On 6th July 2020 Brother Mohammed Hijab hosted a podcast with Professor Jonathan Brown and Dr Shadee Elmasry to explore some of the matters that have been a source of debate for a while. Several brothers suggested I listen to it, which I managed to do.
The matters under discussion were indeed controversial: the line between ‘support for’ and ‘behaviour towards’ LGBT lifestyles and people respectively; and the attitudes towards the ‘free speech’ of those who insult the most precious sanctities of Islam.
The views expressed have drawn fierce criticism towards Professor Brown, the platform which hosted the ideas (Yaqeen), and people who might have justified their own political stances through his opinions – as well as fierce criticisms in retaliation towards some of his critics!
To analyse two hours of discussion point by point is not my aim. This is not an academic piece. Rather, it is some thoughts on what I think are the most important matters that emerge from this discussion. In order to do that, it is necessary to summarise some of the positions of the contributors as simply as possible as I understood them.
The Discussion itself
The discussion emerged from the question of how best to help Muslims in America protect a space for their Islamic beliefs and practices. This debate is not unique to the United States. Britain went from decades of multiculturalism – where the first generation of migrant Muslims (and migrants of other faiths) were given space to practice their deen and express their beliefs, with hope that over time later generations would adopt secular liberal values – ( multiculturalism may have been soft, but it was never intended to be benign) – to the new muscular liberalism (so muscular that, it is not just Muslim schools that have to teach about ‘LGBT+’ identities, even feminists like JK Rowling and Germaine Greer can be vilified for wanting to specify the female gender to those who are biologically female!).
It was within this context that Professor Brown had made comments some years ago about affirming and advocating for many rights for ‘LGBT’ communities – including the right to same-sex ‘marriages’.
In the podcast he made several points very clear: that in his view LGBT sexual relations were absolutely prohibited in Islam, and that Muslims should not be celebrating these relationships and lifestyles by attending Pride celebrations.
However, in arguing for ‘what kind of society’ Muslims in the USA should be aspiring towards, he warned of an increasing uber-liberal trend in society which would effectively force people of faith to promote liberal values (including liberal sexual values and matters of gender identity) in schools and other faith-based arenas.
He posited some alternative models that he thought would be less harmful – most of all a libertarian position i.e. that the government should not have a role in promoting or imposing moral positions for its citizens. Another approach mentioned in the discussion was a more pluralistic approach, which would approach something like the Ottoman Millet system, whereby Christians and Jews would be subject to the law of their own religion within many personal matters.
But the Professor went a step futher by starting to apply the rights theory that he felt would most ‘benefit’ the Muslim community by saying that they should support the rights of others who sought protection upon this libertarian basis, like those who wanted same-sex ‘marriage’, as those are the rights that we as a community also seek protection through. This was not a quid-pro-quo of ‘we help them, so they help us’. Nor was it an approval of same-sex marriage.
All of these confusions were clarified by the host Mohammed Hijab, who very helpfully unpicked the fact that there was no usuli or juristic basis to these proposals, rather they were political strategising – and then questioned why these ideas would it appear on a website that purports to be there to uphold Islamic thought and doctrine?
The heart of the matter
I suspect the average muttaqi Muslim who who has no PhD or Ijaza would see much of what was discussed as promoting the right to same-sex ‘marriage’ as dangerous nonsense and a clear deviation from what they know of Islam. They might even be shocked that someone had opened the door to this kind of discussion – particularly if they are parents who feel threatened by the liberal onslaught that targets the hearts and minds of their children – even if one’s intention was to help the Muslim community and one caveated their proposals with affirmations of the normative Islamic position.
However, it is the heart of the argument that Professor Brown made in the past, and continued to make in the podcast about ‘supporting rights’ even without supporting haram practices in order to benefit the Muslim community, that was not sufficiently confronted in the podcast.
Had time allowed it would have been useful question and challenge his calculation about the potential gains that he thinks could be won – as well as to further highlight the huge risks to the community of this strategy (Brother Mohammad Hijab did voiced concerns that many of these ideas can confuse and even mislead young Muslims who hear a prominent academic expressing these arguments – and that secular Muslim politicians use such thinking to further their own liberal causes).
One could also easily argue that the liberalisation of society that has allowed same-sex marriage is not the ‘live and let live’ libertarian view, but the same muscular liberal rail road for whom gay ‘marriage’ was only the latest station – but whose final destination was exactly the place Professor Brown does not want us to end up.
But the more dangerous matter for the Muslim is where this support of ‘rights’ gets you – for the furqan (criterion) for defining these rights is a secular liberal one and the behaviours that are allowed by these rights so flagrently contradict Islam – and to support that rights framework necessitates that are transferring you criterion of rights from Quran and Sunnah to a secular liberal one, and for some people those problematic behaviours will become normalised.
The contradiction and inconsistency is all too apparent – but that is not the central problem here. It is where the attempt to reconcile the contemporary challenges facing Muslims today through a secular framework that ties people up in knots.
It is similar to the well rehearsed arguments about Muslim women’s dress – when people say that ‘they should be free to wear hijab or not as they please’. Whilst many Muslims welcome such statements from libertarians, they would not champion the right underpinning the statement, because a person who believes in submission to Allah cannot believe they are free to wear bikinis or not as they please.
In a far more dangerous extension of his argument, Professor Brown made a similar argument about so-called ‘free speech’ – saying that Muslims should be upholding ‘the right’ to free speech even if it led some to insult the sanctities of Islam. In the podcast, he was clear that he wanted no one to ever insult the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; that in Muslim societies, such an insult should be a criminal offence; and that in non-Muslim societies that practice censorship, they too should censor such unacceptable speech. In those societies, he seems to say, there should be no requirement to uphold a ‘right to free speech’.
However, he argued, in Western liberal societies this was not the case. Muslims, he said, should not call for censorship because laws that censor this unacceptable and obnoxious speech would be used against Islam and Muslim. So, in his view, we should uphold ‘the right’ for this sort of ‘free speech’.
He repeated a clearly heart-felt and emotional reiteration of his repentance from his casual, but deeply problematic, use of words on this subject. Yet strangely – despite having personally experienced the dangers and contradictions of his own ‘RACCIO position’ he appeared to remain committed to his general approach to support the ‘rights’ that underpin the actions of those who attack Islam.
Who in all conscience could ever uphold a ‘right’ that permitted an insult to the Beloved of Allah ﷺ ? Particularly when Allah ﷻ Himself says:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يُؤْذُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ لَعَنَهُمُ اللَّهُ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ وَأَعَدَّ لَهُمْ عَذَابًا مُّهِينًا –
‘Indeed, those who abuse Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter and prepared for them a humiliating punishment’ (33:57).
I am sure that if asked Professor Brown would agree that no one in any part of the world has the ‘right’ to do that, even if they do so seemingly with impunity within their own legal systems.
The implications of the issue
This example illustrates more than any other the magnitude of the problem of endorsing the secular framework ‘rights’, even in a limited context for Muslims in the west (which it is never really restricted to because powerful secular states impose this framework on the rest of the world regardless of borders).
The use of ‘freedom of expression’ has become common in defending a Muslims woman’s dress, but sometimes at the expense of the concept of submission to Allah.
The use of ‘upholding justice’ can be misused to support the ‘right’ of a level playing field for same-sex ‘marriage’, yet falls below the standard of the ‘least of Iman’ i.e. hating a munkar in your heart.
But the final example dwarfs the matter of dress codes and sexual relations – for it goes to the very heart of our faith.
Professor Brown maybe correct that to call for censorship laws in the west is a double-edge sword, but to then support a framework of rights that violates the right Allah ﷻ made for his Messenger ﷺ that he never be insulted, is a level of confusion that will not just potentially mislead others, but jeopardise one’s own Akhira.
I repeat, this is not a right for anyone – so we cannot affirm a rights-framework that endorses this. Indeed, one of the last Caliphs of Islam, Sultan Abdul Hameed II, may Allah have mercy on him, understood that no such right exists – even in another country with another legal system – because he threatened a state of war between the Ottoman Khilafah and other states which permitted individual writers or theatres to propagate such insults, which were seen ‘rights’ within their countries. It could be seen as analogous to the geopolitics of today, when a country might pronounce judgment upon the internal matters of other states, even sometimes taking diplomatic or military action to enforce their views on what constitutes ‘rights’.
What all of this shows is that the matter of how one approaches a contemporary problem, like the position of Muslims in the west today, is perhaps more important than the contemporary problem itself – for the confusion that it creates, the contradictions that emerge, and the devastating traps that one might fall into are far more dangerous for a community, whose prime challenge is holding fast to the deen of Allah. If the way that one confronts these problems realises the opposite of protecting our Islam, then we have scored the mother of own-goals.
It reminds one of the discourses in centuries past whereby Muslims tried to ‘defend’ Islamic thought by wrestling with philosophical ideas from ancient Greece, and frequently tied themselves in knots – a few even strangling themselves from a creedal perspective.
It is similar to the debates in recent years about engagement in the secular democratic political system, which some think facilitates rights and protections for Muslims, without appreciating the cost to the Islamic values held by those who immerse themselves in the system.
In that political space, it may be that policies are made by governments or local councils -but the values-agenda is set in wider society through debate and argument (some of which politicians contribute to), as well as in academia, the cultural arena, education and elsewhere – and that most democratic politicians end up following opinion more than leading it. Muslim politicians at a local and national level often don’t recognise this dynamic, and so usually end up being affected by the system and championing the very secular liberal ideals that they might once have thought they are trying to steer policy away from.
How, then, should we uphold the position of Islamic thought in secular western societies?
Answering this question is another essay in itself – and there has been plenty written on this topic in the past     – and my comments here are not specific to what was discussed in the podcast.
It starts with us asking ourselves what vision do Muslims have for themselves.
Is it simply to survive at any cost? If it is, then I would suggest that a ‘defensive’ strategy to protect dress codes, children’s education or to think in terms of legislation to censor blasphemous speech – all from the basis of secular rights – is no recipe for survival. We may (only may) survive in terms of flesh and bone, but within a generation little of our Islam will remain. We may seek handouts from the government, comparing ourselves to how other communities get state support – but will find that our institutions are beholden to the state, instead of independent and self-reliant.
Or do we believe that Islam is a universal message for mankind that has a capacity to address the problems that blight this modern world – and that we have a role in carrying that message to humanity?
If we believe the latter then that will shape the way we address the challenges that exist living in the West.
It will affect how we deal with the challenge of ideas – which relates in part to what Professor Brown and Dr Elmasry said about enjoining maaroof and forbidding munkar.
Enjoining maaroof and forbidding munkar in the context of discussions about ‘free speech’ would not enjoin something that is a munkar for everyone, but might highlight how the freedom to insult the Creator and His Messengers is the start of a spectrum that extends to cyber-bullying; rudeness to teachers in classrooms such that the education system becomes dysfunctional; disrespect towards the police which has become an obstacle to policing by consent; and tabloid-type backbiting slander and gossip about public figures, which is not ‘free’ speech as much as incontinence of speech that demeans society as a whole. Western societies often argue that free speech protects free inquiry and allows those in power to be held to account. Islamic societies that upheld the Shari’ah approach to speech managed to have a discourse that had intellectual rigour and also accounted its rulers without resorting to the aforementioned liabilities.
Enjoining maaroof and forbidding munkar in the context of sexual freedoms would be to show how they undermine society as a whole by leading to the breakdown of family life – whilst the Shari’ah approach to how to resolve human sexual instincts leads to strengthening the family unit, which is invaluable to the functioning of a society in so many ways.
This would be using the force of argument to challenge corrupted ideas and behaviours, and the ideas that underpin them – not to support them for a short term benefit. This would not be entirely without effect, particularly when one realises as mentioned before that opinions can be created through this sort of political discourse over time, and policy will sometimes follow if the force of the argument is sufficient. This approach is arguably more necessary as it is increasingly the case in the world today that there are serious questions about the failures of liberalism in the world – whether economic, social or in terms of foreign policy – and the need for an alternative.
The other question that needs answering is whether we are ‘balkanised’ communities in the west – each with our own unique needs – or are we part of an Ummah, whereby many (though not all) all the challenges we face are in fact linked to many of the challenges that exist in the Muslim world; and the obligations placed upon our shoulders are the same as the rest of that Ummah.
Many contemporary scholars and thinkers – learned in these Islamic sciences, as well as learned the matters of Western thought – still find it challenging to navigate between the two and answer pressing questions because they confine their thinking to the present day situation where there is no legitimate Islamic authority to implement the Shari’ah rules on political matters. Both the examples of sexual relationships and ‘free speech’ illustrate that.
They persistently overlook the fact that in Islamic thought an Islamic political authority is so necessary to implement so many aspects of our deen that we cannot come to any meaningful solutions without it. Instead of looking at any issue with that included, they struggle on as if Allah and His Messenger did not mean there to be any such thing as an Ameer for the Muslims to implement those responsibilities on our behalf – limiting themselves to the mess of today’s options without thinking how they should be changed to something better that is based upon Islam.
These matters: whether we see that we have a role to carry this message to humanity; whether we believe Islam offers an alternative for the mess in the world today; whether we see ourselves as part of a global Ummah; and whether we recognise that an Islamic authority – the Khilafah – is necessary to tackle many of the challenges that exist today.
This is not about an individual
This particular discussion centred around arguments proposed by one individual – but many of the ideas I have tried to unpick are matters that seem to confuse many contemporary Muslim thinkers and scholars.
There maybe a few who hold problematic opinions and are promoted by regimes in the Muslim world. Or a handful may have become paid lackeys of colonial states. Others may be weak – fearing to say things that they feel are too risky for their reputations.
But many are none of the above – and do not deliberately set out to offer confusing ideas or ideas that are dangerous (for their own Akhira, first and foremost). They are simply trying to answer complex questions about how to live in western societies, or about identity, but when they do so without some firm anchors they find themselves immersed in ever more complex territories.
They are like someone who may well have had very thorough medical training for several years being handed a knife to perform complex surgery on their own. The intention to save life might be the driving force – but their attempts might well kill the patient, as well as cut themselves in the process.
In such a situation, we pray that when people end up getting it wrong, they listen sincerely to those offering naseeha, and realise the magnitude of their error – and not get bunkered down into defending their own positions.
The real question that underpins our approach to answering these questions is whether our conception of Islam that it is just another minority religion that seeks to co-exist within a liberal framework – or is it a civilisational alternative that we should explain to the wider society, support the work for its implementation in the Muslim world?
How we answer this will determine how clear or confused our thinking is.
Dr Abdul Wahid is currently the Chairman of the UK Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy, the Times Higher Educational Supplement and Prospect Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @AbdulWahidHT, or find him on Facebook, @AbdulWahid.HT