The Strange Case of Usama Hasan

Mar 11

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.

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  1. Abdul-Malik Ryan /

    I find it hard to comment further without knowing more intimately what is going on. My initial reaction was similar to yours and actually I was sympathetic to Usama Hasan airing his views even if I did not agree with them. However, after talking a little with people closer to the situation I’ve become more confused. It must also be noted that it is not as if this is one issue coming out of nowhere but Usama Hasan has had a major shift in his views and has made controversial comments on several issues. I would respect him more if he willingly left his position and continued to advocate his views. It seems he is somehow bent on holding on to his position and that seems unseemly even if the actions of some of his opponents are unseemly as well. The more one tries to sort out the actual particulars of what is going on, the further it gets from the point you are making here, which as I said I agrew with.

  2. The question of the leadership of a mosque discipling or even dismissing its Imam because it rejects his views is certainly a more complicated question. It is certainly not dictated by principle. Nevertheless, I think mosque leaderships should actually exercise leadership in such circumstances and not be too quick to dismiss someone simply because his or her views are controversial, at least if they do not threaten the institution.

  3. Abdul-Malik Ryan /

    Mohammad, I agree with the major thrust of this post. However, I think you are also sidestepping a major issue here. Certainly Usama Hasan should be free to express freely his opinions and those who disagree should engage him intellectually rather than just shut him down with namecalling or intimidation. However, it certainly also must be true that Muslims are not obliged to keep as imams in their masajid people whose stated views they do not believe to be acceptable. Certainly the people of that community must have the right to call for his dismissal as imam or to otherwise speak out against his views publicly due to his official position, no?

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