"What is Sharia Law?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Robert Gleave
12:06AM Apr 16, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, I'm Jack Russell Weinstein, host of why philosophical discussions but everyday life. On today's episode we'll be asking the question what is Sharia law with our guest Robert Gleave? It's pretty common in English to refer to those who are religiously observant as people of faith. We'd like to emphasize theological belief rather than ritual or even texts. In fact, among many skeptics, the word faith is really shorthand for the more contemptuous phrase blind faith. Best Selling atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, tend to describe the religious as ignorant sheep who never think deeply about anything. They scoff at what they regard as childish commitment to fairy tales. This approach is more than unkind. It's absurd. It oversimplifies what belief is and it completely misunderstands the nature of religion. Any mature theology does more than just order its adherence to unthinkingly subscribe to a set of common beliefs. It outlines what counts as evidence provides meaning to rituals and describes the rules of acceptable inference. All religions are at their core attempts to articulate a system of logic and rationality. Now, that's a pretty technical claim. So let me explain what I mean. 22 years ago, I published one of my first academic papers, a short piece titled three types of critical things about religion. I'll put a link to it on our webpage. In it, I argued that religion was not opposed to critical thought, but it's actually a laboratory that teaches people how to criticize and improve their own reasoning skills. I suggested there are a few different ways to think critically about religion. First, we think critically concerning religions. We asked whether their beliefs are true We consider for example, whether Jesus was actually the Son of God or if the Buddha truly reached enlightenment. This is the kind of thing Dawkins and Hitchens thinks religion can be reduced to. But the so called truth of any religion is only the smallest portion of what membership entails. We might for example, think critically between religions, we might consider how one's practices compared to others. What does the Hindu prohibition against eating beef teach us about Jews and Muslims refusal to eat pork? Eating is a universal human experience all cultures, whether religious or not infuse it with meaning, this experience doesn't become less powerful just because it has its roots in sacred texts or stories that may not be true. Third, and finally, we ask how to read, interpret and argue within a specific religion. We might consider how to reconcile contradictions among the four gospels or investigate what the medieval rabbinical commentaries teach us about the Hebrew Scriptures. Or let's take another example the Muslim belief That the Quran was revealed to Muhammad directly through Allah's Messenger, the angel could real. Many Muslims believe that their scripture is the literal Word of God. So we can concern ourselves with the truth of it and ask whether this revelation actually happened. Or we can ask what the commitment has in common with the Jewish belief in the divinity of the books of Moses. But we can also ask a more complex internal question. Since Gabriel offered the word in Arabic. Does this mean that an English version of the text isn't really the Quran at all? Is the only real Quran the Arabic one is it impossible to translate? Speaking as a philosopher asking whether Mohammed actually received the revelation as reported is the least interesting of all these questions? What is more fascinating to me is how the tradition attempts to resolve this linguistic issue, how it teaches its practitioners to think today's episode is about Sharia law. It will serve as a primer to many of us. True it will teach us what Many Muslims believe but it will also allow us to explore how the Islamic tradition wants people to reason to determine whether the Quran is indeed translatable. We have to look at history at practices at scholarly debate, we have to examine sacred texts and the controversies Islamic literature throws at us. This is not blind faith. This is not childish commitment to fairytales. It is advanced human reasoning at its finest. It is a complex and sophisticated puzzle that brings out our intellectual best practices and challenges much that we take for granted. The term Sharia law has become a shorthand in the US for whatever a particular politician or civic leader wants to attack. It evokes terrorism in the minds of some and anti christian conspiracy theories for others. But these people know as little about Islam, as Dawkins and Hitchens know about religion, whatever they mean by Sharia law has nothing to do with what Muslims mean. We know this, because they're caricature can be summarized in a paragraph, but real Sharia law is thousands of pages. Long and took 1500 years to write. And it's both more complex and more insightful than its politically motivated counterpart. And that's what we'll focus on today. Philosophy is about learning, embracing the complex and hopefully becoming wiser because of it. In contrast, the only thing we learn from a hate filled caricature is how not to think at all.
And now our guest Rob Gleave is professor of Arabic studies and director of the Center for the Study of Islam at the University of Exeter in England. He's currently leading three major projects on the history, meaning and consequences of Sharia law. Rob, thanks for joining us on why
it's a pleasure.
Please send us your thoughts about this episode to ask why UMD. edu or share them on Twitter at Instagram at why radio show you can visit our Facebook email@example.com slash why radio show and links our archives and information about future shows can be found at our website, www why Radio show.org So Rob, you're talking to us from England and thank you for shouting so loudly here in the US. The term Sharia law is most often invoked by people who consider themselves enemies of Islam. It serves as a kind of political dog whistle. Is that true on your side of the Atlantic as well?
I don't think it's quite as categorical in the sense that it's always negative. I mean, there's been a number of, of parliamentary inquiries, which have looked at Sharia law. And they've always tried to do it in a neutral way to try and find out whether it's something which should have legislation around it, or whether it's something that should be left purely to the freedom of Muslim communities. So I don't sense that it has the same sort of political potency that it does in North America. But you do find that it comes up regularly in in some debates around immigration or the integration of Muslims into what's seen as British culture and British society. So, we do find that Sharia, as a term is sometimes used. And, of course, for someone who spends much of their time studying the development and explanation of Islamic law, I find a lot of that debate quite shallow and superficial. And that is a frustration for those of us that have sort of dedicated a lot of time to understanding the tradition. But I don't think it's got quite the same political potency at this moment in time, although there have been moments in the past when Sharia has become a really quite politically powerful tool to be used against Muslims in the country, but also to an extent by Muslims themselves in order to assert their own identity. So it does have a certain political resonance. You've
actually anticipated a question I was wondering about which is, as a scholar, you have Obviously the the specific things you're interested in, is it possible for you to step away from the political debate? Or is, is the investigation of Sharia law inherently political in some important census? We got a bunch of questions in advance for the show. And and David asked a question, which I'll want to address a little bit later about Sharia law and militancy. But it seems like a lot of the folks who asked the questions have a hard time, or naturally I should say, embed the Sharia law in the political context. Can you step away from that? Can you be a pure scholar separate from a larger political context?
It's actually I would say, it's probably impossible to do that. The reason why I became interested in this area of study in the first place, was because I cared about the nature of British society and the way in which we are a, a sort of a mixture of different ethnicities with different religious traditions. And the reason why in my own personal journey, if you like, the reason why I ended up studying this area is because of a, a concern I had that we had no common ground within the society in order to talk about these things. And as a non Muslim myself, one of the things which I I, I hope to be able to do is to be able to communicate the complexity of the tradition to other non Muslims who haven't necessarily come into contact with it before that, I suppose is to an extent a political act with a small p, you might say and, and, but there is a sort of potency, if you like to the the study of the Sharia, which you might not find if you were an excellent In some areas of the natural sciences or or even in English literature in its history, you do find that you you, you're expected to have an inside knowledge on it. I'm personally of the opinion that, that despite those political elements, there is a core of what I do and what academics do when they're studying the Sharia which is, which is, which can be taken out of the political context and placed purely in a scholarly context or in an educational context. And that I think is, is is good, but you're absolutely right. I mean, you could say part of the reason why you're having a radio program about this particular topic is because it has some sort of societal resonance that people are interested in learning more about it. And part of that is because of its political profile.
Here, you're doing my job for me, Rob, you're asking all the questions. So you're answering all the Question for ask because in part, again, and I don't know how this differs between the English context, the American context, but American identity politics, our listeners were that you are a non Muslims a scholar doing Muslim literature I'm a Jewish North Dakota in these days. And there there will be a concern that there's a lack of authenticity. And is that a concern amongst the scholarly community is is there is there a sense that to really take that tradition seriously or to reflect on the tradition? Well, you have to come in from an internal perspective.
Yeah, within within academia, there is a big debate, an ongoing debate about whether a faith commitment gives you a different insight into the history and traditions and thought and of a particular religious tradition and whether to actually get the feel of it, you need to be part of it. And others would say, you can study this just like you would do any tradition, or any cultural phenomenon. And, you know, my colleagues always used to say you don't have to be a dolphin in order to be experts in dolphins.
And, and to an extent, I would agree with that. And in a sense,
what I can't
replicate is the individual and personal concern for answering these questions. Which a Muslim, a religiously devout Muslim might have, because for them, I can recognize that this is more than just a academic exercise or even Given an exercise of someone who's concerned about social well being and social cohesion for them, this is also a religious drive this is something which they feel in part they have been called by God to study and to develop knowledge about in society. And so in that sense, their their activities are motivated by a slightly different set of concerns. However, in terms of scholarship, I don't think that's a big issue because in terms of the scholar scholarship within the Academy, it doesn't matter whether you're Muslim or non Muslim, but in terms of, of community action, one can see that different people play different roles, and a non Muslim academic. Talking about Islam has one role to play and and Muslim academic talking about Islam may have a slightly different role to play when they into the public arena.
And are there are there words that are better to use than others? And I'll tell you what I have in mind when I was preparing the monologue for the show and I was talking about Muhammad receiving the revelation. I didn't want to call it a myth, but then I'm reading your work and you actually have a phrase, we're dealing with almost mythological structures here. And so, can you talk about mythology without being offensive? Can you uh, can you know, I don't want to say question the veracity, but can you treat it like literature and not revelation and not diminish the task?
around about 20 years ago, I would have I would have said that that was impossible. You know, when I first entered the academic world, and In terms of working with Muslim communities across the UK, I would have said it was impossible. You really had to speak different language games in the different in the different context that you were in and you couldn't talk about mythology, without it, implying that you didn't believe its historicity was important, you know, whether it actually happened was important. And, and particularly in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, which was when the author Salman Rushdie wrote a book, which was deemed by Muslims to be highly critical of of the traditional story of the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed, and its subsequent unites all collection and distribution and how it became if you like the text for Muslims,
Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses that
that book is The Satanic Verses and then that book rusty rights are sort of a literary account, which echoes the revolutionary process but in a critical way. And the reaction to that which was way back in the 1990s was from the Muslim community in the UK was that this person was insulting the very foundations of Islam. And it was made worse because he came from a Muslim background himself. And I think that the the British Muslim community has moved on enormously since those times in terms of its in terms of its openness to academic inquiry, and the, what might be called the technical use of words like myth, which which don't necessarily imply historical untruth, but instead imply the power of the idea to have if you like its own legs. Within an argument, irrespective of its historical truth or falsity, actually what's important is how does this idea structure an intellectual system? How does it How does it make a system work? And that I think is is the way in which words like mythology, going back to your, your original question was like mythology, a much less dangerous now the perhaps than they used to be when we, when I first became an academic some years ago when at the height of the Rushdie affair, this was a really quite a difficult conversation to have. I think that in the UK at least, we have developed a much more useful set of terms with which we can have a conversation. And I'm not saying everything is perfect and there's not still understanding to be achieved, but there is an acceptance of One academic study is about from within the Muslim community, and a real willingness I've noticed, to engage with that. And I think that's true as well of my American colleagues who work in academia when I talk through these issues with them. So it's, yes, there's, there's sensitivities there. But they're much less likely to cause offence now than they would have done 20 years ago. And that's something which I think we can say is, is has enriched public debate.
In America, I pretty confident in suggesting that that the students in general are much more radical than the faculty and I suspect that there's much more sensitivity in class and there is about scholarship and then later on in the episode, I want to ask you about literal truth and literary truth and how that informs the debate. But let's take a step back and let's ask some basic questions. What does the word Sharia mean in Sharia law? And when we talk about Sharia law, what are we talking about?
Sharia, as a term, an Arabic word means a path, literally.
And it's understood as a path, a way in which you live in order to be fully obedient to God's will. So, Sharia is although it has these connotations in public culture, around harsh punishments and violence, for Muslims, it is the Sharia is the code which one adopts in order to be a truly faithful individual, to the message which God aim to contribute and aim to convey through the Prophet Mohammed. So this code of conduct is all embracing in the Muslim conception of Sharia. That is that it's not just a personal code of conduct, which you might say was a moral code which an individual should follow. It also has recommendations and stipulations for public life, how society should be organized, what are the principles on which society should be organized, and if the government under which one is living is conceived of as a, a Muslim government, which is, which is taken the Sharia as the law of the land, then what is the character of that government. So it has these, what you might call personal elements. And it has this sort of societal and governmental element as well as Sherry. It covers all as aspects of human existence, you know, there is no element of human existence that God is not interested in, from a Muslim perspective that there were rules and regulations, and recommendations and advice for all areas of human life. And that gives you the all encompassing nature of the Sharia, as it is understood in the Muslim tradition very if I speak very generally, and the term Sharia law, which is sort of like saying, law law, it's, you know, it's like because Sherry Sharia means law and then Sharia law means law law, it means a bit like saying, okay, you know, it just repeats the number. So, in the same way that Sherry Sharia law has become a popular term for those elements of that, that that that code of conduct, which involve interaction between human beings and therefore are publicly regulated. So marriage, divorce, inheritance law, certain aspects of criminal law, you know, punishment for crimes, certain aspects of taxation law. All of these are mentioned in the books that in which in Muslim history described the Sharia, they are described there and some governments have attempted to put them into practice. And that is called Sharia law. in the, in the modern parlance, I prefer the term Sharia. This because it's Sharia law has no equivalent within the Muslim tradition, Sharia is I find self explanatory in and of itself as to what it is referring.
So, the way that I have always heard it is an aphorism that everything in the Quran is true and everything that is is true is in the Quran. And so it's it's all encompassing, and then we got a question from Elliot, who asked if Sharia is mainly punitive or whether there's forgiveness and redemption built in and your answer appears to be, and then we're going to have to take a break, but your answer appears to be, of course it's in there because everything's in there. It's it's an entire worldview and it's it's encyclopedic so to speak.
Yeah, I mean, I would say that that's that although the, the, the popular image of Sharia law is about punishments, and sometimes violent punishments, those those are our part if you like, have an overall code of ethics, which includes mercy and forgiveness, and compensation for wrongdoing and justice and, and an equal sharing of resources. And all of these things are part if you like, of the Sharia message as Muslims have seen them over time, and it's one of the ironic things that within the Muslim community within this country, and I don't know about North America, but within this country, there have been surveys done In which, you know, non Muslims are asked What does what images does the Sharia conjure up for them. And it's always the violent punishments and militancy which are linked with it. But within the Muslim community, it's it's concepts which which all society can associate themselves with, such as justice and equality and fairness. So to understand the internal Muslim view of what the Sharia as a term and as a concept means, you have to sort of build that into a commitment to justice and fairness and equality because those are the messages if you like, from a Muslim perspective, and they are amongst the messages which which God delivered to the Prophet Mohammed in which he then passed on to the early Muslim community.
I want to come back to this after the break. I want to talk about a little bit more about the political aspects of it. And I'll start by leading from a question from a listener Sarah, but first, you're listening to jack Russell Weinstein. Robert Gleave on why philosophical discussions but everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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your back with wide philosophical discussions in everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. We're talking with Robert Greene. Even Exeter England about Sharia law and what that means and how it connects. And I'm thinking about this notion of all encompassing worldview that Sharia depicts and I'm thinking about experience I had a few years ago, my family opened up our house to a Pakistani refugee family, a Muslim family, and they lived with us for a couple weeks and it ended up okay, but it ended up kind of rough at various different points. And and I actually take a lot of responsibility for that, because I would make some jokes that I don't think they interpreted as jokes. I thought I was being friendly and they thought I was being critical. There was gender stuff involved, as there almost always is in any situation. And in the end, the family, the two families parted, grateful, but not friends, and I'm a little disappointed by that, but it also was an important lesson. To be that how deeply ingrained culture and worldview and even things like sense of humor are, and that sometimes when you want to bridge things, you have to be a narrower person, you have to have a smaller field of engagement, so to speak. And so, with that memory in mind, Rob, I guess the first question I want to ask about this is, if someone is immersed in Sharia, how hard is it for them to enter into, let's say, the Western European liberal tradition? worldview? How hard is it to to have a foot in in each is it incompatible as a perfectly compatible I have two questions about this. Sarah asked whether people under Sharia are obligated to have two systems of law and if so, Does that make it sort of a way to get out of things? Or is that double responsibility? And then James asked whether there's a sort of dialectic relationship between what we'll call Western European liberalism, and Sharia and that Sharia and liberalism changes each other. So, to what extent is being committed to Sharia? How hard does it make it to interact with other systems?
Well, that very question is actually something that's debated in the, in the texts, written over many centuries, written by by Muslim scholars who wants to try and describe what they think the rules of the Sharia are, so I should I should just expand on that a little bit. And there isn't a book that's called Sharia. There isn't a single codification or list of rules and regulation. which form the Sharia. What the Sharia is, is an is an religious idea about what it is God requires of humanity in order to be obedient to his wills, and wishes. What you have in the Muslim tradition is lots of works in which individual authors attempt to describe what they think those rules and regulations are. And they they provide evidence for that and they trace it back to verses of the Quran or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed or things that the community has agreed on. And they use legal reasoning in order to try and come to conclusions and within that tradition, which is, you know, I'm not going to use too many Arabic words, but there is this one which is very important called fit, which is normally spelled f IQ H. That tradition of of fit which literally means understanding is human attempts to understand what God wants. Now in that tradition of writing, of which they There are thousands of books. In that tradition of writing, writing, there is a debate about whether or not you can live in two systems at the same time, whether it's possible to be a Muslim outside of a Muslim country, if you see what I mean, and, and large numbers of Muslim jurists have said, it's always better to try and be a Muslim within the Muslim environment. And others have said it's perfectly possible to be a Muslim outside of a Muslim environment. It's tough. It's difficult, it requires hard choices, but it's not impossible, and sometimes it's the right thing to do. So that very debate which your listeners of email questions in which you're asking about is actually something which is debated within the literature, which Muslims have written in order to try and say what the Sharia says on one or other issue. It's actually a really hotly debated Point and what it comes down to for those that say that you can live a perfectly religious life outside of a Muslim society outside of society when when the Sharia is the considered to be the legal norm. You those that say you can live a religious life outside of that context argue that there are some things which are non negotiable in terms of your Muslim religious belief and practice. And there are many other things which are context specific. That is that you can participate in things in a non Muslim environment, certain activities which you wouldn't be able to do and wouldn't be common in a in a Muslim society. So the classic example of this is something like mortgages, okay, a mortgage involves alone and a payment of interest by the person who has taken on the mortgage In a Sharia based society theoretically, loans should not be accompanied by interest at all because interest is seen as something which is, which is, which is unearned wealth, you know you didn't do anything to get it, all you did is held on to the money or lend the money and then you then you ask for more money back, you haven't done anything, you haven't done anything creative with it. So within a sharing of a society, interest is seen as in a negative way. But outside of it, it's seen as an essential element of living, you know, in a Western European or North American society, you can't really, very easily live in those societies without some arrangements in which you might pay interest at some point or another. And some Muslims have said, Well, that's a compromise which is perfectly consonant with being a Muslim. It may be better if you don't pay interest or loan money with and take interest. It may be better if you don't do it, but it's not one of the things fundamentals. So what Muslims thinkers have done those that those that say that you can you can be a perfectly devout Muslim outside of a Muslim environment is say that you have to make a distinction between essential things and changeable things. And the essential things are the things which as a Muslim you can't compromise on.
I want to follow up on that question about essential. But before I do I have to ask, Does this mean that in Saudi Arabia or Iran, there's no interest? Is this something that is, I guess, essential, or is it can it be fudged even in a Muslim political system?
Oh, theoretically, there is no interest in the sense that that you loan money and you get the same money back without any profit for the loan. There's lots of other ways in which the money is paid. back. And some people say it's just interest by another name. So this is not that it doesn't exist. So so for example, the person that loans money becomes a, not just someone who owns money, but someone who becomes a part owner of the house. And then, so by loan by giving you a mortgage, I become a part owner in your house, not you. And when you and what you're doing is you're buying off my share of the house over a period of time. This is a slightly different arrangement than I've given you money and you bought the house. But some people say that's just words. It's just a it's just a, you know, it's just a technical thing. But that is the way in which you know that otherwise there's no there's no economic incentive for me to give you the money. So there are other ways in which it happens. But but but, but Strictly speaking, interest is something that you should have tried to avoid if you if you're a devout Muslim because it's seen as As money without work, and one of the things which is emphasized within the, within the these works of fit or that describe the Sharia is that in order to make money, there has to be some sort of productive element to your activity, it's very important that there's some sort of productive element to it. If there's not a productive element to it, then, in a sense, it's a deception. And so that's an ethical standpoint, which is then taken over into the non Muslim environment. And they say, well, you have to try and keep by this ethical base, but the actual arrangements may have to change in different societies because different societies have different rules.
So we get two sets of problems, right, the one that you've mentioned earlier, which is gleaning what's essential and what's not. And so the question I have about that is, how difficult is that? How controversial is that and then the second is the the interpretive rules. rules as to what counts as obeying the law and what counts as not legal distinctions, wordplay, loopholes, things like that. I assume that that's pretty, both controversial and makes for good sport so to speak. Right? So how does that work if I'm going to make a claim that something is essential, or if I'm going to make a claim that this word that I'm not going to charge interest but I'll charge rent so to speak? How do I defend my position that I am right if I were a Sharia scholar, if I if I were writing this he said effect? What would my argument look like?
Okay, yeah, that's it's a good question. Because this comes to the very heart of what the methodology if you like of argumentation as well, how do you how do you make a sound argument in The Islamic legal sphere, you know what counts as a reliable and sound argument. And there's been a whole along. exploration, if you like, of what makes a good argument within the Muslim tradition. And there are some things, a lot of things which are debated, but there's some things which sort of a continuous throughout the whole debate so I'll give you the continuous ones because that's the simplest way of presenting it. In theory, if a Muslim scholar wants to argue for a particular legal opinion, they will look to a number of sources in order to see whether those sources produce evidence for them to justify their opinion. These sources are classically, first of all the Quran itself. In the Quran, which is, as you said at the at the outset is taken to be the like the direct verbal community Of God with humanity through the prophet Mohammed delivered through his angel Gabriel. So if God explicitly says something about this particular issue in the Quran, then that has enormous power in order to create a legal rule. However, the truth of the matter is, the Quran is a limited book, it's not very long combat is much shorter than the New Testament. And the amount of legal material or what you might call ethical or legal material within it is quite limited. You know, it's, it's, it's a book which has lots and lots of themes within it, and they're not all of them about how you should live your life. You know the rules about how you should live your life. So the Quran contains some rules, but it's certainly not comprehensive. Muslim scholars when they've wanted to supplement the Quranic regulations, the regulations you find In the Quran have looked towards the life of the Prophet Mohammed. So when the Prophet Mohammed said or did something, he did it as a human being not. You know, it's important for everyone to recognize that, that the Prophet Mohammed is not a divine being for Muslims he's not. He doesn't hold a similar position to Jesus say in the Christian tradition, who is considered as some sort of incarnation of God. The Prophet Mohammed for Muslims is viewed very much as a human being, who was selected by God and His nature as a human being doesn't change throughout his life. However, because of his encounter with with God through the revelation process, he became an obedient servant of God and he becomes the model obedient servant of God. So when he said and did something for Muslims, this becomes a rule. So when a scholar wants to justify an opinion that he may or she may have, they will look towards first the Quranic rule. Then they will look to something that the Prophet Mohammed said or did, and did this in some way indicate what the rule might be. A third source to which they'll turn is whether the community has ever agreed upon an issue. That is that if the community has come together and decided that this is the case, that this is the rule by which we're going to live our lives as a community of Muslims, then this becomes in itself an authoritative
source you might say for Muslim rules.
Now human life throws up new issues and new problems all the time things which you haven't thought about before suddenly become live issues and you have to you have to make decisions and you know, the advances in human science in in the last two centuries have meant that that not everything, which not all of the issues that you might face today are found within those sources. Whether the Quran says it the example of the Prophet indicates anything or Whether there's an agreement of the community, because these are new problems, you know, stem cell technology or in vitro fertilization, these are new problems which which you don't have any precedent for within the Muslim tradition. So what Muslim scholars have said then is you, you, you have the, you have the license from God to be to make arguments, which are what they call ontological arguments from what the Quran and this on the example of the Prophet and the community have agreed upon what they say. You can make ontological arguments because the those sayings reveal something which is behind those things. They're not just straight rules. There's actually a thinking behind the rules. And if you can access that thinking, then you can apply it to new rules. The classic example they always use for this is about the prohibition on the Drinking of alcoholic beverages. So there's a rule in that you're not supposed to drink something called wine. And this is mentioned in the Quran and in the example of the Prophet. Why is wine forbidden grape wine wine, you know, alcoholic liquid made out of grapes. Why is this forbidden? Well, it's forbidden because it is intoxicating. Therefore, once you once you know why wine is forbidden, you can then transfer the rule of it being forbidden to all sorts of other things which are also intoxicating. This is what they call a logical reasoning, whereby they take a case they know and they apply the reason behind that rule to new cases. And the classic example of wine. prohibition means that actually, other forms of alcoholic beverage are also private prohibited. So Beer and whiskey. You know, there's no mention of whiskey in the Quran, explicit mention of whiskey in the Quran or in the example of the Prophet. It was an unknown substance at the time in Arabia. But we can know as Muslims that they are forbidden because we know the reason why wine was forbidden. And the same reason applies in the case of whiskey.
This touches upon a huge philosophical issue, which is many devout conservative Muslims, like many conservative Jews, and many conservative Christians regard their text as the literal truth. If you are engaged in analogy, if you're if you're if you're engaging in this sort of discussion, what is the consequence for claiming that something is the literal truth what is it what does it mean for the Quran to be literally true in the sense that what the text says On the face of it is what is true and you have to take it in its exact words. How did those two things interact?
Yeah, it's it's been an ongoing
issue from Muslim thinkers to how do they How do they work out? How to extend the rules of the Quran in a way which is still faithful to the message of the Quran. And and it's it's been hugely debated there were Muslims in the history of Islam who said that the Quranic the words of the Quran, what they mean that the sort of the literal meaning you might say is all there is. And consequently, if a rule if a circumstance is not mentioned in the Quran, or in the example of the Prophet, then there's no rule about it. There's no there's no rule at all. You can just it's If you can do it So, a real strict literalist would say, well, the Quran talks about grape wine being forbidden, but it doesn't talk about whiskey. And it doesn't talk about other forms of alcoholic beverage so I can drink them without transgressing. If you like the lore of God. Those literal lists within the Muslim tradition have, generally speaking, been marginal. There's been very few groups which have argued strictly and consistently that you can only take the sort of surface meaning of the Quran. The mainstream of the Muslim tradition and I talk about both Sunday and she is she a groups here? The mainstream have always said that accepting that the Quran is the literal Word of God is not in conflict with the notion that God also revealed To us why he gave us those rules with a mind to prompting us to extend them to new circumstances in human life. That is that God revealed the Quran, and it is His Word. But he also revealed the reasons why he gave particular rules. And why would he do that? If he didn't want us to think and extend those rules into new circumstances that human society might encounter. So, it is it has been a controversial element, if you like in a debated element. But generally speaking, the Muslim tradition of thinking around the Sharia has always said that God gave us rules, but he also gave us permission to extend those rules to new circumstances. And that, in a sense, is his trust in human intellect. fact that he trusts human beings, and he gives them the responsibility if you like to be able to move the, the rules of the Sharia into new areas, which weren't encapsulated in the Quran, or in the example of the Prophet, so it's a. So Muslim scholars over the over history have generally said that this is a responsibility that God has given us and we have to discharge it with care and attention. And we have to be very careful about how we work out what an analogy means and when it works, but that's generally been no debate that the rules and regulations in that we find in the Quran, or not all there is if you like about the Sharia,
I want to pull it I want to pull this thread a little more. You spent a fair amount of time talking about liberalism. And again, it's a huge issue in the United States with various different conservative groups. And years ago I was on a panel and I was arguing that no one actually believes the Bible needs to be read literally because the example I gave, which was both tongue in cheek, and also I love it, and I repeat it all the time is that is that when the Bible says a man shall not lie with another man, if you take that literally what that does is preclude same sex naps. Right? Lying is in line with another is a metaphor. So if if we have what you've said so far is that is that that you can extend from the literal word because we know the reasons but how does a literalist interpretation deal with metaphor? How does it deal with poetry? What happens when the language isn't written to be precisely as written, but rather, implies something and you have to have a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to read how does live realism deal with things like metaphor and poetry.
Well, you hitting on one of my pet subjects here. So it's a it's one of the things for me. Yeah, it's one of the one of the one of the things which I've, I've spent a lot of time trying to understand, you know, Muslim thinkers, were completely aware of the fact that that metaphor is a sort of lie. Yeah, it's a sort of lie if you if you say that God sits upon a throne. Then, as in the Quran, it mentions then,
and my manatees in his work has this exact same discussion this exact
same Well, he was, yeah, he was, he was, he was to an extent influenced because he had absorbed a huge amount of Muslim legal discourse in his works, right and and those that that that is a sort of law And of course God doesn't lie. It's a, you know, it's almost axiomatic for the Muslim believer that God's not responsible for giving us untruths. He gives us truths. So what does it mean to say that God sits upon a throne? Well, there was a huge debate. Some, some scholars said that it's a met it's completely metaphorical. And it just means that God is powerful or, or that he, he, he, he is, he's like a king, in the sense that he's powerful. And that's all that it's saying by saying he sits upon a throne. Others said, No, he must sit upon a throne. He says in the Quran that he sits upon a threat level He must be he must have a body with which he does the sitting. And this was in the medieval period. This was a debate and it's not something which is hotly debated today, but it was something which in the past was hotly debated about what God's body might actually look like.
Because the Quran seems to speak as if God has a body
In the compromised position, which is probably what the majority of suddenly Muslims at least subscribe to is that we have to accept that God describes himself as having a body. But we don't know how he has a body, it's a mystery. So at the very heart of these metaphors is a message which is about how God has power, but also a mystery about how the words express that power. And the majority of the of the of the Sunday Muslims at least came to the conclusion that you have to believe that God is communicating something in the Quran when he uses these words, but the precise mechanisms of them are known only to him. So, unless God has actually provided for us a hint as to what the words mean, then we have to take them as being slightly mystery. areas for some Muslims without asking how is how they explain that you have to believe it without asking how and for some parts of the Quranic message that is certainly that was certainly became the what what might be called the the mainstream opinion however with legal reasons with legal versus you know when God says you should do this or you should do that he's Muslim scholars say he's not talking me metaphor he actually wants he's actually giving you things which you should do and things which you should not do. And he's not speaking metaphorically and he says he's not speaking metaphorically, he's actually speaking directly. You know, when he says in the Koran that you should divide your inheritance in this way and that way, in order to divide it amongst your family members, he's not speaking metaphorically, he's actually wanting us to do that. And we have to take those as the basis for our rules and regulations of how we divide Our estate after our death. So, they make a distinction if you like between God when he speaks literally and God when he speaks metaphorically and for many of the metaphorical elements, the the the precise mechanism of what the meaning might be was left as a mysterious element. And you know, all theologies have to have a little bit of mystery and little area where they are, which is which is in a sense beyond understanding. And, and the Muslim theology is no different. In that respect, there is there are elements in which Muslim theology say we have to accept this without asking how, but in legal matters, there was a general agreement that God as He says in the Quran, completed
religion for humanity.
And by completing religion, it means that human beings will be able to properly fulfill the law If there's some elements of the theological message, they won't be able to understand.
And this makes me think of a debate. I taught medieval philosophy for many years, although I suspect I butchered medieval philosophy for many years. And there was a debate between it been rushed and Al ghazali, the, the Muslim philosophers with Thomas Aquinas and and my monitors and then the question was about allegory in the sacred scripts, scriptures and my monitors and it been rushed, as I understand it, said, Well, there are different ways to read the text based on your intellectual capabilities. So someone will read it literally. And then some will read it metaphorically and someone will read it allegorically and that's all based on where they are and their capacities. And so the first question I have is, is that still a sense that you meet the Sharia where you are, but then the second question Because we're talking about that time period and the interaction, particularly of Aquinas and the Muslim philosophers, Betty, sent a question and asked whether the logic of the Sharia is, is more religious and flavor, similar or analogous to Jew, Jewish and Christian law? Or is it influenced by classical Greek law as a sort of a sense of a very strict almost eristic, Aristotelian inferences what counts as an argument? How does the underlying logic connect to these two different traditions one of which is almost mathematical in its logic and one is more literary and poetic in its logic,
who your listeners
sophisticated a lot they ask a very interesting question, and quite probing ones because they get to the very heart if you like, of some of the debates within Muslim legal thinking. Over the years, I mean, if one thing which which your listeners might learn from our conversation is that, that the Muslim thinking around the law is not simplistic. It's extremely complicated and very sophisticated. And that's part of the reason why it's such a fascinating thing to study. Because questions like, what is the Greek influence upon Muslim legal thinking is something which which scholars today are still debating and still haven't found a consensus over, over what it is exactly that the influence of Greek logic will might have been. So there is clearly an element of Muslim legal thinking, which has borrowed to an extent, from the Greek tradition because Greek works of logic and philosophy were translated into Arabic at quite an early time within the Muslim Empire. So you know, during the the Ninth and 10th century there was a growth of interest in the Greek tradition. And you see a huge number of works translated from Greek into Arabic. Indeed, a lot of the works in the Greek tradition only survive in their Arabic form. You know, we lost the actual original Greek, but they've survived through these translations, which happened. Now all of that activity must have influenced the way in which Muslims Think about it. And some say that the actual process of analytical reasoning, which I outlined before when you know, when you work out the reason for a rule, and then you transfer it to another instance, is an example of Greek logic coming into, if you like, a Muslim environment, and enabling Muslim legal scholars to work with the materials in the Quran and in the textual sources of the example of the Prophet and transfer them to new circumstances. And, and that that the Greek today had quite a sophisticated mechanism whereby those transfers might be allowed or not. And this informed the Muslim debate. So, to answer your listeners question, yeah, there is no doubt that, particularly at the early period, there was an influence of, of, of Greek philosophical thought upon Islam in general. And in the way in which Muslims think about the Muslims thought about the law which God had given them in particular, and how to extend it and how to develop it. So there's no doubt about that. But as time went on, the, the the, the Muslim legal tradition, developed its own series of mechanisms, whereby it it's, it could, it could develop new laws for new circumstances. And if you like, That initial impetus from in the developmental stage wasn't so influenced influential in the later stages, when internally Islamic thinkers had managed to develop a set of legal rules and rules about how to make rules. I mean, that's the whole field of study is when they made up rules about how to make rules, which, you know, methodology with whereby you make new rules. This was a became a very, very important science. And some of that was influenced by Greek logic, but a lot of it was internally generated as well within the Muslim tradition.
This is going to be a multi faceted approach to this question, because I want to look at a common criticism that some people make of religion, then I want to bring up a political question that David asks and then I want to offer a philosophical version of that question. So I have heard many people say about sacred texts in most any religion that well, you can make a sacred text, say anything, you can offer any interpretation and whatever your position is, you're going to find a justification for it. So the first part of the question is, is that true in your experience with Sharia and I asked that in part because David asks about modern day Islamic militant ism and he quotes two scholars, one who suggests that that the militant ism starts in the medieval times, and then another who's who suggests that it began with the the capture of Khartoum, Sudan in 1885, which then leads to his militancy just anyone can find any justification. Yeah. Or how do you deal with that?
You're absolutely right. Is is a is a real tricky area for us to try and navigate between Because, I mean, I'm of the opinion that you can't really make a religious text say absolutely anything without going beyond the realms of what the Muslim tradition in the in the case of Islam, what the Muslim tradition deems as an acceptable way of making an interpretation. So what studying Islam has taught me or the Islamic the tradition of Islamic thought has taught me is that
Muslim communities over time have become
have developed a very keen sense of what is an acceptable interpretation method and what is not.
to say that you can make religious texts absolutely anything. Well, in one sense, it's true, but will that interpretation be listened to? Will it be gain acceptability within the the people that study that text? Not me. interpretation will work because within the Islamic tradition, there have been a whole there's been a wide variety of interpretations of the Quran over time. And there's been a wide variety of understandings of what the example of the Prophet might be huge variety. I mean, in many ways, you know, much more variety and, and debate and discussion and diversity than is often understood. However,
that doesn't mean that it's a free for all.
The tradition has developed as a sort of set of parameters within which
you can work into when you're interpreting the text. And in that way, it becomes, it's important to recognize that in a sense, understanding the Quran independent of that tradition is a very different exercise to understanding how Muslims have understood it. Now, now, the question of Whether or not the militancy that we that we see in certain areas of the Muslim world is part of that tradition or outside of it, and that is a debate which is ongoing within the Muslim world. So today we have groups like, like the Islamic State group in in Syria and Iraq. And there is an intense and heated debate at the moment as to whether we can consider them within the Muslim world, whether they are considered part of the tradition or completely outside of the tradition, whether they are using sources which we have an argument techniques which we would recognize the ones which we consider completely heretical. And there's been no final answer to that question. There are there are many Muslim scholars who have said that they are not part of Islam, because they have deviated too far from the fundament from the parameters which I was talking about there to the outside of the parameters. So they're not Islam. There are other Muslim scholars say that saying that they're not Islam won't help us actually counter their argumentation. You need to view them as part, if you like of, of the contemporary, diverse expressions of Islam in order to argue against their positions, the positions which say that Islam justifies unrestrained violence, for example, you need to, you know, many, many contemporary Muslim scholars have said, No, you need to be able to argue with these people on the grounds of the accepted parameters to demonstrate that they're wrong. As soon as you say that they're outside the parameters and then not Muslims anymore, you lose a little, a little bit of a bit, you lose your ability to argue with them on the same basis. You've you've, you've lost that. So the question of militancy is, to an extent a question of,
of the interpreter.
And what do you do with people that interpreted text in a way which creates a social evil. And my, I don't have a I don't have a strong personal view about this, but I've seen more success with those that have tried to engage with what you might call the more
extreme interpretations of
the Quranic message, you might say that those that have tried to engage with it, and within the tradition have been more successful, I think than those that have just declared them non Muslim. And the part of the reason for that is that is that if you accept the parameters of debate, and you work and the sort of the structure of Islamic legal argumentation, which I outlined earlier, the sources and the way in which you extend the sources and all of those, all of those elements, if you like, of legal reasoning, then you've got something to argue with them about Whether this learn of legal reasoning is better than that line, if you declare that someone is a heretic and outside of it, then you've got no common ground with them. And that that is the fundamental problem which contemporary Islamic law is facing at this moment in this in this contemporary period.
I have I have two questions that come to mind, and they may end up being the last two and the first one, it feels a little, a little cliche, and I'm a little embarrassed to ask it. But But what is the word because we're talking about militancy? What does the word Jihad actually means? And is it an example of this sort of distortion of things by militancy? Or is what is in the popular conception more accurate than my instinct suggests?
Well, the word Jihad literally
refers to struggle or to try hard in something or to or to To work for something with the with great effort. So jihad is a is normally translated as just struggle, when it's a word which exists on its own. And in the history of Muslim thought, it's understood as the struggle, that that someone might make, in order to make themselves more in line make themselves personally more in line with the rules and regulations of the Sharia and make society more in line with the rules and regulations of the Sharia to Sharia. So you have that sort of like broad definition, which is extremely broad. There's no doubt about that. Within that you have those who understood standard hard as a purely spiritual matter, and those who understand your heart is having some physical elements. To be honest with you, the the Islamic tradition is not a pacifist tradition. The Islamic legal tradition is not a pacifist tradition, it believes in the right to,
to take up
mechanisms when necessary. And in the at the appropriate point in time, the legal works that I've referred to, over the history have always had a chapter in which they describe the rights and wrongs of, of warfare. And those books are normally called the books of jihad. Now, the rules and regulations are quite prescriptive in many of these books. You can't do this, you can do that and they face they circumscribe what you're allowed to do, it's not a free for all in terms of violence. There's another thing which is very important to stress that, that Jihad doesn't give the individual person the taking up a military path does not give the individual person a license. Do what they like know the what the rules of warfare in the Islamic tradition are extremely well defined and circumscribed in terms of what you can and can't do. So, in a sense, I'm there's no denying that, that Muslim jurists over the centuries have talked about how best to regulate warfare. Now the relationship between that and contemporary movements which describe their which was described their efforts as jihad is a tangential one, because it's become such an important rally call if you like for many movements, that they don't always understand the the the just war tradition within the Islamic context that they come out of. And the result is that you get you get movements which are jihadi movements. which for many Muslims give Jihad a bad name, because they mean that everyone associates the word Jihad with unrestrained violence. And, and, and terrorism. Whereas for from within the Muslim tradition, it's more of a regulated warfare for a specific defined aim,
which is not
the random acts of violence which you see within terrorist activities and which is sometimes called jihad, but and they call Jihad by their perpetrators. And then and that is the, that if you like, is the is the diversity of understandings today of of jihad, that you you have this whole range from a spiritual from a spiritual personal struggle in order to be a better person through two acts of terrorism, which is Sometimes called your heart, and it's a complex field to, to navigate your way around. But it all of what I've said indicates that it's, it's, there's no simple answer to what is Jihad today. But there is a tradition if you like, of, of, of, of within the Muslim tradition of both spiritual struggle and also societal struggle, which sometimes involves a military effort, and there's no for me there's no denying the fact that the Muslim tradition does legitimate violence in particular circumstances under very prescribed contexts. And, and it is part of the Muslim tradition. And in a sense, in that sense, it's not very different from the from certain elements of the Jewish or Christian tradition.
Sure, absolutely. And the just the just war discussion. Quite a few years ago, we had Michael Walter on To talk specifically about just war, this is a rich and interesting and really important discussion. And then to wrap up, we I want to ask one last question. You've emphasized how complicated it is, which is, as a philosopher, that's pager right? And, and I have a question about the nature of who we're calling jurists. And the basic question is, to what extent are scholars engaged with the religious leadership? So in Judaism because of the nature of the relationship between the rabbi in the Torah, and scholars, rabbis, and professors and researchers are actually in a very intimate conversation. It's less so in certain Christian denominations. Would you be talking to your corner IE mom, would you be engaged with other other scholars who publish articles in academic journals be engaged in the larger religion? Religious discussion that shows up in mosques that shows up in in political action, or is the academy more of a distinct discourse? Then the religious leadership? How intimate Do you count as a jurist? And would the religious leadership consider you one whether you consider yourself one or not?
I'm not sure whether I'm I can be a full participant in the debates around Islamic law in the contemporary period. And I'm, I am in the, in the Muslim world. Certainly. The people that form the major voices within the debate are quite definitely from within the traditional seminary system that have moved up to the top of the seminary system. However, outside of the Muslim world, when you talk about academia Within Western Europe and North America, I see a sea change happening in in the last four or five years in that not only are there more Muslims who are being educated within the western academic system, and therefore coming into the profession of being of Islamic Studies, and therefore, I'm bringing with them, if you like their community experience, but also I noticed an openness within the community to consult with academia that, that we're actually being dragged a little bit out of our ivory towers in order to to participate in that and I quite welcome that myself. I'm not a i'm not i'm not a Muslim, and I'm not a Muslim scholar. And so in the sense I can't actually say to people what I think the islamically correct answer is to this or that question, but what I can do, and this is, is say that is to try to point to what the resources are within the tradition which might enable Muslim communities To come to answers because one of the things which you notice about Muslim communities living outside of the Muslim world is that and even sometimes within the Muslim world is, is that many of them have lost contact with the the richness of their tradition. And there are many Muslim scholars who are trying to reintroduce the Muslim community to that richness to try and demonstrate to them that it's not, there's not binary choices between reject the West, or, or be completely westernized, that there are other ways of being Muslim in that context. And I suppose as a non Muslim, academic I can, I can help with that debate. And I can participate in it. And of course, from from a, from an academic perspective, it's always a very fascinating thing to observe. But But, but importantly, I think that that, as academics, we can actually make a contribution in this area, to creating a society in which people understand these things better, and hopefully, that that enables The resolution of conflicts to be more easily achieved.
Well, Rob, this has been such a rich and important conversation I learned so much and getting a sense of the complexity and the depth just makes me want to want to learn more about it. So I thank you so much for joining us on why and for articulating the complexities. So clearly, I'm really I'm really impressed. It was really wonderful.
Well, thank you very much for the opportunity and I hope that that what I've said is, has made sense to your listeners.
You have been listening to rob Gleave and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussion about everyday life we've been talking about Sharia and asking what it means, and I will be back with a few thoughts right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions in everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. We were talking with Robert Gleave from Exeter England about Sharia what it means its complexities and boy is it complex. It is a large body of work. Everything we do on the show is really at the tip of the iceberg. Everything we do is intended to get people to start thinking about something or at least an entry into some complexities, but this seems more than usual mean the title The show is wrong, right? The title of the show is what is Sharia law? But as Rob pointed out, that's redundant. It's like a pin number or pizza pie, right? Sharia means law. And to think that we have so little knowledge about something that we use the wrong phrase all the time, on the news, in the newspaper in our political debates, something's gone wrong. And what's gone wrong, I think is we've lost respect for an entire intellectual tradition, politics, the realities of a few militants. Fear has stopped us from thinking about this rich, poetic, challenging, interesting tradition. And Rob has represented it well to talk about how the reasoning process works. We didn't spend a lot of time talking about what Muslims believe we didn't talk about dietary laws. We didn't talk about marriage rules. We did talk about the prohibition of alcohol but it was just an example what we talks about instead was a system of reasoning, a system of evidence and research and inference and a way of developing not just interpretations, but rules for developing more rules. There has to be that right there has to be a method by which we decide what changes we should make. Sharia involves a whole lot of different things. And I hope that everyone who listens gets to pick up the Quran or some of the commentaries or some Islamic poetry gets to see some Islamic art, which is often very, very beautiful. But remember that when you do your initial reaction is not an accurate interpretation, your emotional response or what you think the sentence says, isn't what this sentence says. What the sentence says is what millions of people have spent 1500 years deciding what the sentence says. It's the Same with any other religion. It's not what the words say. It's what they end up meaning into practice. The more we emphasize this, the more we understand that the people we encounter are complex. And the situations that we encounter are difficult. We have to be generous scholars, we have to be generous interpreters and we have to be generous philosophers. If we can be that, then the Islamic tradition will give us as much wisdom as all of the others. You've been listening to jack Russell Weinstein, on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. It's been 10 years and it's always been an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life Prairie Public Broadcasting in the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development skip what is Our studio engineer. The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein can be found on his album Louis soul. For more of his music, visit jazz flute Weinstein calm or myspace.com slash Mark Weinstein. Philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower.