The Problem with Church and State

I have a cousin who recently graduated from Moody Bible Institute. For background, my family consists of some Christian reverends and preachers as well as my more immediate Muslim side and assorted cousins. We enjoy getting on religious topics every now and then so I was happy to have a resource such as my cousin that I may contact in regard to deeper Christian theological questions. However, I’m also a bit dismayed. I asked him under what authority was Mr. Moody able to start and grow his own Bible institute; teaching and preaching the bible as he understood it. The Moody Bible Institute’s website is absent of any mention of formal Bible training. It seems he was a fervent and passionate preacher and traveled around with his message. I’m sure there’s more depth to it than that but my dismay is all the same; any number of people can be passionate about the message in the Bible and I can be OK with that if the only question were a matter of how much zeal a person can speak of Jesus and their interpretation of the Bible.

However, what I, and many others, are not OK with is treating a person’s interpretation of the Bible as the definitive interpretation of law. Without any authority, or formal education, or juristic tradition, no one should be able to take their interpretation of the Bible as the law by which everyone must abide.  This isn’t to diminish the messages in the Bible or even of its legal requirements. This is specifically a message about Protestant Christianity. In contrast, Catholicism and Judaism, using a similar text, do have legal and juristic traditions attached to them. This is not to say I think they’re right; rather, there is structure, method, and sobriety, not just passion and zeal.

Even then, there are inconsistencies. The common justification for Christians not having the same prohibition on pork as found against Jews elsewhere in the Bible is that Jesus had done away with those laws. If that is the case, then so goes prohibitions on homosexuality, adultery, dress codes, working on the sabbath, charging interest, and whatever other law found in the Old Testament. All you’re left with is messages of love and compassion but no laws.

Thus, there’s a logical and practical inconsistency for most who clamor for closer integration of Church and State or who demand to have some Biblical laws applied to their lives (and others’ lives) but not all or most Biblical laws. This is also why it might appear that Jews and Muslims get some sort of special treatment in applying their religious laws to themselves in their worldly matters (note: we’re not trying to apply them on everyone; just wanting to carve out some exceptions for us). We’re actually trying to follow the laws and standards found in our religious texts and traditions. There are some Christian groups that do so as well, but again, Protestantism, by definition, threw out the Catholic mode of operation, which largely threw out the Jewish mode of operation.

Finally, unless one wishes to conveniently dismiss large portions of European history, it should be safe to say that removing political power from the Catholic Church has been good for most of humanity. But with that also meant creating laws and political structures based on the analysis and ideas of men, using philosophy and study of other practices and not necessarily based on the Bible. For Protestant groups to desire bringing us back to an age of Biblical jurisprudence is like supplanting the Catholic Church in name only without also the exploring of other ideas and practices.

In a later post I’ll try to go further into how governing based on a Protestant interpretation of the Bible is more of an nonsensical idea than with other religious groups. For Muslims especially, I’m aware there’s the Islamic State trying to lay claim to being the latest religious state but I still contend that the proper interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence is fewer laws (as in, fewer requirements) and more recommendations (as in, highly encouraged, but not necessarily required). When we elevate recommendations into requirements then we start to see the likes of religious states (mind states as well as nation states) that people generally seem to detest and find unsustainable.

Thought of the Day

When the Quran was being revealed, the Catholic church was debating whether women had souls.

Heaven lies at your mother’s feet.

Raising three good Muslim daughters will gain you the paradise. This was at a time when a cultural practice was to bury baby daughters alive just for being daughters. Present-day India and China still suffers from similar gendercide.

The Quran enshrined a woman’s right to divorce at a time when they were seen a property. The Quran also enshrined a woman’s right to property and inheritance and a man’s responsibility towards his wife and ex-wife.

One-third of our verified (sahih) hadith come from a woman; Aisha (ra). Through her, we are able to know the more intimate, everyday, and even seemingly mundane habits of our Prophet (saw). In her time, she was an arbiter when questions arose of the Prophet’s habits.

The first person to follow the Prophet (saw) was a woman; Khadijah (ra). She was a powerful businesswoman and risked all of her worldly possessions for the cause of Islam.

Islam has no problem with women and women who know about Islam should have no problem with it. Single-minded, culturally-based attitudes that are not based on the Quran, the sunnah of the Prophet (saw), or Islamic history are the problem. Our female heroes in Islam range from scholars (in general, not just a scholar for women) to business and community leaders to devoted mothers who raised scholars to the seemingly average housewives. Keep this in mind when anyone tries to make women fit into just one singular role.

Legal Reasoning in Islam

Sheikh Google can be a very poor writer of Islamic legal reasoning. Too often, when you want to look up what some are saying about the Islamic perspective of this, that, or the other, you’ll see the following format:

– Praise and thanks to Allah and blessings on the Prophet

– The author presents the question or issue

– The author’s conclusive answer to the question or issue

– The author’s insistence that the answer to the question is perfectly clear and obvious from an Islamic point of view

– The author’s continued insistence that the author’s conclusion is the obvious answer

– The author’s insistence that to see otherwise is ridiculous

– Repeat the last three steps

– Re-state the conclusion

Unfortunately, when looking for legal reasoning, stating that the answer is obvious, or clear, or otherwise simple, is a pretty clear indicator that the author is not about to provide much of a thorough, in-depth, or nuanced explanation. Personally, it lets me quickly disregard whoever the author is because they write as if they are on a bully pulpit rather than writing persuasively (aside from, “duh, it’s obvious”). Basically, it’s either this way or the highway; no grey area, it’s completely black or white. Furthermore, you have a serious problem for thinking otherwise.

This is sad because if you can approach and talk to decently educated imams and scholars today then they’ll be able to summarize the various points of view for many subjects. Imam Maliki says this, however, Imam Hanbali says that. Some held a consensus. Some disagree. Some were in a majority and others were in a minority. But none of the old-school great scholars would throw stones because of the other’s logic or legal reasoning. Nor did they claim to know for certain that their point of view was the point of view. There are historical accounts that they honored each other’s legal opinions and intellect.

Another group to watch out for are the ones who do nothing but respond to other imams, sheikhs, or whoever by countering or negating whatever their opinion was. This group is easy to identify because:

– their entire piece is about how so-and-so is wrong

– they don’t produce work proactively, instead they react to someone else’s work

There’s a saying in Arabic about these kind of people who are always negative and disagreeing; that if they had no one else around them to disagree with, they’ll disagree with their own feet.

My purpose with this post is to help Muslims, and people in general, discern among these authors. I learn far more from classes, seminars, and a well-versed imam far more than finding nuanced Islamic writing or videos online. This is important to keep in mind when the non-practicing or somewhat isolated Muslim is looking for Islamic guidance online. Chances are you’ll likely run into an opinion, which may be valid, but will unfortunately bill itself as the only valid opinion.

Thought of the Day

To Non-Practicing Muslims,

When all the other Muslims around you are gathering for prayer, please join. It takes literally 5 minutes and you’ll likely just sit around starring at your phone if you don’t join. It appears to take more effort to not join than to get in line. I understand some people just don’t have their heart into it, or aren’t in the state of mind, or some other way of saying you just don’t feel like it. So let’s look at it like this:

As a Muslim, you believe in the Day of Judgment. We’re all going to have to account for our time and efforts. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to be shown this instance when you just sat around and killed time while the rest of the people with you prayed. You’ll be asked by Allah why you didn’t join. Does your excuse really sound like a good one at this point?

5 minutes, including getting wudu. It’s really not much.

Another way to look at it is to watch the end of the movie Schindler’s List. One day the war is over and this business tycoon is distraught at the knowledge of how much more he could’ve done. Sell the watch, save a child. Sell the car, save a family. So much more could’ve been done but it’s too late once it’s all over. One day that’ll be all of us. We could’ve done more.

Science and Religion

I actually don’t understand the conflict between science and religion. Maybe there’s a conflict between science and certain strands of religious thought, or maybe Christianity or certain brands of it in particular. But in Islam, I don’t see a conflict. I haven’t heard any imam or sheikh or layperson denounce global warming as a myth or conspiracy. Nor do I understand what in Christianity is supposed to have a problem with the idea that humans can royally screw over their own environment. We’ve created toxic waste dumps, burning rivers, and acid rain, so I don’t understand why climate change is off limits.

Maybe evolution is more problematic for Muslims. Personally, here’s the way I see it; God created everything. I don’t know exactly how He did it, but it was easy for Him and it looks complicated to us. We don’t believe that everything was created in a literal “day”, perhaps because the Quran is absent of using that language, but also, logically, if the sun didn’t come until later in the week, then how did we have a day before it? Minor details. So in the course of everything being created, I don’t have any reason to believe that some animals weren’t created one way and eventually evolved into another. After all, one of the names of Allah is “Al Bari”, or “The Evolver”.

So let’s get to the thick of it; human evolution. I do have a problem with this because the standard story of human evolution doesn’t entirely make sense to me when looking at the entire spectrum of all known things in existence. It also doesn’t comport with the Islamic version of events, which is that Adam was created directly by Allah, taught the nature of all things, then placed on Earth. Pretty much the same as the Biblical version of events. The Biblical version of events has humanity at about 10,000 years old. I’m not aware of a predominate Islamic perspective on how old humanity is.

Now one problem with evolution, and humans in general, is an appreciation for time and its context. Human history is only around 5,500 years old; meaning, before that time, there is no recorded history of human events. No books or writings. Prior to that, humans simply passed the word along. Anthropology tells us that humans first ventured out of Africa 60,000 years ago. And evolutionary science tells us that humans first looked like humans 200,000 years ago. Unless someone has a firm belief on how old humanity is, pro- and anti-human evolutionists should be on the same page at this point.

Going back 6 million years ago, according to evolutionary scientists, humans first started diverging from apes and this proceeded until 200,000 years ago. This is where I think we need to review our context. Under this theory, in the 6 million years since humans diverged from apes, here’s a comparison of evolutionary family members:

HUMANS – splitting atoms, exploring outer space, flying through the air, telecommunications, gene splicing, subjugating all other species, changing the Earth’s climate

APES – still in trees and eating bananas

What doesn’t make sense is that, under evolutionary theory, we were at some point on the same level as other apes, and in fact, all other lifeforms. So why is there such an astronomical difference between humans and everything else in all of known creation? Furthermore, not only look at the difference between humans and apes over 6 million years, but look at the difference in just the span of recorded history of 5,500 years. Or even just the last 50 years! How can there be nothing else that comes even remotely close to human achievement? The best we can devise is ancient aliens descending from space; we have to use our own imaginations to come up with something else to rival our existence.

On a side note, while we do marvel at our modern achievements in engineering, science, and architecture, I encourage everyone to look further into the wonders of the ancient world. You’ll find engineering feats that aren’t even close to duplicated in today’s world. You’ll also find feats that are unexplained by today’s science and engineering. This side note is to point out that humans have been engineering impressive feats throughout recorded history (see: Pyramids).

Now I don’t have all of the answers. No one alive does. I’m not anti-science just because I don’t buy into the theory of human evolution. Frankly, I’m excited at what future scientific research may uncover. Until then, I’ll just continue to tow the party line, which is that humans were created by a Creator and placed on this Earth. That’s the story of the monotheistic faiths as well as every society’s folklore and tradition, from Navajo tribes to Chinese folklore. The names change, the details differ, but the theme is the same. The story of human evolution stands out, and for it to begin to hold water, there must be an explanation as to why humans are so far more advanced than everything else.

Gays and Islam

The conventional point of view in Islam is that homosexuality is a major no-no. Maybe mainstream media will one day attack Muslims for this general POV after they’re done with focusing on terrorism. But for now, conservative Christians are running cover.

One failure of popular contemporary conservative Christianity is that the uproar over homosexuality was not preceded by a similar uproar over modern society’s consumption and distribution of sex in general and our treatment of migrants and those seeking shelter. If the basis of being against homosexuality is rooted in the story of Lot and the destruction of his people, then we’re typically glossing over the rest of the story; the townspeople acting out their sexual desires in public, attempting to take travelers and rape them, and, at least in the Islamic version, there’s also elements of highway robbery in there. Essentially, the picture sounds a bit more Mad Max than just a bunch of happy queers in Provincetown.

This failure opens the doors for accusations of hypocrisy. From the standpoint of Islamic Law, adultery and fornication in general, without regard to sexual orientation, are major sins. If we step out of the context of modern Western society with its available provisions for STD screening and prophylactics (sure I could’ve said condoms), then adultery and fornication can be a death sentence for an entire family all because of one irresponsible person.

For example, in Uganda, where polygamy is an accepted social norm, there were men who instead had girlfriends in addition to their wife. These girlfriends had boyfriends (married or no) who had other girlfriends and wives and so on. At one point the campaign to stop the spread of HIV focused on getting these men to make wives out of their girlfriends. It was referred to as “tying your goat.” This effectively prevented the further spread of the disease by limiting the sexual circle. Unfortunately, when condoms and safe sex became the mantra, this discipline was lost and the disease began to spread again.

I needed to touch on that point because many of us from more prosperous nations are unable to think about the incredible cost to implement certain social programs versus restricting the behavior that leads to certain negative outcomes. This is essentially the difference in conservative and liberal ideology; preventing the behavior versus treating the outcome of certain behavior. Generally, Islamic thought, on this measure, could be categorized as conservative.

I know this all looked like a tangent but the point still is that conservatives should be more in an uproar over society’s defining certain media as “art” instead of “pornography”, or how a prurient interest test may mean that a community’s standards are offset by the looser tastes of a wider community, or even how people dress and carry themselves in public has become more and more loose. In many ways, for many “conservatives”, the last bastion of conservative thought is in being against homosexuality. Otherwise, the social behavior and interests of conservatives versus liberals is not appreciably different.

I can’t help but read back on this and see how prudish this comes off as. It’s difficult to explain an appreciation for sex, sex education, and the importance of making sure there’s plenty of quality amounts of it while also explaining that I, and many like-minded people, don’t care to be “on” all the time via our media, marketing, and general social norms. Like all things, there’s a time and place, but with sex, my major grievance is that there are fewer and fewer times and places without it.

Before going forward, here’s a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Saudi Arabia, its singular, rigid, interpretation of Islam, and I don’t typically find much to hold as an admirable example of how a society should be. But there is an interesting, seemingly contradictory, reality in Saudi Arabia; there’s a whole lot of gay sex there where homosexuality is officially punishable by death. To be clear, however, adulterous relationships by married people in general is also punishable by death. But how can there be that much gay sex there as well?

While Islam is outwardly conservative, Islamic Law affords a great deal of freedom behind closed doors, including rights to privacy. The standard required for putting someone to death for sexual misconduct is high; four witnesses or admission of guilt three times. Given these inputs, open displays of out-of-marriage sex are discouraged and placed behind closed doors. Once behind closed doors, if a gaggle of guys go inside their home and don’t leave until the next morning, unless you have testifying witnesses or somehow make a public display of whatever transpired, then no one has any reason to think anything of any interest happened.

In Western minds, this may sound hypocritical, or like a suppression of freedom, but in Islam there is a general directive to promote good and denounce bad and there are everlasting notions of public space versus private.  But today, where going out in public in pajamas isn’t given a second look and taking half-nude sefies is OK, many people seem to have lost the distinction between public and private. Now, for a group of people that have abnormal sexual preferences, bringing that out into the public sphere seems logical. Why would we restrict that but not a nude selfie?

For anyone reading this and paying attention, you’ll notice I haven’t said much about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. I don’t like it, but like many things I don’t like, I can just not partake in it and not promote it. But I do feel like joining in the chrous of people bashing it somehow implies that I am uniquely upset at homosexuality being all around me as opposed to plain old sexuality all around me all the time. I find women going to the offices of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company wearing yoga pants more offensive to my everyday sensibilities than the gay guy that’s in my group. I don’t have to talk to the gay guy about his boyfriend or gay current events if I don’t want to. But I can’t not see the person wearing yoga pants.

Finally, as a Muslim, there is something else to keep in mind. The only unforgivable sin is associating deities and objects of worship with Allah (God, Yahweh, pick a name). And as previously mentioned, I know of nothing that places homosexual adultery or fornication as greater than heterosexual adultery or fornication. To pick on homosexuality is to chase a red herring. Gay people have been around for a long time. What’s newer in recent history is the general social acceptance of the amount of sex available in the public sphere. With that as the social norm, why wouldn’t gay people feel left out?

Thought of the Day

The movie Syriana summed up the state of Arab Muslim nations (and extrapolate to all Muslim nations) and what the rest of the world thinks of them:

“What are they thinking? They’re thinking that it’s running out, it’s running out and 90% of what’s left is in the Middle East. Look at the progression, Versailles, Suez, 1973, Gulf War 1, Gulf War 2. This is a fight to the death. So what are THEY thinking? Great! They’re thinking keep playing, keep buying yourself new toys, keep spending $50,000 a night on your hotel room, but don’t invest in your infrastructure… don’t build a real economy. So that when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry, and you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history.”