Written by Karima Hamdan
Saturday, 19 July 2008
It was with much interest that I tuned in to watch Channel 4's documentary titled "The Quran" as it had won high praise from various non-Muslim reviewers both from the left and right of the political landscape.
It had even been praised by a Muslim website (albeit a somewhat rant-prone, highly-strung, juvenile one) that had issued something called an "Action Alert" to its readers to contact Channel 4 and "thank them for this impressive and thought provoking documentary on Muslims and Islam."
High praise indeed.
From the outset it seemed a good sign that the director, Antony Thomas, had opted to spell "Quran" correctly - ignoring the recent resurgence amongst certain rightwing commentators in the phonetically incorrect (and frankly quite irritating) "Koran" spelling - which is probably typed with the same lip-curling sneer that they type "Moslem" with.
It also was heartening that he included a great number of references to the great works of scholarship and invention that can be attributed to Muslim scientists and scholars. He also took a great deal of trouble to praise the personal relationship that each Muslim has with Allah and the emphasis Allah places on both individual morality and piety as being the only benchmark of worth that matters. This is something rarely seen in the documentaries I have seen on Islam and Muslims, and is what probably provoked the storm of praise from some Muslim quarters.
However, as one continued to watch this 2 hour marathon it becomes increasingly evident that this apparent "love-in" that Thomas couches the first half of his documentary in is nothing more than the sugar-coating of a bitter pill that Thomas feels all Muslims must take.
I am not referring to the tired old clichés and stereotypes that Thomas along with just about every western documentary maker on Islam trots out - like the old chestnut of filming the women's prayer hall at the mosque through a screen making the women there look like they are peering out of the bars of a cell, whilst overlaying the image with statements like "women are segregated from the men" when it is more accurate (but not as emotionally loaded) to say that "men and women are segregated".
He also let himself down by using the hackneyed image of the "tragic niqabi". In this case he interviewed a niqab-wearing woman who eloquently and forcefully explained that she gave up her career as a lawyer when she married in order to take care of her children and feels that the niqab brings her closer to Allah.
The whole interview is imbued with such a subtext of tragedy despite the woman in question being perfectly happy with her choices. I can only imagine that if the woman had said that she had given up her legal career to become a pole-dancer in order to explore her sexuality or left to grow organic almonds on a hillside in Tuscany in order to explore her inner chi life-force, Thomas would have been a great deal more enthusiastic.
These are the usual errors, omissions and inaccuracies that are seemingly always present in western documentaries on Islam. What was more worrying was the underlying themes of this documentary that seemed to be designed to place doubt in the hearts of unsuspecting Muslims viewers.
A great deal of time was spent focusing on the belief system within Shia-ism, especially the use of icons and pictures as well as the dependence on a prevalence of intermediaries that the Shia make dua to - and who will "pass on" their requests to Allah. Thomas's collection of experts all made the entirely valid point that this form of worship largely fell outside the boundaries of what is acceptable in Islam. They pointed out time and time again what every Muslim child knows - in Islam there are no intermediaries with Allah.
What was extremely troubling was that Thomas then took this fact and extrapolated it himself to claim that when Sunnis use Islamic scholars and imams to guide their choices and advise them on the legality of their actions in a Shariah context, they too are using "intermediaries" with Allah.
This confusion between Islamic advice and Shirk (associating partners with Allah) was extremely worrying as it seemed to promote an idea becoming widespread amongst western Muslims that if one has a copy of the Quran and Sahih Bukhari, then one is on par with a scholar of Islam and has no need of any specific guidance. I often wonder if the same western Muslims who follow this path would cure a physical disease of the heart with an internet print out, a mirror and a pair of pliers to wrench out the offending bit - of course not, they would be the first in line to consult the relevant medical expert and follow his advice. It is too bad that they do not feel that the cure for spiritual diseases of the heart deserve the same consideration.
This idea of DIY Islamic scholarship tied into another recurring theme throughout the documentary, namely that the Quran was what one expert called a "supermarket" of ideas - which could be used to support any argument for any person. Thomas also highlighted the differences in opinion between schools of thought and scholars and heavily implied that this proved that the Quran and Hadith were so vague and indefinable that actually no one really knows what is going on, making it acceptable to reform and revise Islamic law to suit today's whims and desires.
This is of course what existentialism is all about. The belief that there are no absolutes and therefore there are many ways to the "truth". And as sure as eggs is eggs, whenever anyone mentions existentialism and Islam, the brilliant green sufi turbans come bobbing into view. Thomas's documentary is no different, and just as any good story has a "baddy" (in this case the Wahabbis and their petro-dollars), there must also be a "goody" - enter everyone's Super Sufi Saviour, the Naqshbandi Hijazi Sufi Order.
Now before anyone accuses me of being unfair to my Muslim brothers and sisters, please let me point out (as I have done elsewhere) that I do not wish at all to label all Sufis, indeed all Naqshbandis, as being anything but sincere, decent Muslims who strive as we all do to better ourselves in front of Allah.
However, I wish to point out that specifically the Naqshbandi Hijazi Sufi Order seems to pop up every time there is anything controversial to say about Islam. Whether it is one of their activists in the USA accusing 80% of mosques of harbouring extremists, or whether it is their philosophies guiding government backed initiatives to reform Islam (e.g. the Sufi Muslim Council), the Naqshbandi Hijazi Sufi Order seems to appear as if by magic. Indeed the shaykh from the order, Shaykh Abdel Aziz Bukhari, that appeared in Thomas's documentary also moonlights as an advisor for the Quilliam Foundation and spoke glowingly about it at their launch.
In the documentary, Shaykh Abdel Aziz Bukhari made the extraordinary claim that because Muslims believe that the Old Testament and Torah were revealed by Allah to their prophets we cannot then say that the Qur’an is any better than them. He obviously hasn't heard that both the aforementioned books have been chopped, changed, altered and morphed into mere shadows of their former selves.
I wonder if he believes with equal veracity the claims that the Old Testament makes about the prophets of Allah - especially the slander levelled at Lot that he committed incest with his daughters in order to protect his lineage from dying out; and the accusation against Noah that after alighting from the Ark he cultivated grapes and made them into wine and was found naked and drunk by his son Ham - whereupon he cursed the son of Ham to be a slave. As this son of Ham begat the African nation, this argument was used to justify the slave trade for many years. If Shaykh Abdel Aziz Bukhari would have us believe these gems from the Old Testament with the same vigour as we believe in the verses from the Quran then he must provide some further explanation to us.
The theme of existentialism was returned to again and again and usually highlighted by different Islamic scholars giving different opinions about the same issue. Nowhere was it mentioned that the majority of Islamic law, i.e. the corpus of fatawa, represents case law and as such is time and place specific being individually tailored to rule on the case in question. Instead, Islamic shariah was portrayed as a confused amalgam of conflicting voices, each trying to shout the loudest.
The most extreme example of this misinformation was introduced by Thomas with an appalling video showing the genital mutilation of an African girl of about 10 or 12. Without any sort of warning the video starts with the girl being held down on the floor by 2 hard-faced women wearing hijab. Whilst this poor child screams in pain and begs for mercy, these women rummage under her skirts. The video ends with the girl's mother slapping her and accusing her of lying when she said it hurt. The short video clip was designed to shock and shock it did. Thomas then cuts to a shaykh stating that female circumcision is allowed in Islam and then cuts again to several scholars stating that female genital mutilation is not allowed in Islam. The obvious ruse is to show that no one really knows what is right or wrong and so we as individual Muslims should make up our own minds instead of following scholars.
With apologies to those of a weaker disposition, I feel that this warrants a brief discussion about female circumcision. I know that this should be a topic that is veiled in modesty but it is now being used as a weapon in the fight for Islamic reformation and so we should all understand exactly what Muslim female circumcision means and how it differs from genital mutilation. For those who don't really want to know, please skip the next paragraph.
The first thing to state is that the vast majority of scholars say that female circumcision is a sunnah and therefore not compulsory - this is the reason why it is performed so rarely outside of Africa. The next thing to point out is that female genital mutilation involves the removal of, or extensive damage to, the clitoris. Female circumcision in Islam involves trimming of the clitoral hood or prepuce. The Prophet (peace be upon him) specifically forbade any extensive removal of tissue from this area. The shaykh that endorsed female circumcision said that he felt it was done for the specific reason of decreasing sexual desire in a woman. In this he made a medical error - quite understandable for a scholar of Islamic law who is not a doctor. Instead of decreasing sexual pleasure in a woman it in fact does the opposite and one can currently find clitoral "hoodectomy" being offered by gynaecologists in the US and (privately) in the UK as a means of improving sexual sensitivity. The grotesque depiction of child abuse shown by Thomas is nothing more than a tribal tradition that is practiced by African animists, as well as Christians and misguided Muslims. There are also several reports of the practice being present amongst Ethiopian Jews before their relocation to Israel. Therefore, female genital mutilation has no basis whatsoever in Islam and is a practice that is cultural in nature. These facts were not bothered about in the documentary of course; rather we were shown a barbaric picture of abuse and then an Islamic scholar appearing to condone it.
Once the idea of multiple interpretations of every aspect of Islam had become set in stone, Thomas introduced his most contentious and disturbing idea. This involved spurious arguments about the textual history of the Quran. The first argument questions the very authenticity of the Quran with Thomas examining claims that fragments of a "different" version of the Quran from the 7th century had been found hidden in a crevice in a mosque in Syria undergoing renovation. The other argument involved an even stranger idea. Thomas interviewed a German professor who first claimed that the Quran had up to 50% of "unintelligible" verses; he then claimed that reading the Quran in Aramaic and not in Arabic decreases this to about 10%. He also made a contention that if one changed the haraka (i.e. the dots and dashes around the Arabic letters that are roughly equivalent to vowels in English) this changes the meaning even further.
To Muslims who believe absolutely in the verse in Surah 15 Ayat 9:
"Verily, it is We who have sent down the Quran and surely We will guard it (from corruption)." (Surah 15, Verse 9)
this apparent revelation may shake their faith, especially if they feel that they cannot ask a scholar for advice as they do not wish to have "intermediaries" between themselves and Allah. However, they should realise that far from being a killer argument, both contentions are easily dismissed when one realises that the Quran has always been passed on from generation to generation via the strongest oral tradition in the world and its textual transmission has always come second to this. It has always been the case that the Quran is best retained in the hearts and minds of the believers, thus allowing it to be accessed by people from every educational and intellectual level and protecting it from those who would alter the way it is written. Indeed anyone who has heard the Quran recited can vouch that one cannot just change bits of it without breaking down the syntax and rhythm that is intrinsic in the text.
By strange coincidence, this week has also seen the government's Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announce plans of a government-backed board of Islamic scholars that will ostensibly try to sideline extremist groups. Whilst every effort to safeguard the country from any crimes of violence is to be welcomed, the small print in the press release also announces that the scholars will "lead (the) debate on key issues such as women and loyalty to the UK".
What women's issues will be debated is anyone's guess but the last government minister to call for a "debate" on a women’s issue was Jack Straw and his idea of a debate was to order niqab-wearing Muslim women to uncover themselves immediately. As yet there are no details on who will be on these committees and what their specific remit will be but rest assured that the UmmahPulse team will be keeping a beady eye on proceedings and will keep you updated on events as they develop.
After watching Antony Thomas's documentary and hearing about this new government initiative I feel that this week has ushered in a brave new world for the UK's Muslims. We find ourselves being flattered about past achievements whilst being asked to isolate ourselves from the very thing that made these achievements possible - namely a strong link to traditional Islamic scholarship. We find ourselves being told that there are many ways to the truth but these don't include those ways that we have always used to guide us to it. We find ourselves battling against spurious arguments that strike us at the very heart of our religion and belief structure.
Every brave new world needs a currency, and it seems that in this brave new world the currency is doubt.
"Alif Lam Mim.
This is the Book (the Quran), whereof there is no doubt, a guidance to those who are Al Muttaqun (pious and righteous people)."
(Surah Al-Baqarah V1-2)
Oh Allah make us from amongst the Muttaqun. Ameen.