He then turned his attention to his host and began to declare with profound emotion:
“Praise to be Allahﷻ and blessings and peace be upon His final Prophet and Messenger Muhammadﷺ. I enjoin you to fear Allahﷻ. I have come to you to engage your noblest daughter Maria Muneeruddin to my son Jameel Abdul Syed in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophetﷺ and the pleasure of Allah ﷻ .”
He then went on to conclude with Du’a for happiness, well being, prosperity, that the beginning and end of this affair should be on the straight path and that this union should bare righteous children in the future.
She was going to be the mother of my children
It is noteworthy that I had only known my future wife then for two weeks in total with no more than two physical meetings and a half a dozen phone calls.
She presented very strong qualities, which matched all of the qualifiers outlined by the Prophetﷺ: Beauty, wealth, status and religion. As most prospective couples do, we dialogued back and forth measuring each other up against our ideals, but truthfully my decision to pursue her at the end had little to do with any of her questions to my answers. Rather it was the fact that when I looked into her eyes, I saw the mother of my future children and I knew that no other woman on the face of this earth could hold that status for me. It was a feeling I knew to be true and the final criterion for my decision that I feel my heart was guided by Allahﷻ. The series of events that led to my engagement was idiosyncratic and unplanned. In my experience, when Allahﷻ wants something to happen, it happens rather quickly and arrives unannounced and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Our marriage took place on July 1st, 2001 in Ontario, Canada. Shortly thereafter she became pregnant and learned that it was going to be a baby boy. Both of our families were elated. It was the first child of the next generation on both sides. We debated back and forth about the name until we finally reached a unanimous decision: Muhammad Jibril Syed. Maria constantly listened to Surah Al-Baqarah during her pregnancy and prayed for him during this eight-month period. My job was to keep her happy!
On March 13th, 2002, Jibril had arrived at Crittenton Hospital in Rochester, Michigan honoring both Maria and me with the titles of parents. I gingerly picked up the boy and took him to my father who raised the adhan in his right ear and the iqama in his left as per the tradition of The Prophetﷺ. The feeling was indescribable. A feeling of pride, disbelief, elation. Maria felt the same, but she was obviously exhausted. The hospital was flooded with friends and family— it was total chaos. I had to escape, if only for a moment.
I broke away from the excitement and retreated to the hospitals chapel to pray. After prayer, I sat by myself in that room and reflected on how I got to this point. That prayer I made during Tahajjud in front of the Kaabah. It was the beginning of my journey into fatherhood. My heart softened and I began to cry. SubhanAllah, I thought to myself. “Just look at the plan of Allahﷻ. He didn’t turn a deaf ear to the pleas of a sinner that day. He’s given me so much in such a short period of time. I promised myself that I would not be an ungrateful slave. That I would honor the trust that He’s bestowed on me with this child and any other future children by devoting myself to try and raise them in accordance with His pleasure.
As I walked out of the chapel and back to my family, I thought to myself: “I wonder what he’s gonna call me…”
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