Whilst defending the personal character of his friend Sheikh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, Dr Yasir Qadhi who is the Dean of Al Maghrib Institute writes that he believes the British Imam’s “jokes went too far” and he “made a major mistake”.
Everyone who is connected to the Western world’s blogosphere is painfully aware of the internet fury that is abuzz for the last week, involving a very dear friend of mine, Ustadh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, who has come under fire for some jokes posted on his Facebook page. I have not gotten involved until now for two primary reasons. Firstly, because I try to concentrate on that which is beneficial to the Ummah, and leave controversy as much as possible; and, secondly, because I was waiting for Al Maghrib Institute’s official response, since I did not want to cause more confusion for Al Maghrib by releasing a personal statement from me before they released an official one from them.
Now that the situation has reached such unprecedented levels, with all and sundry feeling the need to comment and write, and now that Al Maghrib has officially released its response, I feel that it is beneficial to offer some thoughts from someone who is directly involved with Al Maghrib, and is a friend to Abu Eesa.
Here are my thoughts, summarized in seven points:
(Disclaimer: if you are unaware of this controversy, and don’t wish to expose yourself to that which will not benefit you, PLEASE, stop reading now, and read some Qurʾān or do some dhikr or support some useful charity or make du‘ā’ for Palestine/Syria/Guantanamo instead!)
Power of the internet
Firstly, what amazed me most about this whole debacle was the power of the internet to generate such a movement and stir up such controversy. In all my years of blogging and using this social media, I have never seen any issue taken up so rapidly and passionately by the Islamic blogosphere. Quite literally overnight, the world witnessed thousands of Facebook messages and tweets about this issue; dozens of articles; half a dozen petitions – all involving tens of thousands of people.
For me, such power was simultaneously astounding and terrifying: astounding because it demonstrates the sheer clout of this tool to highlight one cause and hijack all others, and dominate every other news item; terrifying for exactly the same reasons. Abu Eesa’s controversy quickly spiralled out of control and escalated to a global online topic in less than 48 hours; it was as if this was the ONLY subject of conversation around the online globe for an entire week.
I wish that, in the future, even a fraction of this power could be utilized to highlight other projects and causes that we can all agree about.
Secondly, while nothing new, the harm of casual conversation and useless chatter and made-up gossip was demonstrated once again. Allāh warns against such casual smearing in the Qurʾān (‘Why did you speak with your tongues that which you have no knowledge of?’), and informs us that when any news comes from an untrustworthy source, we must verify it directly.
Yet, it appears that people simply lose the ability to think critically when all of their friends say the same thing. It is as if the human situation is such that groupthink is the default. Democrats and Republicans. Blacks and Jews. Mexicans and Southerners. It doesn’t matter what the actual facts are: what matters is how “my people” are interpreting the facts, and if “my group” says something then I must see the world in the same way.
Abu Eesa never made any jokes about rape, or FGM, or domestic violence. Anyone who thinks otherwise, after reading the entire conversation, either does not speak English as a mother language, or is blinded by rage. The context of his words clearly indicates this. (Yes, there were jokes about the role of women and IWD, which will be discussed in a later point, but there was not a single joke about violence towards women). Yet, the flagrant lie that he joked about such vicious topics continued (and continues) to be perpetrated, even by respectable bloggers and academics online.
Be truthful, and criticize him for the jokes that he actually said, not ones that you’ve heard others assume him to have said.
Liberals vs. Fundamentalists?
Thirdly, one of the main problems of this controversy was that there were multiple truths at play here. Each party had some legitimate issues and real concerns, and the supporters of both sides took on Abu Eesa’s case as symbolic of their grievances with the other group. From my perspective, Abu Eesa and his jokes became a pawn that played out between far larger and antagonistic forces within the Ummah.
And it was interesting and useful to see the dynamics play out between two camps. For many on the (for lack of better term) liberal side of the spectrum, Abu Eesa became the stereotypical bogeyman radical fundamentalist misogynistic Mawli/imām/Shaykh figure. By examining the criticism leveled against Abu Eesa, one could even more tellingly examine the psychological mindset of some critics and their perception of most traditional Islamic scholarship. What these critics failed to realize that this bogeyman was largely a figment of their own imagination, and not the real Abu Eesa.
Similarly, on the (again for lack of a better term) conservative side of the spectrum, the knee-jerk reaction of complete defence also revealed the extreme anger that this group feels towards the tactics of the other group. It was as if no criticism of Abu Eesa was valid, or even allowed, merely because some critics were coming from a “liberal feminist” paradigm, intent on (allegedly) challenging the authority of Allāh (swt) and His Messenger (saw) and wishing to destroy the very foundations of the faith. Hence, to point out any fault with such jokes, however politely and Islamicly, automatically caused one to be labeled as “the other”.
The world is not monochromatic, and every real picture is multifaceted. The critics had some legitimate concerns, and the supporters also had some legitimate concerns, and very few people realized that.
Joking and sarcasm in Islam
Fourthly, regarding the actual content of the jokes themselves. I believe that jokes, and even the occasional sarcasm, are permitted in Islam, but with certain conditions. And of those conditions is that people’s sensitivities not be unnecessarily provoked, especially when those sensitivities involve the rights of an already oppressed and marginalized segment of our community.
Jokes are like salt to one’s food, and should be used in miniscule quantities, with great wisdom. One of the first pieces of advice that a dear mentor, Ustadh Yusuf Estess, gave to me before I started preaching, was the following, “If a joke offends one person, then you’ve offended one too many.”
I do not believe joking about women’s issues, or their intelligence, or belittling their role in society, helps anyone. I do not believe such joking is in accordance with the Sunnah of our Prophet (saw). I do not believe it is befitting of a scholar and an Islamic activist to make light of such a delicate subject. And Abu Eesa knows this of me and from me – he can testify that I have expressed this to him and to others who joke in such a manner multiple times.
Our Prophet (saw), when his servant Anjasha urged the camels his wives were riding to hurry up, said, “O `Anjasha! Be careful with the fragile vessels!” Words can hurt more than the jostling of a camel, and I believe that Muslim men need to follow this advice with their tongues, and their actions, and be careful of harming society’s fragile vessels if they wish to achieve the pleasure of Allāh.
It is true that cultural differences also played a minor role here. It’s not a coincidence that most detractors came from North America, whereas most supporters came from England. The genres and styles of British humo(u)r are completely different than its American counterpart (they even spell it differently!), and the Brits are more accustomed at “taking the mic” than Americans are.
Still, even taking into account British humor, I believe Abu Eesa’s jokes went too far. I believe that when he was confronted about this, he initially acted stubbornly, which exponentially compounded the entire situation to the nth degree. I believe he took too long to apologize the first time. I believe that the first apology was unnecessarily worded, with too many caveats and qualifications.
But I’m happy to see that he’s finally realized all of the above and issued a much better apology (although not quite perfect in my opinion). I pray that he learns from his mistakes and does not repeat this behavior again. And I say all of the above regardless of who his critics are, for the truth is independent of which side you happen to be on.
Lack of adab among activists and scholars
Fifthly, it was extremely distressing as well to see the complete lack of adab shown by many of his critics. To me, it was reminiscent of scenes portraying a Salem witch hunt, in which crazed mobs go banging door to door to increase their numbers, chanting slogans of “Burn the witch! Off with her head!” The sheer lack of compassion and mercy – of Islamic manners – was very depressing. Even if one believed Abu Eesa behaved in an inappropriate manner, surely there are better ways to get one’s point across than by calling for his firing?
Those who criticize others for lacking proper manners must be the first to demonstrate it. In this regard, I say loudly and clearly: most of the critics themselves failed this test.
Sixthly, it was surprising to see so many peers from amongst the scholarly and activist community commenting on this issue so brashly. Scholars and Islamic activists should rise up above emotional, knee-jerk responses, and work to minimize tensions amongst Muslim groups, not exacerbate them. This point was especially disappointing for me to see.
I can excuse the masses and activists who don’t have an Islamic studies background, but for someone who claims to speak on behalf of the religion to act in such a manner was disheartening. Although a few activists did write leveled and fair responses, I feel that most of them wished to portray themselves as “heroes” for a cause that all of us wish to champion, viz., women’s rights in Islam, but they did this by furthering tensions between groups of Muslims. Rather than working to solve the tension, many activists only wanted to jump on the bandwagon and raise banners calling for revenge without studying the issue thoroughly.
Additionally, at the human level, I believe it is almost impossible to look into the recesses of one’s own heart and be completely sure that one is criticizing a peer, or someone from an alternative theology, or a scholar from competing institute, sincerely for the sake of Allāh. Can one be so sure that the heart is absolutely pure in such criticism, and that there are no personal, selfish motivations as well? It is for this reason that scholars of hadith have unanimously agreed that criticism of contemporaries and peers against one another needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There are numerous examples of this in our books of the narrators of hadith.
When a problem is created in a community that is not your own, Islamic activists should reach out to someone in that community and express their frustrations to him first, rather than tweeting about it and airing dirty laundry in public immediately. And even if you deem public criticism necessary, attempt to heal wounds through your comments rather than rip them apart more.
And one final reminder to them (and the ones that I reference know exactly who they are): know that as just as you were eager to pounce on and display the faults of your brother, so too shall others even more eagerly pounce on and publicize your faults.
Feminism and women’s rights
Seventhly, I want to make my position on “feminism” explicitly clear. The term itself is almost useless, since there is no clear, well-defined, agreed-upon definition. Hence, when a term becomes meaningless, it makes little sense to either use it or refute it. Rather, the word is discarded, and the realities and concepts underlying it are discussed specifically.
I firmly believe that the sacred texts of Islam, the Qurʾān and the authentic Sunnah of our Prophet (saw), are the ultimate sources of our theology, legal code, and ethics. Hence, any attempt to discredit these sources is one that I will oppose in every way possible. I will not and cannot accept that men and women are physically, physiologically, emotionally, biologically, and psychologically the same. Any claims of this nature contradict known facts, lived experiences, and explicit Scripture. Hence, the Shariah views men and women as having complementary roles in society and in family, not identical.
While men and women are spiritually equal, and both have equal opportunities to earn Allāh’s pleasure and paradise, in this world, the Shariah takes these differences into account, and does have different sets of laws for them in some arenas (not all). Any attempt to claim otherwise is simply wrong and untenable in light of the Islamic tradition, and I will oppose it as a Muslim scholar and theologian.
That having been said, I also recognize that historically, many Muslim societies have gone too far in depriving women of their legitimate rights, and in relegating women to a second-class status that I do not view our religion as sanctioning. We need to differentiate what the religion ordains, and what culture has sanctioned. Merely because a practice is culturally acceptable in a Muslim context does not equate to relgious endorsement of that practice. There is no denying that women in many Muslim societies are physically and mentally abused and molested, and that Muslim culture has turned an increasing blind eye to such blatantly un-Islamic abuse. I consider it my religious duty to combat such abuse and to expose any such un-Islamic practice as being opposed to the teachings of this pristine religion.
I also recognize that the Shariah allows for change and reform in some areas, and I feel it is imperative that religious scholars, duly trained in the sacred sciences, take the lead in such reform. Historical traditions are not necessarily sacred and immutable, and I welcome changes that the Shariah allows. It is of little concern to me whether one wishes to call these types of reforms “Islamic feminism” or not. What matters is meaningful change that the Law allows and which betters the lives of Muslim women, not cheap slogans devoid of meaning.
Yet, I would be unwilling to call for reform in, say, the Islamic laws of inheritance, since these have been explicitly laid out in the Sacred Texts. If some people consider rejecting the explicit texts of the Qurʾān to be “Islamic feminism”, then I view it as being a manifestation of kufr, and you count me an ardent opponent of any such endeavor.
Anyone who wishes to supplant the sacred texts with another ideology does so because of a simultaneous lack of faith in the divine revelation of Allāh, and an inferiority complex to another system of laws and culture.
I seek refuge in Allāh from pandering to anyone’s threats and from sacrificing what I believe to be the truth for the sake of popularity. I pray that Allāh always give me the courage to speak what I believe is the truth and not fear the criticism of the critic.
Abu Eesa is a dear friend to me because he is a loving, caring, gentle, sincere scholar. I would trust my life and my family’s life to him – and I don’t say that merely as a figure of speech. He is no misogynist, he is no woman-hater, he is no racist. If he truly were any of these, I would not be a friend to him. I know that he will not like me saying this, but as a family friend I know that he treats his wife like a queen, that he is a loving and caring father to his daughters, and that he is a dutiful son to his mother. And that is the actions of “feminism” that Islam calls for, and Abu Eesa lives up to (even if he despises the word!).
In his time of need, when he has been improperly smeared, made into a bogeyman scapegoat and charged with false accusations by people who do not know him personally, I cannot abandon him for the sake of my own popularity. It is true, he made a major mistake in this incident (and will continue to make other mistakes), and God knows he has faults (the primary one being his stubbornness!) but in my eyes, he is one of the most God-fearing, God-conscious and merciful people that I have the honor and privilege of befriending.
I would rather allow my reputation to be sullied, and all of my critics to continue criticizing and defaming me, before I jump on the bandwagon of popularity and smear him or dissociate from him. He has faults (don’t we all?), but these faults drown in the good that exists in him, and this is a matter that his family, his friends, and his students can all testify to.
And in the end, true success lies with Allāh alone.
This article first appeared on Muslim Matters website.