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Sharia, Ballet, Mosques and Damp Socks

Sharia, Ballet, Mosques and Damp Socks

Sharia, Ballet, Mosques and Damp Socks

Personal Reflections on Exploring Views Online,
in History, in Person, and in Islamic Legal Texts

Kevin James Bywater

Please forgive me for the length of this post. I’ve decided not to divide it up into separate posts since it is more coherent as a single post. There are three sections: the first explains that I’ve recently been conversing online about Sharia with a Muslim man; the second recounts my time with him in London on Saturday; the third presents my follow-up thoughts regarding a Sharia manual that he had recommended I consult.

Speaking about Sharia

From time to time, someone comments that they feel I’ve gotten things quite wrong, perhaps that I’ve misrepresented the nature of and adherents to Islam. I find that sort of judgment interesting but also puzzling. However, then there are those times when I encounter a Muslim who asserts that I’ve gotten things wrong about Islam. Now that is something I most definitely take on board and want to resolve.

A week or so ago I commented on a friend’s post on Facebook, a post addressing whether the Islamic State folks are properly seen as Islamic. The post sprouted numerous sub-topic tendrils, one of which regarded Sharia law and, in particular, the topic of whether Sharia law permits or demands or prohibits the killing of apostates. In the briefest of terms, below is what has transpired.

He came across as a rather pleasant fellow, not too acerbic in his comments. I appreciated that. But I was puzzled by his comments, so I decided to narrate how I had looked into the matter, had consulted with Imams in Oxford, and had been pointed by them to a Sharia manual called The Reliance of the Traveller. I noted also how apostasy characteristically is a capital crime in Islamic lands where Sharia is followed.

He registered his view, saying that such sources were simply the opinions of some Muslims, even mere opinions of some traditions of Islamic jurisprudence, but that they were simply opinions and should not be seen as authoritative or universal or representative. Well, yes, he noted, while it is the majority legal tradition that apostates are killed (with women sometimes being incarcerated for life), there are other views. He recommended that I look at The Mukhtasar of Al-Quduri, which is A Manual of Islamic Law According to the Hanafi School (if you do not know, there are four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence are Shafi, Hanbali, Hanafi, and Maliki). So I ordered a copy.

A day or two later, I decided that since I would be in London on Saturday (accompanying my daughter to a weekend ballet class), and since the man I had been conversing with lives there, perhaps we could meet up for a bit of a chat in person. In the wee hours of Saturday morning (which seemed more like late Friday night), we arranged a time and place to meet. The following narrates our Saturday meeting in a form rather different from my usual writing on this blog. Below you are invited to step into my shoes (and interesting soggy shoes they become, as you will see) and come along for the afternoon. We’ll return to his recommended Sharia manual after that.

Saturday: Of Meetings, Mosques, and Damp Socks

So, you spend about two hours chatting with a Muslim man in London on Saturday. It is the first time you’ve met in person. You first engaged him in a bit of Facebook to-and-fro on the subject of Sharia and its rather sharper edges. You’ve read a lot on the topic. You’ve spoken with imams about it. You have a deep desire not to misrepresent. It appears that this fellow wants to assert a minority opinion as authentic Islam.

He arrives later that expected, giving you time to browse through a couple of shops, wonder about the topics of the upcoming conversation, and pray a bit along the way. The day is colder than you expected. When the wind kicks up (and it does so too often), you regret not bringing your winter gloves along.

When you meet, you both are determined to find a coffee shop where you can sit and chat for a bit. It takes a bit of time to find one, though, as there are so many people in Covent Garden. He asks about your daughter’s study of ballet. He asks if she ever dances with boys. You wonder, is it small talk or is he inquiring about boys and girls dancing together? But you go with it, noting that from time to time her class of girls will dance with the boys, though currently it is rather infrequent. You chat a bit more about family life.

After about ten minutes of checking into various coffee shops where all the seats were occupied, you finally find a small corner shop (surely the smallest one in London!) boasting just one small table and two chairs inside. They are unoccupied. You enter, occupy the chairs, order your coffees, and then chat for nearly an hour. The conversation naturally turns back to the Facebook discussion.

You note that it is confusing to find that you can appeal to texts that are notably mainstream, that draw upon classical sources (even translating them), and that have been recommended by Imams as trustworthy guides. You note that it is confusing that you can point to these texts only to find someone saying that those are merely opinions and that a certain minority view is more authentic, more faithful.

He agrees that this can be confusing, but he insists that one must find authentic sources. You agree that authentic sources are precisely what you have sought, which is why you have consulted with Imams and not merely searched the internet for whatever blather might be uploaded. You note that this is why you’ve sought sources that are properly endorsed and widely acknowledged.

The conversation turns to our own histories. You learn a bit about him: born in London; parents from Pakistan. You tell him a bit about you: born in Brigham City, Utah; parents from Brigham City, Utah. You surmise from some of his statements that he’s already searched you up online and knows at least a bit about you and what you’re likely to believe. This doesn’t bother you. Perhaps it could make the conversation move faster beyond the preliminaries.

You talk a bit about Mormonism, since he asked. You talk about your family history, the polygamous practice of your great-great-grandfather. He says he has an uncle who has two wives. You talk about your conversion to being a follower of Jesus at the age of twenty, and then about your parents’ conversions too. You both discuss how Mormon theology so fundamentally departs from the Bible and Christian theology. He agrees. He’s looked into that a bit before. Then you note that this is why minority views are questionable, especially those that doubt or disparage or cherry pick or modify core sources (in my case, the Bible; in his case, the Qur’an and strong but controversial Hadiths) just comes off as less than what one should be doing, as something less than authentic, as less than being faithful to the sources.

Your conversation morphs into talking about common friends and acquaintances. This goes on for a few minutes before his alarm rings and it is time for him to find a place to pray. You offer to walk with him. You want to continue the conversation. Then you discover, after many minutes, that he can’t read a map very well (he acknowledges this to you) and that his phone app is perhaps inept. After a while of wandering (since some who wander are indeed lost), you check your own phone’s map. However, your phone’s battery is at 5%. As you enter the address your battery magically jumps from 5% to 1% and then to a black screen. Perfect.

The upside is that you are able to get some walking in for the day, about thirty-five minutes of brisk walking, in fact. It is back and forth, to and fro, here and there. But you chat about this scholar and that one along the way. No worries, just walking and talking. You hope he gets to the mosque in time, but you’re not particularly stressed. You are sort of walking in what could be seen as zigzagging concentric circles as he tries to find the small mosque so he can join in the prayers.

Finally, you find the mosque. At the same time, you realize that you’ll need to get back to Covent Garden in just a bit to collect your daughter. However, your main concern just now is that you need a restroom. He assures you there is one in the mosque and that you can use it. You take off your shoes in the entry, just like everyone else. He points you to the basement. You descend the stairs and notice that your socks are getting wet and wetter. Men are walking up the stairs in bare feet as you descend in damp socks. Then your glasses fog up, immediately and entirely! You can’t see with them. Frankly, you can’t see well without them. However, you can see a bit better without them, but not that much.

You are able to recognize the foot washing basin in front of you as you stand there, squinting, glasses in hand. You ask a man if one of the doors to the left is the toilet. Yes, it is, he says, though he notes that you have to squat, and so it is a little different from others. You remember your time in Japan and reminisce for a moment, wondering what the rest of the evening will be like now that you have inadvertently washed your feet with your socks on.

You open the door, squinting, glasses in hand, noticing that there are some slippers (similar to Crocs) that you are to wear into the stall. You do your slippery best to shuffle in. There is nowhere, nowhere to hang your backpack. Well, thankfully you’ll not need to squat anyhow, so there is one thing to be thankful for amidst those damp, steamy moments.

As you ascend the stairs you wonder what the toll will be on your damp feet by the time you get home in about three hours. Standing in the entry, you’re a bit uncomfortable, concerned about being in the way, and decide put on your shoes, over your moist socks. Then you wait outside for a few minutes, charging your phone with a battery, checking your email as time permits, and again wondering about the well-being of your feet.

It was your first time in a mosque in London. It was your first time to use the loo in a mosque ever. It was the first time you inadvertently washed your feet and your socks at the same time in the basement of a mosque ever. And in the moment you realize that so many people are so very afraid of Muslims. You smile at the humor of it all. You purse your lips realizing that you were not afraid to go into the mosque, to descend the stairs, to dampen your feet and your socks, to use the loo there, to be nearly sightless due to the steam condensing on your cold lenses, and that all the while hearing the prayers upstairs. Quite the spectacle.

You were uncomfortable because you would have liked to sit in a chair and not be in the way of so many men coming out and going in, donning their shoes, and pushing past you. Outside, now you’re uncomfortable when the wind picks up, and when you think about your clammy feet. A modestly comic experience it is, you realize. You smile again.

Then your new acquaintance emerges through the door. He thanks you for waiting and apologizes for keeping you. No worries at all, of course. You both chat and walk back toward Covent Garden’s tube station (it takes about fifteen minutes) where you exchange pleasantries and express hopes that you can meet and talk again in the near future. (You quickly think that if that happens, then you’ll meet up closer to a mosque, one that you’ve located well ahead of time.) You part ways, for now.

As you do some Christmas shopping (at the request of one of your boys), you think about the day, pray a bit more, and then head off toward Chipotle to get a chicken burrito and a chicken quesadilla for you and your daughter and your return journey to Oxford. You’ll not be back to Oxford before 7.30 and you’re already hungry at 5.00. You walk a few blocks, pondering the conversation, praying at certain intervals. You wonder what it would be like for him to leave Islam due to a new loyalty to Jesus. You remember some of the pain you had faced in leaving Mormonism: the derogatory comments, the angry relatives, the slanderers, the lost friends, then all the new friends, and your gratefulness for the forgiveness of your sins and the eternal embrace of a righteous and holy Messiah.

You place your order at Chipotle, pleased yet again that a restaurant that originated in Denver, Colorado, while you were in seminary, has now come across the Atlantic. You add an order of chips and guacamole since you remember how much your wife appreciates chips and guac. Then you collect your daughter, delighted to hold her hand as you bump your way through the seething crowds, just wanting finally to get to Paddington Station and get settled into your seats for the journey to Oxford. Then the train is delayed. Then delayed again. You’ll now not be home before 8.30. And you don’t fret. You don’t get angry or frustrated. What use would that be?

You find a couple of cold seats in Paddington Station and eat your burrito and chat with your daughter about the day. Then you get some warm drinks and finally take your seats on the train. Here and there you thank God for his grace and goodness, for his fidelity and forgiveness. And you thank him for your family, for your friends, for your church, for your alumni, and for your current students. You wake up and realize you had fallen asleep on the train. You hope you didn’t snore at all. Your daughter smiles and assures you that you didn’t. Just another thing to be thankful for. And you smile, looking forward to next trip to London for ballet and a chat.

Tuesday: A New Sharia Manual, Apostasy, and Deja Vu

Well, that was the weekend. Today is Tuesday (literally, as I write this), and the new Sharia manual arrived a couple of hours ago: The Mukhtasar of Al-Quduri, which is A Manual of Islamic Law According to the Hanafi School.

Turning to the section on apostasy, I was (not) surprised to find that it held the same basic view as everything else I had encountered: execution of apostates, while women are to be incarcerated for life. And so, well, and there you have it, all over again, and Déja Vu – what is one to do? So I decided to point this out on our Facebook discussion. I feel okay in posting this as our discussion on Facebook is open to the public as well. I’ve edited it slightly for inclusion here. I’ve left off his comments and have not mentioned his name. 

Thank you for meeting up with me on Saturday. I look forward to future conversations. 

Today The Mukhatsar Al-Quduri arrived in the post. The first thing I did is find the section on apostasy (pages 683ff). Here is what we read, from the beginning of the section: 

“When a Muslim reneges on Islam, Islam is presented to him. If he has any doubt [about Islam], it is explained to him. He is imprisoned for three days. If he accepts Islam [it is better for him], otherwise, he is executed. If someone kills him prior to presenting Islam to him that is abhorrent, but there is nothing [as liability] against the killer.” 

The next pronouncement regards women. 

“As for women who renege [on Islam], they are not killed but are imprisoned until they become Muslims.”

Then it says that apostates have surrendered their property rights. 

So, what I see here accords fully with what I’ve encountered elsewhere: death for apostasy; if someone kills an apostate prior to authorities dealing with them, it is not that big of a deal as the apostate deserved to die anyhow. And women who are apostates are imprisoned for life (probably lives of abuse and torment, if not torture and rape). 

So, apparently the Hanafi school of jurisprudence accords well with the other more widely regarded Shafi school (the school of thought followed by and expressed in The Reliance of the Traveller). And the trouble for me here is that some individual or group may disagree with these sorts of judgments. I’m fine with that. In fact, I would see that as a good thing. But it remains that they then are departing from these legal traditions – the majority traditions – and thus they should not expect their views to be perceived as normative. 

Besides this, I am very concerned about people who come to faith in Jesus who then have their lives unjustly threatened or taken, or who are unjustly incarcerated for life. 

Truly, this troubles me.

His response was that if I always held that the majority view was correct, I would have to follow the Roman Catholic approach to the Christian faith. I responded as follows (again, slightly edited).

That is not a worthy comparison. It isn’t a matter simply of the rule of majority opinion. But let me ask you something, just to clarify: would you be willing to publicly denounce these manuals, and thus these traditions, and thus the majority view as un-Islamic, even as anti-Islamic, since you hold that they are “in conflict with the very definition of Islam”? And would you be willing to do this in, say, Pakistan (the country of your family) as well as in London (the city of your residence)? You see, that is something I’d willing and able to do with regards to certain Roman Catholic positions, and I’d be willing to do it in Rome, even in Vatican City.

Now, I have consulted two Sharia manuals – one recommended by several Imams; one commended by you – and it remains the case that your personal view differs even from the manual you recommended. I did the work of purchasing a copy (at no small cost, mind you) and looking at it for myself. (I’m kind of compulsive that way, as I just hate to misrepresent the views of others.) And it all stands where it did early last week, before we began this exchange.

So, I’m not saying that majority views necessarily are correct. But in this instance, I think even you are hard pressed to say that they are not legitimate Islamic opinions. And even if you did say they were illegitimate opinions, you are not a jurist, you are not a Sheik, you are not authorized to pronounce an opinion and label yours “normative” over against the jurists who have come before you or who preside today. So I feel stuck on this subject, regardless of the discomfort caused by the conclusions. And they are discomforting.

However, I’m glad that you don’t hold these views. I just wish you had greater power and authority to persuade what perhaps are the nearly billion-and-a-half Muslims who disagree with you, and that you could challenge the legal traditions and have your views hold priority position in Islamic jurisprudence. Alas…

It is an ongoing conversation. I am grateful for it. I am pleased that he and I were able to meet. I do look forward to our future conversations. I don’t know what topics we’ll discuss. It should be an enlightening time regardless. He is a gracious fellow.

Perhaps, if you are so inclined, you could pray for us, that we would know the truth, and that the one true God would be honored and glorified through it all. (And that I could keep my socks dry.)

Blessings!

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