Tuesday 9 June 2020

Reforming Muslim Family Law: The Musawah Campaign & the Covid-19 Factor

Zainah Anwar
Since its foundation in Kuala  Lumpur in 2009, Musawah has been at the forefront of the campaign for women rights in the Muslim world. Amplifying its voice is aided by the involvement of leading women activists and intellectuals, such as Sisters in Islam co-founder Zainah Anwar (Malaysia) and academics Amina Wadud (American scholar of Islam) and Ziba Mir-Hosseini (British-Iranian legal anthropologist).

Amina Wadud
Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Marwa Sharafeldin

The Jadaliyya website is now offering a new discussion platform revolving around a new justice for women campaign  initiated by Musawah. In her inaugural article, Egyptian legal scholar Marwa Sharafeldin uses the current Corona Virus/Covid-19 crisis to draw renewed attention to the disadvantaged legal position of women in many Muslim countries.

Here are some excerpts.
Family law is one of the most contentious laws to change in the Arab region and the Muslim world. One of the reasons given for this is its close association with religion. 
However, it is important to first observe how family law is deeply implicated in distributing wealth and in allocating power and resources. Because of the way that family law is constructed in some countries in the Arab region, it is usually in men’s hands where power and wealth is concentrated. 
Returning to COVID-19, family law reform, and religion, there is a fundamental problem with the underlying philosophy of gender inequality found in family law practices, and the religious jurisprudence upon which they are based. But would we be tampering with religion if we call for the reform of Arab and Muslim family laws? 
The answer is no. There is a difference between shari‘a and fiqh (jurisprudence). Shari‘a is what Muslims believe to be the eternal message of God: unchangeable, divine, and relevant for all times and places. It is full of all things good. Fiqh, on the other hand, is the human endeavor to uncover and understand this divine message. It is therefore changeable and subject to context. The Arab region’s family laws are not divine, because they are based on human fiqh
Read the whole article here
Musawah – Equality & Justice in the Muslim Family

Sunday 31 May 2020

GENDER & ISLAM: Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod

Lila Abu-Lughod is one of the leading anthropologists studying women in the Muslim world. Based at Columbia University in New York, she made a name with her studies of Bedouin women, but in books like Do Muslim women need saving?, she  has also engaged with more generic, politically charged, topics.

She was recently interviewed by the Jadaliyya Website about teaching Gender & Islam in the Middle East:

Here is a brief excerpt:
I find two tactics useful in teaching. First, I insist on historicizing. What are the major political transformations of the worlds we are studying? What is the history of the present? The dynamics of colonialism and anti-colonial nationalisms, as well as violence of current wars and occupations are crucial. Their impacts on the organization of gender, women’s possibilities, and the meanings of sexuality are profound and complex. I like to surprise students too by introducing matter-of-factly the long regional histories (and class politics, of course) of activist projects for legal reform, schooling, religious reform, and political enfranchisement—what students might understand as other histories of feminism.
Second, and a bit more consistent with my anthropological commitments to learning about “other” worlds, I insist that students immerse themselves in the lives and texts of those whose reference points and ideals may be quite foreign to them. From precarious Yemeni plantation workers being cured of possession to Iranian youth being lectured by Ali Shariati on how Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, should be their guide for revolutionary womanhood, I want them to confront and take seriously the unfamiliar. There are moral and intellectual worlds out there that challenge their everyday assumptions, values, and judgements. This is humbling. And it can be humbling even for students whose family backgrounds link them to the region. They rarely know much about the multiple worlds in which different communities live or the variety of aspirations they have.  
To read the full interview, click here

Tuesday 26 May 2020

An international Islamic Entrepreneur: Reassessing Rashid Rida (1865-1935)

Rashid Rida (1865-1935)
The latest book of historian of Islam Leor Halevi sheds new light on an Muslim intellectual, who is simultaneously considered as belonging to the triumvirate of 19th and 20th-century Islamic reformism (alongside Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh), and a would-be Wahhabi because of his support for Saudi Arabia in the final years of his life.

Modern  Things on  Trial: Islam's Global and  Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865-1935 offers a critical rereading of that image and presents an alternative interpretation of Rashid Rida (1865-1935). The following excerpts are taken from Muhammad Addakhakhny's review for the Jadaliyya website.
Rida is no longer a sullen fundamentalist who betrayed his sheikh or a Machiavellian who compromised his religion, as we have been told. As a publisher, editor, self-appointed mufti, entrepreneur, Arabic teacher for nonnative speakers, unofficial diplomat, and political dreamer, he led a life of activity and continuous contemplation. For Halevi, the Syrian cleric should not be subsumed into any one stereotype, or viewed as a one-dimensional man, but rather as a multilayered figure. 
Halevi's book is an interesting mix of intellectual and material history-writing.

Modern Things on Trial draws fragments of the daily life of early twentieth-century Muslim subjects who lived a breathtaking and unprecedented entrance of “western” goods to their cities. In this work, we are exposed to a materialist reading of Salafism
Rashid Rida is presented as an 'international Islamic entrepreneur', advocating a kind of 'laissez-faire salafism'. At the same time, Rida's contributions to Islamic reformism are often presented:
as an odd moment in a history of a progressive strain of thinkers or, even, as a failed enlightener. He moved, the story goes, from moderation to extremism. In other words, if one were to exploit Althusserian terms, some kind of epistemological break happened in his project after World War I
His contributions to Islamic reformism have been downplayed on grounds of his associations with Saudi Wahhabism:
Yet there may be another explanation of this underestimation, namely, his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder, Hasan al-Banna (1906–49). [...] Various Brotherhood ideologues have expressed their appreciation of Rida’s work and depicted him and Banna as brothers in arms. 
Be that as it may, Islamists gave an exalted status to Rida and it is this exact status that has made him, to some extent, an ill-fated Muslim reformer. 
Click here to read the whole review.

Friday 24 April 2020

The Corona Fatwas (2): Theological & Juridical Considerations

As discussed in an earlier post on Corona Fatwas, Muslim religious scholars were quick to respond with legal opinions (fatwas), once the global dimensions of the Corona-Virus/Covid-19 pandemic became clear. Central to these pronouncements were the effects of social distancing, lockdown or quarantine measures on the communal aspects of Islamic religious practices. Most acute at the time of the eruption of the pandemic were the consequences for the weekly congregational noon prayers on Friday. But as the crisis continues, the questions also extend to the communal aspects during Ramadan, the annual month of fasting which commenced on 24 April, as well as the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is scheduled this year to take place in late July and early August.

The proclamation of these fatwas evinces the dialectical dynamics between politics and religion in the Muslim world: Governments seek religious sanction for the measures they impose on society in the face of this health crisis, while the (often state-sponsored) religious establishment of Islamic scholars and office holders derive authority and underscore their continuing relevance by making pronouncements on current affairs.

Square of Mecca's Grand Mosque lies deserted amids Corona-Virus pandemic fears

By way of update, here are some excerpts from a survey on the Qantara website, which gives an impression of the ongoing debates about the theological and juridical considerations in regards to the constraints on congregational prayers and other communal activities.

Given the swift and far-reaching reactions from Muslim scholars with regard to Friday prayers, it cannot be assumed that leading Saudi scholars would contradict the potential desire of the royal family to cancel this year’s hajj. In fact, in the almost global suspension of Friday prayers and other communal worship, we might see a kind of modern iǧmāʿ, a broad consensus from the legal scholars. 
The Islamic tradition has a few fitting precedents for taking drastic steps in the interest of infection control, including with regard to practicing the religion, which may go some way towards explaining the broad consensus. According to one story about the Prophet (ḥadīṯ), which is well-evidenced in the sources, Muhammad also called on believers not to travel to a country where the plague was known to have broken out, and not to leave their own country when there was an epidemic of this kind there. This early form of restriction on travel can serve as a present-day starting point for comprehensive preventative health measures.
Islamic Legal Maxims
Aside from the Higher Objectives of Islamic Law  (maqasid al-shari'a) mentioned in the previous post, also featuring prominently in the religious discussions that are taking place now are the so-called Legal Maxims (qawa'id fiqhiyya).
Islamic law also contains a few central legal maxims on which sweeping restrictions on individual and communal religious practices could be based. The starting point for these maxims is the legal proposition that counts as one of the five basic maxims that span all the legal schools: “Harm should be eliminated” (aḍ-ḍarar yuzāl)).
These maxims could serve to justify a potential short-notice cancellation of the upcoming hajj. In the first version, the harm would be the further spread of coronavirus and the resultant rapid increase of people falling ill with Covid-19 both during the pilgrimage and afterwards.

In opposition to this is the benefit to the individual pilgrims, who are fulfilling their religious duty through the hajj – and in this, according to many religious scholars, there is also a general benefit, since the annual hajj also serves a collective interest in the preservation of the religion.
In terms of the Higher Objectives (maqasid), this part of the debates points at an evaluation of the relative importance of protecting and preserving life and religion respectively.
Aside from theological-juridical considerations, the survey notes that  historical precedents too can be used to vindicate the possible drastic measure of cancelling this year's Hajj. As was also pointed out in the previous post, a hint in that direction was already given in a statement of the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (KAFRA), identifying no less than forty earlier instances of cancellations of the Hajj throughout history.

For the full article, click here

Friday 3 April 2020

40 years of religious totalitarianism and the closing of the Muslim mind

Books by Kim Ghattas & Ben  Hubbard
In early 2020, two books written by experienced Middle East reporters appeared only weeks apart from each other: Black Wave of former BBC and Financial Times correspondent Kim Ghattas and MBS, by New York Times Beirut bureau chief Ben Hubbard. While each offers a distinct perspective on recent developments in the Middle East, their narratives work their way to the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Both authors interpret this murder as an important game changer in a political and intellectual climate that has only become more turbulent in the wake of events that have rattled the Muslim world since the beginning of the new millennium, but the roots of which can be traced back several decades.

Born in Beirut at the beginning of the civil war, in Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East, Lebanese-Dutch Kim Ghattas traces the origins of the competition between two Middle Eastern super powers: Saudi Arabia, a desert monarchy claiming to safeguard Sunni Islam, and, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is set on spreading its own revolutionary interpretation of Islam and postures as the self-proclaimed protector of the oppressed Shiʽa minorities in the Muslim world.

Ghattas explicitly identifies a watershed year that has set in motion a dynamics that eventually spiralled out of control of the main political actors, becoming a ‘torrent that flattens everything in its path’ (2). 1979 saw not only the fall of a key Western ally in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, it also witnessed the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots accusing the ruling Al Saudi dynasty of corruption and hypocrisy, while further east, Afghans mobilized in a religiously inspired resistance movement after Communist infidels invaded the unruly mountain country from Soviet Central Asia. What Ghattas does not mention is that, according to the Islamic calendar, 1979 coincides with the year 1400;  the start of the fifteenth century of the Islamic era which formally began with the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622CE. According to one hadith, Muhammad once said that after his demise there would be a mujaddid, a religious 'renewer'  for every century of the Islamic era.

While sections of the population-at-large embraced this religious revival, others remained sceptical and, as time progressed, many became concerned and disillusioned as yet another form of totalitarianism began oppressing the people.

Farag Foda
Nasr Abu Zayd

Progressively-minded intellectuals were among the key victims when the ‘Arab Renaissance’ (Nahda), which had begun in the late nineteenth century, was replaced by an ‘Islamic Awakening’ (Sahwa) that plunged the Middle East and the wider Muslim World into darkness.  Artistic creativity, cultural vibrancy and political experimentation with secular ideologies gave way to a closing of the mind and further curtailment of freethinking and criticism. In the title chapter of her book, Kim Ghattas narrates the exile of the literary scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the assassination of agronomist-turned-writer Farag Foda. Widening the historical angle, she notes that, a few decades earlier, literary icons like Taha Husayn (1889-1973) were also not immune to the wrath of religious zealots.

Ayatollah Khomeini on route to Iran (1979)

Kim Ghattas illustrates the ominous atmosphere that has taken hold of the Middle East with the cold harshness of Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious scholar who had become the face of opposition to the Shah and of the Iranian revolution. Responding to a question what he felt when returning to Iran after more than fifteen years in exile, the cleric’s curt reply was: “hichi” – nothing.  Or the hypocrisy of Saudi King Fahd. Caring more for the gambling tables of Monte Carlo than the prayer mat, he began styling himself as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to underscore the Islamic credentials of the Saudi regime.

One of Black Wave’s merits is that it does not solely focus on the main characters in this drama. Kim Ghattas also includes a cast of secondary players

Saudi architect Sami Angawi

For example, the Saudi architect Sami Anqawi.  Holding a PhD in  Islamic architecture from SOAS, Angawi heads the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage. His heartache over the destruction of the old inner city of Mecca symbolizes the deplorable loss of cultural heritage in the wider Muslim world.

Kim Ghattas plots the many connections among lesser political actors, such as those between the Lebanese Shiʽi politician Hussein al-Husseini, the cleric Musa al-Sadr, and Mostafa Chamran, an Iranian physicist who briefly served as the first post-revolutionary defence minister only to die two years later on the battlefield during the bloody Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). She does not shy away from conjecture and speculation. What if al-Sadr had not vanished in Libya in 1978? Would a movement like Hezbollah have had a chance to emerge and replace Amal as the main political representative of Lebanon’s Shiʽites? Would even the Iranian revolution have unfolded the way it did?

Musa al-Sadr (l.) & Mostafa Chamran (r., with glasses)
Or take Maarouf Dawalibi, a former prime minister of Syria turned lackey of the Al Saud regime. After the military coup of General  Zia ul-Haq in 1977, Riyadh sent him to Pakistan to orchestrate the country's new Islamization policies. Among other disastrous outcomes, it caused the unleashing of a South Asian variant of sectarian confrontations, epitomized by the slogan ‘Shia Kafir’, whereby Pakistanis were turned on each other. Meanwhile the frontier town of Peshawar on the border with Afghanistan hosted a veritable Who-is-Who of Jihadism. Here not only future al-Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri set up shop, appearances were made by Muhammad Islambouli, brother of Sadat assassin Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian Islamist ideologue whose writings inspired IS and who himself had a family connection with one of the Mecca siege ringleaders.

In MBS: The Rise to Power of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ben  Hubbard too showcases not just a royal drama of Shakespearian proportions. Despite the title, this book is not so much a biography of the current heir apparent, as a sketch of the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia that nobody had thought possible five years ago. It deals not only with the battle of the titans for the Saudi throne, but also what is taking place behind the scenes of the rivalry within the dynasty’s top echelons. 

Hubbard maps how a presumed upstart princeling outmanoeuvred his own well-established and very powerful uncles and cousins. Part of an explanation lies in the fact that the crown prince’s father, King Salman, had served not only for many decades as governor of the Riyadh province. He was also the head of the Al Saud family council. In that role he was not simply the enforcer of internal discipline, keeping all princes in line in order to protect the integrity of the dynasty from challenges, internal and external, Salman also knew about the skeletons in everybody’s closet.

Crown Prince Mohammed with his father King Salman
As Prince Mohammed became increasingly close to his father, he put that information to good use when pushing his older and experienced cousin Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) out of the way, deposing him as crown prince and taking away his job as minister of interior in the Summer of 2017. The coup de grace came in early 2020,  when MBS had MBN arrested, together with Salman’s last surviving full brother, Prince Ahmad.

The same is probably true for the wave of arrests on corruption charges that had taken place in the Fall of 2017, in which dozens of princes, businessmen and former ministers were rounded up to be kept in the capital's Ritz-Carlton hotel as 'guests of the king'. There they were detained until they had settled with the new anti-corruption Czar: MBS himself (often by signing away their assets and fortunes). While sending shockwaves and instilling fear in the country's elites, the move made the new heir apparent tremendously popular with Saudi Arabia's youthful population, who regard him as one of theirs.

The individual meteoric rise of a minor second-generation prince from the 'Sudairi Seven' lineage may have caught many more senior princes off guard and surprised outside observers. However, for quite a while, members of MBS's entourage had been preparing the ground for this power struggle in which the new possibilities of IT technology were exploited to the fullest: Most prominently, the computer-savvy commoner Saud al-Qahtani. Working in the Royal Court since the early 2000s, he eventually became the Saudi equivalent of Steve Barron in the US or Boris Johnson’s spin doctor Dominic Cummings. With money not being an issue, al-Qahtani purchased or had spyware developed with which Saudi Arabia was turned into a virtual surveillance society, complete with troll armies to harass regime critics and advocates of change on other terms than those initiated by the new de facto ruler. Al-Qahtani’s hackers even broke into the phones of tech industry giants such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Saud al-Qahtani & Mohammed bin Salman
This is what was taking place behind the screens of the public façade that MBS was erecting. Creating an image of himself as not merely an audacious religious reformer who dared to take on Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment by defanging the hated ‘religious police’ and insisting with a straight face that there was no such thing as Wahhabism. He also postured as a self-styled visionary and futurist. With a nod to Dave Eggers, in the chapters ‘A Hologram for the Crown Prince Part one and Two’, Hubbard discusses MBS’s plans for a hi-tech new megacity in the Red Sea region; a castle in the sky combining a fantasy of grandiose proportions with the most banal designation: Combining ‘neo, Latin for “new”, with mustaqbal, meaning “future” in Arabic, [MBS] shrank the name to NEOM’ (169).

The royal rivalries, megalomaniac development schemes, and ill-conceived foreign adventures in Syria and Yemen are paralleled by simultaneous repressive measures against activists and critics.

These include women rights campaigner Loujain Al-Hathloul and her husband, stand-up Fahd Albutairi; religious dissident such as  Salman al-Awda (Ouda) and Ahmed al-Ghamdi, who surprised his former colleagues in the General Presidency for the Propagation of Virtue & Prevention of Vice by appearing on TV with his wife; and Saudi bloggers Omar Abdulaziz and Raif Badawi

Loujain al-Hathloul & Fahd Albutairi
Ahmed al-Ghamdi & his wife

At least as central to the book as the figure of MBS is Jamal Khashoggi, who also makes frequent appearances in Black WaveSingling out the Khashoggi case comes as no surprise, because he was personally known to both writers.

If the crown prince features as the protagonist, then the Medina-born journalist is cast in the role of the antagonist. It sets the stage for a drama pitching a grandson of the kingdom's founder against a grandson of the latter's personal physician; a scion of a dynasty hailing from the deep interior of the Arabian Peninsula versus an intellectual of Ottoman descent from the cosmopolitan Hijaz.

Both Ghattas and Hubbard note Khashoggi’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood and early admiration for Osama bin Laden when reporting from Afghanistan in the 1980s. They ponder the ambiguities surrounding his repeated firing from editorial positions with the Saudi media and his simultaneous closeness to royals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal. Khashoggi not only followed this former head of the Saudi intelligence service on his assignment as ambassador to Washington, his newspaper columns often were a mix of loyalty to and mild criticism of the monarchy’s politics.

Jamal Khashoggi reporting from Afghanistan in the 1980s
Things changed dramatically for Khashoggi as he became increasingly uneasy about the Monster of Frankenstein into which the manipulation of religion for political purposes had morphed. While during the 1980s, it seemed to serve a purpose in Afghanistan and in the Iraq-Iran war, political Islam eventually spiralled out of control, escaping from the puppet masters' hands. It turned the post-9/11 Muslim world  into a depressing scene of political instability, religious polarization, social disintegration and outright civil war.

Jamal Khashoggi

Unable to hold his tongue, but finding the usual outlets in Saudi Arabia closed to him, in late 2017, Khashoggi went into voluntary exile in the USA, where he continued to write commentaries for the Washington Post on developments in the Arab World. He was dead within the year.