Profiles in Courage: the Moroccan Jurist Abu Muhammad `Abd al-Salam b. Hamdun Jasus

Dec 16

This is the story of an 18th century Moroccan jurist who did not leave any important collection of legal opinions or an important commentary on a Sidi Khalil or otherwise make an important literary contribution to the history of Islamic law.  Nonetheless, he did something else which is probably more important for the possibility of securing a society governed by law: he willingly became a martyr to uphold the integrity of the law, not by revolting and leading a hopeless quest to overthrow the ruler, but simply by sticking to his values, and insisting that he would not compromise the clear demands of the law for the sake of the ruler’s convenience. The ruler was the Moroccan Sultan, Mulay Ismail Here is a link to an account of the relevant events in the Arabic chronicle, al-Istiqsa li-Akhbar al-Magrib al-Aqsa.

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ISIS’ Appropriation of Classical Islamic International Law

May 08

Brookings’ 2015 US-Islamic World Forum invited me recently to contribute to Will McCants’ series of discussions regarding ISIS’s relationship to the Islamic tradition which he initiated in response to the now (in)famous Atlantic piece by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants“. I wrote about ISIS’s appropriation of classical concepts such as dar al-islam and dar al-harb to justify their actions against their enemies, domestic and foreign, while ignoring over 1200 years of the concepts’ evolution, including, in the post-World War II era where leading Muslim jurists have concluded that the distinction is irrelevant in the modern world.

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The Fate of Non-Muslims in the Next Life According to 20th Century Azhari Reformist Theologians

Apr 08

I’m not quite sure who this Islam al-Buhayri fellow is, or why he has suddenly become controversial in Egypt.  His facebook page describes him modestly as a an “A Reforming [lit.: “correcting”, musahhih] Islamic Researcher.” One issue that seems to have stirred the pot is his claim that it is impossible to describe the People of the Book, i.e., Jews  and Christians, as kuffar, i.e., non-Muslims, from the perspective of the Quran.  Here is a link to a very interesting fatwa by Yusuf al-Qaradawi on this question.  Qaradawi’s basic position is that kafir — disbeliever or non-Muslim — has two meanings in Islam.  The first is a legal category, and applies to anyone who has not affirmatively embraced Islam.  The second is a theological category, and applies for purposes of reward and punishment in the next life.  In the second case, a person is only a kafir and subject to divine punishment if the person, despite subjectively recognizing the truth of Islam, refuses to become a Muslim out of obstinacy and spite. As for this life, Muslims and non-Muslims according to him are supposed to cooperate on the basis of justice, not whether they have the same belief.  This view itself grew out of a series of theological debates that took place in the Azhar in the second-half of the twentieth-century.  I have written on this debate in a paper titled, “No Salvation Outside Islam: Muslim Modernists, Democratic Politics, and Islamic Theological Exclusivism.”  That paper was one chapter in the larger book. “Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation and the Fate of Others,” edited by Mohammad Hassan Khalil.

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2015 Noel Coulson Memorial Lecture, SOAS School of Law

Mar 26

It was my distinct honor to have been invited to give the 2015 Noel Coulson Memorial Lecture at the SOAS School of Law.  Noel Coulson was one of the most prominent British scholars of Islamic law in the 20th century, and he was a canonical author for those of us who studied Islamic law in the west.  As I mentioned in the introduction to my lecture, much of my own work in Islamic law — despite my numerous differences with Coulson in specifics — is motivated by similar concerns: how to reconcile fidelity to revealed law with the legitimate needs of human society, without giving in to either utopian textualism or secular absolutism.  The topic of my talk was “Islamic Reform: Democracy or Reinterpretation?

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Majnun Layla’s (Qays b. Mulawwih) Lesson in Patriotism for Egypt

Mar 14

Qays b. Mulawwih was an early Islamic Arab poet who gained fame for his absolute, unqualified, and all-consuming love for Layla.  So complete was his obsession with her that people assumed he was mad, thus earning him the sobriquet in the poetic literature of Majnun (the madman) of Layla (Majnun Layla).

Two of Majnun’s more famous lines about his love for Layla go like this:

أمر على الديــــــار ديار ليـلى … أقبل ذا الـــــــجدار وذا الجـدارا
وما حب الديار شـــــغفن قلبي … ولكن حب من ســـــــكن الديارا

“I pass through the lands of Laila, kissing this wall and that one;
it is not the love of the land that has filled my heart, but love for the one who dwelt there.”

Many people in Egypt today speak of patriotism, but it is a false patriotism, a patriotism not devoted to the love of the people of Egypt, with all their virtues, and vices, but for an abstract idea of Egypt that is little more than a reflection of their own fantasies, nightmares, or both. The great president Sisi, for example, recently accused the Muslim Brotherhood of wanting to empty Egypt of its Pharaonic heritage by destroying the pyramids and destroying ancient temples. Aside from the sheer absurdity of the statement, this is from the spokesman of a regime that has, from a practical perspective, been a complete failure in preserving Egypt’s cultural heritage, even allowing the Great Pyramids, through years of neglect, to turn into an urban slum.

Like Qays b. Mulawwih, we Egyptians should reject the false patriotism which is based on love of an abstract place — perhaps best exemplified in the absurd plans announced yesterday for the construction of a new capital — for the complete, absolute and unconditional love of the people, embracing them completely, even with their faults. That is what democracy is about: letting the people govern themselves, knowing that in the long run, they will get things right. This kind of patriotic love for the people — not the contempt for them which is the only thing that unites Egypt’s elites — might lead us out of this dark tunnel. But, for many reasons, I doubt any one will listen to Qays b. Mulawwih. After all, he was crazy.

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Establishment of the Council of Wise Muslims

Sep 26

One of the interesting fall outs of the Arab Spring has been a renaissance of traditional Sunni quietism and support of authoritarianism as the proper response to political conflict.  As reported by CNN Arabic Service, the UAE (who else?) is now patronizing a group of Sunni scholars under the not so modest name of “The Council of Wise Muslims (Majlis Hukama’ al-Muslimin).” One of its goals, according to this article, is to revive basic doctrines of Sunnism, including, “obedience to the ruler” (ta’at uli’l-amr). The article also states that the wise ones are cautioning Muslims that democracy is not a good desired for itself, but rather, justice and stability are the aims, and these can be achieved, apparently, without democracy.  Indeed, if democracy is pursued in circumstances that are not appropriate, e.g., the Arab world, it will only lead to civil war.  What the wise ones have failed to explain, however, is why oligarchical rulers would be interested in pursuing, among other things, distributive justice.  Just sayin’.

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