It is interesting to note that those who compromise normative Islam or demonstrate a modernist tendency suddenly become “leading Sunni” Imams. The epithet was applied by the Times to former ISB President Ahtsham Ali who spoke at ISB’s Living Islam event, presumably because his statements fit in with neocon policy of attacking normative Islamic stances.
Claiming that the separation of the sexes is absent in the Quran, he iterated a statement which I would expect to see from modernist reformationists of the Usama Hasan variety,
“Stay in your houses and do not display yourselves like [women used to] in the time of ignorance [before Islam],” was intended specifically to the prophet’s wives, Ali said.
Aside from the obvious irrationality of ignoring principles of exegesis, like where a command is addressed to the wives it is for all women unless specifically stated otherwise, the validity of this statement can be determined by a perusal of a multitude of exegeses written on this verse which clearly indicate that the application of this verse is ‘aam (generic, to all Muslim women) as opposed to khass (specific). The preceding verse which states that the mothers of the believers are “unlike other women” indicates to their special, raised status over other women by virtue of being the blessed wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him), not towards the specificity of the command (as claimed by proponents of Ali’s position). (Tafsir Ibn Kathir – specifically states that these verses are an example for other women, Tafsir Alusi – also quoted supporting this view is Zamakhshari, Tafsir Baydawi, Tafsir Ma’ariful Qur’an).
There are more problems with Ali’s words. By focussing solely on the Qur’an to unsuccessfully refute a mainstream understanding in Islam, he side-steps an entire corpus of hadith and usul al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence) which is also used, in addition to the Qur’an, to extrapolate rulings. It smacks of a Taj Hargey statement who uses similar reductionist diatribe to give justification to strange, un-Islamic views. One wonders how Ali would reconcile is position with the following hadith:
Aisha (RadiyAllahu ‘anha) says that a woman from behind a curtain gestured a letter to the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet (peace be upon him) withheld his hand. The woman said, “O Prophet of Allah, I extended my hand to you with a letter and you did not take it?” He said, “I could not know if this is a man’s hand or a woman’s”. She said, “It is a woman’s hand.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “If you were a woman you ought to have changed your fingernails with henna.” (Sunan An-Nasa’i)
The attack however continues with the emulation of the Prophet with his incredibly misleading statement:
“You don’t emulate except what [the Prophet] asked us to emulate. Wasn’t he allowed to have the culture of his time in 7th century Arabia?”
This is a grossly incorrect, reductionist statement. Emulation without an express command formed the basis of many rulings. Furthermore, emulation without exhortation was an expectation:
‘Aisha said, “The Messenger of Allah did something as an example in order to make things easier for people but some people still refrained from doing it. When the Prophet heard about that, he praised Allah and said, ‘what do you think of people who refrain from anything that I myself do? By Allah I am the greatest of them in knowledge of Allah and the strongest of them in fear of Allah”. (Bukhari wa Muslim)
From an Usul al-Fiqh point of view, custom is to be taken into account only if it does not conflict with other deductive principles such as Qiyas (legal analogy) and istihsaan (legal discretion used to restrain Qiyas) in the Hanafi madhab for instance, or in the Maliki madhab, the Sunnah itself.
Emulation and its Link to Iman
Had Ali delved into the technicalities of the types of emulation of a particular act of the Messenger (peace be upon), whether it was a’adah (habitual) or not, and clarifying that the culture of the locality is merely mubah (permissible), as opposed to emulation of actions of the Prophet (peace be upon), which are desirable and rewardable, then the statement could have had some credibility. As it is, his statement, which is essentially to eschew the Sunnah, unless it is a command, is blatantly wrong, tantamount to a trivialisation of the actions of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon) and a removal of a barrier which protects the distinctive character of Islam. In an age where excuses are many and the aspiration to adhere to Sunnah lessening in the face of increased hostilities towards Muslims, such a statement is nothing short of irresponsible. The desire to emulate those actions purely for the sake of Iman (faith) and admiration, was a quality of the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them). Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) once saw the Prophet following the pumpkin around the plate. He said, “l have loved pumpkin from that day.” Al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas and Ibn Ja’far (may Allah be pleased with them) came to Salma (may Allah be pleased with her) and asked her to prepare some food for them which the Messenger of Allah liked. Ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) would wear tanned sandals dyed yellow after he saw the Messenger wearing the same. (Qadhi Iyadh, Ash-Shifa, [Section on the Sign of the love of the Prophet sall Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam], p.228).
Such emulation of acts which are extraneous and a habitual Sunnah are regarded as the first sign of the love of the Prophet (Ibid, p.226).
The element of love is directly linked to Iman, as the famous hadith of Umar (may Allah be please with him) shows, in which the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said “O Umar, your faith will never be complete until you love me more than yourself”.
Ali’s statement, in this way, is encouraging the weakening of Iman.
ISB’s Affinity with Reformationists
His statements however should not come as a surprise. Dodging scholarship and making misleading, modernist statements seems to be becoming an ISB staple trait. Living Islam’s event itself had a list of speakers which brought me into dismay.
Sara Khan’s PREVENT propounding capabilities are evident from her rhetoric on her feminist website. She assumes the role of countering extremism through “Jihad against violence” which includes “violent extremism”. It claims to be a human rights organisation, and criticises everything but the human rights violating PREVENT policy. Listed amongst the UK ambassadors for this Jihad against violence is the notorious, Islam-twisting, neocon-serving Usama Hasan of Quilliam who shares liaisons with the bigoted neocon Henry Jackson Society.
Khan’s work has an endorsement from another Islam-twisting organisation: British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), an organisation which propagates anything but Islam. Tehmina Kazi, who is also listed on the Living Islam website, is the director of BMSD. The organisation previously had a plethora of anti-Islam luminaries such as, Taj Hargey, Hijab-hater Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who was the director of BMSD and who is now currently vice chair, and Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, another reformationist who believes Islamic laws are outdated.
The links of ISB to reformationists do not end here however. Their “Plain Islam” website, which supposed to be a means for Da’wah contains some perturbing individuals. Once again reformationist Usama Hasan rears his devolved head with his rather disparaging insinuation against Allah that He Almighty did not complete the process of achieving complete gender equality, ignoring of course that equality in the Islamic paradigm entails the material world as well as the hereafter, whereas the secular paradigm is wholly materialistic in its endeavour:
“Thus, Islam’s giving women full rights of property and even some inheritance and recognition as a qualified witness, albeit not equal to men initially, has to be seen as revolutionary and the beginning of a process of the liberation of women, not as a fixed end-point that cannot be changed”
He also completely misrepresents the Hanafi position on divorce (see here).
Ziauddin Sardar is also listed on the site. His views are just as jarring as Usama Hasan’s. He has described the emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as a “fetish”, and believes that Muslims should,
“question what now goes under the general rubric of shari’ah and to declare that much of Islamic jurisprudence is now dangerously obsolete… Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue.” (New Internationalist, May 2002)
And within which paradigm should that rethink occur?
“Unlike the ‘Ulama, modernist scholars do not shun the West. In fact they embrace the West in its totality, warts and all. While the traditional scholars sit on the crest of contemporary times perpetually looking back into history, modernist intellectuals place no real value on Muslim tradition and history.” (Ziauddin Sardar, Islamic Futures (1985) p.352)
There are other serious issues with the individuals mentioned on the Plain Islam website however, for the sake of brevity, this will suffice for now. The tokenistic statement at the bottom which disclaims synonymy of views with ISB is pathetic considering the fact that the “in-depth” section of a Da’wa website contains reformationists and haters of Ulama.
Ahtsham Ali then, is merely the tip of a ship-crippling iceberg. ISB was at one point in time, a highly respected organisation with classical Islam as its beating heart. Over the years, ISB has taken some disconcerting decisions. Platforming such dangerous individuals is not a presentation of living Islam but an attempt at killing Islam. The staging of such rhetoric from modernists is reminiscent of the RAND Corporation document which advises giving platform to modernists to force a reformation of Islam. The statements of Ali, in effect, tears down the established principles which protect Islam from malicious incursions of the reformationist kind.
Islam is not in need of a reformation, rather it is the hearts and minds of Muslims which need a reformation. A reformation which reinforces the Sunnah and avoids the doubtful in an age of strife. As the Prophet (peace be upon him) said,
“Whoever brings to life any of my Sunnah which has died after me will have the reward of all those who act by it without decreasing their reward in any way. Whoever introduces a misguiding innovation which does not please Allah and His Messenger will have the like of all those who act by it without that decreasing their burden.” (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)