Connect with us

Hijab and Sex: Does Islam Respect Free Choice?

Avatar

Published

on

“Is it then other than Allah’s religion that they seek (to follow), and to Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned?” (Surat Ali Imran: 83)

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Everyone from my nation will enter Paradise except those who refuse.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, who will refuse?” The Prophet said, “Whoever obeys me enters Paradise and whoever disobeys me has refused.” (Bukhari)

***

In this day and age, we hear a lot about the importance of choice, autonomy, and all the other values associated with personal agency that make liberty and freedom so great and wonderful. But what if these concepts when examined more closely were not all that meaningful?

The Challenge of Choice

Islam is often portrayed as a religion that does not acknowledge free choice or sexual autonomy. Critics of Islam claim, for example, that Muslims do not have a choice in terms of how they can dress. Also, Muslims do not have sexual autonomy since Islam has strict constraints on sexual behavior.

How can Muslims respond to these charges? Given the importance with which modern society views these concepts — namely, free choice and autonomy — Muslims need to be able to speak to such concerns.

The temptation that Muslims face is to respond with straight denial, i.e., to insist that Islam does acknowledge and, in fact, champion free choice and sexual autonomy in the sense that these terms are deployed in liberal secular discourse. But this would be in many ways dishonest. We do not find concepts like free choice and autonomy as independent values as such in the way they are meant in the modern context within the corpus of Islamic ethical and legal thought.

A more honest and intellectually compelling response would be to question the coherence of these concepts on their own terms. Undermining these concepts allows Muslims to throw a wrench in the motor that drives the intuitions behind these attacks on Islam.

The Hijab as Choice

First let’s consider the question of dress and free choice. Can Muslim women, for example, freely choose to wear the hijab or are they coerced to do so?

Critics of Islam claim that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and therefore it is not a free choice in the slightest. What is problematic to these critics is Muslim women’s lack of agency. They have no choice in certain aspects of their dress.

Against this, many Muslims argue that, as a matter of fact, there is a choice when it comes to hijab. Those women who do wear it are exercising free choice by doing so, and that choice is empowering. Some even go so far as to claim that, in the age of Trump, wearing the hijab is an act of defiant resistance against tyranny, and what could be more free and liberating than that?

So who is right? What we can notice is that both sides take the notion of “free choice” for granted. This is a mistake.

Consider the distinction between the following kinds of choices.

You are at the ice cream parlor and you can choose what flavor ice cream you prefer. That seems like a benign choice. This is a scenario where the concept of choice seems perfectly suited. It is a preferential choice and our intuition is that preferential choices ought to be “free” in the sense that to restrict them is nothing more than an arbitrary exercise of power. The idea is, if someone prefers vanilla, why force them to get chocolate? What reason would there be to coerce a choice in this case other than malice?

Here is a second scenario. You are at a red traffic light and you can choose whether to stop or to pass through the red light. This is a choice that is available to you. But this is not about preference. In contrast to the preferential choice, this is a choice that has to do with obeying the law. And since obedience to the law of the land has moral implications, we can call this a moralistic choice.

Along those same line, imagine you are at home and you have just changed your car’s motor oil. You could illegally dump the old oil down your drain even though that would be illegal and cause considerable environmental damage by contributing to the pollution of the water system. Local environmental authorities would never know if you did it, but you have that choice. Again, this is not a preferential choice. Rather, it is a moralistic one.

The Ambiguity of Choice

Even though these scenarios can be described as involving personal choice, the two kinds of choices are in no way analogous. We do not understand the choices that involve following the law or doing the right thing as “free choices.” There is a moral and ethical obligation to do what is right and what is just. And though we do describe a person as having the ability to “choose” to do what is wrong, unethical, and unjust, clearly that is not the same thing as saying that a person has the “free choice” to completely ignore, forego, or violate the moral code.

It is this ambiguity between preferential choice and moralistic choice that causes a great amount of confusion when discussing Islamic ethics and law. Equivocating between the two kinds of choices allows critics of Islam to attack the religion and characterize it as intolerant and dogmatic. In reality, Islamic law is as “intolerant” and “dogmatic” as all other ethical systems and legal codes which, by definition, require and obligate people to behave in certain ways and refrain from behaving in others despite what they may choose to do otherwise.

We all seem to have an aversion to the idea of constraining and using coercion in the realm of people’s preferential choices. We should also note that, while it is obvious to many that curtailing preferential choice is an illegitimate use of power, it is equally obvious that moralistic choice ought to be subject to restriction. People ought to obey the law, which is to say, people ought to choose to obey the law, people ought to choose to do the right thing, etc., and if they fail to do so, there ought to be some sort of consequence.

The Illusion of Choice

The existence of such consequences for disobedience means that moralistic choices are not truly free choices per se. Yes, in one sense, a person has the choice to obey the law and the requirements of morality. But in another sense, no real choice is available since disobedience will be met with repercussions.

The driver behind the red light certainly can choose to run the light, but that could result in a hefty fine if he is caught. And the person who has changed his motor oil certainly can choose to dump the oil down the drain, but that could result in a fine as well and if others were to find out about this dumper’s selfish behavior, that could result in social opprobrium. So these cannot be meaningfully described as “free choices” at all.

Besides these examples, we all are faced with countless moral choices in our day to day lives. We technically can choose to act against the requirements of morality. We can choose to act out in wrong and detestable ways. But those choices have consequences, sometimes severe, sometimes not, sometimes tangible, sometimes social, sometimes worldly, sometimes otherworldly, etc. Unlike our preferential choices, our moralistic choices are not free. And we all recognize that that is a good and perfectly natural thing.

The same considerations apply wherever Islam is charged with not respecting “free choice.” Yes, technically Muslims have a choice to abide by the religious code, but these are considered moralistic choices, not preferential ones. As such, it is a category mistake to charge Islam with restricting free choice. In the case of hijab or any other aspect of Islamic dress code, it is true that Muslims have a choice, but it is a moralistic one. All else being equal, going against the law has consequences, e.g., the requirement for the violator of the law to repent. Ultimately, when it comes to hijab, both those who argue that Islam does respect free choice as well as those who argue that Islam does not respect free choice are incorrect in that they are making a conceptual error.

Rhetoric that Masks Substance (or Lack Thereof)

Claiming that “Islam violates free choice” is merely rhetorical bluster. Similarly, claiming some other religion or ethical system “upholds free choice” is equally vacuous since, as we have seen, all ethical systems permit free choice in the matters that fall squarely within the preferential domain. Of course, the boundaries between these two domains, viz., the preferential and the moralistic, are subject to debate.

And this is what the conversation about Islamic dress vis-à-vis “conventional” standards of dress really boils down to. What about the way we dress and present ourselves to others should be up to personal preference and what should be determined by larger ethical considerations outside of that and who gets to decide?

This is a deep ethical question that requires delving into a host of metaphysical and quasi-religious considerations. In its rejection of all things metaphysical and religious, liberal secularism does not have the conceptual resources even to begin to wrestle with these issues. But this crippling inadequacy of liberal secularism is masked behind a facade of “free choice.” Appealing to this empty concept allows secularism and its proponents to pretend to have an intellectually and morally compelling perspective on issues such as dress, when in reality, they have only constructed a house of cards.

To complicate matters further, this is not a straightforward question to answer for those who mistakenly believe that, as a matter of principle, all dress should be a matter of personal preference. But how could all dress be solely a matter of personal preference? The existence of dress codes, standards of dress at different social functions and in different cultural contexts, and even indecent exposure laws found in every single nation on earth all belie this silly idea that people in the “free world” exercise full, unfettered choice in their clothing decisions in contrast to those in the Islamic world who must submit to “draconian Islamic regulations.” In reality, no respectable person in the history of God’s green earth has ever made a truly “free” choice about what clothes to wear in public, “free” in the sense of “without significant outside influence.” All such “choices” are inescapably influenced by social and cultural norms. For Muslims who abide by the Islamic dress code, these choices are influenced by what are held by Muslims to be guidelines set by God. Within those guidelines, Muslims have historically cultivated a great diversity of fashions. But for the wider non-Muslim culture, there are also strict standards and guidelines of dress, but it is not clear from where those standards originated other than the unmoored ebb and flow of mass infatuation and, in recent times, commercial interests.

Islam and Sexual Autonomy

The notion of autonomy is as vacuous as free choice and for much the same reasons. No one believes in an autonomy that permits one to break the law and violate moral principles, whatever those may be. Autonomy is not conceived of as a license to be a vile person. But if people want autonomy within the boundaries set by ethics, then all religions and ethical systems guarantee this sort of autonomy. So again, the notion of autonomy is empty.

Autonomy as a concept rides on what ethical commitments one subscribes to. If an adult believes that having sexual relations with 16- or 17-year-olds (i.e., individuals just under the legal age limit) is morally acceptable, then anyone who hinders that person from having that kind of sex is violating that person’s autonomy as far as that person himself is concerned. But according to those who deem sex with minors immoral, this is not an issue of autonomy because, according to them, sex with minors ought to be criminalized regardless of what any particular individual believes to be his sexual right.

Islamic law restricts and prohibits certain kinds of sexual behavior in this way, and for this, many have branded Islam as blind to people’s right to sexual autonomy. But, again, this is fundamentally confused. If we recognize the hollowness of the notion of autonomy, then it easily can be claimed that Islam fully grants sexual autonomy to all. It is Islam’s definition of sexual autonomy that is really what people have a problem with. Here again, we reach a moral and metaphysical question: What is correct, moral sexual behavior and what is indecent and immoral and who gets to decide that? Secular thought simply does not have the ability to give a compelling story for all the complicated sexual norms the average secular Westerner dutifully abides by in the course of life.

(And no, the notion of consent is not very helpful either, by the way, given that there are plenty of sexual behaviors that are fully consensual but are still considered immoral and illegal within major strands of liberal secular thought, e.g., sex with minors, prostitution, incest, among others. Philosophers and legal scholars, such as Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, have also problematized the notion of consent and its adequacy in accounting for common contemporary moral intuitions regarding permissible sex. But this is a larger topic beyond the scope of this essay.)

This inability on the part of secularism to justify satisfactorily its sex norms is overlooked because the notion of sexual autonomy is put on a pedestal as the ultimate good we must all strive for. This allows liberal secularism to criticize the sexual mores of Islam (and Christianity and Orthodox Judaism) for the crime of not adequately respecting sexual autonomy in the way that liberal secularism does. All the while, secularism’s deficiencies go unnoticed and unaddressed. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

These deficiencies ought to be brought to light and openly discussed (as I have done in past articles that can be read here and here, on zina and homosexuality respectively). In the meantime, critics of Islam, especially those invoking empty liberal secular concepts of free choice and autonomy, need to find better arguments to make their case against the religion.

Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, Texas. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou is also a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity. Email Daniel here .

31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Sarah

    March 27, 2017 at 10:14 AM

    Boring and out of touch.

    A) “You have to wear hijab. Morality. Does free choice even exist? Bla, bla, bla.” As though none of us have heard this stuff before. Any article by a man in 2017 going on about Hijab hasn’t been around the Internet very long – I could’ve hit up Tumblr and found this exact discussion in 2011, and responses to the assumptions in it. The cheap shots might make writers feel all warm and fuzzy for having “enjoined the right and forbidden the wrong” and getting a lot of surface level “likes”, but they totally ignore the actual hard questions of sexual ethics being actually asked by many Muslims and nonMuslims today, like the presence of forcible marriage of free women in the mathahib (which you’ve interestingly decried elsewhere as totally wrong, without addressing that Malik endorsed it), many denying the moral (not even legal) existence of marital rape, as well as the forcible marriage and selling of slave women (whom certain ahadith portray literally being bedded whilst their actual husbands were alive) and the endless examples of truly messed up mathhab opinions that many were made to live with that work to the exact opposite of what this writer has defended elsewhere as “the sake of marriage” (E.g. defining marriage as a type of slavery, and zina with family slavewomen often going without a hadd punishment, and rape often having been near impossible to prove.)

    B) “Liberal secularism” is a social contract, not necessarily a replacement for morality – be clear about what you are critiquing. Many believe in liberal secularism without believing that it should be the be all end all of morality – including critiquing nation state constructs and how they limit this. And from this article it’s pretty clear you’ve never lived somewhere where your religious decisions have been entirely made for you – and no, I don’t equate paying taxes whilst freely writing and believing and wearing what you wish and critiquing others and the government for their beliefs and actions, with being arrested and beaten and sent into exile for doing the same.

    • Avatar

      Sarah

      March 27, 2017 at 1:51 PM

      To clarify, because this comment will probably be dismissed as “irrelevant” – the issue with people asking about hijab and sexual autonomy isn’t their issue with people making a moral choice such as, say, choosing to abide by the law of paying zakat or not gossiping (which is how you frame it here). Their issue is questioning whether Muslim women are actually free to make this decision for themselves, as opposed to being excommunicated or physically persecuted or beaten by others into making the decision (which would imply invalidating their commitment to hijab). Virtual Mosque (formerly Suhaib Webb) had a fantastic article by a woman who WAS physically forced to wear hijab, talking about how this affected her sense of iman. An article that doesn’t recognize this, misses the point of the social question being asked. The reason I bring up the other questions of sexual ethics and autonomy is because those are the social issues that are the thrust behind these questions of sexual autonomy – not that consent is the ultimate arbiter of all sexual morality, but questioning a system in which it is hardly present. Maybe living a sheltered life as an American Muslim male who doesn’t interact with many women, you are simply unaware that these other questions are not outlandish but are often suffered by women both within the US and without (whose experiences are often dismissed due to their poverty or lack of community authority). An article that actually wants to help Muslim women stay in the faith needs to take this into account, as opposed to being entirely reactionary against the American left.

      • Avatar

        Daniel Haqiqatjou

        March 27, 2017 at 2:39 PM

        Thanks for the comment. I’ll just say that to address those “hard questions” that allegedly everyone’s asking (and by “everyone,” I mean a handful of Muslim grad students who read Kecia Ali in a seminar and it blew their minds), the question of choice and how the concept is constructed in liberal contexts and selectively deployed to further a liberal secular vision of Muslims is central and that is what this article briefly explores.

        • Avatar

          Majnoon

          March 27, 2017 at 5:20 PM

          Salaam

          Your claim that its just grad students is foolish and ignoring the problem. Most of the people asking these questions are normal practicing Muslims who, after encountering some sheikh talking about sexual slaves or reading about the right of a husband to beat their wives(however “lightly”), are genuinely concerned about whether or not they can successfully reconcile their moral consciousness with the ethical code of their religion.

          Your passive aggressive tone is going to tick people off, even if you have something worthwhile to say. Btw I think it shows up in all of your writings(that I read), not just this one comment.

          • Avatar

            Daniel Haqiqatjou

            March 27, 2017 at 5:59 PM

            They should rename the red herring fallacy the slavery fallacy in context of discussions like this. It doesn’t matter what the topic at hand is because: “Slavery!”

            Is it passive aggressive when, instead of addressing the substance of my article, you pooh-pooh it and then proceed to assert, implausibly and without evidence, that your particular set of concerns is more important and anything that doesn’t address your particular set of concerns is “missing the point”?

          • Avatar

            Ami

            March 27, 2017 at 6:10 PM

            This is a very intellectual and well thought article. Not sure why people are hating? Responses here are pure emotional, and lack any respect. Brother Daniel is talking about a specific topic, yet the responses here are judging him because he didn’t address other questions. Why does he have to? That’s not the topic! Also, I have followed the brother for a while, never thought he’s passive aggressive. In fact, he is very fair and always engages in respectful intellectual discussions. If you have some deep insecurities about the work he does, then it’s not his fault.

        • Avatar

          Dr. Miriam Batul

          April 15, 2017 at 10:09 AM

          Assalaamoalaikum,
          Thanks brother for explaining lucidly moral laws versus legal laws.
          Yet, I feel that if some of our pained Muslim brothers or sisters have some urgent questions; even if not directly connected, with your article. you should not summarily dismiss their concerns.
          These people want to remain Muslims and we must help the to do that.
          These sad emergencies are arising because Muslims now grow up gaining full knowledge of the dominant culture, without studying their own deen first. We spend nearly two decades or more to acquire a professional degree; but we hardly dedicate any number of years for organized authentic study of our own!
          Therefore, Muslims as we are, we think, feel and act as an outside critic, putting Islam in the dock… on the basis of sketchy Islamic knowledge, little love or devotion as a result of low priority treatment of Islam in our lives…wearing liberal and western tinted glasses on our Muslim eyes…
          identity crisis…

    • Avatar

      Sarah

      March 27, 2017 at 7:32 PM

      Sigh. I doubt that the plentiful non-academic ex-Muslims or anguished questioning Muslims online have ever even heard of Kecia Ali, yet you find article after article online questioning Islam and the Muslim community on issues of sexual autonomy such as forcible marriage, and yes, sexual slavery (this is highly prevalent on Muslim websites and forums). If you think that the first time that someone reads these issues is by sitting in an academic seminar, then you’ve had the luck to never have been exposed to shaykhs who quote this stuff, or been an interested teenager who read Muwatta Malik on sunnah.com, or a horrified person reading about ISIS, or even so much as pressed “google” and had the countless Muslim and ex-Muslim articles on these topics come up.

      It’s telling that you think that “slavery” is a red herring in relation to a discussion of AUTONOMY, when the very definition of slavery usually is related to the removal of types of autonomy. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect you to take larger questions such as slavery into account when talking about the “Islamic” conceptualization of autonomy, including regarding sexual ethics (which you brought up yourself) – especially since one of the first things anyone who reads influential Western “liberal” thinkers such as Locke does is take into account their ideas (and double standards) about slavery and consent.

      Call it a red herring until the cows come home, it’s what’s making other Muslims lose their religion – which is why I commented as I did. I understand that you read this and you see “what does this have to do with my writing, I’m refuting a point about hijab and the assumptions of autonomy in liberalism in a useful way and a random person is talking about slavery, which has nothing to do with this” – but in your article you mis-conceptualize the concern behind the question of consent and hence attack a strawman, which isn’t helping anyone.

      Hence, acting like the “issue” of sexual autonomy that is making Muslims all worried and on the defensive is “is it okay to tell women to make the moral choice of wearing hijab”, and that once the liberal conceptualization of this and of “moral choice” is thoroughly attacked, then everything is okay and Muslims have no problem with questions of sexual autonomy – rather than Muslims having much deeper problems that they and others are asking of themselves – leaves you not fulfilling what you purport to set out to do in terms of “answering liberalism”. You can refute a question of hijab and liberalism and triumphantly wave a flag over how you’ve felt yourself to have destroyed a moral assumption used over Muslims in particular ways, but what’s the point if you build your argument up in such a way that it messes up other questions of sexuality and autonomy that people are asking? (And if your statements have already been made before online, making it obvious that people’s problems with this rhetoric are deeper?)

      You personally recognize, for example, that it’s problematic for Muslims to respond to questions about hijab by saying “yes it’s all by consent and therefore it’s fine” because in your eyes this leaves them in a quandary of looking at how they ask people to bow their wills to loads of other moral issues without talking too much about consent. In a similar way, it’s problematic for you to respond to questions about hijab by saying “liberal consent is next to meaningless” without looking at what all the “Islamic content” has to say about consent, since this leaves you having deconstructed liberalism very well and built up little actual Islamic response.

      • Avatar

        Sarah

        March 27, 2017 at 8:02 PM

        Since you’re seemingly going to take the path of arguing that “liberal consent is nearly meaningless”, then I am extremely serious in asking, what is this alternative meaningful conceptualization of consent? I have yet to see the thinkpiece that can convince me that “choice is an illusion” whilst straight-facedly claiming that God is going to punish us all for the choices that we make.

        If you’re going to claim that the only meaningful consent is a “rational” one that is made to accept Islam, and that any other claim is irrational (and that bodily consent is also next to meaningless), then please just say so as fast as possible so that your readers can recognize the double standards of lambasting Muslims for not having strong religious autonomy whilst also calling autonomy meaningless.

        • Avatar

          Ahmad B.

          March 27, 2017 at 9:47 PM

          Salam Sr. Sarah,

          You lost me there at the end when you said how can Daniel claim that “choice is an illusion” when we know that Allah may punish us for making immoral choices. The whole point of the article was to distinguish between “preferential choice” and “moral choice.” When people talk about “free choice” (as opposed to “free will”) in contemporary society, they always use it in reference to matters *they* regard as preferential choice, not matters they regard as moral issues. Everyone still has free will with regard to the latter, but exercising that will in the wrong manner entails consequences. So it is with Allah’s punishment of us for “choosing” (i.e., exercising our free will) to break His moral law. I’m afraid I don’t see where the inconsistency lies.

          I understand your point about instances where Muslim women, you say, are not given the ability to choose to exercise their free will either in obedience or disobedience of the command to wear hijab because it is literally forced upon them by others. But that’s a different point that doesn’t detract from Daniel’s actual argument, does it? Also, don’t all societies enforce whatever they understand to be decent dress by force (not necessarily random beating, etc., but some sort of sanction)? In Boston in 1905, a woman was arrested for wearing knee-length shorts on the beach and exposing her arms up to the elbows. In the U.S. today, a woman can still get arrested for going topless in public, where that is uneventful in most of Europe, where in many places full nudity on beaches and sometimes even in public parks is totally okay.

          Finally, I don’t get what you mean by “zina with family slave women going without a hadd punishment.” Are you talking about the actual owner of the slaves? If so, how is that zina (as it’s explicitly allowed in the Qur’an and sharply distinguished from zina)? Or are you talking about other males in the household taking advantage of them even though they have no shar’i right to them?

        • Avatar

          Majnoon

          March 27, 2017 at 10:23 PM

          I also get the feeling he could have stated his point far more clearly if he wasn’t afraid of the backlash. Now Muslims will look at this article and go,”Wow, this sounds smart. I think I got the argument, maybe…maybe….And it cleared ALL my doubts, so I guess its fine.” When in reality if he condensed the article to maybe two paragraphs and the reader didn’t gt lost in all of the rubble, they would surely have disagreed.

          • Avatar

            Ahmad B.

            March 27, 2017 at 10:29 PM

            Salam Majnoon,

            Disagreed with what? The distinction between preferential choice and moral choice? And the fact that it’s not a question of Western society allowing preferential choice while Islam suppresses it, but rather, that each society defines differently what behaviors fall into preferential choice and which into the moral realm? This seems pretty obvious (once you think about it) and uncontroversial to me. As Daniel says, the real discussion is: how do we decide on specifics of what falls in the moral realm and what falls in the preferential realm? As Muslims, we do that on the basis of our religious texts, tradition, teachings, etc. In modern Western society, there isn’t much rhyme or reason to it and moral fashions change almost as quickly as the winds. Is that the part you’re disputing?

    • Avatar

      Marwan

      March 28, 2017 at 7:09 AM

      To be fair, Imam Malik never approved of forced marriage, neither did the people of Madina or even the Zahiriyyah, who were very literal in reference to textual evidence. I’ve only seen ex-Muslim claims this or crazy Saudi website like Islamqa.

      As for the slavery issue, I believe Prophet Muhammad pbuh’s response to that social ill was the most empowering. You may want to check out Omar Suleiman’s “Slavery: A Past & Present Tragedy” ==> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR50Lw_16zo&feature=youtu.be&t=30m50s

    • Avatar

      Unimpressed

      March 28, 2017 at 10:22 PM

      Boring verbose nonsense. No counterpoints to the actual substance of the article. Let me guess, you’re a “progressive” Muslim?

      • Avatar

        Lenna

        March 29, 2017 at 12:15 AM

        My impression of Daniel Haqiqatjou’s work is exactly the opposite. He makes solid arguments against many modernist/progressive “reinterpretations.”

        • Avatar

          Unimpressed

          March 31, 2017 at 2:10 AM

          I agree with you! I think Daniel’s doing a great job. I was being critical of Sarah comments, which are just bitter verbose secular screeds. I really don’t any see constructive criticism or counter points to Daniel’s arguments.
          Colonized minds are such a waste.

  2. Avatar

    Quazi

    March 27, 2017 at 10:19 AM

    Very nicely written. Jazakallahu Khair. Just as an example of your first point about moralistic preferences, just today I saw a news where United airlines enforces dress code (no legging) on young women just because they get a heavily discounted price as relatives of United employees.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39401145

    • Avatar

      Daniel Haqiqatjou

      March 27, 2017 at 2:44 PM

      Wa iyyakum. Thanks for the reference. Dress codes are ubiquitous but few care to explore what a dress code could possibly be for. The only legitimate reaction to dress codes, as Twitter arguments have aptly demonstrated, is to decry them as categorically invalid, a “tool of patriarchy,” a path to the sexualization of women, etc.

  3. Avatar

    Lenna

    March 27, 2017 at 10:03 PM

    Salaam,

    Excellent article.

    I started reading the comments, but couldn’t follow the tangents or see the relevance of some of them. As far as the actual topic pertaining to “free choice,” I found this article extremely helpful. I plan to incorporate these ideas into my own “talking points,” insha’Allah. Thank you.

  4. Avatar

    Majnoon

    March 27, 2017 at 10:18 PM

    Could you please list the resources you used to write this article? I would like to read up further on it. Thanks

  5. Avatar

    Sarah

    March 28, 2017 at 12:30 AM

    Salam Ahmad B.

    My problem is that saying that “consent is nearly meaningless because every society makes its choices about what to constrict and allows the exercise of choice only within that spectrum” skips over many of the real-life moral concerns that are actually at hand from those who ask about consent. One can problematize consent as the be-all end-all of morality (I’ve read feminists themselves doing this), without denying its existence and implying that it is vacuous and that there is no difference between a choice made under physical duress without the ability to even voice dissent (as was the experience of the woman who wrote at Suhaib Webb), and a choice made under a social contract that gives space for people to voice their will and make arguments for how to best live together without infringing on each other and how to assert the truth from their hearts/wills – otherwise truth itself ends up being in danger of just being whatever the person with the most social power can physically forcibly assert (and Islamic interpretation is not free from this by virtue of having a solid religious text – the endless differences of opinion by past scholars over moral questions are very real).

    Imagine how if a religion was physically forced on non-believers (who were told that they have the “free will” to disbelieve “in their hearts”) and maintained by physical violence, it would be nullified in the ability to make an argument for itself as the ultimate truth that is “naturally” recognized by all who hear it – since it would have shown that actually, it would go completely unrecognized if people hadn’t been forced into following it. I’m sure some silver-tongued person can sit at a desk and argue that this is all actually perfectly fine, but is that really what the average Muslim believes? Is it a form of reasoning that would actually work during dawah, or is it just something used to make people feel good about themselves without thinking about the logical endpoints of such arguments? Is it an argument that would convince someone who in their heart asks themselves whether they’re just following their religion because their ancestors imposed it on them?

    I think that the phrase “choice is an illusion” is being too breezily thrown around without thinking about how physical coercion affects society – e.g. in the examples of sexual autonomy that I brought up, whereby many people would take Daniel’s arguments to their logical conclusion and argue that consent is nothing but a made up issue of modernity and hence the ISSUES behind consent simply don’t matter. These aren’t abstract questions, even if they seem unrelated – they’re ones playing out on the bodies of fellow Muslim women who’ve actively spoken about their pain. Are women who fall into depression as a result of living lives of forcible marriage, simply “Westernized” and being “infected by ideas of consent”? I’ve noticed that many like to make these arguments when it comes to female social autonomy, but I’ve never in my life seen someone argue that there is no difference between the experiences of being kicked out of your house as opposed to moving out, or leaving university as opposed to being expelled, because “society shapes your choices anyway” and “choice is an illusion”. Consent isn’t just the Western liberal argument about a concept as made by secular humanists – it hits at deeper ethical concerns about violence and the nature of the truth itself.

    But I’ve been rambling for a while now – those unconcerned with wider issues of consent won’t see this conversation as relevant here. TLDR; would like to see what this proposed “better idea of consent” actually is and what it means for Muslims’ lives.

    (The zina example is of certain past jurists having waived the hadd punishment for men who committed zina with their wive’s slavewomen – justifying this by giving the slave to him.)

  6. Avatar

    Aliya

    March 28, 2017 at 1:20 AM

    The only way to please Allah is by leading our lives according to how Rasoolallah (pbuh) led it. We have to dress, eat, drink, sleep, wakeup, hold our functions, spend our days and nights in all spheres of life exactly as He (pbuh) did. Rasoolallah (pbuh) is our model no man or man made norms.

  7. Avatar

    Jamilah Alia Baz

    March 28, 2017 at 3:51 AM

    may Allah guide us,wash away our sins. ameen. Beautifully written.

  8. Avatar

    mohamed

    March 28, 2017 at 10:53 AM

    Beautiful article. May Allah bless you.

  9. Avatar

    Bayan

    March 29, 2017 at 2:43 AM

    I live in Palestine and I have personally never met a sister who has been forced to wear hijab. I am sure there are some, but it’s definitely not the majority. Even within one family unit, you will see the mother, sisters, aunts, etc….all wearing hijab in their own style, and even some not wearing hijab. Chapter 10 verse 94 states:

    So if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord, so never be among the doubters.

    Like I said, I live in Palestine and the observant Jewish women and Catholic nuns are all covering their hair and dressing modestly and really it is a sign from Allah.

    My dear Muslim sisters it is time for us to wake up! Our lives are so short, there is so much good that can and needs to be done on this planet. 10 year old children in Yemen are in diapers because they are too weak to walk to the bathroom, and meanwhile women are wasting their time and money making sure their shoes match their bags and headscarf, chasing after the latest trend….why????? To get an approving look from people around you?? These people will not benefit you my dear sisters on Judgement Day! What about the hadith that says Muslims are like one body??? Is it just talk? Are you a slave to consumerism and materialism, using your body as a billboard for some corporation?! We have polluted our precious planet because of over producing all this STUFF that we don’t need! Wallahi it is Ghuroor and Lahwa dear sisters!! Allah has made it easy for us, but we insist on the hard way!!! If outward beauty is what keeps a man, then why are there so many divorces in Hollywood?? Allah says in the Quran, Sabran Jamil, “Beautiful Patience”…it is Patience and Perseverance that is true beauty my dear sisters!!

    I put on my hijab at 25, it was a stylish hijab, and I would still spend so much time trying to match clothes, and making sure they were loose, too much time shopping trying to find appropriate outfits…then as I approached 40, I just became so sick of the materialism and greed, its never enough! I started wearing a plain black jilbab with a plain white hijab and I have never been happier to leave all that GARBAGE behind me. I have 4 outfits I wear in my home to look decent in front of my husband and relatives.,,,but I have never received so many condescending looks and comments from fellow Muslims who ask me “What happened to you???” “Why are you dressed like that??” “Your husband is going to marry a second wife” hahaha I swear I laugh!!! Wallahi when you do something to gain Allah’s Pleasure, the whole world can spit in my face and I will be the happiest person on this planet!!!

    People actually go into debt and ribaa….they max out their credit cards chasing useless STUFF they don’t need!

    Sisters!!!! Go out their and make a positive change in this world! Go and find an underprivileged child and help them with their homework, have a food drive or bake sale to help raise money for the poor, go and visit your grandmother, memorize a page of the Quran, volunteer in a senior’s home, clean the Masjid, etc…etc….

  10. Avatar

    Bayan

    March 29, 2017 at 8:49 AM

    Trust me it is more often that a sister wants to wear hijab but she is too shy or afraid to. When I wore my hijab at 25 my Muslim parents were horrified. They had spent thousands on my university education and they thought hijab would get in the way of a good job. I was living in the West at the time and had an internship in a downtown business district. I realized that even on the hottest days men were expected to wear a business suit and tie and women always wore skirts and heels. A man is professional when he covers and a woman when she uncovers??!! A woman willing to go through the pain of high heels so other people can enjoy looking at her? I will keep my hijab thank you.

  11. Avatar

    Cass

    March 31, 2017 at 12:55 AM

    This kind of academic debunking is all good and well but does nothing to help women who are physically beaten, forced etc because of hijab. I know y’all just gonna say “but that’s a differnt issue” and it is but it almost never gets addressed by “proper” muslims. Only the progressives address it. I would like an orthodox muslim to address it for once. Of course they’d just say “why would you assume that orthdox muslims condone such things” etc. Well it sure seems like they do. I’ve seen so many people brush off child marriages with “marriage =/= sex” as if that’s what’s actually happening. In my opinion it’s much more useful to write or do things that can actually help people than make this intellectual seeming arguments.

    • Avatar

      Unimpressed

      March 31, 2017 at 2:04 AM

      You have no counter arguments to the content of the article so you’ve resorted to distractors instead. So called progressives don’t care about Islam, they’re trying to twist the religion into a western secular mold. You’ve engaged in one strawman after another.

    • Avatar

      Bayan

      April 1, 2017 at 1:41 AM

      SMH…it’s sad to see Muslims falling into the OLD tricks of Islam haters. Dear Cass: A woman who is being beaten because of her hijab, will also be beaten because her cooking doesn’t taste right, the kids are too noisy, or she is 5 minutes late coming back from visiting her mother….do you get it? Any man who has the anger and violence in him to beat a woman, doesn’t need “Hijab” as an excuse, he will do it for whatever reason. So please stop with the “beaten and forced to wear hijab” thing. I am 40 years old. I have lived in the USA and now I live in Palestine and I have never met any young lady forced to wear hijab, but I have met many young women who have been forced NOT to wear hijab.

    • Avatar

      Bayan

      April 1, 2017 at 1:56 AM

      And you mentioned child marriages as if it is a Muslim problem, no sir, child marriages is a poverty problem. It happens in the Philippines, in China, Russia, Yemen, etc….When a parent feels that the only option for their child to survive is to give them away into marriage, really its something that rips your heart out! My friend works with an aid organization in Yemen and the horror stories coming out of there are something you and I have never seen or heard of. Wallahi we will be asked by Allah, the most High, what did we do to help these desperate people?? They are laying in their own waste, too weak to even go to the bathroom, eating bugs and thorns off of bushes, and we are questioning Islam’s mercy????? We need to question our own mercy, selfishness greed brother!!

      • Avatar

        Alex

        April 16, 2017 at 8:21 PM

        If you say that child marriage is not a Muslim problem, then you don’t know your own religion very well. It is true that it’s not a Muslim problem exclusively, but Islam certainly condones it. I mean, wasn’t Prophet Muhammad’s last wife Aisha 6 years old at the time of marriage? It is totally disingenuous to claim that child marriage is not a Muslim issue when the Prophet you all follow is known to have married a young child. It doesn’t take a genius to realize why people in the Muslim world think it’s acceptable to marry children…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Unexpected Blessings of Being Alone

Juli Herman

Published

on

My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.

“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”

In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.

It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.

Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.

When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.

Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone

In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.

The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as well.

The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.

We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا

“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15

On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.

Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22

But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?

The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.

It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.

You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.

There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.

Being Alone Has Its Own Perks

It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.

Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.

Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.

When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.

Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”

All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.

 

We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone

The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.

Open grave

You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.

Continue Reading

Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.

Avatar

Published

on

israel, occupied Palestine

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?

This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:

1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens

When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.

Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.

This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.

2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower

The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.

While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.

3)  Military aid and complicity of tax-payers

US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.

Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.

4) The Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.

5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history

This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.

Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.

The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.

Continue Reading

This Article Could be Zakat-Eligible

Who Accounts For This Pillar of Islam

Avatar

Published

on

Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji

As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations.  We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.

Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion.  Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone.  There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.

No, it’s not ikhtilaf

The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat.  The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.  

It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined,  free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically,  the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.   

The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds.  We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?

Show Your Work

We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules.  In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.  

Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.

You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2

Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them?  Why or why not?

Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts?  What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.

Bubble Charity

In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor.  There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.

The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.   

As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent.  Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.

People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble.  Fisabilillah.

Dawa is the new Jihad

Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past.  Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.  

Indeed dawah is a broad category.  For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah.  Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.   

No Standards or Accountability

Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.  

The Shift to Meaninglessness

Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.

Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it.  It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.

Footnotes:

  1. The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
  2. In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.

Continue Reading

Trending