Yursil Kidwai: Blasphemy and ‘Sharia’ Laws
After the Ottoman Empire turned to the modern Turkish republic in 1922, Western powers used a variety of means to draw new maps and lines around lands that were administered previous through a uniquely Islamic understanding of government. The most similar Western approach to the Ottoman government might be understood as ‘monarchical-federalism’. The main goal of the West’s previous efforts had been the dismantlement of this conglomeration of Muslim lands, so it was natural that their main priority would be to plan a future which would prevent any sort of reunification.
Muslims had suffered a loss which was akin to excommunicating the Pope from the Catholic Church. As the ruler of all that was Islamdom, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was sent into exile, earning his bread from his carpentry work for the rest of his life. Muslims were left leaderless like they hadn’t been for 1400 years.
One can imagine these architects of tomorrow, in their smokey offices, deciding which new tribe they would support here, and how they would prop up this rival over there. Welfare of the people living under these new structures was a non-factor in these decisions. It only made sense, much of these plans were thought up in the early days of total world war.
Much of the Muslim masses were convinced that the end of times had come. And in a way, it had. An era of a singular coherent Islamic orthodoxy had ended. Muslims had lived in a society for over a millennia governed by a state which conducted itself according to it’s own unique and complex system of checks and balances, an almost bureaucratic system of religious debate, and an overarching Sultan intervening between rival government factions.
This robust system was replaced with a scattering of dictators and ‘princes’ with little experience in running their personal families, much less nations. New states popped up without the authority or the coherency of any legal tradition. Scrambling, they incorporated various pieces of the French Republic and other western governing systems and brought them into their various dictatorships and new monarchies. This was sufficient ‘progress’ for the West.
Yet, Muslim masses would hardly accept the authority of a piece of paper, without some reference to God. Much like the idea that “one nation, under God” conveys, Muslims hold a strong belief that a completely godless state is no state worth living in. God ran strong through these lands, and anyone wielding authority which openly ran in contrary to a village elders faith would soon be dealing with countless rebellions.
However, villagers were hardly people learned in the religious development of the Muslim empire and the nuances of delicate legal cases and precedent. And when it came to the religion, what was to replace the Sultanate was a confusing mesh of secular and religious opinions, ranging from the most extreme to the most liberal. The removal of any social entity which could qualify people to make religious opinions left the direction of Islam in chaos. The rise of the printing press and mass media ensured the confusion would easily penetrate into the ordinary Muslim’s homes. Due to this amorphous state of Islamic authority, any reference to religion within the modern states law had to be vague and transient at best.
We can see this impetus to include an undefined religious authority occurring within our nation-building even today. Iraq’s new constitution states in Article 2:
“First: Islam is the official religion of the State and it is a fundamental source of legislation:A. No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.”
Yet at the same time, it dictates:
“B. No law that contradicts the principles of democracy may be established.”
Can one democratically contradict the ‘established provisions of Islam’? What are these ‘established provisions’, and whose ‘established provisions’ are they? No one knows the answer to these questions, yet.
Going back to historical trends, we’ve seen numerous states establish ‘Sharia’ Laws within their normal legislative process. These laws, which have had a lasting imprint on the mind of Western observers, often pronounce strict and severe punishments: cutting of hands, lashings, stonings. It is interesting to note that the laws which the states chose to announce and implement are those with the most severe punishments against the populace.
These dictator-states and pseudo-democracies seemed to desire blurring the lines between their own tyrannous rule and God’s most severe justice. It seemed they wanted to distract people: “Don’t forget, we’re Muslims. Yeah, we do horrible things. But don’t blame us, some of these horrible things are from God.”
Islamic laws which reward charity, promote honesty, promote tolerance have been forgotten in these states, while a handful of ‘Shariah’ punishments were mixed in with brand-new torturous and oppressive policies and procedures.
Interestingly enough, these selected ‘Sharia’ punishments were frowned upon under the centuries of Ottoman rule and by its end had become completely unpracticed. In Ottoman lands where Sharia was the be-all, end-all official state law, these laws were unenforced as a matter of practice. This was not through denouncing or revising Islamic Law, but by putting into practice the complete and holistic set of checks and balances built into Islamic Sharia.
This meant, for example, that while the punishment of adultery was technically announced as ‘stoning’, one also needed an absurd four witnesses of the most upright character to see actual sexual penetration to even entertain the possibility of this maximum punishment. On top of that unlikely scenario, if one of those witnesses ever spoke a white lie to anyone, their character would be insufficient to hold up in the courts and the case was to be discarded. When these impossible-to-meet criteria are considered, it becomes clear that these punishments were intended to be demonstrations of the severity of the act in the eyes of the Lord (and hence society), and deterrents in all practical senses.
This is not unlike the death penalty in New Hampshire, where no one has been executed since 1939, and there is no death chamber to be found in the state. Such laws remain ‘in the books’ as deterrents, yet through various legal or social methods they can become unenforced as a matter of practice.
However, modern ‘Islamic’ states have revitalized these punishments without the wisdom of their historical application. The purpose of this has been to announce their regressive and incomplete application of Sharia. The powers-that-be ultimately hope that this process would bring legitimacy and a distraction from the corruption and cognitive dissonance which permeates through their governments.
‘Blasphemy laws’ today in Pakistan are the latest example of supposed ‘Sharia laws’ hitting the newswire.
How do we reconcile such laws with the story of Mary Fisher, a Christian Quaker, who came to preach ‘blasphemy’ to the king of all of Muslim lands in 1658? After being given the opportunity to directly preach her Christian message to the Muslim Sultan, Mehmet IV, Fisher was received with friendship, care and consideration and offered safe passage through Muslim lands.
The following account relates the exchange between them:
… he (Sultan Mehmet IV) told her to speak the word of the Lord without fear, since they had “good hearts” to hear it; strictly enjoined her moreover, to say neither more nor less than the word she had from the Lord, since they were willing to hear it, be it what it might. With great gravity the whole assembly gave heed to her earnest ministry, and when she became silent the Sultan asked if there were nothing more she would like to say? When she inquired whether he had understood her, he answered, “yea, every word, and it is truth!” He then expressed his desire that she should remain in his dominions, and when she declined this proposal, offered her a guard to escort her to Constantinople, as he would be greatly grieved if any harm should befall her in his empire. But she courteously refused this offer, trusting in the Lord alone.May we not hope that one who had, for the moment, ignored the great national contest between the Crescent and the Cross, and — far beyond this — laid aside the prejudices of the exacting faith of his fathers in his readiness to hear “the word of the Lord” albeit from the lips of a woman ..
(ref: Friends’ Intelligencer Vol XXXIII (1877). Philadelphia: John Comly)
Before the dissolution of the Ottoman khalifate, apostasy and other blasphemy laws were rarely spoken of and last practiced back when Americans were still accusing each other (and killing) as witches in Salem in 1692. Blasphemy laws resulting in capital punishments were openly stopped through new edicts and perspectives in 1839, specifically by a decree known as the Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber.
Far from imposing and executing various religious communities, Muslims lived with, and even ruled over, numerous rival Christian communities. Muslims were forced to decide disputes between these Christian sects. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a prime example of Muslim arbitration and administration in negotiating a peaceful and progressive approach between Christians of various denominations. Up until this day, a Muslim family holds the honor of opening the door to allow the various Christian denominations to enter and worship. The arrangement of responsibilities between the Christian sects was decided with Muslim governance.
It seems more than coincidental that these ‘Sharia’ incidents occur in states that are run by atheistic/communist dictators (i.e. Saddam Hussein) or ridiculously corrupt ‘Islamo-democratic’ governments.
In Pakistan’s case, the International Crisis Group provided a report last year stating:
Decades of mismanagement, political manipulation and corruption have rendered Pakistan’s civil service incapable of providing effective governance and basic public services. In public perceptions, the country’s 2.4 million civil servants are widely seen as unresponsive and corrupt, and bureaucratic procedures cumbersome and exploitative. Bureaucratic dysfunction and low capacity undermine governance, providing opportunities to the military to subvert the democratic transition and to extremists to destabilise the state.
Ridiculous distractions such as modern ‘Islamic’ states opinions on blasphemy, adultery, and theft allow Islamophobes to target their favorite religion, while allowing corruption and real problems to go under the radar. These laws today serve a purpose that they never had in what was the most authentic Islamic state (now only a memory): a means to prove a governments religiosity in a midst of lies, deceit, money and total corruption which make up most of its actual administration.
It seems clear that, after looking at the historical examples cited, obtuse punishments and announcements of one’s religiosity (especially by a government), are a sign of a troubled spiritual state.
It is high time for Muslims to accept that what is making Muslim states un-Islamic isn’t a possible repeal of blasphemy laws. It is the distance from the spirit of charity, honesty and sincerity which is a fundamental aspect of any true believer in the Day of Judgment, regardless of creed. Today’s Muslim leaders could learn a lot from the open exchange between Sultan Mehmet IV and Mary Fisher, and the Sharia as he understood and practiced it. One needs only consider what would happen to Mary Fisher if she approached most of today’s Muslim politicians and religious leaders.
Non-Muslims, on the other hand, need to quit associating these puppet governments and their lip-service to ‘Sharia law’ as the defacto Islam which they wish to judge Muslims with. After all, they helped create these pseudo Islamic monstrosities.