The Strange Case of Usama Hasan
British Muslims are experiencing yet another challenge to the integrity of their religious life. This time, the threat emerges not from hysterical right-wing Islamophobes, but their virtual allies within the Muslim community who seem too-eager to act according to the Islamophobes’ stereotyped script of what a Muslim is. The controversy surrounds comments made by a certain British Imam, or religious leader, Usama Hasan, regarding the compatibility of the theory of evolution with Quranic teachings regarding God’s creation of the world and human beings.
While responsible British Muslims have been quick to denounce these dangerous demagogues, I pause to note that some arguments condemning this kind of behavior are better not being said at all. One British Imam, for example, in the context of explaining why he rejects these threats, pointed out that issues of heresy, and punishment for heresy, are a matter that is within the exclusive competence of a legitimate Islamic political authority, and since such an authority does not exist in Britain, calls for the death of Hasan on account of his heresy are simply incitement for murder.
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it sidesteps the central issue: does Islam permit Muslims in good faith to raise the kinds of theological questions that Usama Hasan attempted to discuss, or are Muslims simply required to adhere to a theology that consists only of literalist adherence to scripture? We know that Islamic theology, historically speaking, has not been so limited, but has always systematically attempted to reconcile the apparent meanings of revelation with other sources of knowledge — whether rational or empirical. As a result, Muslim theology generally took the position that it was permissible, indeed, obligatory, to treat certain passages in revelation as metaphorical when their literal meaning contradicted rational truths.
Indeed, according to all Muslim theologians, it is impermissible to defer to the opinion of another in matters of creed (usul al-din), and each person is obligated to understand creedal matters for himself. Usama Hasan was simply discharging his individual duty when he engaged in an attempt to reconcile evolution with the plain sense of revelation. Suppose his argument was silly: well, in that case, the proper Islamic response is not to denounce him as a heretic, but rather to expose the fallaciousness of his reasoning. Instead of hiding behind procedural arguments as to why such threats are not permissible, we would be better off as a community if we reasserted the fundamental obligation Islam imposes upon us to understand, as individuals, the nature of God, our relationship to God, and God’s relationship to us. Once we restore this obligation to our communities as one of its core values, then we will have taken a substantial step toward defeating those for whom Islam is simply a “take it or leave it” set of dogmas or rules that is incapable of tolerating any form of thought, much less dissent.