It’s not so easy any more to control the parameters of Islam and the way it is practiced by those who wish to stuff their opinion down the throats of other Muslim citizens, be they minorities or majorities across the globe.
This past week the Selangor Islamic Religious Counsel in Malaysia, issued a fatwa against Sisters in Islam (SIS), accusing them of being “deviant” because they subscribe to religious liberalism and pluralism. They called for a ban on all their publications and to silence their social media. They sought to shun their activities and personhood “in the name of Islam.’
The next day SIS held a press conference and went on full counter attack. This is what it has come down to for many who stand for justice, equality, and human dignity for all, within an Islamic perspective.
Let me step back and explain about a fatwa.
Islamic law governs all aspects of a Muslim practice: private and public, ritual and political. Islam is a legal tradition going back to the first generation after the death of the Prophet. Using various interpretations of the primary sources of Islamic thought: the Qur’an, as revelation to the Prophet; ahadith, his own words; and sunnah, his normative practices, Islamic legal schools have come to explicit opinions on how to best be a Muslim.
Diversity of opinion is common and significant. There has never been consensus on how to interpret and implement these sources. The Prophet said, “diversity of opinion is a mercy.” Today, there are four major Sunni Schools of Jurisprudence and one major Shi’ah School. Still, though it is good to have an opinion, one must demonstrate how that opinion was reached, that is, one must give evidence from the sources.
Even within these established schools of law, there are instances without precedent or clear textual directive. Thus the architects of the legal schools must exercise their reasoning (called ijtihad) to determine the legal ruling or to come to some sort of analogy with more clear cut sources. For example, technologically assisted reproduction (TAR) is outside of anything even remotely practiced in early Islam and thus has no direct textual statement regarding its permissibility. Legal thinkers must compare these procedures in analogous ways to something similar, and, on the grounds of qiyas (analogy), exert their opinion.
These are important aspects of having a living and ongoing legal framework.
Fast forward to our time and the process goes on, with certain inevitable areas of stagnation. No doubt gender and sexuality is amongst the areas where stagnation is at its highest. In most cases, this is because conservative Muslim male thinkers assign themselves the exclusive authority to interpret the texts, the authoritative sources, and thus to have impact on the law.
They will issue a fatwa, a legal opinion, on any matter they deems problematic: Facebook, Yoga, smoking in public, driving a car, you name it and there’s been a fatwa issued on it. The tendency to take on anyone who seems to be moving the religion far faster into the complex world in which we live is often given reign to fatwa hurling: perhaps in an effort to arrest the course of change and then blame the religion for it. Fatwas are slung like mud in the face of any whose perspective clashes with the tendencies of regressive conservatism.
In the past, the victim of such an onslaught had little or no recourse. Most would simply slither away in the background, shunned and alienated from the community. The power of random fatwas is receding, simply with the rise of education. Victims of fatwas have their own recourse and can also take advantage of other educated opinions or Muslim organizations to challenge such abuses “in the name of Islam.”
The fatwa issued against Sisters in Islam is an excellent case in how to be democratically empowered in the context of Muslim civil society.
SIS has challenged the fatwa on a number of coherent and easily replicated fronts: 1) who defines the terms (in this case they are accused of being “liberal” and “pluralistic”!); what are the grounds of authority for having any particular definition accepted into practice, and, even, legally binding?; 3) how are the terms defined? What evidence is provided to verify the definition? Is it confirmed by the primary sources? How does the evidence compare to other evidentiary methods using the same sources? And again, who decides?
There are also vital questions about the relationships between Islamic law and the constitution. Although this is different from country to country, SIS has taken up because often there is a conflict between the two. Thus the architects and guardians of the constitutions have the responsibility not to randomly abdicate its authority just because someone or some organization says “this is Islam” making all Muslims required to comply. Instead the state has the responsibility to seek answers from all to whom those laws will apply, as stakeholders, and not just one branch of conservative elites.
More importantly, in the context of the modern nation-state, no one can claim authority to implement Islam over all other citizens. All members have equal responsibility to be a part of any policy that is to be implemented over their right to free and equal citizenship. All must be able to decide for themselves, contesting opinions or fatwas that are hurled randomly to silence, coerce, control, and even punish. Everyone must have a say in how any law will be implemented in their civil society.
This has long been the strategy used by Sisters in Islam, a civil society organization with more than 25 years fighting for justice and human dignity, especially for women and families.
It’s exciting to watch them in action. As soon as the fatwa was announced, instead of slithering away to the background, they launched a public campaign, issued a press release, and held a public forum. There is no shame in being adequately prepared. Instead there is the power of being informed and conscientious about agency in Islam—especially against tyranny.
When any party within the state tries to assert their opinion of Islam over others, or to have that opinion become public policy affecting everyone, then everyone has the right to have a say over those policies, over the way Islam is being defined and how to sustain their equal citizenship.
This is the democratization of authority.
No one has greater say over the use and abuse of Islam than any other in the context of the nation state. This is the same reasoning we use against the group known as the Islamic State (IS). IS does not speak for us all. We are invested with the responsibility to define how Islam is being used or abused. We reject exclusive and abusive definitions and assertions that bring harm to other human beings. No longer will Islam be the exclusive purview of conservative elites. It belongs to all who invest in it, believe in it, and continue to be identified with it.
Sisters in Islam are well prepared for this. I support them wholeheartedly and applaud them for bringing this awareness to the public both nationally and internationally.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.